Category Archives: Podcast Episode

The Mongols are Coming!

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

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

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

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

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

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

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and around 30 camels. 

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

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

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

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah Tales of History and Imagination


This post/podcast episode is part one of a two (edit: probably Three) part Tale. I’ll be dropping part two in a fortnight.

There is a shadowy tale from the medieval Near East that persists in the modern imagination.  At some time in the 11th Century a heretical cult arose in the mountains of northern Iran and Syria. They lived in rugged castles – only approachable through near impenetrable passes. Approaching the fortress you soon had the sense the hills had eyes, and if those eyes did not approve of your presence, acolytes would rain stones down on you from high above. If you made it through the valley, a steep, narrow goat path awaited. Thousands of feet above, the cult’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – Alamut castle, and it’s charismatic leader – a prototypical James Bond supervillain if ever there was one. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Old Man of The Mountain’ – more on that in a second – this man was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Sultans, administrators and Holy Men. One tale of note, when the Crusaders arrived, and set up four Christian kingdoms on the Levant, the cult brutally murdered the soon to be crowned, new King of Jerusalem. 

Rather than sending in an army, a small party of men arrived at court disguised as monks. They blended in perfectly, winning the trust of Conrad of Montferrat -a savvy, capable warrior who came to prominence through his actions in the Third Crusade. When they sprung their trap, Conrad was no match for two knife wielding murderers. He never even saw them coming. On his way home from business, days after being elected King, two men rode alongside him and unhesitatingly thrust their daggers into him. One shot apiece and the king bled out at the scene of the assault. 

Meanwhile, neither man even attempted to flee the scene. One was killed by the king’s bodyguards, the other taken in and questioned. He said nothing, but they knew who he was. He was an Assassin. What was strange, the hit was purportedly carried out on behalf of King Richard The Lionheart of England – who was furious his nephew Henry II of Champagne lost the crown to Conrad. 

Conrad of Montferrat

It was a strange killing, the Assassins almost never targeted westerners. For one, they had no shortage of enemies in the Islamic world to keep them busy. The method of murder was exactly as first reported to the west by Catholic priests in Armenia. The killers were chameleonic, able to present as one of their own. When it came time to deal the killing blow, it came swiftly, dispassionately – and with a brutal precision. The Assassin rarely attempted to fight their way out, and if brought in alive, were even less likely to give a reason for the murder. Their choice of murder weapon was always the same – a hitherto concealed dagger. Their victims were always powerful people whose loss greatly affected their kingdom.

 According to 12th century reports they were utterly heretical. For one they were rumoured to eat pork (for a while at least they did give up all orthodoxy, so for a few years this was possible). The explorer Marco Polo also claimed they got their name, by his telling the Hashhashins – as they smoked a lot of hashish. It’s now more generally accepted their name comes from the Arabic word assas, meaning principle. They were people of principle. This scans. Whether deeply religious, or in their heretical phase, they always followed the teachings and principles set out by their leader.  

In another tale which comes down from Marco Polo, the old man had a valley blocked off from the world at large. Inside the valley he built a magnificent pleasure dome – based on religious depictions of paradise. He drugged acolytes into unconsciousness before ‘magically’ transporting them into the valley. Every pleasure imaginable was theirs – from stunning vistas to music, sumptuous feasts to, one presumes, 72 virgins? The acolytes truly believed they were in heaven – till, suddenly, they were thrust back into the real world. On coming to, the old man was there to greet you. From day one this man educated you in the ways of the world. Now he was here to console you for having attained, and lost, heaven. 

“There is a way to return, you know. Just take this dagger, and when the time is right…” Well, you know how the rest plays out. 

This part of the legend is categorically false. There was no pleasure dome built for nefarious purposes. The founder of the cult, an Ismaili preacher named Hasan-i Sabbah, for that matter became an old man living in a mountain fortress – but the badass sobriquet old man of the mountain belonged to a later leader of the cult. We’ll discuss that man, Rashid ad-Din Salam in part two, as he is often considered the greatest of the Assassin chiefs. It is fair to say though Hasan-i Sabbah was something of a supervillain – the man practically invented terrorism.

To discuss Sabah we need to know a little about the politics and religion of his time. The following is reductive – we have a lot of information to share.
Hasan was born on an indeterminate year – probably 1050 AD, in the city of Qom, south of Tehran. He was born to a Twelver Shi’a family. 

Regarding, Shi’a and Sunni, Twelver and Ismaeli – In 632 Islam’s originator, the prophet Muhammad, died without a clear succession plan. Two factions developed in the power vacuum. One, the Sunni, believed Abu Bakr – an early and learned follower of Muhammad – should take the reins. Bakr was named Muhammad’s deputy – his Khalifa – from which we get the term Caliphate. Another faction backed Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali. They became known as the Shi’atu Ali – the party of Ali. This later shortened to Shi’a. Though initially a political division, both groups religious views diverged over time. 

Power, for the most part stayed with the Sunni. Ali did get a run as Caliph in 656, but his short run was mired down in an ugly civil war. He was murdered in 661, ushering in the Sunni, Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads remained in power for a century before losing power to the Abbasids, also Sunni’s. 

In the meantime the Shi’a followed a shadow Caliphate run by a series of Imams – mostly comprised of descendants of Ali, and his wife Fatima. 

Being cut off from power didn’t mean the Shi’a didn’t attempt to take over on occasion. On several occasions between 680 and the 750s, the Shi’a did attempt to rebel. Several preachers took on increasingly messianic personas. They also picked up a number of discontented peoples. 

One of the side effects of the spread of Islam was, owing to much of it’s being through military conquest – a class of disaffected, conquered people coalesced. These people often found themselves locked into a lower social class than they belonged to pre-conquest. Many were antagonistic towards the religion of the oppressors; but many were open to an edgy, alternative version of that religion which promised them fairness and equity.  

The uprisings were mostly pretty similar. A charismatic gathered a dedicated following through promising his followers better. Once of a significant size, that faction took a shot at overthrowing a local ruler by force. However violence started off, sooner of later it gravitated towards a traditional showdown – two large groups facing off against one another on a battlefield.  The bigger, more powerful Sunni faction always won. The spate of attempted putsches ran out of steam in the mid 8th century. 

Shi’a Islam itself was fractious. The two sects we need to discuss are the Twelvers and the Ismailis. 

When the Shi’a reached their seventh Imam, they ran into an important juncture. Ja’far ibn Muhammad originally intended his son Isma’il to follow in his footsteps and become the seventh Imam – but for an unspecified reason the two men had a falling out. Isma’il was banished, and when the Imam passed in 765, his younger son Musa took over. The Ismaili sect separated from the rest of the Shi’a. They built a new doctrine concerned with uncovering hidden truths. At the heart of their doctrine, a radical desire to oust the Sunni from power. The remainder of the Shi’a followed the succession of Imams till they hit number 12. The twelfth, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan, disappeared mysteriously in 874. His followers, known as Twelvers, believe he ascended into a spiritual realm, and will return alongside the prophet Isa (Jesus) on judgment day. By Hasan-i Sabbah’s day the Twelvers were largely moderate, the Ismailis radical. 

In short, Sabah grew up a smart kid into a far less privileged set, but among the more conservative of that group. One could imagine he had something of a chip on his shoulder. His father’s bloodline was from Yemen, where he claimed to be a descendant of the Himyaritic kings of Southern Arabia. They followed Judaism, and ruled over much of the country – till one day they massacred a Christian enclave. The massacre brought down the wrath the Ethiopian Aksumite Kingdom in the 520s. The Aksumites destroyed their kingdom.
As a teen he was a self described seeker, and hoped to become a scholar of Twelver Shi’a. That all changed when his father moved the family to the city of Rayy- a city known for it’s radical thinkers. In his late teens he fell in with the company of an Ismaili preacher named Amira Zarrab, who patiently debated young Hasan over many points of their faith. Amira hadn’t radicalised Hasan outright, but their debates opened his mind to other possibilities. 

His conversion to the Ismaili sect came after the young man caught a mysterious life- threatening illness. He pulled through, claiming his near-death experience gave him all the insight he needed. On recovery he sought out a Ismaili tutor. 

There’s a legend around Hasan’s turn to super-villainy that comes to us through the 19th century poet and writer Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald states, in his introduction to his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a popular book of Persian poetry), there were once three young, ambitious friends. They went to school together, where each child excelled. Omar Khayyam, now known to us as a poet, was an excellent mathematician and astronomer. Hasan a theologian. The third young man was a budding politician who came to be known as Nizam al-Mulk. The three made a pact that when one achieved fame, they would help the other two get to where they needed to be. 

A modern depiction of Omar Khayyam

The legend tells Nizam al-Mulk was the first to reach prominence, quickly rising through political circles to become Vizier – a high official – to the Seljuk Sultan. Both men approached Nizam, and were offered governorships in far flung regions. Neither accepted. Khayyam wanted nothing more than an academic life and – if you’ve read his poetry you know this – a life full of pleasure. Hasan was rather hurt by the offer, and chose to put himself forward for his friend’s position at the first opportunity. Feeling threatened, Nizam dug up dirt on Hasan. He hoped to disgrace him so badly he’d leave the kingdom immediately. Whatever he found worked, and a shamed, and henceforth vengeful Hasan left for Egypt. 

This is another falsehood. Nizam al-Mulk, who did become Vizier in 1072, was three decades older than the two other men. Al-Mulk and Hasan did know one another however, and would cross paths on a couple of occasions. The circumstances of Hasan’s exile were rather different.

Hasan suddenly left Rayy in 1076, first for Isfahan in Central Iran, then Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus – then finally Egypt via modern day Lebanon and Palestine. His studies in Ismailism led to him becoming a missionary; an active recruiter to the cause. A vocal political agitator considered a threat to the order, it’s believed al-Mulk himself ordered Hasan’s arrest. On his journey he ran into further trouble elsewhere while proselytising. In Farquin, Turkey he was expelled from the city after making claims no-one but a Shi’a Imam had the right to interpret religious texts. On route via Damascus, Syria he ran into trouble of another kind, when a military conflict broke out. He finally arrived in Shi’a controlled Egypt in 1078, where he was warmly welcomed by the establishment. 

Even in Egypt, ruled by a Fatimid Shi’a regime, his radical preaching got him in trouble yet again. Egypt’s top general ordered him imprisoned, then expelled upon release to North Africa. In 1081 he was placed on a French ship – but the ship sank en-route. Hasan was rescued, then dropped off in Syria. From there he snuck back into Persia.   

Hasan-i Sabbah spent most of the following decade preaching his gospel in the far flung regions of Persia – especially in the rugged mountains of the North. Locals there were resistant to the spread of Islam. Many of his converts felt similar animosities towards the regime as he did. They were tough, resourceful people who could handle themselves in a fight, and many were happy to sign up to any cause that might bring them a better life. In Khurasan, to the North, Hasan-i Sabbah built himself a small nation’s worth of followers. 

This in itself presented a problem. Now you have an army, what do you do with it? Past efforts were all failures – like In 680 a group aligned with Ali’s son Husayn who tried to overthrow the Umayyad Caliphate. All but one of the conspirators were executed. Another movement in 685, fighting on behalf of another of Ali’s sons, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, lasted two years before they were done away with. Dozens of other groups, one of whom bore a resemblance to the Indian Thugee – they ritualistically strangled their victims – all fell by the wayside. Hasan realised he couldn’t ever go toe to toe with a Sunni army. He needed a force of special operatives who could blend in, then strike down leaders unexpectedly. If he could get people to believe it a righteous act, he was a good way there. Just convince them an action of removing an irreligious leader was not just right, it was their ticket to paradise. If these people were bold enough – it would cause ripples of terror that spread well beyond the Islamic world.
That was all good, but sooner of later, the enemy would mount a counter attack on their terms. What Hasan also needed was a mountain fortress so unapproachable, no-one would ever attempt to counter-attack. 

