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The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident

Content Warning: Discussion of rape occurs in this tale.

The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident Tales of History and Imagination

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been quite the roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The comic icon had only just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control over his own movies. 

His humble beginnings nine years ago had to seem a lifetime ago. He first signed up to Keystone Studios for $3 a day, around half the wage of an average, unionised man at the time. Rewind further, to Roscoe’s 12 year old self – things were considerably more dire. Sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father after his mother suddenly passed on; he found his dad had already moved on to the next town. Stuck at a hotel in a strange town, the youngster took any work he could. This included singing for his keep, before dear old dad showed up to collect him a year later. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the rise for the young comic. 

Of course, he put in the long hours in order to make that big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest film, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend the actor-director Fred Fishback booked a couple of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, to celebrate. Plans were afoot for a much needed, absolutely booze-soaked getaway. Back to that roller coaster; fate almost intervened just days before – when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag, while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering from second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off the getaway – but was enticed to go by Fishback. Fishback even bought his friend a rubber donut cushion to make sitting more bearable.

So the actor and his entourage arrived at the St. Francis, September 5th 1921. More could be said about his penchant for wild nights out, or his marriage to the actress Minta Durfee – the couple long separated but continuing to keep up appearances – but we should pause for a moment to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was just 11 years old. Subsequently brought up by her grandparents, Rappe moved out to pursue a career as a model at the age of 16. For some time she was extremely successful in the modelling world, becoming something akin to a supermodel. 

Rappe was also an entrepreneur and influencer with her own clothing line – and an advocate for women’s rights. Her fame granting her a platform, she often shared her views women need not be confined to the typing pool, cooking or cleaning if they were, or chose to be, working people. She was also a vocal advocate for people dressing to suit themselves. 

Virginia moved to Los Angeles in 1917, in the hope of finding work in the movies. She found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. For a while, Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – even if most of it was bit parts. When the couple separated in 1921, work dried up. She was in a rut when her friend Al Semnacher suggested she needed to be seen out and about more. If you catch the attention of the right people, those people will remember why the loved you. Before you knew it, the work would be flowing in again.

Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel over the long weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, a friend of Arbuckle’s noticed Rappe – and sent a message to Arbuckle’s pyjama party the model and sometime actress was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back – tell them drop by the Hotel St Francis. Though initially reluctant, Rappe showed up alone around midday. Clearly her kind of scene, she messaged Maude and Al to come join her. Al declined, but the two ladies joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s pyjama party.
A good time was had by all – At least till the day took a turn for the worse.  

Much of what happened is disputed; was actually vigorously disputed in several courtrooms after the fact. The following will get a little icky, trigger warning – we are about to discuss rape.

let’s jump into this tale.  

Around 3pm, the party was in full swing in room 1221. With the weight of several gin orange blossoms weighing heavy on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men from the party. She yelled at Virginia to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Feeling like she might literally burst, Rappe crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Roscoe Arbuckle got up and – whether intentionally or incidentally we don’t know – followed her over. Once in his room, he locked the bedroom door behind him.
From here the accounts diverge. 

Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together in the room for around 30 minutes, before Rappe screamed out in great pain. Her screams were loud and disturbed enough to bring the party guests in room 1221 – Maude included – running to investigate. Several witnesses would initially claim she screamed “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle called out to Maude “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her when witnesses entered the room. She bore several bruises. All this, surprisingly, would later be open to interpretation. 

Roscoe’s side of the story was he’d gone back to his room to change out of his pyjamas. When he got there, he found Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. He claims he helped her up and placed her on bed to get some rest. Arbuckle claimed all of a sudden Rappe came to. She began screaming, and tore her own clothes off in a mad frenzy. He then called for Maude. Arbuckle claimed he was only trying to be a good host, and when Virginia went mad, he didn’t know what to do. 

Virginia’s side, as you shall see, is much harder to parse.

Maude Delmont took Virginia to another room – where she fell into a deep sleep. Virginia awoke around midnight in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter, then left. The doctor was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with her. A little rest would fix her up. Dissatisfied with the first doctor – Maude called on a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. In the following days, Virginia only got worse. She was in constant, writhing agony – and not showing any sign of improvement. It took three days for anyone to take her to a hospital.

Admitted to Wakefield Sanitarium on 7th September; Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. By 9th September, her kidneys packed in and Virginia passed away. 

In the meantime, Roscoe Arbuckle jumped a boat headed back towards Los Angeles. Having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis, the pyjama party snuck away the following day. He never enquired about Virginia’s health, and only learned of her death when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion asking questions about the long weekend. They were far from the only ones looking to speak with him.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent police officers to Los Angeles to arrest Roscoe Arbuckle. From the offset he refused to comply with the investigators. Arbuckle was arrested and charged with Virginia’s rape and murder. 

Before the case even made it to a courtroom, the court of opinion weighed in on the case. Protests sprang up outside cinemas showing Crazy to Marry. A riot broke out at one show in Wyoming. A group of cowboys shot the screen full of holes once Arbuckle entered the scene. The press were also vicious towards Roscoe Arbuckle – William Randolph Hearst’s papers especially.

Hearst had his own selfish reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Besides personal reasons to stick it to Paramount, Hearst knew well the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. He’d later claim the Arbuckle story sold better than the sinking of the Lusitania. While none of the ‘bottle party’ rumours – yes that means what you imagine it means – preceded the trial; much was made of Arbuckle’s wild orgies and flagrant disregard for the alcohol ban. Tales emerged claiming Arbuckle sexually abused other actresses on Keystone film sets. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be lynched before the trial even began. District Attorney Brady himself was calling for the death penalty for the actor.

As with Olive Thomas’ passing, the Arbuckle case shone a spotlight on Hollywood. As Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed Arbuckle up as ‘a vulgarian from the gutter,’ and stories continued to emerge of Arbuckle and his friends behaving badly – people asked who else was having boozy getaways behind closed doors, and wild orgies? This was still in the prohibition era after all. Paramount head Adolph Zukor, hoping to avoid the opening of a pandora’s box, fired Arbuckle a fortnight later and washed his hands of him. 

While fair to say Roscoe Arbuckle certainly appears a churlish, uncaring vulgarian; was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

The short answer, there was much less evidence than you may think – and disturbingly – by the end of the trials any such evidence would become a moot point. A rumour persisted that doctors were paid to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs – destroying any evidence against Arbuckle. However this was untrue – Rappe’s body was put through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no evidence of a sexual assault. Others asked if Arbuckle might have accidentally killed Rappe by putting his 265 Lb weight directly on her bladder. Again, there was no evidence of this.

But Arbuckle tore her clothes off right? The police almost didn’t have the evidence of this. While questioning the party guests, San Francisco police discovered Virginia’s friend, Al Semnacher, had the clothes in question in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them as he was always looking for rags to clean his car with. Most writers presume he intended to extort Arbuckle, or Paramount studio with the rags – but the police investigation stymied his scheme.

The trial kicked off on November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would face manslaughter charges, rather than murder. This was serious enough, so Arbuckle hired a dream team of top lawyers, much like OJ Simpson would decades later.

The trial was shambolic. In their investigation, the police spoke with a number of partygoers who freely admitted to hearing Virginia screaming in pain. A few witnesses even claimed to hear her say ‘he hurt me,’ in relation to Arbuckle and ‘I am dying.’ When these people were called to give evidence, many of them had come down with a case of amnesia.

Maude Delmont, arguably Virginia’s only friend at the party, was never called to testify. Maude had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours, which brought the acuity of her evidence into question. She was also awaiting her own day in court, facing bigamy charges. The prosecution felt if this was revealed, all her credibility would have gone out the window immediately. Al Semnacher, however did give evidence. His evidence laid the framework for Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger’s claim Arbuckle had a ‘Bottle Party’ at Rappe’s expense. Semnacher testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was out cold on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – well he kind of did. Semnacher, it appears was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’ out loud – so he wrote the word on a piece of paper.  

The prosecution also brought forth a security guard who worked at Keystone studios while Arbuckle was there. The guard claimed Arbuckle was constantly trying to sneak into the ladies’ changing rooms. They also made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door at the Hotel St Francis.
The defence called on a nurse from Wakefield Sanitarium, who testified Rappe told her she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. A second nurse claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form when it came to tearing her own clothes off at parties while intoxicated. Virginia Rappe, when autopsied was noted to have several bruises on her – what say the defence? They explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she wore that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited into his toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, picked her up, placing her back on his bed to recover. 

After some deliberation, the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour – which was recorded as a hung jury. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, with the jury unable to come to a unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot potentially damning evidence – it seemed a wave of amnesia had settled over Hollywood at this time. However, one apparently solid witness was brought in. He was another studio security guard, who claimed Arbuckle paid him a lot of money for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This was hardly the smoking gun you’d think it would be. The defence revealed this same man was awaiting his own day in court – for sexually assaulting an eight year old child. More witnesses were found who could testify to seeing a drunken Virginia Rappe tearing her own clothes off at parties.

The jury eventually came in 10 – 2 again – but this time in favour of conviction. 

With two hung juries, the district attorney went for a third, and final try on 13th March 1922. This trial mostly played like the first two – forgetful, and untrustworthy witnesses and all. This time there was one big difference. The defence dream team went all in, trying to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman. The mores of that time – and sadly another celebrity trial in April 2022 suggests plenty of people still hold similar views if an accused abuser is sufficiently charismatic – all but stated a woman lacking in virtue could not be considered rape-able. Essentially, how could you damage someone already broken beyond repair? The defence played on her alleged bladder problems, claiming it was proof she was a loose woman. They claimed that by the age of 30, the allegedly promiscuous Rappe had gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour the public were well and truly convinced Arbuckle was a creep by this time. His films were banned in a number of cinemas. Maude Delmont was travelling the country fronting a wildly successful public speaking tour. She spoke volubly on the evils of the Hollywood film industry. The media continued to pile in too. By the time the third trial came along, the public had read seven solid months worth of exposes on wild Hollywood orgies, the extramarital love lives of their stars, and of course – of a certain murder. But Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s dream team were absolutely on point this time. By thoroughly branding Virginia Rappe a slut, it didn’t matter terribly to the jury what kind of person Arbuckle might have been, or what he may have done. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

All the same, whether a just finding or not – it would not resuscitate Arbuckle’s career. In spite of a number of high profile supporters backing him, he never worked in front of the camera again. Arbuckle found a little work treading the boards in Vaudeville. He was eventually allowed back behind the camera – so long as his work was credited to a Will B. Goodrich. Prior to the trial he was long separated from his wife, Minta Durfee. The couple had never split both for religious and good PR reasons – but following the media uncovering Arbuckle’s every indiscretion – Minta saw no reason to stay, and divorced the comic. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle seemed broken in his final years, and shuffled on till he died suddenly of a heart attack aged 46.

The public perception of Hollywood was much changed for many also, in the wake of the trial. It lifted the curtain, revealing lives which were starkly different to the studio spin. This gave power to those anti drink wowsers who had gotten alcohol banned, and who had been eyeing Hollywood up ever since. 

Other cases would arise. In 1923 Wallace Reid, a popular romantic lead would die while being weened off morphine in a hospital. Reid had injured himself in a crash a few years earlier, and become addicted to the stuff. The 1926 death of Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino would be shrouded in controversy. An exceptionally pretty man well loved by female moviegoers, he was accused of causing the feminisation of the American male. Some mocked him with homophobic slurs, commented on his jewellery and alleged he wore make up in public. Valentino’s open challenges to several of these commentators to meet him in the boxing ring went unanswered. Following his passing, rumours spread he was a beard for his lesbian wife, and that he himself had been having an affair with fellow Latin lover Ramon Navarro. Navarro, it turns out was gay, and his outing just outside of the scope of this tale ended his career as an actor.
And none of this is mentioning the elaborate show Polish actress Pola Negri put on at Valentino’s funeral.

In 1922, Audrey Munson, a former model turned actress attempted to commit suicide – it should be pointed out after a former landlord killed his wife in 1919 so he could be with Munson – who was none the wiser of his intent. But she was bundled in with all the others. Then in 1926, the pioneering film producer Thomas Ince died in mysterious circumstances while on a boat with, among others, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. Decades later it would be claimed, wrongly I believe, he was accidentally shot when he got between Chaplin and Hearst – but at the time it was just another odd story in the press.

Then there was the baffling case of William Desmond Taylor. His story was the unravelling of Hollywood – and we’ll tackle it in a fortnight’s time, to bring this series to an end.


Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

Olive Thomas: The Poisoned Chalice Tales of History and Imagination

Trigger Warning: This episode deals with premature death (I know, not unusual in this blog)… and sexually transmitted infections (somewhat more unusual in this blog).

Situated northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and covering around 80 square kilometres, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple planned to set up a ranch on the land, but soon found they had no aptitude for ranching. Their plan B; to build a community based around their moral outlook.

Harvey was heavily religious, and a prohibitionist -so determined Hollywood would become a Christian settlement; free of the temptations of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. He died in 1891, only four years into the establishment of Tinseltown. Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took the reins following her husband’s passing. She picked up approximately where Harvey left off, announcing free land to anyone who set up a church in Hollywood. All denominations were welcome.

Daeida was devoutly religious, like Harvey – but at thirty years his junior – she had a very different view on what it meant to be God fearing. she wanted to make Hollywood a place of beauty. She dreamt of a cultured town, where cultured people mingled at the theatre. The kind of place where young lovers might meet at a barn dance. The kind of a place where those young lovers might want to find work marry, settle down, and bring up their own families. One early settler to this upscale neighbourhood, H.J. Whitley, was instrumental in helping Daeida build Hollywood. In 1902, Whitley brought a bank to Tinseltown.
Whitley secured electricity, and a post office. With Daeida, he set up a hotel, a market, and Hollywood Boulevard.

Daeida passed on in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios arrived in Tinseltown, but nearly a decade before the famous Hollywoodland sign went up. The people of Hollywood honoured her, in death, as the ‘Mother of Hollywood.’ 

The first Hollywood movie scene was shot in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs filmed most of the ‘five act play’, The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago. Disruptions in shooting led to a relocation to Hollywood to finish the silent film. The first film shot there entirely was ‘In Old California’, a 1910 Western directed by D.W. Griffith. More productions followed in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies were operating in Hollywood.

A large number of sunny days each year meant more filming days than back east. It also made for great light to film in. Add a diverse landscape and a rapidly growing population to draw from (California was a rising agricultural and industrial area – full of people looking for work,) and Tinseltown was the ideal place to shoot a movie. 

The late nineteen-teens, up to the Great Depression was a time when people could afford nice things, including distractions from their everyday lives. An emergent film industry focussed on narrative-driven film making, filling a need for escapism for many Americans. This was a boom time for movie makers. But one could imagine the ghost of Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave – figuratively speaking. A booming industry flush with cash, and full of talented, young, well-paid people – rumours soon got out about how decadent Hollywood had become.

And of course sober, religious wowsers – people much like Harvey Wilcox – continued to exist. They were riding high on their recent victory against the demon drink. In 1919, the Government passed the 18th Amendment, banning the recreational use of alcohol. The amendment got teeth soon after, with the passing of the Volstead Act, 28th October 1919.
These killjoys had a new target in their sites – those decadent, and dare I say it – as antisemitism was part of the reason they were targeted – often Jewish, film makers out in Hollywood.

By 1930, the industry would voluntarily bind itself to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known.

Will Hays, a former postmaster general briefly associated with the incredibly corrupt presidency of Warren Harding in the early 1920s, was put in charge. For decades this would have a detrimental effect on the movie industry, and long-lasting effects on society as a whole – conservative values making it past the censor far easier than progressive values. Two examples – under Hays code America, miscegenation – couples of differing ethnicities – were barred. A lack of representation normalising mixed-race relationships made it easier for racist lawmakers to continue to enforce real world miscegenation laws. The rule also made for ridiculous situations on film now seen, rightly, as offensive.
Take Anna May Wong. America’s greatest Chinese-American actor was passed over for a role in the 1935 blockbuster The Good Earth – a film about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese family – because MGM had already cast the white Paul Muni in the male lead. They would rather have both leads in ‘yellow face,’ than break miscegenation laws by casting a real Chinese and fake Chinese actor opposite one another. German-American actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of the housewife O-Lan – something Anna May never really got over.

The LGBTQI+ community were also relegated to characters whose essential nature could only be alluded to in a coded way. Under Hays’ code they were often sinners, baddies or lunatics – and as such had to be punished by the end of the film…

This was a far cry from, for example, Wings – the 1927 film which won the first Oscar for best picture. The film’s protagonists are two male pilots who vie for the love of the same woman – but who slowly come to realise they really love one another. The film reaches a climax after Dave, one of the pilots in gravely injured. Unrequited lover Jack rushes to his side, and the two share their true feelings for one another – then, a passionate kiss – before Dave passes of his injuries.
The ‘bury your gays’ trope would continue under the Hays Code of course – but love in it’s great diversity would be left on the cutting room floor for decades.

How did Hollywood find itself in such an awful, and restrictive state? There were a series of high profile scandals that made moral policing seem unavoidable.

Over the next three episodes, Tales of History and Imagination goes Hollywood, as we delve into three of those scandals.

As we need to start somewhere, let’s begin in the early hours of September 6th 1920. The location, Paris legendary Hotel Ritz – popular amongst the rich and famous for it’s luxuriousness – including being among the first hotels anywhere to have electric lights, telephones in all the rooms and – pertinent to our tale – an en-suite bathroom in every suite.

Among the guests that evening, Hollywood actors Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford. The night before the couple took in Paris’ vivid nightlife. The couple imbibed freely, and one presumes partied hard well into the morning. They returned to their suite, the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. As the couple had a flight booked for London that morning, Jack went straight to bed. Olive, was not yet ready to turn in, and took a seat to jot down letter to her mother in the USA. She wrote until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and fumbled through the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed Olive shrieked “Oh My God!” Before collapsing as if struck dead. What would unfold would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal. Sadly, it also proved an early example of how well tragedy sells. But before we jump into that I really should introduce the cast.  


First, our heroine. Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. When she was aged 12 Olive was sent to live with her grandparents, after her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, finding work selling gingham in a department store. In April 1911 she married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, but by the age of 18 she left Bernard – having moved to New York in search of fame and fortune. She made her first big break in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive the beauty queen parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. She took work as an artist’s model – featuring in a number of magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) that was modelled on Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She caught the eye of the impresario, and soon they were an item.

By all accounts she was no great dancer, but Olive was extremely good looking – people commented particularly about her violet-blue eyes, which I can only imagine as similar in colour to Elizabeth Taylor’s. She was also dating the guy in charge – so her profile within the troupe grew, until she caught the attention of the movie people. By 1916, Olive Thomas was cast in small roles in films. In 1917 she caught the eye of Triangle Pictures film producer and innovator Thomas Ince
(an aside but Ince is a man you may know of now for the strange manner of his own death. Before he passed he had largely defined most of the roles in film making and was an early adopter of the modern film set.)
Olive signed up a six year contract with Triangle Pictures in 1917, and quickly became popular with the film going public for her innocent, girl next door characters.

