Category Archives: Science and Nature

Welcome to Tales of Science and Imagination, where Mother Nature plays a role, people create things once though of as magic, and occasionally Forteana occurs

Jack Parsons – a prelude

Hey all I don’t know how to tell this prelude without getting into a load of backstory. Thanks in advance for your forbearance.

To understand how Jack Parsons – our central figure in next week’s podcast episode – came to public prominence, it helps to know a little about Los Angeles in the 1930s and how it got there. Just three topics, each of which has had books written on it in their own right, will suffice. 

The Great Depression

First, let’s discuss the Great Depression. What I think you need to know is 1920 – 1929 was a boom time for the USA, in which the economy more than doubled in value. A part of the reason for this (I’m massively oversimplifying) was the Stockmarket on Wall Street, New York was allowed to operate with very little oversight. A lot of stock was, like the crash of 2008, criminally overpriced. A lot of practices, also per 2008, retroactively seen as criminally irresponsible. 

The boom years of the 1920s saw unemployment drop from over 11% to just below 3%. While wealth distribution was still unequal (a portion of society had to borrow money to pay for the basics – their debts would play a role in the depression) – many people unaccustomed to having spare change suddenly had money to invest in stocks and bonds. Millions did. Much of the wealth of the 1920s also came from retail and manufacture. Working people – whose real annual earnings increased by 40% over the 1920s – bought more. Industry produced more, making more money for businesses and putting more money in the pockets of the employees. This was a virtuous cycle – till it suddenly wasn’t. 

Over the summer of 1929 wages stagnated. Domestic spending slowed down. Production would too, but not before there was a massive oversupply of domestic goods clogging up warehouses. The stock market powered on till August, hitting an all time high. By October it was clear Wall Street couldn’t save the nation. 24th October 1929 saw record numbers of people offloading overpriced shares – 12.9 million shares changing hands on ‘Black Thursday’ …. This was the record till 16 million shares were sold at a huge loss on Black Tuesday, 29th October 1929. This caused the economy to crash into a depression which took a decade to climb out of. 15 million people would lose their jobs. Those who still had jobs took huge pay cuts. Many had to borrow money to cover their basic costs. Ultimately half the banks in America failed as these loans fell delinquent. Foreclosures became endemic. Those shares everybody bought – most of them were worthless. 

The Dust Bowl.

A dust storm ca. 1935

Second, let’s discuss the Dust Bowl in equally brief terms. The USA was much smaller in 1800 than it was by the middle of the 19th century. First in 1803, France sold Louisiana, an 828,000 square mile block of land in the middle, to the USA. The French laid claim to the land in 1699, but lost it to Spain following the Seven Years War. Napoleon took the land back, but decided a quick sale to support his ongoing wars seemed prudent. Spain sold Florida to the USA in 1819. Third, the USA picked up their Western states in 1845, following a war with Mexico. Much could be made about the Civil War, or the Homestead act of 1862 – which gave any American squatting on 160 acres of new land for five years ownership of that land;

or Manifest Destiny and the power of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley telling people to “…Go west young man”

What is important to know is not all of that land was fit to develop into farmland. Some of that land was downright dangerous. The land speculator and journalist Charles Dana Wilber would have none of that, stating in 1881

  “God speed the plow. … By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow”

Believing ‘rain follows the plow’ – literally, if you dig it, rain will come – a great many people packed up their old lives and went West. Many settled on the Great Plains- coincidentally during an unusually wet half century that seemed to back Wilber’s claim. They plowed deep into the topsoil. All that long, pesky grass which held the land together – and held in moisture in dry periods, was cleared. Life was good on the Great Plains till 1930, when the rains didn’t come. 

First the land got dry and parched – crops died – then the dust storms came. With nothing holding the topsoil down – it was carried off; from farms in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the North of Texas. In 1935 alone, 850 million tons of topsoil blew away – some carried as far north as Chicago. Reports came in from naval vessels, hundreds of miles offshore, of being engulfed by giant dust storms. Around 3,500,000 Americans were displaced – half a million left homeless. Perhaps as many as 300,000 ‘Okies’, ‘Arkies’ and various others moved to California in the hope of a new start.  

A family of ‘Arkies’ displaced from Arkansas.

The Rise of the Los Angeles Mafia, and Growing Corruption at City Hall.

Up front I should say the mob were far from being the only shifty organisation active in LA at this time – but they were massive, connected, and growing. Doing what you ask? Let me tell you….

The L.A. Mob grew out of a number of ‘Black Hand’ style gangs in the early 1900s. These street gangs coalesced into a family, similar to those in New York, Chicago and elsewhere by the late Nineteen-teens – first under a friend of early New York mafiosi Giuseppe ‘The clutch hand’ Morello named Vito De Giorgio – then after his 1922 murder, under Albert Marco. It’s of note Marco became Capo, not through strong arming so much as through his connections to corrupt politicians in City Hall. Marco used his connections as a shield for a series of illegal gin joints throughout California during the Prohibition era. He would eventually push his luck too far, getting sentenced to jail on an assault charge, then deported back to Italy. Marco was briefly replaced by a man called Joseph ‘Iron Man’ Ardizzone, who disappeared without a trace in 1931. 

He was replaced by a man named Jack Dragna – who moved the LA Mob into the future.

Prohibition at an end, he redirected mob resources into brothels, illegal gambling establishments and pawn shops. In a Los Angeles suffering from both the Great Depression and an influx of refugees from the Great Plains, the thousands of mob establishments that popped up across California – and especially Los Angeles made a killing. As with his predecessors, Dragma operated in partnership with City Hall – with added muscle from the police force. Dragma had a particularly powerful ally however – the mayor of Los Angeles, Frank L. Shaw.