Alamut Castle was ideal. Set on a narrow ridge in the middle of the Elburz mountains, the castle was only approachable by a steep, narrow path. It was currently owned by another sect. That wasn’t going to stop Hasan. He sent several of his followers to the surrounding villages to convert locals. In September 1090, with several of his own sect now embedded in the castle, he was snuck into Alamut. Hasan delivered the owners an ultimatum. He had 3,000 gold dinars on him to buy the castle. The owners could take the money and leave. If they refused Hasan would have them all killed. The pervious owners took the money and left. Hasan stayed at Alamut castle for the rest of his life, another 35 years all up. In that time he never returned back down the mountain.

His cult continued to grow. The assassins captured several other mountain fortresses through similar means.

Part of the modern ruins of Alamut Castle.

First blood was shed soon after. One of Hasan’s missionaries came into conflict with a muezzin – an official who calls the people to Friday prayers. The missionary tried to convert the man, who refused to give the assassin the time of day. This led to his murder. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk was so furious he ordered the assassin responsible executed, his body subsequently to be dragged through the streets. In 1092 in reprisal, Sultan Malik-Shah ordered two expeditions to Alamut to kill the Assassins. Hasan only had a force of around 70 men to defend Alamut, but they withstood both sieges. 

On October 14 1092 the Assassins took out their first major target. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk continued to wage war against the cult. The Vizier was travelling from Isfahan to Baghdad with an entourage, when approached by a Sufi travelling in the opposite direction. Drawing no suspicion he was allowed to approach the Vizier. Once within striking distance the man, an Assassin named Bu Tahir Arrani, drew his dagger and stabbed the Vizier to death.
This was the first of nearly fifty successful assassinations carried out in Hasan-i Sabbah’s lifetime. All the victims at this time were princes, generals, governors and holy men who called for action against the Ismaili. The names of the assassins were entered on a roll of honour. The cult continued to grow, even infiltrating the Sultan’s army. Many high officials refused to leave the house without chain mail armour under their clothes. Further military expeditions were sent after them. Though surrounding villages were often pillaged, their mountain fortresses withstood the attacks. 

One expedition in 1107 was nearly derailed from within. False reports of uprisings elsewhere held them up for over a month. Insiders at court then delayed further by starting a religious debate. If a mission was being sent to depose the Assassins as heretics, can we honestly say they really ARE heretics? If so, how? All the while Assassins within the court attempted to kill the prominent Emir speaking the loudest against them. In this case the assassination attempt failed. Ultimately in this one case they did lose a fortress. The siege was extremely costly however. It only drove home certain castles held by the Assassins, Alamut included, would be several orders more difficult to take. 

When Hasan-i Sabbah passed on in 1124, they moved a long way towards peace with the Sunni and independence from the Caliphate. One tale told of their fight for legitimacy, Hasan sent a large sum of money to the Sultan, with a request for a meeting. When rebuffed, Hasan sent another gift days later. One morning the Sultan awoke to find a dagger, blade stuck deep into the floor next to his bed. The Sultan, clearly shaken, ordered the incident be kept secret. Hasan sent him a messenger the following day, the message “Did I not wish the Sultan well that dagger which was struck into the hard ground would have been planted in his soft breast”

For a while after this peace ensued. 

But, of course this would not always be the case. Crusades featuring glory-seeking Europeans began in 1095 and would continue in the region for centuries after. In Egypt a new regime, the Mamluks – comprised of enslaved Central Asians from the Altai basin – would take over, changing the geopolitical landscape. Of course the unstoppable Mongol horde eventually arrived on the scene. We’ll cover all of that in part two, The Old Man of the Mountain, in two weeks’ time.

The Bottle Conjuror


Today’s tale is set on the night of January 16th 1749; the setting, The Haymarket Theatre – on London’s West End. Originally built in 1720, on a site formerly occupied by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there was something of ‘the little theatre who could’ about the place. While the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatre put on grand, operatic blockbusters – the Haymarket became well known for staging satirical pieces – something akin to an indie movie today. These plays were often highly critical of the ruling elite.

In 2022 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson seem conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully old-fashioned values. These writers were trailblazers at the time. In 1688 a Dutch bloke called William basically stole the throne from the unpopular James II. The ruling class chose to look the other way as the coup happened, on the understanding the new king would give them a freer rein than the previous guy. The move away from authoritarian rule led to a middle class movement demanding greater rights. They advocated for property rights, representation in government, championed individualism, and demanded the rights to trade and innovate free of royal injunctions and tariffs.

All very middle class stuff now, but in 1749 this was relatively progressive stuff.  

The Haymarket Theatre, with it’s – for then – radical ideas, found plenty of willing patrons in the growing middle classes. On January 16th 1749, the place was packed to the rafters – not for John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, or Fielding’s Rape Upon Rape – but for an illusionist. For weeks now, buzz had been building around the arrival of ‘The Bottle Conjuror’.

The easiest way to explain the Bottle Conjuror is to just paste the text of the advertisement, which ran in papers throughout January 1749, and let you all read it yourselves … so here goes. 

“At the New Theatre in the Hay-market, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen, a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. 

first, he takes a common walking-cane from any of the spectators, and thereon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. 

Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.

Those on the stage or in the boxes may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer (if desired) will inform them who they are.”

A singer and multi-instrumentalist, a mentalist with an ability to recognise you from behind a mask – and most importantly – a contortionist so skilled he could climb into a ‘common wine bottle’? How could anyone miss that? The Haymarket was abuzz with paying customers, gathered in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd waited, in fact, for several hours – eyes affixed on empty stage – before booing and demands for a refund finally broke the silence.

Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out from behind the curtain and attempted to calm the angry mob. Demands for a refund rose. Someone in the crowd shouted something to the effect that they’d pay double if this conjuror just climbed into a pint bottle. This comment, of all things, seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. The audience rushed the stage, and smashed, looted and tore up anything they could get their hands on. One angry lunatic even set a small fire off. The angry mob destroyed the Haymarket Theatre.

A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, fed by the debris from the riot. Lit by the torn down curtains.    

As much as the Haymarket was popular with the middle class, at least one aristocrat – Prince William, Duke of Cumberland – was present. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but lost a jewel encrusted sword in the riot. The sword was never recovered. 

In the aftermath of the riot, several newspapers made light of the gullibility of the crowd. Some going as far to suggest – tongue in cheek – the act became a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle, kidnapping the performer at rehearsal. Suspicion for the hoax initially fell on theatre manager Samuel Foote, who legitimately appears to have had no part in it. A mysterious, shadowy figure described only as “a strange man” organised the event. 

Who was “Strange Man”? The best guess is John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu – a bored English peer with a love of ‘practical jokes’. A trained physician, former governor of the West Indies isles of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent; he was also a philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children. Montagu paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams. It’s fair to say he was a complex character. For our purposes, it’s worth knowing is his sense of humour was less complex, typically running to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.


He detested the middle classes, with their demands for greater freedom – and it is said he decided to stage the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other aristocrats. He allegedly bet his companions enough Londoners would be dumb enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, he could fill a theatre with them. The aristocracy being a law unto themselves in those days, no one ever charged the Duke – who, in any case, died in July of that year.  

Beyond the Archway…

Content Warning: This episode discusses Pseudocide – the act of faking one’s own death.
I also cut and slashed at this script considerably in the podcast editing process. I think some parts which still work here didn’t in that format this week.

This week we start with a brief detour to Waitakere, New Zealand – the city where I grew up. If telling a tale closer to my own time I might be speaking of a fiercely proud, growing, largely working class city that really boomed in the wake of World War Two. Postwar the country moved from a largely agrarian economy – one big old farm – to an increasingly industrial one. Suburban, quarter acre dreams flourished among the returning soldiers, as the back blocks of West Auckland grew into suburbia. Many of these burbs seemed a little soulless when compared to earlier villages, and suburban neurosis grew among the mothers particularly, who at least in the 1950s were still the homemakers, as a general rule – cue Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’  

But no, this tale is somewhat earlier – even if it too concentrates on dissatisfaction and inertia. In the 1840s European settlers arrived in Waitakere, some buying large blocks of land from the Maori, Ngati Whatua tribe. Our digression is seven decades after this, when a handful of small, rural settlements were in existence in West Auckland – largely surrounded by towering kauri forests. Intrepid souls came to log the Kauri trees, dig the kauri gum, and turn flax into rope. Over time orchards and wineries grew on land already denuded of Kauri. A brick works supplying a familiar red block first appeared in the 1860s – a few years after Crown Lynn pottery (first set up in Hobsonville in the 1850s- an area later known for it’s airforce base – but moving nearer the brick works in New Lynn in the 1920s)  

Kauri loggers in the Waitakere Ranges

Waitakere was quiet, largely rustic and enveloped in bush – the local word for local forest.

On those red bricks… It is 1910 and a couple of young kids are out exploring the mangrove swamps in a small, leaky rowboat. Mangroves like these are still there, though the creeks, streams and inlets – Huruhuru, Henderson’s, Oratia – and the rest were all much deeper then as a general rule. With little expectation of finding anything man-made, these two kids pushed on through twisting, convoluted waterways – till they stumbled upon an archway made of those red clay bricks. Someone had tunnelled into the shoreline – cutting a small harbour just beyond the arch. Beyond that, an orchard full of apple, plum and pear trees. Further tunnels were cut into the shore, containing store rooms for apples, a fairly rudimentary shack, and a library. 

Docked, a sea-worthy vessel named the Awatea. On board a man presumed dead for close to a decade. That man is a diversion from our main Tale – but he’s worthy of a little explanation. 

Henry Swan was born in Gateshead, England around 1856. Born to wealthy railroad investors, Henry wanted for nothing growing up. He studied law, and on graduation, went straight into partnership with the firm Arnott and Swan. From what little we know of him, he worked at Arnott & Swan till the mid 1890s – afterwards, with his wife Edith, packing up and moving to New Zealand.

I can’t say what he wanted out of New Zealand, but Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore – even now a village with more than it’s share of Victorian English charm – wasn’t it. Henry became increasingly restless, and in 1901 bought the Awatea. In 1895, an American adventurer named Joshua Slocum set off on a record-breaking voyage in his own sloop – the Spray. A little over three years later he returned, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. His book, ‘Sailing alone Around the World’ – retold Slocum’s voyage. In 1901 this book was a popular new release. 

Henry Swan announced to Edith he was following in Slocum’s footsteps. Little did his friends or family know he’d quietly bought 69 acres of land near Henderson Creek. He sold all but 13 acres – which he kept for himself. 

While Henry’s friends and family all thought he was lost at sea, he was living the simple life.  He toiled in his orchard, cross-breeding fruit trees. He read his books. He swam in the creek. When word got out there was a hermit in the creek, numbers of curious visitors started to show up. Henry, it turns out, enjoyed their company. He made friends in the area and started to dig further into the embankments to make a wading pool where local kids could learn to swim. A fire and, later, flooding wrecked much of his orchard, library and shack in the 1920s. 

Henry Swan continued to live on his boat – beyond the brick archway – till his death in 1931, aged 75. Edith lived on till 1940, in Devonport, apparently none the wiser as to her husband’s fate. 

I mention Henry’s tale as, though the water is long gone, a portion of his arch remains along Central Park Drive. When I taught at a West Auckland high school I’d pass it most mornings. When I’ve explained the origin of Swan’s Arch to friends before, most were surprised and had never heard the Tale, though they knew the landmark… so to any curious Westies, there you go…  

But Henry Swan is also an example of pseudocide – the practice of faking one’s own death to begin anew. New Zealand has a few notable tales to tell on that subject.   

Take, for example, Grace Oakeshott. 

