Category Archives: Occult & Macabre

The name says it all…

Oliver

Oliver (the Man in the Box)… Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, this week is probably the second, and final unplanned episode. If you’re curious, the new day job is going fine. Trigger warning on this one, it gets gory at times.    

I have an image in my mind of Josiah Wilkinson, that may not be entirely accurate. More a whole scenario than an image, I imagine us transported back to some time – let’s for argument’s sake say 1818. We’re at an upmarket ale house a short ride from Harley Street, London and Wilkinson is holding court in a corner of the pub. As the beer flows the gentlemen pass judgment on German inventor Karl Von Drais
“damn fool invented a wooden horse, if you would believe it!”
a newly released, anonymous novel discussing wide ranging themes from the sublimity of nature to the dangers of an unfettered pursuit of knowledge, to ambition, to just what is the true nature of monstrosity?
“I dare say the chap who wrote that book is far too fond of the opium.
“Romantics they call em…Hmph”.

Perhaps conversation veered to the recent passing of Seymour Fleming, the scandalous Lady Worsley 

“I hear she had affairs with 27 men while wedded to that sot.”
”Yes, but the damn fool invited some of those men into his marital bed – who does that?”
“Sir Richard worse than sly, that’s who”
”Look up, dear – Bisset’s at the window!”
”that’s the one….. What’s that Oliver? What happened to that African slave boy Worsley bought in Turkey? You think he murdered and cannibalised him while in Moscow. Oliver that is preposterous, the man was a damn fool but he was no monster”

If writing this in longer-form, I’d start in 1612, and we’d stay there a while. At the time James I, one of our bad guys in the Pendle Witches saga, was the king of England and Scotland (and by extension Wales and Ireland). His son and heir apparent, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales – a bright, capable young man – suddenly died of typhoid fever. His passing was a heavy blow for the nation – not least of all as the new heir apparent was the awkward, incompetent, less beloved younger brother, Charles. 

In longer-form we’d definitely expound on Charles’ tumultuous reign. We could easily spend several episodes unravelling this. What we need to know, however, is he ran into conflict with parliament early on, never managing to come to a consensus with them. They clashed over religion (not as simple as Protestant vs Catholic, there were various factions vying for specific permutations of Protestantism from almost Catholic to full-on Puritanism to become a new state religion). They also clashed over failed attempts to bring Scotland and Ireland into line with the official religion. 

Charles and Parliament clashed over taxes, the long-held belief kings had a divine right to rule, over what rights a rapidly growing middle class should be granted, the perception the king was a warmonger – and of course George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. 

Buckingham was reputedly a lover of Charles’ father, James. He later acted as Charles’ wingman in the clumsy attempted wooing of the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. Villiers’ assassination in 1628 robbed the king of one of his trusted supporters very early on.

Having never been trained to rule till his early teens, he lacked the diplomatic skills to navigate in such an explosive time. While he could, and did dissolve parliament on occasion – a sitting Parliament remained a necessity. War with his continental neighbours constantly loomed. To levy the taxes needed to put an army together, Charles constitutionally needed a sitting parliament to sign off on taxes to pay the soldiers. 

By 1642 a frustrated Charles tried, and failed to prorogue parliament. Civil war soon erupted between crown and parliament. 

At 2pm, January 30 1649, a defeated Charles knelt before the executor’s block. We don’t know the identity of the executioner, but a 19th century exhumation shows they were an experienced axeman – the cut was extremely clean. Normally an executioner would hold the head aloft, proclaiming ‘Behold the head of a traitor’ to all in attendance. Possibly in an attempt to hide his identity, the axeman remained silent. The head was sown back on. His body prepared for burial at Windsor Castle. 

At his funeral a middle-aged parliamentarian, turned cavalry officer gazed down at the corpse. “It was a cruel necessity” he exclaimed. That man played a vital role in the execution, as the second signatory of twelve on the death warrant. That man – Oliver Cromwell – is our man in the box. 

Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599 to a gentrifying, middle class family. His grandfather made a small fortune from a brewery he established. The brewing side of the family married into the titled, but disgraced forebears of Thomas Cromwell – a chief advisor to King Henry VIII who faced the executioner’s axe after he fell foul of the king. Oliver studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was introduced to Puritanical thought. In 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier – a young lady from an influential Puritan family. Her uncles helped the young Cromwell into politics, helping him win a parliamentary seat at Huntingdon in 1628. 

Cromwell wasn’t overtly religious till he slumped into a ‘dark night of the soul’ in his late 30s. 

