Category Archives: Monsters

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The Enfundu

Hey all, as I’ve got a podcast episode for the perennial ’Willie The Wimp (and his Cadillac Coffin) dropping this week, I’d intended to write a new post to go out alongside it.
Truth is I’m a little burnt out. I’m also a little behind on schedule for the Patreon episode (recorded, both music and narration – just in need of a couple of hours editing)
The Podcast episode of this script will go up on the Patreon channel late today, possibly tomorrow.
Sorry, slightly less than exclusive content this week – you’ll still have to join up to get the accompanying podcast episode. – Simone

Our tale this week begins, like a lot of tales honestly could – with Britons abroad, behaving badly. I can’t get to our villain without mentioning the mechanisms which enabled his rise to power. 

In 1888 The Imperial British East Africa Company were the latest private British corporation established to exploit foreign land, labour and assets. Fronted by Sir William Mackinnon – a wealthy Scottish ship owner, the IBEACO were sent off with Queen Victoria’s blessing to seize whatever they could in the region. The ‘scramble for Africa’ – no, the ‘Rape of Africa’ seems far more apt – was underway, and the capitalists of Britain were keen to exploit this opportunity. 

The British empire proper, in this case were happy to sub-contract. They had recently entered into an agreement with Germany that the Germans could have the land now Tanzania, if Britain could get her hooks into what is now Uganda and Kenya. The crown was tied up in South Africa at the time, but didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. So it was the IBEACO were sent in to take control of 639,000 square kilometres of sovereign land – to govern, tax and exploit it independently. While there, they were tasked with building a railway line through the country. 

They arrived to find a sizeable portion of the land, the Kingdom of Buganda, engaged in a four- way civil war – split along religious lines. King Mwanga II was increasingly worried about the spread of Christianity throughout his nation. In 1885, in an effort to eject these ideas from his country, he had an Anglican bishop named James Hannington murdered, followed by a number of Christians at his court. This led to the war. The IBEACO backed a combined Christian and Muslim side – leading to victory for the coalition. Mwanga got to keep his crown, but was now under the thumb of the British – and forced to convert to Christianity.

Mwanga would, rightly, state “The English have come; they have built a fort; they eat my land; they have made me sign a treaty; they curtail my powers; and I get nothing from them in return.”

He would also try his luck again, in 1897- only to be defeated by Britain proper (they took the reins from the IBEACO in 1893). More could be said of Mwanga, not least of all that one of his objections to Christianity was he was a gay or bisexual man who objected to being told gay love was sinful. He died in exile in The Seychelles in 1903. 

This is something of a trend, when it came to British rule in Uganda. Take advantage of warring factions by backing the bigger, meaner guys. Grant those people all kinds of privileges, and let them do the grunt work wherever possible. The British preferred certain tribes, such as the Acholi, who were excellent warriors – over the likes of the Baganda – who they feared may lead another uprising if trained by them. Certain men, such as the physically imposing son of a Kawka tribesman, and well regarded Lugbara ‘witch doctor’ – were a shoe in for a role of enforcer.

Idi Amin was born anywhere between 1923 and 1928 – with 1925 the most quoted year of birth. He was born to a Kawka tribesman who abandoned the family when Idi was young. His mother, Assa Aate, was a traditional healer who had served tribal royalty. Idi completed four years of schooling, then took up whatever casual labour he could find, before a British officer saw the potential in the 6.4” tall, solidly built young man. He was recruited for the Kings African Rifles in 1946. He fought for the British empire against several secessionist groups in Kenya in the 1950s, including the Mau Mau rebellion – and was promoted to lieutenant- the highest rank ever given to an Ugandan serviceman to that point (and one of only two in the army). 

In 1961, he was transferred home, and tasked to deal with gangs of cattle rustlers. His brutal takedown of the rustlers singled Idi Amin out as a possible future leader, and laid out – in retrospect- just what a despotic thug he would be. 

As Idi Amin rose to prominence among his own people, the British were preparing the Ugandans for independent rule. Their governor at the time, Sir Andrew Cohen, lifted a raft of taxes, tariffs and restrictions; encouraged Ugandan farmers to form collectives to maximise bargaining power, and set up development funds – all with a view to leaving them in a good position to run their own affairs when Britain left. Plans were made to hold elections in 1961, then to hand the reins back to the people. 

The man who became Prime Minister, Milton Obote, was troublesome – and would use a 1969 assassination attempt to declare himself dictator outright – but this is not his story so we’ll skip his tale. What’s pertinent to our story is he was another divisive figure, and he favoured young Idi. In 1965 Obote and Idi Amin were implicated in a plot to smuggle ivory and gold into Uganda from the Democratic republic of Congo. Obote disestablished the largely symbolic but possibly dangerous post of President, and – to shore up support – promoted Amin to Army Commander.

Idi Amin began stacking the army with South Sudanese troops – another outsourcer- though clearly those men carried no tribal affiliations with the other power brokers. In 1970, Obote grew suspicious of Amin and demoted him, so Idi led a rebellion – and took over the country himself, January 25th 1971. 

Now, I could wax lyrical on our villain, detailing monstrosities and absurdities – his ‘state research bureau, the private army he used to enforce his rule. The countless tortures and executions – some estimates run to half a million victims of his reign. The massacre of Lango and Acholi soldiers in their barracks at Mbarara, in July 1971. The intelligentsia just ‘disappeared’, dissenters were silenced. 50,000 Asian citizens were given a day to leave everything behind or face death in August 1972. A business owning class, their removal tanked the Ugandan economy. As His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hajj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea; and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular began to ramp up in the mid 1970s many of his own trusted men defected to the United Kingdom. 

There was the political re-orientation towards other authoritarian regimes, like Gaddafi’s Libya, and the USSR. There was the falling out with Israel and plans for war with the Israelis. He let a hijacked aircraft land in his nation. Yoni Netanyahu- brother of Israeli president (at the time of this episode) Benjamin Netanyahu led the rescue mission – and was killed in action. 

There was his underground prison torture chamber, surrounded by an electrified moat. It was packed so tightly that many of the deaths there were due to suffocation. Many more suicides from those who could take it no more, who decided the moat was a better fate. A reputed cannibal, who kept body parts in his freezers, he was apt to fly into rages and kill his own aides. Some times this went beyond farce – Frank Kalimazo, a former employee caught the premature announcement of his own murder on the radio, while attending his own daughter’s wedding. Not unlike Henry VIII, he had six wives – and when inconvenienced killed one of them. His fourth wife’s body was dismembered, then dropped off at a hospital. 

