Category Archives: Podcast Episode

The Wall Street Coup – Part One

The Wall Street Coup, Part One Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, this is part one of a two-parter. The Podcast episodes typically run between 20 – 25 minutes. I expect this one will take over an hour to tell.

This week’s tale opens on a ‘Hooverville’ – a makeshift village of the dispossessed; all in attendance hit hard by the Great Depression of 1929. The location? A swampy, muddy field in Anacostia Flats – near downtown Washington DC. It is July 17th 1932. A shantytown on a mission, this camp holds ten thousand American military veterans. They’ve gathered together, under the leadership of one Walter Waters – a former sergeant from Portland, Oregon – to demand the Government keep a promise made to them years ago. Hailing from all across the USA, many have hiked the length or breadth of the country to be here. Others have freight-hopped boxcars, like characters in a Steinbeck novel. They’re mostly veterans of the First World War. All are members of the Bonus Army. 

As fighting men, they were promised a sizeable bonus for their part in World War One – but when the bill came due in 1924, the Government deferred payment. Though the Great Depression was a few years off, the boom which preceded it was still a year away and money was tight. The veterans would have to make do with promissory notes for the amount agreed; plus compound interest – to be paid in 1945. This seemed reasonable to many at the time; but now, with one in four working Americans jobless, millions homeless – close to half the nation’s banks insolvent – that money was needed more than ever. The men of the bonus army were tough and resourceful, but were struggling – often in jobs hit hard and early by the depression. Besides, many felt they had done their bit, and then some. They made the world safe for democracy and capitalism, and in their time of greatest need, was it really too much for democracy and capitalism to come through for them, and hand over the two billion dollars collectively owed them? 

Some politicians listened. A bill was introduced, and passed through Congress to grant the men an early payout. But then President Herbert Hoover threatened if it went through, he would use his powers to veto it immediately. He didn’t need to – the Senate did the dirty work for him, killing the proposal stone dead. The Bonus Army were tired, dejected, and much in need of an inspirational leader to revive their spirits. On the podium on July 17th, one such leader; Major General Smedley Butler. 

Butler was a retired Marine Major General with one of the most impressive records in Marine history – more on that later. A soldier’s general, he spent much of his career fighting alongside the men – in 120 battles – mostly south of the border and throughout Asia. He was well known as a guy who always had the soldiers’ backs. A guy who would never ask another to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. On retirement, Butler joined the public speaking circuits, as a vocal advocate for soldiers’ rights. The Bonus Army asked him, as an ally, if he could come to Anacostia Flats and speak with the men. He gladly obliged.

 Onstage, a worked up Butler addressed the men in his gruff, booming voice that belied his small, wiry frame.

“It makes me so damn mad a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and 18.” He exclaimed, in response to media commentary the men were an unkempt rabble. “You are the best-behaved group of men in this country today. I consider it an honour to be asked to speak to you”. 

Furthermore, he called on the men to remain peaceful – the people will be on their side so long as they kept to the rules.

“Don’t make any mistake about it, you’ve got the sympathy of the American people – Now don’t you lose it!” 

He called on the Bonus army to keep it together, and continue their fight for the bonus. If they lost this battle don’t despair – they hadn’t lost the war. Recalling a recent personal experience of defeat “I ran for the Senate on a bonus ticket, and got the hell beat out of me”

Many of these men were then considering a free train ride home, a government bribe aimed at thinning out the crowd. The army would then swoop in and break up the camps. No doubt Butler knew this. knowing many who had a home to return to would take that ticket, he advised – 

“When you get home, go to the polls in November and lick the hell out of those who are against you. You know who they are… Now go to it!” 

Two weeks’ later, the army did break up the camps, sent in by General Douglas MacArthur. There was an ugly, messy, tear gas filled stoush. Cavalry officers, men with bayonets, even six tanks and machine guns were rolled out to move the unarmed protesters – many of whom had nowhere else to go at this point. Two protesters from the Bonus Army were killed. The Bonus Army continued their fight however – and in November 1932 the voting public – sick and tired of President Hoover’s callous, ineffectual management of the depression – emphatically voted for the Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first 100 days, FDR brought in a raft of policies to lift the economy out of the doldrums. Given multi-letter acronyms, some referred to his plans as ‘Alphabet Soup’. One policy – and this is very pertinent to our tale – was to uncouple paper money from the Gold Standard.

Under the gold standard all money must be backed by an equivalent sum in gold. By dumping this, moving the economy towards ‘fiat money’ – money was realigned more as a current reflection of the expected future value of the wider economy. Politicians could much more easily speculate on a brighter future under Fiat money. The term a riff of the Latin ‘Fiat Lux’, ‘Let there be light’, one could proclaim “let there be money”, and treasury could print the money needed to pay workers to literally rebuild the nation. Amid the wide-ranging public works, vast infrastructure projects kicked off – many of which paid huge future dividends. Projects like freeways, schools, city halls, wastewater plants – even the Hoover Dam – started prior to Roosevelt’s New Deal was completed on New Deal funding – owed much to FDR’s plans. People were working, paying taxes and spending. This created virtuous circles. The USA was on it’s way towards resuscitating the nation’s economy by the eve of World War Two. 

A move from the gold standard was in no small part also meant to put the brakes on rich Americans or investors in the American economy, exchanging all their paper money for gold – as is often the case in times of recession – then moving that wealth offshore for the foreseeable future. 

The downside to this plan? – it drove inflation, lowering the value of each solitary dollar. This was also a threat to anyone still wealthy enough to have millions of dollars in cash stored away. How would America’s wealthiest citizens react to this? We’ll come to that, but for now, back to Smedley Butler.

On the morning of July 1st 1933, General Butler took a phone call from an acquaintance at the American Legion – a large servicemen’s organisation that, unlike the Bonus Army, regularly took the businessman’s side. Legionnaires were often used as strike breakers in industrial actions. The call was to advise a couple of war veterans from the Legion were on their way to meet with him. Five hours later a chauffeur driven limousine pulled up outside. Two well dressed men got out. These men were Bill Doyle, commander of the Massachusetts division, and Gerald MacGuire, former commander of the Connecticut chapter and, by day, bond broker on Wall Street. Butler was wary of the Legionnaires’, but always happy to give any old soldier a hearing. He warmly welcomed the men in. 

After small talk on adventures and war wounds, the visitors got to their point. They represented a shadowy group of veterans who were tired of the Legion’s leadership. They hoped to roll them in the upcoming convention in Chicago, and needed Butler’s help. They asked Smedley to take to the stage at the convention, and call for the ouster of the ‘royal family’ – as they referred to the leadership. 

Though no fan of the ‘royal family’, Butler had no interest whatsoever in getting involved. It was none of his business who ran the legion. 

The men countered – would he at least attend as an honoured guest? Well, not an honoured guest exactly… They could sneak him in as the delegate from Hawaii? Again he demurred. The two men returned to their limo and left. 

This would be far from the last time they would meet – MacGuire especially. A month later they returned to the Butler household with a new plan. Butler could gather three hundred legionnaire friends of his, then travel to Chicago by train. The men would holler for Butler till the Royal Family had to let him speak. The men had a written speech for the general to deliver. Butler pointed out most of his friends in the legion didn’t have the money for a ticket to Chicago. The men replied they had sufficient funds to pay for that, showing Butler proof of a $100,000 operational budget. 

Butler was a man with a ferocious temper; he was a hair’s breadth from letting rip at the men. 

But he was also curious as to their endgame. Playing it cool he told the men he’d think about it. He could be interested in their scheme, but needed to know much more before he could commit himself.

Once Doyle and MacGuire left, Butler read through the speech. It demanded the legion lobby government for a return to the Gold Standard. Their reasoning? bonus payments should be backed by something far more tangible than fiat money. 

So… Who was Smedley Butler? 

Smedley Darlington Butler was born on July 30th, 1881 to a distinguished, largely pacifist Quaker family – Largely, as both grandfathers fought for the Union army in the American Civil War. His family were previously active in the fight against slavery in the underground railway network – helping runaway slaves to freedom – and when war broke out, they felt they too must play their part. They were politically active and influential – his lineage including Congressmen. His own father, Thomas Butler, was one such politician. 

As a child, Smedley dreamt of becoming a soldier. Aged 12 he joined up with the Boy’s Brigade – giving him at least some sense of military life. The Battleship USS Maine exploding in Havana Harbour on February 15th 1898 gave Smedley the reason he needed to sign up. Prior to the Maine incident, a war of independence between Cuba and their colonisers, Spain, had been in full swing for several years. The Maine was stationed in the harbour to protect American business interests in Cuba. A boiler had malfunctioned, causing a catastrophic explosion, but speculation ran rife the Spanish had blown the ship up. A large number of Americans were livid with Spain and called for a declaration of war. The politicians soon obliged. Many young men, including a sixteen year old Smedley Butler, enrolled in the armed forces to fight the Spanish. Butler signed on as a Marine. 

The USS Maine

Cutting his teeth in Cuba, he returned home in 1899. Promoted to lieutenant, he was then deployed to the Phillipines, where he led a battalion. This war was a continuation of the war with Spain, taking place on another of their colonies. Showing the kind of derring do that later became his trademark – he led an assault on the heavily armed stronghold of Noca-leta – battling through a rain of heavy gunfire to capture the enemy base. In downtime he had a massive tattoo of the Marine corps emblem tattooed onto his chest, which made him deathly ill for a time, as the tattooist had used a dirty needle. 

From the Philippines, Butler fought alongside a multi-national peacekeeping force against The Boxer Rebellion in China. America, of course, had business interests in China that needed protection – a constant of Butler’s service.  One of his first missions was to protect an American compound near Tientsin against fifty thousand Boxers. He was in charge of a considerably smaller force. At one point in the conflict he risked his own life by weaving through enemy gunfire to rescue an injured Marine private. Remarkably, the Marines broke the siege, sending the Boxers running. He was shot in the thigh by a stray bullet, while taking out the high-walled Boxer compound at Tientsin, but fought through the injury. While healing from the battle, he was promoted to captain. He went on to fight at Peking, his leg injury not yet fully healed. 

In 1902 Butler was in Panama. In 1903 a revolution erupted in Honduras, and Butler was sent in to protect America’s banana exporters. He continued to serve with distinction, and in 1908 was promoted to Major. 1909 saw him stationed in Panama, then Nicaragua, both hot spots with American business interests. In the latter mission, he protected a highly unpopular government – who had seized power – but who also had the virtue of being friendly to American businesses. 

One tale from Nicaragua – in 1912, Major Butler was sent in to liberate a captured railway line with a crew of 100 men. The train was being guarded by a much larger force. Rather than risk being outgunned, Butler turned to asymmetrical warfare – putting his own life on the line. walking towards the rebel forces with two cloth sacks in hand, he demanded the rebels hand the train over to him. He told the rebels if anyone tried to stop him taking the train, he was carrying two bags full of dynamite. Get in his way they’d all be blown to kingdom come. His bluff worked. 

He briefly rose to governor of the district of Granada In Nicaragua. This mission sat particularly uncomfortably with Butler. He knew this time, in no uncertain terms, the majority of the population detested the conservative government of Adolfo Diaz. He was becoming increasingly aware of his role – in his own words “A high class muscle man for Big Business… a racketeer, a gangster for Capitalism”. Later that year he was ordered to, and successfully carried through, the rigging of a governmental election in Diaz’ favour. 

In 1914, Butler was sent to Mexico. He served in the midst of their rebellion both as spy, carrying out reconnaissance work, and a soldier. By 1915 he was stationed in Haiti. 

Germany had economic interests in the island nation – at an unsettled time in which four regimes ruled that year alone. Washington DC worried if a revolution broke out, Germany would swoop in and establish a naval base. The marines were sent in to protect the American sphere of interest and restore order. It was coincidental American business interests – banks particularly – had money tied up in the nation? Butler was sent after the Cacos – precursors of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoute. At times the marines were outnumbered 20 to one, but Butler’s marines prevailed, battling through fields of sugar cane and taking out compounds in the middle of the night. Butler was put in charge of the Haitian police force for a time – a role he reprised in the 1920s, as the police chief of Philadelphia. By 1916, now Lieutenant Colonel Butler, he became increasingly worried of his role in other nation’s affairs – to quote Butler

“War is a racket…in which the profits are reckoned in dollars, and the losses in lives”.  

When the USA entered the First World War, Butler begged to be sent. After much lobbying he was sent, but to Camp Pontanezen, a French camp through which most American soldiers came and went. Promoted to General, for once he was not in a combat role – but he did have responsibility for some strategically important, and at the time poorly maintained real estate. Butler soon had the camp orderly, and won the respect of many of the soldiers passing through the camp. The First World War seemed futile to the seasoned warrior. He later wrote “what on earth (are) these American boys …doing getting wounded and killed and buried in France?”. 