Not meaning to cast shade on Ms Thomas, but real life was anything but girl next door. In truth she was far more interesting than all that. In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as much of an A lister as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, Mary was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d go on to win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types, though nowhere near as famous as his sister.

Olive and Jack secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were both heavy partiers. Jack especially was a very heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from monogamous. There was a buzz around those in the know in Hollywood he’d contracted syphilis from one one night stand or another while partying. This earned him the nickname ‘Mr Syphilis’ among his friends. There wouldn’t be an effective cure for syphilis till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943, so Mr Syphilis would only have had treatments like mercury bi-chloride ointments to fall back on. This effectively meant burning off syphilis sores as they arose, slowing the illness. I should mention mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat syphilis in the mid 16th Century by the Swiss Polymath Paracelsus – is also highly poisonous. 

Post-elopement, Olive continued her career. She was popular, though never an A-lister. She had a string of moderately successful films with Triangle, before leaving for Selznick Pictures in 1919. Early in 1920 she played the lead in The Flapper – a film which lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s – though her own role was not terribly flapper-ish.

She was signed up to an eight picture a year deal with Selznick, and it appears something may have happened there in the lead up to her French holiday. I’ve yet to come across a detailed explanation, and any explanation by myself would be guesswork – but by time Olive and Jack set sail in August 1920, Olive had been removed from Selznick’s payroll.
Jack continued to party hard following their marriage – but nearly brought himself to disrepute in a different way entirely in 1918. As the First World War ground towards a conclusion, Jack – a Canadian born Canadian citizen – volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to war. A number of sons of wealthy Americans – some of whom were drinking buddies – had been signing up for the Navy – as they had a high ranking connection who would ensure they were not sent to war – and accept a hefty bribe in return.
Jack was among those caught, named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal indictment – but his own image, and the good name of the Pickfords was tarnished because of this. 

He continued to work sporadically, picking up one or two roles a year following the scandal.

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with some more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So, back to The Ritz, September 6th 1920. Olive has collapsed in the en-suite – a bottle of poison lays on the floor beside her. Jack calls for a doctor, and proceeds to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding gullet, hoping she will vomit the dangerous substance from her body. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (the mercury bi-chloride usually came in tablet form) thinking she’d grabbed a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a painkiller or sleeping pill down with what she thought was a glass of drinking water – instead imbibing a glass of Jack’s diluted medicine. Mary Pickford, trying to avoid further damage to brand Pickford, later claimed an errant maid must’ve left poison behind after cleaning the bathroom. A doctor arrived, and pumped Olive’s stomach three times. She would not be taken to hospital till five hours after she collapsed. At this stage it was too little, too late. Olive Thomas died of her injuries 10th September 1920.  

Concerned Olive’s death would damage their own reputation, the Pickfords sprang into damage control mode. The day Olive passed, Mary’s recently divorced ex husband Owen Moore fronted up to press. He claimed Olive had been extremely unwell for some time – and died of natural causes. No specific details of her alleged sickness were shared with the press, but the family’s wish for privacy to mourn their loss most definitely was. 

Unsurprisingly, this only urged the press on to muck rake for whatever they could find. Whether true or otherwise – stories emerged of Olive’s last night of Parisian debauchery.
Did Olive and Jack go to a nice restaurant, and from there out dancing – or were they hanging out in shadowy opium dens?
Did they go sightseeing, or were they hanging out with career criminals at fight clubs – where they bet on female bare knuckle boxers – as men bit the heads off live rats? Did Olive drink bootleg rocket-fuel that night, that contained toxic levels of ethanol? This line of the couple hitting seedy clubs run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper put it, dominated a number of newspapers. One can imagine the pearl clutching back in the USA – sure that Pickford kid is a bad-un… but Olive Thomas? She was the ‘girl next door’ right?

And then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding. An American former army captain named Spalding was sentenced to six months’ prison at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? He was caught smuggling cocaine into France. Rumours abounded of this Captain Spalding organising cocaine-fuelled orgies for wealthy Americans in Paris. A rumour did the rounds Spalding had a little black book of clients and Olive’s details were in it. If this Captain Spalding did in fact know Olive, he was unlikely to have had anything to do with her death – A newspaper article ran on the man on the day of Olive’s death covering his capture and trial – ongoing at the time.

But it was cause for speculation. Cocaine was wildly popular among the rich and famous in the 1920s. Coincidentally, it was claimed the American film Studio Famous Players-Lasky had a dealer known as Captain Spaulding who provided the actors with cocaine whenever they needed it – something some Hollywood history bloggers claim Groucho Marx was tipping his hat to in naming his character in the movie Animal Crackers (1931) Captain Jeffrey Spaulding. Hooray for Captain Spaulding indeed.

As we know, if a lie – a lie can certainly travel halfway around the world in the time it takes the truth to put it’s shoes on. Rumours well preceded any sensible examination of facts, and for some, they stuck.

The rumours of Jack’s syphilis also emerged in the days following Olive’s death. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive contracted syphilis from Jack, and despondent at what was almost certainly a death sentence – chose to take her own life. This was the narrative that stuck the most with the public.
People started to blame Jack for her death. Hot on the heels of this scandal, another rumour – Had Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive? Was he a callous murderer?
Could this explain why Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing (Which he did, unquestionably do)? Did he send his ex brother in law, Owen Moore to make a statement to press as he worried the press would see through his ruse?
This certainly wasn’t helped when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow and star of Broadway named Marilyn Miller. They married two years after Olive’s passing, which some people said they felt was too soon.
It probably should be noted the couple divorced after five years, due to Jack being an abusive husband. Marilyn herself died young, when surgery on her nasal passages went wrong.

Public opinion fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by a Hollywood aristocrat whose crimes included draft dodging, sleeping around, heavy drug use – and quite possibly murder. One could imagine Jack Pickford’s Hollywood career as the boy next door was as good as over. 15,000 mourners gathered outside Olive’s funeral. People clamoured for her old films, which were all re-released at cinemas across America. All became blockbusters in the weeks following her death. 

Another sector of the public – the wowsers who killed legal alcohol – took notice too. Their take was quite different. Olive Thomas was not their focus. The alleged Parisian bacchanalia was. This only served to confirm their belief that Hollywood was a den of iniquity, hell bent on corrupting American society. To them Olive Thomas was a cautionary tale, and, for now, Jack Pickford was the devil incarnate.  

I generally don’t want to speculate on these cases. At a push the accident scenario seems more likely to me, but the case lacks evidence, and has become bloated with wild speculation. Was Jack an abusive husband? Subsequently it appears so. Did he take out a policy on his wife, then intentionally poison her? No evidence has been presented of an insurance policy to date.
Did Jack Pickford take syphilis medication? These is some evidence for this. He returned to Paris in late 1932, for a shopping holiday. While there he collapsed, and died a few days later, on January 3rd 1933. His cause of death is listed as “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” Alcoholism – and it should be pointed out Marilyn Miller claimed Jack was an alcoholic in her divorce petition – can cause neuritis. Syphilis was a common cause of neuritis also – so, pass??

To me Olive Thomas’ case is doubly tragic, first for her early passing and second because her became fodder for a culture war. Next fortnight’s episode, the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – Virginia Rappe case is similarly ambiguous – but in my opinion altogether more disturbing.

Railway War!

This week we’re riding the rails through Colorado. The date, February 26th 1878. 

Just before 7am, on a chilly winter day, two groups of men boarded a train from the bustling trading town of Pueblo headed for El Moro – a sleepy mining town near the New Mexico border. The men, both on urgent business, were all travelling for the same reason. Theirs was a small world where everyone at least knew of one another, though neither side had apparently met. Both knew what the other was planning – but apparently did their best to ignore other’s presence there. Soon they would be on opposite sides in a war and would know the other all too well. For now though the men took their seats in the carriage and, one presumes, concentrated on the task ahead.

That train, well one very like it anyway, was what all of this business was about. We’ll come back round to this scene. 

But first, as densely packed as this episode is, I needs must make a quick digression. From El Moro we briefly detour to a prison cell in Kommunarka, Russia, 17th September 1938. An academic named Nikolai Kondratiev has been sentenced to death, on the explicit orders of Stalin himself. In 1930 he’d fallen afoul of the authorities – who jailed him for eight years for his economic apostasy. While imprisoned he wrote five books on his theories. By days’ end Stalin will have him executed by firing squad. His dangerous idea that had so offended Uncle Joe? In a nutshell… 

Kondratiev believed capitalist economies, besides their smaller approximately six year long boom – bust waves, had longer, much bigger waves rolling along in the background. Every forty to sixty years an economy in recession from the previous long wave, would innovate by combining existing technologies in new and exciting ways. This technological innovation would create a new boom – and with it new ways of living, working and even thinking about the world. Often the start is a bit shaky, followed by a decades long trend of huge economic growth. Around halfway in, a jarring turning point occurs. From there we enter a decades long collapse which is often chaotic in nature. 

Ideas stagnate, hindered by the people who made a killing from the earlier innovations now deciding to play it safe with their money – principally by putting their money into the finance sector, where it is far less productive.

In a Kondratiev wave, this eventually leads to another big crash. My view, not Kondratiev’s but these decline periods often see the most insane behaviour from desperate entrepreneurs. This is followed by another burst of innovation which creates a boom, and new ways of living, working and thinking about the world. 

This concept riled up Stalin, who only liked economic theories that don’t claim capitalism mutated into new models. His world theory needed an end point where capitalism could no longer adapt – where the workers of the world would finally cast off their chains and take the means of production off the rich. 

The idea Nikolai Kondratiev died for received mixed reviews by economists. A number of well regarded economists took it up, but a greater number discarded it. One problem, you can broadly define these eras, but start and end dates can differ by several years depending on the theorist – It all seems a little fuzzy and unscientific. As a diagnostic tool economists could use to predict the future, Kondratiev waves are too sketchy for most.   

Looking backwards though, Kondratiev waves can occasionally be useful when trying to place a tale in it’s historical context – though all fairness to Mr Kondratiev, it does not explain why two  tycoons came down with a case of brain worms in the late 19th century.  

But anyway, for context – under most Kondratiev models, the first big wave kicks off in Britain some time between 1774 and 1790. The steam engine changed the world, but the factory was the star of the era.

Innovations in the steam engine allowed engines to be used to power a factory full of machines by one long drive shaft. Seven decades earlier, the first commercial steam engines drove pumps in coal mines, keeping mines safe from flooding. This was not just a repurposing of that old technology, a great deal of innovation had gone into to those engines. Steam powered factories led to cheaper production of goods, and more importantly, the development of tool making machinery – which itself drove further innovations. This all made use of other, earlier innovations such as Abraham Darby’s coking process which made the reliable production of iron an affordable alternative to brass. Iron goods could be churned out all day, so long as you had machine operators, and someone to keep the furnace topped up with coal. 

Boat canals appeared across the land to transport goods. This also changed the way we travelled, and how we thought of distance between towns. It changed the way we lived too. Large, industrial cities arose, while agricultural centres withered away. The poet Oliver Goldsmith bemoaned the disappearance of the labouring swain of his imagined Auburn village in his poem The Deserted Village – those folk hadn’t vanished – many of them now worked in dark, dingy factories. They lived in growing industrial centres. One innovation vastly changed how we lived our lives, and how we saw the world.   

In a break from Industrial Revolution models, which put their second wave decades later, the second Kondratiev wave kicked off around 1850 – 

It’s most valuable technology was being seriously developed in the 1820’s, but didn’t take centre stage till the middle of the century. What was this innovation? Someone took a steam engine, and made it drive an iron horse along iron rails. The locomotive would go on to change the world. We’re only really interested in the history of trains in the USA today so I’ll quickly mention the first train in the USA was named Tom Thumb, back in 1827. Tom Thumb had an underwhelming start – it raced against a horse and lost  – but the locomotive age did leave the station proper in 1850. 

Well, at least it did first along the Northern and east coast cities. Throughout the 1850s, several competing railroad barons laid 30,000 miles of track in the region. It was a messy, chaotic affair with many companies using their own track gauges – but adding this critical infrastructure kicked off an Industrial Revolution in the USA. Factories proliferated due to this infrastructure. 

As the century rolled on, Americans were told to go west to find their fortunes. There was huge opportunity in the supposedly uninhabited expanse presidents Thomas Jefferson bought from the French in 1803, and James Polk either bought off England, or mostly seized from Mexico in the mid 1840s. Of course there were already plenty of people on these lands, we’ll put a pin in that subject for now, and come back to some of those Native tribes at a later date. 

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln launched the first of several Homestead Acts that gave people free land if they settled it and held onto it for five years. Gold strikes and other mineral windfalls like the California Gold Rush (1848-55) were pull factors that brought people in. Sometimes folk arrived due to push factors; like the thousands of Mennonites who fled Russian persecution in Russia and Ukraine in the late 1870s for the plains of Kansas. They brought a wheat seed with them, Turkey Red, which grew so successfully, Kansas soon produced 1/5 of all American wheat. In places like Wyoming, cattle barons made a killing – radically changing how Americans ate… but their ‘killings’ are another tale we’ll put a pin in for now. 

The railroads boomed post civil war, and played a major role in settling people out west, at least until it didn’t. Rail eventually connected the East and West coasts of America. A side note: the first attempt to do so, the Union Pacific Rail Road, was disastrous. Starting in 1862, the UPRR laid track in places that became inaccessible in winter. They conspicuously wasted a lot of money, and chose awful places for railroad towns along the way. Most of their picks became ghost towns within a couple of years of incorporating. Bringing this back to the Kondratiev wave – 1873 was the turning point of the second wave, and the Union Pacific played a big role.

The UPRR got caught paying off politicians. The scandal crashed the railroad, which took down a bank. The collapse of that one bank wiped out 40 more banks in turn. 5,000 businesses went broke in the wake of the Union Pacific crash. $250 million in 1873 dollars was wiped out almost overnight, leading to the Stock Market closing down for ten days in a row. Unemployment spiked at 14%. A quarter of the then 364 railway companies operating in the USA filed for bankruptcy. The Panic of 1873 was, to that date, the biggest economic downturn in American history. It would take the Great Depression of 1929 to overtake the Panic of 1873, which till then was dubbed The Great Depression. The ghost of the UPRR was resurrected by the diabolical figure of Railroad Baron Jay Gould. Waiting in the wings for his chance, he bought them out for a bargain basement price. 

I’d like to think The Panic was a lesson to the other railway barons on the importance of building railway towns that were worth a damn, in places where people wanted to live; and of not getting involved in questionable behaviour. We’re working our way towards the latter. Of the former, I should mention the railways were not just providers of infrastructure, they were one of the nations’ biggest groups of land developers. They bought land very cheaply – before the 1870s land was just given to them in ten mile square blocks. They built towns as they went, selling on properties for large profits. 

Which finally brings us to the men on a train to El Moro, Colorado. One party was a surveyor named Ray Morley, and A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer for the Atcheson Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. The other, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s J.A. McMurtrie and his work crew.

The Rio Grande railway was the brainchild of General William Palmer – a Civil War hero who found peacetime work in the railroad industry. In 1871 he struck out on his own into the Colorado area – laying a smaller than average gauged, boutique track throughout the state. Palmer was not a terribly well-loved man, owing to having played hardball over which towns would and wouldn’t get trains following the Panic of 1873. This was keenly felt in Canyon City, who Palmer snubbed after they refused to pay him $1 million for a train line. Unlucky in love, General Palmer met and fell in love with the daughter of a Pennsylvanian politician named Mary Lincoln Mellon – known to friends as ‘Queenie.’ She accepted his marriage proposal just two weeks after they first met, but got cold feet and refused to move to some rustic frontier town. He built Queenie the town of Colorado Springs solely to woo her. Queenie married the General, and moved to Colorado Springs – but by all accounts, she hated it there. Their marriage slumped into lovelessness and infidelity. 

General Palmer was, in truth, married to his job – as an obsessive workaholic. This reflected in the culture of the Rio Grande.

The Santa Fe Railroad also started off as the pet project of a larger than life figure – in this case Cyrus Holliday, the first mayor of Topeka, Kansas. But over time, the Santa Fe became a faceless corporation, run by a board of investors in Boston. These board members were initially hands-on, but then the railroad developed the cattle town of Dodge. Dodge was most definitely not Colorado Springs, and soon devolved into the stereotypical Wild West town of western movies – full of saloons, gamblers, working girls and gun fights at high noon. The board decided they really didn’t want to know what was going on in Dodge, and handed all the day to day management over to a general manager. Plausible deniability seemed a good idea to the board. After several failed attempts to clean up Dodge, the town appointed Wild West legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as deputies, calming Dodge down somewhat. 

Throughout the 1870s, a smart, decisive company man – though hardly a larger than life show pony – rose through the ranks of the Santa Fe. The board’s manager on the spot, and soon to be General Palmer’s nemesis was William Barstow Strong. The two men met for the first time in 1877, where Strong offered a decent sum of money to lease the Rio Grande off Palmer – making a lifelong enemy in the process. Strong may as well have asked to rent Queenie while he was at it, as far as Palmer was concerned. 

Though not much is documented about Strong’s personal life anyway – it seems reasonable to leave him simply a big cog in a bigger, faceless machine? 

Both companies had long term plans to push beyond the boundaries of the state – they even hoped to reach the West Coast one day; but both companies were badly hurt by the Panic of 1873. Their plan in the short term appeared to be to work on smaller projects. But, would it really hurt to send someone to look at a path into New Mexico, for future development? 

When it came to plotting out a trans-continental path via the Southwest there was really only one suitable path – to follow the old, treacherous Santa Fe trail, then cross the Raton Pass into New Mexico. This was a difficult path, with a hefty price tag to develop. In the early 1870s General Palmer sent an employee named William Bell out and about with a camera, including out to the Raton pass. At the time he had the area scoped out, and noted a possible route through. This was then put aside for other projects. In 1877 William Barstow Strong sent out Ray Morley, disguised as a Mexican shepherd to survey the pass. Morley did his best to stay incognito, although he got caught out by the owner of the pass, a man named ‘Uncle Dick’ Wooten. Morley and Wooten became friends – Wooten agreeing to sell Morley’s employers the land if they made an offer. Though Morley had been low key, word got out Strong was preparing to make for the pass. Palmer reacted by preparing to send McMurtrie out with a work crew. Neither faction could really afford to take this project on – but both felt they could not afford to miss out on the opportunity to the other. The two companies sent out spies to intercept the others’ messages, and determined to spring into action the moment it looked certain the other would do. So they piled onto a train to El Moro on a cold, snowy February morning. 

Now I should state the Raton Pass incident is only the prelude to our main event – but it does set the scene, and the pace. 

The train pulled up at El Moro in the dark, and the parties disembarked. McMurtrie looked at Morley, and judged the Santa Fe had no work crew – so figured he was free to get a good night’s sleep at the hotel. Little did he know A.A. Robinson had put together a crew from Trinidad, Colorado – another town with an axe to grind over General Palmer’s business practices. Morley, Robinson and the Trinidad crew took a carriage full of tools up to Uncle Dick Wooten’s house. It was after 10pm when they arrived, but Uncle Dick welcomed his friends in. Wooten was allegedly offered $50,000 for the pass, but bargained himself down to $25 a month for groceries until he, then his wife and finally his daughter passed on – and lifetime passes for the family, giving them unlimited travel on Santa Fe trains. Uncle Dick didn’t need the money.  

