Category Archives: Occult & Macabre

The name says it all…

The Phantom Airships

The Phantom Airships Tales of History and Imagination

Aurora is a small town in Wise country, in the North of Texas. The county came into being in the 1830s, following an armed standoff between 150 Native Americans and 18 cowboys. The latter, though outnumbered, won and planted a stake in the ground – owing to their superior technology. They brought guns to what the natives thought was a bow and arrow fight. In the wake of the Mexican- American war – 1846-48 – many more people arrived in Aurora, looking for a better life. In 1853 a new technology invaded Texas as the first of the railroad companies arrived. The Iron Horse promised to bring the world to the Lone Star state and vice versa – but for a variety of reasons, less than 500 miles of track was laid on the often inhospitable ground by the time the Civil war broke out in 1861. 

The Robber Barons took another shot at it in the 1880s, and rogues like Jay Gould built thousands of miles of track. They did so through all manner of devious and underhanded means – some of which would seem very familiar to those 18 aforementioned gunslingers, and continued to fight, bribe and steal their way through Texas till reined in, in 1891 by the newly elected Governor of Texas, James Hogg. 

Aurora, built on the modern wonder of the gun, never enjoyed the favour of the locomotive. Once full of promise, it became a backwater – abandoned by railway barons and politicians alike. It was a sleepy town, in rapid decline, where nothing unusual ever happened… This was at least until April 17th 1897. 

In the early hours of Saturday April 17 1897, a strange object streaked across the sky. Off kilter, it hurtled wildly over the town till it collided with a deafening thud into Judge J.S. Proctor’s windmill. Both the craft and the judge’s mill were obliterated. Shocked locals rushed to the scene to find debris strewn the length of the judge’s property. Two days later, a Wise county resident named S.E. Haydon reported the incident in the Dallas Morning News. An otherworldly airship crashed in Aurora over the weekend. When locals investigated, they found metallic wreckage which looked like nothing they’d ever seen before. Amidst the wreckage, the body of the pilot. He too looked like no one they’d ever seen on Earth. The townsfolk, after careful consideration decided the pilot must have come from Mars. 

Struck with compassion for the pilot – wherever he was from he was reckoned to be one of God’s children after all – the locals gave the alien a ‘Christian burial’. The rites performed by one William Russell Taybor – a travelling preacher on his way through the town. The alien was buried in Aurora cemetery, with a simple gravestone to mark the spot. 

The wreckage of the craft, according to one officer T.J. Weems from Fort Worth, was gathered up, then deposited down a well which once stood in the shadow of the mill. Half a century before the Roswell Incident, it appears the US military were far less interested in hoarding and examining ‘alien’ technology.

Some strange things happened decades after. In 1935 a Mr Brawley Oates bought the Proctor residence. Oates saw a well full of debris as a waste of resources and dug all the junk out. Not long after he was diagnosed with particularly bad arthritis. He presumed the wreckage had poisoned the water, which in turn gave him the rheumatism. Oates had the well refilled, then put a concrete cap put over it – then an outhouse on top of the cap. 

The thing which didn’t happen as some hoped was a sudden uptake of rubberneckers travelling out to Aurora to the site of the crash. Such traffic would surely have brought the railway in their direction. For a while the incident even fell off of the public consciousness. 

The whole incident was revealed to be a hoax in 1980. Time magazine interviewed an 86 year old local named Etta Pegues. She revealed Haydon wrote the article hoping to bring tourists to the dying town. There was no alien spacecraft. Judge Proctor didn’t even have a windmill on his land. Descriptions of the well were questionable also, as people started telling the story again in 1947 (in the wake of Roswell) The type of well described was of their own time, invented in 1945. 

Since then, of course, many UFOlogists have argued to the contrary. Several media organisations have reported the incident, lending it credence. The FOX affiliated station KDFW ran a report in 1998 stating locals claimed something crashed there – but never went all in on if it was an alien craft. In 2005 the TV show UFO Files covered a 1973 investigation by UFOlogists, who claimed they found evidence metallic debris was buried with the pilot via metal detector- but were barred from digging up the pilot. They returned later to resume their work but their metal detectors could no longer pick up the debris. Somebody also removed the headstone at some time in the 1970s. It was alleged to have had an UFO-like etching on it. What a shame this happened in the 1970s when cameras were yet to be invented. Yeah, the 1973 investigation sounds a little slapdash.  

The TV show UFO Hunters broadcast a show in 2008. Tim Oates, Brawley’s grandson, allowed the show to remove the capstone to the well. They didn’t find any UFO debris, but did find high concentrations of aluminium in the water. Again, the cemetery refused to let the UFO hunters exhume the remains of the alleged pilot.  

Though the Aurora space ship was an oddity, featuring a visitor from Mars, the latter half of the 1890s was rife with tales of mystery objects in the skies. Thousands of sightings in fact. Most were in fact taken for the work of intrepid, formerly Earth-bound inventors pushing beyond the constraints of science and technology. 

How one French illustrator at the end of the 19th Century imagined the year 2000.

Just on dusk on November 17th 1896 dozens of people in Sacramento, California complained of a large light in the sky flying over them. On investigation, the light was coming from a large cigar-shaped object ambling through the dark. Eagle-eyed witnesses claimed the object had men aboard, and that the craft appeared to be controlled by propellers and a rudder. Some claimed to hear men chattering on the deck of the craft, or singing. “We ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow afternoon” one man told another within earshot of the ground, as the craft chugged along against the prevailing winds. This was corroborated by another witness, who shouted up at them asking where they were going. “San Francisco – we should be there by midnight” the men replied. The craft, or one much like it, was next seen in Oakland, California on November 21st, this time by passengers on a cable car. 

The sightings were reported in several newspapers, and soon enough thousands of people claimed to have seen the airship all across California. Scientists explained both Mars and Venus appeared bigger than usual at the time – this could explain the sightings. Sober, responsible men, like a Mr Brown – a hunter from just North-west of San Francisco came forward to tell how, on the especially misty morning of November 1st this flying craft half scared him to death while he was out in the woods. He said nothing, of course at the time because people would think him mad, but now everyone was seeing it what was the harm in sharing his story? Grifters of course set up in public spaces with telescopes, offering the public a chance to scan the clouds for a few coins. The craft was spotted again November 25th, around San Francisco, and December 3rd around Vallejo, California. 