But enough of this monster, our hero is The Enfundu. 

In 1978 a buzz was going round the villages. The Enfundu came in from the jungle, into Jinja near Kampala – and demanded to speak with the Governor and police commissioner. He shared his deep political insights with the two and departed. Word spread about this meeting – something the two bureaucrats denied – and soon thousands of people claimed they too had been approached by the Enfundu. The Enfundu’s message? The short version, Idi Amin’s cruel reign of terror was nearly up. Opposition was rising, and people would soon take up arms and depose the despot. 

Victor Hugo once stated ‘Nothing of more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. Sometimes, as in the case of King Mwanga and Christianity it can be an awful idea – only leading to persecution for members of your own society. In other cases it can lead a people to a brighter tomorrow. 

Unsurprisingly, Idi Amin launched an expensive press campaign against The Enfundu – stating tales of Enfundu’s were patently ridiculous. He threatened to put anyone caught telling the Tale in front of a firing squad. He took the situation seriously enough, however that he sent out a death squad to find and kill the dissident. At one point he sent out a press release the Enfundu was caught, and awaiting sentencing in a Kampala jail. 

At this point, if The Enfundu were help captive it no longer mattered. No more than the murder of Bishop James Hannington. Ideas are harder to kill than Enfundus. Amin knew this, and became increasingly paranoid. He changed his security regularly. Large sections of his army revolted in November 1978, leading to a civil war, which spilled out into Tanzania. Amin ordered troops into Tanzania after the rebels – leading to a war with the Tanzanians. He was crushed, and had to flee the country. Like Mwanga tried decades earlier, Amin would make an unsuccessful attempt to re-take Uganda, in 1989. He spent most of the rest of his life in exile in Saudi Arabia. 

But who was the Enfundu, you may ask? In the native tongue of the people of Kampala it means tortoise. An eminently wise, talking tortoise was, according to thousands of people – wandering the nation fomenting revolution. This was not the first talking animal to criticise the government. Milton Obote would have a lizard who just hated him. The tortoise wouldn’t be the last – Yoweri Museveni – the current president, has a talking cat who sings his praises to all in sundry. Sadly, Uganda had a homophobic goat in the 1980s, who travelled the nation preaching that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality- we all know what King Mwanga II would have done to that goat in his time – and that asshole goat would have had it coming. 

In a world of QAnon’s, filled with all kinds of dangerous nonsense and misinformation – the tale of The Enfundu may not seem as surprising, or unlikely anymore. To my thinking the talking tortoise is no less unlikely than William Tell refusing to bow to Gessler’s hat, or John Frum appearing to the Ni Vanuatu to give them the courage to stop listening to their colonisers – to give up Western ways, and start marching the airstrips to summon cargo from heaven. Perhaps more outlandish, sure but, end of the day it’s the idea which matters. Whichever avatar that idea adopts, it may not be the best representation – but it’s always the one the people need.     

Ungern’s Army

Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.   


Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.

I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?

Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords – 

And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –

Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help. 

This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war. 

With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia. 

Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big. 

Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920. 

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army. 

For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch. 

Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about. 

He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.

Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol. 

In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.

Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force. 

Urga in 1921

Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?

Then, one night in February ….

Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.

The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa. 

They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety. 

As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds. 

The last Bogd Khan.

Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven. 

Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence. 

Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.

Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region. 

This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression. 

In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion. 

On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers. 

Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners. 

When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash. 

Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him. 

A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.

Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go.  Ungern mounted his horse and left.

He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.

In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.

They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture.
Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.

Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

Lord Lucan

The following is the Tale of the murder which occurred at 46 Lower Belgrave Street, Belgravia – on Thursday, 7th November 1974. It will be performed in four acts. Discretion is advised, this one is about to get messy, and bloody … and full of some really awful people. 

Act One: The basement, in typical upstairs- downstairs fashion, where the kitchen is located. Enter a young, slender lady. She pauses to turn on the light. “Strange, the bulb must have blown” and continues towards the kettle. In near complete darkness she fills a kettle and prepares to make a cup of tea. Unbeknownst to her a tall figure, decked out all in somber dark grey, creeps toward her. Sure-footedly he moves closer and closer – till within striking distance. One imagines that feeling you get, when even in the darkest of rooms you know someone is staring at you; that unease when you hear another’s aspiration in the room. The hair stands up on the back of her neck, she spins on her heels at the last moment. Her eyes struggle to focus on her attacker’s silhouette. All too late. The killer unleashes a flurry of heavy blows with a lead pipe. He strikes the victim hard enough to crack her skull in several places. Hard enough to bend a solid lead pipe.

there are crime scene photos online: showing Sandra still in the bag. I’m choosing to not post them.

The victim crumples, dead on the floor. A blood filled floor in a blood soaked room. Zoom in for a close up of the attacker’s face, as he realises to his horror, he’s missed his target. He was there to kill the lady of the house. Instead, he’s bludgeoned the childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett. 

It bears saying a little something about Sandra. Born in Australia in 1945, her family moved to Croydon when she was a toddler. She was a smart but un-academic kid, and left school to become a hairdresser. Her early adulthood had been bumpy. As a teen she got engaged, then pregnant to a builder, who left her. She fell into a deep depression and spent time in a mental health facility, while her parents adopted her son as their own. She married a sailor at 21, later falling out of love and separating. By 29, she was a nanny for posh people; something she excelled at. She’d met a young man named John Hankins. The couple spent Thursday nights together, leaving the lady of the house the job of making her own cup of tea that evening. I recall reading an article a decade ago that stated the couple changed nights that week as John was preparing to fly to Australia the following day. I couldn’t find this detail in any of the texts. That he was around for the police to question suggests this wasn’t the case.

From what I’ve read, Sandra may be the sole good person in this tale; so it bears to pause a second to mourn her loss. Alas poor Sandra…. 

As the killer stuffs Sandra’s body into a sack, and drags her to a hiding place under the stairwell, he is disturbed by the sound of footsteps from above. [The house lights fade to black.] 

Act Two: A large estate in County Mayo, Ireland. Some time in the late 1840s. 