Smedley Butler served for some time postwar. In 1927 he was stationed in China, as that nation fell apart, amid battling warlords. He was sent into Shanghai, to protect the interests of the Standard Oil Corporation. All up he saw action in eleven countries – in excess of 120 battles or armed conflicts. Back home by 1930, people were starting to question just what the marines had been doing in some of those occupations in Central and South America. Butler, near retirement, shed light on some of those activities – the 1912 interference in a Honduran election top of his list. The most awarded soldier in American history in his own time, he had quite a reputation to preserve. He was increasingly willing to tarnish that reputation, if it meant keeping future marines safe from being sent into conflict for the sole benefit of big business. By the early 1930s, Smedley Butler was a popular advocate of soldiers rights and a notable anti-war campaigner.   

In 1931, he was passed over for the top position in the Marine Corps, then slipped up at a speaking engagement. Speaking on the need to still keep a defence force, for protection against foreign invaders – he shared a story of a friend’s armoured car ride with Benito Mussolini. The two men flew through the countryside at a constant seventy miles an hour. The pace was constant as they shot through any towns or villages in their way. Coming to one settlement Mussolini’s car ran straight over a young child without even attempting to brake, much less stop to check on the victim. Horrified, Butler’s friend screamed, only to be lectured by Mussolini. The child “was only one life, and the affairs of the state could not be stopped by one life”. Smedley Butler wanted a far less interventionist military – but as long as monsters like Mussolini existed, the USA had to keep a defence force. The speech caused an international incident. Italy demanded Butler be court-martialled. He was arrested and charged with conduct unbecoming his position. The public were furious over Butler’s arrest – and the wave of anti-Mussolini sentiment was so palpable, Il Duce asked for the charges against Butler to be dropped. Butler went free.

Mussolini’s request didn’t kill the story as he hoped. Butler’s friend, the journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, confirmed the tale, adding Mussolini patted his knee immediately after, stating “Never look back, Mr Vanderbilt – Always look ahead in life”. 

Benito Mussolini

As the Great Depression bit, citizen Butler – a lifelong Republican – gave his support to the Democrat, Roosevelt. This was not just at the ballot box, but through his public speaking. In one speech he proclaimed himself “a member of the Hoover for Ex-President league” Whether Butler would have done this unprompted is mere speculation – the fact is the ‘Roosevelt Republican Organisation’, a political pressure group something akin to The Lincoln Project in Trump’s time,  approached him for support. He was happy to oblige them.

We really should rejoin Butler in 1933, as he tours the nation giving public lectures and speeches.

The Wooing Continues…

As an influential man; a man with the ear of an army’s worth of dispossessed soldiers; a man who recently took a public stand against a sitting president – Smedley Butler appeared worthy of pursuit to Gerald MacGuire and his masters. As we’ll discuss in part two, they had a particular interest in winning over an army’s worth of soldiers. Who else could they call on for that? Douglas MacArthur? He’d ordered the attack on the Bonus Army, so was persona non grata at the time. Throughout the remainder of 1933, MacGuire pursued Butler at every opportunity.

In September, while Butler was in Newark, New Jersey on a speaking engagement, MacGuire dropped by his hotel room. When Butler asked him was there really any real money behind this shadowy organisation – MacGuire threw $18,000 in notes on the bed. This was just loose change, but could get him and a gang of legionnaires to Chicago. Butler demanded he pick the money back up immediately – was he trying to get him arrested? The moment he tried to do anything with any of those thousand dollar notes, he’d leave a traceable footprint tying him to the scheme. MacGuire countered he could arrange smaller denominations. 

Moving forwards, Butler advised him, he would only speak to the backers directly. Arrangements were made for a face to face meeting in Chicago with Robert Sterling Clark, a millionaire banker and heir of a founder of the Singer sewing machine company. 

Butler knew Clark, as it happened. As a young man Clark was a Marine Lieutenant who fought alongside Butler in the Boxer campaign. The two men spoke on the phone, then met face to face, at Butler’s house. In their talk, Clark let slip the writer behind the gold standard speech was none other than John W. Davis. Davis had been a Solicitor General for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1918. After a brief stint as Ambassador to Britain, he ran as the Democratic nominee for President in1924, losing to the Republican Calvin Coolidge. As a private citizen, Davis returned to the law – defending big business interests. Though now remembered – if at all – as the guy who argued against school desegregation in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, he was then the head counsel of the mogul J.P. Morgan.

As they talked in his study, Butler challenged Clark head on – this speech had very little to do with soldiers, still unpaid, getting their bonus. It felt like another racket, another big business plot. What was his interest in all this? Clark briefly hesitated, took in a deep breath, then honestly answered. He was a wealthy man, with a $30 million fortune to think about. The movement away from the Gold Standard was driving up inflation, which would massively devalue of his fortune. Clark was convinced Roosevelt would beggar him, and was willing to spend half of his fortune to force the country back onto the Gold Standard.

But why would Roosevelt give in to pressure if a group of old soldiers started making some noise over this? Clark answered Roosevelt was a blue blood like him – He had class loyalties to people like him, and would bow to pressure given half a chance. When he did, the blue bloods would descend to offer their support, and all would be forgiven. 

Butler told Clark he wouldn’t let veterans be used to undermine democracy. He wanted no part in this scheme. Clark countered. Butler was working because he had to – all his years of service may have brought a wealth of experience, but no great financial fortune. Butler had a large mortgage still to pay. If Smedley was willing to do this, the cabal would pay his mortgage for him. 

Butler was enraged – and though he knew he should stick to the plan – just keep on collecting evidence on these people – he lost it with Clark, hollering at him to go out into the hallway. Go look at all the mementos of his long career – all on display out there. They were rewards for loyalty to his nation, and to his people. He would not risk that reputation for anything. Buddy you picked the wrong guy. 

Minutes later, Clark sheepishly returned, and asked if he could use Butler’s phone. He made a call to MacGuire to advise him go with plan B. In Chicago the Royal Family would be inundated with telegrams demanding they back a return to the gold standard. He then left. 

Days later, Butler read in the papers – they indeed had been inundated with such telegrams. He may have been excused if he thought this was the last he’d hear of the shadowy cabal… but what kind of tale would that make?  

Sorry all, this will have to be a two-parter. Readers, podcast listeners – my own slowly growing ‘bonus army’ please return in two week’s time and we’ll conclude this tale. 

Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sin Eater, Wizard of Mauritius & ‘Mr Good Day’ – Three Work Tales

The Sin-Eater, Wizard of Mauritius & Mr Good Day – Three Work Tales Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, I’m starting a new role at my day job, and seeing it is something in a whole new field, with possible homework to do – I’m putting a couple of the more content heavy tales on hold till I’ve settled in. 

I was planning on podcasting a couple of older blog posts in the meantime; starting with The Sin Eater. The episode only ran six minutes long on it’s first recording, so I figured let’s do a trilogy today – some of this tale is old, most of it is new.

Today let’s talk about the things some people did for work.  

One- The Last Sin Eater.  

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

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

When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is no-one? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. I’m a non-believer myself, and of course don’t believe Mr Munslow went to hell. I dread to think he might have believed in his avocation. Did he go to the grave terrified all of Shropshire’s collected sins would drag him to the other place when he crossed over? 

The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could make a final confession, a sin-eater was called in. As the body lay in state, a pastry would be placed upon the deceased’s chest or face. Like a crouton swimming in a bowl of soup, the pastry would soak up the deceased’s misdeeds. The sin-eater then entered, and ate the pastry – reciting 

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” 

Not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffee, a literary stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.

The service gave families solace, knowing their relative would now ascend to heaven free of their baggage. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be stuck in limbo to chain rattle – scaring others half to death on stormy, or foggy nights. 

For having scapegoated themselves, the sin-eater barely eked out a living.  

Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It paid little, and carried the heaviest of stigmas. Sin eaters regularly lived on the outskirts of the town or village, in semi-isolation. Often they made do in some abandoned, ramshackle old shed living a life scarcely better than a deceased sinner locked out of heaven. They were considered so toxic, to look a sin eater in the eye was said to bring a curse upon you. Sin Eating was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, a practitioner could face punishment similar to a witch caught practicing witchcraft. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available than other than to turn to such work.  

Though the practice all but disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who had a well-paying job, but hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, though it is something that he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from locals, and had his grave restored to something more akin a man of his heroic stature.

Two- Mr Good Day…  

There’s a belief the Chinese philosopher, and by profession politician and teacher, Confucius once wrote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. This is a misnomer. For one, it doesn’t reflect his strict views on life (the man was a stickler for a rigid social order, and expected people to even wear specific items of clothing on specific days. If you were caught wearing Wednesday’s outfit on a Tuesday, you could be in deep trouble.) For another the quote doesn’t appear in the analects. It’s a nice quote however, whoever said it first. It is also something many never achieve. Workplace research shows in our own time only 23 percent of workers are actively engaged in their day job. Half of employees, on the other hand, are likely to be actively disengaged with their role. 

Joseph Charles of Berkeley, California was a man who found great joy in a job he loved.

 

Joseph Charles

What’s more he was appreciated for his hard work. The Mayor of Berkeley honoured him on his 85th birthday. The people named a tennis court in his honour. His gloves are on display in a museum. Even Walter Cronkite interviewed the man. 

Charles came to his best loved role later in life. Born in 1910, he was professional baseball player in the segregated ‘Negro leagues’ before moving to the Bay Area in the 1940s. Mr Charles worked much of his adult life in the dockyards. 

On October 6th 1962 he began the role he became best known for. Stepping out from his weatherboard home on the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way (then Grove Street), he waved to every single motorist who drove past. As he waved he’d call out to motorists “Keep on smiling” and ‘Have a good day”. Joseph Charles took his post weekdays between 7.45 and 9.30 am, rain or shine, for the next thirty years – only retiring from the role, aged 82 in October 1992. 

Some motorists were initially suspicious of the Waving Man of Berkeley, or ‘Mr Good Day’ as some called him. Was the man some kind of communist out to spread Marxism under the guise of random kindness? Others wondered how long it would take him to cause an accident with his tom-foolery. Many, however, found him charming – and waved back, or beeped their horns. One day a man stopped to give him a pair of bright yellow gloves. These became the first pair of eighteen Charles would own in his tenure. Many of the estimated 4,500 people he waved to each day detoured just to see him in the morning. 

Most locals loved the Waving Man – one child commenting to her mother “it’s like having a blessing bestowed on us every day we drive by”. In 1992 a stranger knocked on his door, stating

“You don’t know me, but my wife and I have been having a lot of problems and we’re thinking of getting a divorce. But after driving by your house every day and seeing your positive outlook on life, we’ve decided to give it another try.”

Like any superhero, Charles became the Waving Man after suffering a loss. A Filipino neighbour he regularly waved to packed up and returned to the Philippines one day without warning. He found he missed the interaction, so he started waving to everyone. His wife Flora at first thought he’d gone mad – but after the NBC Nightly News, CBS News with Walter Cronkite, Real People and Ripley’s Believe it or Not came knocking, Flora conceded he was at least helping make a world a better place for people, one wave at a time – mad or not. 

The people of Berkeley, California were distraught at losing their famed Waving Man, aged 92, on March 13 2002. 

Three – The Wizard of Mauritius

For a period of close to half a century in my own lifetime, New Zealand had it’s own wizard. Ian Brackenbury Channell arrived on our shores in 1974, having previously served in the RAF as an airman – and Australia’s Melbourne University as an official sociology lecturer and unofficial ‘cosmologer, living work of art and shaman.’ He stood atop a ladder in Christchurch’s city square to argue a contrarian viewpoint over whatever was topical that day. He trolled Ray Comfort, a New Zealand born, American televangelist. When he was not performing a rain dance in the middle of a drought, the Wizard regularly donned his velvet robes and entertained kids on Sunday morning television.  

The Wizard of New Zealand

The Wizard was honoured as a living work of art in 1982, promoted from Wizard of Christchurch to Wizard of New Zealand by Prime Minister Mike Moore in 1990, and was granted an annual stipend for his wizardry. In 2021, Ian Brackenbury Channell was told to hang up his magic robes by Christchurch city council after stating in a television interview 

“ I love women, I forgive them all the time, I’ve never struck one yet. Never strike a woman because they bruise too easily is the first thing, and they’ll tell the neighbours and their friends … and then you’re in big trouble.” 

It was not his finest hour.  

Of course, as colourful a character as the Wizard of New Zealand was, he was an entertainer cosplaying as John Dee. The Wizard of Mauritius on the other hand – he had mysterious powers which to this day may still defy explanation.

Etienne Bottineau, a man known as the Wizard of Mauritius, was believed to have an uncanny ability to detect ships headed towards the isle de France from distances greater than any spy glass could see. What’s more he could often guess the size and type of the vessel, and if the ship was sailing alone or in a flotilla. 

