Category Archives: Podcast Episode

Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and public intellectual until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without so much as a trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

Giovanni Batista Belzoni – Tomb Raider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belzoni as the Patagonian Samson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ungern’s Army

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urga in 1921

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

Then, one night in February ….

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

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

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

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

The last Bogd Khan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eden ahbez – Nature Boy (revisited).


Hey all I’m doing something a little different this episode. In the early days of the blog I wrote a piece on the Altamont Free Concert, December 6th 1969, where basically anything which could go wrong did go wrong. The show culminated with the killing of a young man named Meredith Hunter. This was one of those pieces I get to do sometimes where I started off thinking I understood what went down – and came out the other side with a radically different view on the day. I’ll save my thoughts on that – I will do a podcast episode on Altamont at some point. (Note, yes I did one in the disastrous ‘series 0’ but that no longer exists). 

Anyway a friend asked me, after I published the piece “If Altamont is kind of the end of the 60s as we imagine it – hippies and everything. When did the hippies begin?”

I had a bit of a look round, and it seemed to me, beyond the scene round the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City Nevada, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or the Beatniks … well you can go back as far as you like and find people with a hippy vibe about them. Most messianic figures; Lao Tzu, Mazdak, Siddhartha Gautama, Epicurus, Pythagoras… Jesus, all had something of the hippy about them. 

Diogenes? History on Fire’s Daniele Bolelli had him pegged as the first punk rocker. I can see that, but I’m putting in my rival claim for the hippies. St Marius, the stonemason who established the country of San Marino? Yeah, I’d argue he must have had a similar spirit. The Merrymount community of 17th century Quincy Massachusetts? There’s a similarity. 

There’s one group I came across that endlessly fascinated me, however. They owe much to William Pester, the ‘Hermit of Palm Springs’ – a follower of Germany’s Lebensreform movement, and ‘Naturmenschen’ who settled into the American wilderness in 1916 – having fled from the German draft a decade earlier. Based largely in Laurel Canyon, Southern California – the Nature Boys bear more than a passing resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s. One Nature Boy in particular fascinates me, not least of all cause he wrote one of the most haunting songs ever. Right, let’s just jump into it… hit the music. 

This week’s tale begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out for someone at the top of his lungs. The year, 1947. There was a meeting very like this, but this specific part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to move the tale on. I, possibly wrongly imagine him middle aged, a little out of breath, and pissed off he’s ruined a nice pair of shoes on this errand.  His instructions, and I paraphrase “you’ll know him when you find him: he looks like Jesus. Oh he may be running round buck naked when you show up – he does that a lot”. The ‘man in the suit’, an employee of Capitol records, is trekking through the hills of Mount Lee, California; through Griffith Park. For weeks Capitol have been looking for this messianic-looking figure – one imagines no ruined loafers, angry mountain lions, or nudity is going to stop this mission. He’s looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man. Today he’ll find him.

Our mystery man enters the tale following a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio, the future crooner was still a proto R&B musician; a decent vocalist and incredible piano player. In attendance that night a long haired white man, also a piano player, who managed to blag his way into the after-party. 

At several points in the night, the man tried to catch Cole’s attention, but was rebuffed at every advance. As a last ditch effort, he handed his payload, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet subsequently handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. It was a song, a very strange, enchanted song… Mystical, prototypical exotica, haunting and otherworldly. It struck Nat King Cole as something special. He started performing it in his live sets. His crowds, and you have to figure we are talking about a time when music was primarily made for dancing to, listening was secondary- well they listened … and they went crazy for it. 

The song was titled Nature Boy. Not unlike P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias, the protagonist meets a wise traveller from a distant land. The men speak for some time, and the wise man the ‘Nature Boy’ gives him the following advice…

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”

Brooding and exotic, at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Hauntingly poetic, Nat King Cole knew he absolutely had to cut this track… but who was the mysterious, long haired writer? With all the copyright, and publishing red tape to go through to make the record, an all points bulletin was sent out to everyone who knew everyone in Hollywood. 

After some detective work they worked out the man was eden ahbez – deliberately in lower case (ahbez believed only two words should be capitalised – God and Infinity). ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother,  and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas. As a young man he joined a dance band – I presume one of the swing orchestras which were in vogue at the time? – first as a pianist, then later a band leader. 

In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he found work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, The Eutropheon – a shop established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter. The Richters had come by their beliefs at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium; and were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The Eutropheon was a hub for many ‘alternative lifestyles’ in Laurel canyon, particularly the early bodybuilders, who had a gym nearby; socialists – the Richters themselves vocal supporters of senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 socialist party presidential candidate Eugene Debs – and the Nature Boys. abhez soon gravitated towards the latter. 

Just hanging with a dog, a plate of raw snacks and singing cowboy Roy Rogers

A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and very rustic cabins in the Palm Springs area; the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Pester himself a follower of a German 19th century back to nature movement called the ‘Naturmenschen’. They wore their hair long, and grew big, bushy beards. Whenever possible, they preferred to go nude, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed in the importance of casting off the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, more aligned with nature. Pester would pass on in 1963, before his philosophy really took off in the ‘summer of love’. 

eden ahbez was, indirectly, an acolyte of Pester’s. He joined the movement in 1941 while Pester was in jail – he was accused, first of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, jailed for having sex with a minor, till 1946.

 Back to the man in a suit. I imagine him all out of breath, clutching a contract which now looks every bit as crumpled as the paper ahbez passed to Cole’s valet.  He eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was also a tribute to William Pester. In August 1947 Nat King Cole cut the track. The finished product was incredible. Capitol, for all that effort, killed the track. It just didn’t jive with smooth pop crooner image they were creating for Nat King Cole. However, in 1948, fate threw a spanner in Capitol’s works. 

The American Federation of Musicians, led by James Petrillo, went on strike. Petrillo was a trumpeter who had become a music union organiser in 1920 – and president of the union in 1940. He’d called a strike which lasted the better part of two years in 1942, over recording royalties for session musicians – which ultimately was successful – and had some far reaching consequences. 


