Hi all just a quick blog post today. I’ve got a trilogy of older blog posts set to run on the podcast in the coming weeks, so I thought I’d just write a little.
Late in 2022, DNA evidence unravelled a couple of longstanding mysteries. First, we discovered the true identity of Australia’s Somerton Man. Second, Philadelphia’s ‘Boy in the Box’ was identified. If you’re unfamiliar with either case, the ‘Somerton Man’ was discovered deceased along Somerton Park Beach, Adelaide, on 1st December 1948. A dead man with no ID on him was odd enough – but rumours circulated the man died of poisoning.
This happened in the early days of the Cold War. A strip of paper was eventually found in the fob pocket of his pants, which had been ripped from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a book of poetry from Persia’s 11th Century ‘Astronomer Poet’ (who we briefly mentioned in our trilogy on The Assassins) and friend of Hasan-i Sabbah, Omar Khayyam. When the rest of the book was finally located, it had been disposed of, thrown onto the back seat of a stranger’s car. Strangely, it had a code and two phone numbers written in it – a code which remains unsolved to this day. Because of this, a lot of people jumped to the conclusion the man was a spy.
Over the years, writers have commented that the man was muscular, and appeared to have the legs of a ballet dancer or acrobat. Others pointed towards the two phone numbers on the book. The owner of one of those numbers was a nurse named Jessica Thompson. Much has been made that when she was shown a photograph of the deceased, and was visibly shocked, but claimed not to know the man. Sure, a nurse has probably seen a dead body or two before so may be more hardened to the image than others – but it later emerged a mysterious man had allegedly been at her property asking for her. I’d say she had a right to be a little spooked – and it never stood she too was a spy, in shock at the loss of a comrade.
There were other theories, besides the ‘spy’ line. An ageing veteran named ‘Solomsen’ was suggested, as a local man was sure he’d been drinking with a veteran of that name, who looked like the deceased. A local man, E.C. Johnson was believed to be the Somerton Man – but he showed up at the police station two days later, alive and well. A 63 year old woodcutter named Robert Walsh was suggested – but dismissed based on the fact the body was in his early 40s, and his hands didn’t look like they swung an axe for a living. A missing American ship hand named Tommy Reade was suggested, and dismissed – as Reade looked nothing like the man. This seemed a reasonable guess, as the body was attired in American-made clothing. There were several others suggested, and discounted over the years, for various reasons.
But the spy narrative remained in peoples’ minds. There was much speculation around Cold War espionage on both sides of the Tasman at this time on to the fall of the Iron Curtain. (something I may come back to some time.) Adelaide may have been of interest to a spy as Australia’s first Uranium mine, Radium Hill, was nearby. It had been discovered back in 1906, and was, in the Nuclear age, a valuable piece of land. A large rocket testing facility was also close, in Woomera – where a combined Australian/English crew were then testing missiles.
His story, it turns out, had a whole lot less intrigue about it – but is, in my opinion, far sadder.
Carl Webb was born in Melbourne, Victoria in 1905. The son of a baker, he worked at the family business until it went broke. After this, he trained to be an electrician. In 1941, Webb married Dorothy Robertson and the couple moved to their own house in South Yarra, Victoria.
Their marriage was highly dysfunctional. Carl was solitary, moody, and violent. It’s been speculated Carl may have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, but the trigger was likely the loss of four close relatives over a seven year period. Besides several acts of physical and verbal violence towards Dorothy, Carl attempted, on at least one occasion, to kill himself. Dorothy worked at a pharmacy. Carl got hold of some ether, and attempted to overdose on the substance in 1946. Dorothy tried to nurse Carl back to health, but Carl, yet again turned violent on her. Wisely, Dorothy left – moving to a town close to Adelaide, South Australia.
In 1947 Carl Webb falls off the radar. He abandoned his family home and became a drifter. It’s thought he had moved to Adelaide, and was trying to find Dorothy. In 2022, his body was identified by DNA samples linking him to living family members.
It’s likely he was carrying a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because he was something of a poet himself. Not unlike Khayyam, much of his poetry concerned death. Carl Webb was also a gambler who liked to bet on the horses – so the code possibly relates to horse names. To my knowledge no-one has yet tried to match the letters up to race days to try and determine his whereabouts on the day he took down the code.
The Boy in the Box is still too new to write much on (as of time of writing this, 9th January 2023,) at least without repeating the mystery as it stood. The four year old boy was named Joseph Zarelli. Given the condition of his body (badly beaten,) and the possibility the person who beat him to death is still alive – police are withholding information on the case at time of writing. If charges are laid, then we may discover more.
Anyway, these two cases got me thinking about several other stories that might be solved by DNA in years to come. One case which might be familiar to New Zealanders is ‘Somebody’s Darling.’
I needs must tell this story two ways. First there is the urban legend people tend to think of.