Grace Oakeshott was born in Hackney, England in 1872 to Elizabeth and James Cash. The Cash family were upwardly mobile, James making a good living selling stationery. They were also progressives who believed women deserved many of the same opportunities as men – education included. Because of this, Grace and her sisters did receive a good education -Grace going on to study at Cambridge University for a year in 1893. At this point Cambridge had begun admitting women, but not yet allowing them to gain any qualifications for their hard work (they could only sit an exam referred to as ‘a little go’ – and presumably tell people they gave university ‘a little go’). In the years following Cambridge, Grace became involved in activism. Briefly a teacher, she took a job as a factory inspector for the Women’s Industrial Council – a group concerned with women’s wages and workplace safety. Some time in the early 1890s she met and fell in love with Harold Oakeshott – a tea taster by day, socialist activist by night. The couple married in 1896. 

Though a tea taster, Harold was far from a teetotaller – unbeknownst to most who knew him, Harold was a raging alcoholic. This was very likely a big push factor in Grace’s disappearance. 

Walter, Harold and Grace – 1907. Sorry, every time I tried to cartoon this Grace’s face disappeared.

In 1899 Grace and Harold joined Grace’s brother on a sailing holiday. Also on the jaunt, a young medical student friend of Grace’s brother, named Walter Reeve. A good time was had by all, and afterwards all went back to their day to day drudgery. They repeated the holiday the following year, and the first signs appeared that Grace and Walter were fond of one another – one night as the two went for a moonlight boat ride. Harold missed the boat, having drunk himself into a stupor. Following this holiday, not only did Grace, Harold and Walter keep in touch, the three became inseparable….

… and nothing much of note happened till 1907. Walter graduated from medical school, and was looking for working opportunities in New Zealand. One view of New Zealand in 1907 was it was a burgeoning working class utopia. Some time in 1840 a carpenter named Samuel Parnell started the eight hour workday by refusing to work longer. This took off with other workers, becoming commonplace. 

In September 1893, owing to a lot of lobbying, women gained the right to vote in elections. Universal male suffrage didn’t even come to the UK till 1918 – New Zealand was there in 1879. 

While I don’t want to gloss over all manner of issues New Zealand had at the time, largely around treatment of Maori, and of Asian immigrants – it was seen as a workers paradise, where the proletariat had no need to doff one’s cap to their supposed betters. 

Back to Walter’s job opportunities, Grace’s unhappy marriage – and, well… poor old Harold. Grace had by then fallen in love with Walter. She wanted nothing more than to move to New Zealand too – but being now of a respected class – she counted H.G Wells and William Morris among her friends – she felt divorce was not an option. 

On August 27th 1907 Grace travelled to Brittany, France for a holiday. One day (for some reason I imagine it a stormy, inky dark night; the water frigid and crashing hard on the beach – but this was in summer, and I’ve never seen a report that states at what time of day she disappeared) Grace folded her clothes on the beach, went out for a swim – and was never seen again. 

Joan Reeve, on the other hand – newly wedded to Dr Walter Reeve, appears to have swum over to the next beach, got dressed, met up with her husband – and on 26th September boarded a ship, first to Australia, then New Zealand. Joan and Walter settled in Gisborne, New Zealand. They had three children together. Joan became involved in local activism, earning an MBE for her hard work. 

Joan Reeve, formerly Grace Oakeshott, died of multiple sclerosis, 11th December 1928.

My final case study, that of Ron Jorgensen, is altogether far murkier. To tell this Tale I needs must cover an infamous murder. But first, briefly back to the era of the Reeves. 

A self portrait of Ron Jorgensen

New Zealand were the first nation where women had the right to vote in democratic elections. One major reason for this was, since the 1880s there had been a big push to ban alcohol by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement – headed by one Kate Sheppard. While some politicians pushed for the enfranchisement of women from the late 1870s primarily due to the influence of utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill, there was also a faction swayed by an opposition to “the demon drink”. Others were likely populists who recognised women were a large potential voting base for them. 

When women won the right to vote in 1893, under prime minister (technically premier) Richard Seddon – a former pub landlord – prohibition did not naturally follow. 

In December 1917 the prohibitionists got a partial ban. A law passed which forced bars to close at 6pm.  This had a range of unexpected side-effects. First, the publicans were relieved by this law – as this meant an end to the meddling of the prohibitionists. Second, it caused the ‘Six O’Clock Swill’. Most drinkers finished work at five, rushed to their local, then tried to force an evening’s worth of booze down their necks in the space of an hour. One could guess how that often worked out. Third, it created opportunities for petty criminals to make easy money by setting up ‘sly grogs’ and ‘beer houses’ – after hours bars in suburban homes. 

For the following five decades the sly grogs operated, catering to ship and dock workers, beatniks, rugby league players, boxers, rich folk with a penchant for ‘slumming it’ and career criminals. These secretive clubs were, it turned out, also instrumental in embedding organised crime networks in New Zealand. Many connections were forged in the sly grogs. Many plots hatched. 

The six o’clock swill was still very much a thing on December 7th 1963 when Eric Lewis, a landlord, banged at the door of 115 Bassett Road, Remuera. He was there to collect the rent from the tenants. When no-one answered, Lewis dodged the growing pile of milk bottles, and unlocked the door. On cracking the front door the landlord was struck by the stench of two bodies on the turn. In the front bedroom the bodies of Kevin Speight, a 26 year old sailor and George ‘Knucklehead’ Walker, a 34 year old with a reputation as a gangland enforcer. Both men had been shot to death with a Reising sub machine gun – as unreliable a gun as you could hope for in the early 60s. This was evidenced by the fact only six bullets were found in the victims – it’s thought the gun jammed at this point. This didn’t stop the NZ Truth Newspaper framing the killing as our version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – their headline “Chicago Comes to Auckland”. 

Police soon ascertained the property was being used as a sly grog.

A few days after the killings, police were visited by future Prime Minister of New Zealand Rob Muldoon. With the politician, a chef who had a story to tell. The chef was visited at work, just after the killings, by an old friend named John Gillies. Gillies was a petty thief and occasional seaman who had recently been expelled from Australia. He was drunk and had a tale to insinuate.

Rob Muldoon at a later date (see further down)

As Gillies told it “one general sent another general a telegram – Grenades on the way…” The other general, naturally got machine guns. Some big trouble was on it’s way. The public would be shocked. The crook indicated his involvement in whatever happened. When the bodies were found, the chef put two and two together. 

Now, New Zealand was not a place full of machine gun murders. Some soldiers were believed to have come back from World War Two and held onto their guns in civilian life. It was said smuggling all manner of illicit goods into the country was not terribly difficult at the time. In 1934 a group of thieves stole a Vickers machine gun from a New Lynn church (where it was stored for a group of Territorials). The culprits were never caught – but in a country where murder was then a rarity, death by machine gun was unheard of. The gun, of course was public knowledge. That police found two disarmed grenades and a telegram threatening another Sly Grog owner, was not known outside of the investigation. 

After some effort by police the tale unravelled. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Gillies was badly beaten up trying to break up a domestic incident between a bouncer from a rival club in Anglesea Street, Ponsonby and the bouncer’s girlfriend. His ego as bruised as his body, Gillies swore revenge on the bouncer, Barry ‘Machine Gun’ Shaw (so named for mowing down other players on the rugby field as a younger man). Gillies found a friend of a friend who collected rare guns. This friend of a friend, the son of a wealthy clothing manufacturer, had a machine gun. 

As a quick sidebar, a teenaged John Banks – another unpleasant guy, who later became mayor of Auckland – saw the machine gun a week before the shooting. His family were underworld figures, and the tale has it Banks got to fire the gun in his back yard. 

When Gillies showed up at the Anglesea Street Sly Grog to machine gun machine gun, he found Shaw had taken the night off. With nothing else to do, he entered, bought a drink, and got talking to a couple of blokes there. They turned out to be the owners of the pub. The pub was run by an ageing sailor with a teenaged girlfriend named Gerry Wilby – and a hard-boiled crim named Ron Jorgensen. A few drinks in Gillies got his gun out, and someone there offered him a little work. Gillies and a second person would go to 115 Bassett Road and deal to Speight. The issue it seems, that led to Gillies being hired for a murder – Wilby – a man in his 60s only needed his seventeen year old girlfriend when on land. He was happy for her to see other men while he was away. When home however, he expected her to be all his. Mary, his girlfriend had fallen for Speight while Wilby was away. Likewise Speight had fallen in love with Mary and planned to take her from Wilby. This had led to the conflict, angry telegrams and threats of grenades – and eventually murder. After Jorgensen called the operator for driving instructions to Bassett road, two people left for the property. 

The police arrested Gillies and Jorgensen, and with some evidence pointing towards Gillies (not the gun itself – that apparently got thrown off the Auckland Harbour bridge), and not a lot of evidence towards Jorgensen – both men were convicted of the murder and given life sentences. 

But to our pseudocide? 

Ron Jorgensen became something of a celebrity while in prison. He learned to speak Maori and translated Maori language books into braille. He also learned to paint – proving extremely adept at it. His lawyer, Peter Williams …

(sidebar, not the news reader who hosted the episode of Mastermind I was in, this was another Peter Williams – kiwis of a certain age will remember the lawyer well)

…launched a campaign to release Jorgensen. Though the campaign got a lot of support, Jorgensen never got a retrial. He was released in the mid 1970s, but was soon returned after getting caught up in a drug ring.  

A Ron Jorgensen painting of Kaikoura

He served his jail term until 1983, then was paroled to his father’s home in Kaikoura – a former whaling town on the other side of the country where you can now shoot whales – with a camera. I’ve never been there myself, so could not testify to the merits, or lack of for the town – Jorgensen hated being stuck with his father out in the sticks. He continued to paint, though never saw much back for his works. Paintings given away for a couple of beers have since gone on to make thousands of dollars at auction. 

Though generally tied to Kaikoura, he got approval to help his friend, property tycoon Bob Jones and his ‘New Zealand Party’, run for parliament. For a while he stayed in the city of Christchurch. Jones’ party failed to get into parliament, but stole enough right wing votes to knock Rob Muldoon’s National Party out of contention. Of course Muldoon wasn’t helping himself – his slurred, drunken announcement of a snap election summed up his final tilt for power – Muldoon’s run as prime minister was over. 

Soon after, Ron Jorgensen’s car was found down the bottom of a cliff, near the ocean. It was an odd scene in that no body was inside the vehicle. Had he been inside there was no chance he could have crawled away from the wreck – the car was so compacted in on itself. Up on the cliff there were no brake marks. 

It is believed Ron Jorgensen faked his own death by pushing the vehicle over the edge. He was never conclusively seen again. 

From here it gets murky. One theory has it, after ditching the car he boarded a boat, which took him out to another vessel headed for Australia. In the years since former friends and a prison guard have claimed to have seen Jorgensen in Perth, Western Australia. Another theory has it he went to Australia, but only after sharing information with police about a drug ring running out of Christchurch. This theory presumes he was using his time in Christchurch to do business with the drug ring. Soon after his disappearance, a large drug bust went down. Had Jorgensen turned informer, perhaps even set up this ring. Afterwards, did the police resettle him across the ditch? 

A third theory meets somewhere in the middle. Jorgensen faked his own death, and was on a boat out at sea when he was murdered and thrown overboard? Perhaps he was suspected of talking to police about the drug ring, and perhaps he had spoken to the police, necessitating his hurried attempt to escape? This is the theory many of his friends from the underworld believed. 

While I’d say the case of Ron Jorgensen is likely to never be solved I should sign off by pointing out sometimes the truth does out many years later. The disappearance of Grace Oakeshott was not uncovered till a century after she faked her own death. Joan Reeve’s great grand-daughter wrote a play about her great grandmother. This came to the attention of Jocelyn Robson, an academic based in England who specialises in the female activists of Grace’s time. Robson found society photos of Joan and put two and two together. Something similar could still happen in the case of Ron Jorgensen – stranger things have happened.  

