Category Archives: Showbiz

These tales involve a character who is a performer – whether an actor, musician, circus or vaudeville act, influencer or accidental celebrity.

The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident

Content Warning: Discussion of rape occurs in this tale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

let’s jump into this tale.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

Olive Thomas: The Poisoned Chalice Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Olive and Jack secretly eloped in 1916.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, let’s recap some of that episode.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exasperated, he turned to Petrosino for help. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then March 12th 1909, things went horribly wrong. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One: The Secret Agent. 

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

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

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

A Lancaster bomber

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

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

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

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

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

Three: The Brothel…

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

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

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

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

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

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

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

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

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

Four: Mechanical Failure

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

Five: …….

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hey all I’m ‘taking a break’ for a month – well, more accurately going into writing and recording mode for a month. On the podcasts front I’m set to release two ‘from the vaults’ episodes – The Bagradas Dragon (blogged last year) and a heavily edited Carrington Event (from back in 2019 on the blog)… as well as a couple more re-uploaded versions of those early podcast episodes. 

I also have a couple of blog posts set to drop over this break. Like this post, all will be a little out of my usual wheelhouse. 

 Today’s tale picks up in the middle of the squared circle, Madison Square Garden – The date January 23rd 1984. Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, a stockily built Iranian, Greco-Roman wrestler with an Olympic pedigree (both as competitor and coach) was knocking the living daylights out of Terry Bollea; a large, muscular man who once played bass guitar in a bar band. Perhaps unsurprisingly Hossein is dominating, sitting on top of a splayed out Bollea’s back in a submission move known as ‘The Camel Clutch’. Just 28 days prior he’d done the same to long time champion Bob Backlund, winning the World Championship belt. 26,292 people in attendance looked on in horror, as the heel looked set to take out another hero – a ‘face’ in backstage parlance.

Then Terry Bollea did what countless other professional wrestlers hadn’t before. He stood up, breaking the Camel Clutch. Hulking up with the other man still clinging to his back, he rallied, pounding Hossein into the turnbuckle. Bollea leapt over the supine man, crossing the ring and ricocheting back off the ropes before going airborne. Landing his signature ‘Atomic Leg-drop’, he went for the pin. One- two- three, and Terry Bollea, known to people everywhere as Hulk Hogan was crowned WWF champion. An ecstatic crowd – most of whom, one presumes, still believed Professional Wrestling to be real, were on their feet as The Hulkster left the arena victorious. His opponent, The Iron Sheik, skulked off, ignominiously defeated.

This isn’t to say some people weren’t aware Pro Wrestling was performance art – Rumours swirled around wrestling’s authenticity as early as 1934, when a match at Wrigley Field was advertised as a ‘shoot match’ – a bona fide punch up (as opposed to all the other ‘fake’ matches on the bill). Wrestling organisations did generally do their best to dispel these rumours however. Case in point, in December 1984, a wrestler named David ‘Dr D’ Schultz slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel into the middle of next week, for implying wrestling was less than genuine. Whether ordered by WWF owner Vince McMahon or not, there was nothing fake in the way Dr D manhandled Stossel. He left Stossel with a ringing in his ears that lasted eight weeks. Nothing Kayfabe either about the $280,000 settlement to Stossel’s subsequent lawsuit. This is not about Dr D, the 1987 incident when the aforementioned Iron Sheik was pulled over by a state trooper with cocaine – and more shockingly, arch foe Hacksaw Jim Duggan in his car – or the time in 1989 when Vince McMahon gave evidence to politicians that wrestling was indeed acted more than competed – why pay additional taxes for hosting sporting events if you can avoid it? This is about the rumour which persists about this match, and another, earlier wrestler. 

Hulk Hogan v Iron Sheik was a choreographed move to replace an old-school favourite. Bob Backlund was the title holder and as such the face of the company, for in excess of 2,100 days – but he was not the kind of telegenic you need when the company owner wants to take over the world. There was just something Everyman-ish about Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan, an alleged 6.7” musclebound superhero who ‘trained, said his prayers and took his vitamins’, was just the guy to helm the company under such circumstances. He could sell out arenas. Kids would love him. He was extremely merchandisable. 

At this time faces battled heels so Backlund needed to lose to Sheik so Hulk could take the belt and hold on to his newly acquired ‘face’ status. 

There’s a tale Verne Gagne, a longtime friend of the Iron Sheik (he’d given him a start in the business, as well as his name and gimmick) and rival wrestling promotion owner approached the Iron Sheik before the match. Legend has it Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to not just win the match, but break Hogan’s leg – thus stalling the upward trajectory of the WWF. 