Sidebar: it was a factor in the demise of the big swing band era – alongside American entry into WW2 and rationing of the petrol needed to take a big band on tour in a bus etc. As such it was a building block in the creation of smaller groups – who would morph into rock and roll groups over time. It recast the singer as the band lead. Radio stations were forced to go outside their usual repertoire – leading to boom times for country and western, and R&B groups, among others. It also, sadly meant the first couple of years of bebop went unrecorded.


I guess the things which need to be understood about the 1942 – 44 strike: It started as the union recognised a musician got paid every time they performed live – but only once to record. Their work could then get played thousands of times on commercial radio stations, millions potentially on jukeboxes, or on record players in peoples’ homes – for which they would go completely unpaid. The strike secured a royalty of around 2.5% for the musicians.

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

The strike of 1948 – which ran for eleven months, was of a similar nature, but aimed squarely at broadcasters. The history of television is a Tale for another day, but this was timely – in 1947 television was an odd thing only a few thousand people were tuned into. From 1949 TV stations began to really proliferate – with the format really starting to take off in 1951. In both strikes record companies stockpiled massive amounts of music beforehand – and before the strike came to an end, had to release songs they had mothballed earlier. 

 Nature Boy was one such track, getting it’s release on March 29th 1948. It shot to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. It was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed, introducing him to white audiences. This was a mixed blessing, as it also brought him to the attention of racists who would burn crosses in his front yard – but it also elevated him to superstardom.

eden ahbez made around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards.  He gave around half the money to friends; and likely lost the rest in 1951 – when a composer named Herman Yablokoff took him to court for plagiarism. He claimed ahbez stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez stated the melody came to him “as if angels were singing it” while camping out in the mountains. Yablokoff replied the angels must have bought his record then. 

The song was later covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). George Benson laid down a funky take on the song. Marvin Gaye’s cover is ethereal. David Bowie recorded a solid version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine ahbez’s shock, had he lived, to see Gaga in her meat dress – avowed raw food vegetarian that he was.

For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. He released his own albums, which fit into the growing exotica genre popular with people who felt too old to love rock and roll, but too cool to keep buying Old Blue Eyes Sinatra’s records anymore. Journalists, just like my man in a suit, went out of their way to find and interview the messianic figure who scored the monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez often extolled the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, lived a simple life, largely in accordance with nature till his death in a car crash in 1995. 

The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”

Tales of Art and Imagination this week? Yeah, I’ll gladly take that. 

Nellie Bly: 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, desperate for advice – and worried how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. Their columnist Erasmus Wilson replied in an editorial piece entitled ‘What girls are good for’.
According to Wilson, girls were not good for terribly much. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of (some) parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you’d be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him.

The next day, a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran – a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who dropped out to help her mother run a boarding house – arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by the “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for seven years, writing mostly on fashion, high society, gardening and the like… but she also covered the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time, official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico. Looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story, they did have a challenging job for Nellie, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge without hesitstion.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her back to the station, then before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what then passed for expert doctors.

She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, she uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”.

She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy) bread, rancid butter.

The inmates were, also, not bathed enough. When they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time.

Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time, was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides the effects of being trapped in an asylum.

Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away by her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with another man. She mentions a German maid named Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What’s also pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on Bly’s case), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.

The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye, the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She recorded her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which was compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates led to a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). She documented her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly retired from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reins of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, died of pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

Lord Lucan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Ford Corsair.

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

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

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

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

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

John Aspinall playing with tigers at his private zoo.

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

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

Epilogue: But, what happened to Lord Lucan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part Two)


Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back. 

This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. 

Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.      

Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort. 

Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass. 

This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably. 

Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party. 

In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage. 

At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself. 

The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.

In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
!”

Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention. 

Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.

In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons. 

In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “…  only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.” 

Enter Ron, in late 1945.

It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.  

From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast. 

Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife. 

When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”. 

Jack and Candy soon became an item. 

The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit. 

Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money. 

All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup. 

The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947. 

In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.

A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes. 

In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately. 

Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House. 

On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.  

On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt. 

Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist. 

Ok, one more thing. 

Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.  

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part One)

Welcome folks. Sorry to do this to you – I really did want to start this tale out in the Mojave desert, following a magick man and his usurper. One chanting tribally to the God Pan, and the other pretending to see spirits so he could just go home – to the other’s wife… but we’ll come back round to that. The date is June 17, 1952. The location, the carriage house which formerly belonged to 1003 Orange Grove, Pasadena – a former stately mansion we’ll definitely talk about later. Pasadena was a neighbourhood in transition from a millionaires’ row of landed estates, to a collection of middle class ranch houses, condos and apartments. While the locals may have grown accustomed to the hubbub of diggers and graders, rollers and wrecking balls, at 5.08pm the neighbourhood would be shocked to attention by a soul shuddering explosion. 

At it’s epicentre, the basement lab in the carriage house – now a wreck of it’s former self. Two men and a woman, tenants, rush downstairs -surveying the damage and looking for the owner of the property – one Jack Parsons. After rifling through the debris they found him; horrifically wounded – he’d lost an arm. The remainder of his limbs are all badly broken. Most of the right side of his face is missing – yet he is still, barely, alive. An ambulance rushes to the scene, then tears off at break-neck speed with their patient. Parsons is treated at Huntington Memorial Hospital – where he would die 37 minutes after the explosion. Parsons’ wife Marjorie, aka Candy, couldn’t bring herself to view her husband in such a state. She would leave it to a friend to arrange the cremation. When Jack’s mother, Ruth, got the news of her son’s untimely passing – she took her own life by swallowing a bottle of barbiturates. 