I feel it safe to say, for his crimes – Richard John Bingham, known as John, or sometimes the wildly inappropriate appellation Lucky – or officially, the 7th Earl of Lucan – was still only the third most awful member of the family. His namesake, a several times great uncle, was a thug Elizabeth I sent to Ireland to enforce her rule. We’ve covered that murderous Richard Bingham in the Tale of Grace O’Malley. He governed Ireland with an iron fist and was given a large estate – which passed down his brother’s side when he died childless. The third Earl of Lucan, Field Marshall George Bingham, was in charge of even more square miles of land, and had 100,000 Irish tenants.
During the Great Potato famine – a man-made disaster which caused the death or displacement of millions of Irish from 1845 – 1852 – George evicted several thousand tenants; not for non-payment – but because he wished to build himself a dairy farm. To do so he had an entire village demolished. 

To add insult to injury; as a trustee of the local poorhouse, he locked the gates, turning the starving away to die by the thousands. Before he set off for the Crimean War, and in 1854 mistook an order – which led to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade – he already had the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands. 

Over time, the Bingham family got more likeable. They also became, by degrees, less wealthy. John Bingham’s parents, the 6th Earl and Countess Lucan could not have been more different than these earlier monsters. They were members of the Labour Party, who advocated for the aristocracy to be stripped of their privilege. John, it bears stating, was nothing at all like his parents. 

John ‘ Lucky’ Lucan, born 18th December 1934, got his first real glimpse of extreme wealth during World War Two. To keep the Bingham children safe, John, his two sisters and brother were sent to the USA to live with the wealthy Brady- Tucker family. Though homesick and depressed, Lucan got a sense of what living large truly looked like. Carll and Marcia Brady Tucker had incalculable wealth made from gambling less wealth on the stock market. Hardly a victim of the great crash, they owned stately homes across the country, and lived exuberantly.

Post war and back in Britain, John became deeply depressed – so the 6th Earl and Countess – in spite of their own feelings on posh schools – sent their son off to Eton. He was not a terribly capable student, but he learned two life skills. First, he acquired all the social capital needed to mix with fellow aristocrats. Second, he fell head over heels in love with gambling. In the days before casinos became legal (this happened in 1961) this meant running bets on the dogs and horses down to a local bookie. He was an awful student, but very popular with the other kids, as the school’s de facto bookie – collecting bets then shuttling them to the real bookies. Academia not for him, John Bingham left school to complete his national military service in 1953.

Completing officer training, the future Earl served two years in West Germany – where he frequented casinos on his leave, and got in a lot of card playing in with his fellow officers while on base. He strolled from peacetime service straight to a well-paying job in finance with the merchant bankers William Brandt’s sons & co. His started at £2,500 per annum – a small fortune in 1955 when you consider the average wage was around £10 a week, and £1,900 could buy you a brand new home. All the same, he gambled most of his salary away, and sent letters to his uncle – a venture capitalist – full of daydreams of having £2 million in the bank, a mansion and a yacht. Gambling was a significant element in his plan to get there. It also bears mention, he was also a trust fund baby with a further £10,000 a year to sustain him. 

A colleague getting a promotion he felt he deserved was all Lucan needed to quit the job at Brandt’s, and rebrand himself as a ‘professional gambler’

Were one to ask ‘Lucky’ Lucan about his glamorous life post Brandt’s, no doubt he’d recall the time he won £26,000 at the table (incidentally just before he handed in his notice). Maybe several other nights where he came out ahead – of course ignoring all the times he lost the shirt off his back. He may share the time a film director commented he could be the next James Bond, and how he screen tested for a Shirley MacLaine movie in Paris. He may omit he never got the role cause he couldn’t act. His life was one giant, hedonistic party. There was gambling, soirées and jet setting. He won and lost more money in a single night, sometimes, than most people made in a year. He hung out with rich friends on Florida golf courses. He bought a power boat and raced it. Lucan was the fastest pilot on the water, till Mother Nature reminded him too fast sometimes leaves your boat at the bottom of the lake.

Lucan, who regularly shared white supremacist talking points and dropped N bombs called this boat White Migrant.

In 1963, he met Veronica Duncan, his friend Bill Shand Kydd’s 26 year old sister in law. The two hit it off, and married in November 1963. She promised never to change him, and his free-wheeling, gambling ways. He promised to never change. Veronica bore an heir, and a couple of spares, and cracks soon appeared in the marriage. 

Veronica suffered terrible post-natal depression, something the Earl found quite insane – conveniently forgetting his own bouts of childhood ennui. Second, she didn’t fit in at the Earl’s new home away from home – the Clermont Club. Established in 1961 by his roguish pal John Aspinall, Lucan was a founding member of the club. He spent most of his life there. As his wife sat on the sidelines, clearly not mixing with his aristocratic clique; and looked increasingly bored to tears as he gambled every night till well after midnight – as she went through bouts of crippling depression, and fought back when he tried to institutionalise her – 

after she jealously fought with another woman one night, and was rude and demanding to the help, and nagged him constantly over his degenerate gambling and emotionally distant ways – the Earl packed his bags. He left Veronica in January 1973. 

Lord Lucan spent the following 18 months in a downwards spiral, running up huge debts all over town. He spread ugly rumours over his ‘crazy, bitch wife’ – to paraphrase, not necessarily quote, his lordship. He continued to try to have Veronica committed.

At one point Lucan applied for full custody of his kids. Before the hearing he kidnapped the children, something the judge looked poorly on. Full custody and hefty alimony were awarded to Veronica – so long as she had a nanny to help her raise the kids. No doubt his lordship would tell several nannies could not handle the crazy old ball and chain. There is no doubt Veronica was difficult. She seemed to have some mental health problems which couldn’t just be chalked up to being gaslighted and physically abused by her monster of a husband for a decade. There’s no doubt however, several nannies left due to Lucan’s tardiness in paying them – and due to the constant surveillance by either the private investigators he hired, or the Earl himself. 

The Earl blamed his current financial hardships – owing significantly to increasingly reckless gambling, on Veronica. In late 1974, now £65,000 in debt and in the process of selling off the family art and silverware, Lord Lucan confided in a friend, Greville Howard, he’d thought of murdering Veronica. Murder her. Dump the body off his boat into the Solent river. People would think she went mad and ran away. Howard laughed the suggestion off, countering the children were better off with a bankrupt than a jailbird for a dad. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Lord Lucan took out a hefty life insurance policy on his wife. 