At one point a San Francisco lawyer named George Collins came forward with a tale of having met an inventor while on business in Washington. The two men kept in touch, and regularly met. One day, just before the sightings began, the inventor confided in Collins he’d secretly built an air ship – 150 feet long and capable of moving at 80 miles per hour. It was powered by compressed air. Collins refused to give the name of his friend. This didn’t stop the press from locating a 47 year old dentist and inventor named E.H. Benjamin. Benjamin stated he knew Collins well and was an inventor, but he made dental products. Benjamin was so hounded by the press he packed up in the middle of the night, and glided out to God knows where, just like a Phantom Airship himself. 

Soon after this incident former Attorney General for California, William Harrison Hart came forth claiming he now handled the legal affairs of the mystery inventor – and a second airship builder across the country in New Jersey. He stated he was trying to convince the inventors to produce the ships to Cuban revolutionaries fighting to depose Spain in Cuba. This, in his view, was where the money was – not in public transport. Hart would remain an oft quoted figure by the papers. 

By New Years 1897 however, the Phantom Airship, or ships? had disappeared from California.  

In February 1897 they reappeared twelve hundred miles east, first in Kansas, then Nebraska. Late at night, well into the early mornings the airship was spotted by railway operators as it appeared to navigate Eastwards from the railway lines. Reports did come in, however, from places like Harrison, Nebraska – where the craft hovered over the courthouse for 30 minutes, to the shock of all assembled. By April 1897 it reached Illinois, afterwards disappearing into the night from whence they came. 

So, as far as we can tell what was happening in the skies in 1896-7?    

First I should point out these airships were not terribly far removed from reality, but the couple of steps needed to take these craft from science fiction to science fact had been tantalisingly out of reach for a few decades. 

The Montgolfier brothers’ proved conclusively in 1783 that human flight via balloon was achievable. Having first sent up farm animals in 1782, then quibbled about sending up a criminal they thought the world could lose if it went wrong – Etienne Montgolfier made the first manned balloon flight just hours before a competitor named Rosier made the second. For a while, there was a flurry of activity around the hot air balloon. Jean Baptiste Meusnier presented blueprints to the Royal Academy in Paris for a steerable dirigible the same year. A little over a year from the Montgolfier’s first flight, in January 1785, Jean- Pierre Blanchard flew a balloon from the UK across the English Channel to France – a distance of around 21 miles. This could have gone wrong on so many levels – balloons were still flimsy. The wind still decided the balloon’s path.  

By the middle of the 19th Century inventors were still struggling with steerability. In 1851 an Australian inventor named William Bland proposed a  dirigible capable of travelling from Sydney, Australia to London England in a week. He never got funding for his craft, which almost certainly would have killed it’s pilot. In 1852 Henri Giffard made a hydrogen-filled dirigible powered by a steam engine. It was vaguely steerable, and could carry passengers. In one test it flew the 16 miles between Paris and Elancourt. 

A doctor, inventor, and three time mayor of Perth, Amboy, New Jersey named Solomon Andrews built a partially steerable craft named the Aereon in 1863. He offered to sell the craft to Union side in the American Civil war, but they saw no use for it. Of course they did have a team of seven balloonists headed by Thaddeus Lowe, carrying out aerial reconnaissance in conventional hot air balloons but that is a story for another day. Andrews was unlikely to be William H. Hart’s other inventor, having died 25 years earlier. 

The first reliable steering system was invented in 1872 by an engineer named Paul Heinlein. There were still a myriad of other obstacles however, from building an airship of sturdy enough material to more likely than not survive a long flight, and a propulsion system which could last more than a few miles at a time. It was not impossible for an inventor to have solved all these problems – but was improbable given all the known inventors had hit the limits of then current technology in the 1870s. Of course Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont was only a few years away from making something vaguely like the mystery airship in 1897- but even his N series of airships were a long way from these purported dirigibles. 

So, if presumably the Phantom Airship was not the invention of a 47 year old inventor, who possibly filled and filed teeth by day – and if it was highly improbable the craft even existed – what started off, then fed into the phenomenon?  

The likelihood of war with Spain likely planted the seed. The Cuban war of Independence, the latest of several attempts stretching back to 1868 by Cubans, to rid themselves of the Spanish was well underway. American sentiment was with the Cubans, and they did enter the war in 1898, after a ship – the USS Maine – blew up in their waters. It turned out the explosion was due to a furnace overheating below deck but this was not discovered till after the USA had accused Spain of planting a bomb on the ship, and invaded. In early 1896 however, talking heads in national newspapers were discussing the possibility of making airships to hover over Havana – and bomb the living daylights out of the Spanish. I do have a Tale I’m choosing to keep in my back pocket for now explaining why this wasn’t completely without precedent – but of course aircraft would become weapons of war in 1912 when Italy used them in their invasion of Libya. Germany would later borrow the talking head’s idea verbatim in World War One, bombing the streets of London from Zeppelins in 1915. 

What fed the sightings was a war of another kind entirely.  

In 1883 Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the USA to fight for the Union in the Civil War – who later turned railroad vagrant, waiter, newspaper reporter then politician – bought the New York World newspaper. Pulitzer’s vision for the paper, from the get-go was to dominate the media. His method? to heavily augment everyday news items with sensationalist tales of sex, crime, scandal and horror. Much of his content was real, such as Nellie Bly’s expose of Blackwood Asylum – but the man was never afraid of letting the truth get in the way of a good story. 

In the meanwhile William Randolph Hearst, a San Franciscan born to a wealthy mining engineer and Senator who owned goldmines, inherited his father’s estate upon his death in 1891. One of his father’s businesses – a newspaper called The San Francisco Examiner. As Pulitzer’s readership expanded due to the level of what became known as ‘yellow journalism’ (a phrase coined, it is believed because the big sensationalist papers ran a cartoon called The Yellow Kid) – Hearst decided to follow suit. When he bought The New York Morning Journal in 1895, the battle lines were drawn. War was declared between the World and the Journal and no story – no matter how outlandish – was off limits. These were hardly the first hoax stories to appear in print – The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 immediately comes to mind – a series of six articles published in the New York Sun claiming the astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered a thriving civilisation on the moon – full of Bat-Men, bisons, tailless beavers and unicorns. 

But this was an escalation of fake news not seen before. 

Of course tales of phantom airships probably did little harm, perhaps beyond making fools of a number of witnesses. Yellow journalism could do harm. When the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour Feb 15th 1898, Hearst’s newspapers particularly were onto the story, stoking public anger without any evidence the ship had been bombed. “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” became the rallying cry that led the USA, first into Cuba (the subsequent history there more than a little troublesome) then onwards to the Philippines – where the USA proceeded to throw Spain out – then cause the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipinos during their occupation. 