While one may expect the sudden death of Jack Parsons to bring on a great mourning in the area – he was, after all a pioneering rocket scientist who helped win the war. Jet planes, missiles, the rockets which would travel to the moon all owe a massive debt to his genius. Platitudes gave way to gossip about his wildly occult lifestyle and speculations of suicide or even that he’d been killed by order of Howard Hughes. Stories began to emerge about the cult living at 1003 Orange Grove, the rituals and wild orgies. The Pasadena Independent would eulogise him thus

‘John W. Parsons, handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago … Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.’

John Whiteside Parsons, Jack to his friends is a largely forgotten figure now – but I think his tale is worth sharing. For the next two episodes let’s discuss the mad world of Jack Parsons. 

Jack Parsons was born Marvel Parsons in 1914 to Ruth (née Whiteside) and Marvel Parsons snr. When young, Jack’s father would desert the family to join the army – where he would distinguish himself in battle, move up the ranks, remarry and settle down – only to have a nervous breakdown in middle age – following a medical misdiagnosis giving him just a day left to live. From abandonment as a baby to Marvel’s institutionalisation, the two would only meet once. In his youth both he and Ruth, were joined by Ruth’s wealthy parents – who moved up to Pasadena – buying a home for them all on Orange Grove. 

Jack was a smart and imaginative child. Home-schooled till the age of 12, he read voraciously. He was an especially big fan of Jules Verne, and of the new pulp fiction magazines like the Argosy All-Story Weekly and Amazing Stories. In amongst the ‘boys own adventure’ tales of cowboys, adventurers, detectives and firemen – the science fiction genre blossomed in these periodicals. Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, for one example, were launched in these magazines. Parsons became enamoured with sci fi – especially anything to do with rockets and travelling to other planets. When he finally entered the system for high school he struggled. Many of his peers found him odd, and mocked him for looking effeminate. He made at least one good, lifelong friend in this time however, Ed Forman, the mechanically minded son of an engineer. With Forman’s father’s help, the two teenagers began making their first rockets together. They were a long way from building anything powerful enough to leave the planet or power an aircraft – but it was a beginning. 

I should quickly point out that while we take rockets for granted now – a select few companies build rockets powerful enough to put astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites in space. A handful of nations have caches of deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear tips that could end the world. Any army or large militia might have an array of deadly rockets which now leave the German V2 for dead – some even have rocket seeking rockets to shoot those first rockets out of the sky. 

A jet engine is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket…In the 1920s and 30s, hardly anyone was developing rockets. 

Those who were, for the most part, were amateur enthusiasts – often, like young Parsons, hobbyists with a love of science fiction. As aforementioned on Tales, the Chinese had rudimentary rocket-like devices – fireworks which could shoot a bamboo spear at you – and the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore used war rockets in battle. In the wake of their four wars in the latter half of the 18th century, a number of European armies built and used war rockets – but the technology was discarded as they were wildly unreliable. Other artillery – such as cannons, improved with the greater choice of available materials resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Rockets had their 15 minutes of fame, and were so last century by the 1920s. 

The Congreve rocket system based on Mysorean rockets

The Russian Nikolai Kibalchich was a serious rocketeer; writing a treatise which set much of the groundwork for future rocketry – but his work would go nowhere in his time.He wrote his treatise in 1881, while awaiting execution for building the bombs used to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II. Robert Goddard was another serious rocketeer – but he was publicly mocked out of public life as a crank by the newspapers in 1918. 

Rocketry really was a brave new frontier in these days – the way clear for clever autodidacts like Parsons and Forman. 

To sum up the rest of Parsons’ teenage years – he got suspended from his high school, attended another, where he fit in much easier (now seen as a macho bad boy who left his last school after blowing up the toilets), and went on to a semester of college. His university studies were interrupted in the wake of the Stockmarket crash of 1929 – which left Parsons’ grandfather, Walter Whiteside, broke. Walter died in 1931. His part-time job at the Hercules Powder Company – where he was handling explosives and other chemicals – soon became a full time role. In the early 1930s Jack continued to work on making bigger and bigger rockets with Forman, and communicating with other rocketeers overseas – including the German VFR. The VFR, which included one Wernher Von Braun, went suspiciously silent a few years after the Nazis took power in 1933. He also met and fell in love with Helen Northrup. The couple would marry in 1935. 

To make sense of Parsons’ life, one could look at the separate elements first… and how those elements collided with one another disastrously later. For one, his professional life took off like a rocket from the mid 1930s. The California Institute of Technology would loom large. Caltech had gone from a private college with strong ties to the Universalist Church of America in the 1890s to a teaching hub staffed by, and churning out, some of the USA’s brightest minds, by Parsons’ time. They were well equipped, and a source of great expertise. They also had some notable guest speakers. In 1935 Parsons and Forman attended a public lecture at Caltech by visiting rocketeer Eugen Sanger. After the lecture they got talking to a PhD student named William Bollay, and pitched their plan to build a liquid propelled rocket. Bollay passed on their invitation to join them, but did introduce them to another student, Frank Malina, who was very interested in their plans. In 1935 Malina convinced his doctoral advisor, Theodore Von Karman, to let him construct a rocket engine for his doctorate. He would work alongside the autodidacts Parsons and Forman. 

In the following years the group would gain a lot of attention for their wild, noisy experiments on campus. After one August 1937 experiment went awry – first a chemical spill killed the lawn, then an engine backfire filled the GALCIT building with hydrogen tetroxide – causing all metal surfaces in the building to rust over night – they were sent out into the desert – the Arroyo Seco – to experiment. They also picked up the name ‘the suicide squad’. The suicide squad took on several inductees, and gained a reputation for their parties – where cannabis and alcohol was freely available. Self funded, Parsons and Malina wrote a sci fi movie script they hoped Hollywood would pick up. Hollywood paid no attention whatsoever to their film script. 

The work of the Suicide Squad, with it’s loud noises and flame belching engines got plenty of attention from the local press however. As did Parsons himself in 1938. He was called in as an expert witness in an attempted murder by car-bombing case; the victim a private investigator named Harry Raymond. The perpetrator a police officer called Earl Kynette. Click here for the post I wrote on this case last week. This case turned Jack Parsons into a respected expert overnight. His clear charisma shone a spotlight on their work. By this point they had secured some funding via the mysterious Mr Weld Arnold, and were joined by a Chinese mathematician named Qian Xuesen. 