Njinga of Ndongo


Today’s tale is set in the African kingdom of Ndongo, modern day Angola – we touched upon this kingdom a few weeks back in the Tale of Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Today we’re taking a closer look at that strand. The year, 1622. Joao de Sousa, the Portuguese governor of Luanda prepares to meet with princess Njinga Mbandi, sister of king Ngola Mbandi, ruler of Ndongo. Their mission, to broker a peace after decades of on-again, off-again conflict.

Though allied with the neighbouring kingdom of Kongo from the late 1490s, Portugal’s first contact in Ndongo was in 1510. Initial contact was sporadic, but increasing demand for slaves to work Portugal’s Brazilian plantations – primarily – led to an increased presence in the region. In 1575, Paulo Dias de Novais – grandson of the explorer Bartolomeu Dias – set up a township on the Ndongo island of Luanda. Accompanied by 100 settler families, 400 soldiers, and a handful of Jesuit priests – Novais’ mission was to set up an enclave, exploit the silver mines of the native town of Cambambe, and to gain control of lands south of the Kwanza river. The jesuits were to convert as many locals as they could to Catholicism – having largely done so in Kongo decades earlier. Of course they were also there to look for slaving opportunities. 

The township at Luanda was tolerated by Ndongo till 1579, when a member of Novais’ party met with the Ngola (king) of Ndongo to spill the beans on an alleged plot to take over their whole country. Understandably, the Ngola responded by expelling the Portuguese from Luanda. Novais would call on their Kongolese allies to back them in a war with Ndongo – and so it was a multi-generational war would rage in the nation. 

During the wars tens of thousands of captives, warrior and civilian alike, were shackled, stored in cages called barracoons, then shipped off to the new world – to be worked to death on a plantation. The adversaries fought to a stalemate in 1599,  but hostilities ramped up again in 1610, when Philip II of Portugal discovered Ndongo had large reserves of copper. Copper could be alloyed to make bronze cannons to one’s heart’s content – cannons which would prove very useful in their colonial pursuits. Forced into exile by a combined Portuguese/Imbangala force (the Imbangala were a rival tribe, newly arrived in the region who were happy to act as extra muscle for Portugal) – Ngola Mbandi called on his sister Njinga to broker a peace treaty. 

There’s a tale, I’m paraphrasing the following but the sources all depict something to this effect. Njinga arrives for negotiations in full indigenous attire – breaking with the practice of attending diplomatic meetings in western attire. Led to the meeting room she found de Sousa reclined in his chair – with a mat laid out on the floor for herself. Unperturbed, but knowing the importance of meeting eye to eye, she called for one of her ladies in waiting. The servant got down on her hands and knees – providing a seat for the princess. After some discussion – in Portuguese (Njinga spoke several languages), the governor and the princess concluded. 

“What about your chair?” Asked de Sousa, gesturing to the lady in waiting. 
“Keep her, I have many chairs in my home”

While I have no idea if the poor servant was left with these slave traders after all, I think the anecdote highlights the princesses shrewdness and tenacity. She was unwilling to be anything less than an equal of the governor. It’s also an insight she had a ruthless streak not dissimilar to the Portuguese. 

De Sousa, allegedly, saw Njinga as an impressive figure, and the two parties came to a peace agreement which saw Portugal agree to leave Ndongo, and recognise their nationhood. The cost? A trade agreement with Portugal, and the royals – Njinga included – would convert to Catholicism. The princess also took on the name Dona Anna de Sousa after her baptism – a name she would use in official correspondence from this point on. Life seemed to be returning to normal.

But then, in 1626, Portugal suddenly discarded the treaty. They resumed hostilities – pushing the Ndongo out of their lands. At this stage Ngola Mbandi had passed, in 1624 – the crown passing to Njinga. The Ndongo were slowly driven further inland. In 1631 they took refuge in the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. 

Njinga was well acquainted with these neighbours. She was in exile there when Ngola Mbandi called on her to broker a peace with Portugal. When their father, the previous Ngola died, Mbandi had Njinga’s only child murdered, and Njinga sterilised before ordering her out. Both siblings were front runners for king – but neither had an outright claim to the throne as they were born to the king’s slave wives. Again in exile, Njinga was declared ruler of Matamba.

Imbangala warriors.

While away, the Portuguese put a puppet ruler on the throne of Ndongo, Ngola a Hari – soon baptized as Felipe de Sousa. In an effort to turn the people against Njinga, they spread sexist propaganda against the queen, stating a woman cannot be king. To counter Njinga symbolically ’became a man’, from what I can gather by taking on the title king – and ‘doing manly things’. 

If by ‘manly things’ the sources mean Njinga led zir (am switching to Spivak pronouns, when in doubt) army into battle on numerous occasions – this was nothing new. Njinga, formerly a warrior queen, was very much the warrior king too. Despite fighting an enemy whose numbers increased year to year, with a large technological advantage, Njinga’s Matamba stood their ground against Portugal. Then in 1641, the landscape changed over night, yet again.

The Dutch arrived in 1641, making quick work of defeating Portuguese forces at Luanda – setting up base on the island. As soon as news arrived in Matamba, Njinga sent a diplomatic envoy to the Dutch. With a new ally, the king of Matamba was soon winning major battles, like the 1644 battle of Ngoleme- and would besiege the new Portuguese capital, Masangano, in 1647. Portugal called on reinforcements from Brazil to save them. In the wake of the failed siege, Njinga retreated to Matamba – but then the guerrilla war against Portugal began. The Portuguese couldn’t take a walk outside without risk of a sneak attack against them. Matamba, alone again after 1648, would bolster their numbers by making alliances with other kingdoms – and by offering a safe haven to any and all escaped slaves in need of a new homeland. This gained the king a compliment of loyal troops in the battle. 

Finally, Portugal gave up. On 24th November 1657 they withdrew all claims to Ndongo. This doesn’t mean they gave up entirely on getting revenge on King Njinga, backing a number of assassination attempts against the monarch. 

Njinga Mbandi, Ngola of the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba would die in 1666, at an estimated age of around 80. The monarch would spend zir final years settling escaped slaves to the kingdoms. Njinga built on Matamba’s location as the ‘gateway to Central Africa’ to build a wealthy, mercantile nation. Legend has it ze also kept a harem of 50 – 60 men who would fight for the right to sleep with the monarch. In the morning, the unlucky concubine would be put to death. Needless to say Njinga was a highly troublesome character – but also an absolutely fascinating one.     

The Phantom Airships

The Phantom Airships Tales of History and Imagination

Aurora is a small town in Wise country, in the North of Texas. The county came into being in the 1830s, following an armed standoff between 150 Native Americans and 18 cowboys. The latter, though outnumbered, won and planted a stake in the ground – owing to their superior technology. They brought guns to what the natives thought was a bow and arrow fight. In the wake of the Mexican- American war – 1846-48 – many more people arrived in Aurora, looking for a better life. In 1853 a new technology invaded Texas as the first of the railroad companies arrived. The Iron Horse promised to bring the world to the Lone Star state and vice versa – but for a variety of reasons, less than 500 miles of track was laid on the often inhospitable ground by the time the Civil war broke out in 1861. 

The Robber Barons took another shot at it in the 1880s, and rogues like Jay Gould built thousands of miles of track. They did so through all manner of devious and underhanded means – some of which would seem very familiar to those 18 aforementioned gunslingers, and continued to fight, bribe and steal their way through Texas till reined in, in 1891 by the newly elected Governor of Texas, James Hogg. 

Aurora, built on the modern wonder of the gun, never enjoyed the favour of the locomotive. Once full of promise, it became a backwater – abandoned by railway barons and politicians alike. It was a sleepy town, in rapid decline, where nothing unusual ever happened… This was at least until April 17th 1897. 

In the early hours of Saturday April 17 1897, a strange object streaked across the sky. Off kilter, it hurtled wildly over the town till it collided with a deafening thud into Judge J.S. Proctor’s windmill. Both the craft and the judge’s mill were obliterated. Shocked locals rushed to the scene to find debris strewn the length of the judge’s property. Two days later, a Wise county resident named S.E. Haydon reported the incident in the Dallas Morning News. An otherworldly airship crashed in Aurora over the weekend. When locals investigated, they found metallic wreckage which looked like nothing they’d ever seen before. Amidst the wreckage, the body of the pilot. He too looked like no one they’d ever seen on Earth. The townsfolk, after careful consideration decided the pilot must have come from Mars. 

Struck with compassion for the pilot – wherever he was from he was reckoned to be one of God’s children after all – the locals gave the alien a ‘Christian burial’. The rites performed by one William Russell Taybor – a travelling preacher on his way through the town. The alien was buried in Aurora cemetery, with a simple gravestone to mark the spot. 

The wreckage of the craft, according to one officer T.J. Weems from Fort Worth, was gathered up, then deposited down a well which once stood in the shadow of the mill. Half a century before the Roswell Incident, it appears the US military were far less interested in hoarding and examining ‘alien’ technology.

Some strange things happened decades after. In 1935 a Mr Brawley Oates bought the Proctor residence. Oates saw a well full of debris as a waste of resources and dug all the junk out. Not long after he was diagnosed with particularly bad arthritis. He presumed the wreckage had poisoned the water, which in turn gave him the rheumatism. Oates had the well refilled, then put a concrete cap put over it – then an outhouse on top of the cap. 

The thing which didn’t happen as some hoped was a sudden uptake of rubberneckers travelling out to Aurora to the site of the crash. Such traffic would surely have brought the railway in their direction. For a while the incident even fell off of the public consciousness. 

The whole incident was revealed to be a hoax in 1980. Time magazine interviewed an 86 year old local named Etta Pegues. She revealed Haydon wrote the article hoping to bring tourists to the dying town. There was no alien spacecraft. Judge Proctor didn’t even have a windmill on his land. Descriptions of the well were questionable also, as people started telling the story again in 1947 (in the wake of Roswell) The type of well described was of their own time, invented in 1945. 

Since then, of course, many UFOlogists have argued to the contrary. Several media organisations have reported the incident, lending it credence. The FOX affiliated station KDFW ran a report in 1998 stating locals claimed something crashed there – but never went all in on if it was an alien craft. In 2005 the TV show UFO Files covered a 1973 investigation by UFOlogists, who claimed they found evidence metallic debris was buried with the pilot via metal detector- but were barred from digging up the pilot. They returned later to resume their work but their metal detectors could no longer pick up the debris. Somebody also removed the headstone at some time in the 1970s. It was alleged to have had an UFO-like etching on it. What a shame this happened in the 1970s when cameras were yet to be invented. Yeah, the 1973 investigation sounds a little slapdash.  

The TV show UFO Hunters broadcast a show in 2008. Tim Oates, Brawley’s grandson, allowed the show to remove the capstone to the well. They didn’t find any UFO debris, but did find high concentrations of aluminium in the water. Again, the cemetery refused to let the UFO hunters exhume the remains of the alleged pilot.  

Though the Aurora space ship was an oddity, featuring a visitor from Mars, the latter half of the 1890s was rife with tales of mystery objects in the skies. Thousands of sightings in fact. Most were in fact taken for the work of intrepid, formerly Earth-bound inventors pushing beyond the constraints of science and technology. 

How one French illustrator at the end of the 19th Century imagined the year 2000.

Just on dusk on November 17th 1896 dozens of people in Sacramento, California complained of a large light in the sky flying over them. On investigation, the light was coming from a large cigar-shaped object ambling through the dark. Eagle-eyed witnesses claimed the object had men aboard, and that the craft appeared to be controlled by propellers and a rudder. Some claimed to hear men chattering on the deck of the craft, or singing. “We ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow afternoon” one man told another within earshot of the ground, as the craft chugged along against the prevailing winds. This was corroborated by another witness, who shouted up at them asking where they were going. “San Francisco – we should be there by midnight” the men replied. The craft, or one much like it, was next seen in Oakland, California on November 21st, this time by passengers on a cable car. 