Both tales are located on Horseshoe Bend, Otago in New Zealand’s South Island. This is a stretch of the Clutha river, New Zealand’s second longest river. The timeframe, early 1865. This was, and remains to this day, a remote part of the country – however, at the time Otago itself was in the midst of a gold rush. Gabriel Read, an Australian who tried his hand as a prospector in Victoria and California’s gold rushes in the 1850s, struck gold in the Otago settlement of Lawrence in 1861. Suddenly it was all on. Prospectors from all over turned up to try their luck out in the goldfields. Horseshoe bend itself had around 200 people living there at it’s peak in 1863, but it wasn’t as lucky a spot as others, and by 1865 only around 70 people remained. One remainder was said to be an Irishman named William Rigby.
The urban legend has it at some time in February 1865, the body of a young man washed up on Horseshoe Bend – and that William Rigby discovered him. The legend states, try as the people of Horseshoe Bend might, they could not identify the young man. The man was buried near the river in Miller’s Flat, in an unmarked grave. According to legend, the fate of the young man played on Rigby’s mind – and he decided if the man could not be returned to those who loved him – at the very least he should be buried among them. It should also be acknowledged he was somebody’s beloved.
So it was Rigby and a friend, John Ord, built a fence around the grave, then fashioned a gravestone out of black pine with the words “Somebody’s Darling Lies Buried Here.”
Some of this is true. On January 25th 1865 a man named Charles Alms drowned while herding cattle further up the Clyde river. He lived in the Nevis Valley, in the shadow of a mountain range known as The Remarkables (which is, FYI, MY happy place – I haven’t been back to Queenstown since just before COVID, but could happily gaze on the ever-changing Remarkables from a lakeside bar for hours.) He was a butcher by trade, and was officially ‘never found,’ except a public enquiry stated the body at Horseshoe bend was almost certainly him. For some reason, no-one ever came to collect him.
Rigby heard of the lone grave at Miller’s Flat, and he was heartbroken for the man. A single man himself, who left Ireland for New Zealand after dropping out of a theological college – indications are he was prospecting near ‘Gabriel’s Gully’ in Lawrence when he discovered the grave. The fate of this lone man struck a chord with him, and as he too was a loner, and he worried when he too passed, nobody would tend to his grave. This was the impetus for his act of kindness.
William Rigby’s act of kindness rubbed off on others. In 1902, the headstone looking much worse for wear, locals upgraded it to a stone marker with the same epitaph.
Locals talk of the ‘Lonely graves’ there now. Other bodies are buried close to ‘Somebody’s Darling.’ Notably, a man driven to an act of kindness for a stranger. The gravestone next to the mystery man reads “William Rigby – The Man Who Buried Somebody’s Darling.”
Hey there readers and listeners, I’m on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back. In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.) While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Four of Four.
I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.
If you’d like to support Tales and get your hands on extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge.) This gives you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff (specifics to be confirmed.) The free channels (blog and podcast) will always be free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.
Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley stood in the dock, shackled and bound. The setting, the Lancaster Assizes, August 18th 1612 – where the Demdikes and Chattoxes were tried for witchcraft. Accused of wielding magic with malicious intent, the ladies are accused of murdering then eating a baby. Their accuser, a fourteen year old relative of the Bierleys named Grace Sowerbutts. Eating a baby was one thing, but ‘The Salmesbury Witches’ had the temerity to magically bully young Grace – and that was more than she could take.
For years Jennet, Aunt Ellen and their pal Jane made Grace’s life a living hell. They transformed into dogs to frighten her. Whenever feeling at ease, they psycho-kinetically seized her by her hair, levitated her above a hay bale – then unceremoniously dumped her atop the bundle. Some times they would fly her over a barn and threaten to leave her on the roof. One time the ladies hypnotised her into trying to drown herself. Grace was terrified, sooner or later, they would murder her.
Furthermore, there was that murder and cannibalism charge. Once, Grace claimed – the Salmesbury Witches took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman, his wife and their baby. The ladies snuck into the house and kidnapped the baby. Once free and clear, they sucked the baby’s blood. The young child was then returned. The witches departed. This was bad enough, but – the court heard the child passed on the following night. Days later Jennet and Ellen returned – removing the body from its grave. They then cooked and ate part of the body – the remainder being turned into a magical ointment used to shape shift.
Thomas Walshman took the stand, confirming he did indeed have a young child, recently passed.
Grace Sowerbutts, delivered her evidence – and was a shockingly effective witness. Even on an action-packed day full of outlandish tales of murder, a tale of brazen pedicide and cannibalism particularly chilled the gallery. As it turned out, the extremity of the crime actually saved the ladies. The people in the public gallery were so horrified, they demanded young Grace be recalled. They needed to hear every last detail of the heinous crime.
And when young Grace was recalled – she completely fell apart on cross examination.
Why falsely accuse family of witchcraft and murder? One word, revenge.
Lancaster County may have been thin on the ground of actual, bona fide witches, but there was no shortage of recusants in the area. England first turned Protestant in 1534 after King Henry VIII railroaded the Act of Supremacy into law. Increasingly frustrated with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the couple failed to make an heir together – something the King put down to God punishing him for marrying Catherine – who was originally betrothed to his deceased older brother Arthur) Henry tried to get a divorce, so he could marry Anne Boleyn – one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. When the Pope refused to allow the divorce, the nation became Protestant overnight. Henry’s daughter Mary I reverted England back to Catholicism during her reign (1553- 58). Her persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth I reverted the kingdom back to Protestantism with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559.