In 1938 the Suicide Squad began making commercially viable rocket engines. They were also joined by a Jewish refugee named Sidney Weinbaum. Weinbaum introduced several members of the Suicide Squad to a secret Communist organisation. Some of the members, like Malina, joined the party. Parsons attended several meetings – ultimately deciding Communism wasn’t for him. He did find another group at around this time, who he came to view as a surrogate family. 

The Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O for short, was then an occultist organisation centred around Sex Magick, yes the K is intentional – and very important to the O.T.O apparently. Established in the early 1900s, the group was taken over and reorganised by British occultist Alesteir Crowley. Crowley deserves a Tale in his own right, and in the least will pop up from time to time in others’ tales. On Crowley’s 1913 takeover, the order took on Crowley’s tenets from his religion of Thelema.

A crude summary of Crowley’s ethics in regards Thelema follows. Their laws can be broken down to…

  1. ‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law – a call to follow one’s own path without restraint. 
  2. ‘Love is the law, love under will’ – Thelema is governed by love magick – but love is always subservient to one pursuing their ‘will’ – or true mission. 
  3. Every man and every woman is a star – in other words, if you follow your true path in life, you are like a star. Aloof from humanity. Shining brightly for all to see.    

As best as I can tell Crowley’s beliefs were highly individualistic, and eschewed many of the conventions everyday folk felt compelled to follow. Their rituals contained a lot of chanting with roots in earlier Hermetic thinkers. Much of it not too dissimilar to the Eastern traditions people like Helena Blavatsky tapped into. They believed free love and drugs could lift one above the mere mortals, reach higher levels of magick, and get one on their way to their true mission. Crowley’s teachings also made a lot of numerology, and astrology. Yes, their philosophy feels a little Ubermensch-y. There are also clear influences to be seen in later groups.. but hell, this post is already set to run into two episodes. That conversation can wait for another day. In 1915 Crowley set up the Agape Lodge in California – returning to Europe after World War One. In January 1939, Jack and Helen Parsons got an invite by John and Frances Baxter – a gay and lesbian brother, sister duo who had become good friends with the couple – to join them at the Agape Lodge. They went.

Jack was intrigued by the evening’s proceedings. The group performed Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’. Afterwards, they mingled with the cult, including their leader, Wilfred Smith. The Parsons’ regularly attended O.T.O meetings. Although thoroughly infatuated with the group and their beliefs, the couple would take a little over a year to officially join up.

A group performing the Gnostic mass

In the meantime, Jack and Helen were joined by Helen’s half-sister Sara, also known as Betty. Betty was a minor, just 17 years old, when she moved in. This becomes important later. 

Also, in the meantime – as World War Two drew closer for the USA – the Suicide Squad approached the National Academy of Sciences committee on Army Air Corp research. If war broke out in the Pacific, the Air Force would suddenly need to land and launch big, heavy bombers from short landing strips on tiny islands. This would be difficult, unless they could speed the bombers up. What they needed was a ‘Jet propulsion system’ – that’s right jet planes. The suicide squad avoided the word ‘rocket’ for fear they would be labelled cranks and dismissed. The NAS committee thought they were anything but cranks – giving them the funds to develop these jet engines. After a number of tests run with mixed success – on one test a JATO engine blew up on re-entry, launching shrapnel everywhere. There were a couple of explosions on the ground. One time their test plane caught on fire – they eventually made a working model. Having ironed out all the bugs, the Suicide Squad suddenly had thousands of jet engines to make. Caltech was neither willing nor able to set up for industrial production – the Suicide Squad, now incorporated as Aerojet, went it alone.

A defence contract would come with all kinds of oversight. For one, the Suicide Squad and all those working for them would need security clearances. This meant the defence force going over their backgrounds with a fine toothed comb. The O.T.O had come to the attention of authorities in February 1939, when Anya Sosoyeva – a young dancer who had attended an O.T.O mass, was murdered on the grounds of Los Angeles City College. The O.T.O bore no responsibility for her killing, but reporters shone a light on the ‘sex cult’ living in the middle of an everyday neighbourhood. Wilfred Smith was at least afforded airtime to explain their philosophy, and masses to the public. 

Paul Seckler’s rampage was a whole other level of bad publicity, however. Paul and Phyllis Seckler were a couple who recently joined the O.T.O, having been recruited by Regina Kahle – a longstanding member who was Phyllis’ drama teacher. Phyllis would go on to become a high ranking Thelemite. Paul, who Parsons secured employment as a security guard at Caltech – would wind up serving a jail sentence. One night in 1942 he came out of a mass – possibly on a bad high, – convinced he needed to get away from an evil spirit. He hijacked a car, at gunpoint, from a young couple – and drove round the city till he came down. The connection to Parsons – now high up in the OTO, and having found Paul a job – did come to the attention of authorities. While he was not expelled from the company, the FBI was now looking closely at Jack Parsons and his sex magick cult. 

Sorry folks this one is going to run to two episodes. We’ll conclude the Tale of Jack Parsons next time. Next episode I’ll, probably, explain the misspelling of Babylon in the title while I’m at it – Simone    

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen

Today’s tale starts with a meeting at Greenwich palace, a now demolished royal residence – the date, September 1593. The ‘fairy Queen’ of England, Elizabeth I, awaits the arrival of a rival monarch. The two queens have been at loggerheads since 1574; since Elizabeth laid claim to the other’s land. One wonders just what was going through Elizabeth’s mind, in anticipation of this meeting. It’s easy to write these two off as an odd couple, one cultured and erudite, the other a swashbuckling adventurer – a warlord from beyond the pale. But it is also very wrong to do so. Were you to judge these two ladies by their professions, they weren’t at all dissimilar. To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson – quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

Elizabeth, of course, was very much the law lord. She didn’t need to engage in piracy and war herself. Earlier, rougher ancestors had been the warlord – thuggishly climbing the crooked ladder. From child of warlords, to law-lord, Elizabeth I had no need to murder, and plunder personally – but through her edicts, a lot of blood was on her hands. Our protagonist? Well, the daughter of a warlord, she too had taken on her father’s mantle. From a wild, feudal land which required her lordship to be an enforcer at times – she had far less time for banquets, pleasantries and dressing in posh frocks while someone painted your face with Venetian ceruse. She was lord, enforcer, protector and occasionally, conqueror.