With the combined forces of the mayoralty, the police and the mafia against them – a small group of concerned citizens – the citizen independent vice investigating committee (CIVIC for short) stood against the wave of brothels, pawn shops and gambling dens. CIVIC was run by a business owner named Clifford Clinton.

Clinton owned a couple of eccentric looking cafeterias (one looked like a redwood forest was growing inside it) named after himself. During the Great Depression he practiced mutual aid with his customers – all bills passed to the customer stating their host would gladly accept what little they could pay if they were down on their luck – and failing that, they could eat for free. He was also a progressive, who provided de-segregated establishments. As a concerned citizen, he paid a private investigator to look into the illegal establishments in the city, then compiled a report, detailing the hundreds of brothels, thousands of bookies. They submitted the report to a grand jury – who refused to even look at it. 

Shaw and the mob retaliated swiftly, first upping Clinton’s rates on his two cafes. They blocked his paperwork to build a third cafeteria. Suddenly his shops were inundated with vexatious lawsuits from supposed customers, who slipped on his floors or alleged food poisoning. Surprise visits from health authorities became a regular occurrence. When this didn’t stop his crusade, things took a darker turn.  

In October 1937, a bomb was set off in the Clintons’ Los Feliz home. It appears the bomb was set to blow up the kitchen at around the time Clinton, just home and very much a creature of habit, would be making a late night snack. He was running late that night and neither he, or his family were hurt. Soon after Clinton received a phone call, stating the bomb was a warning, and worse would come if he didn’t back off. The police refused to investigate the crime – claiming he bombed his newly constructed Spanish villa himself, to drum up publicity. As fascinating a character as Clifford Clinton was, we more or less leave him here –

Clinton surveys the damage

Well ok, a little more on him. He signed up to fight in World War II. In his later years he ran for the mayoralty, coming second. Concerned with hunger in the Third World, he employed a Caltech lecturer to develop an affordable protein which could be rolled out cheaply to starving masses – and set up a non-profit organisation which offered aid in 60 developing nations. He’s well worth a Google search – a lot of L.A. publications have written on his life. 

Now, to Harry Raymond. Raymond is, in some ways a more complex character than Clinton. A former cop with alleged ties to the Mafia, he was police chief for 90 days in 1933 – before City Hall fired him for not bending to their will. He was hired by Clinton as a private investigator to connect all the dots in the CIVIC report. Months after the Los Feliz bombing, Raymond was now privately continuing his investigation, when someone tried to kill him. A car bomb exploded while Raymond was in the vehicle. He survived the blast, but was left with more than 100 shrapnel wounds. This time a huge amount of publicity occurs the police have to investigate. A police officer named Earl Kynette is charged with the attempted murder. Enter Jack Parsons.

The prosecution felt they needed to know exactly what kind of bomb was used in the attack on Raymond, so they approached Caltech for an explosives expert. Caltech referred them to a young contractor working with one of their graduate students to develop a rocket. He was an autodidact with only a few months’ worth of college education, but had become extremely knowledgeable while working for the Hercules powder company. Were the prosecutors concerned by his lack of qualifications they needn’t be. Before long Parsons worked out exactly which nitrocellulose based black powder was stuffed into the pipe bomb, and how it was triggered. Parsons got hold of a Chrysler, just like the car Raymond was sitting in, and set off an identical bomb … to near identical results.  

In spite of the danger to himself, Jack Parsons was an expert witness in the case. Impeccably dressed and charismatic, he captured a lot of attention from the press – but not least of all, because he showed up with a pipe bomb, just like the one used by Kynette. At least that’s what he wanted people to believe. The defence played up his lack of qualifications, and tried to trip him up with several technical questions – but he held up to the scrutiny admirably. Not only did his evidence swing the trial against Kynette, who was convicted of the car bombing – but his stunt with the replica car bomb captured the imagination of the press. First there were the headlines ‘Explosives expert makes bomb replica’ and ‘Caltech man tells of bombs’ – then articles questioning the legitimacy of Mayor Frank Shaw. People started to question if he had ordered the assassination attempt. Police and reporters started to dig away. They found a web of connections to organised crime, and corruption. Shaw was found to be using the police to bug his political rivals and spy on them. A movement arose, calling for Shaw’s recall. 

By the end of 1938 Frank L. Shaw became the first American mayor to be recalled from the job – and Jack Parsons … an important bit part in this tale (but the subject of next week’s podcast episode) was considered a bona fide expert – in spite of his lack of a formal education. 

Next week, let’s discuss Jack Parsons – pioneering rocket scientist, famed occultist ….. and spy?

Mithridates – A Prelude

The following snippet is set 73 BC, the setting Otryae – a town in Phrygia – modern day Turkey. Two armies with long standing resentments face off against one another. One, the Roman army of the consul Lucillus – protege of the recently deceased dictator Sulla. The other, Mithridates ragtag coalition of steppe barbarians and assorted Asian nationalities. For decades, particularly since 88 BC (following an incident which will loom large in the upcoming blog and podcast episode) Rome and Pontus have been locked in a particularly bloody war for control of the near east. Hundreds of thousands would perish. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say had this played out differently, EVERYTHING would be different.

But I don’t want to get too deep into that tale right now. We’ll do that 21st April. I do, however, want to share one small incident.

It is 73 BC, and Mithridates in on the move. He’s organised a grand army of 300,000, and is off to conquer the world. Lucillus is at the head of an army of just 32,000, mostly obstinate, mutinous remnants from previous legions abandoned in Anatolia. Lucillus army has accidentally stumbled across this massive force, and is understandably unnerved by them. Mithridates responds by sending out several thousand men, commanded by one M. Varius – a Roman turncoat lent to him by Quintus Sertorius. (Sertorius a fellow turncoat, who, at this time is also at war with Rome, in modern day Spain.)

