Category Archives: Showbiz

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

’Fatty’ Arbuckle

Hey all this is our 2nd instalment on the scandals of Hollywood’s silent era. It stands alone, but if you want to, the prelude and part one (on Olive Thomas) can be found via the respective links. 

And yeah, this one gets pretty adult. I don’t say this often, but probably NSFW… 

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been one hell of a roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The, in my mind at least, unlikely A lister, had just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control of his own movies – for another year. 

This must’ve seemed a lifetime ago from his humble beginnings nine years ago, when he signed up with Keystone Studios for a mere $3 a day. More so for 12 year old Roscoe – sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father, who’d moved on from the hotel his mother shipped him to. The youngster sang for his keep at that hotel for a year, before dear old dad showed up for him. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the accomplishment for the young comic. 

Sidebar: To compare – the average unionised male in 1912 was on 70c an hour, double Arbuckle’s starting wage. By 1921 this had risen to $1.25 an hour; annually just over one 357th of Roscoe’s salary (an average working week then 44 hours).

Of course, he had to put in the long hours to make the big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend and fellow actor-director Fred Fishback booked Arbuckle and his friends a couple of rooms and a suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a much needed (and absolutely booze-soaked) getaway. Fate almost intervened just days before, when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off – but was enticed to go by Fishback, with a rubber donut cushion and the promise of a wild time. So it was 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 keeping up appearances so as to avoid a scandal of all things – but we should pause to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was 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. Inasmuch as she often shared the view that women need not be confined to the typing pool, or cooking and cleaning, and that people should really dress to suit themselves. 

She moved to Los Angeles in 1917, looking for film work, and found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – though admittedly mostly bit parts. The couple had split up by 1921, and the work stopped flowing in for her. Virginia’s friend Al Semnacher made the suggestion what she needed was to get out and about – be seen a little out in public. Maybe network a little. Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel for the weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, Rappe was spotted by a friend of Arbuckle’s – who sent a message over to Arbuckle’s party the model and sometime actor was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back, inviting the trio to drop by the Hotel St Francis and have a few drinks with them. Rappe showed up by herself around midday, and soon messaged Maude and Al to come join her. The two ladies enthusiastically joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s ‘pyjama party’ and a good time was had by all – till the day took a darker turn.  

There are a number of occurrences not in dispute, so I’ll try to sum those up now. 

Around 3pm, the party in room 1221 in full swing, and with the weight of several gin orange blossoms on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men, and told her to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Desperate to go, she crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Arbuckle followed her across, and locked the bedroom door behind him. Beyond this, accounts diverge. 

It appears Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together for around 30 minutes. It was soon that Rappe screamed in pain, causing other guests – Maude included – to run to room 1219 to investigate. Virginia may have called out “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle almost certainly told Maude to “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her. This, unsurprisingly, would play a sizeable role in later proceedings. 

Roscoe would later claim he’d gone into his room to change out of his pyjamas, only to find Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. Being a gentleman, he helped her to his bed. All of a sudden, she became hysterical. She began to scream, and tear her own clothes off. It was at this point he called for Maude – feeling rather put out for making the effort to be a good host to Rappe, and unsure what to do next. 

Maude Delmont took Virginia Rappe away, to another room – where she awoke around midnight, still in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter and left. The doctor’s opinion? Nothing much was wrong with her a little rest wouldn’t sort out. Dissatisfied with the first sawbones – Maude called a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. Useless doctors aside,  no one took Virginia to a hospital for three whole days. The entire time she was in agony, and showing no signs of improvement. On admittance to the hospital, Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Within a day, her kidneys would stop working. Virginia passed away. 

In the meanwhile, Roscoe Arbuckle had jumped on a boat back to Los Angeles. He’d left the following day, having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis. He doesn’t appear to have asked about Virginia, and first heard of her passing when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion to question him about the weekend. They wouldn’t be the only people to come with questions.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent San Francisco police officers to arrest Arbuckle. From the offset, Roscoe refused to comply with the investigators. Having carried out an investigation, Arbuckle was charged with murder. 

Before the case ever got to a courtroom, the court of opinion had their say on the Fatty Arbuckle case. All across America, his films were pulled from cinemas. At one show in Wyoming, a riot broke out. A group of cowboys in attendance, shot the screen full of holes with their side arms when Arbuckle appeared. The press were just as vicious – newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst particularly. Hearst had his own reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Regardless of reason, Hearst stated 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 – started at this time, there was much made of Arbuckle’s wild ‘orgies’, disregard for the alcohol ban, and stories aplenty of how Arbuckle used his size advantage to have his way with several young women on the set of a number of Keystone films. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be executed before the trial could begin. 