And, of course, it would turn out they had considerably more in common besides. But more on that later.

On this day Queen Elizabeth I was to meet with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught.

Grace O’Malley, aka Grainne Mhaille, was born around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – or ‘John and Margaret’. Eoghan was the lord of Umhaill, in Connaught – now County Cork – Ireland. As lord he gave protection to his locals, for which he taxed them; and earned as a privateer and occasional merchant. Much of the family’s wealth came from being men of violence.
In the West of Ireland, they were well beyond the pale – the Dublin region‘s outer border – controlled by England. In his lifetime though, Eoghan saw Elizabeth’s father – Henry VIII – take more and more Irish land – till he had enough land to crown himself King of Ireland in 1542. Grace grew up a witness to the aggressive imperialism of the English – and a few changes of monarch. Henry VIII died in 1547. His crown passed, first to his 9 year old son Edward VI, who died in 1553. From there it passed to Lady Jane Grey, a grasping cousin once removed, for nine days, before she was arrested and locked up in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. When she died of ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, the crown of both nations passed to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I


Grace’s rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. As he was the bastard son, the title was destined to pass to Grace. No doubt this suited Donal just fine. Far from a man of violence, Donal was a well liked musician who loved nothing more than a sing-along in a local tavern. Grace, on the other hand, lived for adventure. From childhood she wanted nothing more than to be a pirate like her father. Legend has it young Grace once plead to join the crew on a mercantile trip to Spain, only to be told her long hair would get caught in the ropes by Eoghan’s bemused sailors. She cut her hair off, embarrassing her father, but leaving no excuses. As it turned out, she was a natural. and from then on would regularly sail with her father, learning the art of piracy from a master.

Aged 16 Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain. They had their first child together within a year. Compare and contrast to Elizabeth: she may have found love- for one she was probably lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing factions at the court, it was politically difficult, if not outright dangerous for Elizabeth to ever marry – at least without sparking an insurrection. Grace’s marriage was, of course, political – it was intended to be a consolidation of two feudal regions as the old chieftains passed.

Grace had two sons and a daughter with Donal, and retired from swashbuckling for a while. Her life was soon thrown into chaos – however – when Donal was killed fighting the neighboring Joyce clan over a disputed castle. A distraught Grace took revenge on the Joyces, invading the castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib, and ousting the clan. In spite of Grace‘s children, or immense talent as a military leader, Donal’s titles and land were taken from her, and passed to a male cousin of Donal’s. She returned to her family with a small militia in tow, and set up a base on nearby Clare Island. Grace O’Malley returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’.



Grace’s following years were busy, and profitable. She grew her army to 200 fighters, who she put to work fighting both neighboring chieftains, and raiding towns along Scotland’s coast. She transported ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland when allied chieftains needed extra muscle in their blood feuds. Grace O’Malley was also involved in the resistance movement who were fighting further English encroachment on Irish lands. One story which makes it’s way to us – In 1565, a ship ran aground on nearby Achill Head, in a particularly wicked storm. Though the texts I read didn’t state if Grace was acting as a wrecker – having caused the wreck by leaving a horse near the rocks with a lantern around it’s neck (to fool the sailors into thinking they had entered a safe harbour) – or showed up as an opportunist – Grace was soon at the scene, looking to salvage whatever she could.
She found one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but didn’t have him long. Hugh was murdered by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took her bloody revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. Twice unlucky in love, she was at least lucky in piracy – now controlling a choke point, from which she could control all passing ships – she was soon both extremely well known; and extremely wealthy.

Another tale tells how Grace chased one rival chieftain to a small island containing just a church, and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church, Grace besieged him, threatening to stay there till he starved to death if need be. The chief dug a tunnel to safety.

In another tale, Grace was returning from a raid one night – when she moored up for a breather at the town of Howth, near Dublin. Running low on provisions and in need of water, she called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth. Finding the castle gates locked, and sent packing by the porter with the message the Earl is dining and not to be disturbed – Grace left, dejected. On her way back to her ship, she come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. Days later, the distraught Earl arrived in Connaught- willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace returned the child, not for money, but a promise the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors. When he dined he was to always keep a chair free, for any passing travellers. His descendants continue this tradition to this day.

In 1566 she remarried, to the chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – (he owned an ironworks, not for the other thing) – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued to plunder and freeboot. They soon divorced, but did have a child together – known as Toby of the Ships, as he was born while Grace was at sea. The legend states a day after giving birth, their ship was boarded by Barbary pirates. These picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by an angry, half naked lady with a musket. It was bad enough they had the audacity to attack her ship at all, but interrupt her while she was breastfeeding? The interlopers fled for their lives.

1576

Grace O’Malley’s life, and the lives of the other chieftains, took a turn for the worse in 1576. While Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542, this was largely a nominal act. At the time, he was far too busy bringing Wales, newly acquired, to heel. Henry planned to turn his attentions to Scotland next, but a costly war with France broke out in 1544. Henry put his local ambitions on the back burner, then he died. Elizabeth I allowed English expansion, into Ireland – but only made it a necessity in the wake of a threatening letter from the pope in 1570. The letter, Pope Pius V’s ‘bull Regnans in Excelsis’ excommunicated the queen, and urged her peoples to overthrow her – a Protestant – for a God-fearing Catholic. The ’Bull’ was, essentially, a call to whack the queen.