Yellow journalism died back a little in the wake of the Spanish- American war – though obviously we would see ‘fake news’ pop up in other ways. That is a tale for another day.      

The Pendle Witches (Part Two)

The Pendle Witches (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination

This week, let me begin with a personal digression. For a little over a decade I rented a place my friends and I referred to as the ‘Beach House’. In a few ways it was what one imagines – a ramshackle old house in a neighbourhood with the word ‘Bay’ in the title. Sure enough you got sea breezes – and could smell the salt in the air out in the courtyard – that sea air was potent enough, by the way, that it rusted ordinary padlocks in nothing flat. Occasionally a passing seagull would drop a present on the roof of your car. Occasionally on a very quiet night you’d swear you could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The naming of the property was just some pompous, facetious, Hyacinth Bucket level nonsense though and we knew it. The worst house on a posh street, we were a long way from the beach. The house was on a stretch of road where our side slumped into a wooded hovel, hemmed in by trees – with never enough sunlight. The other side of the road, however, was occupied by business owners and executives. Their houses stood proud and tall on a hill. Stunning properties with the stunning sea views one expects of a real ‘beach house’. 

I mention this as Alizon’s grandmother, Old Demdike, lived in a property with the suitably witchy name, Malkin Tower. A cursory Google of the name brings up a beat up old tower atop a hilltop. Brooding, solitary and windswept, it looks precisely the kind of place a coven of witches might engage in malicious activity round a steaming cauldron. This however is a Victorian folly called Blacko Tower, built in Pendle Hill by a mill owner who, not unlike my former neighbours, wanted a million dollar view of the valley – some time around 1890. 

When I tell you Alizon’s interview with Justice Nowell went horrifically badly, and 10th April 1612, friends and family gathered at Malkin Tower to plan their next move – they met at an ordinary 17th century cottage. 

Which is precisely what happened. 

We left off last week with Alizon Device being interviewed by justice of the peace Nowell for bewitching a pedlar named John Law. Alizon broke immediately. As soon as Alizon confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and to hexing John Law, she’d unwittingly confessed to being part of a criminal organisation. Witches always belong to covens after all. Roger Nowell wanted to know who else belonged to the Coven? After some questioning Alizon claimed her grandmother once used witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s cow. When Nowell turned his attention to Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, she held up to the interrogation for longer, but eventually broke – admitting she’s seen a ‘witch’s teat’ – an odd lump from which a witches familiar, or even the Devil may suck a witches blood – on the grandmother Old Demdike.

James, who was thought of as ‘simple’ further dug Alizon’s grave, claiming she’d confessed to bewitching a child to him once. 

 Knowing they were in trouble, the women then attempted to divert attention from themselves, towards the Chattox family – the other clan of wise women in the village.   

The Chattoxes were, similarly, a matriarchy run by an ageing grandmother – who was also believed by locals to have supernatural powers. Their matriarch was Anne Whittle aka old Chattox. She had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne Redfern. 

The two families had been at odds with one another for over a decade – after the Chattoxes broke into Malkin Tower in 1601 and stole clothes and oatmeal from the Demdikes. The Demdikes soon cornered Anne Redfearn’s husband, John, demanding a year’s supply of oatmeal, or they would retaliate. John agreed to their terms, and kept to his word, until he could no longer afford to pay them. Soon after John was struck with an illness and died. On his deathbed he accused the Demdikes of murder. 

Alizon shared a tale with Nowell, of Anne Whittle, the matriarch. Anne had gotten into an argument with a Higham village local named John Moore. Moore was telling people in the village Old Chattox had turned his ale sour. In retaliation Old Chattox allegedly murdered Moore’s young son using something like a clay voodoo doll. She went further. Old Chattox had killed four men she knew of, including her own father. For now Alizon was detained, Elizabeth and James released. Orders were sent to bring in Old Demdike and the Chattoxes. The two elders immediately confessed to selling their souls to the devil – and eventually, the other charges laid against them. Old Demdike, Old Chattox and Anne Redfearn were marched to the dungeon below the Assize court and chained to a wall, next to Alizon. They’d remain there till the trial.  

The gathering at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 might have gone unnoticed, but for a stolen sheep. A large gathering required food – so James Device stole, then butchered a neighbour’s sheep. Gossip soon spread about the theft, and the meeting – and as gossip often does, it got exaggerated in the retelling. A strategy meeting soon became a black mass, full of demonic rituals – and of course plans to seek vengeance against the Justice of the Peace. As soon as word got back to Justice Nowell on 27th April, he arrested the remainder of the family, including nine year old Jennet Device. Eight more people; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were charged with witchcraft and multiple acts of murder. 

A trial date of 17th August 1612 was set at the Lancaster Assizes for all but Old Demdike – who became ill in prison and died, and Jennet Preston.

Preston lived in York, and faced charges of murdering a man named Thomas Lister four years earlier. She had beaten an earlier accusation, of murdering a child by witchcraft, so was already known to the two judges, James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. This time she was facing a dying man’s last words, and what then counted as post-mortem evidence. On his death bed, the nobleman Lister allegedly exclaimed 

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me”
before he took his last breath. Preston was brought before his ‘corpse’. Lister’s body, it was said, condemned her by bleeding for all to see. In 1612 a bleeding corpse was seen less as a sign the patient may still be alive, more a sign they had crossed back to the land of the living to ensure their killer was punished. A bleeding corpse was thought a sign of the guilt of the person before the body. As discussed back in ‘Buried Alive’ it’s estimated hundreds of poor souls were buried alive every year in the UK alone. 
This malicious tale was uncovered in the wake of Jennet’s arrest, as the justices made local enquiries.

This was evidence enough for Altham and Bromley. Jennet Preston was tried 27th July 1612 in York, found guilty, and hanged on the 29th.  

It has to be said Altham and Bromley were the last two judges the Pendle witches wanted presiding over their case. James Altham was a true believer in witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, and Daemonologie. He detested witches, believing the only good witch was a dead witch. Bromley was far more level headed, but hated being stuck in the North of England. No doubt he tired of the numbers of recusants (secret Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism) regularly paraded before him in the North. It was the lifestyle in the North that bored him. Bromley wanted a promotion, and a relocation down to London. Something shocking involving a coven of witches may well be a chance to impress King James. These Assizes were his ticket back to ‘civilisation’. 
The Pendle Witches got Bromley.