Etienne Bottineau

Bottineau was born in Anjou, France some time around 1740. As a young man he became enamoured with the sea, joining the navy as an engineer. Though records of his life and alleged abilities are sketchy, we know in 1762 he claimed he could sense incoming ships before they became visible. His claim, ships “…must produce a certain effect upon the atmosphere”. This isn’t a terribly descriptive explanation – though it appeared incoming ships somehow struck him with a wave of sensations and colours – perhaps similar to the way synesthete experiences seeing musical colours from different sounds? He tried to codify this talent, and sharpen it, by privately making predictions on arrivals. The results were dismal – something he put down to far too much noise in the signal. Too many boats were constantly coming and going in French waters. 

His talents lay dormant, and functionally useless, till he was assigned to the remote East African island of Mauritius – 700 miles to the east of Madagascar. Out in the splendid isolation of the island chain – then named Isle de France by the French – he could easily sense ships as far as 700 miles away. Was that colourful sensation a French battleship headed their way, or an East Indiaman sailing for the Bay of Bengal? Bottineau claimed to know exactly which it was, while others were still asking “what ship?” He honed his talents, intending to develop a teachable method he could monetise. He named the method ‘nauscopie’. After six months on the island he had fully mastered the art, and began to show others. 

People in charge possibly either saw him as dangerous or an annoyance, and sent him off to Madagascar for several years. When he returned to Mauritius, however, attitudes had changed and the people there viewed Bottineau as a living, breathing oracle. 

In 1780 Etienne Bottineau started collecting data, in the hope of selling nauscopie to the French government. Over the space of eight months he claimed to have made sixty two predictions, correctly predicting the course of 150 ships. He kept a log of his predictions – most of which took between two and four days to confirm. He set sail for home in 1784, with his evidence and a letter from the Governor of Mauritius, Francois de Souillac which concurred the man was indeed an oracle. He wrote Bottineau ‘…sees in native signs that indicate the presence of vessels, as we assert that fire in places where we see smoke”

On his arrival he was widely regarded as a conman or a fantasist. He did have one prominent sponsor however – in all round renaissance man Jean-Paul Marat. Of course the French Revolution erupted in 1789, and his patron Marat took to writing angry invectives which influenced many towards the reign of terror that followed. In 1793 a minor aristocrat named Charlotte Corday assassinated Marat as he bathed. Initially a supporter of the Giordins’ who wanted to abolish the monarchy, Corday was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792. More than 1,100 political prisoners were murdered in a mass lynching. She blamed Marat for the massacre. 

From Jean-Louis David’s The Death of Marat.

With his patron gone, Bottineau returned to sea. His evidence was sketchy at best, and his major backer – a man partially responsible for 40,000 murders – was increasingly more hinderance than help. He spent four years in Sri Lanka, and is believed to have passed on in Pondicherry, a French colony in India, in 1802.  

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination



Glenn Miller was a trombonist, composer, band leader and late 1930s – early 40s musical icon whose work is utterly impenetrable to me. Not that I mean I can’t dissect it, and regurgitate some horrific approximation as background music (podcast listeners, much of the music this episode is stolen from Mr Miller) I mean in terms of, in the era of the swing orchestra full of heavy hitting bands led by people like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Fletcher Henderson – all bands sure to get everyone up on the dance floor – 

It was the comparatively restrained, in my opinion, polite music of The Glenn Miller Orchestra that dominated the pop charts like nobody else. 
(Edit: in the process of putting this episode together I may have subsequently fallen for his polite music. This bears mention)

Culturally I don’t possess the touchstones to judge his music in any meaningful way. I can say, however, the man was a superstar. If you are to go by the 59 top ten records he released – or the seventeen number one Billboard or Hit Parade records he dropped between 1939 and 1943, he must’ve been a constant and well-loved presence on the radio. If you go by the hollering crowds on a 1939 Carnegie Hall concert I listened to while writing this Tale, crowds most certainly did cut a rug or two to his songs. Music charts change their names, what they measure, and how they measure it over time so you may not see his name alongside Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna or Drake for that matter – but the guy was a huge star in his time – as big as anyone. He even featured in a couple of Hollywood movies.

On 7th December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The subsequent entry of the USA into World War Two changed everything for Miller. At 38 years of age, he was never going to be drafted into the armed forces, but he felt he needed to do whatever he could to help. Glenn Miller walked away from an income of between $15,000 and $20,000 a week (that’s upwards of $250,000 USD weekly in 2022) and enrolled in the army. His civilian band played their last show in Passaic, New Jersey on 27th September 1942 – before Captain (later Major) Miller left to head the then Army Air Force’s dance band. The superstar band leader was off to keep morale high among the troops, a service he carried out with distinction.

I’m leaving a lot of biography out, so the following is a quick rundown. Glen with one n is in fact his middle name – He was born Alton Glen Miller in 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. When young his family moved to Nebraska, then Missouri, then Colorado. He paid for his first trombone by milking cows after school. Upon leaving high school, Glenn moved to LA to become a professional musician. He studied music with a man called Joseph Schillinger, who had developed a structured, mathematical system of music theory that I’m told takes years for an already capable musician to master. Before his big break, he cut his teeth playing with several bands and on sessions, as well as playing in the orchestra pits for a couple of Broadway musicals. He married his high school sweetheart Helen Burger in 1928; the couple were still married in 1944, where we rejoin the Tale proper. 

We pick up the tale on 15th December 1944. The location, an airstrip in Bedford, England. Glenn is due to board a plane to Paris, France – specifically a UC-64 Norseman – a single engined,  tough little craft designed to handle even arctic conditions. Paris had been liberated by the Allies on August 24th. The war in Europe would slog on till 9th May 1945, so a large number of soldiers stationed on the continent needed entertainment on Christmas Day. 

Miller was hitching a ride by convincing a friend, an American officer named Lt Colonel Norman Baessell, to let him jump in a spare seat. The flight contained just himself, Baessell and a 22 year old pilot, Flight Officer John Morgan. The rest of the band would arrive separately on a later, scheduled plane. Around midday, though an extremely cold, foggy winter day, the call was made it would be safe enough to make the flight that afternoon. This was in spite of the fact that several other flights that day had been cancelled on both sides of the English Channel. Hours later, the Norseman took off for Paris. No one on that flight was ever seen or heard from again. 

When a superstar disappears mysteriously, theories – some mad, some not – develop. Today we’re looking at some of the many possible deaths of Glenn Miller. 

One: The Secret Agent. 

Let’s start with one of the, probably, crazier suggestions. The Norseman did in fact land in Paris that day. The band were supposed to meet up with him on the 18th but 18th December came and went with no sign of their leader. His compatriots reported him missing, but he was not acknowledged as missing till December 24th – the day before the planned Christmas concert. This was done because he was a spy on a classified mission, and someone higher up was concealing the disappearance for as long as they could. 

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

In this case, not so much spying as diplomacy. He had been secreted away to the front to meet with high ranking Nazis to discuss a peace treaty between the USA and Germany. Perhaps he said the wrong thing, or the Nazis also knew he was a spy all along, or someone just decided it was worth more to the war effort to capture the band leader than discuss peace?

What happened to him afterwards? I don’t know, maybe Hitler didn’t like his rendition of Lili Marlene, and immediately wished he’d snared Dame Vera Lynn instead? This theory usually ends with Major Miller, blindfolded, in front of a Nazi firing squad. 

Do I think this is likely? There is no evidence whatsoever that he was a spy. All manner of other plots have been revealed in the years since the war. One example, James Bond writer Ian Fleming discussed using famed occultist Aleister Crowley to ensnare deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess – a man with heavily occult leanings. Before Crowley could be put to use, Hess took off in a plane for Scotland. Completely unsanctioned by Hitler, he hoped to make peace with Churchill. Hess was arrested, then brought back to London by an agent named Brinley Newton John – the father of Australian pop star Olivia Newton John. 

Another plan which leaked years after the fact was Winston Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable – a plan which would have seen the Allies finish the Nazis, then re-arm Germany to help them defeat the USSR. I imagine this plan being unveiled to a roomful of weary politicians to a chorus of ‘Good lord, Winston – have you lost your mind?’ Had he ever tried to implement it. 

Besides this, one only has to look at the Instrument of Surrender documents the UK, USA and USSR spent the first half of 1944 writing, then fine tuning. The document was a very clear statement of exactly what the Allies needed from Germany to accept their surrender. With the USA so adamant on terms of surrender – would they really go behind their allies backs, especially this close to the end of the war in Europe?

There is no evidence – and that which can be stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.  This theory also runs contrary to good sense. 

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

On the morning of December 15th 1944 the RAF 149 squadron took to the skies on a mission to bomb the Siegen Railway yard in Germany. A dangerous task, the slower moving Lancaster bombers would be escorted by a bodyguard of smaller fighter planes on the mission. 138 Lancaster bombers took to the sky, flying towards their target. 

A Lancaster bomber

When it came time for the fighter planes to launch, it was decided the weather was too dangerous. This was a daylight bombing mission requiring precision. People would see them coming. If they could see them at a distance, the risk of being shot out of the sky increased considerably. Knowing they could take another run at the railway tomorrow, the bombers were called home. 

The Lancasters had flown out fully loaded with bombs – including many 4,000 lb blockbuster bombs – often referred to as cookies. It was extremely risky to land with these in the cargo bay. A long way from a convenient bombing range to offload their cargo, the order was to drop their payloads over the English Channel. This seemed risk free, only an idiot would be out in that weather. As one they dropped their cookies, creating one hell of a shock wave. 

In Avro Lancaster NF973, a navigator named Fred Shaw was looking into the fog beneath him when a lone UC64 Norseman appeared. Flipped upside-down, the plane suddenly took a nose-dive into the fog. Shaw did report the incident, as did two other airmen, but the RAF chose to do absolutely nothing. Really what could you do? Had a plane been hit by friendly fire there was little chance of finding survivors – especially in the middle of a war, in diabolically terrible weather that to venture out into would be putting others’ lives at risk.

Of course the weather was much improved the following day. The squadron flew back out, bombing the living daylights out of Siegen. You can buy prints online of the December 16th 1944 bombing, if you wish to see the damage a squadron full of blockbusters can do. There wasn’t much left of the site. 

Was Glenn Miller accidentally taken out by friendly fire? Possibly – although questions have been asked whether Miller’s plane could have been in this airspace at the same time. Outwardly it appears so, but a Miller family investigation suggested the Norseman would not have been in that airspace till at least 90 minutes after the bombs were offloaded. 

Three: The Brothel…

I don’t believe there is any serious evidence for the following theory, but it is often talked about – so here goes. The history of sex work in Paris would provide a wealth of material for anyone interested in the topic. In the thirteenth century King Louis IX tried to curb prostitution in the city by designating just nine streets where brothels were allowed. The crown followed his lead in allowing, but restricting the practice throughout the following centuries. By the 19th century brothels were known as ‘Maisons de Tolerance’. They were allowed to operate if ran by a female brothel owner, were discreet in the way they carried out business, and if they hung a red lantern in the window when they were open for business. This is from where the term red light district originates. When World War Two broke out, Paris alone had 117 such Maisons. 

Invading Nazis added to the number of brothels – in an extremely problematic way. Though I don’t believe this pertinent – I don’t know where else I’ll ever get a chance to share the following. In 1940, Reinhard Heydrich – easily one of the most sadistic men in history (he was the chief architect of the Holocaust) had a problem. I doubt that guy cared whatsoever for the victims if horny Nazis were raping their way through captured territory. He did, however want to ensure what still equated to rape was safe for his men. 

Three issues occupied his mind. First, if the men caught venereal diseases they might be taken off the battle field. Second, if left to their own devices with the native populations, several officers might have their heads turned by a modern day Mata Hari – some spy on a mission to seduce them. Thirdly, Heydrich in a ‘what Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter’ moment, was convinced if men were banned from sex entirely, they would all turn gay – something the party could not tolerate.  

So, a man considered a cruel, feckless monster even for a Nazi, hatched a plan to create a franchise of 500 brothels across occupied territory. Upwards of 34,000 girls and women were press ganged into sexual slavery. They were regularly tested for VD – the poor women taken away and shot if unfortunate enough to catch something. Pregnancy would be ‘treated’ the same way. The Nazis ran nineteen brothels in Paris during the war. 

I doubt it is alleged Glenn Miller was at a Nazi brothel. For one, a number of sex workers known to have slept with Nazis were kicked to death in the streets post-liberation. Others had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets in the back of wagons. 

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

But it has been alleged by some he arrived safely, then sought out the services of sex workers amongst the red light district. In the throes of passion he suffered a massive heart attack and died in the escort’s arms. Presented with this tragedy, the top military brass made the decision to hush up the incident. It was bad morale when they needed morale high. 

This claim started to circulate in English-language newspapers around 1997 after a Far-right German conspiracy theorist named Udo Ulfkotte wrote an article. He claimed he’d just stumbled across a classified US military document while writing a book on German post-war spies. As best as I can tell the alleged document itself has never been published, or verified anywhere – but a far-right grifter had a new book to sell, so any publicity is good publicity??

Beside this, what happened to Lt Colonel Baessell and Flight Officer Morgan? – Did they too drop dead of cardiac arrest at the same brothel? They are real, verifiable people who left loved ones behind. Their disappearance is an awkward spanner in the works for this theory. 