Lucillus orders his men into formation and prepares for battle. The two sides face off, eyeballing one another across a field. Any second now all hell will break loose in Otryae..

Suddenly, from high above, a meteorite bursts across the sky, and strikes just where the two armies were set to skirmish. There is a massive flash of light. And a deafening boom. And both sides are pelted with rocks and other shrapnel from the sizeable crater left in it’s wake.

The opposing armies peer into the hole in the ground – a hole considerably larger than the four foot wide object which just hit the earth. One could imagine the discomfort as both sides simultaneously work through what this omen may mean to them – while looking for a clue on their opponent’s take on the incident. Ultimately, Lucillus and Varius decided they weren’t risking the Gods wrath that day.

Both armies departed, wondering just what the hell happened.

I honestly don’t know how I’m going to cram everything into a 20 minute podcast episode on Mithridates, but it is a tale of omens, particularly from above- and blind trust in oracles proclaiming a new king of kings from the east… and a whole bunch of other things. There are many tales like that of the meteorite of Otryae which will likely be left out.

Resuming 21st April I want to share the tale of Mithridates, of a rogue mobster, a ‘crime of the century, a battle with a river monster, revisit a warrior queen, introduce an occultist who makes super-weapons, talk a little about the 19th century pastime of ‘playing the ghost’, discuss a largely forgotten prankster, and present a Maori prophet… before I take another 4 week break. I’m hoping in the interim, however, to have a couple of podcast episodes recorded (of previous blog posts) to fill the gap.
And, of course, there is You Decide # 1 – Lord Lucan v Hale Boggs.

I’ll be back soon. – Simone.

Frau Troffea’s dance with the devil

Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel.
At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.

By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.


Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.



On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.

A modern bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht.

Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.   

What could have caused such an incident?

In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death.  
In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.

Martial Bourdin

Martial Bourdin (Re-upload) Tales of History and Imagination


At 4:45pm precisely, GMT, on 15th February 1894 the grounds of Greenwich Park, London – home of the Royal Observatory, and a clock we’ll discuss later – are shaken by a resounding boom. Staff at the observatory recalled a “sharp and clear detonation, followed by a noise like a shell going through the air”. They peered out the windows in trepidation attempting to work out what just happened. A park warden and a group of students ran towards the epicenter of the blast – where a solitary young man lay dying. The young man, who died not long after in a local hospital, was identified as 26 year old Frenchman Martial Bourdin.

Bourdin was a member of the Autonomie Club – a collection of anarchists who had largely escaped more authoritarian regimes on the continent, and who, once in Britain had either become radicalized or found kinship in the group. To pin down what constitutes an anarchist – well, their beliefs could run the gamut from Communism to Libertarianism, and all sorts in between – but the unifying themes were the rejection of authoritarian figures and hierarchies, a distrust of all current institutions – and often a wish to destroy society so they could build a new society based on their particular beliefs. Often they hoped to achieve this through terrorist acts. The Autonomie club had come to the attention of many in 1892, when a bomb making facility was rumbled in Walsall, North West England.

The Autonomie Club



That Bourdin would expire from his injuries was a given – when inspecting the scene his blood, flesh and bone left a 60 metre blast radius. That he hadn’t intended to blow himself up was assumed – when he left Westminster that day he was carrying a considerable sum of money. Inspectors took this as evidence he was planning to skip the country for the continent following the blast. It has always been assumed he lost his footing while nervously walking a zigzag pathway to his intended target, and on stumbling, the bomb went off.

His intended target has always been a matter of speculation. It probably wasn’t the well guarded naval facility that was the observatory – chances are at most Bourdin may have blown a hole in their fence – perhaps killed a guard or two; or a crowd of Londoners – on Thursday afternoons the park was quiet… but the 24 hour gate clock on the grounds – a clock which had counted the time with deadly accuracy since 1852.

To understand why someone might want to blow up a clock, we have to consider the concepts of ‘noble myths’, that ‘time’ hasn’t always been exactly as it is now – and that for most conveniences that improve our lives, there is often a corollary effect which makes our lives worse off.

First, to time itself. The Earth is in constant motion in a couple of ways. One way is it spins on its axis – in a direction we call East, at a speed we measure as either 1,000 miles per hour or 1,600 kilometers per hour. The mile comes from an estimate of 1,000 paces by a Roman soldier (in Latin the ‘mille passus’). A Kilometer is 1,000 metres, and a metre is 1 ten millionth the distance from the equator to the north pole. A twenty four hour day is a close approximation of the time it takes for Earth to spin one time on it’s axis (it actually takes approximately 23 hours 56 minutes to fully spin, but close enough). The other way we move of course is in an elliptical orbit of the sun – which gives us our year, but let’s skip the specifics of that.