The sightings were reported in several newspapers, and soon enough thousands of people claimed to have seen the airship all across California. Scientists explained both Mars and Venus appeared bigger than usual at the time – this could explain the sightings. Sober, responsible men, like a Mr Brown – a hunter from just North-west of San Francisco came forward to tell how, on the especially misty morning of November 1st this flying craft half scared him to death while he was out in the woods. He said nothing, of course at the time because people would think him mad, but now everyone was seeing it what was the harm in sharing his story? Grifters of course set up in public spaces with telescopes, offering the public a chance to scan the clouds for a few coins. The craft was spotted again November 25th, around San Francisco, and December 3rd around Vallejo, California. 

At one point a San Francisco lawyer named George Collins came forward with a tale of having met an inventor while on business in Washington. The two men kept in touch, and regularly met. One day, just before the sightings began, the inventor confided in Collins he’d secretly built an air ship – 150 feet long and capable of moving at 80 miles per hour. It was powered by compressed air. Collins refused to give the name of his friend. This didn’t stop the press from locating a 47 year old dentist and inventor named E.H. Benjamin. Benjamin stated he knew Collins well and was an inventor, but he made dental products. Benjamin was so hounded by the press he packed up in the middle of the night, and glided out to God knows where, just like a Phantom Airship himself. 

Soon after this incident former Attorney General for California, William Harrison Hart came forth claiming he now handled the legal affairs of the mystery inventor – and a second airship builder across the country in New Jersey. He stated he was trying to convince the inventors to produce the ships to Cuban revolutionaries fighting to depose Spain in Cuba. This, in his view, was where the money was – not in public transport. Hart would remain an oft quoted figure by the papers. 

By New Years 1897 however, the Phantom Airship, or ships? had disappeared from California.  

In February 1897 they reappeared twelve hundred miles east, first in Kansas, then Nebraska. Late at night, well into the early mornings the airship was spotted by railway operators as it appeared to navigate Eastwards from the railway lines. Reports did come in, however, from places like Harrison, Nebraska – where the craft hovered over the courthouse for 30 minutes, to the shock of all assembled. By April 1897 it reached Illinois, afterwards disappearing into the night from whence they came. 

So, as far as we can tell what was happening in the skies in 1896-7?    

First I should point out these airships were not terribly far removed from reality, but the couple of steps needed to take these craft from science fiction to science fact had been tantalisingly out of reach for a few decades. 

The Montgolfier brothers’ proved conclusively in 1783 that human flight via balloon was achievable. Having first sent up farm animals in 1782, then quibbled about sending up a criminal they thought the world could lose if it went wrong – Etienne Montgolfier made the first manned balloon flight just hours before a competitor named Rosier made the second. For a while, there was a flurry of activity around the hot air balloon. Jean Baptiste Meusnier presented blueprints to the Royal Academy in Paris for a steerable dirigible the same year. A little over a year from the Montgolfier’s first flight, in January 1785, Jean- Pierre Blanchard flew a balloon from the UK across the English Channel to France – a distance of around 21 miles. This could have gone wrong on so many levels – balloons were still flimsy. The wind still decided the balloon’s path.  

By the middle of the 19th Century inventors were still struggling with steerability. In 1851 an Australian inventor named William Bland proposed a  dirigible capable of travelling from Sydney, Australia to London England in a week. He never got funding for his craft, which almost certainly would have killed it’s pilot. In 1852 Henri Giffard made a hydrogen-filled dirigible powered by a steam engine. It was vaguely steerable, and could carry passengers. In one test it flew the 16 miles between Paris and Elancourt. 

A doctor, inventor, and three time mayor of Perth, Amboy, New Jersey named Solomon Andrews built a partially steerable craft named the Aereon in 1863. He offered to sell the craft to Union side in the American Civil war, but they saw no use for it. Of course they did have a team of seven balloonists headed by Thaddeus Lowe, carrying out aerial reconnaissance in conventional hot air balloons but that is a story for another day. Andrews was unlikely to be William H. Hart’s other inventor, having died 25 years earlier. 

The first reliable steering system was invented in 1872 by an engineer named Paul Heinlein. There were still a myriad of other obstacles however, from building an airship of sturdy enough material to more likely than not survive a long flight, and a propulsion system which could last more than a few miles at a time. It was not impossible for an inventor to have solved all these problems – but was improbable given all the known inventors had hit the limits of then current technology in the 1870s. Of course Brazilian Alberto Santos Dumont was only a few years away from making something vaguely like the mystery airship in 1897- but even his N series of airships were a long way from these purported dirigibles. 

So, if presumably the Phantom Airship was not the invention of a 47 year old inventor, who possibly filled and filed teeth by day – and if it was highly improbable the craft even existed – what started off, then fed into the phenomenon?  

The likelihood of war with Spain likely planted the seed. The Cuban war of Independence, the latest of several attempts stretching back to 1868 by Cubans, to rid themselves of the Spanish was well underway. American sentiment was with the Cubans, and they did enter the war in 1898, after a ship – the USS Maine – blew up in their waters. It turned out the explosion was due to a furnace overheating below deck but this was not discovered till after the USA had accused Spain of planting a bomb on the ship, and invaded. In early 1896 however, talking heads in national newspapers were discussing the possibility of making airships to hover over Havana – and bomb the living daylights out of the Spanish. I do have a Tale I’m choosing to keep in my back pocket for now explaining why this wasn’t completely without precedent – but of course aircraft would become weapons of war in 1912 when Italy used them in their invasion of Libya. Germany would later borrow the talking head’s idea verbatim in World War One, bombing the streets of London from Zeppelins in 1915. 

What fed the sightings was a war of another kind entirely.  

In 1883 Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the USA to fight for the Union in the Civil War – who later turned railroad vagrant, waiter, newspaper reporter then politician – bought the New York World newspaper. Pulitzer’s vision for the paper, from the get-go was to dominate the media. His method? to heavily augment everyday news items with sensationalist tales of sex, crime, scandal and horror. Much of his content was real, such as Nellie Bly’s expose of Blackwood Asylum – but the man was never afraid of letting the truth get in the way of a good story. 

In the meanwhile William Randolph Hearst, a San Franciscan born to a wealthy mining engineer and Senator who owned goldmines, inherited his father’s estate upon his death in 1891. One of his father’s businesses – a newspaper called The San Francisco Examiner. As Pulitzer’s readership expanded due to the level of what became known as ‘yellow journalism’ (a phrase coined, it is believed because the big sensationalist papers ran a cartoon called The Yellow Kid) – Hearst decided to follow suit. When he bought The New York Morning Journal in 1895, the battle lines were drawn. War was declared between the World and the Journal and no story – no matter how outlandish – was off limits. These were hardly the first hoax stories to appear in print – The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 immediately comes to mind – a series of six articles published in the New York Sun claiming the astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered a thriving civilisation on the moon – full of Bat-Men, bisons, tailless beavers and unicorns. 

But this was an escalation of fake news not seen before. 

Of course tales of phantom airships probably did little harm, perhaps beyond making fools of a number of witnesses. Yellow journalism could do harm. When the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour Feb 15th 1898, Hearst’s newspapers particularly were onto the story, stoking public anger without any evidence the ship had been bombed. “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” became the rallying cry that led the USA, first into Cuba (the subsequent history there more than a little troublesome) then onwards to the Philippines – where the USA proceeded to throw Spain out – then cause the deaths of at least 200,000 Filipinos during their occupation. 

Yellow journalism died back a little in the wake of the Spanish- American war – though obviously we would see ‘fake news’ pop up in other ways. That is a tale for another day.      

Dr Sweet’s Defence

Doctor Sweet’s Defence Tales of History and Imagination

Content Warning: This week’s post briefly discusses a lynching and other horrific things…

Our Tale this week opens on an ugly siege. The date September 9th 1925. The location 2905 Garland Street, Detroit, Michigan. The eleven men and women inside the house have provoked the ire of the Waterworks Improvement Association – the offence? daring to move in to a ‘nice neighbourhood’. In spite of a police presence, the large mob gathered across the road at the school on the 8th. The mob had grown even larger on the second night. Truthfully the police are only there to say the police were in attendance – and that they tried their best. When ‘Improvement clubs’ or ‘Neighbourhood associations’ are established, the police usually watch impassively. When people are hurt or killed, or properties are razed to the ground, it’s astonishing how often they were dealing with something else – and were sadly facing in the wrong direction at the time. 

Inside, the new owner, his wife Gladys, two of his brothers – and a handful of friends. Heavily outnumbered, at least the besieged had guns and a large supply of ammo.

 Just after 11pm, the Waterworks Improvement Association made their move. Yelling and hollering, the mob descended upon the house – throwing rocks at the property. As two windows were smashed and the mob were getting too close to the property, the besieged fired a fusillade of gunfire into the rabble. A man in the crowd was felled. Panicked, the mob dispersed – A ten year old neighbour later describing how the streets were too narrow to contain their hurried retreat. 

Now, of course, the dozen police officers present did get involved – and arrested the eleven in the house immediately. 

The occupant was one Ossian Sweet – a 30 year old doctor, recently returned from Austria and France. The real reason for the violent reception from the Waterworks Improvement Association? Ossian, Gladys and their young child were all African Americans moving into a white neighbourhood. 

Born in 1895 in Bartow, Florida to working class parents, Ossian grew up well aware of the horrors of a system that continued to discriminate against black Americans. The brief Reconstruction era post US Civil War failed to bring lasting equality. Jim Crow era America reverted to a system apt to subjugate, criminalise, and on occasion – to execute members of a group it saw as either perpetual children or animals. Aged five, Sweet witnessed a horrific lynching while hiding behind a bush. The victim, a black man, was tied to a stake then burned alive in front of a rapturous crowd. As was often the case, onlookers took mementos from the killing – tearing pieces of burnt flesh from the body. Though I couldn’t tell you why this particular man was murdered – somewhere in the order of five thousand Americans – mostly black – were lynched in the Jim Crow era for anything from accusations of murder through to flirting with a white woman. 

Ossian was living in a time of some positive change, however. His grandparents had been slaves, his parents laboured for wages. He would become a physician. The year he was born, Booker T Washington – the famed educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute – gave a speech known as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’. In the speech he called for young black people to take up vocational training in working class trades. He called for young intellectuals to stop agitating against the ‘Seperate but equal’ Jim Crow laws, and to step away from higher education or aspirations of political office. In return he called on the white community to get fully behind the up-skilling of the black community. His biggest rival, fellow educationalist W.E.B Du Bois called the compromise out, pointing out it would embed the black community forever as second class citizens in America. His rival plan – to ensure the ‘Talented Tenth’ – the smartest ten percent of black kids – got higher educations and entered the higher professions. 

Ossian and his brothers were of the ten percent. Aged 13 he was sent to live in Ohio, He studied at Wilberforce University – America’s first black university – in Ohio, before enrolling in medical school at Howard University, Washington DC. 

While in University, Ossian witnessed another horrific incident. A black man was pulled from a streetcar by a white mob, just blocks from his campus. Far from a one off, this was a small part of what became known as the ‘Red Summer’.  

The First World War breaking out in Europe was an economic boon for the Industrial cities in the North of the USA – something especially true of car manufacturers. While the Jeep was a whole world war away, armour plated vehicles – Ford Model T’s among them – were just flying off the production lines. There were barely enough men in the factories as it was, when the USA entered the war in 1917. To keep production lines going, factories sent recruiters into the South to find able-bodied men.