Four: Mechanical Failure

Sometimes mysteries have simple explanations. The weather was atrocious, so much so that flights were being cancelled everywhere. The Norseman was designed for this kind of weather, but, end of the day it was a single engine craft. Many aviation experts believe the answer is as simple as ice on the engine brought the craft down somewhere over the English Channel. 

Five: …….

I have one final theory to share. Do I place much trust in it? It struggles with the same issues as the spy and brothel theories – what happened to the pilot and the Lt Colonel? It is somewhat more believable by virtue of it coming from a family member. Let’s overlook the eerily prescient letter he wrote one of his two brothers on 12th December 1944 stating “barring a nosedive into the channel, I’ll be in Paris in a few days”. This could signify something, or just be one of those strange coincidences. We don’t know if it reflected something he regularly said to family when flying out – if so how can you weigh the one time he was right against the hundred he wasn’t? It does, however, lend a little weight to this final theory if taken on face value. 

Another letter, written to his younger brother Herb, did have his brother wondering if he covered up the true nature of his death for patriotic reasons. 

Glenn’s letter to Herb, written in mid 1944, stated he was having great difficulty breathing. He was feeling increasingly ill, and despite eating very well – losing a lot of weight. Others near the bandleader echoed this sentiment, particularly towards the end of his life. My eyes not being the greatest, and live photos of shows in September 1944 often being a little blurry, I think he had lost a noticeable amount of weight prior to his death. Glenn Miller was a smoker from a young age, and  some – Herb among them, have suspected he was dying of lung cancer. Their belief, he was secreted away to an Army hospital somewhere in Britain, where he was kept isolated from the other patients. For the sake of keeping up morale among the troops, he died, anonymous and alone in some hospital bed so a heroic narrative could be told to the public. 

Of course either way, had he died of cancer his family were nowhere near. The war, though months from an end was still being fiercely contested – The Battle of The Bulge kicked off in Belgium and France the day Miller was reported missing. It wasn’t terribly safe to travel to his bedside – but at least a final phone call to his family should have been possible otherwise? 

Of course, having disappeared on route to a mission – the Christmas show, he did die a hero, and was awarded a Bronze Star, posthumously. 

What happened to Alton Glen Miller, superstar band leader, trombonist, composer and war hero? Your guess is as good as mine, though I suspect the simplest answer the most likely.   

The Ghost & The Darkness

The Ghost & The Darkness Tales of History and Imagination


The human history of Kenya, were we to know it fully, would certainly be one of the longer histories out there. On the continent’s East, below the ‘Horn of Africa’, certain simian ancestors of ours, such as homo habilis and homo erectus have been found to have thrived there. Fossil records in the region show an abundance of human apes as early as two million years ago. Pre human primates were there even longer – perhaps first settling in Kenya 20 million years ago. 

As early as 300,000 years ago some species of human, possibly homo-sapien, were beginning to develop traits we think of as what differentiates us from the other animals – primarily they started to make and use tools – and possibly even traded goods with neighbouring villages. “Hey I’ve got several chunks of obsidian, wanna swap for some of those colourful pigments you’re hoarding?”

Over a long, Neolithic period, nomadic groups of humans came and went. Over time the weather changed, becoming wetter and more alluvial, and hunter-gatherers began to stay local, keep livestock and grow crops. Groups of Proto- Khoisan and Bantu tribes settled in the region. By the first century there were cities along the coast, famed in the region for their iron work. They traded with the Arabs, among others.

I mention this as far too many histories glancingly acknowledge there were native people on the land, but history truly starts when Arabs colonised the coast in the 7th Century – Or perhaps pick up from the Portuguese arrival in the 15th Century. The Portuguese almost immediately began warring with the Arabs for control of the land. Some accounts may start with tales of the explorer Vasco da Gama narrowly avoiding death at the hands of an unscrupulous Arab pilot. Those same chroniclers – my main source for this tale among them – are far less apt to tell how, in 1502 da Gama attacked The Mira – a ship laden with hundreds of Indian pilgrims on their way home from Mecca. The explorer set fire to the captured ship, immolating 300 innocent travellers. That tale is too deep a rabbit hole for today’s episode. My point however, not only is Kenya a land with a long long history, often poorly acknowledged by writers of a certain era – It is a place where, by and large, humankind thrived for millennia.  

We do need to know, however, the British Empire showed up in 1888 and laid their own dubious claim to the region. In 1890 they set about building a railway through the land via Uganda. It was this task which brought Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson to Tsavo, Kenya in March 1898. Among his tasks – the construction of a stretch of railway through dense forest – and a bridge over the Tsavo river. No-one was expecting the sudden arrival of a pair of man-eaters days after Patterson’s arrival. For the following nine months the two lions, later named The Ghost and The Darkness, would prey upon the men building the railway.

Only days after Patterson arrived, the first few imported Indian workers disappeared. Late at night, while everyone was sleeping, a sole lion crept into a tent. Seizing a sleeping man by the head, the lion would drag the man kicking and screaming into the forest, where the leonine pair chowed down on the hapless victim. Patterson – not atypical of a 19th century colonial – ignored early reports from the workers on the encroaching lions. The coolies (his wording) – well paid as they were, must have fallen foul of bandits in a nearby town. This didn’t concern Patterson. If we’re to take Patterson’s account as gospel, the terrified men were convinced the lions were vengeful spirits of departed native chiefs opposed to the construction of the railway – all fairness to the man, he was right in doubting they were demons at least. 

Three weeks after his arrival, an incident occurred that he could no longer ignore. A jemader – one of the supervisors – named Ungan Singh was seized by the throat as several other men looked on in horror. Singh attempted to fight back, but was nowhere near as powerful as the lion. The following morning Patterson, accompanied by one Captain Haslem – a guest of his – went out  to investigate. Along the way they came across several pools of blood, where the lion possibly stopped to play with his meal. When they finally came across Singh’s remains, they were greeted by a large pool of blood, scraps of flesh, several bones and the more, or less intact head of the unfortunate jemader. This, especially the terrified look on Singh’s face, shook Patterson into action. 

For many nights following, Patterson took to perching in one tree or another, a rifle and a shotgun by his side. Come hell or high water he was going to bag the lions. The Ghost and the Darkness, however, had the better of him. At the time, the men were split across several camps along the railway line. Whatever camp he was watching, the lions would attack elsewhere. Patterson would get himself settled in, only to hear a blood-curdling scream several miles down the track. Daytime excursions through the heavy undergrowth also came to nil, though a number of daylight attacks did occur. In one case, a travelling salesman narrowly escaped death when one of the lions took out his donkey – but got caught up in a rope the donkey was carrying. The rope tangled up with several oil tins. The din of the rattling tins as the lion tried to free himself spooked the lion – giving the salesman time to scramble up a tree to safety.

It would be a distraction to the tale to cover Lt Colonel Patterson’s atrocious refusal to pay the employees the sum agreed upon, or willingness to take workplace injuries for what they were in detail. He was utterly convinced the men were lying to him about their capabilities, and constantly swinging the lead. Patterson was always ordering them back to work, injured or not, for a quarter of their previously agreed wage. Workplace relations reached a low point when several men conspired to kill Patterson and leave his body for the lions. Suffice to say, intent to murder aside, he was not a swell chap to work for. Add to this the arrival of the lions was enough to send many of the men running for completely different reasons.

In an attempt to keep the workers there, and to make the workers feel safe, Patterson had circular boma – thick, thorny fences – built around the work camps. The lions were not put off at all by the fences and soon both lions took to forcing their way through the boma for a midnight snack. 

For those who remained, the following few months were terrifying. The Ghost and The Darkness prowled from camp to camp. One night they raided the hospital. All the while Patterson spent his night in the trees, a couple of guns constantly at his side. At times he tied goats to trees, even left human remains where they lay, in the hope an easy meal would entice the lions. One night he recalled staking out a deserted camp only to hear screams from the direction of the recently relocated hospital. That night the lions leapt the boma, eating an unfortunate water-carrier in front of the man’s horrified colleagues. 

This brazenness was yet another thing which could be said of these lions. If someone had a gun, and was nearby, gunfire, yelling, the clanking of anything metallic meant nothing to them. If they decided this was the spot they were going to enjoy their meal, no-one was going to disturb them. 

The aforementioned attempt to mutiny and dispose of Patterson in September 1898 finally brought a little help. Those higher up in the organisation were called in to arrest the conspirators. Following the arrest, and punishment of the mutineers the top brass were suddenly far more interested in the goings on in Tsavo. 

Patterson had, by this stage, built a cage – half of which held some poor railway worker or other as bait. The other half was a trap to contain one of the beasts. For several days the lions ignored the trap. They did burst through a boma one night, however, picked out a victim and dragged the poor man into the jungle. For weeks Patterson, now aided by several military officers, staked out several camps at once. The lions continued unabated – with increasing impunity. They had now taken to staking out the Tsavo railway station for a fresh meal. One night the railway inspector fired fifty shots at one of the lions, convinced he hit the animal. 

The following morning men went out to track the beast down. A trail was left in the sand that resembled a dragging limb – had the conductor struck the beast in the leg, causing it to limp off? To their shock the trail was left by a human arm dragged along the ground as the lion strode off, carrying a half-eaten torso. Said torso had been discarded some way down the track.

Towards the end of the year, the railway employees finally refused to go back out, going on strike till the company built them lion proof accommodation. For three weeks work came to a standstill while huts were finally constructed. The district officer, Mr Whitehead, also arrived with soldiers to help hunt down the lions. Three weeks of strike was more than enough disruption for him. On his late night arrival at Tsavo station, Whitehead nearly fell prey to a lion. He escaped with deep, long gashes down his back from one of the duo taking a swing at him. The police superintendent arrived soon after to help also. 

It would be Patterson himself who finally took down the lions. The first was shot and killed on 9th December 1898. Patterson bagged the second 20 days later – the latter requiring eleven shots to put down. At just shy of ten feet, nose to tail – both were on the large side – as the mane-less Tsavo lions often are. Lt Col. Patterson made several claims in his 1907 bestseller as to the death toll from “…no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives…” to 135 victims. Scientists examining their remains have more recently put forward a lower figure of around 35 victims of their reign of terror. 

But what caused this reign of terror? 

While the encroachment of the British into their territory to build their railway seems the most obvious answer, it ignores the fact locals lived nearby for millennia. Lions did occasionally eat a human, but generally they avoided people, and vice versa. The favoured meal of the Tsavo lions, was zebra, wildebeest or antelope. 

One possible reason they turned man-eater relates back to Mr Patterson’s hero, Vasco da Gama. When da Gama and the Portuguese took notice of this region of Africa at the tail end of the 15th Century – subsequently taking over from the Arab interlopers. They were always on the lookout for slaves to import to Brazil. Brazil was their cash cow. Local slave labour was scarce. The Conquistadors brought European diseases, like smallpox, with them. These diseases went through native populations in the Americas, wiping out up to 90 percent of the population. Needing people to enslave and quite literally work to death in the plantations and mines, they imported millions of Africans to Brazil. 

(Sidebar: I have covered some of this history in Njinga of Ndongo and Henry ‘Box’ Brown). 

When the Sultan of Oman finally got the better of Portugal, expelling them from Eastern Africa in 1698, they continued the practice of selling slaves. On the island of Zanzibar, where Sultans would reign and continue to co-exist well into British times, a slave market flourished. 40,000 to 50,000 mostly Bantu people from Central Africa were brought to the island to be sold to wealthy Egyptians, Persians, Arabs and Indians. A third of the haul stayed on the Tanzanian island to replace the slaves worked to death that year in their own plantations. Many slaves also died on their way to the market, their bodies unceremoniously dumped on the way. One place which became a regular dumping ground was the Tsavo river. 

The British allowed Zanzibar to remain a protectorate – free to govern themselves, with a handful of restrictions, throughout the 1880s and 90s. They finally cracked down on their slave trade in 1897. Did the start of the slave trade give Tsavo lions a liking for human flesh? Did the end of Zanzibar’s slave trade cut off the flow of The Ghost and The Darkness’ favoured snack, forcing them to look for an easy meal elsewhere? 

Another possibility is the lions were simply following the principle of adapt or die. 

When scientists examined the teeth of the two beasts, it was noticeable neither had taken on a larger boned animal, like a wildebeest, in quite some time. The expected wear and tear simply wasn’t showing on their chompers. One of the pair however – for the life of me I couldn’t tell you if Ghost or Darkness – had three broken incisors, a missing canine tooth and an abscess under another tooth. The man-eater would have been incapable of bringing down a wildebeest or zebra, and was likely in constant agony. Some poor, slow moving human however, was manageable. 

Patterson went on to do other things. He became a war hero in World War One, leading the Jewish Legion – five battalions of mostly Jewish soldiers, against the Ottoman Turks. He also discovered a completely new species of antelope – the eland – only after shooting one of course. He commanded a battalion of Ulster Unionists in Ireland, just prior to the First World War and saw action in the 2nd Boer War. Patterson was a prominent Zionist who argued for a Jewish state in Palestine. His final wish was to be buried in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, a fan of Patterson, facilitated this for both his and his wife’s remains in 2014. 