We get divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds the way we do because 5,000 years ago the Sumerians worked with a duodecimal (base 12) and sexigesimal (base 60) system rather than our preferred decimal (base 10) system. The Babylonians kept base 12 and 60 alive in their mathematics and astronomy because it suited what they were doing. The Greeks brought the concept back to Europe in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests, 336 – 324 BC. They used those systems, particularly for navigation and trigonometry.
Going on knowledge the world was spherical, Hipparchus of Nicaea broke new ground when he divided a globe up into 360 degrees – a derivation of 6 x 60. The Roman Ptolemy of Alexandria further developed the language by subdividing the lines into minute (small) parts ‘minutes’ and a smaller second ‘seconds’, division. He divided by 60 both times. In the 16th century our technology was good enough to make clocks which could tell the time beyond the hour (the very first mechanical clocks in the 14th century only had one arm, for the hour). We borrowed the terms minutes and seconds from Ptolemy of Alexandria via thousands of years of precursors, sexigesimal framework and all. We really could have divided our time any number of ways; by 10, 15, 20, 200 it doesn’t matter- but this is the common story we all adopted, simple as that. It had history and a commonality in it’s favour- and as such it gives us a common, understood framework to work, plan, explain, develop from and exploit- It allowed a framework to direct others by, so is a kind of noble myth if you will.

Oh, and just to reiterate – we had hours, days, weeks, months, years – we had the words minutes and seconds; but we did not measure our time in minutes and seconds until the technology of the 16th century allowed us to.

If you put aside all of the scientific advantages of measuring to the second and beyond (Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe being one of the first to work by such small increments – one day we will come back to Tyco, his brass nose, drunken pet moose, and embarrassing death) – and look at the lives of ordinary working folk you can see how an accurate conception of time may have brought several advantages in organizing your life outside of work, but when coupled with an increasingly industrialized world it also enslaved a lot of people to it’s incessant tick, tock, tick, tock.

For one as production moved away from a model with an artisan making one item from start to finish, then doing the next one – to a mass production model where maybe a dozen people made one part only, over and over. Focus changed to how quickly a person can make that one thing? To a business owner this is efficiency. To a worker this presents a scenario where an artisan, once at liberty to take their time over a varied task, now had one simple – perhaps boring task – and could find themselves having to account for their every second if deemed to be ‘swinging the lead’. In 1748, when Benjamin Franklin offered the advice ‘time is money’ it was clear the criteria for what construed a good job had tipped in favour of efficiency.

In Bourdin’s time, time and productivity experts like Frederick Winslow Taylor had codified your every second into a science – his method, commonly referred to as Taylorism carried the official brand ‘Scientific management’ with good reason. While Mr Taylor suggested workers needed regular breaks (so they could recharge their batteries and work harder overall, not out of any particular kindness) he also had every task analyzed to the smallest increment. He introduced the concept of ‘soldiering’ to the workforce – the belief that a worker will do the minimum they can before they get into trouble. Believing soldiering to be “the greatest evil with which the working people… are now afflicted”, he advocated the use of slave-driving managers to crack the whip. While Martial Bourdin himself may have felt a slave under the shackles of a factory owners obsessive drive be the most productive, let’s not ignore productivity is measured against time – then in minutes and seconds, on new-fangled, accurate clocks. Factory workers were slaves to time as much as a hectoring supervisor.

In the 19th century this adherence to time took more of a twist. As marine chronometers were more in use on ships, to more accurately assess longitude, and people travelled through time zones more – as telegraphs, then later the telephone made our world smaller – and as railways required some uniformity of time zones, clocks across the country, and the world began to follow a more common pattern. Towns could no longer have one town on their own time, and the next town on theirs, a few minutes different. While this seems a good thing – I would argue it is – to many an anarchist like Bourdin this would have seemed another way central governments enforced their will on the people. Only a few years earlier, on November 18th 1883, the USA had finally managed to get their railways running on a common time scheme – following the British who had done so back in 1847. The USA was trying to plan their burgeoning railway system around 300 local time zones before they made the change.

Only a few before the Bourdin incident, on November 1st 1884, the world would officially assign 24 time zones at the international meridian conference, in Washington DC. Greenwich Mean Time – based on this twenty four hour clock in a London park, where years later a young man hopped aboard a time shackled train, and disembarked with the intent of killing time, blew himself to pieces – that Greenwich Mean time, developed I might add, in part so large imperial powers could run their empires of conquered peoples more efficiently- THAT Greenwich Mean Time suddenly became the beat we all danced to. I have little doubt the clock was Martial Bourdin’s target. To Martial Bourdin the clock wasn’t a convenience, or a wonder – the damn thing was enslaving the lot of us.

Sommaroy Island, Norway..



Now, as a coda to this story, in June 2019, I don’t think it matters which day (Ok the article I saved to favorites when I read it says June 23rd 2019) the Norwegian Island of Sommaroy announced the tale we tell ourselves about time no longer served a purpose for them. When you are up high in the Arctic circle and have a 70 day run without a night the downsides began to outweigh the upsides. Effective immediately – whatever that meant to them anymore, time did not exist for the 350 residents. If you ask any historian, or historical writer like myself, if you could live in any time in history I’m pretty sure most of us will pick now (edit: I wrote this a few months ago, some of us would not pick right now in the COVID outbreak obviously – Simone). Now is not necessarily the best time we will have, but it sure beats dying of typhus, cholera, or being murdered by marauding Vikings, Avars, Magyars, Mongols, or for that matter British imperial soldiers. However I bet I’m not the only one that looks a little enviously at those who were less a slave to the clock than we are today. Are not the best times, those idle moments where you have nowhere you need to be, nothing you need to do, and you can relax in a chair with a good book?
Unfortunately it turns out Sommaroy were scamming us – it was a ploy by the tourism authority to get more people to come see the land that time forgot.

Oh, as a coda to the coda, fans of English literature – Joseph Conrad based his novel ‘The Secret Agent’ on the tale of Martial Bourdin. It was my introduction to Conrad’s writing, and is a very readable book, check it out.

This episode features on the Tales of History and Imagination Podcast, here

The macabre death of Antoine Lavoisier

Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.

Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.

Antoine Lavoisier

Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.

On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?

The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.

Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.

On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count
“Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.

France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.

Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.

Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

The New Colossus

Hi there folks, I’m doing something different this week. The tale of Dorothy Kilgallen goes on a short pause till I get a chance to review what I still had to cover about John F Kennedy, in the light of day. I still need to speak a little on why some people wanted a sitting president dead – but the worst president in America’s history coming down with Coronavirus – still clearly ill despite his claims otherwise – gives me reason to pause. I don’t do this out of deference for Trump, I just don’t want to release something that could be misconstrued as an allegory for or against the old bastard, when it’s not.

Laugh not dear reader – I wrote Willie the Wimp and his Cadillac Coffin well before the murder of George Floyd. I meant no overt political commentary. It was just a fun story about a couple of larger than life characters that have fascinated me for many years. In the wake of Floyd Mayweather jr’s generous donation of a gold coffin to the Floyd family, Alt Right shit-posters began commenting on their forums. Imagine my joy at an email from WordPress telling me I was trending, several thousand clicks in a few minutes. Then imagine my disgust when I found out why Willie the Wimp was being shared by folk like that … Their comments for the most part ran along the lines of ‘this is why black people should not be allowed to have money’… though in language I don’t feel at ease repeating in this post.

Yeah, I’m being a little overly cautious. Everything is political at the best of times, more so right now. This week please permit me to be overtly so.

In the weeks leading up to the American election I have no doubt many bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers will release content about previous American elections – to directly comment on the coming election. I had a note in my scrapbook – The Election of 1876. America, I fear you’re staring down the barrel of a repeat to that constitutional crisis this year – Trump’s Alt Right militias ‘observing’ the ballot boxes has the stench of the Southern militias employed by the Democrats (Non-American readers, broadly speaking the two parties swapped positions on a couple of things since 1876). Tampering with post boxes, the restriction of places to cast your ballot in Texas etc. it all seems all too familiar already. Mark Chrisler beat me to the punch on this week’s episode of The Constant. He does the story far better than I ever could. Also, as an American his critique should carry more weight for you all. Anything I say, however well intentioned, I am some interloper from Hobbitland after all.

All the same, Americans I urge you to vote early, vote Biden – and be very vocal in your demands that Donald Trump be removed from office when – if he hasn’t popped his clogs from the great plague of 2020 – he refuses to leave office.

All that said, I suppose I should write something historical with the rest of this post?

Let’s talk about the statue the French gave the USA, why I think it’s intended meaning is a noble one… and why I think the meaning subsequently placed on the statue by the followers of the poet Emma Lazarus is not only also permissible on this occasion, but truly aspirational.

The statue being constructed in France, 1884.


This week’s tale starts at a private home in Versailles, France. The date, June 1865. The French jurist, poet, historian, and anti-slavery activist Edouard de Laboulaye called a meeting of fellow abolitionists to his home. An extremely vocal commentator against slavery, and a big fan of the Union who had written three books on the USA – Laboulaye was ecstatic at the news the Union had won the Civil War. Slavery was over. Decency had won. At the meeting he proposed the construction of a giant statue in honor of the USA’s great achievement.

Based on the Roman figure of Libertas, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ would symbolize an America Laboulaye hoped would finally be a nation of equals – having thrown off the British crown in 1776, and now slavery in 1865. It would serve as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. Thirdly, Laboulaye hoped the fervor for democracy and freedom would strengthen the resolve of his own nation to, once and for all, cast off their own despot. For context, France’s first President was a man named Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The nephew of the more famous Napoleon, he decided he really didn’t want to leave office, so proclaimed himself King in 1851, hanging in there till 1870.

Laboulaye famously brought the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi on board. With a proposed deadline of 1876 – the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Planning began. France would build the statue, the USA would construct the podium. Work, however would not start on the statue till 1875 – Bartholdi bringing in Alexandre- Gustave Eiffel and Eugene Viollet-de-Duc to help with the framework. While it’s believed Bartholdi based Lady Liberty on his own mother, I’ve also read he recycled sketches for a statue proposed for the Suez Canal but never used. It is possible her face is in fact Egyptian. Given where I’m headed I like that idea. The statue wouldn’t be completed in Paris till 1884. It was then packed into over 200 crates and shipped off to the USA.

On the American side, construction was much slower. A site was chosen on Bedloes Island – a former fort for the Dutch, then quarantine station for smallpox sufferers, then summer house for the Scottish Earl of Cassilis, and most recently, Fort Wood – which withstood British attacks in the war of 1812. The star-shaped walls of the fort would mark out the shape and position of the podium itself. Beyond this, work was slow. Public interest in the statue was very limited, not helped no doubt by the Jim Crow laws enacted in the post 1876 South, and lynchings making an absolute mockery of the statue’s raison d’être. Had The New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer not put his weight behind the project it would have fallen completely flat. Auctions, crowdfunding campaigns and exhibitions were put on to get the money together. In 1883 an exhibition was put on, showing various plans for the statue, and containing dramatic readings of poetry written for the occasion. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman wrote for the exhibition, as did 34 year old poet Emma Lazarus – a former student of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was on the rise. Her piece, The New Colossus, was something else.

Emma Lazarus

As a child of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, and a strong advocate for the Jewish refugees arriving in America at the time, having fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe – Lazarus had a very different take on the significance of the statue that would greet those on their way to be processed through Paris Island.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Her moving poem, as exquisite a Petrarchan sonnet as anyone ever wrote, struck a chord with a number of literary types. They felt it gave a purpose to the giant edifice. This is not to say they were racists, dismissing the original meaning; just the newspapers in America never mentioned the purpose of the statue in their coverage. Without that meaning the statue must have seemed a massive folly to all. A lot of writers and their milieu clicked with Lazarus’ interpretation. So it was immortalized in a plaque in 1886 and America never looked back right?