The current King, James I, was Protestant. After a cabal of Catholic plotters attempted to blow him up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, James rushed his own legislation through – The Popish Recusants Act of 1605. Catholics were barred from public office, were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, and risked the loss of up to a third of their land if they didn’t attend a Church of England sacrament at least once a year. In 1612 orders were sent out to all the justices of the peace in Lancashire to make lists of recusants in the area.
As such, many Catholics kept their religious affiliations secret. These recusants covertly attended underground churches, run by secretive priests. Jane Southworth’s uncle Christopher Thompson was one such priest.
Christopher and Jane Southworth belonged to an aristocratic recusant family in the region – the family Patriarch Sir John Southworth of Salmesbury Hall. Sir John was openly Catholic, and refused to denounce his faith. This led to multiple arrests and fines. The family were almost completely openly, or covertly Catholic – this included Christopher – a Jesuit preacher who assumed the surname Thompson and went off the grid in to avoid the authorities. Sir John’s son, the recently deceased John Jr was married to Jane. The couple made quite a scene when they walked away from Catholicism, and began attending Anglican masses. Infuriated, Sir John disinherited John jr.
As Grace was questioned in detail by a couple of justices of the peace, it became clear the charges, originally aimed at eight women – five of whom weren’t tried for lack of evidence – had come by way of Christopher. The defections of John jr and Jane led to further defections from Christopher Thompson’s church. To get revenge, and likely to discredit the apostates before he lost all his flock, Thompson groomed Grace in her outrageous lie.
Judge Sir Edward Bromley dismissed the case, finding Jane Southworth, Jennet and Ellen Bierley not guilty. His closing remarks “ God hath delivered you beyond expectation, I pray God you may use this mercy and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered“
This week I’m starting with a quick anecdote. Please bear with me, this is not going to be a regular thing. Nor is the general tone of this Tale regular. I thought I was making something short and a little strange, to give me extra time on the last couple of episodes for 2022 – a bit of a firebreak I guess. This episode took off on me as I laid pen to paper – taking on complexities I didn’t foresee.
Anyway, I ask you give me time to set the scene on this one, and suspend disbelief on occasion. If this tale is not for you, no worries – we’ll be back to regular programming in two weeks’ time if you want to skip it. That said…
I’m no animist, but there’s a dream I had years ago. Apparently it’s a dream that I can still clearly recall. In 2007 I worked for a call centre by day, as a kind of in-house investigator. By night I was a guitarist in a rock band that had a level of local buzz and a local following. The band never really broke through – and eventually split – later taking up other creative endeavours- like podcasting. In 2007 we were self funding an extended EP, and when money ran short – I took to hiring myself out as a studio player for our producer for more studio time. This was a fair piece of barter; I got to redo all the guitars on one track, our producer got to finish an EP she was working on. On having arrived home one night from a mix-down session that ran to 2 am, I fell into a deep sleep… to dream of, well, musical instruments.
I was in a studio we’d borrowed for a day that was full of esoteric percussion and orchestral instruments. Amid their collection, a rather beat-up old cello with a string missing. At the session I picked the instrument up, and had a play – before deciding it wouldn’t add anything to the song. A scratch track on the instrument was subsequently cut. In my dream I picked the cello up, took a seat, and plucked at the strings till something musical came out. “Cello, it’s been a long day” I said.
“It’s been a long life” The cello replied. “Once I was majestic, the tallest Maple on the block. When it rained, elk sheltered beneath my canopy. When the sun was out, robins perched upon me and sang like angels.”
“We had our own song too, you know? When the wind blew, we sang – and what a song it was!”
Three and a half hours later an alarm sounded, and I trundled off to work. “Funny dream” I thought. I recalled the last thing I’d read that week was an account of the Emperor Charlemagne and his vendetta against a tree, the Irminsul. Yeah, that’d be it – exhaustion plus Charlemagne equals dreams of talking cellos?
In that spirit I invite you to suspend disbelief with me, and take a boat ride down the River Thames, England. The year is 43 AD, and we’re cruising the river in search of a suitable place for a fortress. Everywhere we look there are trees – a heavy covering of Weeping Willows rising up from the wetlands, then bowing down again to kiss the water. As day-trippers in modern times we appreciate the Acadian beauty of the scene. To a boatload of Roman Legionnaires sailing into parts unknown where – as far as they know – they could meet the same end as Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg forest (we’ll come back to that tale, eventually) – it must’ve been terrifying? This is not the tale of those Romans – They establish London, well, Londinium to use the name they did – and do many other things – we’re interested in those willow trees. We’ll return to London – and eventually those trees – in a minute.
But first we need to discuss money.