This stipend would increase over the years, and was up to $75 a month when his daughter passed on in 1930. 

Uncle Dick unearthed the first sod of ground at 2am, 27th February 1878, and the crew got to work laying track in all the key places, working by lamp light. 

In the morning a furious McMurtrie discovered they had been beaten to the punch. He wired the General, who told him to keep the crew there for now. Palmer had McMurtrie searching round for another, overlooked South-western pass, all to no avail, until April. It was then that another opportunity arose, and things went truly off the rails.

If one had ambitions to build a railroad track from Colorado out to the West coast, you could head Southwest to the Raton pass – or you could go west through an area called the California Gulch. This direction made a lot of sense in the 1860s – gold was found in Pueblo in 1859, causing a stampede of 10,000 prospectors to the area. In the following decade $2.5 million, around $100 million today, was extracted from the surrounding area. The area got picked clean of gold within a few years, and most of the prospectors left. A few hardy souls did stay on, with a new plan. Some believed large deposits of silver were out there. Unlike gold, silver usually lurks in dull grey veins below ground, never by itself, but alloyed to base metals. First, you need to dig it out, have someone examine the specimen for silver content –  then send that alloy to a smelter to extract the silver from the rest of the junk. In spite of silver being far more common than gold, it was also far more labour intensive to work.   

Silver had also fallen out of favour in past decades – the USA had a silver standard from the 1780s, based around the Spanish silver dollar – but it became neglected in the 1860s. Silver was then de-monetised during the Panic of 1873. In 1878, with money people looking for more ways to invest their cash in finance – (remember we’re now on the downward slope of the Kondratiev wave, where people do things like this) – the silver standard made a comeback via the Bland-Allison Act of February 1878. 

This was the perfect time for a couple of dirt-poor prospectors to roll up to the general store in Leadville, Colorado. The legend has it these two men were looking for provisions and tools, and in lieu of actual money, promised the proprietor a third of whatever they found with those tools. The proprietor, one Horace Tabor not only took their offer, but threw in a bottle of whisky as well. 

The story goes these two prospectors drank as they walked into the wild, and when they became fall-down drunk, they … fell down drunk – and slept where they lay. The next morning, figuring this was as good a spot as any to start, they dug a hole – and a few feet down struck the biggest silver reserve in the USA to that date. They honoured their promise to Horace ‘Haw’ Tabor, who invested his windfall in other sites, soon becoming one of America’s richest men. Their discovery kicked off a silver rush, which saw the former ghost town population balloon enough for politicians to debate moving the state capital to Leadville. In the future Mayor Tabor would even build an impressive opera house in Leadville.

This was great news for General Palmer. Not only could he make a killing transporting all that alloy to the smelters – he knew there would be a rush of people relocating to Leadville. He stood to make a killing if he could extend his lines from Canyon City out to the mining town. They would have to build through a narrow pass through the high cliffs of the Royal Gorge, but the company plotted this out in 1872. The gorge gets so narrow at times only one track would be possible, and like the Raton pass it is the only way through – but the effort would be well worth it. He presumed Strong would be caught up in the Raton pass for some time – but all the same he quietly gave the orders to prepare for the California Gulch – and entered into confidential talks with the St Louis smelter about getting them connected to his network. 

The spy vs spy activity kicked off again. Both sides sent encrypted telegraphs to their backers, and did their best to intercept the other’s messages. 

On April 19th, Santa Fe chief engineer A.A. Robinson noticed J.A. McMurtrie and his crew – formerly skulking round El Moro since they lost the pass, were nowhere to be seen. He soon discovered they were packing up and waiting for a train to Canyon City, via Pueblo. William Barstow Strong ordered Robinson to do the same – but Palmer’s men refused to sell him a ticket. Strong contacted Ray Morley, then out of town on other business, to get out to Canyon City as soon as he can. Morley booked a private train to Pueblo, waiting for Palmer’s men stationed at the telegraph office to go out for lunch first. He got his train to Pueblo, where, unbeknownst to the enemy, he had a horse stabled. Some time back he’d bought a stallion named King William, cheaply from an English expatriate living in Colorado Springs. Morley galloped into the dark towards Canyon City. 

In the meantime McMurtrie and his gang were on the train, first to Pueblo, then after a changeover  on to Canyon City. On the way he discovered Morley was headed their way – and resolved this time not to rest. As soon as the men reached Canyon City they made for the Royal Pass – only to find Morley beat them to it again. He’d arrived on horseback, then rushed out to hire a work crew. As with the people of Trinidad, all he had to do was mention General Palmer’s name and volunteers lined up to stick it to the general. Morley’s crew had a half hour head start – but at this point there was enough room in the gorge to lay two tracks near one another. This time McMurtrie ordered his crew to start laying tracks alongside the Santa Fe. For now, the two sides slogged along less than a gunshot distant from one another.

The Royal Gorge war began in the law courts. General Palmer filed an injunction, claiming he’d laid claim to the Royal Gorge in 1872. Strong’s lawyers were prepared and countered Palmer never filed a proposed route with the land office, so the claims should go with them; having broke ground first. In the interim the judge ordered the Rio Grande to stop work immediately. J.A. McMurtrie ignored the order and was arrested. His arrest led to a fist fight between the Santa Fe and Rio Grande crews. Tensions escalated with Palmer’s crew cutting Strong’s telegraph lines -and vice versa. The management took to buying the opponent’s workers off them for exorbitant salaries. This all made for an awkward work atmosphere by day – as the two crews continued to build alongside one another. By night the two camps posted armed guards. The guard posts were close enough the guards regularly dared the other side to go on and take a shot. 

As everyone waited on the courts, General Palmer sent a gang up into the cliff tops several hundred feet above the lines. The men built a fort, and threw rocks down at the Santa Fe rails below, causing a landslide. Strong reciprocated, sending Morley up the other side with a gang. They built their own fort, and threw their own rocks at the Rio Grande tracks. Men in forts fired upon men in other forts and waited for things to escalate. 

When the courts came back with a decision, nobody was happy. Both companies were allowed to build their own line. When the gorge reached pinch points where only one line was possible – a gauge which accommodated both companies’ trains had to be used. General Palmer was apoplectic, and lodged an appeal. In the meantime, the state militia was sent in to keep the peace, and the gangs in the forts were ordered out. 

The ugliness continued. The Royal Gorge made up only twenty miles of the journey to Leadville. Once clear of the gorge, the advantage would be Palmer’s. The tracks to Canyon City were Rio Grande tracks, and he could slow the Santa Fe by refusing their cargo on his trains. This caused Strong to go to his backers for more money. He then threatened to build lines alongside every last mile of Rio Grande line. This would cost a fortune, but would have put an end to the Rio Grande. The Santa Fe had bigger trains running on regular sized tracks – so could carry more cargo. Their carriages were more spacious. Both men chased up more money from their backers. Some of that money went into hiring gunslingers for ‘security.’ 

At the time, a war wouldn’t seem altogether unreasonable to either Palmer or Strong. Across the border in Lincoln County, New Mexico, a war broke out between two business factions in July 1878. An Englishman named John Tunstall arrived from Santa Fe and opened a dry goods store in 1876. He threatened to break the monopoly of the Irish, Catholic businessmen then running the county. Tunstall’s 1878 murder kicked off a war that eventually led to the deaths of 23 men, and left dozens seriously injured – including legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. The Lincoln County War was too wild for the lawmen to rein in, and only ended when the army were deployed in 1881. Palmer and Strong knew they could ramp up to a couple of hundred men a side if needed, and if they did so no local sheriff or court could stop them.  

In the meantime the crews built onwards towards Leadville. General Palmer waited for his appeal to reach the Supreme Court. 

By October everyone was still tense. The Santa Fe, by far the wealthier corporation, stayed the course. General Palmer, on the other hand, was nearly broke. His share price had taken a tumble, and financial backers were now demanding he put an end to the feud. William Barstow Strong complicated matters by sending a message to the Rio Grande, offering again to lease the company off them for a thirty year term. Palmer fought the offer, but investors insisted the Rio Grande be leased to the Santa Fe. A figure was agreed upon. General Palmer insisted Strong pay the lease monthly. Strong agreed. Palmer also insisted the Rio Grande keep building towards Leadville. Once the lease ran out, he expected the Rio Grande would take those lines back. Strong agreed to let the Rio Grande continue – but no way would they keep the line to Leadville. 

Panicked, and looking to buy more time, Palmer rushed to Boston in November. He demanded a cash bond of $150,000 to cover any future damage to Rio Grande equipment. This was reluctantly agreed to, but the Santa Fe board told Palmer they would pay half now – the other half when he handed the keys over. Palmer continued to find ways to drag his feet – but this only tanked the stock price further. The investors had enough and demanded Palmer hand the keys over on December 1st 1878. He did so only at the stroke of midnight on December 14th. 

But General Palmer was not done yet. He refused to cash the Santa Fe’s monthly cheques. Palmer would claim the Santa Fe defaulted on their payments. He planned to tear the lease up and repossess the business. Strong responded by putting ticket prices up on all Rio Grande trains. Where the two had co-existing services, this drove business to the Santa Fe trains. Where the Santa Fe didn’t, in towns like El Moro – locals packed up and left in droves. This turned a number of settlements into ghost towns. Colorado newspapers, everywhere but in Canyon City, turned against the Santa Fe. Reporters branded them greedy and heartless. Many of the people of Colorado started to remember General Palmer fondly, and wished he could take his railway back off the Santa Fe. 

Meanwhile, dozens of men of violence loitered, waiting for orders. They drank, got ornery and continued to make locals nervous. Both lines continued towards Leadville.

The supreme court finding loomed, but General Palmer was at the end of his tether. He continued to discard the Santa Fe cheques, and sent his men out to hire an army of gunslingers to repossess his railway. Strong reciprocated by adding to his own army. A fortune was spent by both sides on hundreds of men, guns, and an armoury full of ammunition. Thuggish men like Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday awaited orders at several key locations. Tensions rose and a handful of gunfights broke out between the armies. Then on April 21st 1879, the Supreme Court announced their decision. They sided with the Rio Grande over ownership of the Royal Gorge line. But did this actually meant anything, given the Rio Grande was under Santa Fe control? The Supreme Court gave no opinion on that. In May the armies prepared for war. Strong went to the county clerk to call in the state militia, only to find the Rio Grande had kidnapped him. Again, the telegraph lines came down, cutting off communication with the outside world. On June 11th, General Palmer sent his army to repossess his property.

Palmer’s army closed in on all their stations. Strong’s men fought back, opening fire on the invaders – but as a rule, as soon as they were served legal papers to cease and desist – they laid down their guns and left. After several ugly stand offs, papers were eventually delivered to besieged Santa Fe gunmen.

In Pueblo things looked set to get really nasty – both armies had close to 100 men a side. The Santa Fe army, led by Bat Masterson, were holed up in a roundhouse used to move trains around. The armies exchanged gunfire with one another. Eventually J.A. McMurtrie’s men forced the door open, and men flooded in to take the roundhouse. Papers were served. 

And this is where I have to throw a Deus ex-machina into the mix – or should that be a diabolus ex-machina? A demon on a wire? The constant fighting left the Rio Grande drained of funding. William Barstow Strong still held a lease for their property, and would eventually send in his own people to repossess them back again. Not a lot of business is going on with the Rio Grande when their stations are packed with armed men looking for a fight. To pre-empt Strong, Palmer put the Rio Grande into receivership. He had a friend lined up to be the receiver – but the courts insisted on their own receiver who would refuse to be Palmer’s puppet. 

General William Palmer finally managed to tank his own railway. The Santa Fe looked on – as the diabolical figure of Jay Gould swooped in to pick over the carcass. 

Jay Gould was the King of the American Railway. In a world of larger than life figures, Gould was quiet and unassuming – but due to his terrifying ruthlessness – a formidable figure. He’d been watching the proceedings and decided the best tactic was to buy out Rio Grande shares once they hit rock bottom. With a controlling stake he called Palmer and Strong to his office to lay down the law. 

The Robber Baron’s terms were as follows. Both companies were to cease litigation immediately. The Santa Fe would hand all the Rio Grande’s tracks and equipment back to them free of charge. If they didn’t, Gould would reach into his considerably deeper pockets and build his own lines alongside Santa Fe lines. He would then run those rails as cheaply as was needed to put them out of business. The Rio Grande would get the line through the Royal Gorge, but have to pay the Santa Fe $1.4 million for their trouble. From here on in the Rio Grande would only build north of Pueblo, the Santa Fe south of Pueblo. Neither tycoon had a choice but to accept Gould’s terms of surrender. 

As a coda, somewhere in Leadville, in amongst the hired thugs awaiting orders – is a young man with a singular skill set. He’d come to Leadville with high hopes of finding silver, but ended up moving a lot of dirt around. When the tycoons sent men out to find gunslingers, he happily volunteered – as a skilled sharpshooter – what we’d now call a sniper. I’ve got a few Wild West tales to share over the following year – the next chapter will be much later in the year. This man will intersect with all of them. As a gun for hire he’ll murder dozens of men, before he faces his moment of truth …. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we tell his tale. 

The Diaspora

In the year 751 AD an epic battle was fought between two mighty powers. We don’t know for certain if it happened in Taraz, modern day Kazakhstan; or Talas in Kyrgyzstan – around 180 kilometres away. Either way it became known as the Battle of Talas, as both cities are on the Talas River. 

On one side, the Muslim Abbasid Caliphate. Only a year earlier this Iraqi kingdom had wrested power from the Umayyads, and were now rapidly consolidating their territory. They were joined by a large contingent from the Tibetan Empire, then more a bona fide empire than a country – with land stretching as far west as the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan. 

On the other side, the Chinese Tang Dynasty. The Tang were one of the world’s great powers at the time. Recently they’d taken advantage of localised conflicts between the Turkic tribes who inhabited the Central Asian Steppe, and pushed westwards into their territory. Like the Abbasids, and Umayyads before them – they found the seizure of Oasis cities along the Silk Roads an extremely profitable thing to do. 

In 750 the Chinese, led by General Gao Xianzhi, captured the Uzbek city of Tashkent – a city nominally under Arab control. An Abbasid general staying in Tashkent, Ziyad ibn Salih, barely escaped with his life. Once safely in the city of Samarkand, he called upon the Abbasids to send a large army in to stop the Tang invasion. In response, Gao Xianzhi bolstered his own forces with several thousand Karluk mercenaries (a Steppe tribe from whom the modern day Uzbeks and Uyghurs are believed to descend.)

Both sides faced off with massive armies in tow – writers claim both sides showed up with around  100,000 troops apiece. The two sides were well matched, and the battle raged for months. Tens of thousands of lives were lost on both sides – and the battle ground to a stalemate. The months’ long impasse was finally broken when the Karluk, clearly sick of the Tang, changed sides. This gave the Abbasids the victory. 

Geopolitically, the Battle of Talas was a massive deal – for one China paused their Western expansion following their loss. Chinese technologies then unknown to the Caliphate – like paper making, types of jewellery making and fabric weaving were also brought to the Caliphate. This was largely done so by the capture and transport of Chinese soldiers with specific skills. Many of these captives were sent to the far reaches of the Abbasid empire.

The following is an extremely fragmentary story of one of those men. 

Our captive was an officer named Du Huan. Somehow Du escaped the clutches of the Caliphate, and was back in Guangzhou, China by 762 to write a book of his adventures. Infuriatingly that book, which I can’t imagine being anything other than a mind-blowing adventure story – was subsequently lost to history. A very few excerpts survived down to us in a Chinese encyclopaedia, written soon after Du Huan’s time. Those excerpts suggest some captives were sent much further than anyone first thought. 

We’re told Du was taken to a land he called ‘Molin’ at the edge of their empire. The people of Molin were extremely dark-skinned. The land had next to no vegetation – certainly no rice or cereals. One strange observation was those people fed their horses dried fish in lieu of grain. The people ate dates as their staple food. There was no grass or trees in the land of Molin. Inland was extremely rocky and mountainous. Similarly, the mountains were denuded of vegetation. One strange detail, these people, Du claimed, cured diarrhoea through cutting into a patient’s head – I couldn’t work out if he meant scarification or a full-on trepanation. 

From Molin, Du was moved to the land of Laobosa. In Laobosa, dark-skinned Christian and Muslim communities coexisted peacefully together. They mixed, and traded free of the kind of conflict that had brought him there in the first place. People worked six days a week, and took their own religious observances on the seventh. 

Some people believe Laobosa was a mispronunciation of al-Habasha, the Arabic name for Abyssinia – modern day Ethiopia. This is hardly settled fact – as Abbasid generals pushed into Umayyad Central Asia, others were doing the same in Umayyad North Africa, until they reached the Atlantic Ocean. Christian communities lived throughout North Africa among the Berbers and Muslim invaders at the time. If Molin was Sudan, and Laobosa Ethiopia – or alternately he was describing two North African outposts – Du Huan’s writings likely provide the earliest known description of Africa by a Chinese writer. 

Earlier in the year we looked at a woman known as Roxelana – a rare case of a person who went from being enslaved in a faraway land, who then climbed to the highest rungs in their new land. None of the following cases were as successful, but they have all fascinated me for years. Today we discuss ‘The Diaspora’ tales of people who found themselves a long way from home. 

The Fountain of Karakorum. 

In September 1253 – eighteen years before Marco Polo’s journey to China – the Flemish missionary William of Rubruck rode into Karakorum, Mongolia. An envoy for King Louis IX, Rubruck was on a mission to ask the Great Khan for his military assistance. As a Franciscan missionary, he had a side mission – he wanted nothing more than to convert the entirety of ‘Tartary’ to Christianity as he travelled. This is not really his story, so we won’t dwell on William for too long. 

William arrived in Palestine in 1248 as one of King of France Louis IX’s entourage. The king was determined to lead the 7th Holy Crusade against Islam. Jerusalem had been lost back to the Muslims in 1244. Louis planned to invade Egypt, to hit Islam in their bread basket. This was going to be an uphill battle. 

Back home, the Pope was in a fiery dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor – which in turn led to fewer people going on crusade. All the same, the monarch was hopeful they could take out Egypt – and from there the Holy Land. The crusade played out terribly for Louis – for one the Egyptians trounced the invaders. They took many captives – the king included – and imprisoned them for years. Louis was eventually released – and sadly for him – didn’t know when to quit. He tried his luck at an 8th Crusade, but died of dysentery in Tunisia in 1270.  

In the beginning Louis did have quite the plan. He would win over the most powerful man on Earth. He hoped this man, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, would lend him the added muscle needed to crush the Muslims. Optimistically, Louis also hoped the Mongols would only ask for Syria in return. The first delegate he sent was a missionary and adventurer named Andrew of Longjumeau.