The Ghost and The Darkness suffered a somewhat less dignified fate. They were skinned, their hides becoming trophy rugs of Patterson until 1924, when he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum. They were taxidermied and placed on display in a diorama in 1925. You can still visit the remains of these remarkable beasts today.   

The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine Tales of History and Imagination


Trigger Warning, This Tale discusses gun violence. If an account of a mass shooting is likely to upset, it’s fine to give this one a miss. I’ll be back in a fortnight with a tale of Kenyan wildlife and other things.

This week’s Tale begins on the Boulevard du Temple; in Paris, France. The date, 28th July 1835. The Boulevard is a street many of us might feel we know, even if – like myself – you’ve never visited the City of Lights before. A man named Louis Daguerre pointed a new-fangled device out of a window in 1839, shooting down at ‘crime boulevard’ as the street was then known. In doing so he shot the first human – with a camera. The mirror image, known as a Daguerreotype, regularly makes it onto content-farm articles on early photography. Though ant-like, at least one person is discernible in the otherwise quiet street scene.

One must imagine the scene in July 1835 rather differently. The street was overflowing with soldiers in their best attire. This was the day King Louis Philippe I, a man not generally given to displays of pomp and wealth, inspected the Paris National Guard as they stood to attention. Two week’s after that more famous revolutionary date, July 14th, which commemorates the 1789  storming of Bastille prison – people were out in force to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830, which swept him into power over the rightful heir – His eleven year old 2nd cousin.     

At around midday the king was nearing 50 Boulevard du Temple with an entourage which included three of his sons and a collection of high-ranking officers. A sudden flash was seen from a third floor window, accompanied by a rain of gunfire. Tearing through the crowd, this rapid-fire burst of lead felled eighteen bystanders, badly injuring 22 more. Of the survivors, many were so badly wounded they required amputations. It’s intended target, the King, escaped with only a cut to the forehead. The assault ended just as drastically as it begun. The weapon responsible had partially backfired, injuring the assailant, who then fled the scene leaving a telltale trail of blood behind. 

The killer, a Corsican former soldier named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi – who served in the French army in Napoleon’s time. He went off to fight in Russia with the Grande Armee who had been so decimated by both weather and Russian counter attack. This must have been a truly harrowing, traumatic experience for anyone to live through. Post war, Fieschi signed up as a mercenary in the service of the former King of Naples. When an attempt to overthrow the current Neapolitan regime went badly, he fled to France as a refugee.

Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and jailed for ten years for cattle theft. Embittered, he became embroiled in revolutionary circles upon his release. With two other plotters, Fieschi built a weapon known as ‘The Infernal Machine’ for the sole purpose of killing Louis Philippe. It had twenty five barrels aligned side by side, all set on the same downward trajectory. Each was full of shot, and would fire simultaneously on a single trigger. While this sounds in effect vaguely like a machine gun – the infernal machine was a volley gun – capable of firing just the once before it needed re-loading. Volley guns could be found in use as early as the fifteenth century, but were rarely used – A cannon loaded with grapeshot could imitate a volley gun, while a volley gun couldn’t fire cannon balls. The name ‘the infernal machine’ says all you need to know, however. A year before the release of the first truly effective assault rifle, the Drayse needle gun, the world was still in the era of the blunderbuss and the musket. A gun which could kill or wound forty in the blink of an eye was absolutely hellish.   

Before we move on from this infernal machine, I should point out Fieschi was soon caught, his accomplices rounded up, and all were sent to the guillotine – another new-ish technology with a surprisingly long history of antecedents.

From one infernal machine to another.

The machine gun came about, believe it or not, with all the good intentions in the world. Richard Gatling built his Gatling gun, the first working machine gun – in the hope of saving lives. Gatling was a North Carolina native who mostly invented farming equipment. One day he read an article stating more soldiers died in war from disease than in battle. This left him aghast. He believed he could save millions of lives in the future if he could create a machine which let a few men do the work of several units. Gatling hoped this innovation would lead to less soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore less death. The Gatling gun debuted in 1862, in the midst on the extremely bloody American Civil War, where more – not less, soldiers were sent out to fight. The Gatling gun had a hand crank which powered it, so was still a way off from machine guns as we know them, but it was used to horrific effect in several wars from the 1860s till the turn of the century. It was used to gun down thousands of Zulu, Chinese, Japanese, Spaniards, Chilean, Native Americans and Filipino among others. A fully automated reloading mechanism would come along and it’s inventor, William Cantelo, would have even more blood on his hands…

Who?? You ask…

I’m being a little facetious- maybe? Let’s reset the stage. 

This tale restarts in the late 1870s. Neighbours of the Tower Inn, a Southampton pub, have wondered aloud for months the origin of an ungodly noise coming from the pub’s basement. The landlord, one William Cantelo, was a man of varied interests. The son of an Isle of Wight publican and brush maker, William studied engineering as a younger man. On arrival at the coastal town, he set up a foundry specialising in making boat propellers. He soon diversified, buying a pub. Besides his business interests he also found the time to play in the local brass band. An endless tinkerer, Cantelo set up a workshop in the tunnel beneath the pub. 

We already know what he was working on down there. Machine guns were the thing that year. Gatling invented his gun through poorly thought out humanitarian motives. A new-found drive among seven European nations to conquer and exploit the life out of Africa from around 1870, (kicking into high gear in 1885) was the main driver for many recent military innovations. The other side of that ledger, European armies had seen a marked drop in young men signing up for service after the Crimean War. This, more than anything, necessitated new methods of killing people at scale. After Gatling, Swedish inventor Thorstein Nordenfelt built a hand-cranked gun in 1873. William Gardner, an Ohio based former army captain built his Gardner Gun a year later. These weapons were a step in the right direction, but if someone could make something fully automatic – possibly loading the next bullet off the energy generated from the gun’s recoil? – that was the holy grail. 

Some time in 1880 it was said, William came up from his basement to announce he had finally solved that problem. He was the inventor of the world’s first true automatic machine gun. When some young chap faced off against a wall of angry locals waving their Assegai, Akrafena or Trumbash at them, that young man could rest assured that he had a Cantelo Gun, and they have not – as Hilaire Belloc might have said in a different future timeline. His two sons and daughter must also have been quietly overjoyed at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, free of the rat-a-tat-tat from father’s infernal machine. It’s claimed soon after, William announced to his family he was going on a well-earned holiday. Given the same sources claim his sons helped him pack his gun for travel, it’s far more likely he left on a business trip – and hoped to find a buyer for the weapon. Little did his children know, but as he set off, this was the last time they would ever see him. 

Well, the last verified time in any case. He never returned home. His children did their best to find him, but were unsuccessful. They hired a private investigator, who confirmed William sailed to the USA, but could not trace him further. Their snowy-haired, bushy-bearded father was lost to them. 

Then, in 1882 a rather remarkable man man emigrated to the United Kingdom. Born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840, Hiram Maxim was quite the up and coming engineer. He created an asthma inhaler, a mouse trap, a curling iron for one’s hair, and steam pumps. He had a disputed claim to having really invented the electric light bulb. Years later, but before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, a prototype aeroplane he was working on broke free of it’s tethers and flew – though it’s a stretch to say it was a controlled flight. In 1885, he invented the world’s first automatic machine gun – the Maxim gun. One day Cantelo’s sons were reading the morning newspaper when an article on Maxim jumped out at them. “That’s father” one said, astonished at the photo of the snowy-haired, bushy-bearded man. 

What’s more, that gun of his – that infernal machine – was the spitting image of Cantelo’s weapon. 

The young men pursued Maxim in an effort to prove his ‘true’ identity. Maxim refused to give them the time of day. This culminated in an attempted ambush at Waterloo station in 1885 when the boys rushed towards him yelling ‘father’. Maxim hurriedly boarded his train. 

There is little to no doubt Cantelo and Maxim were different people. In a world full of snowy-haired, bushy-bearded people, and few cameras, both men did have some photos to compare one another. To my eyes the men look nothing alike, though Cantelo could almost be latter-day, bearded Roger Taylor of Queen in a ‘famous people are all ageless vampires’ meme. There is copious paperwork proving Maxim existed. The man also wrote an autobiography which discusses his earlier life in detail, which led to reporters speaking with people who knew him as a young man. 

What is interesting, perhaps, is the two men almost certainly met. Maxim was in Southampton in the 1870s. He viewed Cantelo’s boat propellers. Cantelo, it was said, was concerned Maxim would steal ideas from him. Also of interest, Maxim knew one thing the Cantelo children didn’t. While he was making guns and planes in the United Kingdom, a man claiming to be Maxim was travelling the USA – trying to sell a gun suspiciously like his Maxim gun to anyone who would see him. Was this William? One tiny piece of evidence located by a web sleuth in our time suggests it could be. The man may have had prior form – A William Cantelo, also of Southampton, faced charges of attempting to pass off counterfeit promissory notes in the mid 1870s. 

So, if Cantelo wasn’t Maxim, and murdered for his gun (a possibility) did he spend the rest of his life travelling the United States perpetrating various confidence tricks? If so we may get a glimpse of what his life might have been like much later in the year when we pick up the story of several other Infernal Machines, and one of history’s most dastardly scoundrels – A mysterious man known to friends as ‘Zed Zed’. 

Spencer Perceval

Trigger Warning: The following episode discusses gun violence – particularly the assassination of a head of state. Note for the readers, I’ll get a blog only post up tomorrow – It’s Matariki in New Zealand (Maori New Year) so I have a day off to write.

Today’s tale is set in foyer of the British House of Commons. The date, 11th May 1812. Parliament was particularly quiet that day, with only around sixty MPs in attendance. All the same, a handful of merchants were milling around the foyer, waiting to be called in by those assembled. In amongst them, a slight, unassuming man in his early 40s. Our mystery man, of late a regular observer, quietly entered the foyer, taking a seat by the fireplace. 

The reason for the hearings that day, in front of a committee of 60? Well, their contemporary, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’. It can go both ways, politics becoming another front in a war just as easily. In 1806, France – then ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, slapped Britain with a trade embargo. Britain slapped back with an embargo of their own in 1807, hitting the USA while they were at it.  

By 1812, a number of merchants were loudly complaining the embargoes were costing them their livelihoods, and begged parliament to please consider them, before the lost the shirts off their backs. The house agreed to hear from a selection of affected traders and discuss the matter.

The hearings were supposed to begin at 4:30 pm, but all in sundry were waiting on one man, Spencer Perceval.

Spencer Perceval was a lawyer, who entered politics in his early 30s. A Tory he preferred the description “a friend of Mr Pitt” (William Pitt the younger). A devoted family man with 13 children, and an aversion to hunting, drinking or gambling, one imagines Mr Perceval something of an outsider among his party. He became Prime minister in 1809, and lead under trying times. The formerly ‘Mad King George’ III, it appeared again afflicted with his mystery illness. The Luddites protested the mechanisation of their former roles. The ‘Peninsula War’ against Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula ground on. Up to a million people would die before the fighting was done. If Spain were his Vietnam, his Bay of Pigs would be The Walcheran Expedition – a failed invasion of the French- controlled Netherlands. 

In an effort to aid their allies Austria, Britain landed 39,000 men on an island called Walcheran, now part of Zeeland. The Austrians had already been defeated and sent packing. The British were defeated, not by the French, but Walcheran fever – believed a mixture of two diseases (malaria and typhus). In the wake of 4,000 deaths to the disease, Britain ceded the island and left.   

Perceval was, among other issues, against granting greater rights and freedoms to British Catholics. He did, however, approve of the abolition of slavery. All in all he was an interesting guy, in charge in interesting times – and well liked in the house. 

Today, as was sometimes the case, he was running late. The sun was out, the prime minister was full of the joys of spring, and insisted on walking in to work that day. 

Back at the House of Commons, the examination had begun without the boss. James Stephen, MP for Grinstead was busy interrogating Robert Hamilton – a potter who claimed the embargo was threatening to send him to the poor house. 

At 5:15 Perceval arrived, quickening his pace towards the debating chamber. Removing his coat he glided through the lobby towards the door. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the stranger rose from his seat, drew a pistol and fired a shot straight into the prime minister’s chest. Perceval hit the floor, exclaiming “I am murdered”. The assassin was subdued and questioned – where he admitted his guilt, and told a tale of woe to the authorities. He was rather hastily tried two days’ later at the Old Bailey.

So, who was this mysterious assassin, and why kill the prime minister of Britain?

John Bellingham is something of a mysterious figure – though largely so down to poor record keeping. He is believed born in 1769, probably in Huntingdonshire, then brought up in London. He was taken on as an apprentice to a London jeweller – but by the age of 16 found himself on a ship bound for China. The ship, The Hartwell, struck trouble on this, maiden voyage. The captain came into conflict with the crew – who mutinied. Captain Edward Fiott captured the mutineers and made for the Cape Verde islands off modern day Mauritania to hand them over to authorities – but accidentally hit the desert island of Boa Vista – putting a stop to their mission. 