Needless to say the Iron Sheik, a legitimate tough guy, could have beaten Hogan and taken the payday. He quite possibly could have twisted him into a human pretzel, breaking one appendage or other. He didn’t. One only presumes he was professional, and loyal to whoever was paying him – that is IF this conversation did in fact occur. Verne’s son Greg for one denies it ever happened. For now let’s presume it happened, it makes a useful plot device. What would’ve happened if the Iron Sheik disobeyed the McMahons, took the money, and decided he’d keep the title? The following compares apples to oranges somewhat (given the way WWE soon took off with Hogan as a figurehead), but it signals one way the McMahons might have solved the problem of a rogue champion. 

Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright was more than a transitional wrestling champion, he was also the first African American to hold a world wrestling title belt. Born in 1932, Ed was the son of Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright Senior – a professional boxer who, though never a world champion, did face a handful of top pugilists such as ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, Max Baer and an aging Jack Dempsey. Edward jr, a tough, rangey, 6.6” tried his hand as a pro boxer – winning all eight of his matches before turning to professional wrestling in 1959. 

Bearcat was wrestling on the cusp of a change in pro wrestling. Prior to him black wrestlers fought other black wrestlers, white wrestlers wrestled whites, and never the twain shall meet. Jim Crow era segregation was still very much a thing. Rock and roll shows featuring black and white musicians together on the bill, playing to mixed crowds often ended in riots. As blogged some time back, Jesse Belvin, perhaps the greatest rock and roller you’ve never heard of may have died as a result of a show he played in Arkansas in 1960. Performing art or fighting art, Bearcat and others like Bobo Brazil, who fought white wrestlers, were groundbreaking. There were occasions where the old rules applied, such as Gary, Indiana. Bearcat broke ground by refusing to wrestle another black wrestler that night. Bearcat and Bobo both got massively over with the crowds. In other words crowds loved them. It was unsurprising both men were soon packaged as Faces. 

Bearcat soon found himself wearing the world championship belt, first in 1961, beating Killer Kowalski for the Big Time Pro Wrestling title. The title of interest to us, however, belonged to  Worldwide Wrestling Associates (WWA), a Hollywood based organisation then run by the LeBell brothers. 

Though professional wrestling is pre-determined (as opposed to outright fake, wrestlers often do take heavy bumps in the ring), it can often hold an odd, Coney Island mirror up to society. Because of this I suspect the World title match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, on August 23rd 1963, was an attempt to cash in on the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The top civil rights leaders marched with at least a quarter of a million supporters on the capital to demand the many civil and economic rights still denied them. Though organised by the ‘big six’ most of us remember best one particular leader. Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was then, still is breathtaking. At a time when many would marvel at Dr Kings eloquence, the WWA could smugly claim – you wanna see equality? Bearcat is our World champion.
Bearcat and Blassie did face off five days before the march, and Bearcat did get the better of Blassie – a well hated heel who in real life was so hated he was stabbed on 21 occasions by fans as he entered the ring; was once doused by an acid thrower; and lost vision in an eye after getting struck in the face by a hard-boiled egg. I can’t imagine the fans were anything but ecstatic at the win. 

Soon after the March on Washington, the WWA approached Bearcat to tell him his reign was set to be a short one. He was to drop the belt to another face named Edouard Carpentier – a stocky white man known as ‘The Flying Frenchman’. It was at this point Bearcat went on a very real winning streak, pinning all who stepped up against him. While none of the wrestlers WWA wanted to give the belt to stood a chance against Bearcat in a real fight, the organisation had one card yet to play. 

The LeBell brothers who ran the WWA included one ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell. LeBell was a former champion judoka, stunt man and genuinely extremely tough individual. As a pro wrestler he was a known shooter – a guy who could genuinely beat someone up in the wrestling ring. Legends around the man state on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, LeBell beat Bruce Lee in a tussle – carrying him across the set in a fireman’s carry. His 1991 stoush with Steven Seagal on the set of the film Out for Justice led to LeBell (allegedly) choking the Aikido master out, making Seagal lose control of his bowels. Just days before a planned match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, LeBell was in the ring to fight a very real boxer vs martial artist match against a fighter named Milo Savage. LeBell choked Savage into unconsciousness. 

Now the Savage match may have been an inspiration for the LeBells’ – Gene was supposed to face off against a boxer named Jim Beck, who had been bad-mouthing the Asian martial arts. At the last minute, he pulled a switcheroo, the higher ranked Savage stepping up unexpectedly. 

So, on December 13th 1963 Edward Bearcat Wright made his way to the arena in the expectation he would yet again face off against Classy Freddie Blassie, ignore all instructions, and pin the man in the middle of the ring. Instead he found himself facing off against a shadowy figure in a black mask. 