Elizabeth I started to worry a Catholic nation like Spain could capture Ireland, use the country as a base of operations, then invade England. The court discussed this as early as 1565, as war raged between Spain, and the then breakaway state of the Netherlands. Many English mercenaries were involved in the ’80 years war’. For this alone, England was on the radar of the mighty Spanish empire. Not having the cash to mount an invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth allowed takeover by mass immigration. Many arrivals were just the kind of tough guys you want to repel a Spanish Invasion, but this also meant Ireland was also overrun by a whole new class of heavies, happy to run amok and seize whatever land they wanted. In 1569 England sent military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to Connaught. The chieftains opposed his arrival – imported thugs were one thing, an occupying force allegedly there to bring troublemakers in line seemed the bigger threat by far. Fitton had a counterpart in Munster, Sir John Perot. The governors made plans to carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many chieftains resisted. The MacWilliam of Mayo (the chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam died in 1570, and much of Connaught was lost. In 1576, the chieftains all but defeated, English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting. Pledge allegiance to the crown. Pay tax to the queen. Abide by English laws. Return the Gallowglasses to Scotland. Establish an Irish contingent of soldiers, just in case Spain attacks. If the chieftains did all this, they could keep their titles, and some of your land would be returned. Anyone who kept fighting would be erased.
Grace met with Henry Sidney In 1577, and pledged her allegiance to Elizabeth. She also spent some time speaking with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. I couldn’t say what she thought of the poet, but Philip thought Grace a remarkable figure.

Almost immediately afterward, Grace broke the law, launching a raid on the Earl of Desmond, a rival chief who sold out early to the English. This raid went badly, and Grace was consequently jailed for 18 months. In 1581 both she and Richard Bourke officially pledged fealty to Elizabeth in a ceremony, and were rewarded with British titles. This may have been the end of our tale, but for the 1584 arrival of a new, and particularly sadistic governor. Sir Richard Bingham – yes the ancestor of both June’s You Choose contestant John Bingham, Lord Lucan – and the officer responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Bingham was determined to eradicate all opposition whatsoever. He saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.



Bingham first stripped Grace of her title. Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace, technically, a widow. English law stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, and executing two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage for treason. He then kidnapped her beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships. Bingham Finally had Grace arrested and charged with treason. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham allowed.

Seizing the opportunity, Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and sailed for London. She no longer had an army to fight Bingham – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. They were of a similar age. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us back to that meeting at Greenwich palace, September 1593. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we know Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- so the two queens spoke at length in Latin. We know Grace arrived dressed up to the nines in a gown worthy of a queen, She caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, and a knife was found on her ‘for her protection’. Elizabeth’s court Was horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace.

We know she convinced Elizabeth she was a loyal subject who was being terrorized by Bingham. He murdered her family, robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She convincingly argued Bingham was stopping the pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to reinstate Grace’s lands and title – and release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595. This time Elizabeth removed Bingham from his post. This was far from a happily ever after for Connaught – Bingham eventually regained his title. Things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish. Grace O’Malley, However – a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword lived to the ripe old age – for those times – of 72, and died of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

Mithridates – The Poison King of Pontus

Today we join our tale right at it’s conclusion – the year 63 BC. The setting, the kingdom of Pontus – a once powerful Black Sea empire – now a region of Eastern Turkey. Mithridates VI Eupator paces the floor – if you’ll pardon my self plagiarism – like a caged Barbary Lion. Like Hannibal, Mithridates spent decades at war with Rome. Roman imperialism was the great evil of his time – an evil which must be stopped, whatever the cost. Now admittedly, nothing regarding Mithridates is ever cut and dried. The renowned freedom fighter was also a genocidal despot. A paranoid megalomaniac, raised to believe a series of comets and other omens marked him out as a messiah. Saviour of the East. King of Kings. 

Legitimately tracing his lineage back to both Alexander the Great and Persian King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, he worshipped these men. He wanted nothing more than to emulate their conquests. 

Mithridates grew up reading of all manner of legendary figures – and not just mythical tales of Amazonians, the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus’ punishment for bringing fire to Earth – all of which allegedly happened in his back yard. He idolised real figures; like Antiochus III of Syria; Attalus, the poison king of Pergamon; Aristonicus, the rebel leader of the ‘citizens of the sun’, who  carried out a years long guerrilla war with Rome. He recalled Jugurtha, the Berber King of Numidia – who fought Rome, but was defeated and paraded in chains before thousands of jeering Romans.

Unquestionably he knew of Hannibal – who proved Rome could be beaten – but ultimately ended up in a room much like this – pacing, contemplating a poison vial – as he too, now was.  

Mithridates was no Hannibal. For one he brought this on himself. The Roman, Pompey the Great marched into Asia to finish him – but judging him, if not dead then a spent force – left to conquer the Levant. He was free and clear so long as he kept out of Rome’s way. His own people, in the city of Pantikapaion, were the ones surrounding him. Baying for his blood. They refused to send more loved ones off to die in his wars. The latest plan – to cross the Italian alps like Hannibal – was the final straw. By day’s end, his son Pharnaces would be king. 

Accompanied by his two youngest daughters, and bodyguard, Mithridates gave a sip of fast acting poison to each of the girls, then took the rest himself – and then….. Well we’ll come back to that.  

Mithridates was born 135 BC, in Sinope, a wealthy port city on the edge of the Black Sea. Legend has it his birth coincided with a particularly bright comet passing through the sky – something many augurers read as an omen the child would be a great conquerer. He received the kind of classical education reserved for the wealthy – and showed a talent for botany and languages. He was also a gifted athlete – with a love of high risk pursuits.

In his teens his father, Mithridates V, died suddenly at a state banquet. Many suspected his mother, Laodice, of poisoning the king. The newly crowned Mithridates VI worried he’d meet the same fate as his father, so he ran away into the forests. Accompanied by an entourage, he travelled the length of his kingdom, meeting all the chieftains, the movers and shakers in the land.  Many nights they slept under the stars, and hunted for their meals. They played the tourist, going to sites where Alexander, or Xenophon, or mythic heroes like Hercules did legendary things. Learning the lay of the land, and of the myriad cultures of the polyglot kingdom – he was off on the original ‘grand tour’. 