The ‘Great Migration’ a mass relocation north for tens of thousands of black Americans had begun a few years earlier, but this accelerated the process immensely. The African American population of Detroit, for example, grew twenty-fold between 1910 and 1930. While the First Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black Americans northwards – it also brought similar numbers of white southerners. Many of these new arrivals carried with them the white supremacist beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. This led to a rise in white supremacist activity in the North (for example, the Detroit chapter of the KKK alone had 100,000 members – and even nearly got one of their own, Charles S. Bowles, elected as mayor). 

Yeah, these assholes…

Being uncertain times, formerly fringe ideas spread easily in the North – a wave of white supremacist violence towards black people in dozens of cities was the result. Whenever black people tried to band together for protection, they were branded – especially in the press – as Bolsheviks, or at least in league with communists and anarchists. A number of civil rights leaders were socialists, but this was rhetoric meant to scare everyday white people into backing the KKK. The Klan violence had everything to do with some white people objecting to working and living alongside black people, and little to do with ‘reds under the bed’. 

At least 250 black Americans were murdered, hundreds more injured in the Red Summer. Many more besides were left homeless in the wake of the riots. 

Dr Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921, setting up a practice in Black Bottom – an over-populated black neighbourhood. He met, and fell in love with Gladys Mitchell. The two married in 1923 – and for a while moved to Europe – where Ossian continued his studies. On their return – now with a young child – they sought out a home of their own. Time and again they were turned away from white, middle class homes in wealthier neighbourhoods. Though the North was not segregated in quite the same way as the South, local government bodies could enact all kinds of ordinances making it difficult for black people to buy in white neighbourhoods. Sellers would often raise the price for black buyers without consequence too. When the couple bought 2905 Garland Street in June 1925 – in a white working class neighbourhood – they grudgingly paid more than $18,500 for a property valued at only around $12,500 to a white buyer. 

As soon as word got out a black family were moving in – locals formed an ‘improvement association’ under the pretence they were meeting to discuss the neighbourhood’s water pipes. Plans were soon under way to do as numerous other ‘improvement associations’ had before them – to violently force the Sweets out, back into the overcrowded ‘black’ neighbourhoods. 

Now given all that’s been said so far, I’m wary of introducing a ‘white saviour’ figure to this tale – but I needs must introduce Clarence Darrow. Known as ‘the attorney for the damned’, Clarence Darrow really was a remarkable figure. Born in Ohio in 1857, Darrow came from a family of abolitionists and free thinkers – and very much carried on their tradition. I won’t say too much on him today (I’ll come back to Clarence for future Tales) but if you can imagine most stereotypical television geniuses of the last few decades – unkempt, non-conformist, too damn good at their job to be let go for their eccentricities – you’re in the right ballpark for Mr Darrow. His nickname says it all really – if Clarence Darrow couldn’t help you, nobody could. In the wake of the arrests, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) held fundraisers in cities across the North – and secured the money to hire Darrow to defend the Sweet family and their co-defendants. 

Clarence Darrow

Initially, all eleven accused were tried together. In a courtroom, in front of a dozen white men, Darrow argued not just that the Sweets were defending their property as the law allows them to – but that they were the victims of a system stacked against them due to the colour of their skin. In his autobiography he makes mention of the fact the prosecution called up to seventy five witnesses, who all claimed they were out on the street and saw the shooting – but claimed there was no large crowd of people – just let that sink in for a while. Darrow struggled to find witnesses, due to the neighbourhood closing ranks – but made easy work of the witnesses in cross examination. With the media firmly on the side of the white mob, as well as most of Detroit’s leading citizens, Darrow still secured a hung jury. 

When the case was retried – this time individually trying the Sweets (starting with Ossian’s brother Henry – the shooter, and at the time a university student), Darrow won the case – leading to the State’s attorney dropping the charges against the other defendants. 

Were this a movie, this is the point where the family live happily ever after. They are released immediately. Cut to scene of a party with some hot jazz playing on the gramophone. Perhaps the white saviour lawyer is there as the guest of honour… The neighbours have learnt the foolishness of their ways, and Dr Sweet is welcomed into the community as one of their own. This was, however, real life. Once arrested, the defendants were refused bail. In the dank, miserable jail cells, Gladys Sweet caught tuberculosis – and passed away soon after – but not before she inadvertently passed the disease to their child – who also died from consumption. Ossian Sweet resumed his medical practice, but never returned to 2905 Garland Street. He never really got over the incident, or the loss of his family. Ossian Sweet sold the house in the 1950s, and feeling all too world weary, took his own life in 1960. 

Though hardly the most uplifting tale, the story of Ossian Sweet is something that keeps coming back to me. Not to say he wasn’t a remarkable guy (to become a doctor requires a high level of smarts. To remain calm in the face of a raging mob incredible toughness), but I think that his experience was not uncommon makes it chilling to me. There is something of this also feels far too current for comfort.     

As a final word; Clarence Darrow appealed to the better nature of the jury when he said “To me this case is a cross section of human history; it involves the future, and the hope of some of us that the future shall be better than the past”.

While in the box, Ossian Sweet also made a statement,  
“I opened the door, I saw the mob and I realised I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout our entire history. I was filled with a fear that only one could experience who knows the history and strivings of my race” 

February 2022 is Black History Month. As a pakeha (white) New Zealander I’m far from the best person to be telling tales like this. Luckily there’s no shortage of African American historians out there – shining a light on African American history in a way I could only dream of. I found this British site covering their own Black History Month (the practice started in the USA as a week only in 1926, the UK started observing the month in 1987) 

The American site, for African American History month is here, and has several other sites which observe the month in their about section.

The Pendle Witches (Part Two)

The Pendle Witches (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination

This week, let me begin with a personal digression. For a little over a decade I rented a place my friends and I referred to as the ‘Beach House’. In a few ways it was what one imagines – a ramshackle old house in a neighbourhood with the word ‘Bay’ in the title. Sure enough you got sea breezes – and could smell the salt in the air out in the courtyard – that sea air was potent enough, by the way, that it rusted ordinary padlocks in nothing flat. Occasionally a passing seagull would drop a present on the roof of your car. Occasionally on a very quiet night you’d swear you could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The naming of the property was just some pompous, facetious, Hyacinth Bucket level nonsense though and we knew it. The worst house on a posh street, we were a long way from the beach. The house was on a stretch of road where our side slumped into a wooded hovel, hemmed in by trees – with never enough sunlight. The other side of the road, however, was occupied by business owners and executives. Their houses stood proud and tall on a hill. Stunning properties with the stunning sea views one expects of a real ‘beach house’. 

I mention this as Alizon’s grandmother, Old Demdike, lived in a property with the suitably witchy name, Malkin Tower. A cursory Google of the name brings up a beat up old tower atop a hilltop. Brooding, solitary and windswept, it looks precisely the kind of place a coven of witches might engage in malicious activity round a steaming cauldron. This however is a Victorian folly called Blacko Tower, built in Pendle Hill by a mill owner who, not unlike my former neighbours, wanted a million dollar view of the valley – some time around 1890. 

When I tell you Alizon’s interview with Justice Nowell went horrifically badly, and 10th April 1612, friends and family gathered at Malkin Tower to plan their next move – they met at an ordinary 17th century cottage. 

Which is precisely what happened. 

We left off last week with Alizon Device being interviewed by justice of the peace Nowell for bewitching a pedlar named John Law. Alizon broke immediately. As soon as Alizon confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and to hexing John Law, she’d unwittingly confessed to being part of a criminal organisation. Witches always belong to covens after all. Roger Nowell wanted to know who else belonged to the Coven? After some questioning Alizon claimed her grandmother once used witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s cow. When Nowell turned his attention to Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, she held up to the interrogation for longer, but eventually broke – admitting she’s seen a ‘witch’s teat’ – an odd lump from which a witches familiar, or even the Devil may suck a witches blood – on the grandmother Old Demdike.

James, who was thought of as ‘simple’ further dug Alizon’s grave, claiming she’d confessed to bewitching a child to him once. 

 Knowing they were in trouble, the women then attempted to divert attention from themselves, towards the Chattox family – the other clan of wise women in the village.   

The Chattoxes were, similarly, a matriarchy run by an ageing grandmother – who was also believed by locals to have supernatural powers. Their matriarch was Anne Whittle aka old Chattox. She had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne Redfern. 

The two families had been at odds with one another for over a decade – after the Chattoxes broke into Malkin Tower in 1601 and stole clothes and oatmeal from the Demdikes. The Demdikes soon cornered Anne Redfearn’s husband, John, demanding a year’s supply of oatmeal, or they would retaliate. John agreed to their terms, and kept to his word, until he could no longer afford to pay them. Soon after John was struck with an illness and died. On his deathbed he accused the Demdikes of murder. 

Alizon shared a tale with Nowell, of Anne Whittle, the matriarch. Anne had gotten into an argument with a Higham village local named John Moore. Moore was telling people in the village Old Chattox had turned his ale sour. In retaliation Old Chattox allegedly murdered Moore’s young son using something like a clay voodoo doll. She went further. Old Chattox had killed four men she knew of, including her own father. For now Alizon was detained, Elizabeth and James released. Orders were sent to bring in Old Demdike and the Chattoxes. The two elders immediately confessed to selling their souls to the devil – and eventually, the other charges laid against them. Old Demdike, Old Chattox and Anne Redfearn were marched to the dungeon below the Assize court and chained to a wall, next to Alizon. They’d remain there till the trial.  

The gathering at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 might have gone unnoticed, but for a stolen sheep. A large gathering required food – so James Device stole, then butchered a neighbour’s sheep. Gossip soon spread about the theft, and the meeting – and as gossip often does, it got exaggerated in the retelling. A strategy meeting soon became a black mass, full of demonic rituals – and of course plans to seek vengeance against the Justice of the Peace. As soon as word got back to Justice Nowell on 27th April, he arrested the remainder of the family, including nine year old Jennet Device. Eight more people; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were charged with witchcraft and multiple acts of murder. 

A trial date of 17th August 1612 was set at the Lancaster Assizes for all but Old Demdike – who became ill in prison and died, and Jennet Preston.

Preston lived in York, and faced charges of murdering a man named Thomas Lister four years earlier. She had beaten an earlier accusation, of murdering a child by witchcraft, so was already known to the two judges, James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. This time she was facing a dying man’s last words, and what then counted as post-mortem evidence. On his death bed, the nobleman Lister allegedly exclaimed 

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me”
before he took his last breath. Preston was brought before his ‘corpse’. Lister’s body, it was said, condemned her by bleeding for all to see. In 1612 a bleeding corpse was seen less as a sign the patient may still be alive, more a sign they had crossed back to the land of the living to ensure their killer was punished. A bleeding corpse was thought a sign of the guilt of the person before the body. As discussed back in ‘Buried Alive’ it’s estimated hundreds of poor souls were buried alive every year in the UK alone. 
This malicious tale was uncovered in the wake of Jennet’s arrest, as the justices made local enquiries.

This was evidence enough for Altham and Bromley. Jennet Preston was tried 27th July 1612 in York, found guilty, and hanged on the 29th.  

It has to be said Altham and Bromley were the last two judges the Pendle witches wanted presiding over their case. James Altham was a true believer in witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, and Daemonologie. He detested witches, believing the only good witch was a dead witch. Bromley was far more level headed, but hated being stuck in the North of England. No doubt he tired of the numbers of recusants (secret Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism) regularly paraded before him in the North. It was the lifestyle in the North that bored him. Bromley wanted a promotion, and a relocation down to London. Something shocking involving a coven of witches may well be a chance to impress King James. These Assizes were his ticket back to ‘civilisation’. 
The Pendle Witches got Bromley.

On 17th August, the Pendle witches were brought before the court. For the most part it went as you might expect. Old Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pled not guilty, then sat there as her earlier confession was read back at her. A boarder at her house, James Robinson was also called to confirm everyone believed her a witch. The verdict? Guilty. The developmentally challenged James had confessed all kinds of things for the family, including two murders among his own crimes. His confession was also read out in court. Nine year old Jennet Device was called to give evidence, and further damned her older brother. Likewise, a guilty verdict was returned. 