Longjumeau already knew something of the Near East. In 1238 he returned from Constantinople with some old junk he claimed was the crown of thorns placed on Jesus Christ’s head at his crucifixion. Louis IX was so impressed with the find, he built a chapel to house the relic. This time Longjumeau was sent to Armenia, on the border of the Mongol empire. The Khan, a man named Güyük, was open to a coalition against the Egyptians – so in 1249 the missionary trekked to, then across the Caspian Sea before following trade routes to Karakorum. When he arrived, the Emperor’s widow, Ogul-Gaimish, bluntly broke it to Longjumeau the Emperor had passed and they were far too busy holding a Kurultai of Tribal leaders to deal with his nonsense. He was sent packing.   

The king hoped if he tried again, the new Emperor would be as receptive as Güyük. In May 1253 William of Rubruck arrived, having travelled 9,000 kilometres through what must’ve seemed an epically strange land. He sent notice of his wish to meet the new Khan – Genghis’ grandson Mongke. Mongke Khan kept him waiting till January 4th 1254 for his sit down – which gave William plenty of time to take in the Mongol capital. While there he discovered an enclave of French citizens who had been stuck in Karakorum for years – and a rather remarkable drinking fountain.

As I mentioned in 2022’s Assassins episode ‘The Old Man of the Mountain,’ one of the first instances to bring the Mongols into Europe was the pursuit of another Steppe tribe named the Kipchaks (or sometimes the Cuman.) Fearing for their lives, these steppe people fled to Eastern Europe – where Hungary and what is now Bulgaria offered them sanctuary. This protection meant little to the Mongols, who invaded, rounded up many Kipchak, and sold them into slavery. One such slave we’ve mentioned before was a giant who, at around the time of William of Rubruck’s stay in Mongolia, was involved in a rebellion in Egypt. Baybars would later be crowned Sultan of the Mamluks. While rampaging through Belgrade, modern day Serbia, the Mongols kidnapped a French master goldsmith named Guillaume Boucher. Unfortunately for him – fortunately perhaps if you consider the alternative to crossing paths with a Mongol horde was often death – he was one of a number of local artisans taken back to the capital on account of their great skill. 

The Mongols soon found an impressive project for Mr Boucher. 

As the Mongols grew in stature from Steppe tribe to one of the most powerful empires in history, they absorbed much knowledge and culture from the people they subjugated. This led to, in some respects, gentrification. This especially was the case with alcohol. Besides their traditional fermented mare’s milk, the Mongols had really broadened their palette. 

In Karakorum did Mongke Khan a giant fountain decree – and it was the eminently talented Boucher who was ordered to build it. In 1253 Boucher was provided with a team of 50 artisans from across the empire to assist him. 

By the time William of Rubruck had his sit down with the Great Khan, he would have been ushered through the courtyard where a giant mechanical tree stretched high. Expansive, ornate, constructed from glistening silver – detailed with silver fruit, golden serpents, and at it’s apex, an angel with a trumpet – Boucher crafted a true marvel of his age. 

More than a mere statue, the piece was an automaton – a giant fountain. 

Below the four golden serpents sat four large silver bowls. When the Great Khan gave the order, a subterranean pump was activated, and alcohol flowed from the mouths of the snakes.  The angel atop the tree raised its trumpet to its lips and sound a note to signify now we eat, drink and be merry. 

A sign perhaps that Mongke Khan wished to be a good host to his many peoples, the four drinks chosen were from the four corners of the Mongol empire: wine, mead, rice wine, and Airag – the fermented mare’s milk so beloved among the Steppe people. Of course some may wonder if the true purpose of the tree was to flex to guests such as Rubruck – ‘not only do we have everything you could want – but we have it in excess.’ This may have been cooked into the design. Far less cynically I wonder if the tree contains another, deeper meaning. 

Mongke’s grandfather the mighty Genghis Khan had a mentor as a young man. When he was a young, lowly but resourceful warrior from an obscure tribe, the powerful warlord the Ong Khan took him under his wing. Seeing something special in the kid, the warlord gave the young Temujin his start in world conquest. The Ong Khan, sick and tired of being played against one another by the Chinese, wanted to unite all the tribes into a vast superpower. He even had an ancestor who had tried to unite all steppe tribes – legend has it the Ong Khan’s ancestor tried to bring the tribes together under a tree much like the one Boucher fashioned. 

Was Mongke Khan invoking the memory of the Ong Khan in the commission of his wonderful fountain? Letting his fellow tribes know he was committed to unification?


Sadly, somewhere along the timeline, the Fountain of Karakorum disappeared without a trace. 

Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, this chapter too can only ever be a fragment. Some brief traces of Boucher’s work survive – like iron work at a Buddhist temple at a place called Erdini Tso, though none of his work for the Mongols appears to have survived the ages. Nor do we know, ultimately what became of him.

One hopes that in, to quote Coleridge…  

“A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”

… Mr Boucher found himself a semblance of a regular life, and a sense of contentment in his situation? 

Cai the Roman. 

OK, one final Tale on this subject today. This one begins near a town named Carrhae – near modern day Harran, Turkey. The year, 53BC. Again, two armies prepared to face off in battle – though in this case the two forces were strikingly different from one another. On one side, the Parthians – the latest group to rule over Persia. Commanded by Surena, one of the most gifted military commanders Persia ever produced – the Parthians numbered around 10,000. The army were mostly horse bound archers, joined by 1,000 cataphracts – effectively the closest thing the Ancient world had to a medieval knight (horse mounted, ‘scale armour’ wearing, lance wielding heavy cavalry.) On the other side, the Romans – 40,000 strong, and mostly made up of legionaries – with a couple of thousand cavalry and light infantry thrown in for good measure. The Romans were led by one Marcus Licinius Crassus. 

Crassus was a prominent Roman citizen. A leading soldier who fought alongside Sulla (the dictator who ruled Rome from 82 – 79 BC, we’ve mentioned him before in Mithridates) – Crassus benefitted greatly from the civil war which swept Sulla into power. A number of leading Romans were stripped of their land, which was sold off cheaply. Marcus Crassus bought a lot of that land. As Rome’s leading real estate investor, he was also it’s wealthiest citizen. The man also had an alliance with two powerful Romans, the famed general Pompey the Great, and his protege – a young man named Julius Caesar. In recent years he felt increasingly overshadowed by his partners in the ‘First Triumvirate.’ When he was appointed governor of Roman Syria in 56BC, Crassus started to look into who he could conquer, to match his friends in martial prowess. The wealthy, powerful Parthian Empire was just across the border. 

It is an understatement the battle did not go the Romans’ way. Already weary from marching through arid plains for days, as a local ruler they mistook for an ally advised them to steer clear of the Euphrates river – they were also 40,000 men who effectively brought a knife to a gunfight. In a pitched battle Crassus’ seven legions would likely have mown through the Parthians, but the horse bound archers repeatedly galloped towards the Romans at speed, fired a rain of arrows – then veered back. Extremely capable horsemen, the Parthians fired a rain of parting shots at the Romans as they retreated.  

Several efforts to engage the Parthians failed. The Roman cavalry were no match for the Parthians, and their infantry couldn’t even get near them. The Romans adopted Testudo formations – effectively taking cover under their shields – the front row propping their shields up as a makeshift ‘wall.’ Subsequent rows made the ‘roof.’ The Parthian archers – who had brought a large supply of arrows on a caravan of camels parked just off the field – and the summer sun beating down on the Roman testudo – wore the Romans down. 

Further attempts by the Romans to mount an offence failed. Crassus’ own son, Publius was routed, captured and beheaded. His head was sent back to the Romans, leaving Crassus bereft. The Parthians now encircled Crassus’ army and charged from all angles. As night fell, with thousands of Roman soldiers dead or dying – the remainder completely outclassed – Surena ordered the Parthians off the battlefield. What was left of the Roman army, as quietly as they could, retreated to the town of Carrhae itself. One could imagine this was not terribly quietly done, as dying comrades yelled out to the living to take them too. The injured were left to die on the battlefield. 

The next morning, the Parthians returned, killing anyone still on the battlefield – then finishing off the rest of Crassus’ army. Losses were negligible for the Parthians. The Romans, however, lost 20,000 men, Crassus included. A further 10,000 were taken captive, and transported to Alexandra Margiana – a city now called Merv. Alexandra Margiana was another powerful Oasis city on the Silk Route, situated in modern day Turkmenistan. In 1940, the subsequent whereabouts of those captured men became cause for speculation, when a Sinologist named Homer Dubs claimed their forebears lived in a sleepy Chinese village called Liquan. 

His reasoning was based around another ancient battle in a place we’ve already discussed.

In 36 BC, a battle was fought out near Taraz on the Talas River, Kazakhstan. On one side 40,000 Han Chinese warriors. On the other, a coalition of around 3,000 Xiongnu tribesmen from the North of China, around 10,000 Sogdian horsemen – a steppe civilisation who played an oversized role in the movement of goods along the silk route in ancient times – and an alleged contingent of European mercenaries. 

This battle went China’s way. A number of Sogdian nobles changed sides beforehand. The Xiongnu were defeated and their leader, a man named Zhizhi Chanyu, was forced back into his fort – which the Han stormed soon after. 

The tactics of the allegedly European mercenaries caught Dubs’ attention. When the Han ramped up their attack, the mercenaries fell back into a testudo formation. These mercenaries were among a small number of Xiongnu forces who were captured, and sent off to the far reaches of the Han empire by the victors. 

Homer Dubs was convinced these men were remnants of Crassus’ missing legions. If so, we know nothing of their lives in the seventeen years between their defeat at Carrhae and their defeat in the Battle of Zhizhi. Alexandra Margiana, then a large, extremely wealthy polyglot city was likely to have been a massive culture shock for these legionaries. One presumes somehow these men either worked their way out of slavery, or escaped out onto the steppe – to find a new home among the Xiongnu? 

More recently, theories have been put forward these men were not Roman, but Seleucids – Eastern remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire – which splintered into many smaller kingdoms following his death in 323 BC. The city of Alexandra Margiana itself was a Seleucid enclave as late as 63 BC. That Greek, or Hellenised warriors had moved on from Greek Hoplite formations to Roman tactics over a few hundred years is plausible. Others, from Arabs, to Franks, to Vikings borrowed the testudo in later years. If so, they most likely hailed from Fergana – another Seleucid kingdom in modern day Uzbekistan. 

What caught Mr Dubs’ attention was the western appearance of the people living in Liquan in 1940. A remote village with little contact with the outside world, Dubs was surprised at the European facial features, light skin and green eyes of many villagers. 

The question of their ethnicity reached the European mainstream in 2007, as several news outlets ran with the story. One light-skinned, green eyed villager Cai Junnian, nicknamed ‘Cai the Roman’ became the public face of ‘Crassus lost Legions.’ An early DNA test suggested they had ‘other European’ DNA in their profiles. A subsequent, more accurate test suggested they had no significant levels of European DNA and were primarily Han Chinese.

Mussolini’s Hat, and the rise of the Mob (Revisited)

Mussolini’s Hat – How the Mob Came to America Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, we’ve got a little unfinished business from last fortnight’s episode, so I’m revisiting this older episode, and giving it a serious rewrite. Last fortnight we discussed the Black Hand organisations that pre-dated the Mafia. This time let’s look at how the Mob we’ve all come to know through the gangster films arrived in America.

But first, I do need to spend a couple of minutes on headwear.

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Setting aside resurgences in hat wearing in recent years – and no we’re not talking about the Orange guy today … there is a kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all bareheaded- surrounded by a sea of top hats. People commented this was how the new guard rolled, and many men followed suit. Milliners complained this was the death knell of their profession, and hat shops did close across the nation.

But this was only part of the wider picture. Like that gross, Orange guy; Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson going hatless was more a symptom than a cause of change.

As early as 1923, newspaper articles reported a growing dislike of hat wearing among the young. World War Two also had a measurable impact on hat wearing. In one postwar survey by The Hat Research Foundation which asked the hatless why they no longer wore a hat – one in five respondents claimed some bullying officer yelling at them for not wearing their hat during wartime was the main factor. As civilians no-one was ordering them to wear a hat. 

Also, less people worked outdoors, so needed a hat less. Popular culture was full of singers with quiffed hair, all ducktails and pompadours. As the black power movement came to prominence, so too came the Afro; and then there were those four British kids with their mop tops who took the world by storm on February 9th, 1964.

There were, of course a slew of other reasons why hats became less popular. Car culture taking off in a big way post World War Two cut down exposure to the elements when going out to work, shop or play. Similarly, improvements in air conditioning in offices and other large buildings saw a decline in hat, scarf and glove use.

Finally I should mention hats are less of a cultural marker now. Pre-war, high powered moguls wore top hats, working men wore flat caps – this was a kind of uniform. With all the other factors in play, this element of hat wearing got lost a bit – other markers of social capital taking it’s place. In this day and age, I struggle to think of too many of our most wealthy and powerful wearing hats – well there is that Orange guy we won’t mention today and his signature red trucker caps… But again he is not the hat-wearing fascist we are talking about today.

But it is fair to say, once upon a time hats were taken far more seriously. Mess with a man’s hat and he may just throw down over it.

Take, for example, Lee Shelton. Shelton was a gambler, a gangster and a pimp whose sartorial eloquence was a sight to behold. On Christmas Day 1895, Shelton sauntered into St Louis’ Bill Curtis Saloon adorned in a black dress coat, a high collared yellow shirt beneath a red velvet waistcoat. He wore gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, and jewellery aplenty. A cane with a glistening gold cap, and, most importantly, a white Stetson hat.
In the saloon that night, his rival – Billy Lyons. The two men put rivalries aside, and had a few drinks, till talk of politics got the better of them. First Shelton grabbed Lyons’ hat, caving it in, then Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson. Lyons drew a knife, Shelton a gun.
Lyons’ murder by that bad man Stagger Lee became the stuff of legend – giving life to dozens of songs, prison toasts, poetry – and even a breed of badass movie anti-hero (think Youngblood Priest on Superfly, Richard Shaft or Jules in Pulp Fiction.)
However you feel about Stagger Lee, everyone understands you don’t mess with a man’s hat.

Then there was the great straw hat riot of 1922.

In 19th Century big city America it was understood, though rarely discussed – the straw boater hats that were wildly popular among young men at sporting events should never be seen in the big city. This unwritten law was relaxed at the turn of the twentieth century, but only for summer. New York’s stockbrokers, stevedores, and sanitarians? Could wear their boater hats until felt hat day, September 15th. After this, you needed to leave the straw hat at home. If you were seen wearing a straw hat, you risked it being knocked from your head and stamped flat in front of you.

This tradition got out of hand September 13th 1922, when a gang of youths got started two days early, in Lower Manhattan among the working class folk. This escalated into a series of running battles over several days. Reports were made of at least one gang with a pole with a nail on it to skewer any straw hats they saw. Several young gangsters were arrested, one victim lost an eye, and one presiding judge – suitably named Peter Hatting – made the call one has the right to wear a straw hat any damn time they like – even in January if they wished.

All of this is to say I’m working towards a tale of a massive overreaction with global, long lasting ramifications – which, strangely may have seemed a little less so to your average Joe on the street at the time.

Last fortnight we mentioned how the Island of Sicily was just the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. This was due to a merry-go-round of oppressive conquerors. The island was perfect for agriculture, was strategically important, and a beautiful place to live. From Roman times onwards a large number of mostly North African Berber slaves were brought in, setting the pace for all those working the land. I won’t rehash it all, if you haven’t yet please check out The Black Hand first. Hannibal in Bithynia and the blog post The Bagradas Dragon also fill in a lot of background on Sicily. I did particularly zero in on the reign of Charles I of Anjou – also king of Naples. In 1282, one of his soldiers raped and murdered a Sicilian woman, leading to a large number of cells of Sicilians rising up against the French, killing 4,000 of them, and expelling them from the land.

This was the first indication to the world at large there was anything like a Mafia in Sicily. These ‘Sicilian Vespers’ who may or may not have coined the phrase mafia there and then – were a collection of like-minded locals who banded together to oppose cruel behaviour and disrespect from the colonizers. From everything I’ve read I understand these groups to be more like a series of mutual aid societies than an army of criminal geniuses. Nor were they terribly interested in self determination at the time. The Norman rulers that preceded Charles, had done well for the nation, so were invited back.

These groups well preceded the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and continued well beyond that. They joined up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860. 2,000 mafiosi fought alongside the red shirts, expelling the Bourbons. The Mafia were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. By now this was the name these groups went by. They were families, run by capos. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis of the rest of us. 

I also mentioned the power vacuum that arose in the 1870s onwards, and how this increase in violent crime, particularly of violent robberies by highwaymen, was our first indication the Mafia had turned to crime. Playing on both sides of the law, they became criminal and enforcer. A number of Capo also became extremely rich and powerful in this climate. These were generally not the guys fleeing to America – life was too good where they were.

Now, a small handful of bona fide Mafiosi did leave for America. Last episode we mentioned Giuseppe ‘The Clutch Hand’ Morello – the nephew of the Don of Corleone Sicily. He was charged with killing a man, so at some time between 1892 and 1894, he fled for the USA. His tale is worth a closer look some time, but suffice to say he set up a number of rackets in New York which would seem familiar to us now. His ruthlessness – He personally ordered more than 30 men stabbed to death, stripped naked then crammed into barrels – was excessive by Black Hand standards. Morello, later in his life, bought a pig farm – I’m sure everyone can imagine what happened there – and saw his family morph into the first of New York’s Five Families – The Gambino Family.

But back home you had the likes of Francesco Cuccia. Cuccia used his power and influence to become both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and a mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

Unfortunately for Don Francesco, the 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce.
Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who ran the nation immediately following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian. Benito was a staunch socialist himself, a renowned journalist and a public intellectual, until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. God was dead, which to Benito meant he was free to put his moral compass in a draw somewhere and do whatever the hell he felt like – so long as it furthered the cause.
The more he stared into the abyss, the more Mussolini became convinced liberalism and individualism had lead Italy down the wrong path. He dreamt of moulding Italy into a new society, based on an imagined Ancient Rome no less syllogistic than that Orange guy’s imaginary 1950s America.
Order, discipline and hierarchy were the words of the day. Extreme corporatism was essential – his belief the modern day plebeian needed to give their all, unquestioningly to their job was much admired by many American one percenters and British aristocrats at the time.
Ignoring anything beautiful about Italy’s past – Mussolini aspired to do one better than the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, briefly Duce of the regency of Carnaro – a proto- fascist state which existed in Fiume, Dalmatia in 1920. Like his hero and role model, he saw Italy as an expansionist power, out to regain lands it once ruled over. Mussolini was also a deplorable, racist man, and though less specifically anti-Semitic than Hitler – his treatment of ethnic minorities set a standard for the early Nazis.

As any fascist, Mussolini’s phrase, Benito believed in extreme, unquestioning nationalism (so long as he was the guy in charge,) and in isolating and punishing any and all dissenters, all talk of equity, or any diversity. He insisted a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and the LGBTQI+ community’s place was on prison islands like San Domino, Lampedusa and Ustica. The arrest and forced relocation of gay and trans people was horrific, but in another way empowering for some people on these islands, as Mussolini unwittingly created spaces where you were free to be your authentic self, free of the shackles hetero-normativity (the prison guards aside) but that is a whole other story.

In short, the man stared too long into the abyss, and when the abyss stared back it saw an amoral ghoul with an insatiable Will to power.