Act Three: The Plumber’s Arms, a pub a few minutes’ walking distance from the Bingham residence. 

It is around 9.50 pm on 7th November 1974. The low murmur of the pub is suddenly shocked into silence at the arrival of Veronica Bingham – badly beaten, and covered head to toe in blood. 

45 minutes earlier, Veronica went downstairs to check on Sandra Rivett. She was very clear over the years that she never went into the basement, never saw Sandra – Sandra’s blood type found on the soles of her shoes and her clothes suggest she may have disturbed her husband in the basement rather than the cloakroom on the next floor up. What isn’t in question is she crossed paths with her husband – who beat her with a now bent piece of lead pipe. He split her head open, leaving wounds that would require 60 stitches, then tried to suffocate her by shoving his gloved fingers down her throat. Veronica stopped the attack by grabbing John by the balls and squeezing till he let go. 

The two ventured upstairs, exhausted. Veronica did her best to convince John she’d say nothing. This could all be worked out. John was at a loss for his next step. When he went to get Veronica a flannel, she ran for the pub. 

The police arrived, and a search was conducted for the Earl. Strangely, the Earl’s mother Kait showed up at the house some time after 11 pm for the children. The police searched high and low for Lord Lucan, but he was nowhere to be found. 

Act Four: the part where I break the fourth wall…. 

Wait, I hear you ask, why am I even telling this tale? For that matter why spend the last couple of weeks reading books and articles on this man – who is clearly a complete loser? Oh boy, if you only knew the half of it – I’ve been fascinated with this story since I was 8 years old. Not that 8 year old me realised, but the public reaction to the case shines a light on some of the conditions which led to my family packing up everything and moving 12,000 miles to New Zealand in the early 1980s. The Lord Lucan incident is fascinating to many because it happened in the middle of a culture war that concluded with the introduction of Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganomics in the USA… and a few years later, Rogernomics in New Zealand. We moved halfway round the world to escape neoliberalism, with it’s inequalities and high unemployment, and it bloody well followed us! I’ll come back to this, but keep that thought in mind.

Lucan, a very distinctive-looking man anyone should have been able to pick out in a crowd, did quite the disappearing act. We know on the night of the murder he rang the doorbell of one Madeline Florman, a woman of Lucan’s class, who refused to answer her door so late at night. Madeline later got a phone call from a mysterious man believed to be Lucan. He also called his mother, twice. It’s believed he most likely called from his flat – though he left without much other than the clothes on his back. This includes leaving his passport, contacts books and guns behind. Driving a Ford Corsair lent him several days ago by one of his gambling buddies, a Michael Stoop, he then drove to his friends, Ian and Susan Maxwell- Scott. He covered the normally hour and a half drive in possibly under an hour. Ian, a fellow gambler who would himself be bankrupt in a year, was not in. Susan was. She let the Earl in, claiming not to notice any blood on him.

A Ford Corsair.

Bingham spun a tale of passing the house and seeing a burglar in there killing the nanny. He claimed to have fought with the burglar, wresting away the lead pipe. He then, was caught holding the murder weapon by Veronica, while the burglar snuck out the back. Lucan borrowed some writing paper, and wrote letters to Bill Shand Kydd and Stoop. The Stoop letters were possibly written at the seaside town of Newhaven, as they stated where he could find his car. I believe Susan would never have said a word to police were it not for Shand Kydd taking his letters – envelopes included – to the police. The letters were stamped from the town of Uckfield. The Maxwell-Scotts’ of the Clermont set lived there. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots. Susan then claimed Lucan left, taking a handful of her Valiums’ with him. 

We know someone polished off a couple of bottles of Vodka in the Corsair – though not necessarily that night. There were suggestions that he jumped a ferry from Newhaven to France. Others questioned if he had his boat moored there – though many in Lucan’s circle denied he even had a boat at the time. In either case he should have been observed and recorded – and he wasn’t. 

While police swept the area, finding the bones of several others in nearby grassland – including a judge who went missing in 1965 who I can find nowhere near enough information on – what became known as the Lucan Circle met at one of gambling kingpin John Aspinall’s homes. They maintained the meeting was to decide what to do if Lucky Lucan suddenly returned. Others suspect their meeting, on the 8th November, was to come up with a plan to get him out of the UK.  While some in his wider circle did let things slip – Bill Shand Kydd always appeared helpful, and Greville Howard shared the murder anecdote with them – the police were to run into a great deal of obstruction from his friends. Many suggested he must have scuttled his boat in the river and drowned himself (when they admitted he still had a boat), others that he probably boarded a ferry for Calais and jumped – possibly into the propellers. Numerous interviewees either treated the police contemptuously, like servants, or avoided them altogether. 

“Sure, we’ll speak to you, but after our ski trip to St Moritz, ok?”

Aspinall, the rogue gambler who had sold the Clermont to the Playboy Corporation prior to the murder seemed to be stringing the police, and media along. Giving interviews where he definitely didn’t know what happened to Lucky Lucan …. But if he did, of course he’d have helped his old chum. He’d tease reporters with rumours Lucan shot himself, then was fed to his zoo animals. In his last interview before his death he looked set to reveal the truth…. Then trailed off.

John Aspinall playing with tigers at his private zoo.

As mentioned earlier, Britain was in the midst of a depression which left many struggling on three day work weeks, as the price of everything shot through the roof. The class war at the time is too complex to break down in the middle of a 20 minute whodunnit, there was a lot going on – but what’s pertinent is while everyday Britons were doing it hard a story emerges of a do-nothing peer who murdered a nice working class woman. As details of his lifestyle, and spending habits, and the obstructiveness of his upper class friends were covered by the press, the story went viral. In short order thousands of sightings of Lord Lucan occurred all around the world. People wanted this posh bastard caught and brought to justice for his crimes. There would be the tiniest measure of justice, when a coroner’s court hearing on Sandra Rivett’s death found Richard John Bingham guilty of murder in absentia – only the 12th peer in 500 years to be declared a murderer. 

Like the many hundreds of the peerage who, in that timeframe had the blood of others on their hands – the 3rd Earl included – I doubt he ever got his just desserts. 

Epilogue: But, what happened to Lord Lucan?

I’ll tell you what I know. A handful of tantalising clues point to some possibilities. 