Anne Redfearn beat the charge of helping Old Chattox murder Robert Nutter – there was insufficient evidence. Unfortunately for her she was also charged with the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher. Though no evidence of this murder was presented, several witnesses were called to confirm Anne was a witch. This was enough for Bromley. Guilty, next!

Next was Jane and John Bulcock – guilty of murdering Jennet Deane, and of attending the Malkin Tower meeting. Again, they were damned by nine year old Jennet Device. She put them at Malkin Tower on the night, and that alone was good enough. Alice Nutter, the only defendant not to come from the peasant class, refused to make a statement beyond a pleading not guilty in the murder of Henry Mitton. She was found guilty. As was Katherine Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Alice Grey were accused by James Device of murdering a child named Anne Faulds. Based on nothing more than the testimony of a developmentally challenged young man, Katherine was found guilty, while Alice was let go – on the exact same evidence. 

Alizon was the only ‘witch’ to face an accuser in court. When told to look on John Law she broke down and reiterated her guilty plea. 

Alizon’s mother Elizabeth’s case was slightly more dramatic than the others. All along she maintained her innocence, but her life was literally in the hands of her nine year old daughter, Jennet. Whether Jennet had been coached (quite likely) or – as has been suggested was an imaginative kid who loved the all the attention the case brought her… of for that matter, as the folklore suggests – an unpopular kid whose head was suddenly turned by the attention she suddenly got
Whether she was aware of the implications of her star testimony – well, all of that’s all up for debate. What was absolutely certain, her testimony was damning. 

Elizabeth was accused of the murder of two men (James and John Robinson – one presumes a different James to the witness who damned Old Chattox). She was also accused of being an accomplice in the murder of Henry Mitton. As Jennet was brought forwards, Elizabeth lost all composure. She yelled and screamed hysterically at the young child – warning her to stop and tell the truth immediately before she damned the whole lot of them. For God’s sake child, think what you’re doing before you kill the lot of us! Elizabeth was restrained, then removed; kicking and screaming from the courtroom. Jennet proceeded to tell the court mummy had been a witch for some three of four years. She had a spirit familiar who took the form of a brown dog. The familiar was called Ball. Mummy had magical powers, and often spoke with Ball. (Ball of course spoke back). 

What did mummy and Ball discuss? Mummy asked Ball’s help many times to murder other villagers. 

Elizabeth Device was found guilty. The guilty were executed on August 20th 1612, by hanging. You may be pleased to know Sir Edward Bromley’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the King. Though it didn’t happen overnight, he did get his promotion, and moved to London in 1616. Jennet Device, of whom I’m not sure if she really deserved a comeuppance – well, at least if she were coached by unscrupulous adults – she too got her comeuppance.
In 1634 a 10 year old boy named Edmund Robinson accused Jennet of murdering a woman named Isabel Nutter. Again, the court took the testimony of a child as gospel, and Jennet was found guilty. Unlike her family, she was never hanged for her crime, but she did spend the rest of her natural life behind bars for the alleged crime. 

Witch trials continued in England till 1716. The last women executed for witchcraft was a Huntingdon woman named Mary Hicks, and her nine year old daughter Elizabeth. At that point in time few Britons believed in witchcraft anymore. All laws regarding witchcraft were finally repealed in 1735. By the end of Britain’s witch hunting era some 500 ’witches’ were executed in England, and 4,000 in Scotland. Close to 90% of the executed were women.
Several attempts have been made to pardon the Pendle Witches, recently in 1998 and 2018. Governments have refused to overturn the convictions, and at time of writing a petition is live, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth directly. At the time of recording this episode a petition had gone live to demand the Scottish parliament pardon all their executed witches. I, for one, believe it is well past time the victims of the witch hunts were acquitted.

The Pendle Witches (Part One)

The Pendle Witches (Part One) Tales of History and Imagination


One March day in 1612 Justice Roger Nowell of Pendle Hill, Lancashire was called upon by a complainant with a weird tale to tell. As a justice of the peace – an office created by Simon de Montfort in 1285 – his role was to decide what behaviours constituted illegal, or merely obnoxious behaviour in the community. The complaint brought to him today, was one being heard more and more in England since a young King of Scotland got a promotion, and brought some strange ideas South with him. By and large, these complaints came to nought, so Justice Nowell could be excused if he had no idea of the level of harm this meeting would unleash.

The complainant was one John Law, an aged pedlar from Halifax. On 21st March he’d been travelling through Trawden Forest when accosted by a young woman named Alizon Device. Device coming from a family of ‘Wise women’ – pagan folk healers – Law was wary of her, and when she stopped him to ask if he had pins for sale, Law became increasingly uptight. It was well known witches used pins in arcane rituals like curing warts and casting love spells after all. Besides, it was well known the Device clan were poor (she was returning home from a day of begging in the town) and metal pins were quite expensive – why go to the bother of unloading his bag if the young lady didn’t have any money?

 Because of this, Law stated it was hardly worth his bother to sell her any pins that day. Alizon lost her temper, yelling something at Law, the specifics of which have not been recorded. Law retaliated by calling Alizon a thief. The two went their separate ways – till soon after John Law keeled over, as if struck by a curse. The pedlar managed to stumble on till he reached a tavern, from which a doctor could be called.    

A pedlar

John was content to leave things be, but his son Abraham insisted he go to the authorities to lay a complaint. Alizon was brought over to the Law household to see what she’d done to the pedlar, for which she apologised. For Abraham this still wasn’t enough. Witches should not be allowed to simply curse whomever they please, not least of all Abraham’s beloved father. Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and especially her grandmother Elizabeth Southernes – known as ‘Old Demdike’ were well known practitioners of maleficent practices and lifelong troublemakers. The complaint laid, justice Nowell called for a constable to bring Alizon before him as soon as possible.   

Before we get to Alizon’s trial, we should step back and discuss witchcraft itself. The Devices may be the lead characters in this tale – but for these episodes we’re looking at witch hunts in the United Kingdom in general.

Without going too deep, the concept of witches goes way back in antiquity – one of the earliest books to mention witches is the Old Testament of the Bible. 1 Samuel mentions Saul, the King of the Israelites approaching the ‘Witch of Endor’ to contact the deceased prophet Samuel. Saul needed to know what would happen in an upcoming battle with the Philistines. The witch tells him not just Saul, but his whole army will be destroyed. The prophecy proved correct. Elsewhere, in the book of Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and a handful of other advice including “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  From here the inter-relation between witchcraft and prevailing (increasingly Christian) doctrines of society has been complex. Broadly, in ancient history witches were largely to be feared, and occasionally used by powerful people as either an oracle of future events – or to put a hex on an enemy – often with deadly effect. 

Medieval society largely had the hang-ups – and dare I say this of the church? Some degree of common sense from the church to guide them. Notably, St Augustine of Hippo (354- 430 AD) who saw witches as competitors for the hearts and minds of the people, but didn’t believe they had any supernatural powers. As such he urged the church to treat them as heretics rather than dangerous monsters in league with the devil. This viewpoint was the dominant view of witches throughout the most of the Middle Ages – tax the witch a penance, rather than burn them at the stake. A number of big name monarchs followed suit. Charlemagne, a Frankish king who could very fairly crown himself Emperor of much of Europe in 800 AD stated 

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed” 

His call for tolerance and protection of witches was echoed by others. The Canon Episcopi, of 900 AD enshrined Augustine’s views witches were basically harmless. In 1080, after king Harald III of Denmark ordered a mass culling of witches following a year of crop failures, Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to the King demanding he stop the cull immediately. The Lombards of Northern Italy outlawed the murder of witches in the Middle Ages. In 1100, King Kalman of Hungary expressly banned witch hunting in the country, his reason “witches do not exist”.

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

Again there is a lot to cover here, the broad strokes however are:

First, in 1204 a marauding group of crusaders on their way down to retake Jerusalem got waylaid and wrecked their friends and allies, The Byzantine Empire at Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, Turkey instead. Their occupation of the city opened up a world of forgotten books – long banned by the church in Europe, but kept alive in Byzantine and Islamic circles. From the mid 14th Century onwards Renaissance Occultism – centred largely around the writings of the semi-mythical magician Hermes Trismegistus, and the Neo-Platonists (far too big a field to plow today, we’ll come back to Hermetic orders some day) – suddenly become very in vogue with the wealthy classes. The study of magic suddenly became popular, subversive, and just a little dangerous. 

Second, sects of Cathars arrived in Europe from Bulgaria – providing a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. 

Though nominally Christian, they took on elements of Zoroastrianism – especially the view all of history is played out in front of a cosmic dualist battle of the good powers vs the evil powers. They also adopted Manichaeism to a degree – a 3rd century religion founded around a Persian holy man called Mani. They believed churches should not tax their flock, men & women are equal, and priests should live simple lives, unencumbered by wealth. This was seen as dangerous and subversive for reasons you may guess, and the Cathars were soon murdered and driven out en masse. The widespread persecution of Cathars was an important building block to the witch hunts. 

And of course there was much more religious turmoil in this time that you could shake a stick at – some, like the siege of Münster we’ll come back to later. There were also rulers like Philip The Fair, King of France – who used witchcraft allegations politically. Between 1304 and 1307, he first kidnapped a Pope, justifying his actions by declaring the man a witch – then caused the arrest and destruction of the Knights Templar – effectively because he owed them a lot of money he didn’t want to pay back; but again justified because Philip said they were in league with the Devil. 

The invention of the printing press of course also gave legs to all kinds of dangerous ideas in a way internet users could imagine today. All manner of heretical thought gained popularity in this era, and spread far more easily than they would have through word of mouth alone. While I’m choosing to skip much of this, one book in particular changed the game considerably in regards witchcraft. 

In 1486, a Dominican monk named Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum “The Hammer Against the Witches”. The book compiled a growing list of conspiracy theories levelled against the witches in recent decades. Claims of human sacrifice, wild, orgiastic get togethers in their covens. Demonic ‘familiars’ who would take on animal form and provided a link to the other side. Kramer highlighted many alleged tales of cruel behaviour aimed at their fellow humans by malicious witches. He explained witches were in league with the devil. They were granted supernatural powers, but in exchange they were expected to wreak havoc on ordinary people. Kramer’s book shocked the book-reading public, and for some time was Europe’s second best seller behind The Bible. It kicked off a witch hunting craze which ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Europeans being executed in the most horrific of ways.

But, by and large, England never fell down that rabbit hole in quite the same way – Nor as early as Mainland Europe did. That needs a brief explanation before we return to the Device family. 

While it’s unfair to say James I of England (1566- 1625) was the first British king to go after witches – Cinaed “Kenneth” McAlpin, arguably Scotland’s first king, was witch mad. Henry Tudor also used witchcraft allegations for political purposes –

It is very fair to say his hatred of witches led to the witch hunting craze which in turn led to the likes of Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins only decades after his passing. While several reasons would factor in people dobbing in others as witches – from personal grievance, to professional envy (as the field of medicine grew, many male doctors looked at these mostly female folk healers as competitors who must be done away with) – James I seemed very much a true believer. 

In 1589 James, then King of Scotland only, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark – his future wife. The couple had been trying to get together for some time, but the rowdy North Sea had other plans for them.

Claims of supernatural interference soon crept into this tale when the Admiral originally tasked to sail Anne to Scotland accused a local politician of incompetence- and things took an odd turn. Admiral Peder Munk was in charge of the fleet of 18 ships. They set sail on 18 September 1589. After a couple of odd incidents, like cannons firing by themselves, a bad storm set in, forcing the fleet, tempest tossed – and some springing leaks – to seek shelter in Norway.  