Unfortunately for the world, his words found an audience, in the dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as his ‘black shirts’. Many of these Black Shirts had fought in the Arditi, Italy’s elite troops, in World War 1 – and wore a distinctive fez hat we’ll all come to know, thanks to another man.

With a ludicrous promise to resurrect the Roman Empire – to make Italy Great again – Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – and demanded the government resign immediately and appoint him leader. Terrified, they did so.

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. With a two thirds ‘majority’ he was free to do whatever he wished. As an unimpeachable faux super-majority we went about enacting his cruel policies – but first – like another bloviating orange demagogue, he planned a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

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

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

Mussolini was taken aback by this – how impudent to think a Mafioso could offer him protection. Cuccia, similarly felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways – each man plotting revenge for the perceived sleight. Cuccia was the first to up the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s speech that day. Il Duce preached his gospel of hate to a group described as around 20 ‘village idiots.’ The large public square was otherwise deserted. This PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, were it not for another incident a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time it is full of inquisitive villagers. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere, that buzz in the air you get when large groups gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – and probably not unlike the crazies echo show up to the other guy’s rallies… though I doubt Mussolini has a fedora wearing financial services manager whom the crowd are convinced is John F Kennedy Junior reborn.
But this place is the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he hopes to declare himself dictator outright.
Picture if you will, Mussolini – the self styled strongman – in full regalia. On his head that trademark black fez- worn by the elite Arditi shock troops who follow him, and underpin his tough guy cred.

There’s a hushed silence, all eyes on Il Duce. Any moment now the tough guy is going to feed their rage and indignation. He will also give them answers – for they are the greatest people brought low by minorities, people who believe in kindness, and those who believe in rule for the people, by the people…

Il Duce clears his throat….. Just as some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it onto the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat from atop his head. 

In that moment the strongman is laid bare; left bare headed in front of the large crowd. His police escort are dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square. I imagine a gasp of horror from the crowd, and whether some burst into peals of laughter – it was sufficient this ridiculous man felt impotent, stripped of his plumage. We’ve all seen something like this in our time, right? In 2019, if protesters had come out swinging at the racist British demagogue Tommy Robinson, bloodying his nose, it would have made him a man of action. Douse him in milkshake two days in a row, it just makes him look ridiculous. When racist Australian senator Fraser Anning showed up at a press conference to blame the Christchurch terror attacks on the Muslims who were murdered, a young man named Will Connolly took the wind out of his sails by pelting the senator with an egg. Needless to say, Mussolini was furious.  

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

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

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. They couldn’t go outside without being harassed for some crime, alleged or otherwise. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

Picking up on last fortnight’s Tale – Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the suspected mastermind behind the murder of New York police officer Joseph Petrosino, was charged with an historic murder in June 1930. He got a trial, with an iron cage, as Iron Prefect Mori wanted to make an example of him. On the 69th charge to be laid against him in his lifetime, he was finally found guilty of something and sentenced to life imprisonment. The only words he uttered in his defence were “Gentlemen, as you have been unable to obtain proof of any of the numerous crimes I have committed, you have been reduced to condemning me for the only one I never committed.”

While in jail, he shared with others the only man he killed by his own hand was Joseph Petrosino – though he was one of a number of people who have done so over the years, and as such not taken seriously as the trigger man. His ultimate fate is murky, but there is a possibility he died of dehydration after the prison was cleared of everyone but him, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Mussolini’s purge did not bode well across the Atlantic. The USA were well on their way to contain the ‘Black Hand’ organisations who had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were still a problem – and it turn out, a sign of things to come. The Mafia did very well for themselves in the wake of the power vacuum left by the liberation of Sicily. By fleeing to a land with a similar power vacuum in it’s crime networks, they’d become bigger than U.S Steel by the 1960s.

The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, and must’ve felt pretty sure Petrosino’s lists would protect them from any mobsters arriving at Paris Island – but gangsters snuck in regardless – mostly via the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba. 

To add to this, the USA gave the mob with the perfect pathway to massive growth and prosperity. 

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

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

The Black Hand

Hi everyone, today I thought we’d go to the opera. What you can hear in the background is Enrico Caruso’s Una Furtiva Lagrima – from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. (Readers, if you’re adverse to hitting the play button on my podcasts, that’s okay… you can play the track here on YouTube.)

Let me pause myself a second so you can hear Caruso sing a little.

The first thing we should note – this was recorded in 1904. It sounds like a guy hollering into a horn to cut a groove into a wax disc, cause this is how records were made then. The first microphones didn’t appear till 1920 – and wouldn’t completely replace hollering into a horn till 1925. The second thing, to my ear at least – is that this Caruso kid could really sing. Signed up to the Gramophone company in 1904, Enrico Caruso became the first superstar of the recording age, and the first recording artist to make a million dollars. This was a far cry from his humble beginnings.    

Born 25th February 1873, in Naples Italy – Caruso grew up in a poor, though not terribly impoverished family. His early years as an artist were hard. There’s a promotional photo of Caruso wearing a sheet like a toga – not for Verdi’s Aida. His only shirt was at the laundromat being cleaned. In the 1890s Caruso took whatever gigs he could, till his big break came with a role in La Boheme at Milan’s La Scala. 

Caruso first played New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1903. He became a regular there for most of the rest of his life. Though he bought a fancy villa in Italy, he spent much of the rest of his life living out of an apartment at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel.

On November 16th, 1906, Enrico Caruso got into a difficult situation while at the Central Park Zoo’s monkey house. It was alleged a lady was minding her own business when pinched on the bum. The situation escalated quickly. She protested she had been assaulted – Caruso, just a frantic, protested his innocence. The police arrived, arresting the opera singer. 

Thoroughly embarrassed, a tearful Caruso was bailed the following day.

The police officers would likely have judged him simply as an Italian – an ethnic group White America had yet to bestow whiteness upon. Though a number of Italians had settled in America, prospered and distinguished themselves, far too many white Americans were apt to treat Italian immigrants as a criminal class. Caruso was charged, his case going to trial.

The trial was an absolute mess. First, the victim – an alleged Mrs Hannah Graham of 1756 Bathgate Avenue, the Bronx – refused to testify. What’s more she’d lied to the police about her name and address. The trial continued, regardless. 

The police stated Caruso was a serial sex pest, bringing forth two more women – one who remained veiled and anonymous throughout. Both women claimed to have been been sexually assaulted by the singer. 

The judge noted the witnesses, and police testimony were unreliable; but also stated he was compelled by law to find Caruso guilty. He was charged a $10 fine, then released. More than a century before the Me Too movement this amounted to an embarrassing incident for Caruso – though it did no significant harm to the singer’s career. 

I can’t say with any authority if Enrico Caruso enjoyed pinching womens’ bottoms or not. Nor can I say if his arrest provided the impetus for what followed – His arrest may have had nothing to do with it –  but Enrico Caruso received a terrifying letter soon after. 

The writer knew things Caruso might want to keep secret. It would cost him $2,000 to keep them quiet. Caruso paid. Days later a letter arrived demanding $5,000. The blackmailers threatened to hurt him if he didn’t pay. They would force him to drink undiluted lye water, which would burn his oesophageal tract and end his singing career. On the letter, random pictures which may have included daggers, skulls and their trademark – a black hand. Caruso was willing to pay at first, but a detective convinced him that if he paid, the blackmailers would keep coming back. 

The detective set a trap for the blackmailers – he’d impersonate Caruso and meet with the thugs himself. Two men, Antonio Misiano and Antonio Cincotto, arrived expecting a payday. Instead they copped a vicious beating from the detective. 

All the men involved in this plot, the singer, the cop and the standover men had one thing in common – all were Italian immigrants who had arrived in, or just before a wave of four million Italians coming to America. In 2021’s Mussolini’s Hat I discussed how the history of Sicily created an environment the Mafia could thrive in – and how one young mafiosi embarrassing Benito Mussolini in public led to a purge which set the scene for the Castellammarese War, and the American Mafia we all know. This week we’re going back to just before the Castellammarese War to view the mob from another angle. 

First, let’s recap some of that episode.

For thousands of years, Sicily was a place where a deep distrust of authority was advisable. It is a strategic point in the Mediterranean, close to trade routes, and an ideal base to fight Barbary pirates from. The environment also makes Sicily a perfect place to grow crops. This made the island highly sought after by invaders. This, in turn made the island a two tier society, where the lower rungs were often enslaved – and the upper rung were foreign invaders overly eager to enforce their authority. 

First it was Phoenicians, then concurrent Ionian and Doric Greek invaders; then Carthaginians, Mamertines, Romans, Northern barbarians. The Byzantines were there for a while, followed by Normans, Arabs, the Angevin French, Spaniards and Austrians. Many of the invaders treated the locals horrifically. To fight back, locals formed secret clans.

Typically these groups turned to guerrilla warfare whenever oppressed or whenever their honour was insulted. In 1282, the Norman king Manfred was deposed by the Angevin French, who soon drew the ire of the clans after a French soldier raped and killed a woman in Palermo. Her husband took vengeance on the soldier, which rapidly escalated into an all out war. The locals, known popularly as the Sicilian Vespers, killed 4,000 French, ousting them. Rather than declare freedom, they invited a relative of Manfred back. An unsubstantiated rumour arose that a slogan, “morte alla Francia Italia anela’ – (death to France is Italy’s cry,) went viral – then birthed the acronym MAFIA from it’s first letters. I’m dubious of this claim, but shadowy organisations conduct secret, shadowy business. It’s hard to disprove entirely.

The word mafioso – meaning an honourable man who lived by a code of honour, and who had a distrust of authority – came into parlance in the 19th century. By then the clans were already called families. Their boss, the capo di famiglia. In 1860 these families leant their considerable muscle to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts to rid Italy of the Spanish Bourbons. Free at last, mafiosi were initially given a great deal of power over Sicily. The removal of the oppressors led to a power vacuum and crime wave took off – perpetrated by non mafia and mafia alike. King Victor Emmanuel asked mafiosi to step in and police the island – putting them in the position of both lawmaker and criminal. Several Capo’s, now above the law, became very rich and powerful. 

In Mussolini’s Hat, we discussed how the Fascists clashed with the mafia. In 1925, after a mafiosi swiped the fez from his head, to peals of laughter from the crowd, Il Duce put a thug named Cesare Mori in charge of his war with the mob. Mori leaned on them until several heavy hitters fled to the USA. These fugitives established the vast criminal organisation we think of today. This week  we’re taking a couple of steps back. Our gangsters were something different altogether.

Those blackmailers became known as The Black Hand. This was originally a name which related to the act of blackmail itself, but over time became related to them personally. 

They were mostly unaffiliated thugs, or mobsters with a price on their head back home. The late 19th century Mafia Don were going nowhere themselves. Many had taken over the large agricultural estates abandoned by the Spanish. They were doing well out of local criminal rackets. Another element was they were often called in to arbitrate over conflicts – which led to a lot of people owing capo’s big favours. These favours were often called on to great effect when a mobster wanted to run for a political office. Francesco Cuccia, the capo, and mayor of Piana dei Greci is a prime example. Why risk all that in a move to the USA, when life was so good for them in Sicily? 

This was a small part of the picture of life in a free Sicily. Wealth gravitated upwards, and most Sicilians continued to struggle as they had under the old regime. 

In 1890, the USA opened their gates to newcomers from Europe. Many “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to quote Emma Lazarus – arrived in search of the American dream. Four million Italians would be among them. Most were everyday folk looking for a better life. Some did extremely well – others less so. A small number, maybe a couple of thousand, were violent criminals willing to do what it took to succeed in America. No Sicilian Capo are believed to have sent envoys to set up shop – but plenty of small time mobsters saw great opportunities in replicating the Sicilian model. 

New Orleans had mobsters arrive early on, and became the first city to hold an investigation into Black Hand organisations. By 1890, two rival families were locked in a war for control of the city’s stevedore business. This may have flown under the radar, but on October 15th 1890, police chief David Hennessy – was gunned down by several men brandishing sawn off shotguns. Hennessy was ambushed walking home from work, and managed to return fire on his assassins, before being dropped. He lived just long enough to blame the Italians for his murder – but not name the killers. We think one side believed the chief was a dirty cop in cahoots with the other side, so they had him whacked to level out the playing field.  

As police harassed the Italian American community, and rounded up suspects – the media had a field day with tales of shadowy criminal organisations who take a blood oath, and commit horrific acts. Fear, then anger bubbled over in New Orleans. A long, messy murder trial of nine suspected assassins led to a series of mistrials – so an angry mob gathered outside the court house and lynched eleven Italians leaving the court house.

Across the country, from Chicago, to New York, to Philadelphia; independent Black Hand mafiosi groups operated with impunity – mostly against their own people. They sent threatening blackmail letters, and kidnapped children. From 1906, these Black Hand groups took to fire bombing Italian businesses who refused to pay them. Within Italian communities the Black Hand were prolific, but were a hazy rumour – at most – to other Americans. In 1903, this changed when a wealthy Italian contractor living in Brooklyn got a blackmail letter – but before we speak of him – I should introduce that detective who spoke with Caruso. 

Joseph Petrosino was born in Salerno, Italy in 1860. When young he lost his mother to a streetcar accident, and in 1873, he emigrated to New York with his father and brother. The family settled into a poor neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan, which had previously been almost exclusively Irish. Generations earlier, the Irish arrived in America, only to find themselves othered by white Anglo-Saxon protestants. They weren’t bestowed as white until they became useful as enforcers of the status quo in the police forces – Policing cities a new trend following the abolition of slavery. As interlopers on ‘Irish land,’ and considered definitely not of the status quo – Italians faced terrible harassment in the neighbourhood. Irish parents, often policemen, regularly set gangs of their own children out after the Italian kids. A young Petrosino learned to fight very well on his way home from school. 

He was also disadvantaged academically. He was an extremely bright kid, but spoke little English, so was put in a class with children much younger than himself. Petrosino got bored, and left school after graduating the sixth grade. He worked several jobs before a role came up as a rubbish collector. The sanitation department, odd as this may seem now, was then run by the police department. The young collector impressed enough cops to secure himself a position in the police force in 1883. At only 5.3” tall, an exception had to be made for his height, though as a powerfully built, barrel-chested guy – Petrosino otherwise fit in well. As a token Italian kid, on an Irish force, opportunities for promotion were non-existent. Petrocino spent his early years working as a beat cop, though clearly capable of a lot more. 

His big break came in 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt –  yet to run for Vice President, and at a loose end – took a job as police commissioner of New York. As commissioner, Roosevelt cleared out as many corrupt cops as he could find. In their place he promoted on merit. Petrosino had a great arrest record, was tough and resourceful – so was promoted to detective sergeant, the first Italian American to do so in America. 

Once a detective, Petrosino’s career took off. A workaholic, he went well over and above for the role. An innovator of undercover police work, he became a master of disguise. He allegedly carried the dossiers of thousands of known criminals in his head, and was notorious for collaring some fugitive or other in a bar, having recognised him while out on other business. Although he worked alone, his arrest rate was regularly higher than anyone else on the force. A glory-hound, he pursued notoriety for his arrests in the papers – As a tough cop whose arrests led to seventeen murder convictions in a year, a man who sent a hundred killers to the electric chair – he accrued an aura of invincibility about him. Criminals were terrified of Joe Petrosino. 

Of course he broke up a lot of Italian crime rackets – one big one involved criminals befriending new arrivals from the old country, taking out life insurance on them, then knocking them off for the insurance money. This press attention made him approachable to many Italians, who otherwise would have been wary of speaking to the police. 

This played a part in that case mentioned earlier. On 3rd August 1903, a wealthy contractor named Nicola Cappiello received a letter stating if he didn’t pay $2,000, the Black Hand would dynamite his house, and kill his family. He ignored the letter. Two days later, a second letter arrived. He was now as good as dead, but could still save his family if he paid the blackmailers. Days later, several groups of strange men arrived at his home. They informed Cappiello he had a $10,000 price on his head, but if he paid them $1,000, they could make the threat go away. Old friends appeared at his door to beg him to pay the money, accompanied by terrifying strangers. He gave in, and paid them – but then the blackmailers were soon back, now asking for $3,000. 

Exasperated, he turned to Petrosino for help. 

Petrosino was quick on this case, arresting the five men responsible. 

But this case was important for three reasons. First, it convinced Petrosino a network of blackmailers were forming into a crime family in New York – he would declare war on this family. Second, the story was picked up by the press, who reported the case far and wide. The Black hand were no longer a shadowy rumour – they were now a national threat. Third, possibly in relation to point two – the Black Hand threw themselves headlong into a years long crime spree – escalating their activities.  

The first wave consisted largely of dozens of child kidnappings in Italian neighbourhoods. With so many cases, Petrosino turned to the commissioner for help. He begged for his own squad – and was eventually given five men. His crew collectively were known as The Mysterious Six. Over the years, his crew – named The Italian Squad, would become around 40 strong. As press publicity around the ‘Black Hand Fever’ of the summer of 1904 spread, and onwards – some poor, young Italians turned to organised crime. The system was racist and stacked against them, why not climb the crooked ladder to success? 

One case of note to come across Petrosino’s desk was an early one – but it likely had ramifications on the end of his life. In April 1903, a man’s naked, nearly decapitated body was found stuffed inside a barrel on the East side. The victim was a counterfeiter named Benedetto Madonia. After investigation, the murder was tied back to a Sicilian man named Giuseppe Morello, and his gang – the 107th Street Mob. 

Morello, known as ‘The clutch hand’ for his right hand which resembled a lobster claw – was a bona fide mobster. The nephew of the Don of Corleone, Sicily, he likely fled Sicily to avoid a murder charge in 1892. A terrifyingly cold-blooded killer, he ran his business out of a bar on 107th Street, where he would order the deaths of anyone stupid enough to cross him. He personally was responsible for the deaths of dozens of men. He formed alliances with other heavy hitters, like the suave Ignacio ‘the Wolf’ Lupo – and his Morello family would eventually morph into the Gambino family – the first of New York’s Five bona fide Mafia families.

Madonia had crossed the Clutch hand while counterfeiting five dollar notes; so Morello likely ordered a heavy named Tomasso ‘The Ox’ Petto, to carry out the murder. A dozen men were arrested and charged, but all had to be let go when the trial turned into a circus. One of the mobsters, a man named Vito Casco Ferro, fled back to Sicily after the trial. He, it seems was responsible for the circus, when he swapped out one of the mobsters for an average Joe who looked a bit like him. The decoy was only revealed, to much clamour, on the trial date – when he produced evidence of his true identity. This brought the whole prosecution case into question. It’s been claimed Ferro carried a photograph of Petrosino on him for the rest of his life, in the hope one day he’d get to murder him. 

The war, meanwhile, raged between the Italian Squad and Black Hand groups. Thousands of Italian Americans in New York alone were blackmailed, had their children kidnapped or had their businesses firebombed, but things took a serious turn for the WASPs of New York in 1908 – when they started to send threatening letters to people outside the Italian American community. 

A panic ensued, which could easily have turned into another New Orleans incident. ‘White Hand’ groups of Italian Americans, tired of being branded criminals, came together to fight the Black Hand. In towns outside of New York, a few White Hand groups – and a gang of Pinkerton detectives in a place we’ll return to, had some luck with this method – but the White Hand soon ran out of steam. 