From early adulthood on, Oliver Cromwell suffered bouts of severe depression. He was often bed ridden for days on end in a deep, blue funk. The root of his depression was surely more complex than the following, but the explanation we have is he was convinced he was a sinner in a land full of sinners, and destined to burn in hell for eternity. Oliver Cromwell had a complete nervous breakdown in 1638; a spiritual awakening shaking him out of it. Born again, he adopted the solipsistic goal of becoming ‘the greatest man in the kingdom’. 

If doing a longer-form piece on Cromwell, and again people could devote whole series to him – I’d detail how his radicalism made him an ideal fit amongst the parliamentarians who declared war on the Crown. How he turned out to be an extremely capable fighter, rising through the ranks as a cavalry man. How he was given the task of building their ‘New Model Army’. His decisive leadership in the battles of Marston Moor in 1644, Naseby in June 1645 and Langport in July 1645 were instrumental in the defeat of the king. As were his murderous raids on towns who remained loyal to the king. 

We most certainly would linger on his genocidal campaigns in both Scotland and Ireland following the king’s execution – particularly in Ireland where civilian deaths may have run in excess of half a million souls. He had 50,000 Irish sent off as indentured labourers to the colonies – essentially slaves by another name – expected to be worked to death on an American plantation. He dissolved the ‘rump parliament’; then the bare-bones parliament’ following King Charles execution. By 1653, feeling he had no other option if order was to be restored to the realm – Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of England – essentially a dictator for life. He instituted a network of Major Generals to enforce his regime. In an effort to save souls he banned joy in life; criminalising swearing, blasphemy, drunkenness and sex outside of marriage. 

Though he didn’t personally ban Christmas – the puritans in the ‘Long Parliament’ did that in 1647 – he oversaw a half-hearted attempt to enforce the law on Christmas 1655. 

Oliver Cromwell is a divisive figure in English history. Some see him as a heroic figure. Others think him a monster. I fall in the latter camp, and think his death of kidney failure on September 3 1658 no great loss for England. Now we’ve covered some background, let’s discuss his head.

On 29th May 1660; a day designated Oak Apple Day (if I need more downtime we’ll come back to that in a few weeks’ time), Charles’ son and namesake, now Charles II – re-entered London. The new king forgave many of his father’s enemies, but saw to it anyone responsible for his father’s death warrant were punished – whether dead or alive. 

On 30th January 1661, the anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dragged through the streets of London, hung from a gallows, then decapitated. His head was pierced through with an iron spike. The spike then stuck on the end of a long pole, then was hoisted atop the Parliament buildings at Westminster Hall. A warning to future despots, his head was to remain there forever.
Oliver Cromwell’s head disappeared mysteriously on a stormy night in 1684. The pole snapping in the tempest, it was thrown across the courtyard. A guard found the head, and secreted it away to his own home. 

As soon as the missing head was noticed, authorities went into a mad panic, scrambling to find it. Although a large reward was offered for Cromwell’s head, the sentinel in possession of the head became increasingly worried he’d be accused of theft if he brought it in. He stored Oliver up his chimney – where it stayed till the guard passed on. There is a presumption he made his family aware of the ghastly house guest on his death bed.  

In 1710 Oliver Cromwell’s head went from cautionary tale to morbid curiosity. First it showed up in the London curiosity room of a Swiss calico trader named Claudius Du Puy. In amongst a cabinet full of rare coins and exotic herbs, the gnarly-looking head was a sight to behold for the many foreigners stopping by his museum. From there the head found itself in the possession of Samuel Russell, an actor who performed in London’s, Clare Market, from a stall. I cannot say if he ever soliloquised  “Alas poor Yorick!, I knew him, Horatio” while holding Mr Cromwell up for inspection. Oliver was, however, popular with passers by, having visited the meat market on the look out for a leg of lamb or cut of beef. Russell sold the head to one James Cox, who owned a museum but Cox chose to exhibit the head only to his close friends. He in turn sold it to the Hughes family – who owned a museum full of Cromwell memorabilia. They, in turn sold it to a surgeon named Josiah Wilkinson in 1814. 

The head became Wilkinson’s prized property. He had an oak box made to exhibit it, and took to bringing his friend Oliver with him to the local pub. One wonders what Cromwell would have thought at becoming the centre of attention in the midst of the boozing, swearing, laughing and – one hopes – blasphemy. When someone doubted the raggedy head’s provenance, Wilkinson took the head out, pointing to the wart above his left eye. One friend noted the head “A frightful skull it is, covered with it’s parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with it’s chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation”

The head became of public interest again in the 1840s after proponent of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history Thomas Carlyle published a collection of Cromwell’s letters and speeches in 1845. This was helped on by the rise of the pseudo-science of phrenology, and the appearance of a rival Cromwell skull, exhibited at the Ashmolean. The rival skull was easily dismissed as a fake when it was shown to be in circulation in the 1670s, while Cromwell’s head was verifiably still on the pike as late as 1684. Efforts to confirm our head reached a reasonable level of certainty in 1930, when the new-fangled technology of the X Ray at least proved the head had been run through with an iron spike as described in the accounts of Cromwell’s mounting. 