In the episode on Martial Bourdin I stated time itself is a very real phenomenon, but how we measure it is nothing more than a standardised set of measures agreed upon by all. We do this in part because of precedence, and in part because it’s in the interests of those in power to do so. Sometimes it’ll be in the interests of society as a whole. We call this a noble myth, or a noble lie. Though the origins of money are somewhat murky, we can fairly safely say in it’s every iteration it has been a noble myth.
On to that origin story – nobody ever recorded the why’s and wherefores. There’s a tale that states money came about from necessity, as the earlier system of barter reached it’s limits. Once all our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the advent of the ice age pushed many of the animals they hunted towards places sure to still have food – fertile river valleys. Humans, still hunter-gatherers, followed their prey. Once in these enclaves, as land elsewhere became barren, our ancestors became territorial, claiming ownership over the land. From 10,000 years ago we began to domesticate certain animals as pets or beasts of burden. Many humans learned to farm the land for food and other supplies.
Around 4,000 years ago, at several places all at once, we invented the plough – creating massive surpluses, and freeing up 5/6 of the workforce to diversify. The working theory is that this diversification led to greater choice in how one swapped their surplus goods for other things – but it proved terribly inefficient.
Say you made arrows and needed grain, but none of the hunters who use your arrows grew crops – and none of the farmers who have the grain need arrows anymore – then what do you do? Without a double coincidence of wants between the parties, it was hypothesised, barter failed. There a standardised proxy for goods seems sensible, right? Something quite rare, and durable enough to withhold being passed from one person to the next many times.
Where this theory falls down, is there is some proof of barter in some places – but no proof found yet of a community who bartered, then ditched the practice for a system of money – let alone giving any reason for doing so for posterity.
Somewhere along the line though, the idea of money of account – a token of standardised value – grew . Early methods included cowrie shells, and beads. The Mesopotamians (of modern day Iraq) invented the shekel somewhere around 2,150 BC. A silver coin which borrowed it’s name from a measurement of barley – approximately a weight of 11 grams – one can guess what it originally stood in proxy of. The shekel was used throughout much of the near east. Money was truly standardised, however by the Lydians (of modern day Turkey) around 1,000 BC. They had different coins, worth differing amounts. Their rulers even put their faces on the coins for the first time. In the late sixth century BC, their King Croesus, a man with a great love of his ample fortune, became a person of interest in Greece – as did those coins which bore his image. Croesus love of money, his meeting with the Athenian lawmaker Solon, and later run in with the Persians is of interest – but let’s shelve that too for another day – we’ve got too much ground to cover. From Lydia to Greece, to Rome and beyond you can sketch more or less unbroken lines to modern coinage.
Back in England, those Roman soldiers sailing down the Thames settled. They, of course were paid in coins. Over the course of the first century they brought destruction, conquering as far as what later became Hadrian’s wall (the wall itself built from 122AD) in the North of England. They also brought vast building and infrastructure projects – roads and canals, public buildings – built in stone and sometimes clad in marble. Groves of willow trees were felled to make way for a walled city which held 50,000 at it’s Roman era peak. There’s no word if the weeping willows wept at such carnage (stick with the plot device, it’ll make sense in the end).
A section of the English public, then a pre-literate society, learned to read, write and count. The Roman presence opened up lines of trade with the empire in Europe, and as such, opportunity for some. They also brought money to a people completely unaccustomed to the concept. For a small percentage of elite Britons, the Roman presence brought great wealth, prestige, and nice things like costly villas to live in. For perhaps as much as 99% of Britons, however, life was a similar daily grind to before – where one mostly subsisted, and occasionally starved – but at least they had roads to travel along, and slightly nicer pottery?
Of course the Romans also brought a time of peace. With as many as 50,000 legionnaires along Hadrian’s wall alone, elite Britons slept well in their villas at night – assured no Picts, Scots, Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles or Swabians could arrive and steal all their precious money. But this peace wouldn’t last forever. Rome disintegrated throughout the Fourth Century for numerous reasons, both within and without the kingdom. The supply of shiny new silver coins everyone had become accustomed to slowed to a trickle, as the Empire struggled to keep the lights on. Many of those soldiers England’s peace depended on were stationed to other parts of the empire, where trouble brewed for Rome.
The English, knowing money didn’t grow on trees (not yet anyway), started to ‘clip’ their coins to make the money go further – cutting chunks of silver off existing coins to mint new ones. In 409 AD, England, feeling Rome had abdicated all their responsibility to them – Brexited from the Romans in a successful rebellion. Having ‘taken back their sovereignty’, the cashflow stopped completely. What’s more, without garrisons of troops to protect them, the Picts of the North descended with a vengeance upon them.
Thriving cities and expensive villas were abandoned. Many wealthy Britons buried their beloved – though now dog-eared coinage in hoards. The land descended into an anarchy that would take hundreds of years to recover from. The willow trees took back much of London. When the wind blew, they sang a song of victory. When it rained, the red deer took shelter. When the moon was full, the wolves howled ominously.