In 1907, another bona fide high ranking Mafiosi named Enrico Alfano showed up in New York. Having fled a murder charge in Sicily, he arrived as a crew member on the ship The California. By chance, Petrosino stumbled across the mobster while meeting with a journalist at a restaurant. Though alone, and outnumbered by the crew of mobsters with Alfano, Petrosino bellowed his name across the restaurant, before beating the living daylights out of the mobster. He arrested Alfano, who was then deported to Naples to face charges. This was not terribly unusual – by this stage Petrosino had arrested many men later deported in a similar manner. 

In 1907, politicians gave the police a new tool to deal with Black Hand criminals and other mobsters. If an Italian criminal made it into the country, and it could be shown within three years of their arrival that they had a criminal record back home, the authorities could now deport them back to Italy.   

But while all of this was going on, threats continued to the rich wasps. Reports on, for example the stress induced death of Daniel B Wesson, the 81 year old heir to the Smith & Wesson fortune – ratcheted up fear among the general public. Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham was pressured to put an end to the Black Hand. Heavy media criticism was levelled against the Italian Squad, who, not that you’d know it,  were actually on a roll with their arrests. It had to be strange times for Petrosino, a lifelong bachelor who – it turns out had been secretly courting a young widow named Adelina Saulino for a decade. The couple married in 1908, had a child, and for a brief time enjoyed what is traditionally considered a ‘normal’ family life. 

In the meantime, Commissioner Bingham chased funding to create a secret team of top detectives to go out there and deal a killing blow to the Black Hand by any means necessary. The politicians at Tammany Hall refused to fund the scheme, but one wealthy patron – possibly a victim of black hand letters – paid for Bingham’s secret service. 

As 1908 rolled into 1909, Joseph Petrosino disappeared from public view. Some claimed he’d taken ill and had been bed-ridden for weeks. In the meantime, a 48 year old Jewish Italian merchant boarded a cruise ship bound for Italy.

That man, of course was Petrosino. He was the head of Bingham’s Secret Service – and on his way to Italy to meet with police commissioners, criminal archivists and confidential informants. Bingham’s plan was to send a man to collect the criminal histories of around a thousand known thugs, to make copies, then send the records back to New York. While there, Petrosino was also tasked with getting the names of all the serious criminals serving time in Italy, so immigration could have a watch list. Thirdly, he was to set up a spy network to observe the Italian Mafia. 

Things started out OK – but while still on mainland Italy, Commissioner Bingham let the cat out of the bag with a flippant comment to reporters that Petrosino could be in Sicily for all he knew. Though he was moving through the country using a series of nom de plumes, he was about to visit Palermo – his only backup a pistol. There were dozens of mobsters in the city who he had arrested, beaten up and seen convicted – any of whom might seek revenge. One of these criminals, Vito Casco Ferro, had risen through the ranks of the Sicilian Mafia. He was now Don Vito, boss of bosses. 

Don Vito rose through the ranks through his smarts, and a sense of brand awareness. He insisted on a level of customer service from his heavies while running protection rackets. His men were nice, respectful young men who offered protection against the other brutish thugs who would come looking for money if they weren’t there. Many locals felt if you have to pay someone, then the nice guys should be the ones to get paid. Many locals appeared to have genuine admiration for Don Vito.  

Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be brutal – he most certainly was to become a Mafia Don. In his lifetime he’d face over 60 charges, and only go away on the last charge – we’ll discuss that in a fortnight. 

Petrosino pushed on in his mission, in spite of the danger. He sensed things were due to turn very ugly, but had a job to complete. One night he wrote a letter back to Adelina stating something he would explain when he got home had left him deeply disturbed. He was feeling quite depressed, and couldn’t wait to return to America. We don’t know what upset him. He reached Palermo, and soon had criminal records transcribed for 350 criminals on his list. These were sent back to Bingham.  

Then March 12th 1909, things went horribly wrong. 

Joseph Petrosino had a busy day ahead – collecting records, meeting with Palermo’s top cop, then holding a mysterious rendezvous with a stranger. 

Petrosino seemed unaware that the night before a former member of the Morello gang sent a telegram to someone in New York about something. Nor would he have known two men he’d arrested in New York picked him out of a crowd, then met in a bar with two other gangsters. A group of people who later got amnesia briefly recalled their conversation about the detective. A young child had been tailing him around the city for days on behalf of someone. This detail had not escaped the eye of police detectives also charged with tailing Petrosino. 

Then there were those rumours Don Vito – who officially was out of town staying with a politician friend – was in Palermo. 

Truthfully, dozens of people only had to pick up an Italian newspaper to know he was there. His arrival made headline news. Besides that, other people just knew. Years later it was revealed on the day he sailed for Italy, Ignacio Lupo knew of his trip. Lupo was another one who had reasons to end Petrosino. He’d threatened the detective once, who showed up on the floor of one of his legitimate businesses, and beat him to a pulp in front of his staff. How he knew is pure speculation. The Italian Squad knew, and one of them may have spoken with someone? Perhaps Petrosino was seen boarding the ship by one of Lupo’s underlings? 

There were many criminals, and at least one politician, who wanted revenge. And whoever they were, two men followed Petrosino out of a restaurant that night – shots were exchanged – and Joseph Petrosino got the worst of it. Witnesses heard the shots, saw Petrosino fall, then saw the men running away. When the gravity of what they saw hit the witnesses … suddenly no-one saw a thing. 

Sicilian Police vigorously pursued several suspects in the murder of Joseph Petrosino and arrested over a hundred suspects – but silence pervaded. Petrosino’s body arrived back in New York to something akin to a state funeral. 250,000 people packed the streets to honour him – considerably more than President William McKinley or the actor Rudolph Valentino. Two of his colleagues risked life and limb to return to Sicily to help in the case. They were too bamboozled with it all – though they came home with several hundred more criminal records – but none the wiser as to who killed their boss. 

Nothing happened with those records for quite some time. Commissioner Bingham lost his job, and his replacement didn’t want to act too soon – giving Bingham any recognition whatsoever for work he’d begun. They did eventually pick up their game, to some real success against the Black Hand organisations – but by this point another threat was on the horizon. 

Next fortnight we’ll return to this – and look into that story a little. Mussolini’s Hat was done a long time back, and needs a serious revamp. Let’s shelve the episode I had planned for a few weeks and talk about the mob a little longer.   


The following is the tale of a loving wife and mother. A philanthropist and a catalyst for change both within a stuffy old establishment, and among a wider nation. The tale of a figure of great fascination in her own time, especially to Europeans. It is the story of someone who rose from – well we don’t know enough about her beginnings in Rohatyn – a town near Lviv, Ukraine to say humble beginnings- but our protagonist did ascend the heights, from slavery to royalty.

 She was no action hero. She never burnt a bath-house to the ground while crammed full of Drevlian warlords like Olga of Kiev; but was impressive in other ways. For one to survive what she did, and thrive after, shows a remarkably cool headed, brave, and adaptable character. The Ukrainians thought Roxelana – our heroine – remarkable enough, that on gaining freedom from the USSR in 1991, they built a bronze statue of her in Rohatyn. Ukraine, in looking for heroes and role models from their past, saw fit to include Roxelana in their pantheon.   

 Before we get to Roxelana, Hurrem, or Haseki Sultan – all names she was known by – we need to detour to mid 13th century Anatolia, modern day Turkey to add a little context.

At an unspecified date in the mid 1200s, a Turkish warlord named Ertugrul made his way to Anatolia, accompanied by his tribe of ‘four hundred tents.’ Like the Seljuks who arrived a few hundred years earlier, they were Steppe people – in their case from Uzbekistan. More likely than not, they were refugees, who suddenly had to flee the Mongol hordes. Initially, the Seljuks gave the Turks some of their land to settle in, but in the course of a couple of generations, the Seljuks lost their prominence – while the Turks rose to prominence in the region. Ertugrul’s son, Osman graduated from warlord to king. In a dynasty which ran for 37 Emperors, Osman – Uthman in Arabic – would be their first; and lend his name to the dynasty. Uthman soon becoming Ottoman to western ears.

By their seventh Sultan, Mehmed II, the land was all theirs – with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed’s armies conquered the Byzantines at Constantinople – renaming the city Istanbul. He arrived with a numerically superior army and navy, but succeeded where many other large armies failed by using cannons and bombards as wall breakers. The fall of Constantinople ushered in a new age of warfare where the most impressive of defensive walls no longer guaranteed you victory. 

Not that I buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, but Mehmed II was an impressive commander, whose actions changed the world. As impressive as Mehmed was, a legend pervaded that their tenth Sultan would really be something else entirely. 

Sari Saltik was a Turkish Dervish who travelled deep into the Balkans, proselytising Islam to the people. His hagiography became wildly popular with Islamic children for it’s tales of adventure. One day, Sari Saltik allegedly came across a magnificent European city, with a beautiful church. Atop the church roof a golden sphere. To the saint, the sphere looked just like a golden apple. As he sent men up to bring him the golden apple, the prophet Khizr was said to have appeared and warned him to leave the apple where it was. That apple was only to be picked by the tenth Sultan – who will be their greatest conqueror. 

Time rolled on, and with a couple of Ottoman Sultans engaged in empire building – the presumed location of the golden apple moved upwards and westwards. As Emperor number ten came into focus with his coronation in 1520, the apple was believed to be in Hungary. That emperor, a man named Suleiman, would become a great conqueror – much to the chagrin of European kings who hoped for a peaceful emperor next. The son of the bellicose Emperor Selim I, he continued in that family tradition, personally leading five major campaigns. However, as we will see he was an altogether more complex individual than his father, and many of his other ancestors. We’ll come back to Suleiman the Magnificent in a moment.  

In 2022’s The Old Man of the Mountain, we briefly mentioned the Crimean Slave markets, when discussing a Mongol raid into modern day Bulgaria in the 1220s. This was a mission to punish the Kipchaks – another steppe people who had gotten on the Mongols’ bad side. One boy captured and sold off to a wealthy Egyptian through those markets, rose through the ranks to become the leader of a movement which overthrew the Egyptian ruling class. Known as Baybars, he became the first in a long line of Mamluk sultans. The slave markets, established in the 12th century, would continue until 1769. 

By 1475, Venice and Genoa – two Italian maritime nations – were ejected from their established bases in the Crimea, having briefly taken over the Black Sea slave trade. Control was passed over to the Giray Tatars – a Crimean vassal state of the Ottomans who were of Mongol origin. From just before this handover, in 1468, until Russia finally put a stop to them in 1769 – the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate ‘harvested the steppes’ of Ukraine and Southern Russia for tens of thousands of villagers every year. Their ideal target were young women, who could be sold into domestic work, or into sexual slavery. From Baybars’ time up till the abolition of the Crimean slave trade, around 6.5 million people were rounded up and sold. The slaves lives were generally harsh, and thoroughly miserable – their treatment often cruel. A Lithuanian observer told of domestic servants who were branded on their foreheads or cheeks like cattle. They also told of people locked in cold, damp dungeons when not engaged in work. 

Many also died on their way to market, a fate considered a blessing by the Ukrainians and Russians they preyed upon. Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish courtier and traveller writing in the mid seventeenth century stated it was a wonder any slaves got to market, they were so poorly treated on the slave trails. Success stories like Baybars, were extremely rare.

On an unspecified winter day, when the Tatars could quickly traverse the frozen rivers on horseback – a band of slavers flooded into Rohatyn. The two most likely years 1509 or 1516 – two years they definitely reached Rohatyn. They slashed and burned everything in sight, killed anyone who fought back, then rounded up any villagers they deemed saleable at market. The prisoners, our hero included, were forcibly marched for weeks to the Black Sea port of Caffa. If captured in 1516, Roxelana would have been thirteen – very young, but at a push, as capable of taking care of herself as most adults on the long march. If captured in 1509, aged six, it doesn’t bear to think of how terrifying this must have been for the young child. Legend has it, recorded with less evidence than the tale of Sari Saltik’s golden apple – she was the daughter of a preacher. Other tales suggested a name, Aleksandra Lisowska – also without evidence. Soon her birth name would be deleted. Her religion supplanted by Islam. 

Transported to the Caffa Slave Markets, she would have been examined like livestock, bought as part of a bulk purchase, then put onto a ship for a ten day voyage – to the slave markets of Istanbul.

We don’t know where Roxelana spent the following years until 1520, though we know she would have been taught about Islam, and learned the basics of Ottoman language and culture. We can also guess her owners saw something special in her – seeing her as just the kind of slave a Sultan would pay them a lot of money for. This possibly affected the level of training the young girl had. 

The sultans kept harems of the only best quality slaves, kept separate from the men in Istanbul’s Old Palace. One important reason for the slaves was to keep their bloodline going. 

In the early years of the Ottoman Empire, emperors chased old world authenticity, by strategically marrying children to foreign royals. As their kingdom grew, and their neighbours’ golden apples looked far too good to resist, this caused a problem. What if they declare war on the princess’s homeland – and that princess turns saboteur on them? What if, God forbid, a princess murders her own children to deny any further Ottoman emperors? 

Around 1400, potential Ottoman emperors stopped marrying. When it came to love or procreation Sultans courted slaves from the harem. A sultan would be expected to have many favourites over their reign. Once a favourite became pregnant, that favourite would be elevated to a much higher position in the harem, with a large bump in pay. She would take on much of the responsibility of bringing up the child. The sultan would, typically dump her for a new favourite.

When a sultan passed on, there was no regulated order of succession, and the male children often fought one another to the death for the top job. Suleiman’s father not only went to war with his brother, but personally deposed his own living father to take the crown. In 1402 the emperor Bayezid I lost a war against the warlord Tamerlane, which led to a succession crisis. His son Mehmed I fought a bloody four-way civil war with his remaining brothers. Bayezid himself had his younger brother strangled upon becoming Sultan, to avoid getting into a civil war.  

This made for complex dynamics at court. 

Another element to this is young, would be Sultans usually turned to outsiders as their top advisors and generals. Many enslaved boys were brought up in Istanbul’s New Palace, and trained to be advisors. Suleiman’s top advisor was a young Greek or Albanian man given the name Ibrahim. A close friend since childhood, Ibrahim Pasha would become Suleiman’s Vizier and a top general. 

In September 1520, while making plans for a European invasion, Selim I died suddenly. Suleiman, then a 25 year old father of four and governor of Manisa – rushed back to Istanbul to take the reins. His mother, a former slave named Hafsa, rushed ahead of him to prepare his ascension. 

Around this time, as Suleiman took charge unopposed, someone – possibly Ibrahim – bought and gifted Roxelana to the Sultan.

Were this Suleiman’s tale, we’d discuss his quest for the golden apple. He led five major campaigns personally, and oversaw several others – vastly expanding Ottoman territory. By 1526 he ruled much of Hungary after a heroic victory at Mohacs. He captured Rhodes and Corfu. He defeated the Persians, and unsuccessfully faced off against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Vienna, Austria. Today we’re interested in his wife. 

In Manisa, royal protocols around dumping favourites once they bore you a child were looser – he had a favourite in the mother of one of his children – a beautiful Circassian named Mahidevran. When Roxelana arrived at the harem, a clear pecking order was in place. Hafsa, Suleiman’s mother ruled the roost, followed by Mahidevran. Roxelana found allies in the harem – she was very likeable, and apparently a ray of sunshine; the name given to her in the harem, Hurrem – meaning the joyful one – is testimony to that. 

The one ally she absolutely won over though was the Sultan – by all indications, one day he crossed the road from the new palace to the old palace looking for somebody to spend a little time with – and when he saw Hurrem, the Sultan was thunderstruck. They spent time together, then spent a little more time together, and at some time Mahidevran was said to have become insanely jealous and attacked Hurrem – scratching up her face and tearing out tufts of hair. Once Suleiman found out, he was furious with Mahidevran. Ignoring all the things we don’t know, and some of the things we do – like the couple’s massive power imbalance alone should give us pause for thought before saying this – but it appears the couple may have fallen in love. By the fall of 1521, Hurrem bore Suleiman their first child. 

When he was away chasing golden apples, the couple exchanged love letters. Roxelana’s survive – only scraps of Suleiman’s do. Of course when he returned, in spite of the dump the concubine and get yourself a new one rule, the couple remained together. In spite of others in his court gifting him a pair of beautiful Russian concubines, Suleiman was now pretty much a one woman man. Between military campaigns they had more children – six all up. Roxelana rose to prominence in important circles – by 1526 the Venetian ambassador Pietro Bragadin wrote she was “young but not beautiful, although graceful and petite.” – As if Bragadin’s observations meant a jot to the Sultan. 

With growing prominence, Roxelana took on the role of Suleiman’s eyes and ears in the kingdom while he was away. Her role as a diplomat also increased over the years – by the 1540s she was in regular contact with King Sigismund II Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – one of Europe’s great powers at the time. 

Despite the couple living in separate palaces for years, in 1530 they were officially recognised as a couple at the circumcision of the three eldest sons. No mere operation, this was a nearly three week long party with half the known world’s dignitaries on the guest list. Among the feasts, fireworks, performers, large scale war re-enacters, and exotic dancers – the acknowledged first couple were on display. They would not move in together, and officially marry until some time soon after the death of Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa. When they did, it was the first time in anyone’s living memory an Ottoman Sultan had married. 

Now of course they were hated by some – For one the Sultan’s elite Janissary troops – a group apt to riot over extended times of peace – detested Roxelana. As did a number of Istanbul’s wealthier citizens, who spread rumours she must be a witch – how else could she have won the Sultan’s heart if she hadn’t hexed him? 

And then there were those rumours she was a Machiavellian schemer, responsible for several high profile executions – including Suleiman’s closest friend Ibrahim Pasha, and Mahidevran’s son,  Mustafa. The former had been in charge of the 1532 invasion of Persia – and had largely been responsible for the invasion taking far too long, and the victory coming at an eye-wateringly high cost. Some say Suleiman had him garrotted in March 1536 because Roxelana convinced him to do so. Others say Ibrahim had become haughty and arrogant, and a liability on the battlefield. Contemporary sources claim Suleiman executed Mustafa in 1553 because he was caught plotting to kill his father and declare himself Sultan. 

But Roxelana had a lot of fans too. She brought back marriage among the women of the Old Palace – playing matchmaker to hundreds. This led to an uptick in marriages in general. She sponsored mosques and hospitals, and schools – improving the living standards in the empire. The Haseki Sultan complex, built between 1538 and 1551, contained a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. She established foundations to pay for her public works for generations after her passing. 

The couple had a long, apparently happy marriage. Roxelana never lived to see her children fight it out for the crown. There was no fight, though succession was messy. With Mustafa strangled, Mehmed dying of smallpox, and Bayezid dying of also getting on Suleiman’s bad side while plotting to take out his brother – Selim II, an unlikely contender popularly known as Selim the Drunk – ended up last man standing. Roxelana, or Hurrem, or possibly Aleksandra? Pre-deceased Suleiman by a little over eight years, passing of an unknown illness in April 1558. 