First, two stories emerged in the 1990s, the veracity of both are questionable, but are worth sharing. One came via a woman who claimed to be babysitting for the Maxwell-Scotts a few days after the murder. They were joined by a mysterious man wearing a blue suit which seemed borrowed. At around the same time, the son of the local taxi company owner in Uckfield told a story which seems to corroborate the anonymous babysitter. His father sent two cars out – one to Newhaven to pick up a pedestrian – not far from where the Corsair was found. The other, the man’s father himself – drove a man in a slightly oversized blue suit to the town of Headcorn – where the man’s father insinuated there was a private airfield. This witness only came forward after his father passed on, though his father relayed his suspicions to him in the mid 1980s. 

Another clue, in 1980 David Hardy, an army buddy of Lucan’s died in a car crash. As police were going through his pockets to ascertain identity they found a booklet full of contacts – gifted to him in 1976. There was an entry for Lord Lucan, giving the address c/o- Hotel Les Ambassadeurs, Beira, Mozambique. This was one of several clues he’d fled to somewhere in Africa. Were he a battle-hardened soldier, and not some guy who did his training then played cards for two years this would be a great fit. Several African nations were casting off the chains of colonialism in this time – and there was plenty of work, both for left leaning mercenaries in resistance movements but also far right conservatives like Lucan, fighting to keep the status quo. Mozambique particularly was in the midst of ridding itself of Salazar and the Portuguese. Someone went through the guest books for the hotel, finding the surname ‘Maxwell-Scott’ in the guest book, back in 1975. 

As early as 1976, a woman who knew Lucan from the Clermont club claimed to have seen him, now blond and clean shaven, in the Cafe Royale, Cape Town. In 1975, a Welsh GP claims to have spoken with a tearful Lucan in Mozambique. Roy Ranson, a detective who investigated the case, claimed Lucan established a clothing company in South Africa before moving to Botswana. In 2012, Shirley Robey, a former secretary to John Aspinall claimed she arranged flights to Kenya for Lucan’s children. The murderous peer never made contact with the kids – but watched from a distance. Lucan’s brother, Hugh gave an interview for a documentary several years ago where he was reputed to have told the reporters ‘off the record’ that Lucan died in 2004 – his body buried somewhere in Africa. 

And yes, there have been numerous sightings. You name a place, I can find a claim. Goa, India? Turns out there was a similar-looking Englishman there, going by the name ‘Jungle Barry’. He is a folk singer named Barry Halpin. Las Vegas? Someone claimed he was a croupier there. Moscow? He was, allegedly working on a road gang. The Swiss Alps? This is where the Lucan Circle allegedly had Lucan assassinated, as he was insisting too loudly he wanted to return to Britain.

 New Zealand? A farming family in Marton claimed in 2007 an Englishman living next door in the back of a Land Rover – with a pet possum and a goat called Camilla, no less – was the missing Earl. Scotland Yard sent detectives over, only to find he was an expat named Roger Woodgate. He’d left the UK for New Zealand in 1974 but was not the killer peer. As recently as January 2021, Sandra Rivett’s son Neil Berriman claimed he’d tracked Lord Lucan down to a large shared facility in Australia, where the Earl – now a housebound Buddhist on a waiting list for a major operation – has vociferously denied he is Neil’s mother’s killer. 

Oh, and there is the other Australian Tale – but I’m saving that one for the Patreon only stream – the first post there should be up soon.   

What happened to Lucky Lucan? We may never know, but I can’t help but suspect a clique of aristocrats took the answer to their graves. 

The Bagradas Dragon

Hey all I’m starting this tale with a personal anecdote … cause why not start a tale with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was crazy for anything historical in nature, but especially mad for Forteana. It should be no surprise that when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, it was immediately my favourite show. I have an odd memory of watching Mysterious World one Sunday morning – sprawled out on a large cushion in front of the TV. The week’s episode was all about strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more.

A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was giving an interview. In 1959 Van Lierde was flying helicopters in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo, when he sighted a massive snake convoluting itself through the jungle. Estimating it’s length at close to 50 feet, a shocked Van Lierde turned the whirlybird round. He buzzed the giant several times, a passenger snapping photos of the monster; before it reared up ten feet into the air, in an attempt to strike them. Van Lierde estimated it’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.

“I wonder if anyone went looking for this snake” I say to my father, also watching. “Teddy Roosevelt put a cash prize up for anyone who could bring in a 50 foot snake…”

My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone killed it. The snake must have lived a long life to have become so large. It wasn’t bothering anyone. Any animal like that needs to be protected. Given my dad grew up around a forest, and regularly hunted as a kid, this surprised me. It seems wise commentary, both then and now. 

 Now, on to the topic at hand. Today’s tale is set on the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia – the year 256 BC. Our protagonists, a legion of Roman soldiers. 

At this time Rome was in the midst of a war with Carthage. Anyone who read Hannibal in Bithynia will know something of the Punic wars. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC. They were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well the Phoenicians anyway) had bases on the island from the 9th century BC, and were the big kids on the block at the time. Over the decades the Doric Greeks built up a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian city states remained small and disparate. Around 485 BC Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island, which led to the Ionian cities calling on Carthage for protection. Carthage obliged, and a series of wars raged till 306 BC, when the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; besieging Carthage itself. This was enough to make Carthage consider a peace treaty, though ultimately Agathocles lost the war.

One of the strategic cities in these wars was Messana, modern day Messina – a port city near the border with Italy. It passed back and forth a few times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries called the Mamertines to help him – but when Agathocles died, many of them stayed on as free agents – and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning to piracy to pay the bills. 

Syracuse called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, for help with the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome to back them. By the end of the Pyrrhic wars – which saw Rome briefly allied with Carthage – Rome had annexed Messana. The Romans made overtures to their former foe Syracuse about joining together to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in our tale proper.

The momentum of the war in Rome’s favour, they sent 15,000 men to North Africa, under the command of the consul Marcus Atillus Regulus. They hoped to deal a knock out blow to Carthage itself, as Syracuse had attempted in 306BC. Their plans were crushed when the Carthaginian army, commanded by a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus, dealt the Romans a rare thrashing. Only 2,000 Romans survived the Carthaginian onslaught. Now all that has been said, let’s talk about dragons. 