On 17th August, the Pendle witches were brought before the court. For the most part it went as you might expect. Old Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pled not guilty, then sat there as her earlier confession was read back at her. A boarder at her house, James Robinson was also called to confirm everyone believed her a witch. The verdict? Guilty. The developmentally challenged James had confessed all kinds of things for the family, including two murders among his own crimes. His confession was also read out in court. Nine year old Jennet Device was called to give evidence, and further damned her older brother. Likewise, a guilty verdict was returned. 

Anne Redfearn beat the charge of helping Old Chattox murder Robert Nutter – there was insufficient evidence. Unfortunately for her she was also charged with the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher. Though no evidence of this murder was presented, several witnesses were called to confirm Anne was a witch. This was enough for Bromley. Guilty, next!

Next was Jane and John Bulcock – guilty of murdering Jennet Deane, and of attending the Malkin Tower meeting. Again, they were damned by nine year old Jennet Device. She put them at Malkin Tower on the night, and that alone was good enough. Alice Nutter, the only defendant not to come from the peasant class, refused to make a statement beyond a pleading not guilty in the murder of Henry Mitton. She was found guilty. As was Katherine Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Alice Grey were accused by James Device of murdering a child named Anne Faulds. Based on nothing more than the testimony of a developmentally challenged young man, Katherine was found guilty, while Alice was let go – on the exact same evidence. 

Alizon was the only ‘witch’ to face an accuser in court. When told to look on John Law she broke down and reiterated her guilty plea. 

Alizon’s mother Elizabeth’s case was slightly more dramatic than the others. All along she maintained her innocence, but her life was literally in the hands of her nine year old daughter, Jennet. Whether Jennet had been coached (quite likely) or – as has been suggested was an imaginative kid who loved the all the attention the case brought her… of for that matter, as the folklore suggests – an unpopular kid whose head was suddenly turned by the attention she suddenly got
Whether she was aware of the implications of her star testimony – well, all of that’s all up for debate. What was absolutely certain, her testimony was damning. 

Elizabeth was accused of the murder of two men (James and John Robinson – one presumes a different James to the witness who damned Old Chattox). She was also accused of being an accomplice in the murder of Henry Mitton. As Jennet was brought forwards, Elizabeth lost all composure. She yelled and screamed hysterically at the young child – warning her to stop and tell the truth immediately before she damned the whole lot of them. For God’s sake child, think what you’re doing before you kill the lot of us! Elizabeth was restrained, then removed; kicking and screaming from the courtroom. Jennet proceeded to tell the court mummy had been a witch for some three of four years. She had a spirit familiar who took the form of a brown dog. The familiar was called Ball. Mummy had magical powers, and often spoke with Ball. (Ball of course spoke back). 

What did mummy and Ball discuss? Mummy asked Ball’s help many times to murder other villagers. 

Elizabeth Device was found guilty. The guilty were executed on August 20th 1612, by hanging. You may be pleased to know Sir Edward Bromley’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the King. Though it didn’t happen overnight, he did get his promotion, and moved to London in 1616. Jennet Device, of whom I’m not sure if she really deserved a comeuppance – well, at least if she were coached by unscrupulous adults – she too got her comeuppance.
In 1634 a 10 year old boy named Edmund Robinson accused Jennet of murdering a woman named Isabel Nutter. Again, the court took the testimony of a child as gospel, and Jennet was found guilty. Unlike her family, she was never hanged for her crime, but she did spend the rest of her natural life behind bars for the alleged crime. 

Witch trials continued in England till 1716. The last women executed for witchcraft was a Huntingdon woman named Mary Hicks, and her nine year old daughter Elizabeth. At that point in time few Britons believed in witchcraft anymore. All laws regarding witchcraft were finally repealed in 1735. By the end of Britain’s witch hunting era some 500 ’witches’ were executed in England, and 4,000 in Scotland. Close to 90% of the executed were women.
Several attempts have been made to pardon the Pendle Witches, recently in 1998 and 2018. Governments have refused to overturn the convictions, and at time of writing a petition is live, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth directly. At the time of recording this episode a petition had gone live to demand the Scottish parliament pardon all their executed witches. I, for one, believe it is well past time the victims of the witch hunts were acquitted.

The Pendle Witches (Part One)

The Pendle Witches (Part One) Tales of History and Imagination


One March day in 1612 Justice Roger Nowell of Pendle Hill, Lancashire was called upon by a complainant with a weird tale to tell. As a justice of the peace – an office created by Simon de Montfort in 1285 – his role was to decide what behaviours constituted illegal, or merely obnoxious behaviour in the community. The complaint brought to him today, was one being heard more and more in England since a young King of Scotland got a promotion, and brought some strange ideas South with him. By and large, these complaints came to nought, so Justice Nowell could be excused if he had no idea of the level of harm this meeting would unleash.

The complainant was one John Law, an aged pedlar from Halifax. On 21st March he’d been travelling through Trawden Forest when accosted by a young woman named Alizon Device. Device coming from a family of ‘Wise women’ – pagan folk healers – Law was wary of her, and when she stopped him to ask if he had pins for sale, Law became increasingly uptight. It was well known witches used pins in arcane rituals like curing warts and casting love spells after all. Besides, it was well known the Device clan were poor (she was returning home from a day of begging in the town) and metal pins were quite expensive – why go to the bother of unloading his bag if the young lady didn’t have any money?

 Because of this, Law stated it was hardly worth his bother to sell her any pins that day. Alizon lost her temper, yelling something at Law, the specifics of which have not been recorded. Law retaliated by calling Alizon a thief. The two went their separate ways – till soon after John Law keeled over, as if struck by a curse. The pedlar managed to stumble on till he reached a tavern, from which a doctor could be called.    

A pedlar

John was content to leave things be, but his son Abraham insisted he go to the authorities to lay a complaint. Alizon was brought over to the Law household to see what she’d done to the pedlar, for which she apologised. For Abraham this still wasn’t enough. Witches should not be allowed to simply curse whomever they please, not least of all Abraham’s beloved father. Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and especially her grandmother Elizabeth Southernes – known as ‘Old Demdike’ were well known practitioners of maleficent practices and lifelong troublemakers. The complaint laid, justice Nowell called for a constable to bring Alizon before him as soon as possible.   

Before we get to Alizon’s trial, we should step back and discuss witchcraft itself. The Devices may be the lead characters in this tale – but for these episodes we’re looking at witch hunts in the United Kingdom in general.