In 1960, Dr. Horace Wilkinson, the original Dr Wilkinson’s great-grandson handed Cromwell’s head over to his old alma mater, Sidney Sussex College. On 25 March 1960, his head was finally laid to rest in an intimate ceremony, at an unspecified location within their chapel. 

The Georgia Guidestones

Edit: 8 July 2022 – Hi there I can see a lot of traffic coming to my blog/podcast looking for this post at the moment. The following piece was originally written, on the fly over a couple of hours in late November 2020. It’s not as in depth as I’d like it to be but I think it does cover what the Guidestones were.

Future readers, I bumped this back up the top of the feed in the wake of the unwarranted destruction of this fascinating structure, vandalised at a time when the American right wing was going through a Christian fundamentalist, and in some cases outright fascist phase. A blockhead named Kandiss Taylor had run to become Republican challenger for Governor in Georgia, promising to remove the Guidestones. A few days after she failed in her bid, some vandal attempted to blow them up, necessitating their removal.

Recent news reports about mysterious monoliths appearing as if out of nowhere, first in Utah, then in Piatra Neamt, Romania, then on a mountain in California has me thinking about an older tale in 2020 …. and of course 2001 A Space Odyssey, how do you not think A Space Odyssey with those things? The following tale is set in Georgia, USA – which of course has been on the minds of many folk of late too – for completely different reasons.

In July 1979 a man described in all the literature only as elegant and grey haired, wearing an expensive suit, walked into the offices of the Elberton granite finishing company, in Elbert County, Georgia. Meeting with company president Joe Fendley, he introduced himself as a representative of a “small group of loyal Americans” who wished to commission a remarkable monument. Said monument would be erected in the county, for the use – perhaps even the salvation of future generations. The man gave his name as R.C. Christian, possibly a bastardization of Rosicrucian – a secret society who claimed to hold all manner of occult and restricted knowledge, who almost certainly never existed in 1614 when pamphlets about them first circulated throughout Western Europe. Rosicrucian sects, however, soon willed themselves into being – grifters couldn’t pass up on that grift, seekers couldn’t pass up occult and esoteric knowledge. Sects exist to this day. Up front I should say I see little of their philosophy in the following tale.

Why did this group of R.C Christian, whoever they were, want to build their monument in Elbert County? According to Mr Christian, because their granite was amongst the best in the world.

The mysterious Mr Christian explained to Fendley his group had planned this monument for 20 years, and intended it – a set of guide stones with more than a passing resemblance to England’s Stonehenge – to be a guide to a future, post apocalyptic society. Living in the nuclear shadow of the Cold War era, where theories of mutually assured destruction could go out the window over a misunderstanding, an errant spy plane, or even a flock of geese – this may not have seemed completely mad. To me it still doesn’t entirely. The guide stones would be set up as a virtual Swiss army knife for the survivors of Elbert County. They would act as sundial, astrological calendar, compass, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and a set of moral instructions to future generations. It went without saying of course they must be built strong enough to withstand a catastrophic event.
To stand almost twice as high as the slabs in Stonehenge, and containing over 250,000 lbs of granite, this project presented quite the payday for Joe Fendley – however he was convinced R.C Christian must be some kind of nut. Apprehensive, Fendley quoted a price several times higher than he would otherwise have quoted. The stones required were several times larger than anything they had hewn before. There was so much technical knowledge required in this, and such precision they would, needs must, call on several experts. All kinds of special equipment would have to be brought in from out of state. Without batting an eyelid Christian agreed, and the two men shook on the deal.

R.C Christian then left, on Joe Fendley’s recommendation to meet Granite City Bank president Wyatt Martin – a banker he could trust to keep his details confidential. As it turns out, Wyatt is the only person in this tale who came to know the identity of Mr Christian. To date he has kept his word. I presume he is still alive, though would now be 90 years old. Martin confirmed to Fendley, Christian had the money to complete the project, and set up a labyrinthine payment system to obscure the client’s identity.

By October, Christian had bought five acres of land to build the guidestones on, and construction began. R.C. Christian stayed incognito during the process, but kept tabs on the build via numerous phone calls, letters and the occasional meeting with Mr Martin. Martin commented the letters came from different parts of the country every time, and were never postmarked from the same place twice. Christian often called from an airport lounge. The two men did, however, dine on several occasions, and kept in touch till a few days shy of September 11th 2001. Martin assumed Christian, now appearing in his 80s, had simply passed on.