Over the following weeks I’m planning to move us from domesticity of a kind – to warring samurai, a murder mystery, corporations fighting literal wars against one another, filibusters, conmen and all manner of other things… so please excuse me sharing one final tidbit. Though much of Suleiman’s letters have been lost to time, one poem he wrote his wife comes down to us. He wrote the ode under his pen name, Muhibbi… and I think it rather telling of their relationship. 

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”

The Island

On January 1st 1739 the French ships Aigle and Marie were fumbling through the lowest, most inhospitable regions of the Southern Atlantic Ocean when they found something quite remarkable. Their captain, a young man named Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier had set off with dreams of wealth, fame and power. He believed that somewhere south of the Equator lay a massive continent. And Bouvet, well, he’d just found something no-one else had ever seen before… 

At this point in time westerners already knew something of Australia. A small number of historians believe the Portuguese had sighted the continent as early as the 1520s, but evidence for this is questionable. In 1592, a Dutch sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten made his way to India, came across a group of Portuguese sailors in possession of the maps needed to reach the Far East, then stole those maps. These maps, with instructions on trade winds and the known hazards of such a voyage had, prior to this theft, exclusively belonged to the Portuguese. The Dutch were finding their sea legs at the time – and were soon to pioneer the modern corporation; and soon Dutch trading ships would regularly sail to the Spice Islands, and beyond. Why wouldn’t you when profits of up to 1,000% could be made from the cargo? 

It took until 1606, for one of their own – Willem Janszoon, to sight Far North Queensland. The Spaniard Luis Vaz de Torres arrived just months later, and mapped out stretches of the North of the country – as well as a stretch of water later named the Torres Strait in his honour. In 1611, the Dutch adopted the practice of travelling along the ‘roaring 40s’ – a latitude where the wild winds helped cut travelling time considerably. This also put them on a path to hit Australia’s West coast if they misjudged their longitude (a regular occurrence.) Because of this more explorers were sailing alongside, and mapping parts of Australia’s West coast.

Notably there was Dirk Hartog; who found a place to land in 1616. He provided evidence of landfall to later settlers, by accidentally leaving a pewter dinner plate behind. Frederick de Houtman nearly hit an Atoll off the coast in 1619. At some time we needs must come back to Houtman himself, – his misadventures in Aceh – that atoll, and the 1629 wreck of the flagship Batavia on ‘Houtman’s Abrolhos.’ That will be a very long one, for now let’s put a pin in that – but note in 1629 a Dutch ship was in these waters. Very bad things happened on the atoll. Their lifeboat also sailed most of the length of the West Coast of Australia – and Australia received it’s first two European settlers. 

There were several others besides. Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642 filled in much of the picture. William Dampier’s visit in 1699 is interesting for other reasons. He is someone else we’ll put a pin in for now. 

Cook, Bass and Flinders (all mentioned in my previous post on Jorgen Jorgensen) would all come later – but by Bouvet’s time, Europeans knew of a land mass roughly as big as Europe was down there. Many of Europe’s great thinkers reasoned there had to be much more besides – if only for balance’s sake – there had to be as much land below the equator as above it in their considered opinion. Bouvet lobbied to go out and claim that land for France, and the French figured where was the harm in sending the young man? Bouvet left for parts unknown, believing if he found the fabled ‘Terra Australis’, the French crown would appoint him governor of Terra Australis. As Governor he would attain the fame and fortune he desired. 

On December 10th 1738, Bouvet’s ships dipped below the 44th Parallel well into the ‘roaring forties.’ They sailed into a deep blanket of fog which took several days to pass through. As the fog started to clear, Bouvet was greeted by several massive icebergs. He wrote they were “Floating rocks which are more to be feared than land.” On New Year’s Day, the ships were as far as one could possibly be from human contact, when they discovered – “a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist.” 

Bouvet was unable to circumnavigate the island, let alone land. It would’ve been one hell of a task to do either at the time. The seas were exceedingly rough, the air exceedingly foggy, and the sea full of moving ice blocks as tall as skyscrapers. The island itself was surrounded by steep cliffs that reached thousands of feet high into the air at their highest points. Just how inhospitable the island was would become apparent to later explorers. With 93% of the island covered by ice year round, you couldn’t grow any food there. The seas around the island made landing with supplies extremely dangerous. Add to that, those sheer cliffs are dangerous to climb, even with mountaineering gear – as they are highly prone to avalanches. Also, the island contains an active volcano that goes off every couple of years. South Africa sailed to the island in 1955, thinking it a good place to set up a weather station. They couldn’t find a flat plane large enough to set one up. Three years later, an American icebreaker stopped by the island, discovering it had grown an extension out the back due to a recent eruption.  The island now had a significant flat area to set up that weather station.  In the ‘Dog Days’ of a Southern summer, the island reaches an average of only two degrees Celsius. This does not take into account wind-chill. Winds of 50 knots are considered mild on the island. Wisely, Bouvet noted where he believed the island to be on the map – claimed it in the name of France, and moved on. 

He sighted Antarctica soon afterwards, and attempted to land there for twelve days, before giving up on that too. By then a large number of his men were dying of scurvy, so the Aigle and Marie quickly made for the Cape of Good Hope.

Bouvet took down the coordinates to the island incorrectly – not that anyone else was in a rush to go there – but this was noted by other explorers – like the whaling ships who were venturing out into these waters at the end of the century. The Island was re-discovered in 1808 by a British whaler named James Lindsay. Lindsay named the island after himself, then too, promptly lost the island. Like Bouvet, he recorded incorrect coordinates. In 1822 the American adventurer Benjamin Morrell claimed to have landed there, and to have even scaled the island’s high cliffs. This is questioned by some, not least of all as he was using Lindsay’s co-ordinates, which were out by several hundred kilometres. 

Correct co-ordinates were finally locked down by the British in 1825, but no-one was known to have actually landed on the island till a Norwegian ship arrived in 1927. They too claimed this inhospitable rock, and put two huts on the island. Both huts were found flattened by the winds when they returned two years later. Some time after that, Norway did put a weather station there, on the landmass that was belched out by the volcano in the late 1950s. 

The Norwegians gave the island the name it is known by now. They christened it in honour of it’s original discoverer – Bouvet Island.  

Although Bouvet Island is the most remote point on Earth – 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade route, another couple of hundred kilometres again to the nearest landmass (South Africa and Tristan de Cunha to the North, Antarctica to the South) – it has two short Tales relating to it I would like to share with you today. 

First there was that lifeboat. I don’t think we need to spend more than two minutes on this part of the tale – but it certainly added to the island’s aura of mystery for some time.

In 1964 South Africa were still sniffing around Bouvet Island (this will be an ongoing theme), though they had not been back since 1955. This new extension was already christened Nyrosa (meaning new mound in Norwegian) and claimed sight unseen by Norway, but clearly South Africa were never too worried about who claimed to own this island. Besides the American Icebreaker, who never made landfall, no-one was known to have been there in the years since. 

On Easter Sunday two ships approached the Nyrosa. They waited three days for the winds to die down enough to send a helicopter out to the island. 

Onboard the helicopter, a British adventurer named Allan Crawford. He’s now best known for his work on the world’s most remote inhabited island – Tristan de Cunha – and his advocacy in returning the people of Tristan de Cunha back to their island years after a volcanic eruption saw them evacuated to England in 1961; but for our purposes, Crawford was a well thought of South Seas adventurer. 

What Crawford saw there puzzled the world for half a century. 

Near the point where the helicopter landed, a lagoon had formed. A handful of fur seals had made their way up there, and were bathing in the water – next to a half-submerged life boat. On the rocks bordering the lagoon, two oars and a 44 gallon drum. There were no markings on the boat, drum, or oars to suggest who these items once belonged to. A search of the barren island yielded no further clues. No bodies were to be found. The crew having around 45 minutes to do a quick survey of the land, and to take rock samples – and to fend off a gang of enraged Elephant seals also on the Nyrosa – and not too happy to see strangers in these parts; their search was not exhaustive, but the men felt safe concluding there were no human beings, dead or alive to be found on the island. 

For decades the lifeboat remained a mystery. The closest trade route lay 1,600 kilometres to the North, so if the crew of some ship mutinied and jettisoned their captain – like Bly on the Bounty – could anyone really row a lifeboat that distance, through the worlds roughest seas? If so, why? If it was flotsam washed ashore, and this goes with the ‘Bly hypothesis’ too – how did the boat make it up steep cliffs still several hundred feet high on the Nyrosa in one piece? It must have landed with a full crew to haul it up the cliff. If this is the case, where are the signs of a makeshift camp? Surely, if you have a sizeable party you leave a couple of people to set up camp while others explore and so forth? 

If there were people who landed with the vessel, and then negotiated the steep incline, where were their remains? Were they all killed and eaten by a gang of 4,000 Lb Elephant seals? If they had landed there and gotten the better of any seals congregating there at the time till someone rescued them, where was the evidence of seal remains?

Had they explored further inland, and gotten buried by an avalanche? 

If, rather than a mutiny, a shipwreck had occurred, surely someone would have noticed a missing ship between 1955 and 1964, right?

Ultimately, it appears the murkiness of the Cold War obscured the answer, to the west at least, for half a century. In October 1958 a Russian whaler named Slava 9 (not to be confused with their Slava class missile cruisers) was near the island, when they decided to make landfall. A group of men landed on the Nyrosa, but then the weather took a turn for the worse – these men were left to fend for themselves on the island for several days till safe to send a helicopter for them. I guess in this case the biggest mystery is why the men didn’t have the boat upside-down on land as a shelter – as Shackleton’s men did on Elephant Island in 1916, as their boss sailed for help on South Georgia Island (I know, put a pin in that one too)… 

Our final Tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, an uninhabitable Island on the same line of Longitude as Oslo – which is to say it was also 3am on Bouvet Island. In the dead of night, a massive double flash was detected close to the island.

There are a few reasons we know there was a flash, and think we know what caused it. In 1963 most of the world’s nations agreed to a partial nuclear test ban. Signatories were no longer allowed to test a nuclear bomb above ground, in space or underwater. You could – and a number of countries continued to do this – test a nuke by digging a very deep hole in the ground then setting the bomb off down the bottom of that hole. This does not produce the signature double flash, a flash unlike anything else known in nature. 

To look out for people testing regardless, the USA launched twelve reconnaissance satellites – The Vela satellites – which detect both that flash, and any increased radiation in the atmosphere. 

In the wee small hours, Vela satellite 6911 detected the flash from it’s orbit. It was not the only device to pick up the incident that day. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast – a fast moving ionospheric disturbance was detected. The ionosphere being the layer of our atmosphere that sits between the air we breathe and the wilds of space – coronal mass ejections like the Carrington Event are the normal natural cause for such readings. This was no coronal mass ejection on or around 22nd September 1979. The US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, also picked up the heavy thud from the Vela incident, as it came to be known. The thud registered as far out as a device near Prince Edward Island, Canada. 

In Melbourne, Australia, 9,100 kilometres to the East, high levels of iodine 131 radiation showed up in the thyroids of sheep. A relatively unthreatening side effect of a nuclear detonation (iodine 131 has a half life of 8 days and is even used as a treatment for thyroid cancers in humans.) The element is known to show up in the thyroids of grazing animals following a nuclear detonation. The sheep were on farms in South Australia on the day of the Vela Incident. The meat-works – unbeknownst to the public – sent monthly thyroid samples to the US Government from the 1950s to the 1980s. 

This all added up to the high likelihood someone had detonated a nuclear weapon, on or near the most remote location on Earth. 

So just what happened, and who are the most likely suspects? With much of the USA’s documentation still classified, officially we can only catch glimpses – such as a handful of comments left in notebooks by former President Jimmy Carter. These comments can be found at his presidential library. We’re also told US scientists were shipped out to Bouvet Island. They checked the scene of the alleged crime – They could say something like a nuclear device appeared to have been detonated there – but they couldn’t 100% rule out ‘other natural phenomena.’

 There are currently two schools of thought. First, Vela 6911 – a ten year old satellite in need of calibration – malfunctioned after being struck with space junk. Or someone nearby, who as far as anyone knew did not have nuclear weapons, tested a nuke there. It just so happened one of Bouvet Island’s neighbours WAS secretly developing nuclear weapons at the time. 

If one were to ask today, who are the nuclear armed countries; certain lists come up. The USA, United Kingdom, France and Russia of course are top of the list. India and Pakistan – Two neighbouring countries who have gone to war with one another four times since 1947 – each have a cache of nukes, worryingly. Another nation with border disputes with India (though when these conflicts break out, the weapons employed by agreement of both nations are limited to bamboo poles and rocks – I couldn’t make this stuff up) is China. 

North Korea is now a member of this club, although a long time coming they most certainly were not a nuclear power in 1979. The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons in the Cold War era, but when the Iron Curtain fell, they handed those weapons back to Russia. Several NATO countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to nuclear warheads also.

There are almost certainly two other nations – one who has admitted to having nuclear weapons, and another who, to this day kinda-sorta deny having them – normally followed by a sly wink just to say ‘just kidding, of course we do – don’t even think of messing with us.’ 

The first is South Africa. From the early 1980s, it was known they were a nuclear power. Officially, they dismantled all of their weapons in 1991. With Apartheid coming to an end, their fear of invasion from another country lessened. From as early as 1961 we know South Africa began secretly enriching their own uranium deposits. In 1977 they went further, building a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country. IF a nuclear bomb was detonated near Bouvet Island it almost certainly has something to do with South Africa – but it can’t have been solely a South African enterprise. This is where that other country comes in. 

Israel are long suspected to have nuclear weapons also. One can understand why they feel they might need such a doomsday device. One hopes if so it is only as a deterrent. The story of the modern Zionist movement forming in the late 1890s, and their progress towards establishing a state in Palestine is a long tale – but suffice to say an Israeli state was in existence by 1948. That state fought five major conflicts with it’s Arab neighbours in the years since – the First Arab- Israeli War of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and in 1982 Israel pre-emptively invaded Lebanon. These wars have all been fought over Israel’s continued presence in the Levant. The moment they were rumoured to have a cache of nukes – and a plan of last resort if attacked code-named ‘The Samson Option,’ tensions in the region eased. There was another reason for that, and more on that in a second. 

Israel had a nuclear reactor – The Dimona reactor – as early as 1956, built with French assistance. It’s believed they started working on building a bomb as early as 1966. On the other side of the ledger, when Egypt started hiring former Nazi scientists who had worked for the Nazi nuclear effort – it is alleged Mossad hired former Nazi super-soldier Otto Skorzeny to assassinate these scientists. Officially Israel ‘neither confirm, nor deny’ if they have nuclear weapons. 

If they do it is almost certain they collaborated with South Africa. In 1977 South Africa swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel, for just thirty grams of tritium gas in return. Israel had no uranium deposits. Tritium gas is an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen that is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, but typically it needs to be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. This element had been a stumbling block for South Africa, as they had no nuclear reactor of their own. 

So it probably transpired a joint Israeli – South African mission set sail from Cape Town to a mysterious, inaccessible island more than 1,600 from a single witness. If the USA discovered this at the time, why might they keep quiet about it? 

If they did, and I am only speculating – it likely had something to do with Israel. Jimmy Carter had only just brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt a year earlier, at the Camp David peace accords. The fallout of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars hit western nations hard – after Arab oil producing nations struck back at them by ramping up oil prices – causing the OPEC crisis that persisted throughout much of the 1970s. Nations who backed Israel had to opt for carless days. Economies were hit by massive inflation. In New Zealand a questionable right wing politician who successfully became prime minister by smearing his opposition as ‘Cossacks’, reacted to the crisis with a bona-fide far reaching socialist program around oil, gas and power generation known as ‘Think Big.’ 

In 1979 Jimmy Carter was preparing to run for re-election against a mediocre, conservative actor who once was a CIA asset during the blacklist era. His opponent was almost as out of his depth in the role as Trump turned out to be, but elections are lost by one side through voter dissatisfaction more than they are ever won by the other through bright ideas – and Carter looked set to lose in a landslide regardless. If it were disclosed Israel had secretly built a nuclear bomb so soon after peace talks, it could have completely unravelled the peace process, doomed Carter to a one term presidency, damaged world economies – and sullied the president’s legacy. It isn’t inconceivable the man knew more than he let on to, and just chose to keep certain things quiet? 

As with the tale of the lifeboat, will time reveal, or perhaps confirm what happened during the Vela Incident? Only time will tell.  

The Dog Days King

The Dog Days’ King Tales of History and Imagination

Hi everyone welcome back, to season four of the podcast. This week we’re delving into the picaresque, and the life of one Jorgen Jorgensen – a man whose trajectory in life was akin to the character in Sinatra’s That’s Life. A puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a King. Jorgensen was all of the above and more besides. For a start you could add explorer, spy, war tourist, gambler… and another word my humble pop filter will despise – a prisoner. We’ll get to Jorgensen in a moment, but first we need to visit Britain’s House of Commons, the year 1779.

Britain had quite the problem having arisen from both it’s changing demographics, and from the rise of their middle classes following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. 

In last year’s post on The Bottle Conjuror, I briefly touched upon the Glorious Revolution – and while it really deserves it’s own episode – we need to know the following today. In 1688, a Dutch aristocrat named William of Orange sailed an armada of ships more than twice the size of the Spanish Armada down the River Thames. For months he’d made his intentions clear, he was going to be the next king of England. A growing number of British aristocrats, displeased with their King, James II, were happy to sanction the invasion. In return they expected the Royal family to be less autocratic – to give politicians more sway – and to allow wealthy Britons to pursue capitalism more freely. 

Under the old system, if you had a brilliant idea that could somehow improve the world and make yourself rich in the process; the idea could still be killed the instant a monarch refused to grant a patent. One often quoted example is of William Lee – a 16th Century clergyman and inventor, who made a knitting machine. The reverend had fallen for a local woman who knitted to make money, and who either was far too preoccupied by knitting, or was very slow at it – so was ‘always busy’ when he came calling. Lee, smitten with the lady – invented a machine that automated the process, speeding the job up considerably. 

It should have been a no-brainer to patent this machine. An effective labour saving device, it could have sped up the production – giving thousands of women thousands of hours of their lives back (possibly to date a Reverend Lee, or possibly the lady just wasn’t that into the reverend so thousands of hours of ‘washing her hair that night’, till the reverend took the hint?)  

but if this didn’t hook the royals, how about the fact increased productivity equals more product, equals more trade – equals more sales – equals more tax money in the Royal Coffers?

None of this impressed Elizabeth I. She worried the machine would lead to skilled artisans losing their valuable skills forever, and, so declined the patent. When Elizabeth died soon after, and Lee’s business partner got involved in a coup attempt against her successor, James I, Lee fled to France – who in turn loved his invention and granted that patent – England’s loss was France’s gain. 

Anyhow, long story short – a greater freedom to pursue inventive ideas, combined with offshoring a lot of agricultural work to the colonies, and a rising coffee house culture where ideas could percolate like coffee beans among inventors; and finally having all the pre-requisite concepts needed for an industrial revolution – meant the Industrial revolution came to Britain first. It also meant Britain was became urbanised and industrialised, and experienced the rise of a wealthy, powerful middle class. The middle classes were determined to have their say in this new Britain – a top priority for them was more laws to protect all the shiny new things their new-found wealth was buying.