Without going too deep, the concept of witches goes way back in antiquity – one of the earliest books to mention witches is the Old Testament of the Bible. 1 Samuel mentions Saul, the King of the Israelites approaching the ‘Witch of Endor’ to contact the deceased prophet Samuel. Saul needed to know what would happen in an upcoming battle with the Philistines. The witch tells him not just Saul, but his whole army will be destroyed. The prophecy proved correct. Elsewhere, in the book of Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and a handful of other advice including “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  From here the inter-relation between witchcraft and prevailing (increasingly Christian) doctrines of society has been complex. Broadly, in ancient history witches were largely to be feared, and occasionally used by powerful people as either an oracle of future events – or to put a hex on an enemy – often with deadly effect. 

Medieval society largely had the hang-ups – and dare I say this of the church? Some degree of common sense from the church to guide them. Notably, St Augustine of Hippo (354- 430 AD) who saw witches as competitors for the hearts and minds of the people, but didn’t believe they had any supernatural powers. As such he urged the church to treat them as heretics rather than dangerous monsters in league with the devil. This viewpoint was the dominant view of witches throughout the most of the Middle Ages – tax the witch a penance, rather than burn them at the stake. A number of big name monarchs followed suit. Charlemagne, a Frankish king who could very fairly crown himself Emperor of much of Europe in 800 AD stated 

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed” 

His call for tolerance and protection of witches was echoed by others. The Canon Episcopi, of 900 AD enshrined Augustine’s views witches were basically harmless. In 1080, after king Harald III of Denmark ordered a mass culling of witches following a year of crop failures, Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to the King demanding he stop the cull immediately. The Lombards of Northern Italy outlawed the murder of witches in the Middle Ages. In 1100, King Kalman of Hungary expressly banned witch hunting in the country, his reason “witches do not exist”.

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

Again there is a lot to cover here, the broad strokes however are:

First, in 1204 a marauding group of crusaders on their way down to retake Jerusalem got waylaid and wrecked their friends and allies, The Byzantine Empire at Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, Turkey instead. Their occupation of the city opened up a world of forgotten books – long banned by the church in Europe, but kept alive in Byzantine and Islamic circles. From the mid 14th Century onwards Renaissance Occultism – centred largely around the writings of the semi-mythical magician Hermes Trismegistus, and the Neo-Platonists (far too big a field to plow today, we’ll come back to Hermetic orders some day) – suddenly become very in vogue with the wealthy classes. The study of magic suddenly became popular, subversive, and just a little dangerous. 

Second, sects of Cathars arrived in Europe from Bulgaria – providing a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. 

Though nominally Christian, they took on elements of Zoroastrianism – especially the view all of history is played out in front of a cosmic dualist battle of the good powers vs the evil powers. They also adopted Manichaeism to a degree – a 3rd century religion founded around a Persian holy man called Mani. They believed churches should not tax their flock, men & women are equal, and priests should live simple lives, unencumbered by wealth. This was seen as dangerous and subversive for reasons you may guess, and the Cathars were soon murdered and driven out en masse. The widespread persecution of Cathars was an important building block to the witch hunts. 

And of course there was much more religious turmoil in this time that you could shake a stick at – some, like the siege of Münster we’ll come back to later. There were also rulers like Philip The Fair, King of France – who used witchcraft allegations politically. Between 1304 and 1307, he first kidnapped a Pope, justifying his actions by declaring the man a witch – then caused the arrest and destruction of the Knights Templar – effectively because he owed them a lot of money he didn’t want to pay back; but again justified because Philip said they were in league with the Devil. 

The invention of the printing press of course also gave legs to all kinds of dangerous ideas in a way internet users could imagine today. All manner of heretical thought gained popularity in this era, and spread far more easily than they would have through word of mouth alone. While I’m choosing to skip much of this, one book in particular changed the game considerably in regards witchcraft. 

In 1486, a Dominican monk named Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum “The Hammer Against the Witches”. The book compiled a growing list of conspiracy theories levelled against the witches in recent decades. Claims of human sacrifice, wild, orgiastic get togethers in their covens. Demonic ‘familiars’ who would take on animal form and provided a link to the other side. Kramer highlighted many alleged tales of cruel behaviour aimed at their fellow humans by malicious witches. He explained witches were in league with the devil. They were granted supernatural powers, but in exchange they were expected to wreak havoc on ordinary people. Kramer’s book shocked the book-reading public, and for some time was Europe’s second best seller behind The Bible. It kicked off a witch hunting craze which ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Europeans being executed in the most horrific of ways.

But, by and large, England never fell down that rabbit hole in quite the same way – Nor as early as Mainland Europe did. That needs a brief explanation before we return to the Device family. 

While it’s unfair to say James I of England (1566- 1625) was the first British king to go after witches – Cinaed “Kenneth” McAlpin, arguably Scotland’s first king, was witch mad. Henry Tudor also used witchcraft allegations for political purposes –

It is very fair to say his hatred of witches led to the witch hunting craze which in turn led to the likes of Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins only decades after his passing. While several reasons would factor in people dobbing in others as witches – from personal grievance, to professional envy (as the field of medicine grew, many male doctors looked at these mostly female folk healers as competitors who must be done away with) – James I seemed very much a true believer. 

In 1589 James, then King of Scotland only, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark – his future wife. The couple had been trying to get together for some time, but the rowdy North Sea had other plans for them.

Claims of supernatural interference soon crept into this tale when the Admiral originally tasked to sail Anne to Scotland accused a local politician of incompetence- and things took an odd turn. Admiral Peder Munk was in charge of the fleet of 18 ships. They set sail on 18 September 1589. After a couple of odd incidents, like cannons firing by themselves, a bad storm set in, forcing the fleet, tempest tossed – and some springing leaks – to seek shelter in Norway.  

James impatiently awaited Anne’s arrival, penning a sonnet ‘A complaint against the contrary wyndes that hindered the Queene to com to Scotland from Denmarke.’ It was hardly John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, but it’s certainly a sonnet. While waiting, an advance ferry which reached the River Forth in Scotland before the storm set in, was pummelled by the tail end of the storm – causing it to collide with another ship and drown all aboard. On board, a courtier named Jane Kennedy. Jane had come to Scotland to serve the new Queen. First James sent a group of diplomats to Denmark, then set sail himself – directly to Anne. The party eventually made it back to Scotland, but were almost scuttled in the tempest – where one ship was sunk. 