In 256 BC, Regulus army landed on a peninsula now called Cape Bon.  From there they would make their was through wild terrain, and a few unfriendly villages – to avoid a suicidal head on assault on the capital. They pushed on to the Bagradas river, and set up camp. Several men were sent to get water, one soon back in a mad panic… a monster had crushed or eaten the others. A party of armed men were sent to investigate. They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’ – more on that phrase in a second – which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s jaws or smashing them with a crack of its long tail. The classical sources all agree the beast had no legs, though one describes it as having a torso, and propelling itself on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine. 

The giant animal stood it’s ground as more and more men arrived – continuing to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless, their spears bouncing off it’s scales. Regulus finally arrived, a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower that looked something like a giant crossbow, predating more well known artillery like the trebuchet. A large stone was hurled at the beast, paralysing it. Once immobilised, the army moved in and stabbed the beast to death. 

The stench of the dead creature was soon so overpowering Regulus had to relocate their base. He did send some men back the following day however to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where it was marvelled over till it disappeared a century later. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman poet Sirius Italicus wrote an epic poem on the Punic wars, which makes mention of the battle with the serpens – a word which can denote either a snake or a dragon – with the more specific ‘Drakon’ – and the legend of a Roman army who battled a dragon coalesced. 

While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. Though I wondered if they came across a gigantic crocodile – a couple of sources were adamant Roman soldiers of this era knew exactly what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons have been known to grow in excess of 25 feet, African rock pythons as long as 20 feet have been spotted in the wild by people considered reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from a monster – say 60 feet long – so as to leave 120 feet of skin behind. There are, however, a number of reports from other classical sources claiming encounters with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago bear witness to snakes which could grow close to the size of the Bagradas dragon. 

a model of a titanoboa

Add to this, if the dragon was a largely water borne snake, in theory some of the limits set on terra firma by gravity on a body go out of the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in their catchment. 

I am extremely sceptical of the tale of the Bagradas Dragon, but a giant snake is plausible. It almost makes one shudder to think of the monsters potentially out there – unctuously coiling its powerful frame around some unfortunate prey…. and I guess I wish that monster well? 

On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800
.

Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London

One: Backward and Forward He Switched His Long Tail….

Over the hills and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he switched his long tail,
As a gentleman switches his cane.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”.

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

In the wee small hours in October 1837 Londoner Mary Stevens was walking to her place of employment, a house in Lavender Hill where she worked as a servant. While passing through Clapham Common, a demonic- looking figure leapt out at her. Seizing her in a vice-like grip, he kissed her face frenetically. With claws, described by Stevens as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse” he then tore at her clothes. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Mary brought locals from nearby houses out onto the common. Startled, the ‘demon’ took of at a superhuman speed.

The following day the attacker reappeared, near Mary’s home in Battersea. Reports tell of a figure leaping from the shadows, directly into the path of a horse drawn carriage. The coachman swerved, crashing and badly injuring himself. Again locals came out of their houses, catching sight of the attacker – henceforth known as Spring Heeled Jack. Several men gave chase, but Jack ran off at great speed towards a 9 foot brick wall. The pursuers were astonished as the cackling monster cleared the wall in a single bound.

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, and well, these things have a viral nature to them. There are things I need to talk about in regards that case I don’t want to divulge just yet – if you are reading this Tale prior to late 2021 (note: a post on the Hammersmith Ghost is coming!). Generally, though ‘spirits’ were normally seen by a sole figure, Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. According to newsmen, the perception of Spring Heeled Jack changed following a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. His tale would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

Lord Mayor Cowan reported to the onlookers he had received a complaint, in writing, from a source he only referred to as “a resident of Peckham” an excerpt below.

It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, or fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838.

At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.


Sidebar: Admittedly the press were questionable in these times. Newspapers – due to tariffs placed on them, were largely the preserve of the wealthy before the 1860s, and as such published a lot of political news. Spring Heeled Jack broke at a time when Parliament was out, and papers were on the lookout for anything unusual to fill their pages. Also, reporters were paid, essentially, by the word. If you could pad out a piece with older reports, you would. Still, this does not necessarily explain the flood of letters to Lord Mayor Cowan.


Lord Mayor Sir John Cowan ordered police across the city to make a top priority to locate the revenant, and bring him to justice.

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man evidently of the lowest orders was wending his solitary way”
Edward Bulwer Lytton – Paul Clifford.

Ok, Let’s talk about Spring Heeled Jack’s two most famous attacks – the Alsop and Scales assaults.

On 20th February 1838 a stranger rang the bell at the Alsop residence, in the East London village of Old Ford. 18 year old Jane Alsop got up cautiously to see who had stopped by. While not terribly late at quarter to nine, it was – to borrow Lord Lytton’s phrase – a dark and stormy night. Old Ford was an isolated village. The Alsops were not used to visitors so late at night in the best of weather. Staring through the glass Jane could vaguely make out a tall, imposing, claoked figure. “What is the matter?” she enquired.

“I am a policeman. For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane”.

Jane scrambled to fetch a candle for the officer. Back in a matter of seconds she handed the lit candle to the man. The stranger then dropped his cape, holding the candle under his face so as to cast himself in the most terrifying light. Jane Alsop stared in horror at the stranger. Tall. “Hideously ugly”. demonic, with glowing red eyes. He wore a helmet, a tight fitting, shiny suit, and had what appeared to be a lamp attached to his chest.

As Jane screamed, recoiling in horror, the attacker leapt forward – according to some media – exhaling a blue and white flame at her. Grabbing her by the neck and pinning her in a headlock, the assailant tore at Jane’s face and clothes with his clawed hands. Mustering all of her strength, she broke free of the attacker, and ran for the door. The assailant pulled her back by her hair, tearing tufts from her scalp. Jane’s younger sister Mary ran out to save her, but froze in fear at the man’s image. Her older sister, Sarah Hanson then entered the affray – shoving the attacker off of Jane, then dragging her sister to safety. She slammed the door in the attacker’s face.
Violently and frenetically, the assailant repeatedly struck at their door, as the Alsop family screamed from within for help. In an instant their attacker dispersed back into the dark, stormy night from whence he came.

Eight days later another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – was spooked by Spring Heeled Jack on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. A shadowy man had lunged at her from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted, and the man then ran off before anyone could catch sight of him.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one may have left a clue. On a dark night in Turner Street, a stranger came knocking. Asking for the occupant – a Mr Ashworth – by name, he was greeted by a servant boy. Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy this night. As the servant opened the door, Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, and slammed the door in his face. The stranger then disappeared. The press would allege the boy noticed, for all his panic, something no other victim had. The letter W was embroidered on his cloak.