At this time he became increasingly fixated on poisons and toxins – Pontus was full of things that could kill you – beyond his mother, and the obvious – like snakes and scorpions, even the ducks and honey in parts of his land were toxic enough to put you in a coma. Fearful of dying as his father had, he began a years long quest to develop an antidote to protect him from all poisons. 

At around 23 years of age, he returned to Sinope. In his absence, Laodice made an alliance with Rome, and was living a rather sumptuous lifestyle while the people struggled under heavy Roman taxation. In this time Rome had alliances – or flat out conquered several states in the near east making them the overlords of what was then considered Asia.  The Romans heavily taxed many of these places, and with bureaucrats and soldiers, came thousands of merchants looking for profit in the east. They were an insular lot, who thought themselves superior to the locals. They brought industrial levels of slavery with them – many of the slaves former citizens of the very places these Romans settled in. Mithridates, who notoriously hated the Romans, caught the zeitgeist and swept back into power. In what started as a bloodless revolution, he took the reigns and rescinded all agreements with Rome. He dealt with his father’s alleged murderers, got rid of Roman taxes – and the people rejoiced. On the home front he married his sister – something far more acceptable those days – and had a couple of kids together. They would fall out later, after his wife, also called Laodice, tried to kill him. Mithridates ordered her execution.

In 88 BC, Mithridates masterminded an incident which altered the course of his life – and had the follow through played out differently – would have changed world history to this day in ways we can only imagine. To this day it stands as one of history’s worst terrorist attacks. For months, Mithridates plotted with dozens of near eastern leaders to attack all Romans and other Italians in the region. The attack would occur simultaneously in dozens of cities – by thousands of locals. All Italians would be massacred. How he communicated with dozens of leaders is a mystery – suggestions include envoys with the orders tattooed on the backs of their heads, hidden under hair till they arrived – and instructions written on pigs’ bladders – carefully stuck to the insides of vases. More remarkably, of the thousands involved – no-one spilled the beans to Rome.  

The Temple of Artemis

On an unspecified date in May 88 BC, thousands of people from all walks of life took up arms and turned on Rome. In Pergamon – Rome’s capital in Asia – Roman settlers fled to the Temple of Asclepius. In many cities, they fled to temples, believing the mobs would fear the wrath of the Gods. Mobs burst into the temples that day – in Pergamon executing all, up close and personal, with bows and arrows. In Ephesus, Romans took refuge in the Temple of Artemis. A similar scene played out, this time they were cut down with swords, knives, and sundry other weapons. In Adramyttion, they were forced into the sea and drowned. In Caunus, the large slave population gathered the Romans around the statue of their god Vesta, then methodically slaughtered then – starting with children, then moving to the women – then finally the men. 

In Tralles, a mercantile town, local leaders didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They hired a Paphlagonian mercenary named Theophilus, and his gang to do the hit. They rode in to town looking something like a biker gang,  herded the Romans into a temple, then painted the walls with their blood. And on it went. Genocidal acts in dozens of towns and cities, aided by local hatred for Rome. Somewhere in the order of 80,000 Romans were murdered that day. 

Initially, things looked great for Mithridates. The massacre sparked an economic depression in Italy. Rome, already fighting the ‘social war’ with several Italian states, broke into a civil war proper – as the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla made a play for dictator. The path was clear for Mithridates to take over all of Asia Minor. From there he would expel Rome from Greece. His army swept through the Turkish kingdoms of Bithynia, Phrygia, Ionia, Mysia, Lycia, Cappadocia… Many Greek city states welcomed him as a liberator, and flocked his side to help. Athens threw off the Roman yoke of oppression, led by the philosopher Athenion. Rome couldn’t retaliate – they already had too much going on. For a while Mithridates looked unstoppable. This all soon changed.    

Rhodes was the first stumbling block. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s passing, the island nation became a respected military and trading power. In 305 BC they proved their toughness after Macedonia laid siege to the island. Rhodes hung in there as the Macedonians hit them with massive siege engines, 180 foot long battering rams.. you name it. Macedonia finally gave up, abandoning weapons and siege engines. Rhodes sold the abandoned gear for scrap, making enough to construct the Statue of Liberty sized Colossus of Rhodes with the proceeds. 

When Mithridates besieged Rhodes in 88 BC, the colossus was long gone – it fell into the sea after an earthquake in the 260s BC. Rhodes’ tenacity, however, remained in spades.

 Mithridates landed in the first wave – tasked with taking out the smaller towns and setting up a base. The people of Rhodes were all safely behind the capital’s defensive walls. The towns outside the walls razed, the fields cleared. With no home base, and only the supplies brought with them, they hunkered down and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Very few of them would make it to Rhodes. First, his navy were caught in a violent storm, and several ships were lost. Next, Rhodes sent out their Admiral, Damogorus with a small but experienced fleet of much quicker biremes. They sunk several more Pontic vessels before departing. 

Next Mithridates army ruined their assault on the city. The plan was a group sent into the hills to look for the navy would light a signal fire from a hilltop, when it was time to attack. Rhodes caught wind of this and lit a fire of their own. An ill-prepared army charged early, and were mown down. Then there was the Sambuca. A Sambuca is a large ramp, usually sailed up to defensive walls on the front of a ship, then lowered onto the wall. Soldiers then run up the ramp at the enemy. Mithridates Sambuca was an unwieldy contraption with catapults at it’s base, and so big it needed two ships to carry it. It collapsed under it’s own weight, taking the ships with it. Unceremoniously defeated, Mithridates turned tail and sailed for Pontus. 