Back in Denmark an investigation was held into the disastrous voyage. Admiral Munk pointed the finger at the Danish minister of finance, Christoffer Valkendorff, who he stated had under-equipped the royal ship for the voyage. Valkendorff rebutted this was not the case – all the blame lay squarely at the feet of a coven of witches who met at the home of one Karen Vaevers. Their meeting, to curse the voyage. At the time, a woman named Ane Koldings was already in prison – already charged with another, unrelated charge of witchcraft. Awaiting her execution she was tortured into admitting her part in the plot. Ane claimed the coven sent small devils up the keel of the royal ship, forcing the ship to take shelter. She also named five accomplices – one of whom was the wife of the then mayor of Helsingor (the ‘Elsinore’ Shakespeare sets Hamlet in – we’ll come to the Bard soon). 

All up thirteen women were burnt at the stake for their alleged part in the storm. 

News of the Copenhagen Witch Trials reached King James back in Scotland. Shocked by the revelations, he set up his own tribunal. The tribunal found a vast conspiracy directly related to the storm, in Scotland – the incident coming to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials. This incident bred a lifelong preoccupation with witches for the King – which included his own treatise on witchcraft – Daemonologie – first published in 1597, and reprinted after he became King of England, in 1603. 

A learned review of all that had been said of witches, demons and more besides – the book was meant as a guide to both uncover witches, and protect those who – in James’ view – had been wrongly accused. Daemonologie would instead act as a guidebook for future witch-finders, like Matthew Hopkins, who personally had 300 Britons executed. The treatise, whether rightly or wrongly, also became a guide to a number of public officials looking to win favour with the King, and move up the ladder. This is something we’ll discuss in part two. One clear example of a public figure pandering to the King’s obsession to obtain fortune and favour came by way of William Shakespeare. 

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen…”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth may not have had it’s first public viewing till 1611, just prior to our main tale – though it’s believed it’s first performance was at court, before the King, in August 1606. The play is, in small part a vindication of King James ascent to the English crown, as well as his ancestors’ to the Scottish title. In act one, scene three the three witches may greet Macbeth “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” but they also address his friend Banquo – a real life ancestor of James “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Later in the play, when Macbeth approaches the witches – to speak with their masters – for advice on how to handle the coming rebellion; he’s shown a succession of kings who “art too like the spirit of Banquo”. 

This procession of future kings, of whom Macbeth exclaims “what, will the one (bloodline) stretch out to th’ crack of doom?” Appear to the tyrant – at one point holding ‘twofold balls and treble sceptres’, indicating Banquo’s successors – James and his kin – were fated to become Kings of a United Kingdom all along. 

Pertinent to our Tale, many of the rituals we see from the witches themselves come directly from Daemonologie. All the talk of ‘scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches mummy, maw and gulf’ corresponds to the treatise. The witches also carry out a supernatural assault on the ship ‘The Tiger’ – recently home in real life following a harrowing 569 days at sea. In real life the Tiger too was ‘tempest-toss’d’, and at one point set upon by pirates. The captain and several crew were murdered by Japanese pirates near Indonesia. It harkens back to, and reinforces James’ experience of bringing Anne back to Scotland, and casts shade the way of the humble folk healers yet again. 

Before we wrap up part one (I’ll be back with part two in a week’s time) we should quickly come back to Alizon Device, our protagonist. On 30th March, Alizon, her mother Elizabeth and brother James were all brought before Justice Roger Nowell to answer John Law’s accusation. Had Alizon denied the charge, events may have played out very differently. Unfortunately for all involved, Alizon herself was a true believer. Bursting into tears she confessed to the hexing. She stated following her altercation with the pedlar, a demon in the form of a black dog suddenly appeared alongside her, asking 

“What should I do to him?”
“What canst thou do to him?” She replied
“I can lame him”

Three hundred yards down the road, John Law was seized by an ‘apoplexy’ in the parlance of the day, and tumbled to the ground as if struck by a lightning bolt. 

I’ll be back next week, a week early, to conclude this Tale.  

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Hey all let’s finish off the Hollywood Trilogy next week. For this week I was planning something more in keeping with Halloween. 

When I try to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on, or around April 18th 1943, I get a picture in my mind’s eye of a particular type of literature. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, heading off on a boy’s own adventure into the woods. Rightly or wrongly, I want to imagine a scene out of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, or at a push, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – just a group of kids just being kids. Far too preoccupied with childhood politics, games and urban legend to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

That weekend the Luftwaffe would, notably, bomb a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler would run into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy, who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, got wind of a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto, flying over Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. Unsurprisingly, they took their revenge for Pearl Harbour on the Admiral – and shot him from the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what these kids were thinking on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ or ‘Bless Em All’ as they rode into the woods. For that matter, If they were chased by an angry junkyard dog like Stephen King’s motley crew.  

I can tell you the four young lads were on a covert mission – to sneak into old Viscount Cobham’s land, Hagley woods – and steal themselves some birds eggs. 

The so- called Witch Elm

As they searched high and low for bird’s nests, the four boys came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Thinking a hollowed out tree just the place to find eggs, Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge. He found an old animal skull staring back up at him. Boys being boys, Farmer picked it up, to show the skull off to his friends. It was then that he noticed tufts of hair, a human mandible and the tiniest amount of human flesh still attached to the former noggin. In a mad panic, the boys took off for home. The gravity of their find dawned on them, but on the frantic trip home it also dawned on them they found the skull because they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land. A sound thrashing from angry parents is one thing, but a criminal record? The boys made a pact to keep their grisly find to themselves.  

But, as Shakespeare once wrote “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, conscience got the better of him. He told his father of the skull. They went to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the next day. Officers reached into the tree, and found more than just a skull. A near complete skeleton was stashed away in what would later become known as ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, but the bones would be found 13 paces away. A taffeta cloth had been shoved far down her throat. A cheap rolled gold wedding ring (where a thin strip of gold is bonded or fused to both sides of a base metal, usually brass or copper, to make inexpensive jewellery), some scraps of clothing, and a shoe. The victim’s remains were taken to Professor James Webster, a local pathologist of note. He noted our victim was a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth (also having had a tooth removed a year before her death) and had given birth at least once. She was placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, was presumed to have died of asphyxiation – and had been in the tree since October 1941 or thereabouts. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They tracked down the shoemakers in Northampton, and actually managed to track down all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and the stall holders kept no records. They went through lists of missing persons but could not make a match. Her teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. All to no avail. They had a single record in the vicinity of Hagley wood 20 months before she was found, of a businessman and a school teacher calling in to report a woman screaming in the woods. Police were sent out at the time, but found nothing. That lead also led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared in the form of graffiti. First, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’, then ‘Hagley wood Bella’ appeared on another wall, then the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ The graffiti was always done in chalk. Always in a similar hand, in letters around 3 inches high. The police presumed always at night, when there were no witnesses. Besides giving them a name to work with, it also shared more than had been released to the public about the murder. They re-ran their investigations looking for a Luebella, or Bella. They also looked into the graffiti, but – in an age without video surveillance – and when enforced blackouts until April 1945 gave the artist an inky blackness to work amongst – it shouldn’t be surprising they had no luck with either lead.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? We don’t know, and given her remains were lost, may never find out. Some fascinating theories have arisen over the years however. 


Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Because sexism saw more field work go to male counterparts, and then because the First World War broke out in 1914 – stopping field work altogether, Murray diversified – becoming an expert anthropologist and folklorist. Of note, she wrote a series of books on witchcraft, in the 1920s and 30s which later became codified into the modern Wicca movement. In 1945, she offered a possible explanation to the mystery. Was Bella murdered either by occultists, and/or was she a witch herself?

At risk of more digressions than plot here, the practice of cutting off a felon’s right hand goes back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Hammurabi’s Code. In what we’d recognise as a Talionic principle now (an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – the punishment should somehow reflect the crime) taking away the hand used to rob someone seemed poetic the lawmaker. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, this practice grew into something far more macabre. If you were to cut the right hand from a criminal as they twisted on the gallows, you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled to preserve it, was thought by some to have magical powers. If you were a thief yourself, you could use the hand to put sleeping occupants of a house into a deep sleep, while you rifled through their possessions. A hand of glory was also supposed to protect the possessor from evil spirits, and could even lead treasure hunters to long forgotten troves. That the hand was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to Murray – as did disposing of the body inside a tree. 

Some pre- Christian societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – thus preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge. 

Her assertion was lent some weight in following years, by a murder 70 kilometres to the South East in Lower Quinton, on Valentines Day 1945. Charles Walton, a 74 year old local was murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. He was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe and pitch fork – the latter of which was used to pin him to the ground through his own cut throat. A lot of circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – some suggesting Walton had loaned his boss money he couldn’t repay, as a motive. Others blamed Italian prisoners of war, kept in a facility of so minimum security, they were at ease to freely wander the town. 

In 1954, local papers reported on a killing in the town of Long Compton, 25 kilometres from Lower Quinton. This murder happened in 1875. The victim, an octogenarian woman named Ann Tennant. The papers reported she was suspected of witchcraft, and was similarly, ritualistically killed by being pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood, who is variously described as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood spent the rest of his life in an asylum; a lone wolf who claimed he was intending to kill more witches if they ever let him out. This was overlooked by many in 1954, who branded both victims witches, and wondered aloud what kind of cabal of witch-hunters, Satanists or fellow witches were responsible for two executions, seven decades apart?

All this fed into the rumours of witchcraft, and occult rites surrounding Bella. Turbulent and uncertain times give birth to crazy beliefs, as people seek to find or invent a monster to hang their insecurity on – and this was no exception. On the witchcraft theory itself? Truthfully, while there is nothing to falsify this theory, there is absolutely no evidence for it either – and that which can be stated without evidence should be dismissed just as easily. 

Another possibility centres around a young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic friend ‘Van Raalt’. 

Jack Mossop worked as a fitter, making plane parts – but had been a trainee RAF pilot, until a crash left him with serious head injuries. A troubled heavy drinker, who suffered debilitating headaches and regular nightmares, he’d grown distant from his wife Una. At 1am one morning, either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalt. Una had suspicions Van Raalt was a spy, as he never worked, but was always well off. Others stated he sold black market goods. 

On the night in question, both men were terribly shaken by something I suspect Una only ever hinted at to the police. 

They were drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalt and the Dutch piece got into an altercation, and the three left the pub – one presumes under duress from the publican. 

Jack allegedly told Una the three piled into Van Raalt’s rover. Van Raalt and Dutch piece in the back, Jack behind the wheel. The Dutch piece was out cold. Some way down the road Van Raalt told Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men then got out and carried Dutch piece to a hollowed out oak tree – placing her sleeping body inside the tree. 

At least this was the story she gave the police in 1953. 

She was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He went to work less – but somehow seemed to have more money than ever in his pocket. Una was convinced he too must’ve been a spy. Emotionally distant, violent and moody – Jack increasingly turned to other women for comfort. Una left him in December 1941. 

After this, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became increasingly erratic – and in June 1942 he was committed to a mental health facility, where he died in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report suggests he was suffering from something like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers and American football players often suffer from. 

A version of this Tale was leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower in 1958. 

In this story however, the leaker – known in the papers as Quaestor – named Una ‘Anna’. Anna, allegedly spoke of a spy ring who were out to infiltrate the munitions factories dotted across the midlands. Bella was a Nazi spy and occultist named Clarabella. She’d parachuted in earlier in the year under the direction of Nazi intelligence, the Abwehr. Abwehr records released after the war suggest they did send a woman, code named ‘Clara’ into the West Midlands – but she failed to make contact and was presumed killed in action. 

If this were the case, ‘Clara’ would be far from the only Nazi spy to parachute into the United Kingdom in the war. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worth brief consideration is Josef Jakobs. 

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old at the time of his capture. Born in Luxembourg, he fought alongside the Germans in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight, and served as an officer until it was discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland for selling fake gold. After this he was taken in by the Abwehr. 

On 31st January, Jakobs jumped from a German plane flying over Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He broke his ankle when he landed, and was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. Carrying £500, counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter and a German sausage. He’d brought attention to himself by firing his pistol in the air, as the pain of his ankle was too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him in to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5, including an explanation of a photograph of a woman he had on him – a woman who was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress called Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to be dropped somewhere over the West Midlands, as she had worked there as a cabaret singer in the 1930s. Jakobs was court martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So that was it? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress with occult leanings, sent in to help a German spy ring in an area heavy with munitions plants? For some as yet unexplained reason she had a falling out with her compatriots and was killed? For decades this was considered likely – but subsequently has come into disrepute. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.   

So where does this leave us? Currently with one lead. Although Bella’s skull has been lost over time, photos of it still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who made a facial reconstruction of King Richard III took on Bella, creating an artist’s impression of her. There is always a possibility someone, at some time will be sorting through shoe boxes of old photos and put two and two together. Will the truth finally come out? Only time will tell. 