The crew of the Hartwell were rescued, and returned to England. 

The records are sketchy as to his whereabouts until the late 1790s. A man with the same name opened a tin factory in the mid 1790s which went bust soon afterwards. I’m personally extremely dubious that this was our guy. In 1798 Bellingham shows up as an accounts clerk working in London. Around 1800, he secured a role as an agent for an import-export business, and was sent to Arkhangelsk Russia – formerly Russia’s main trading port with Europe. His 1812 testimony states by 1804 he was a merchant in his own right, trading with the Russians. 

Whatever the path which led Bellingham to Arkhangelsk, he claims he was there in 1804, when accused of causing another merchant’s bankruptcy. Official documents put the incident two years earlier.  In 1802 a ship – more ‘coffin boat’ than sea-worthy vessel if the tale is to believed – named The Sojus wrecked while travelling from Russia to England. The ship was insured – allegedly over insured – through Lloyds of London. It was likely to have been overloaded and decrepit, and as such a win-win for the rival merchant. Get to England safely, you sell your goods, make your money and try your luck again next voyage. The ship sinks – for the low, low cost of a few hundred lives the merchant could care less about – the merchant gets their payout from the insurer. Davy Jones’ locker, more often than not, gets to keep the evidence. The merchant buys another broken down old vessel and gets to roll the dice again. 

The rise of the coffin ship in itself is a horrifying subject which widowed many sailors wives – and criminalised thousands of seamen who chose to breach contract when confronted with the hole-ridden old nag they were meant to sail on. We’ll save that for another day. 

In this case the crew survived the wreck and were rescued in their entirety. Lloyds refused to pay the merchant, and rightly or wrongly, Bellingham was accused of tipping the insurers off to the fraud.  He was ordered to recompense the rival merchant at a cost just shy of 5,000 roubles. He couldn’t pay, and served time. On release he travelled to St Petersburg, where he tried to have the governor of Arkhangelsk, General Van Brienan, impeached for having him wrongly jailed. This led to a further prison term. All up he spent six years in prison in Russia, before being released. 

Bellingham was suddenly homeless, left to beg for food on the streets of St Petersburg. He managed to successfully petition the Tsar to pay for his ticket back to England, and was repatriated in 1809. 

During his incarceration he was bankrupted by his creditors. Also during his incarceration, he reached out to the British Attorney General Lord Granville Leveson-Gower on multiple occasions to ask for help. Leveson-Gower contacted the governor of Arkhangelsk to request Bellingham be released. The governor convinced the attorney general Bellingham was guilty, so the crown left the Russians to it. 

On his return, Bellingham doggedly pursued the crown for reparations – and when that went nowhere, took to sitting in the gallery at the House of Commons with a pair of opera glasses. He was there to stalk Lord Leveson-Gower – who was the likely original target for assassination. In April 1812 he took his coat to a tailor, who he paid to make an inner pocket big enough to conceal his pistol. It’s a mystery as to why he shot Spencer Perceval instead that day, but is generally speculated he mistook the prime minister – himself a former attorney general as it turns out – for his intended target. 

Evidence was presented as to Bellingham’s insanity – for the most part in the form of his letters demanding reparations, and witnesses who claimed he told them he had a £100,000 payout coming, from which he’d buy a country estate in the west of the country. Bellingham chose to brush that away in his own defence, in the hope others would see he had a legitimate right to recompense – denied him by the authorities. On 13th May a jury of 12 men found him guilty of murder. The judge, Sir James Mansfield ordered him to hang. His body subsequently to be given to a medical school to be anatomised in front of trainee doctors. 

Curiously, some members of the public did believe John Bellingham was within his rights to murder a politician. Rene Martin-Pillet, a French author present at the execution later wrote of the mood of the crowd. Rather than the usual buzz which attended a hanging, the crowd was allegedly somber. Many in attendance felt Bellingham was the real victim, treated abysmally from his arrest in Russia, to his execution. Politicians weren’t listening to the people. This murder might just teach a few of them a little humility. 

Martin-Pillet wrote that a collection was taken for his widow, who suddenly found herself rich beyond her wildest dreams. 

John Bellingham’s skull is kept at the Pathology museum at Queen Mary University, in London. A distant relative of his, Baron Henry Bellingham, is a Tory politician who sits in the House of Lords. In 1997 Bellingham, not yet a Lord, lost his seat in the House of Commons to a Labour politician. A UKIP politician who split the right wing vote, caused the loss. The UKIP candidate was Roger Percival – a distant relative of former prime minister Spencer Perceval. In 2012 Baron Bellingham expressed shame and sorrow for the actions of his forbear in a poorly attended public ceremony, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the murder.  

 Spencer Perceval’s family were granted £50,000 in compensation by approval of both Houses of Parliament – to be paid out at £2,000 a year to his widow, Jane. 

The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event Tales of History and Imagination


“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Strange, magical things were afoot in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2nd 1859. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. Telegraph operators fired up the machine that morning. It immediately began firing sparks at them. Operators from across the USA similarly dodged electrocution by telegram. Some telegraphs did set fire to nearby objects. Urban legend has it several operators got electrical shocks and burns – though no academic sources I’ve read have ever back up this claim. If no-one was seriously injured though, it would have been a miracle.
At 31 State Street they simply unhooked the batteries. To everyone’s shock and astonishment, the telegraphs kept running as if possessed regardless. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had the same idea, and shared their disbelief with State Street.

That night people stared up at the sky in wonder. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing. The Aurora Borealis – the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes – could be seen in the tropics. As far afield as Cuba and Hawaii people took in the light show. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, were on display as far north as Santiago, Chile.
The following day the New York times reported

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”

You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time attributed it to the divine. Others guessed at scientific causes including volcanoes all over the planet expelling massive amounts of gas all at once and a meteor shower turning to a pink mush when it struck our atmosphere. While many of the day’s greatest scientists spitballed questionable ad hoc theories, an amateur astronomer in Surrey named Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what caused the phenomenon.

On the 28th August 1859 Carrington was staring up at the sun, 150 million kilometres from the Earth. The son of liquor barons, Carrington had trained in astronomy, and secured work in the field – but left, finding the role too restrictive. For five years he had studied the universe privately – in that time becoming particularly interested in solar flares. Why wouldn’t one be interested in solar flares? They are explosions of energy 1,000 times more powerful, on average, than an atomic bomb. Carrington observed several solar flares over the following days, till a particularly large one cut loose on September 1st. This caused the Coronal Mass ejection.

One should never stare directly into the sun, but were you to look at a photo of the star, the Corona is a huge ring of plasma surrounding it. This is the halo you see in a solar eclipse. It is super-heated matter (usually a basic gas like hydrogen, nitrogen or oxygen) that has become so hot it has split from it’s electrons, becoming an ionised gas. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects a wave of plasma out into the wilds of space, followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy.

Of course Earth is a tiny spheroid, a long long way from the sun. The odds of getting hit by a coronal mass ejection are extremely low – but this wave – now known as the Carrington event, did hurtle towards us. Capable of moving at staggering speeds, The Carrington Event cleared the 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. The experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time scientists unravelled enough, especially around the sun and radiation to prove Carrington’s theory correct.


(Sidebar:Kelvin had no clue radiation was even a thing for most of his career, leading to such gaffes as his theory the Earth was between 20 and 100 million years old based on his comparisons of the estimated temperature of the Earth’s core vs the cooling of a cup of tea. That unstable elements break down till they eventually stabilise into lead, giving off vast levels of energy in the meantime, was a game-changer)

The Carrington event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, the solar storm of 1859 was twice as powerful as the next most powerful CME to hit the earth.

This all begs the question, what happens if Earth is hit with a Carrington event part two? Sure it would make for some beautiful scenery. A lesser CME appears to have hit Earth in 774 AD, and though little surviving appears written about it, The Anglo Saxon Chronicles mention a ’burning cross in the sky’ at night. It was as good a reason as any for the people of Northumbria to depose their unpopular king, Alhred. There were strange lights in the sky across Europe, January 25- 26 1938. Some Roman Catholics took this as confirmation the second ’secret’ given to three young girls in Fatima, Portugal was coming true.

(Another Sidebar: We’ll have to cover ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ at some point, but suffice to say in October 1917 thousands of people in Fatima looked into the skies one day and claim to have seen something like a blockbuster movie play out across the heavens. Three young girls in attendance, who had been filling the minds of locals with stories of visitations of angels for months before ‘the miracle of the sun’ claimed angels had left them three secrets. The second secret was a second world war would happen if people didn’t stop offending God. In January 1938 one did not need a gallery of angels to predict WW2.)

Writers the world over recorded ’fire in the sky’ at night for up to three days in March 1582, in yet another solar storm. This particular one is thought to have cleared some degree of space junk out of the way between Earth and the Sun, making subsequent CMEs all the more stunning.

Of course before there was an abundance of electronic technology, a coronal mass ejection was pretty much a beautiful light show. The levels of radiation it brought were considerable, but under Earth’s atmosphere not life threatening (outside of the Earth this could be another story – A 1989 solar storm hit cosmonauts in the Mir space station, hitting them with a year’s maximum intake of solar radiation in a couple of hours.) What the Carrington Event pointed to, with the telegraph lines – played out again in Solar storms of 1872, 1882, 1903 and 1909, to name but a few – is CMEs damage electrical infrastructure. The New York Railroad Storm of May 1921 started fires in Telegraph stations, damaged phone lines and undersea cables. Electricity in peoples’ houses becoming more of a thing, many New Yorkers experienced blackouts as their fuses blew.

The 1989 storm took this up a notch, taking out The entire power grid in Quebec, Canada for nine hours. More worryingly, a smaller solar storm on May 23 1967 took out US spy satellites monitoring the Northern Hemisphere. The purpose of these satellites was to pick up rockets launched from the USSR. An attack on these satellites alone would be considered a declaration of war. While scientists tried to work out just what the hell happened, the world briefly edged towards nuclear annihilation.

But one doesn’t even need to think of nuclear war to be concerned about the possibility of Carrington Event part two. Over the years we have built massive amounts of inter-connected infrastructure which is dependent on both power and electronics. From records to monetary systems, traffic lights to communication systems. All aspects of our lives, even the personal stuff – photos and music saved in digital code to the cloud – and especially electricity – it is all vulnerable to attack from a CME

In a 2011 National Geographic article, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated if The Carrington Event hit the USA alone in 2011, it would cause 2 Trillion dollars of damage. Of course an event that large would affect most of the world. We have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies since 2011 too. One only has to think of recent disasters, the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, closer to my home – the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 – these all took years to rebuild from – multiple trillions of dollars worth of damage to infrastructure across the globe would cause catastrophic effects that could take generations to recover from.

One final thing. In 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year some people held their breath cause the Mayan calendar came to an end – That year was scarier than many of us imagine. In 2012 the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME, this one nearly as big as the solar storm of 1859.

Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Tweaked heavily 2022 for a ’From the Vaults’ episode of the podcast.

The Old Man of The Mountain

Hey all this is the third and final instalment on the Assassins. If you’re coming to this first, part one is here – part two here

The Old Man of The Mountain Tales of History and Imagination


I want to start this episode with a confession – when I say the Mongols brought our tale of the Persian Assassins to an end, in a sense they absolutely did. After the Mongols established the Ilkhanate, the Assassins ceased to be a powerful and shadowy force in the area. However the Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah survived – just quietly living their lives in the background. When Western academics arrived in Northern Persia in the 1810s they found the cult still in existence, centuries on from their last killings. In 1818 a young man named Hasan Ali Shah, who claimed ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Fatima was the sect’s leader. The Shah of Iran had recently granted him the title the Aga Khan. 

In 1838, rather unusually for Assassins at this stage, he led a failed revolt against the Shah and had to flee to Bombay, India. His story is convoluted – he gets involved on the British side of the first Anglo-Afghan war among other awful incidents. What is pertinent to this story however is while in India the Aga Khan tried to tax the Indian Ismaili – who flat out refused to pay him a rupee. They acknowledged their religion had come from his organisation, but they had long separated from the Persian Assassins, and owed him nothing. When this dispute came before the British run courts in the second half of the nineteenth century it was a shock to Western world in general the Assassins survived the Mongol hordes, and had spread so far. 

Speaking of spreading outside their boundaries – The first Ismaili missionaries crossed into Syria in Hassan-i Sabbah’s time – from the 1090s. Their experience was quite different from the Persians. 

For one, they found both a wide range of older beliefs still in existence, in the many isolated villages – this country was a potential goldmine for them. The first complication was the country was in the middle of a conflict with several armies of Turkish invaders. These Turks first come in from lands East of the Oxus river around 1064, and being very new recruits to Islam, held both very narrow and very ardent views on the religion. This marked them out as dangerous foes to the unorthodox Ismaili. By the mid 1090s the earlier, Seljuk rulers were fragmented. Their Sultan, a man named Tutush I, was killed in battle in 1095, and two of his sons formed rival states. 