Work started on the monument in late 1979, concluding March 22nd 1980. The flurry of work was met by a flurry of vocal concern the Devil had come down to Georgia and was setting up shop, accusations Fendley and Martin had concocted the whole scheme as a publicity stunt (both men took lie detector tests to prove otherwise), and an invasion of witches, who appropriated the site for their own purposes – and could be heard chanting as the company worked.

On completion it was a sight to behold. Six giant granite slabs stood a little over 16 feet high, and six feet wide, with a large capstone keeping them together. Slots in the edifice would mark out summer and winter solstices via the first beams of daylight. Another slot would beam the midday sun to a spot on a calendar, marking out the date. A modern day Decalogue, a ten commandments, was written out on different panels in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as well as four ancient languages – Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
A short distance away from the monument proper, an explanatory tablet is laid in the ground. It is believed to have a time capsule buried beneath it, to be opened at an, as yet, undisclosed time. It bears a message which immediately brings forth Thomas Paine and the founding fathers.
“Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason”

The ten commandments, or guidelines are as follows. They are fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure.

• Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
• Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
• Unite humanity with a living new language.
• Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
• Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
• Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
• Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
• Balance personal rights with social duties.
• Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
• Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

One cannot miss the eugenicist leanings of the first two guidelines. However one envisions a post-apocalyptic world population, it is hard not to presume we would build up again – and soon be overloading the planet through our numbers. One and two combined make it clear a culling of those of perceived lesser value would be called for. The call for diversity may suggest the author didn’t view the world through a white supremacist lens, perhaps an ableist or LGBTQI+ phobic one? Of course this may not have been the case – the US declaration of independence for example stated all men are born equal, yet contains the signatures of several slaveholders. Further clarification is needed.

Three and four call to dismiss many of the traditions of old, and to start anew. Build a new lingua franca, and dismiss many of the old ideas which have been holding society back. There are strains of secular humanism in this – something reflected in ideologies from LaVeyan Satanism, to a number of philosophers of the Age of Reason. Five and six have been taken as a call for a new world order – a one world government trope popular in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to this day. You cannot help recognize this may have reflected the world of 1980. In an effort to avoid further wars between France and Germany as much as to enrich the region, much of Western Europe had formed a European common market – and would soon forge a formal European Union of 28 nations via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The United Nations, similarly was meant to oversee the interests of all nations. These were two of many treaties and agreements moving the world towards something altogether more unified and interdependent. Besides economic reasons to do so, it was believed such arrangements made a third world war less likely.
7 and 8 don’t seem terribly out of place with a small c conservative, either then, or now.

Nine suggests a believer in deism – a belief in a higher power in the universe, but one which does not meddle, and is utterly disinterested in our moral lives. Again this suggests an author familiar with the writings of the founding fathers – many of whom expressed deist beliefs in their letters. Ten, clearly reflects environmentalism. It’s all quite a philosophical hodgepodge.

As one could imagine, such a list drew criticism from across the board. Alt right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had the monument pegged as ‘Satanic’. After a coven of witches adopted the site, numerous Christian groups claimed much the same. In 1981 a UFO magazine called UFO Report claimed the true purpose of the monument would be revealed in 30 years’ time.

Mark Dice – a conservative pundit now more famous for demanding Starbucks put a T shirt on the topless siren on their logo, and for picking a fight with Korean pop groups – demanded the guidestones be “Smashed into a million pieces”, claiming they are proof of a New World Order in vitro. The Georgia Guidestones have been defaced a number of times by anti NWO protesters.

Which leads us to the question, who was R.C. Christian?



A few names have been put forward from the legendary plane hijacker ‘D.B. Cooper’, to an Iowa doctor named Herbert Kersten. A documentary that appeared online in 2015 indicates, at the very least, Kersten – whose 2005 obituary states he was a learned man and an environmentalist – at the very least owned an address Wyatt Martin mailed to. One name often suggested is television mogul Ted Turner. Turner was then living in neighbouring Atlanta, but had grown up in Savannah Georgia. He started his working life managing his father’s billboard company out of Macon, Georgia. At various points in his life he has expressed all points in the 10 guidelines. He has given to various causes, including $1 Billion to the United Nations, and $125 Million to his own foundation, concerned with ways of curbing population growth. He is also clearly concerned with end times, having a programme pre-prepared to announce the end of the world – in a vault – awaiting the announcement to press it’s all over.

As of the day of writing, neither the creator of the monoliths, or Georgia Guidestones has come forward.

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.  

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?