I am looking to plough too big a field if I described everything that happened in England in the following years. The chronicler the Venerable Bede stated attacks from the Picts and Scots worsened. An English warlord named Vortigern hired a mercenary army of Saxons from the north of modern day Germany to help them fight back. Unfortunately for Vortigern, the Saxons liked England so much, they returned with friends and took over the country. This could contain some truth – Britons were not allowed to use weapons under Roman occupation, so most lacked the skills to repel a professional army. We know the Saxons, Angles and Jutes established several kingdoms in England from the early 440s – and that some kind of widespread slaughter of Britons did take place. Barbarians rolled many other Roman colonies, and they subsequently adopted many Roman ways – but Germanic invaders in England took on around 30 Romano-Britonic words, and nothing else. Virtually everything else was allowed to disintegrate around them.
This suggests several possible scenarios – none of which are pleasant for the original inhabitants of the land. Like the origin of money, the history of this time is incredibly murky, so we’ll move on.
Vikings first showed up in 789, and made a big splash in 793, when they wrecked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Anglo-Saxon England was divided up into at least a dozen kingdoms – at times dozens – ruled by all kinds – but we’re now straying a long way from the money, and the trees – so back to the topic.
Londinium was slowly re-populated, just shy of two centuries after it was abandoned. It would become Londonwik before it became known as London. Shepherds ventured out to the area now called Covent Garden. It seemed a nice place to keep sheep. Over time others would come, and the city would rebound – but to the willows this time must’ve seemed like paradise. Shepherds sheltered under them in the rain. When the stars shone bright, young lovers sung of love and longing like Chaucer’s Absolum to an unattainable Alisoun. One presumes the trees provided swelling harmonies.
Coins returned to England under Offa, King of Mercia (his reign 757 – 796). The man brought back the silver penny. His coins were remarkable in some ways – often of a higher quality than anything being minted in mainland Europe at the time. Some carried Arabic writing on one side. Some carried the image of his wife, Cynethrith – making her the only Anglo-Saxon queen represented on money. An empire builder intent on bringing England under just one ruler, coinage was a kind of propaganda to the king – a way of big-noting himself and letting everyone know he was the new boss. Offa embraced that aspect of money. As did every subsequent king or queen after him. By the time of the Normans in the 11th Century, coins were well established – but wealth had gravitated upwards into the hands of a small, elite class.
A general shortage of ready cash among the populace, to pay taxes with, often proved troublesome to these English royals. Take Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. On his father’s death he had to buy his own fiefdom in Normandy off his older brothers. In 1091 he was deposed of that kingdom by his brother Robert, and had to fight a costly war with him. By 1100 he was king of England, and Normandy – but was broke and facing multiple challenges to his crown. He desperately needed tax revenue… If only money grew on trees.
Well, it did, but not in the way you’re thinking – let’s put China and paper money to one side for now. The royals came up with a plan that, if those willows had emotions, they would have been shaking in terror over it.
Whole groves of weeping willows were press-ganged into finance. Henceforth their song would become less lullaby of the leaves, more a dull clatter as they banged up against one another.
Henry I came up with an interesting way to keep receipts on taxes paid. Tax would be recorded on a Tally Stick, as you had an annual tax bill, but typically paid it in halves, twice a year. A tally stick was a piece of wood, usually willow, that was split in two – both parts marked with identical notches to denote just how much tax the person had paid. The payer kept the longer piece, known as the stock (where we get the word stocks from). The exchequer kept the shorter piece, known as the foil. Willow trees were perfect for use as tally sticks as their distinctive grain pattern meant you couldn’t easily substitute one stock with another foil. When it came time to confirm who had paid their taxes, both parts were joined back together.
People realised if they were in need of money, they could often trade in their stocks for close to that sum of money – the new stockholder knew it was as good as guaranteed money come tax time. Jewellers often got into the business of buying tally sticks off the hard up, creating a secondary market. Henry II realised this also meant he could sell stocks to people for their future taxes at a slight discount, allowing for quick cash injections if money was needed to go fight a war. The stockholder could then sell the stock at a profit too on the secondary market. These tokens often spread far and wide in the kingdom – many times a long way away from the original taxpayer.
On occasion however; a king, such as Charles II, might game the system.
Having been restored to the throne in 1660 (his father Charles I having lost his head, with the Cromwells taking the reins for the interregnum), Charles agreed he would allow parliament to pay him a wage drawn from taxes – granting them the power to dole out his money and set taxes. Unfortunately for the monarch, a cluster of unfortunate things happened. First parliament were stingy, paying him less than expected, while keeping taxes static. Second, The Crown were limited in the printing of new money, due to a lack of bullion entering the country at the time. The Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London wiped out the King’s cash reserves, leading to him making deals with France (one publicly known, to send soldiers to help in their fight against the Dutch. The other a secret pact to expose he was actually Catholic, theoretically forcing the nation back to the old faith – which he did only on his deathbed).
But this still wasn’t enough.
In 1671, Charles was heavily in arrears on his payments to his army, navy, and debtors. He flooded the market, the jewellers particularly, with far cheaper tallies than usual. A buying frenzy on the secondary market, incredibly, pushed the value of the sticks up until their profit exceeded 10%. The debt came due a year later, and the stock holders came to the crown to collect their profits. The king couldn’t repay the debt – but he had a way out. Any debt agreement at the time with annual interest in excess of 6% was considered predatory lending. The usury laws then stated any such debt were null and void and to be promptly ignored by debtors. On these grounds, Charles refused to pay, crashing the value of tally sticks overnight. Many a jeweller went bankrupt, ending up in debtors prisons.