Not exactly. When Grover Cleveland opened the landmark in 1886, Emma Lazarus’ poem garnered not so much as a mention. While Lazarus’ work won the hearts of other writers, she went more or less unnoticed by the general public. Emma Lazarus would pass on, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1887. She was only 38 years old at the time of her passing. Her obituary never mentioned The New Colossus. The meaninglessness of this giant folly did not escape African American press either, one writer in the Cleveland Gazette stating

“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme”

In 1901 Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Emma Lazarus, was thumbing through a book of poetry in a bookstore – when she came across The New Colossus. It struck her not only did her work need immortalizing, but Lady Liberty needed the rehabilitation such a poem would provide. Once a symbol of hope, equality and liberty for all, then really of nothing in particular save maybe a little jingoism, re-christening the statue a ‘mother of exiles’ seemed a really good thing. As Laboulaye hoped the statue would move his Frenchmen back towards liberty, Schuyler no doubt hoped for a kinder, more welcoming America. After two years of campaigning the plaque, bearing the poem, was attached to the base of the statue.


Statues are more hagiography than history, in my humble opinion. They capture spin. They are erected for a specific purpose. Sometimes that purpose is as horrid as the subject – monuments to Confederate General, and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest an example of a statue being erected as a clear threat to the African American community – ‘stop demanding your civil rights, or we will have to resurrect this asshole’. Sometimes a statue is put up out of toadyism – the myriad statues of Queen Victoria of Britain built on her 50th and 60th jubilees prime examples. Occasionally it really as simple as a wish to honour someone – a proposed statue to New Zealand suffragette Kate Shepherd, planned for the grounds of our government buildings an example of this. I personally love all the proposed meanings for the Statue of Liberty, but feel they are aspirational goals at best at the time of writing.

While we’re discussing immigrants, rest in peace Edward Van Halen (1955 – 2020); a half Dutch, half Indonesian kid whose family arrived in America in 1962 with little more than $50 and a piano. It is easy to present Eddie as proof positive the American Dream is achievable; he would revolutionize the electric guitar, sell over 60 million records and have a hand in some of the best rock music of the late 70s and 1980s. When interviewers cared to ask him, he also spoke candidly on his childhood. He attended a mixed race school where black kids were segregated from the white mainstream. As a Eurasian he was counted as black and bullied by the white kids – in one interview he recalled feeling like an animal in a cage. His classical musician father Jan struggled to find the kinds of jobs available to him in Holland, and spent years working lowly paid janitorial jobs. The family were too poor on arrival to rent their own place, so the four of them had to cram into a single room in a house co- tenanted by two other immigrant families. Eddie became wildly successful but his tale is undeniably also one of opportunity denied by mainstream America for not being ‘one of us’.

The ‘Last of the Guitar Gods’, Edward Van Halen.

Please America, get out and vote. Be kind to one another. Value diversity, and right the wrongs of your past. I’m stepping off my soapbox – Normal service will resume on this channel next week.

Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts

Act One

It is early in April 1815 on the island of Java, modern day Indonesia. Like much of the world Java had been caught up in the worldwide conflict of the Napoleonic wars. The Island passed from Dutch rule to the French, then back to Dutch again after 1814, via the conquering Britons, in 1811. On 13th August 1814 the Convention of London handed the Dutch their lost Indonesian colonies back – and just shy of eight months later they were in the process of taking control re-establishing themselves in the East Indies. While it must have been some relief to the Dutch and English alike that they no longer had Bonaparte to worry about, they realized the Dutch had some way to go to rebuild their powerhouse trading empire in the Spice Islands. When cannon fire was heard in the distance, the Dutch and British must have wondered who was up to mischief, where, and to what end? Soldiers were sent out to deal to whatever militia, rogue 5th estaters, or interloper was out to cause trouble.
I don’t know how these soldiers, presumably British rather than Dutch, fared – I only really know Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore mentions them in his memoirs – but there was no interloper. Mother earth was about to king hit the region with a type of ferocity not seen for thousands of years.

Sir Stamford Raffles


On April 10th 1815, the supposed cannon fire was revealed as the prelude to the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia’s lesser Sunda Islands. To say this was a huge eruption is an understatement. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in at least 10,000 years. People talk of the neighboring Krakatoa eruption of 1883 as a big deal… well, it was, but it was a baby compared to Mt Tambora. Krakatoa happened at a time when telegraphs carried news around the world in the blink of an eye, at a time when greater democracy ensured an easier spread of news. Tambora was the real news story – at a time when technology simply was not equipped to disseminate information fast enough.

Let’s quantify this event. Though it continued to fume and spit out debris from 10th April till mid July, most of it’s payload was released in the first three days. In terms of pure power, Mt Tambora went off with an equivalent of 33 Billion tons of TNT, 2.2 million times the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. To go full on ‘Tales of science and Imagination’ for a second; in three days the eruption blew with 1.17 x 10 to the power of 20 joules – or if like me you’re not a scientist – approximately equivalent to 3 months worth of the whole world’s power consumption in our time (2019), over a space of just 3 days.

Via three massive columns of fire, a plume of smoke which reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere, and via pyroclastic flows moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, the volcano would eject 175 cubic kilometers of debris. If you collected all the ash in an area the size of Rhode Island, the pile would be close to 56 metres high – almost half the height of Providence, Rhode Island’s highest building, its ‘Superman’ building. Convert that – New Zealand podcast and all- to Auckland, we would be looking at a pile 161 metres high, just under half the height of our Sky Tower -as wide as our super-city. It went off with a big bang heard 2,600 kilometers away, and left a once 14000 foot tall mountain with a caldera, a giant indent – over a kilometer deep and a little over 3 kilometers across.