James impatiently awaited Anne’s arrival, penning a sonnet ‘A complaint against the contrary wyndes that hindered the Queene to com to Scotland from Denmarke.’ It was hardly John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, but it’s certainly a sonnet. While waiting, an advance ferry which reached the River Forth in Scotland before the storm set in, was pummelled by the tail end of the storm – causing it to collide with another ship and drown all aboard. On board, a courtier named Jane Kennedy. Jane had come to Scotland to serve the new Queen. First James sent a group of diplomats to Denmark, then set sail himself – directly to Anne. The party eventually made it back to Scotland, but were almost scuttled in the tempest – where one ship was sunk. 

Back in Denmark an investigation was held into the disastrous voyage. Admiral Munk pointed the finger at the Danish minister of finance, Christoffer Valkendorff, who he stated had under-equipped the royal ship for the voyage. Valkendorff rebutted this was not the case – all the blame lay squarely at the feet of a coven of witches who met at the home of one Karen Vaevers. Their meeting, to curse the voyage. At the time, a woman named Ane Koldings was already in prison – already charged with another, unrelated charge of witchcraft. Awaiting her execution she was tortured into admitting her part in the plot. Ane claimed the coven sent small devils up the keel of the royal ship, forcing the ship to take shelter. She also named five accomplices – one of whom was the wife of the then mayor of Helsingor (the ‘Elsinore’ Shakespeare sets Hamlet in – we’ll come to the Bard soon). 

All up thirteen women were burnt at the stake for their alleged part in the storm. 

News of the Copenhagen Witch Trials reached King James back in Scotland. Shocked by the revelations, he set up his own tribunal. The tribunal found a vast conspiracy directly related to the storm, in Scotland – the incident coming to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials. This incident bred a lifelong preoccupation with witches for the King – which included his own treatise on witchcraft – Daemonologie – first published in 1597, and reprinted after he became King of England, in 1603. 

A learned review of all that had been said of witches, demons and more besides – the book was meant as a guide to both uncover witches, and protect those who – in James’ view – had been wrongly accused. Daemonologie would instead act as a guidebook for future witch-finders, like Matthew Hopkins, who personally had 300 Britons executed. The treatise, whether rightly or wrongly, also became a guide to a number of public officials looking to win favour with the King, and move up the ladder. This is something we’ll discuss in part two. One clear example of a public figure pandering to the King’s obsession to obtain fortune and favour came by way of William Shakespeare. 

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen…”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth may not have had it’s first public viewing till 1611, just prior to our main tale – though it’s believed it’s first performance was at court, before the King, in August 1606. The play is, in small part a vindication of King James ascent to the English crown, as well as his ancestors’ to the Scottish title. In act one, scene three the three witches may greet Macbeth “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” but they also address his friend Banquo – a real life ancestor of James “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Later in the play, when Macbeth approaches the witches – to speak with their masters – for advice on how to handle the coming rebellion; he’s shown a succession of kings who “art too like the spirit of Banquo”. 

This procession of future kings, of whom Macbeth exclaims “what, will the one (bloodline) stretch out to th’ crack of doom?” Appear to the tyrant – at one point holding ‘twofold balls and treble sceptres’, indicating Banquo’s successors – James and his kin – were fated to become Kings of a United Kingdom all along. 

Pertinent to our Tale, many of the rituals we see from the witches themselves come directly from Daemonologie. All the talk of ‘scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches mummy, maw and gulf’ corresponds to the treatise. The witches also carry out a supernatural assault on the ship ‘The Tiger’ – recently home in real life following a harrowing 569 days at sea. In real life the Tiger too was ‘tempest-toss’d’, and at one point set upon by pirates. The captain and several crew were murdered by Japanese pirates near Indonesia. It harkens back to, and reinforces James’ experience of bringing Anne back to Scotland, and casts shade the way of the humble folk healers yet again. 

Before we wrap up part one (I’ll be back with part two in a week’s time) we should quickly come back to Alizon Device, our protagonist. On 30th March, Alizon, her mother Elizabeth and brother James were all brought before Justice Roger Nowell to answer John Law’s accusation. Had Alizon denied the charge, events may have played out very differently. Unfortunately for all involved, Alizon herself was a true believer. Bursting into tears she confessed to the hexing. She stated following her altercation with the pedlar, a demon in the form of a black dog suddenly appeared alongside her, asking 

“What should I do to him?”
“What canst thou do to him?” She replied
“I can lame him”

Three hundred yards down the road, John Law was seized by an ‘apoplexy’ in the parlance of the day, and tumbled to the ground as if struck by a lightning bolt. 

I’ll be back next week, a week early, to conclude this Tale.  

The Miser of Marcham Park

The Miser of Marcham Park Tales of History and Imagination


Hi all, welcome to the official 2020 Christmas Tale of History and Imagination. Merry Christmas all, I hope this post finds you all well. Today’s post begins in Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. The date is 1841. A young writer meanders through the graveyard, perusing the tales to be seen on the  markers. No doubt he looked on the resting place of the ‘Father of Economics’ Adam Smith. Smith’s tomb is substantial, but bears the simple engraving

Here are deposited the remains of Adam Smith, author of the Theorey (sic) of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.”

So much more could have surely been said about one of the great philosophers of his age; perhaps a novelist in this day and age might pause and wonder who was Smith’s one true unrequited love (he never married or had children, as evident in his spartan epitaph). “He uncovered the invisible hand that moves the market, but dismissed the hand of Cupid pulling at his heartstrings: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Romance”.  

He must have stopped to view the gravestone of the poet Robert Fergusson. A well-liked man about town whose works were starting to really gain some attention, Fergusson’s career was suddenly cut short after he took a suspicious tumble down a stairway. In spite of his protests, Fergusson was taken to hospital, where he would die of a head injury days later. His stone bears an epitaph from his friend Robert Burns.

No Sculptur’d marble nor pompous lay
No storied urn, nor animated bust,
This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust”


It was, however, another gravestone entirely which caught the author’s imagination. A simple block of granite, inscribed

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


The headstone made an impact on the writer, a 29 year old Charles Dickens. He is said to have wondered what kind of monster Mr. Scroggie must have been to have earned the appellation ‘Mean Man’, especially in an age full of mean men not remembered so. I don’t know if Dickens enquired about Scroggie, though we now know him to have been a rather hedonistic young man who matured into a successful vintner, whiskey maker and corn merchant. He was of note in 1822 for supplying the food for a royal visit to Edinburgh, and was the British Navy’s sole supplier of whiskey. It’s been suggested Dickens misread that day, that the grave actually said ‘Meal Man’, but we’ll never know. During a construction project in 1932, Scroggie’s grave marker was inexplicably lost. What is certain, as the tale percolated in Dickens’ mind Scroggie gave way to Scrooge, and one of the great characters of Victorian literature was born.  

Charles Dickens.



I’ll have a little more to say on Dickens’ 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ later, but first should address – if Ebenezer Scroggie lent his name to the character of Scrooge, but not his actual character, just who was the narrative source for the old miser? The answer most often given, John Elwes – member of Parliament for Berkshire.  

John Elwes was born John Meggot on 7th April 1714 to Robert and Amy Meggot (nee Elwes) in Southwark. Born to a wealthy, but extremely parsimonious family (it was said Amy accidentally starved herself to death over several years in an effort to save as many pennies as possible on the groceries), John found himself orphaned as a young boy, and in charge of a £100,000 fortune – just shy of $22 Million US now. As a result, he had a far more comfortable childhood than many of his peers. Having studied at Westminster School, John left on the Grand Tour – mixing with foreign aristocracy and making a name for himself as an excellent horseman. Tiring of the company of the likes of Voltaire, John returned to Britain, where he continued to live the high life.

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

His world view changed drastically however by the middle of the 18th century. As wealthy as John was, his ageing uncle, Baronet Harvey Elwes was considerably wealthier than he, and was a renowned cheapskate to boot. The Baronet had never married, nor fathered a child. The only heir to his £250,000 fortune was young John, pampered rich kid that he was. In all likelihood in an effort to win fortune and favor from uncle Harvey, John changed his ways – first changing his surname to Elwes, then adopting his uncle’s skinflint ways. When Harvey died in 1763, he left a further £250,000 to his nephew –  $53 Million, according to a University of Wyoming currency converter. For a reason never stated, John Elwes never went back to his freewheeling ways – instead choosing to live a lifestyle that would make a Hetty Green or John Paul Getty blush.

Let’s start with candles – probably the least of his sins as a tallow candle was both hideously expensive, and smelled awful when lit. Elwes was notorious for never using candles when moving around his stately home at night. He would much rather bang into the furniture and put his fate in the lap of the Gods when traversing stairs than waste an average weekly wage on several hours of candlelight. Most nights Elwes would also sit in the kitchen with the help, as they would insist on lighting a fire – and he refused to get a second fire going.

in fairness to John Elwes, speaking in terms of lumens of light, a modern LED is 500,000 times cheaper to run, per lumen than a tallow candle then was.


Worse, Elwes refused to fix a growing number of leaks in his roof. This was in spite of the fact the water getting into the house was starting to rot it out from under him, not to mention all the ruined antique furniture the leaks caused.

John Elwes always looked a mess. He wore the same suit for months on end, both day and night, till his clothes turned to rags. Wigs being popular in his day, he refused to buy one. His wig some worn out old rug salvaged after some passing pedestrian tossed it into his grounds. He would often refuse to catch a cab if raining, instead tromping through the deluge, then sitting round soaked at the other end, as he was also too cheap to dry his clothes in front of a fire. He kept food till it went moldy or putrid, and was well known for going out to meet friends – then taking a pancake and a hard boiled egg out of his jacket pocket, to avoid spending money at a restaurant or tavern.

One tale has it, one dark night while walking home, John Elwes took an awful tumble. A doctor was called to dress his injuries – deep gashes to both his legs. Elwes not only refused to let the doctor treat the second leg, he wagered the cost of his treatment on his untreated leg healing sooner. By chance it did, thus saving Elwes the cost of treatment – something he crowed about for some time.

In 1772, Elwes would be elected member of parliament for Berkshire, a job he’d hold for the following twelve years. A complete maverick who voted for whichever side pleased him that day, he drew derisive comments from other parliamentarians such as he could never be a turncoat as he only owned the one coat to start with. He eventually stepped down from the, then, unpaid job as it was costing him too much money to serve.

Georgian Architecture.

While John Elwes is widely considered the model for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I think it is fair to point out in some ways he was far from a real life Ebenezer. Dickens’ Scrooge is shown on Christmas eve counting his money, while his employee Bob Cratchit froze in the ante room. For a start we know he never denied his help a fire for themselves. Scrooge is visited by his nephew Fred, then two charity collectors, all out after something from him – the men are met with an aggressive response – Fred himself sent packing with a ‘Bah! Humbug!’. Elwes WAS known to give to charity, and invest in the upgrade of parts of London. Much of the Georgian architecture present in London owes to his redevelopments. He may have never had one true, lost love such as Scrooge’s Belle – but he had relationships with at least two women, who bore him illegitimate heirs. Nor would he have let Bob Cratchit’s poor son, Tiny Tim, suffer unnecessarily – or been spoken about on his passing by his debtors as an unforgiving ogre. To others John Elwes was a very caring man, who often gave out loans knowing full well he’d never see the money back. He still passed on, finally in 1789, leaving a £500,000 fortune – $81 Million in 2020 money, but he did spend a lot in making others happy. His biographer Edward Topham summed him up, stating “To others, he lent much, to himself he denied everything”.

Given that, maybe on a normal year I’d suggest we all need to be a little more like the real life Scrooge – to find a little joy in giving – but, hell this has been anything but a normal year. Eat, drink and be merry I say – life’s too short not to. Take care out there, and a Merry Christmas all. “God Bless us! Every one” as Tiny Tim states in that, most famous of Christmas Tales.