So it is unsurprising Tally Sticks fell out of favour, as useful as they had once been. As a form of alternate currency, they limped on till 1826. I couldn’t tell you what their song was in those days but I imagine it was not terribly festive or uplifting. Certainly they no longer provided shelter, financially or otherwise to anyone. Brought no-one solace, or comfort. Increasingly they took up basement space in the Government’s treasury and collected dust. On 16th October 1834 it was decided our wooden heroes would be immolated. Rather than do something civic-minded, like have a large public bonfire – or kind, like giving the old tally sticks away to people to use as firewood in the coming winter – the palace’s clerk of works decided the sticks should be fed into two ovens beneath the House of Lords. Throughout the day, two full cartloads of sticks were gradually fed into the furnace.
As the workday came to an end, with the basement floor actually hot to the touch, the workmen doused the flames and packed up for home. An hour later, the flames reignited. The wife of the doorkeeper rushed to the deputy housekeeper to advise the fire had not just re-animated – it was burning the entire building down, and threatened to spread to the rest of the palace. As the buildings went up in flame, renowned artists like J.M.W Turner crowded around outside, paint and easel at the ready. Turner painted several canvases of the ‘Great Fire of 1834’.
As I said at the beginning, I’m no animist – I don’t believe plants and trees, rocks, stones or the great eternal blue sky (sorry Genghis Khan) have feelings, souls or sentience… but isn’t it a little fun to suspend disbelief for a second and imagine those sticks – once majestic and content down by the riverside. They sang in the breeze, till someone robbed them of their essential being. Press-ganged into service, they lost their voice. Used and abused by a man, who, quite frankly should have hugged every single tree he ever came into contact with (For a second time, I WILL come back to that story), they were branded villainous and untrustworthy. Left in a basement to moulder for years – they were ultimately robbed of a final chance to be of service to others. Don’t you just want to allow them one final act of revenge? As the painters captured the billowing smoke, and firemen fought a losing battle to contain the damage – Well, I couldn’t tell you their final song – but it brought the house down.
When trying to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on April 18th 1943, I get a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, head off on an adventure into the woods – free from the encumbrances of adult supervision. I imagine something out of an Enid Blyton book, or perhaps a scene from Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. An image of kids just being kids. Wrongly I suspect, I want to imagine those four kids too preoccupied with schoolyard politics, games, pop culture and urban legend – kid’s stuff – to think much on the backdrop of a world war.
The adults that weekend perhaps read the Luftwaffe bombed a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler ran into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy – who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in Nazi concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, targeted a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto above Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. They took their revenge for his part in Pearl Harbour, shooting the Admiral out of the sky.
Truthfully I don’t know what occupied these kids’ minds on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Bless em All’ as they rode into the forest… maybe singing the ‘other’ lyrics? (The ones likely to get me an adult rating on iTunes). For that matter if those kids themselves had family serving abroad in the war. I do know the boys were on a covert mission to steal whatever birds’ eggs they could from Viscount Cobham’s ancestral land – Hagley woods – and that the day would conclude more like a Stephen King novel for the young lads.
The boys searched high and low for bird’s nests, till they came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge, only to find an old animal skull staring back up at him. Farmer picked the skull up – presumably to make his friends jump a little – but as he did, he noticed tufts of hair, a human jaw bone and traces of human flesh still attached to it. In a mad panic, the boys ran for their bikes, and took off for home. The gravity of their find had dawned on them, but as they frantically pedalled home it also dawned on them they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land when they found the skull. A sound thrashing from angry parents was one thing, but would they risk a criminal record over the skull? I cannot say what else the boys may have been thinking – whether it felt to the boys like they’d just fallen into a gothic horror tale, spy novel, or crime procedural. It appears the boys were all spooked by the experience. Before they split from one another, they made a pact not to disclose their grisly find to anybody else.
But, as anyone who’s ever picked up Shakespeare might tell you “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”. Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, had an especially hard time dealing with the find, and told his father about the skull. They reported it to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the following day.
Officers reached into the tree, and finding much more than a skull. A near complete skeleton was laying inside ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, apparently amputated. The hand bones would be found 13 paces away from the tree as investigations continued. Taffeta cloth had been shoved a long way down her throat. Some scraps of clothing, and shoes were found. As was a rolled gold wedding ring – a thin strip of gold bonded or fused to the outside of a brass or copper base. It was a cheap alternative to a solid gold ring.
The remains were taken to Professor James Webster, the local pathologist. The body was of a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth, including a tooth pulled a year before her death. She had given birth at least once.
The body had been placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, and she was presumed to have died of asphyxiation from the cloth shoved down her throat. She was put in the tree some time around October 1941.