Did this cause widespread death and destruction? Very much so. It’s estimated 10,000 people died instantly in the blast, near the island and on the neighboring island of Lombok. The blast caused a tsunami, which rolled through the Java sea at a height of around 2 metres. Ash fell on islands as far as 1,300 kilometers away in significant quantity. Enough so that it would collapse roofs 400 kilometers from the blast with it’s weight. Acid rain fell on the region. Water supplies left un-drinkable. Forests, grasslands, and crops would be decimated – and all up perhaps as many as 80,000 further locals would die of famine in the wake of the eruption.

Now I want to be a little careful, mindful of the fact act one is all statistics. To borrow from Stalin – one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. This was 80,000 tragedies. A loss of life on a huge, traumatic scale – a tragedy felt for generations in the region. All up this tragedy is believed to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the region in the long run. But we have some ground to cover, and never enough column inches. One final stat I’ll share – while Mt Tambora threw a lot of ash into the atmosphere, it also released massive amounts of sulfur, chlorine and fluorine also. This lead to 1816 becoming ‘The Year without a Summer’ – and it drastically affected the whole planet. I leave the Indonesians with my love, to rebuild and move on – and turn our attention to other flow on effects of this tragedy.

The Vela Incident; why radioactive sheep matter

For he who grew up tall and proud,
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Convinced our voices can’t be heard,
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

Queen- Hammer to Fall.

Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”


On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused.
OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.


Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.


Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.

One of the Vela satellites.

The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else.
As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.

In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor.
Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).

This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary.
See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.

Guillaume Boucher and the Fountain of Karakorum

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea –
Samuel Taylor Coleridge- Kubla Khan (1816)

Hi folks, today’s tale- Like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan- is a fragment. Like Coleridge’s poem it concerns the Mongol Empire, at a time when one of the great Genghis Khan’s grandsons ran the show. Unlike Mr Coleridge I don’t have a ‘Person from Porlock’ banging on my door in the midst of a laudanum dosed daydream to mess with my flow… There is no Abyssinian ‘Damsel with a dulcimer’ having deserted me mid tale – it is just what it is – a vignette from everyday life that caught my attention. Hopefully it is of interest to you guys too…

In September 1253 the Flemish missionary and explorer William of Rubruck rode into Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol empire. The reason for his arrival was a little circuitous. In 1248 he had been part of the French King Louis IX 7th crusade to the holy land. While in Palestine he had struck up a conversation with an Andrew of Longjumeau.

Longjumeau was a traveller who had been part of a papal legation to Armenia, on the border of the Great Khan’s vast empire. The purpose of the legation was to try and win support for the crusade from the Great Khan. In spite of there being a strong Christian contingent among the Mongols (though their traditional beliefs were a mix of shamanism, animism, totemism and ancestor worship which put the Sky Father and Earth Mother front and centre, if I understand them correctly – called Tengri-ism -Genghis’ mentor, the Ong Khan had been a Christian.. His relatives who made up a line in the royal family had also maintained their faith) – they had turned the crusaders down. Louis thought it worthwhile to send someone directly to the Great Khan to plead their case. In May 1253 William had been sent off, with an order to convert the Tatars and Kipchaks of the steppes on the way through. William of Rubruck’s journey, 9,000 kilometers just getting to Karakorum alone, and subsequent travels were every bit as epic as that of Marco Polo, perhaps some way towards those of Ibn Battuta, but William is a bit of a sideshow today. What we need to know is he was kept waiting till January 4th 1254 for his sit down with the World’s most powerful man at that time – Genghis’ grandson Mongke Khan. While waiting he discovered an enclave of everyday French citizens who had been transported to the far side of the world.

Given this is really a fragment I may as well meander, with a mazy motion, to borrow from Coleridge a little. In 1241 the Mongols had shown up in Eastern Europe looking for the retreating Kipchaks, another Altaic people- sometimes called the Cuman. When the Bulgarians and Hungarians didn’t hand them over all hell ensued. As an aside to the aside, among the defeated Kipchaks sold into slavery by the Mongols in Bulgaria, off to Egypt was one Baibars, who I suspect will show up in a future Tale of History and Imagination.

Baibars…. We’ll come back to this guy later…

While running rampant throughout Belgrade the Mongols took a handful of captives, mostly French artisans, and took them back to their capital. One in particular had caught their eye, a highly skilled Parisian goldsmith by the name of Guillaume Boucher. While one of the sources states some of his work still survives at a Buddhist temple at a place called Erdini Tso, none of his work for the Mongols appears to have survived. It is one particular piece however, which has caught my imagination.

Now in Karakorum did Mongke Khan a giant fountain decree- and it was the eminently talented Boucher who built it, with a team of around 50 artisans from across the empire.


Imagine if you will, arriving at the Khan’s courtyard to be greeted with a giant tree, reaching up to the rafters. Expansive, ornate, built from glistening silver – with details of silver fruit, golden serpents, and at it’s apex, a trumpet playing angel. Set below the four golden serpents were large silver bowls. The tree was a giant automaton, and when the Mongke Khan wished to take a drink, someone would operate a subterranean pump. The pump would make the angel raise the trumpet to its lips and sound a note, and drink would flow from the mouths of the four serpents. The drinks were from the four corners of the Mongol empire: wine, mead, rice wine, and Airag – the fermented mare’s milk most favoured by the Mongols themselves. There is so much symbolism in this great tree. First, in offering drink for all, all in their expansive empire were welcome in the court. It also stood as a totem for the expansiveness of their empire – the largest contiguous empire in history, second only to the British empire at its height in size… and actually ruling over a greater percentage of the total world population than the British did. It was also said that Genghis’ mentor Ong Khan – of whom I hope to come back to some time – had an ancestor who had tried to unite all steppe tribes under a tree much like the one Boucher fashioned. Symbolically the Mongols were letting everyone know they were carrying the Ong Khan’s vision forward. Nothing is left of this great automaton, sadly.