At this point in the tale the diabolical Jack exits London for the better part of three decades. In following years similar attacks occur all over the South of Britain. Historian and guru of all things Forteana, Mike Dash notes sightings from Warwickshire in the North to Devon in the South, Yarmouth in the East to Herefordshire in the West. These attacks bore all the hallmarks. Surprise an unsuspecting traveller at night. Grasp at them with clawed hands, often scarring the victim in the process. An escape familiar to watchers of parcour videos today perhaps; but seemingly superhuman… or supernatural, in their age. The attacker would leap over hedges, walls, even horse drawn carriages. The press would often portray the attacker as a tall, diabolical figure, with piercing, red eyes.

He briefly reappeared in London in 1872, to the distress of the Londoners – then again in 1877. The latter seems an odd choice of target for Spring Heeled Jack, to date a sex pest, mostly assaulting lone women. He picked what had to be the worst property in all of London to terrorize.

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop the sentry box. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions – suspiciously only after the order was given to not fire on the demon.

Later in 1877 he drew more gunfire, this time from the locals of Newport, as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop. Locals claim they hit him but Spring Heeled Jack shrugged it off and kept moving. He then disappears until his final reign of terror in 1904; this time way up north in Liverpool. After several night time attacks he was seen one final time, in daylight bounding through the streets. Legend has it he came to a building, leapt the 25 feet to its roof, then bounded away never to be seen again.

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

He knew what those jubillant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies, or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for all the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus- The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert)

So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”

Lord Byron – So we’ll go no more a roving.

So, how to make sense of this tale? First I feel it’s safe to say the devil did not come to London. What is clear is in the earliest attacks, a very corporeal sexual predator was likely responsible. By 1877, when the Aldershot Barracks incidents occured, the Spring Heeled Jack character had taken on a more purely mischevious dimension. By 1904 Spring Heeled Jack had become a superhero in the minds of the public, whose ability to scale obstacles had expanded to clearing two storey buildings in a bound.

In his development, Spring Heleed Jack had become a boogeyman; a scary tale you tell children to scare them into being home by curfew. He had also become a meme, in the sense evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term – an idea which replicated in a viral manner. Memes often take on many forms, but the stronger forms replicate while the weaker fall away. As a birthed concept the meme takes on a life outside it’s creator. Memes, just like Camus’s “peste” can have long, dormant periods where they hide “in cellars, trunks and bookshelves”. A Spring Heeled Jack type would have the strangest of re-emergences in Czechoslovakia in the years 1939- 1945. During World War 2 a folk tale of a Pérák, the spring man of Prague appeared – a tall, diabolical folk hero who could jump buildings in a single bound, and who harrassed the occupying Nazis in the city.

We’ll come back to the reality of Spring Heeled Jack in a second – and discuss who possibly assaulted a number of women from 1837 to 1838 – but it’s worth taking one quick digression

Comic Books

After the Aldershot Barracks incidents, in 1878 Spring Heeled Jack was immortalized in print, getting his own ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Spring Heeled Jack the Terror of London’. The series of tales, written by George Augustus Sala put the figure of Spring Heeled Jack in an unusual position probably not to be said of any other person mentioned in Tales of History and Imagination. Alongside Hugo Hercules (1902), John Carter of Mars (1911), The Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930), The Green Hornet and Kato (1931), Doc Savage (1933) Mandrake the Magician (1935), Doctor Occult (1935), The Clock (1936) and The Phantom (1936); Spring Heeled Jack has become a noted ante-cedant to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.

The Alsop attack revisited.

Returning to the home invasion on the Alsop family on 20th February 1838 we do have a viable suspect, a man who was brought in, but let go because he could not have carried out the other attacks. He was identified leaving the crime scene by an acquaintance, and when caught still had Jane Alsop’s candle in his possession. The man in question was a carpenter named Thomas Millbank. He avoided prosecution on two grounds. First he had iron clad alibis for the other attacks, and second, because he was blackout drunk on the night of the Alsop attack. The Alsop family claimed, wrongly I believe, their attacker was stone-cold sober. He walked without a single charge.

Another man is believed to have been Spring Heeled Jack on several other occasions – a young nobleman known in high society as the mad marquess, Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford.

Paint the Town Red.

On 6th April 1837 the young Marquess, recently expelled from Oxford university for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, arrived at Melton Mowbray’s Thorpe end tollgate. He was heavily intoxicated and surrounded by an entourage of fellow young inebriates. When asked to pay the toll, the belligerent marquess attacked the tollkeeper. The bridge was recently painted, and tins of red paint and brushes were left nearby. Waterford’s entourage pinned the tollkeeper down, while the marquess painted him. A constable stepped in, only to be beaten, held down and painted also.

The drunken entourage rioted throughout the town, painting doors and walls, destroying flower pots and business signs as they went. They vandalized the post office, and tried to upturn a caravan. Several officers tried to stop the gang, but were, also, beaten and painted for their trouble. A constable finally collared one of the louts, Edward Reynard, and threw him into a jail cell. The next day a hungover Marquess bailed Reynard, paying many times the cost at the tollbridge to release his pal. They were all charged with several counts of common assault, paying £100 a piece.

This incident gave rise to the term ‘Paint the town red”, to describe a riotous night out on the town.

Not long after, the Marquess and his entourage caused an international incident in Norway. Waterford harassed a local woman, and was knocked unconscious by a local with a morningstar. He soon returned to London, just before Spring Heeled Jack first appeared. He remained in London till 1842, regularly making the news in his own name in several drunken, churlish incidents. In 1842 he married the socialite Louisa Stuart, and moved to Curraghmore House, Ireland. Whether he was a reformed man via marriage and behaved himself is debatable, but he avoided further charges and scandals till his death in 1859. The mad marquess died of a broken neck after being thrown by a horse.

The Marquess of Waterford was an athlete, and, at least till his last ride, an excellent horseman. His garments bore his family crest, a shield with a giant W on them. His entourage contained a skilled engineer who could have made spring-loaded shoes some believe Spring Heeled Jack must have used. High society long suspected him of being Spring Heeled Jack, and that the slew of attacks were revenge for perceived sleights at Moulton Mowbray, and the Norwegian incident.