Quick sidebar for the New Zealanders: This Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. As a member of the English cricket team he toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton served as Governor General from 1957 to 1962. His great grandfather George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason their name may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of Lord Cobham. 

Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London

Spring Heeled Jack – The Terror of London Tales of History and Imagination

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.

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. 

The Sin-Eater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Parsons – a prelude

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

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

The Great Depression

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

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

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

The Dust Bowl.

A dust storm ca. 1935

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

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

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

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

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

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

A family of ‘Arkies’ displaced from Arkansas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clinton surveys the damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bagradas Dragon

I want to start this episode with a confession that should surprise no-one – as a kid I was mad for anything remotely described as Fortean. From teleporting Conquistadors to raining frogs, the Devil’s footprints to spontaneous human combustion I loved all that stuff – dubious as much of it was. I was over the moon when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s ’Mysterious World’, years after the series first played on English television. For a while Sunday morning viewings of Mysterious World (and later Mysterious Universe) became a bit of a ritual for myself and my dad. One week was all about cryptids, strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more besides.

A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was being interviewed in some old file footage. In 1959 Van Lierde was stationed in the then Belgian Congo (soon to become Zaire) and was flying a helicopter in the Katanga region, when he sighted a massive snake winding through the jungle. An estimated 50 feet long, a shocked Van Lierde turned the copter round, so his passenger could get some photos of the monster. He buzzed the beast several times, before it reared ten feet up into the air, attempting to strike the craft. Van Lierde estimated the snake’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.

“I wonder if anyone went out hunting that snake” I asked my dad.

My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone did. That snake must have lived a long life to have grown so large. It didn’t appear to be bothering anyone. Monster snakes in the deep, dark jungle deserve a long life free of bother from gun wielding apes. Given my dad grew up near a forest, and often went hunting on a Sunday morning in his own childhood this seemed poignant to me then. Still does.

To date I’ve yet to come across another alleged sighting of this giant – though it’s fair to say all manner of strange beasts have been alleged to lurk in the forests of Africa.  

 One such beast allegedly lived near the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia around 256 BC. Our antagonists in this tale, a legion of Roman soldiers. 

In the mid 3rd century BC the Roman Republic was in the midst of a long-running war with Carthage. In Hannibal in Bithynia we touched on the Punic wars a little. In Mussolini vs The Mob we also run through a little Sicilian history, if you’re looking for more on the conflict. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – at some point everyone wanted a piece of Sicily.
Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC and were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well, their forebears the Phoenicians) had a colony on the island from the 9th century BC, and had largely ruled over the locals since. Over time the Doric Greek colonizers established a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian Greek city states remained small and disparate. In 485 BC, Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island. The Ionian cities called on the Phoenicians’ successors, Carthage for protection. Carthage did step in, fighting a series of wars against Syracuse till 306 BC.
In 306 BC the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; and besieged Carthage itself. This was enough for Carthage consider a peace treaty, though Agathocles ultimately lost this war – to another power.

A strategic city in the war was Messana, modern day Messina. A port city near the border with Italy, it passed back and forth several times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries named the Mamertines to help. When Agathocles died, the Mamertines ignored orders to return home, and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning it into a Pirates’ den. 

Syracuse then called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, to help rid them of the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome for help. When the dust settled on the Pyrrhic wars – Pyrrhus ultimately lost. Though his armies won several decisive battles, the cumulative cost of those victories crippled the nation state – something we now call a Pyrrhic victory. Rome briefly allied with Carthage – annexing the pirates of Messana, which they saw as the greater threat to them in the area. Rome then made overtures to their former foe Syracuse to form an alliance to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in 256 BC.

The momentum of the war then well in Rome’s favour, the Senate 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. They had Carthage on the ropes, but unreasonable Roman demands in peace talks led to Carthage hiring a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus to lead their army. Xanthippus thrashed the Romans at the Battle of Tunis. Only 2,000 Romans survived the onslaught. Now we have a little context, let’s talk dragons. 

In 256 BC, Regulus’ army landed on a peninsula now named Cape Bon.  From there they cut a path through the wild terrain. On their way to Tunis they came across a couple of unfriendly villages – cutting a path through them just as easily. They pushed on as far as the Bagradas river, setting up camp. A handful of men were sent to the river to collect some drinking water. Minutes later one of the men rushed back looking much worse for wear…In a mad panic he babbled that a monster had crushed and eaten the other men. Several armed men were sent to the river to investigate.

They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’, which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s monstrous jaws or crushing them with its long tail. Snake-like, the beast had no legs, though the beast was described as having a torso, and propelling itself along on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine. 

The giant stood it’s ground as more men arrived – and continued to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless – their spears bouncing off of its scaly hide. Steadily, the beast continued to smash and bite it’s way through the legion. Finally, Regulus arrived with a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower similar in design to a giant crossbow. Regulus ordered his men to hurl large stones at the beast. Finally, a stone hit the mark, paralysing the beast. Once immobilised, the army moved in, hacking and stabbing the beast to death. 

Under the blazing African sun, the corpse soon went off – the stench of the dead creature soon became so overpowering Regulus was forced to relocate their base. He did however send some men back the following day to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where onlookers marvelled over it 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 was born. 

While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. At first I wondered if they had stumbled across a gigantic crocodile – but classical sources are adamant Roman soldiers at this time knew what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons can grow to over 25 feet long. African rock pythons as big as 20 feet long have been spotted in the wild by reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from our 60 foot long monster- and yes snake skins can be stretched to make the serpent appear bigger than it was. There are, however, a number of reports from classical sources claiming encounters in the wilds of Africa with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Then there are fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago. Though the Bagradas Dragon was almost certainly not a Titanoboa, evidence of such a monster proves it anatomically possible for a snake to grow close to such a massive extent. 

a model of a titanoboa

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

While I feel fairly safe in claiming I don’t believe the Bagradas Dragon, was a dragon in the mythological sense of the word – I believe Regulus’ men may have run into a giant snake unlike anything they had seen before. In subsequent centuries international traders, slavers, ivory, rubber, cocoa, diamond, gold and oil thieves have explored as they plundered. Local tribes have come to know their land like the back of their own hands. Satellites have filmed much of the Earth’s surface. One presumes there are no snakes in the wild as terrifying as those seen by Van Lierde or Regulus anymore, if ever. All the same, the wide eyed kid in me wishes the world to be just that little bit stranger – and hopes if such giants still wind through the jungles – we leave them be.