Now, I did say this would be a fragment, like Coleridge’s poem mentioning Mongke’s half brother, who would eventually take the reigns – setting his palace in Chengdu, China – Coleridge’s Xanadu. I do think poems work a little better in this aspect, if honest. As a teen I regularly brought a book of poetry to the gym with me, and as I plodded away on a stepper would often pour over Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, P.B Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, occasionally a little bit of Byron – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or The Island. I would wonder what it must have been like to find oneself a stranger in a strange land. Knowing of Mr Boucher and his enclave of expat artisans, thousands of miles from home in a place that must have been both wonderous and utterly terrifying,

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

Now, that for all it’s fragmentary, sparse nature really gets my imagination running.
Ok folks, thank you for reading, as always please drop me a like, a comment, or feel free to share this post round if you dig it… I’ll be back next week with another Tale of History and Imagination. – Simone

Women’s History Month 2: Mary Anning, The Carpenter’s Daughter

Hi folks, happy Womens History Month! I had something completely different planned for this week, but the mass shooting in Christchurch a. necessitated a change of subject and b. took me completely out of the headspace to write anything other than angry, anti fascist invectives. I was planning to write on Tamar of Georgia (1166 _ 1213) a true girl power heroine who does not get discussed enough – but this is history, and history is problematic. Tamar, a christian ruler, fought off an invasion from, then in turn invaded the Seljuk Turks. How do you write that in the wake of the murder of 51 Muslim New Zealanders here? Do I really want some mouth-breathing fascist taking my post as a dog whistle? Absolutely not. Sorry Tamar, we’ll return to you later.

A quote from John Donne’s Meditations has been stuck in my head all day. I am shocked, and horrified, and heartbroken for the families of the deceased. I don’t often buy into nationalistic rhetoric, but make no mistake, we are a diverse nation of many colours, religions (or lack of) and back stories. You take on them you take on all of us.

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.” – John Donne.


Now, on another note, repeat after me….

“She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the sea shore
Then I’m sure she sells seashells.” – Terry Sullivan.

Mary Anning (May 21 1799 – March 9 1847) was an English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist. Our understanding of the Jurassic era (approx 201 – 145 million years ago) owes a huge debt to Ms Anning and her work. She lived, and worked near the Blue Lias (layered limestone and shale) cliffs at Lyme Regis, Dorset.
Among her achievements Anning was the first to identify an Icthyosaur skeleton, found several early Plesiosaurus, the first Pterosaur found outside of Germany, and helped lead public understanding towards the concept that animals could go extinct- something thought heretical by many at the time, as it implied God was imperfect, if things could…. well…. go the way of the dinosaur.
Mary Anning should have been a superstar of the 19th Century scientific community, but she was shunned, largely, as – first it was a boys’ club and second, Anning was a dissenter – a protestant who believed church and state should be kept separate, and had nothing to do with organized Anglican religion. After her death she began to get some of the recognition she deserved- prompting Charles Dickens to write of her, in 1865

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it”

In 1908 Terry Sullivan wrote the tongue twister above, in her honour. In 2010 the Royal society listed Anning as one of the 10 British women who most influenced the history of science.

So… expanding on Dickens’ Messianic appellation, Mary Anning was born in 1799 to cabinetmaker Richard Anning and his wife Mary aka Molly. They grew up in a house near the water, which regularly flooded in bad weather. The same rough, stormy weather which regularly flooded their home however also uncovered many ancient monsters in the cliffs nearby. Aged 15 months she was nearly killed at a travelling horse show when an oak tree her family were watching under was struck by lightning. She was one of 10 children born to Richard and Molly, but only one of two who made it to adulthood.

Anning grew up in wartime. The outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars kept many British holidaymakers away from the continent. Europe’s loss was Lyme Regis’ win – it became a holiday hotspot. With many visitors over the summer months, opportunities for extra money abounded, including hunting through the fossil rich cliffs for specimens to sell to holidaymakers. In the dangerous winter months, when the cliffs were tempest tossed, and landslides a regular occurance – Richard, Mary and her brother Joseph would brave the weather in search of dinosaurs. On one trip an ailing Richard, already deathly ill with tuberculosis, tumbled over a cliff, sustaining critical injuries. Richard’s death led to 11 year old Mary leaving school to work full time as a fossil hunter to support the family.

By the 1820s, Mary Anning had firmly taken the helm of the family business. She established a shop, and had become a leading expert paleontologist; autodidactically no less. She closely recorded all of her findings, though she would only be published once by the boys club. Anning also maintained close ties with several leading male scientists, who often shared her ideas – without crediting her. Of note, she sold a full icthyosaur skeleton to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, when he visited her shop. However throughout the 1830s Anning fell upon hard times. Britain’s economy fell into a slump, and luxuries like dinosaur bones fell out of favour with the middle class. Marred also by poor financial decisions, Anning was at risk of being sent to the poor house. At the urging of Mary Anning’s friend William Buckland, the British government granted her a modest pension for the rest of her life – in recognition of her many significant scientific discoveries.

Mary Anning died, 9th March 1847, of breast cancer.

Originally posted March 17th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited 2020… except for the poetry.