The second complication was the European crusaders. The reasons the Europeans invaded are slightly more complex than my following explanation, but the major impetus was an escalation in fighting between the Byzantine Empire – the large, thriving empire in modern day Turkey which was once the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire, and the Seljuks. Both Turks and Seljuks were recent converts to Islam who arrived in the region from Transoxiana. In 1071 the Byzantines and Seljuks fought at the Battle of Manzikert. The Byzantines lost badly to the Seljuks. The far more agile Seljuk archers rode at them in waves, hitting then running till the Byzantine army wore down. One legend from this battle tells of a group in the centre of the battlefield, mostly comprised of  the elite Varangian Guard, were one of the last to fall. One bloodied, mud-caked man was captured and brought before Alp Arslan, the Seljuk leader. 

A Turkish statue of Alp Arslan

It turned out the man was Byzantine emperor Romanos IV. Alp Arslan threw the emperor to the ground, putting his boot on the man’s neck. 

“What would you do if I were brought to you as a prisoner?” He asked. 

Romanos replied he might kill the warlord, or perhaps march him through the streets of Constantinople for his subjects to jeer at.

Arslan replied his punishment would be considerably worse – he’d forgive the emperor and send him home. 

He, of course ransomed the Emperor back to the Byzantines for a crippling sum of money – you get nothing for free. When Romanos was returned, he discovered just how right Arslan was. An angry junta in the court quickly deposed Romanos, blinded him and sent him off to live the rest of his life in a monastery. 

His successor (one removed), Alexios Komnenos was spooked enough by the rapid Seljuk encroachment on their land, he wrote to the Pope to ask for help. In 1095 Pope Urban II kicked off the first of the crusades to the Holy Land. By 1097 the soldiers of the First Crusade had beaten the Seljuks at Nicaea, then swept clean through the Levant – establishing four Christian city states – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. While this led to utter disarray among various Turkic, Shi’a and Sunni groups, a large number of Syrian locals gravitated towards the Ismaili – who they saw as their best hope against the invaders.

Also quite different, the Ismaili were largely performing without a safety net until 1131. It took them close to half a century to capture a mountain fortress, and were far more vulnerable to counter-attack than their Persian counterparts. 

But oh did they assassinate. 

Take for example the 1st May 1103 killing of Janah al-Dawla, ruler of Homs. A group of assassins ambushed him while praying in the mosque. A massive brawl broke out in which several of the ruler’s bodyguards and the assassins were stabbed to death. Or the attack on the Citadel of Afamiya. At the time the fortress was occupied by a warlord named Khalaf ibn Mula’ib. One day in 1106 six men showed up at the entrance with a horse, Frankish shield and armour. They claimed they had come across a crusader knight on their travels and murdered him. They were now here to pay tribute to the warlord, to gift him these belongings. They were welcomed in. In the following days they murdered the warlord and temporarily took over the citadel. As with many attempts to hold down a fortress in these early days, they were outnumbered and eventually lost the fortress. 

Another notable assassination – In 1113 the Persians sent the emir of Mosul to Syria with an army. They were there to fight against the Crusaders. The Assassins finished the emir off with their usual efficiency. Several other murders and attempts to secure a castle continued, at one point a ruler even knocking down an old castle to stop them from taking it. In 1124 the sect were successfully expelled from Aleppo. They continued on, in the shadows. In 1126, they killed a governor of Mosul. There is a story from that particular murder that a gang of eight Assassins carried out the deed. Seven were killed on the spot – and, unusually – one escaped. Days later that Assassin returned to his home village to find his hometown celebrating the kill – and him, as a martyr. His overjoyed grandmother was suddenly ashen at his return. Sinking into a deep depression she disowned the young man. 

In 1129 the Assassins successfully knifed another vizier, this time in Damascus – but this time a militia rose up, slaughtering thousands of Syrian Ismaili in retaliation. By 1131, however, they finally got a couple of toeholds by way of fortresses in the Harim mountains. While the Assassins were not in open conflict with the Crusaders – some Muslim writers even suggested the two forces were in allegiance with one another – they did profit from Crusaders being driven out of a handful of fortresses by the Turks. As soon as no one was looking, they swooped in. They spent the next two decades consolidating their power in the mountain regions. 

While one Assassin leader did ally with a Crusader, Raymond of Antioch, there were only two assassinations from this time. A revenge attack on a Muslim leader for the massacre of 1129, and in 1151 the murder of a Crusader, Count Raymond of Tripoli. 

In 1162, Rashid al-Din, a man later known as The Old Man of the Mountain, arrived in Syria via Alamut Castle. Just a young man of around 30, he was an up and coming star in the organisation. He was the son of a wealthy family from Basra who had trained in alchemy, and had been radicalised into the sect. The Hasan who briefly convinced the Persian Ismaili the end of the world was coming, so it’s fine to pray facing away from Mecca, with a glass of wine and minstrels serenading you, sent him. Rashid was in charge when Hasan ordered the sect to renounce Islamic law. Though Syrian records are hazy, it appears he fell in line with Persia on this. 

In these years the ruler of Aleppo sent an army after the Ismaili, who withstood the attack. It is from around this time that a legend arose of a garden of earthly delights behind their fortifications – where young men are brainwashed into martyrdom. Following this attack, Rashid put a lot of time and effort into making all their fortresses unbreakable – while building new castles throughout the mountains. Rashid al-Din became such a well loved, and capable leader that Assassins were actually sent from Alamut Castle to murder him, for fear he would usurp their authority. 

In the meantime, much of the Islamic Near East was coalescing behind a Sunni Kurdish general who came to be known as Saladin. He would rise from general to Sultan of a sprawling empire which took in parts of North Africa, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Of his many victories, he led an army of 40,000 Muslims against a Crusader army of a similar size at the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Crusader army was exterminated to all but a handful of men; while Saladin’s forces lost but a handful of archers. This is to say the man was a respected leader and a more than formidable general. In a sense it was inevitable he would come into conflict with the Assassins. 

In 1181, Saladin wrote to the caliph of Mosul. He accused the caliph of underhanded behaviour in using Assassin forces against the Crusaders. His concern was not one iota for the Crusaders, but the rest of Islam as he feared the caliph was planning an attack on his empire. This was probably in truth a pretence to attack Mosul and bring the city under his sway. It also revealed a hidden animosity towards the cult. His animosity was not unfounded. 

In December 1174, while Saladin’s army was besieging the city of Aleppo, a letter was sent from the city to The Old Man of the Mountain. If they assassinated Saladin, the ruler of Aleppo would shower land and money down upon them. Soon after, a team of assassins breached Saladin’s camp and may have gotten away with the murder but for an emir who recognised the men. The Assassins struck down the emir, getting into a fight where many people, including themselves, were stabbed to death. Saladin survived the attempt on his life. Assassins tried again on 22nd May 1176. In this case a group of assassins, disguised as soldiers, got to the General – stabbing him several times. Saladin was wearing armour under his clothes and only received a handful of minor cuts. Several men were killed, however, while subduing the killers. 

These assaults unnerved the General, who made it a point of never letting someone he did not personally know, come within striking distance of him ever again. 

Saladin did lead an army against the Assassins in 1176, but had to call off the siege, due to an attack by Frankish crusaders elsewhere. After this point, for all his rhetoric, Saladin chose to tolerate the Assassins. 

There is a story which may explain this sudden tolerance. The tale has it Saladin also sent a letter to the Old Man of the Mountain, only to receive one in return. Saladin received the messenger, having him checked for knives. The messenger then stated he was to give the message to Saladin alone. The Sultan waived away most of his entourage except for two well-trusted guards, stating “Give your message”. 

“I have been ordered to deliver it only in private” the messenger insisted. 

The Sultan doubled down, stating if he wished, he should deliver Rashid al-Din’s reply, otherwise leave. 

“I regard these men as my own sons” he stated of his bodyguards. 

The messenger turned to the guards, and asked “If I ordered you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?” Both men drew their swords, replying in the affirmative. 

The messenger left, alongside the two bodyguards.   

Of course in the following years, assassinations of powerful rulers continued in Syria, especially the powers that be in Aleppo. 

And that time they killed a crusader king – The Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, mentioned in part one of this series. Two Assassins disguised themselves as Christian monks, became friendly with the Bishop, and from there the King – and just bided their time till the opportunity presented itself, on 28th April 1192. Contrary to popular legend it appears – if Saladin’s chroniclers are to go by – both Assassins were captured alive, and under questioning broke, admitting they committed the murder on behalf of England’s King Richard the Lionheart. He wanted his nephew and protege Henry II of Champagne on the throne. As it turned out he did get his way, when Henry married Conrad’s widow and took the position. Other Islamic historians have claimed at this stage Saladin was friendly with The Assassins – and that he ordered the murder. Whatever the case, the assassination cleared Conrad, the most belligerent of the crusaders, off the battlefield. This left an opening for Richard and Saladin to sign a peace treaty soon after. This treaty recognised the lands of the Assassins – henceforth not to be attacked by either side. 

And this was how the Assassins of Syria achieved respectability – at least until the Mamluks disbanded them. 

There is one final tale I wish to tell, in this rather episodic Tale of History and Imagination. 

The Kipchaks were a tribe of nomadic Steppe people, coming from somewhere close to the Mongols. In the 1220s they got on the bad side of the Mongols, then fled to Eastern Europe hoping to find sanctuary. Some rulers, like King Bela IV of Hungary, did take in Kipchaks, and faced off against the Mongol hordes as a consequence. One can imagine how those defences played out against the near unstoppable power of a Mongol army. One tribe known as the Barli fled to Bulgaria. The Mongols pursued, retrieving thousands of Kipchaks, then selling them through the Crimean slave markets. In that haul, a giant, broad-faced young man we would come to know as Baybars.   

Baybars, then around 24 years of age, passed to the household of a powerful Egyptian. In 1247, his master got on the wrong side of the Egyptian Sultan, who had the master executed. He personally confiscated all his belongings, including his gigantic slave. In 1254, this largely Steppe born slave population – Mamluks by their terminology – gained freedom when given small state. They then proceeded to overthrow the Egyptian Sultan. Baybars took on the name we known him by now – meaning Great Panther, and the leadership of the nation. Mamluks would still be in charge of Egypt in the late 1790s when Napoleon Bonaparte landed there. 

The Mamluks came into conflict with the Assassins in the 1260s, after having taken control of Syria, and done the near impossible – They defeated the Mongols in battle at Ain Jalut in September that year. The Assassins accepted their authority and began paying a cash tribute to them. Baybars decided, however, they could not be allowed their independence. He saw them as a dangerous complication in his plan to unite the Near East, and eject the Mongols and Crusaders. In 1270 he deposed the Assassin chief, Najm al-Din, putting one of his own men in charge of the sect. Of course the sect sent Assassins to kill the Sultan. in 1271 two men tried, and failed, and were arrested. Najm al Din and his son Shams al-Din were arrested and taken to Cairo where the Sultan could keep a closer eye on them. The Assassins – no longer independent – continued for some years in the service of Baybars and his successors. Several high ranking crusaders were stabbed to death by unobtrusive men, who had simply blended into their courtly surroundings – till unexpectedly, clinically, they struck. 

By the Thirteenth Century the assassinations ended, and the Assassins sect faded into obscurity. 

Hey readers, I’m taking a month to prepare the next run of episodes – we’re not likely to hit anything quite this episodic again till the end of the year – when I hope to cover one of the most wicked individuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve got a couple of well…. Odd blog posts to drop in the following month, quite frankly. Anyone up for some magic talismans and pro wrestling tales in June? 

Listeners, I’ve got a couple of ‘from the vaults’ blog posts I’ve recorded. 

In July we’ll jump into some tales – blog and podcast alike – of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, volley guns, pirates, range wars, man eaters and – well, we’ll come to those Emus. Congratulations Australia, I approve of your new Prime Minister. 

The Mongols are Coming!

Hi there this is part two of what will probably be a three part tale. If you haven’t checked out The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah first, click here. 

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination


To unravel this part of this tale, we needs must flash forward 96 years, then work back a ways. We left off in 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah, had built a fiercely autonomous state in the North of Persia. In doing so he arranged the blood-soaked murders of close to fifty high ranking Persians who called for his destruction. On his way out Hassan sued for peace in the only way he knew how – an assassin close to the Sultan stuck a dagger deep into the sultan’s floor, next to his bed while he slept. This was a reminder Hassan was in fact a friend – if the men were enemies the dagger would have been stuck elsewhere – and Hassan had eyes everywhere. A peace treaty was agreed on. We’ll return to this in a moment. 