A Sambuca

This incident set the tone for much of the Mithridatic Wars. While he commanded much larger armies – leadership was poor. They trapped themselves in indefensible places. They fought like 4th century BC Greek hoplites while 1st century BC wars were best fought like Roman legions. Rome, in the meantime, regained their footing under Sulla, who funded an expedition by raiding, first Roman – then Greek temples. Greece fell to Sulla in 86 BC, following the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. A peace treaty was verbally agreed to in 85 BC, the treaty of Dardanos – Mithridates handed all his conquests back to Rome, or their original Roman puppet rulers. He gave up much of his navy to Rome, and incurred a massive fine. A second Mithridatic war soon followed. Lucius Licinius Murena, tasked with re-establishing Rome’s Asian territories started a war with Pontus in 83 BC. Mithridates was far better prepared, and this war ended inconclusively after Sulla ordered Murena out of Asia. 

Mithridates had learned a lot from the first war – but he also made a powerful ally in his new son in law – Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia. 

We’ll come to the third, and final war in a moment. Let’s talk about peace and the home front. In peace time the court of Mithridates was abundant in all things. Leading the festivities the King of Kings himself. On any given night there was a great feast. The entertainment could be anything from Greek plays, to sporting events to the hottest bands in the empire. Drinking and eating contests were frequent – ancient sources tell us no-one could out eat or out drink Mithridates. The king was in the midst of the merriment – often surrounded by his harem of beautiful women from across his kingdom. There was often a point in the evening when the feast took a darker turn. 

Some unlucky prisoner would be brought forth, and forced to drink poison. All would look on as the human guinea pig died. Mithridates would then perform his party trick. A servant would pour him a glass of the same poison – and he would gleefully imbibe. Legend has it his years of paranoia he’d meet the same end as his father bore fruit. Over years of trial and error, having poisoned a great many criminals and prisoners of war – the Kings of kings – the Poison King, had developed an antidote to most poisons. Every day the king took a vial of his ‘mithridatium’ to fend off the poisoners. Though the recipe is now lost, some people believe the Romans did get their hands on it – and several Emperors took it daily. Theriac, a Greek supposed panacea which remained popular till the 19th century may well have been mithradatium. If there is anything most people know about Mithridates it is mithridatium – the British poet A.E. Housman writing in his epic poem, A Shropshire Lad.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Now, back to the Mithridatic wars. I couldn’t hope to cover this all in detail in the confines of a 20 minute episode – but here’s the main points. One thread that runs through Mithridates wars is his belief he should be the overlord of the neighbouring kingdom of Bithynia. Mithridates was once an ally of their King Nicomedes III. They fell out. After the first Mithridatic war, Bithynia was handed back to Rome’s puppet king Nicomedes IV – who died in 74 BC – leaving Bithynia to the Romans. Rome was tied up with an uprising in Spain, led by the rogue general Quintus Sertorius. This was all Mithridates needed to march an army into Bithynia, and reclaim the land. To add to the chaos, a Thracian slave called Spartacus led an uprising in Italy itself at around the same time. As often the case, the war played well for Mithridates, till Rome could afford to give him all their attention – then it turned ugly very quickly.

Several other nations, including his allies in Armenia, were drawn into this conflict. When the war began, Mithridates was in command of an army of 300,000 soldiers. The Roman generals were far too good for his army, however – and he would conclude with a band of a few thousand guerrilla fighters – engaged in hit and run surprise attacks on Rome. Tigranes’ empire would be brought to heel by Rome, for their part in the war. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. The Roman general Lucillus had control of Pontus, then lost control in 67 BC following the Battle of Zela. Rome responded by sending in Pompey the Great – fresh from victories against Sertorius in Spain, unfairly claiming victory over Spartacus, and cleaning up the growing piracy problem in the Mediterranean. Pompey proved too much for Mithridates and soon all the poison king had was a small band of fighters (including his new partner, a real life ‘Amazonian’, a Scythian warrior named Hypsicratea) … and a tiny kingdom of the Bosphorus – in modern day Crimea.In 66 BC Pompey pursued Mithridates to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Not expecting a man now in his late 60s to be capable of crossing the Caucasus, Pompey had a handful of ships cruising the edge of the Black Sea for the group. He then took his army to the Levant, to conquer new lands. 

But survive he did. He crossed through the Scythian Keyhole, and marched into Pantikapaion. Unlike Hannibal, he could have lived the rest of his life in peace – but in 63 BC Mithridates started to plot another invasion. This time he’d assemble another army of tens of thousands of local sons, with a few Scythian and Sarmatian daughters – they would march till they reached the River Danube – then follow it down to the Italian Alps. He planned, once again, to emulate the great Hannibal. Little did he know the people would riot, and he’d be copying Hannibal in a completely different way. 

To bring our tale full circle. Mithridates is in the tower. His daughters have passed on. Mithridates, on the other hand, paces the room – in the hope an increased heart rate will speed up the poison. He paces the room, sweaty, clammy, a little woozy – but it appears impervious to whatever toxin is racing through his system – be it arsenic, hellebore, hemlock, belladonna or the toxic ducks which swam in the Black Sea. Out of options, Mithridates turned to his bodyguard, Bituitus – and begged to be put to the sword. He knew his end would be many times worse if the angry mob got a hold of him. Within days, his body would be shipped to Pompey, just to let Rome know they won.  

Sometimes a Tale concludes, and I’ve got some bit of insight, some moral. I’m not sure I really do here. Don’t mess with Imperial Rome? It goes without saying, though I think a lot of ‘barbarian’ peoples were morally right to resist – though through lack of firepower – or expertise, things were always going to end badly for them. If I had a full hour to tell this story, then maybe it’s all about omens, and not taking them too seriously (check out the ‘prelude’ I wrote to this tale a few weeks ago for an example). Maybe this is a tale of obsession, and knowing your stop loss point? Mithridates obsessive drive to be like his mightier ancestors, combined with an obsessive hatred of Rome led him to genocide, and a series of wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives. He lost everyone he loved. Obsession destroyed a great empire – only not the one he expected it to. Likewise his obsession to not die as his father did, ultimately, worked only too well.