On one hand, a group of people with some things already, suddenly had more things – and were becoming increasingly serious about protecting those things. On the other hand, many people moving to the cities were headed in the other direction. The former villagers lost old community ties when they moved. In hard times, those former connections had banded together to help those in need – but the tyranny of distance made this more difficult. Many also had to work new factory jobs, and the unskilled jobs particularly, did not cover their basic needs when times were good. Add job loss, or sickness and suddenly times were dire for many. This led to a sharp rise in what we now think of as petty crime.

The law codes moved with these changes – in favour of the rich. Even minor crimes became hanging offences. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, 220 crimes carried the death penalty. At the time of this meeting in Parliament in 1779, people were looking for an answer to the ‘Bloody Code’ as it later became known. Owing to a squeamishness in executing a starving person for thieving a meal, 35,000 people were sentenced to death, but only 7,000 executions actually occurred. ‘Just lock em up’ wasn’t working terribly well for them either, and the prisons were overflowing. Prisoners had to be moved en-masse to prison boats until an answer could be found.  

Speaking to Parliament that day, one of the rock stars of Pacific exploration, and head of the Royal Botanical Society – Captain James Cook’s former botanist, Joseph Banks. 

We don’t need to go into detail on his speech – we have a half hour podcast episode, and an infamous Filibuster still to speak of – but we need to know Banks had been on Cooks voyage which put New Zealand and much of the East Coast of Australia on the map in 1770. He loved Australia, and saw huge potential there. Based on the land he’d seen – Banks imagined a land teeming with farmland. He suggested parliament save hanging for the more serious offences – and to start shipping petty criminals out to Botany Bay, in their colony of New South Wales. 

This wasn’t an entirely new idea. Before the USA separated from the empire, 60,000 convicts were sent over there as indentured labourers. If they survived a couple of years of back breaking work (many didn’t) they might even become land owners themselves at the end of their servitude. 

In May 1787, the first eleven of many convict ships, set off for Australia. In excess of 160,000 men, women and children would be shipped out to the prison colonies between 1787 and 1868. 

Now we’ve added some context, let’s discuss Jorgen Jorgensen. 

Jorgen Jorgensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on 29th March 1780. His family were comfortably middle class. His father, Jorgen sr. was so well thought of as a watchmaker, he was contracted to make timepieces for the Danish Royal family. While Jorgen’s family expected the boy would set up a business like his father on adulthood, as a child he’d longingly sighted a Dutch East India-man setting sail for faraway lands. From that day on he dreamed of becoming a sailor. At 14 his father partially relented and apprenticed him to an English Collier named the Janeon – a coal carrying vessel which rarely voyaged. After four years, Jorgensen had enough of that and quit. He signed up for a whaling ship headed for South Africa. 

This gave Jorgensen his first experience of life at sea – and a part of the world he’d come back to later in life. First on a whaling ship called The Fanny, then on The Harbinger, which on at least one occasion carried convicts to Algoa Bay – he worked the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1798 – well before Napoleon lost two thirds of his fleet at Trafalgar – he survived being fired upon by a French gunship. In 1801, Jorgensen finally got a chance to go exploring, when the Lady Nelson arrived at the Cape, en-route to Sydney Australia. They needed men, so Jorgensen – now going by John Johnson – signed up for the voyage. 

In Sydney, Jorgensen met the famed explorer Matthew Flinders. He travelled on the Lady Nelson as it sailed southwards into what is now the state of Victoria; surveying Port Phillip on the way, before crossing the Bass Strait to Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania. They surveyed much of the shoreline, before setting up camp in Risdon – where another group of explorers entirely would senselessly massacre a large group of aboriginals in 1804. He helped found a settlement down a ways – at the now state capital, Hobart. They explored the Derwent river, Jorgensen taking time out between missions to wander inland near Sydney with a French explorer who was determined to claim he’d been further inland than any other European. Once it seemed they reached that point, one would upstage the other by taking just another twenty paces, before the other reciprocated. 

This first visit to Australasia sounds like one big boys own adventure. Jorgensen took time out to join a sealing ship headed to New Zealand. Once back, he spent time as a chief officer on a whaling ship that travelled between both countries. Two decades before the Weller brothers arrived in Sydney themselves and started buying up their own whalers – such as the Billy O’ Tea, now famous thanks to Tik Tok sea shanties – Jorgen Jorgensen was out on Tasmania’s Derwent river, harpooning the first whale ever killed on that river. One presumes many a Sea Shanty were sung onboard Jorgensen’s whaler – well before Soon May The Wellerman Come?  

After an eventful couple of years, he sailed for London in 1806. Along the way, he convinced two Maori, and two Tahitians’ to join him on the voyage homewards. His plan was to bring them to someone in England who would show them western ways, especially Christianity. Once schooled, the four would be sent back as brand ambassadors for European ways. Back in London, he met royal botanist Joseph Banks – and handed his guests over. Banks found them a home among the church – but tragically, all four guests would be dead within the year.  

In 1807, Jorgen returned to Copenhagen to a hero’s welcome. The locals were ecstatic this local boy done good was back, with tales of his many adventures – but Jorgensen was far from ecstatic. The town was a mess! Denmark was a neutral party in the Napoleonic wars, albeit a party with a large collection of war ships. The British worried Napoleon would invade Denmark just to get his hands on their ships – so twice, first in 1801, then again in 1807 – The British navy sidled up to Denmark and bombed their fleet to smithereens. Jorgensen was incensed at this act of terrorism, and convinced eight of Copenhagen’s wealthiest citizens to buy him a gun-boat. With a crew of 83, and 23 big guns – Jorgen Jorgensen set sail as a privateer on the Admiral Juul – his mission, to rob and incapacitate any British ship that crossed his path. 

Jorgen Jorgensen’s war started out well. From the get-go he captured three merchant ships in open waters – but then he decided to try his luck along the British coast. Just outside of Yorkshire, he ran across two large British war ships – the Sappho and the Clio. Jorgensen engaged the two ships in battle, and managed to hold his ground for around 45 minutes before – the Admiral Juul all shot to pieces – he saw it prudent to surrender before he was sent to Davy Jones locker. He was taken to a jail cell in Yarmouth. 

He was not there for terribly long. Jorgensen has claimed he was a double agent – having been approached by a British spy back in Copenhagen – but he was also a notoriously unreliable narrator. It is as possible someone high up who knew him and liked him – like Joseph Banks – caught wind of his capture, and figured why not make use of him elsewhere? Either way, he was called to London and asked what he could do to help the British war effort?

A suggestion was made by Jorgensen to let him sail to Iceland. 

High up in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Iceland had suffered greatly over the course of the Napoleonic wars. Then a colony of Denmark,  they were only allowed to trade with the Danish. Denmark now had fewer ships left to do things like trade with remote Northern outposts. This left Iceland bereft, in the midst of a great famine. Jorgensen planned to brave the waters and land a ship full of supplies. He was to set up a trading post between the two countries, and wage a soft-power operation while there. While saving the Icelanders from starvation, he’d convince them the Britons were not so bad after all. When Jorgensen sailed off, most people expected he’d run afoul of the weather, or a Danish warship – and never be seen again. He did, however, land at Reykjavik safe and sound.  Having offloaded his cargo, he sailed back to Liverpool, England – this time to pick up two ship loads of supplies. 

While he was away, the Governor of Iceland – a man named Count Von Tramp – heard about the shipload of British goods and forthwith barred all merchants from trading with him. When Jorgensen returned, he was bluntly ordered away, and told in no uncertain terms he was not to return. He stated his ships would pack up and leave in the morning. 

The following morning – a Sunday when it appears all of Iceland, barring Count Von Tramp and his cook, were at church – Jorgen Jorgensen landed with twelve armed men. The men marched straight to Von Tramp’s residence and arrested the governor. When the congregation left church that morning, they found their governor deposed – and that Jorgen Jorgensen had declared himself King of Iceland.   

In his brief reign as King, Jorgen Jorgensen brought in a raft of policies that radically changed the nation. First, he halved income tax, then forgave all debt owed by anyone to the Danish crown. He took money from former Governor Von Tramp’s coffers, and invested it in upgrading the schooling system. He also radically changed the nature of work in Iceland. For centuries workers had been tied to the land – herding sheep primarily for the European wool markets. Though surrounded by oceans teeming with fish, the Danish crown had refused to grant the people permission to fish full-time. For one thing, the Danish felt they really needed the wool. For another, they didn’t fancy Iceland becoming wealthy enough to no longer need them. Jorgensen not only lifted that embargo, but he threw government money at the nascent industry. He had a fort built, established a small army – and realising he needed to win the clergy over – he gave all the priests on the island a hefty pay rise. 

Where earlier government was autocratic – Jorgensen set up law courts and announced he would establish a system of elected government to help him rule as soon as practical to do so. 

Unsurprisingly, the people of Iceland loved their new king, and, for the most part – embraced the new regime enthusiastically.  

He did one other thing, however, which left the British fuming. All his changes would have brought prosperity over time – but in the meantime, Iceland desperately needed money. To raise funds,  Jorgensen set a tariff on British imports. Two months’ into King Jorgen’s reign, the British warship the HMS Talbot showed up in Reykjavik harbour to find out what in the hell was going on in Iceland. Jorgensen boarded the Talbot, and returned to London to plead his case. When Joseph Banks, furious with him, refused to help him – Jorgensen went into hiding. He was arrested a few weeks later, and had his parole revoked. He was then sent to Tothill Fields Prison, London. As his two month reign roughly coincided with the hottest time of year, when the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius hangs over Iceland’s night skies – Jorgen Jorgensen became their ‘Dog-Days King.’ Historically the phrase refers to a time when the world is altogether too hot and clammy, and people feel altogether too languid to get much done. His brief reign was anything but. 

Sadly for the people of Iceland, life returned to their old normal and would stay so until an independence movement made headway in the 1840s.  

Jorgensen was released from jail in 1811. He was briefly in Tothill, where he met an Irish political prisoner named Count Dillon. Dillon was from a dissident family who had never given up on the idea of Irish independence- and who had been involved in both the American and French revolutions. He was being held at his majesty’s pleasure, as the British feared he could foment a rebellion in Ireland. In the midst of the Napoleonic wars this could have been catastrophic, for one it could give Dillon’s ally, the ‘Little Corporal’ a staging post to invade Britain. Dillon’s conversations with Jorgensen haunted him for the rest of his life. 

Most of his time behind bars was spent on a prison boat on the Thames. 

Once released, Jorgensen turned to writing for a living, and drinking heavily while gambling for solace. His lifestyle wildly swung from wealth to poverty as he burned through his earnings. This included a large state lottery win Jorgensen and a syndicate of 15 others won. For a while he moved to Portugal, but got involved in gambling there – and one day got badly beaten up. He made his way back to England, only after joining a crew of a navy vessel sent out to capture privateers, then either becoming ill, or faking illness so as to be invalided back home.

 In the closing days of the Napoleonic wars, the British government again called on Jorgensen, employing him as a spy. Once back in London in 1813, he’d come across the dissident Count Dillon one day in a coffee house. The Count shared with Jorgensen a French and American plot underway to liberate Australia, using a fleet of heavily armed warships. Jorgensen took this information to the colonial office, who were not terribly interested at the time. Count Dillon took command of a small fleet, and that fleet wrecked off the coast of Cadiz, Spain en route to Australia. An American fleet then showed up in Australia soon after, wrecking seventeen whaling ships before they were stopped. Authorities started to wonder if Jorgen Jorgensen could be of use to the war effort after all? They found him in a debtors prison, and arranged for his release. 

Jorgensen was given a mission. He was to make his way to the European mainland, and write reports on the goings on in Europe. Given a large sum of money, and a wardrobe of new clothes, Jorgensen drank and gambled away nearly all of this money before he even set sail. He had to hitch a ride on a friend’s ship. He drunkenly made his way throughout the continent like a character in a picaresque novel – a real life Barry Lyndon or Candide – surviving largely on his wits and charm. He drank and gambled, often losing his shirt one night, then charming a new set of clothes from some aristocrat in the next town the following day. 

Though not personally involved in the Battle of Waterloo, he was in Belgium when the battle occurred. He was close enough to the action to watch it from the sidelines, and then spent three days wandering the fields in the wake of the battle.

Postwar, now back in England, Jorgensen planned to move to South America – but every time it looked like he might get the funds together to move – he would get drunk and gamble his money away. In 1820, he stole bedroom furniture from his landlady – and was given a seven year prison sentence in Australia. Friends in high places stepped in, and it was agreed his sentence would be waived if he left Britain immediately. Jorgensen was given the money to do so, but fell upon old habits and lost it all at the gambling table. He was re-arrested, and sentenced to death – which in turn was commuted back down to time in an Australian penal colony. So it was King Jorgen Jorgensen, the first European monarch to set foot in Australia, arrived in shackles in 1825. 

His time in Australia doesn’t seem nearly as bleak as much of his life prior – barring one major blot on his reputation. He was transported to Tasmania, where he resumed his earlier work – going out on expeditions into the wilderness to map out the island. For a while he was deputised to go fight the outlaws who escaped from prison camps, and were making trouble for the settlers. Disappointingly, he became involved in the ‘Black war’ where Tasmanian settlers all but wiped out the Aboriginal population on the island. He was on the colonisers’ side. In 1835, Jorgen Jorgensen was granted a pardon, but chose to stay on in Australia – at this point he was settled on his own land, and married to an Irish convict named Norah Corbett. He was living an uneventful, but happy life. 

Jorgen Jorgensen, one time King of Iceland died in Australia, 20th January 1841.  

The Frost Fair

Hey everyone Happy Holidays. I had something in mind for a Christmas episode this year – and that thing ballooned out to around two hours of audio. Apologies all, I’m burned out. I don’t think I could get a two hour episode together before the 25th.  

I’m going to zoom in on the one aspect of that episode that I think best sums up this time of year – and release some of the outtakes as their own mini episodes throughout 2023. 

A few episodes back we spent some time on the Thames, looking at those poor weeping willow trees, and of course the profligate King who gamed the system with Tallysticks made from those trees, passing his debts onto the city’s jewellers. Today we’ll return to that river, and to that king, but first a flash forward. 

In 1831 a bridge along the Thames was opened to the public. The project was begun by a Scottish engineer named John Rennie senior. It took a while, and would be completed upon his death by his son, John Rennie junior. This new London bridge was a solid, dependable replacement for an older London bridge – though it looked a little old-fashioned by the time it was completed. By the 1960s, as motorised vehicle use greatly increased, the 1831 bridge became no longer fit for purpose and would itself be replaced. The 1831 London Bridge would be dismantled, then reassembled in a town in Colorado, USA. 

If the Tallysticks were our hero in the earlier tale, then this bridge is the villain of this tale – or at least a massive killjoy. It had a far greater clearance than it’s predecessor, and fewer arches – and water flowed with ease through it’s arches. 

Because of this, the Thames river never froze again. 

On nine occasions in London’s past, not only did the Thames freeze over in winter, but when it did a frost fair rose up – bringing in all in sundry out to play. From 1564 to 1813 Rich and poor alike came together on the ice, and partook in the carnivalesque atmosphere. In 1564, the event was simply a great outpouring of the people onto the ice. People strolled along the river. Some played games. Queen Elizabeth I, enraptured by the festive scene going on outside her window gathered her entourage and joined in on the fun. In 1608 people set up stalls on the ice for the first time. As you made your way through the pop up village you could buy a beer or a glass of wine. You could buy fruit, or even get a full meal on the river. Shoe shops, barbershops, and much more set up on the ice. 

It is December 1683, and it looks like, yet again the Thames is going to freeze. The nights grew longer. A bone-chilling cold pervaded the air. Increasingly large chunks of ice formed on the water – some of those chunks breaking away, endangering the many river ferries who plied their trade on the river. After a cruel year which saw a smallpox epidemic tear through the city, it must be said the people had every right to feel cold, tired and miserable. To want to hibernate till spring and wish good riddance to the year. Those people did nothing of the sort. Filled with Christmas cheer, they gathered by the riverside in their thousands. They waited for hell to freeze over.  

On the Twelfth day of Christmas, January 5th 1684, when – to quote the writer John Evelyn –  “the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there has not been the like,” the Thames finally solidified into one solid sheet of ice. Was it strong enough to hold a fair? Two men took a bet it wouldn’t hold a coach and six horses. It did, easily. 

All of a sudden, rows and rows of stalls and tents appeared, as thousands of Londoners made their way out onto the ice. For three days the populace forgot all of their troubles and partied amongst the carnivalesque atmosphere. Then, just as quickly, the thaw began… the people held their breath. 

It turns out the Frost Fair was not done yet. A bracingly cold wind reared up, and the Thames froze back over again – well mostly froze over again. Several people found themselves wandering out onto less than solid parts, and accidentally fell through the ice. There were several deaths. Surprisingly, this didn’t dampen the spirits of the revellers. The frost fair partied on. Whatever passed for weather reporters looked upon the ice, and prophesied the Thames would stay frozen till March. 

One day a man, well inebriated at an ice tavern, boasted he could build a three storey house on the ice, spend a night there, then tear it back down again before the frost broke. Bets were taken on this and construction began. I could find no confirmation if the man won his bet. 

King Charles II looked out his window at the teeming mass of subjects below, and forthwith ordered a painter to the palace. Orders were made for a panorama of the scene outside, to remind the king of the joyousness of the crowd. Any time he felt blue, Charles could look upon it and remember the Frost Fair. On the 23rd January, Charles ordered a collection be taken from the rich, for the poor of London. Looking out the window, it appears the king began seeing the partygoers as people, and certainly felt more compassion for them than he had the jewellers of the city. On the 31st the King gathered his entourage and headed out onto the ice himself. 

He was, of course, not the only member of the ruling class to take to the fair. It was one of those rare occasions when all classes got amongst it together, cheek by jowl. The aforementioned John Evelyn – a writer, landscape gardener and, when remembered these days, remembered as London’s second most famous diarist of the time (to Samuel Pepys) – visited the fair on January 24th. Evelyn wrote. 

“The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London, was still planted with boothes in formal streetes, all sorts of shops and trades furnish’d and full of commodities even to a printing-presse… Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-playes, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”

A city within a city, where all observances of class and everyday sorrows were on hold – a place so remarkable it brought a profligate king who twelve years earlier bankrupted all the jewellers in the city, to order a significant act of charity for the poor. A ‘bacchanalian triumph’ a ‘carnival on the water’- well, such an utopia could not last. Utopias rarely do. First the watermen, a trade employing 20,000 Londoners – who had been unable to make money during the fair – petitioned to convert their boats to makeshift sleds. When told no, they petitioned for a ban on coach rides across the Thames – if they had to suffer why should coach drivers be allowed to profit? 

This all became a moot point soon enough, and as February 1684 came, the river slowly defrosted. The taverns, stalls, horse races and all manner of buskers returned to terra-firma. The many joys of the Great Frost Fair of 1684 were relegated to the memories of Londoners – until the next time – a three month long carnival beginning in November 1715.

In the midst of adversity – three years in to our own great pandemic – I hope everyone is keeping safe… and everyone finds joy in the season this year. 

Stay safe all, I’ll be back January 25th with more Tales of History and Imagination.