The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They identified her shoes, tracking down the shoemakers in Northampton, and all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs were sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands. The stall holders there kept no records. They scoured through lists of missing persons but were unable to make a match. The ‘Battle for Britain’, where German planes flew over British cities at night, bombing the hell out of the locals – had left no shortage of missing people. Most were presumed buried under the rubble somewhere. None of those people matched the lady. Her irregular teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. This too drew a blank.
There was a single incident in the vicinity of Hagley wood in late 1941 that seemed very promising. A businessman and a school teacher separately phoned the police to report a woman was screaming uncontrollably in the woods. Police were dispatched to the scene, but found nothing on arrival. That lead was re-opened, but led nowhere.
Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared locally in the form of graffiti. They were written in chalk, all in a similar hand. The first one read, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’. Soon after ‘Hagley Wood Bella’ appeared etched on a wall. Finally the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ Started to appear in the vicinity. Police presumed the graffiti was always done at night, as they were never able to locate a single witness to the act. An inky darkness owing to the wartime blackouts no doubt helped the mystery tagger. They rechecked their missing persons lists, looking specifically for a Luebella, or a Bella. They investigated the kinds of people known for defacing walls and obelisks – but could not get a break in this case.
So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? Today I can only offer a handful of theories on the case.
Starting with Margaret Murray. Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Her career in active field work was hampered, first by most field work being given to her male counterparts; then later by the First World War. Murray diversified – becoming an expert folklorist, most notably writing a series of books on witchcraft that the modern Wicca movement based itself on. In 1945 she weighed in on the case – offering a possible explanation. Was Bella murdered by occultists? Was she in fact a witch herself?
Her reasoning was twofold – the amputated hand, and the tree.
The following is far too vague for it’s own good, but to explain her reasoning. Several groups of people have had a funny thing with hands and thieves since at least as far back as the Mesopotamian lawmaker Hammurabi wrote his famous law code. With many punishments being like for like – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lawmaker stated if a thief took property with their hand, that hand should be cut off as punishment – hardly like for like, but you get the gist. This piece of ancient Talionic law morphed into something wildly different throughout parts of Medieval France. From there the idea spread throughout Europe.
If you cut the left hand off a dying criminal as they twisted on the gallows – or if the criminal in question were a murderer, then whichever hand did the killing – you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled, was believed to have magical powers. If you yourself were a thief, your mere possession of the hand rendered sleeping occupants of a house into a deep trance. You could rifle through their prized possessions without fear you too might end up on the gallows. A hand of glory presented to an attacker could freeze them. It also protected the possessor from evil spirits. Treasure hunters believed a hand of glory could also lead them to buried treasure troves.
That the hand was cut off was a clue to Murray. That it was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to the folklorist – as did the disposal of the body inside a tree.
According to Murray several pre- Christian European societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge on the living.
Her assertion was lent some weight by a murder in Lower Quinton, 40 miles South East of Hagley Wood, on Valentines Day 1945.
Charles Walton, a local 74 year old was brutally murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. While doing some grounds keeping, he was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe. As he lay on the grass, bleeding out from a cut throat, he was then pinned to the ground through the throat with his own pitch fork. Circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – as Walton was said to have loaned Potter a sum money he couldn’t afford to repay. Others placed the blame on Italian prisoners of war kept locally. The Italians having surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the POWs were at ease to freely wander the town in the day.
In 1954, local papers reported on another, similar killing. This murder in the town of Long Compton, fifteen miles from Lower Quinton. The murder happened back in 1875. The victim was an octogenarian named Ann Tennant. Newspapers reported locals whispered behind Tennant’s back that she was a witch. She too was killed, ritualistically in this case, by being pinned to the ground with a pitchfork.
Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood – a man variously described in the press as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood was tried for murder, but spent the rest of his life in an asylum. He claimed he was a witch hunter, and would kill more witches ever let out – so authorities threw away the key, leaving him there. The press largely underplayed Heywood’s mental illness, and many wondered aloud what secret groups of witch-hunters, Satanists or witches had lived among them for at least the past seven decades?
All this fed back into Murray’s witchcraft theory. It was hardly the only theory, however.
Another possibility centres around a troubled young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic drinking buddy – a man known as ‘Van Raalte’.
Jack Mossop was an engineer, employed making plane parts in a Banner Lane factory during the war. In 1937, prior to the war, he’d taken flying lessons, and was an air reserve. When asked by workmates why he was in a factory, rather than having aerial dogfights with Nazis, he claimed he’d crashed too many planes in RAF training, and suffered from a traumatic brain injury. This is often presented in Bella lore as fact, often cited as an explanation for his subsequent behaviour. There’s no evidence he was ever in the RAF, let alone invalidated out after a crash. It appears far more likely he had essential skills, so was unlikely to be called away to fight.
It can neither be confirmed, not denied whether Mossop had crashed a plane while taking flying lessons – and certainly it would explain his subsequent descent.