“Gene… is that you?” I imagine him asking, rather cautiously. Sensing something bad was about to happen, Bearcat exited the squared circle, refusing to re-enter. After being counted out, he was stripped of the title, which was subsequently passed to Flying Frenchman Carpentier. 

I’d like to be team Bearcat, and report this did not adversely affect his career – but of course it did. He found his future options restricted, and would – like many pro wrestlers sadly do – pass on young, at just fifty years of age. If it is of any consolation whatsoever he was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2017.   

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.  

The Max Headroom Incident

The Max Headroom Incident Tales of History and Imagination

This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…

Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I”
This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.

The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.

Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, surrounded by Daleks.

Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.

That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.

The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.  

In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.

While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.

Shaye St John.

Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.  

One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.

In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.  

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)

Willie The Wimp (and His Cadillac Coffin) Tales of History and Imagination

Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.

When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

eden ahbez – Nature Boy

eden ahbez – Nature Boy Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry ‘Box’ Brown

Today’s tale is set in a theater in London England, for argument’s sake let’s set the date at some time in 1860. The crowd is enthralled by the magician and storyteller, one Henry Brown, as he shares his tale of survival. Many, however, wish he had never told his tale to all in sundry – more on that later. To Brown, ‘Box’ to his friends – to do so is as much an act of survival as his initial deed. For twenty five years his story, and accompanying magic act would keep a roof over his head. Before we discuss the brief tale of Henry Box Brown, it pays to add a little context.

When looking for a year zero for the slave trade in the colonies which became the USA, the year 1619 is generally quoted. Besides a few Africans held captive by Spain in St Augustine, Florida in the 1560s this seems accurate. In 1619, a Portuguese ship, the San Juan Batista, was headed for Brazil with several hundred Africans, shackled then stashed below decks. These men and women had come from what is now Luanda, Angola.

Portugal was at war with the Angolan Kingdom of Ndongo. It would be easy to get lost in the weeds on this, but Portugal had five decades of peace with Ndongo – even loaning them mercenaries at one point. The construction of a Portuguese fort in Luanda in 1575 soured relations between the two kingdoms. The Portuguese were kicked out, but sought help from the Kingdom of Kongo to help conquer the massive country. From 1579, till the signing of a truce in 1621, some 50,000 citizens of Ndongo were taken into slavery as prisoners of war – then shipped off to Brazil. There they would be worked to death in the plantations. Considerably more than this would be sent post-truce. This was one such shipload.

Back on the San Juan Batista. The ship was intercepted by an aristocratic English freebooter named Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. His ships The White Lion and The Treasurer swiftly took control of the vessel. Not knowing what to do when they found all they had was slaves, they took several of these people, then departed. In August 1619 The White Lion docked in Virginia with 20 Ndongo, who were promptly sold to local farmers. Thus began a disgrace which would see 600,000 Africans imported as chattel – 388,000 directly to American markets with the remainder coming in via the Caribbean. Slaves would have children, adding to the slave pool (Under the ‘partus sequitur ventrem’ principle, literally ‘that which is brought forth follows the belly’). In 1860, as the Union and Confederate states prepared to go to war over slavery, the slaveholding states contained  just shy of 4 million slaves – at an estimated resale value of $3.6 Billion, in 1860 money. Born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815, to two slaves, Henry Brown was one such gentleman.

Of all the tales of slavery I could choose, Henry Brown’s is one of the less shocking, in some respects. By his own telling his ‘masters’ were not cruel people – he never suffered beatings, never went without food or drink. He felt a great injustice at being forced to work for a miniscule share in the profit (he was put to work in a tobacco factory, and was paid a pittance), and a great sorrow at not being able to follow his own muse in life. He did have some great joy in his life, however. As a young man he fell in love with another slave – known to history as Nancy. The couple married – an act not recognized officially by either’s owner – and had three children together. In 1848 Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, when something awful happened. Henry and Nancy were never allowed to live together, as they were owned by two neighboring plantations. Nancy’s plantation suddenly decided to sell 350 of their slaves to a farm in North Carolina. Distraught and helpless, Henry could only look on in tears as his wife and children were led away in shackles. They would never meet again.

Sinking into a deep depression for months, the loss of his family would prove the turning point in his life. As depression gave way to anger, Henry Brown committed to escaping at all costs. Through James C.A. Smith – a free black friend, Brown was introduced to Samuel A. Smith (no relation); a white anti-slavery sympathizer. In turn contacting Philadelphia based abolitionist James Miller McKim, the men established a plan to escape to the North, on March 23rd 1849.