What we need to know now is – just prior to where we pick up, another faction on the edge of the Caliphate had come to prominence. Founded in a city on the border of modern day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 1079 – and originally a vassal state – the Kwarazmian Empire had grown into one of the biggest empires in history. It’s ruling family had ascended from slavery to freedom. By the mid twelfth century their aggressive expansion began. In 1198 the Kwarazmians reached their largest extent, ruling over much of Central Asia, Northern India, Pakistan, and Persia. Their ruler, Shah Ala al-Din Takish didn’t enjoy his empire for long, however. In 1200 a mouth abscess turned septic, killing him. Legend tells on his deathbed, Takish called his son and successor, Ala al-Din Muhammad to his chamber. 

I believe it myth-making but if true, Takish’s words were rather Karmic. Takish’s, alleged, final words to his son – were to the effect of “whatever you choose to do in life, you can do little wrong. The one thing you must never, ever do – is pick a fight with the barbarian hordes to the North-East of us”. 

It took Muhammad II of Kwarazym till 1218 to allegedly ignore this alleged advice, but, oh boy – that fight he picked changed the course of history dramatically. 

The Mongols, those Steppe barbarians, were an empire on the rise by 1218. We’ll be on that topic forever if I go into too much detail. In short – For centuries the Chinese empires had the measure of the Steppe people. Recognising how dangerous they were, they paid certain tribes protection money to leave them be – while helping foster inter-tribal rivalries amongst the others. The Mongols lived far North on the Steppe, on less fertile land. They enjoyed no Chinese largesse. Compared to other tribes, they were thought poor scavengers – mostly living off whatever marmots, rats and fish they could catch, and drinking a lot of fermented milk. Some time around 1162 a child was born to the tribe. He had a rough childhood which included the tribe abandoning his family for some time, and a time he was enslaved by his father’s enemies – but the boy proved tough and resourceful -and he secured patronage from a Steppe Warlord, Torghil, the Ong Khan – of the wealthy Kereyid tribe. 

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

This young man, then known as Temujin, fought for the Ong Khan against other tribes, such as the Merkid – who once kidnapped his wife (long story, we will come back to him in detail one day), Tayichiuds, Tatars and others. He grew to become a fantastic strategist and an inspirational leader through this endless warfare – but he also tired of it’s pointlessness. Through warcraft and diplomacy he put an end to the wars. By 1206 Temujin was rebranded Genghis Khan (pron. Chingis) – King of the Mongols. When, in 1218, he sent a peaceful trading envoy to Muhammad II of Kwarazym, he ran a prosperous empire – which controlled the Chinese Western Xia and Jin Dynasties, as well as the Qara Khitai – whose sprawling kingdom took in modern day Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek territory.

The records suggest the great Khan had no intent other than to trade with a powerful neighbour. Muhammad was convinced, however, that the trade delegation were spies – sent to reconnoiter his kingdom for a Mongol invasion. Muhammad ordered the envoys arrested, stole their goods, then disfigured the merchants’ faces. When news reached Genghis of their arrest, he sent a political envoy of three men to Kwarazym to de-fuse the situation. Muhammad had these men executed. At news of this insult, Genghis was apoplectic. He prepared his army for war. 

In March 1220, Muhammad II braced for what he thought was the entirety of Genghis’ army, coming via the roads one expected them to tread. Little did he realise he was watching the B team. Genghis was already within striking distance of the oasis city of Bukhara. He’d marched several thousand men for two thousand miles through the Kyzyl Kum desert – a vast, inhospitable hell-scape frequented by a handful of nomads, several Russian tortoise, and far too many six foot long monitor lizards. No one believed an army could survive in this desert, so no-one was looking out for them. 

The Bukharans must have been comforted a little by the fact they were inside a well stocked, well fortified city. Steppe barbarians, however deadly in battle, never carried siege engines. It is true Genghis and his men arrived with very little – they even lived off the meagre pickings of the desert so as not to be slowed down by a supply train. The Mongols took their time, however. They set up camp. They cut down a small forest to construct siege engines, ladders, trebuchets and catapults. They gave the people an ultimatum – open the city gates to us and we will treat you favourably. Fight and we will show you no mercy. 

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

Well, at least they made a half- hearted effort to. After three days of raining hellfire and thunder upon the city, the bulk of the 20,000 defenders attempted to flee – though one source I read claimed they charged towards, not away from, the Mongols. Whatever the case they were butchered. The mongols then stormed the city. 

A large contingent of soldiers who didn’t charge or flee their attackers had set up in the citadel at the heart of the city. They managed to hold their attackers at bay for two weeks before Mongol siege engines broke them. 

The 280 wealthiest men in the city were rounded up and ordered to show Genghis’ men where they buried their treasure. The pillage, and eventual burning of the city began. Genghis, a man who was never known before to have actually entered a city (in his many battles, once won he’d leave it to his generals to handle the looting and burning), did enter Bukhara. He had a message for the survivors. 

“O People, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

The punishment of God was upon the Caliphate, as city after city fell. Those who surrendered were made vassals of the Mongol empire. Those who put up a fight were wiped from the face of the earth. Muhammad II of Kwarazym fled to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of pleurisy weeks after his arrival. 

We’ll come to what this meant for the Assassins in a moment. Now back to where we left off. 

Bukhara would remain under Mongol rule till the 1920s, pictured the Emir of Bukhara Muhammad Alim Khan.

Peace was short-lived for the Ismaili. The Sultan Hassan-i Sabbah had so terrified died in 1126. His replacement, Sultan Sanjar, immediately sent an army into Assassin territory with orders to kill all Ismaili they came across. The Sultan was not particularly anti-Assassin, but he had a Vizier, Mu’in al-Din Kashi, who particularly detested them. The invasion failed in its ultimate objective, but did lead to the massacre of two villages – Tarz and Turaythith. The Assassins took revenge the way they best knew. 

On March 16, 1127, the Vizier called on two of his most trusted servants. The Sultan’s birthday was coming up and he needed to know which two of his prized horses should he gift him? The servants were, you guessed it, Assassins – who proceeded to murder the living daylights out of Mu’in al-Din Kashi. By 1129, the Ismaili actually gaining territory, Mahmud – the Sultan of Isfahan – called for peace. Regional rulers passed on leading to power vacuums in the regions surrounding the Ismaili – itself leading to civil conflicts among the Sunni. In 1139 the Caliph of Baghdad, himself embroiled in the war, was captured by a Sultan named Mas’ud. Moving his captive to the city of Maragha, it appears the Sultan had every intention of keeping the Caliph alive. No-one expected a group of Assassins would be capable of entering the compound and stabbing the Caliph to death. They were. They did, publicly celebrating the hit for a week afterwards. 

As a rule however, there were fewer assassinations under Hassan’s successor, Kiya Buzurgummid, who would have preferred a peaceful existence. He passed in 1138, passing the mantle to his son Muhammad. Muhammad’s reign saw just 14 assassinations, including another Caliph. Of interest, a Sultan named Da’ud, murdered in 1143. His death, it was claimed, was on behalf of the ruler of Mosul. It was also curious the killing was carried out, not by Persian assassins, but by Syrians. Under father, then son the Assassins were more concerned with governance of their own people. They also took to sending out missionaries to Syria, Georgia, and modern day Afghanistan. 

Waves of violence against the Ismaili continued from time to time however. In Rayy, the governor, a man named Abbas, launched a massacre of Ismaili in the city, afterwards proudly exhibiting a tower of skulls from the dead. Abbas was murdered by Sultan Mas’ud of the Caliph debacle before the assassins could come for him. For all this violence, the Persian Ismaili largely resisted the urge to assassinate. For a while they became a little boring, and respectable. 

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

Early on the heir-apparent made waves. He publicly preached the Assassins needed a return to the revolutionary ways of his namesake, gathering a small army of followers. Hasan was something of a Millenarian – he believed when the Millennium came, the messiah would return and reinstate the faithful in paradise. Muhammad, concerned these new extremists would undo all his hard work, had 250 of his son’s followers arrested and put to death as heretics. Muhammad passed in 1162, ushering in Hasan’s era. 

For two years Hasan behaved himself, then in the middle of Ramadan in 1164 he announced the Millennium was upon them. From now on they would pray with their backs to Mecca. He announced to his people end times were coming, the ‘hidden Imam’ had spoken to him and advised the Holy Law no longer applied to them. If you wish to break the fast, do so. Want a glass of wine? Go for it. Want a glass of wine while in prayer, and a band of musicians playing in the background to break the silence? Why not? They are the righteous, they are saved from sin. All those old rules no longer applied. 

If there were ever a time Assassins ate pork, as Christian monks reporting from Armenia – another place to be visited by Ismaili missionaries at this time – this might just be it. Hasan reinvented himself as a modern-day Imam and a messiah-like figure. To drive home his message everyone must enjoy their newfound freedom, he executed numerous Ismaili who were perfectly happy with the old ways. You better damn well be free – the boss commands it of you seemed the mood of the day. The party lasted till 9th January 1166, when Hasan’s brother-in-law, in true Assassin style, stabbed the Imam to death. The next leader, Muhammad II was altogether less controversial. 

He saw the rise of the  Kwarazym. A handful of assassinations happened in his time. Orthodoxy restored itself among the Ismaili. Muhammad died in 1210, passing the mantle to his son Jalal al-Din Hasan. Jalal was far more orthodox than any other Ismaili ruler – they were all Muslims and he wished to leave cultish practices and mountain fortresses behind him. He sent secret messages to the Caliph of Baghdad asking how he could bring the Ismaili back into the fold? His reign saw a return towards orthodoxy, and the burning of many of their more heretical texts. This did not mean the assassinations stopped – The Persian Assassins became a part of the machine, now killing on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. 

Soon word reached Persia of this new, unstoppable force in the East – Barbarian Animists who believed God WAS the eternal blue sky – the Tengri in their language. Jalal al-Din Hasan was the first Muslim leader to reach out to the Mongols – proposing they too could be friends. Jalal passed soon after, in 1221 – passing the leadership to his nine year old son Ala al-Din Muhammad. During his reign the Assassins picked up land lost by the rapidly crumbling Kwarazmian Empire, and sent missionaries off to India. Ala’s behaviour, in turns cruel and eccentric, or depressed and heavily intoxicated – led to his assassination in 1255. At this point others worried his erratic behaviour was drawing bad attention from the Mongols – and no-one wanted the ‘punishment of God’ banging at the fortress door. His son Rukn al-Din took over. 

Which leads us to the Assassin’s inevitable conflict with the Mongols. 

Back to the Mongol invasion. Under Genghis, the Mongol army conquered wherever they went. They methodically took over all the major Central Asian cities – Samarkand, Balkh, Marv and Nishapur all ceded to them sooner or later. Genghis also controlled East Persia by the time of his passing in 1227. Everything went on hold for a few years, as often happened when a Khan died. Leaders would return to Mongolia to mourn, then call a meeting – a Khuriltai – to decide a new leader. Genghis’ son Ogedei ascended to the position and ordered the invasion to continue in 1230. In 1238 what was left of the Kwarazmian empire, alongside the Assassins, sent out envoys as far afield as China and England begging for assistance. By 1240 most of Persia was under Mongol control, and the Great Khan turned towards Georgia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. 

Dying Khans slowed Mongol progress yet again. When Ogedei passed in 1241, Eastern Europe, Korea and the Assassins must have all breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sudden cessation of war. The following decades saw a few starts and stops. In 1246 the Assassins sent an envoy to the coronation of Ogedei’s son Guyuk – they were not warmly received. 

In 1253 The Great Khan was Genghis’ grandson Mongke. He gave orders to his brother Hulegu to capture the Near East as far as Egypt. Their first port of call was the Assassins. In Ala al-Din’s declining years, he chose to fight them – but on his passing, Rukn al-Din was quick to capitulate to the Mongol war machine.  But this wasn’t where his story ended. The Assassins were spread over dozens of mountain fortresses. Expert warriors as the Mongols now were, they knew some of these fortress required a year or longer to overthrow, a great deal of effort, and many lives. No one besides the Imam had really called it a day. Rukn al-Din was suddenly taken in as a valued employee of the Great Khan. His job, to visit every last mountain fortress and convince them to surrender. His reward, he and his family would be kept safe, in the lap of luxury – for now – 

and around 30 camels. 

I feel silly mentioning the camels, but its mentioned in every book on the Mongols I’ve read over the last decade or so – and two books I read on the Ismaili for this post. The Mongols must have presumed the Imam wanted them for breeding purposes – but it seems nothing brought more joy to his life than to watch two male camels in a knock em down, drag em out street fight. To each their own I guess…

Rukn al-Din was taken from castle to castle, convincing most to surrender. Between the camel fighting and capitulations he found time to marry a Mongol woman. As a few castles held out, the Imam’s value to the Khan came under question. Two fortresses, Lamasar and Girdkuh held out for a while. No longer of use, Rukn al-Din was murdered on his way back to Persia from the Great Khan. A small resistance movement hung around till the 1270s, at one point even re-taking Alamut castle, but the Assassins Cult was all but over in Persia. 

They, of course survived – thrived even – in Syria. They even found themselves in places as far afield as India. We’ll look at those Tales in two weeks’ time for the final part – The Old Man of the Mountain.