Mossop was a heavy drinker, who it appears, followed in the loutish footsteps of his father and uncles – known to locals as the ‘seven sods’ for their rowdy behaviour. It must be said, he wasn’t brought up by his father, but by the parents of the ‘Seven Sods’. His mother died of the Spanish Flu when he was six years old. He was subsequently brought up by his grandparents. Mossop was a bright child, and often suffered from debilitating headaches, and regular nightmares. As the war progressed, he grew increasingly distant from his wife Una.
At 1am one morning, believed either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home to Una in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalte (or Van Raalt). Una suspected Van Raalte was a spy, as the man never worked, but always had plenty of money. It’s since been suggested he was a local rogue, making his money by selling rationed goods on the ‘black market’.
On the night in question, both men came in terribly shaken by an incident which may have haunted Jack for the rest of his life.
After settling his nerves with another drink, Jack told Una the following. They had been drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman he only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalte and the ‘Dutch piece’ possibly got into an altercation (Jack states simply she got ‘awkward’). The three then left the pub together.
They piled into Van Raalte’s Rover, Jack in the driver’s seat, Van Raalt and ‘Dutch piece’ in the back. Something never properly explained happened in the back seat, and the woman ‘passed out’ slumping towards Jack. Van Raalt ordered Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men got out of the Rover, carrying the unconscious woman to a hollowed out oak tree in Hagley Wood. The two men placed her inside the tree.
At least this was the story Una finally gave the police in 1953.
Una was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was long deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He worked less – but if anything, his cashflow seemed to increase. Una was convinced Jack too was a spy. He became increasingly emotionally distant, violent and moody. While Jack may well have been seeing other women before the incident with the ‘Dutch Piece’ he was now increasingly turning to other women for comfort. A fed up Una had enough, and left him in December 1941.
After Una left, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became noticeably erratic – and in June 1942, he was committed to a mental health facility. He died there in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report has been read by some to that he was suffering from the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers, professional wrestlers and American football players can often suffer from. My read, as a former investigator often employed to find next of kins of deceased customers with unclaimed insurance policies – ie. not a medical professional, but someone who has read many death certificates – His heavy drinking had badly damaged his heart. His kidneys were also shot. He more likely than not died of a stroke caused by the heart damage.
This Tale was kept under wraps to the public at large, but leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower, in 1958. That leaker, Anna of Claverley was Una. These articles told of a Nazi spy ring in the Midlands, who were out to infiltrate the many arms factories dotted across the region. Bella was, according to this telling, a Nazi spy and occultist known as ‘Clarabella’. She’d parachuted in earlier in 1941, under the direction of a Nazi intelligence service known as the Abwehr. Abwehr records released postwar state a woman, code named ‘Clara’ was parachuted into the West Midlands – but after she failed to make contact, they presumed her killed in action. ‘Clara’ was far from the only Nazi spy parachuted into the United Kingdom. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worthy of discussion is Josef Jakobs.
Josef Jakobs was 43 years old when he was captured in January 1941. Born in Luxembourg, he fought for Germany in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight – serving as an officer until the Nazis discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland between the wars, for selling imitation gold as real. Surprisingly Nazi Germany felt this made him unfit to lead men into battle. This didn’t make him ineligible for a job as a spy.
On 31st January, Jakobs parachuted into Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He landed badly, breaking his ankle. He was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. He was carrying £500, a counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter, a photograph and a German sausage. He was caught after he fired his pistol into the air like a flare gun. The pain of his broken ankle had gotten too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him over to MI5.
Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5. This included an explanation of the photograph of a woman he had on him – the woman was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to jump somewhere over the West Midlands. She knew people there. Bauerle was a cabaret singer in West Midlands clubs in the 1930s. Jakobs was court-martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad on August 15th 1941. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London.
So mystery solved? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress – allegedly with occult leanings – parachuted in to sabotage weapons factories? Had she, for some unexplained reason, fallen out with her compatriots – who then killed her? For decades this was advanced as the most likely scenario. This theory imploded in 2015. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.
So where does this leave us? Use of DNA as with Australia’s Somerton Man case in Australia? Impossible in this case, as Bella’s remains went missing at an undisclosed point between her discovery and the advent of DNA testing. Currently there is one lead. Bella’s skull was photographed, and those photos do still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who specialises in creating facial reconstructions of the long deceased created a portrait of Bella. It’s always possible someone, somewhere has a shoebox of old family photos. While these are often treasured items for the children, such ephemera often gets donated to museums by the grandkids’ generation. It’s not inconceivable a photo may surface – not out of the question someone will recognise it’s significance when it does. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm is a nice to know, and we may never know – but who she really was? That’s the question I’d really like answered.
Quick sidebar especially for the New Zealanders: Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. He was a member of the English cricket team, who toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton Cobham fell for our little part of the world while here. He served as Governor General, from 1957 to 1962.
Governor General Cobham was a popular proxy for the crown. He established Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation who help struggling kids by providing them adventures designed to teach the kids they are capable of much more than they ever realised. He compiled a book of his speeches while in office, which sold well. All profits from the book were donated to Outward Bound.
The Lytteltons’ had deep ties to New Zealand. Charles’ great grandfather, George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ – who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason several names in this tale may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of George, the elder Lord Cobham.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.