On the day of the escape, Henry Brown went to work at the tobacco factory. Brown burned his own hand with sulfuric acid, the wound going down to the bone. He was dismissed to get medical attention. Now free to make his escape, he met with the Smiths, who loaded Brown into a wooden box – three feet long, two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide. With a layer of cloth between him and the rough, wooden sides, and nothing more than a bladder of water and a few biscuits to sustain him in his journey – Brown was nailed in. A small breathing hole was cut, and the words ‘This side up’ were stenciled on the outside. The Smiths then loaded Brown on a train from Richmond to Philadelphia – a 27 hour journey.

The ride inside the crate, packed tighter than he would have been in a coffin, was far from comfortable. There was no single railway line at this time, so Brown had to be carted from wagon to train, from ferry to steamboat, and back again. At several points in the trip the box ended up upside down – Brown later writing of the feeling of his blood pooling in his head while topsy turvy.

I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head”

Quietly, he suffered through the bumpy, dangerous ride. He could have died if left upside down for too long, but was likely saved by someone riding the boxcars, in need somewhere to sit. Seeing his box on it’s side, the presumed itinerant flipped the box back over and took a pew. Arriving in Philadelphia, Brown’s box was retrieved by James Miller McKim, along with fellow abolitionists William Sill, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson. As they cracked open the top, Brown emerged greeting the men “How do you do gentlemen? I waited patiently on the Lord, and He heard my prayer” before breaking into a psalm.

So… where does this tale get troublesome?

Well, let’s start with Henry… He was a little troublesome. On the question of whether to publicize Henry’s great escape, two divergent groups formed. One faction, led by the foremost former slave of his time, Frederick Douglass, felt they should not tell Henry’s story. To do so would rob others of an avenue to escape the South. Another faction felt another visible former slave in the public eye was too good a PR coup to pass on. Henry was of the latter opinion, not least of all because he revelled in all the attention. As soon as he could, he had a panorama built, so he could publicly re-enact his escape to audiences.

Frederick Douglass

In May 1849, Brown gave a speech to a Boston antislavery convention. Whether this was before or after the Smiths were arrested on 8th May for trying to post another slave – his public speeches would lend weight to the prosecution of the Smiths. It also shut down that avenue for others. Samuel was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison – while freedman James Smith narrowly avoided incarceration. He wrote an autobiography, the first of two in his lifetime. As his tale became well known, the Carolina slaveholder who owned Nancy and his children sent a letter to Brown, offering to sell his family back to him at a reasonable price. Brown turned down the offer – leading to an embarrassed abolitionist movement hurriedly scrambling to bury that chapter of Brown’s life from the public.

And Brown’s later life?

In 1850 congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law approved in an effort to broker peace between slave owning and non slave owning states in the wake of the Mexican – American war. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was much heat over whether new territories won off Mexico should allow slaveholders – the antislavery factions hoped allowing slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves would be an acceptable compromise. Spoiler alert, it did not take the question of slavery in the new states off the table in the long run. Brown, now at risk of being arrested and shipped back to the plantation, packed his life into boxes, and moved to Britain. He married an English woman named Jane Floyd in 1859, and had a daughter together. Tiring of criticism from the abolitionist movement, he moved fully to show business, becoming a magician, mesmerist and occasional actor. He would move to Canada with his family in 1875, continuing to perform till 1889.

On January 1st 1863, three years into the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation – declaring slavery in the Confederate states illegal, thus freeing all the slaves. Of course some slaves did remain indentured to their ‘masters’ till the end of the war. The 13th Amendment of December 18th 1865 was the final nail in the coffin for the slave trade.

Much could be written about the evils of the Atlantic slave trade, and the horrors of such an existence. Perhaps I am acting irresponsibly in simply telling the tale of such a character as Brown when there are nightmare tales of people crammed into barracoons and left to bake in the sun while slave ships meanders towards Luanda. Perhaps of beatings, killings, dehumanization, slave watches armed with bloodhounds and photos of men’s backs covered in deep keloid scarring. Maybe I should have slotted slavery into the wider context of civil rights – or wrote on the Atlantic slave trade as the truly international horror it was (an estimated 15 million slaves were sent to the Americas, 10.5 million surviving the journey)… or pointed out how even little old me, now living in New Zealand, but born in Birkenhead England – profited a little from the slave trade in the late 70s and early 1980s.

My mother used to clean the home of a wealthy octogenarian, who occasionally showed me blueprints of grand buildings designed by her grandfather, built across the River Mersey in Liverpool; buildings built from Triangular trade model money which saw British, and especially Liverpudlian shipping companies make a killing in transporting slaves. Her family fortune came from her grandfather’s work for slave ship owners. Her wages to my mother helped keep a roof over our heads – and eventually helped us pack our lives into wooden crates, bound for New Zealand.
I will drop one final piece of trivia however, just to remind us how current slavery really was – Peter Mills, the last former slave in the USA, died in 1972 at the age of 110.