Though hardly conclusive, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford remains the prime suspect in the early Spring Heeled Jack assaults.

Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020. 2021.

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2)

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.

We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.

Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.


(theme music)


We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.

To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.


A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.

The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.

A family of homesteaders on their way to Nebraska.

In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.


By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.


With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.


Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.

1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.


The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.


For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.


Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.

Willie Nickell


Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.


The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.

Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.

I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone

On “Villains” and true villainy – The Harrying of The North

Hi folks I wrote this post, originally to the Facebook page a few days before Waitangi day, some time back. To my overseas readers, Waitangi day is New Zealand’s national day. 6th February is the anniversary of the 1840 signing of an agreement between most of the Maori tribes of New Zealand (no Tuhoe ever signed it), and the British crown. In the following decades, in spite of the treaty, Maori got screwed. Land wars and confiscations, the systematic destruction of their culture, systemic racism. The undermining of their lifestyle combined with new, European illnesses – Let’s just say European colonization did not go well for Maori. In recent decades, government have made some amends via Waitangi treaty settlements. Being a little worried certain social media ‘friends’ may say “well there you go, we paid them billions – the whole thing is a big old gravy train” I did point out the loss of one’s sovreignty, of 96.5% of your land, of invasions and confiscations, being barred from public facilities – being forced to speak in another language and forget your old ways… seeing your population dwindle; decades of being treated as second class citizens.
All for payments totalling an equivalent of 3 months government spending on superannuation – well, to me it hardly seems a gravy train really. Fearing a lose-lose at the time if I ran a New Zealand story I ran with a tale of one group of white folk colonizing another, and invited folk to draw the parallels themselves… much to my shame I must say. All the same, the tale of the Harrying of the North is history worth remembering, parallels (and there definitely are some) or not. Simone (2020 edit).

“They built castles widely throughout this nation, and oppressed the wretched people. And afterwards it continually grew very much worse. When God wills, may the end be good” – Translated from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

On 14th October 1066, two armies clashed in a field in one of the most decisive battles in English history. On one side William, Duke of Normandy – a man who claimed lineage from the Viking warrior Rollo; reared as French aristocracy, and like many Frankish adventurers without his own direct line to a throne -on the lookout out for opportunities (by the end of the 11th century 12 of the 15 nations which made up medieval European Christendom would be ruled by Frankish aristocrats). He had around 8,000 troops backing him up. On the other side, King Harold Godwinson, still catching his breath having defeated Harald Hardrada hundreds of miles north at the battle of Stanford Bridge. The ensuing battle was bloody by the standards of the day, with approximately 6,000 casualties. In the end William, henceforth William the conqueror won, owing to having cavalry and archers on his side, where Harold did not.

Initially life for most of England’s population, around 2 million at the time, would not seem too different; however soon after William’s coronation, his thousands of followers, bolstered by several thousand newly arrived Normans, began to demand their own piece of the pie. The Normans began building castles across the country and taking what they saw fit to take from the local population. By 1068 revolutionary movements, tired of being oppressed, arose in Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. When York was sacked by angry locals William, now with a political excuse to let his people pillage to their hearts’ content, ordered a counter attack; a scorched earth massacre known as The Harrying of the North, 1069 – 70. Modern historians increasingly class the Harrying as a genocide, though even close to his own time chroniclers saw it as a remarkably vicious act. Orderic Vitalis writing 50 years later… translated to modern English…

“The king stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent, with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.”

Using the sacking of York as justification, the Normans seized most of the land, and wealth in the country. Whole villages perished, still desolate generations later. There had been several thousand major English landowners prior to the Harrying; months after only four large native land owners remained. Approximately 5,000 nobles were stripped of their titles. Many English widows were forced to marry Norman invaders.
Within a generation a landowning nation, built largely on consensus had become an oligarchy ruled by 250 Normans, with William’s own family retaining control of 20 percent of the land.

What happened to English culture? Though a Christian nation their churches were razed, and replaced by large, Romanesque buildings. For hundreds of years their saints banned, and reliquaries destroyed. Their clergy replaced by French and Italian prelates. Their written language all but disappeared, replaced in official works by Latin. French became the official spoken language of those in power.
Some may have heard the term the Golem effect. In short we too often become that which others define us as, and if a people are systemicly treated as an underclass… well, some of thoe people will oblige their oppressors. The word “Villain” has always seemed a little case in point for me. In 2020 a villian is the antagonist in a tale, a moustache twirling bad guy. This owes much to the dehumanizing of those the Harrying of the North dispossessed. The word Villain originally described what we now call villagers. Post the Harrying of the North, the villages overfilled with fugitives, renting whatever accommodation was available to them- according to the numbers recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 (England’s first comprehensive census) England had 109,000 Villains – to the Norman conquerers an underclass of 109,000 scum; rebellious, coarse in manners – the kind of criminals who would trash a town like York given half a chance. A sizable underclass, who a generation ago were the respectable landowners.

But things got better right? We speak English now. Well yes, to a degree. Like many European countries, the bubonic plague of the 1340s made native Labour more costly. The peasants revolt of 1381 did not end serfdom, but it was one of a number of tipping points which led to a gradual English renaissance. A class system, however, favouring those of Norman lineage has largely survived. Thomas Paine commented on it, Karl Marx wrote of it. Even the 19th Century Tory Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli commented on England being two nations, “one of the rich and one of the poor”. A 2011 survey, according to Historian (and, yes, smug Brexiteer) Robert Tombs showed a noticable disparity of wealth exists to this day between those with Norman surnames like Lacey and Glanville, over the English Smiths and Shepherds. These things leave deep wounds when two groups start the race on different starting lines. We tend to carry the stamp of our ancestors heavy disadvantages.

Yes I did dodge Waitangi day when I wrote this, please take this post as intended – I’m not claiming we all have faced oppression so one group should get over it… quite the opposite. My goal was to state oppression is multi-generational, and leaves one group heavily disadvantaged. As I did when originally writing this post in 2019, I invite all readers to delve into the works of our legit historians, be that Keith Sinclair, Claudia Orange, James Belich, Michael King or a host of other writers. It can be downright dystopian, but you will be better off for knowing what happened.

Thomas Gore Brown, New Zealand’s former Governor.

Originally posted Waitangi day 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited in 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T Whitlow.