The media circus shone a light on Hollywood, and got several people asking what else was going on in Tinseltown? Paramount, feeling the heat from the scandal, fired Arbuckle a fortnight after he was charged. 

Now would be a good time to pause a second. While people were baying for Fatty Arbuckle’s blood – D.A. Brady himself asked for the death penalty – and referring to him in terms such as a ‘vulgarian from the gutter…’, (Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed him up thus) – was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

Well, this was fraught too – but no. Despite a rumour the doctors at the hospital tried to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs, destroying evidence – her body went through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no sign of sexual assault. There was a question of whether her bladder burst because someone put a lot of weight on her, however. It was stated Arbuckle, all 265 lbs of him, effectively crushed Rappe to death while forcing himself on her.  

Oh, and another thing I should mention now, before we get on to the trials. When the police were questioning the party guests, they discovered something odd at Al Semnacher’s house. He had Virginia’s torn clothes in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them for rags to clean his car with. Some suggest he had them in the hope of extorting Arbuckle, or the studio, but was stymied when the police opened an investigation.

The first trial opened November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would be facing manslaughter charges, rather than murder – but that was serious enough for Arbuckle to hire a dream team of top lawyers. I won’t go deep on the trial – this was meant to be a five minute essay on the story, but police witnesses who initially claimed to have heard Rappe scream “I am dying” or even, as a few suggested “he’s hurt me” rescinded their claim. 

Maude Delmont, as per this and all future trials, was not called to testify. That she had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours was one thing which brought her evidence into question – that she was awaiting her own day in court on bigamy charges was another entirely. Al Semnacher, on the other hand laid the framework for Kenneth Anger’s ‘Bottle Party’ claim. He testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – and Semnacher had to write this down as he was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’. 

The prosecution did manage to find a security guard working at Keystone studios, who claimed Arbuckle was always trying to get into the ladies’ changing rooms. They made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door. A nurse at the hospital testified Rappe stated she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. Another claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form for tearing her own clothes off at parties when intoxicated. They also explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she was wearing that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence – his testimony as above. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited in the toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, he put her back on the bed. 

After deliberations the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, the jury unable to come to an unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot whatever damning evidence they gave the first time. One apparently solid witness, a security guard who claimed Arbuckle bribed him for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This witness was shot down by the defence, who pointed out the man was facing charges himself, for sexually assaulting an eight year old. More witnesses were produced to testify Virginia Rappe liked to tear her clothes off when drunk. They claimed she was promiscuous. In spite of this the jury 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. It was much the same as the previous two, except this time the defence dream team went all in to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman, and as per the mores of the time, not someone who could be raped. They played on her alleged bladder problems, and how she was a loose woman who had, by the age of 30, gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour, public perception was now well and truly coloured by events. Arbuckle’s films were not just not showing anywhere – but were banned from being shown. Maude Delmont was touring the USA as a public speaker, lecturing on the evils of Hollywood. There had now been seven solid months of stories in the press about Hollywood orgies, of stars love lives, and of murders. 

Hollywood had gone from a plucky little startup, to the fourth biggest sector in the economy by this time – and some people were starting to worry about the moral effects these folk could have on America.

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. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

I’m a little wary of trying to compare and contrast this tale to the happenings of the ‘Me Too’ era. I don’t believe he was a murderer, but suspect he may have been a creep who tried to take advantage of a drunken party guest. Truthfully, due to what looks like witness tampering, it is very hard to say. Some of the ethics of the day – certain people happy to ban the consumption of alcohol in bars. Many of those same people just as happy to walk away from a victim of a binge-drinking incident, the moment she becomes ‘problematic’ to them – well they are one of the unheralded villains of this tale, quite frankly.  Roscoe Arbuckle was likely a creepy guy. Maude Delmont, Al Semnacher, and those first two doctors were also all kinds of negligent for not getting Virginia the medical help she so clearly needed. 

On a personal level, the trial ruined Roscoe Arbuckle’s career. Sure, he had his supporters – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among them – but would never work in front of the camera again. Minta Durfee had no reason whatsoever to stay married to him, and the couple soon divorced. Arbuckle found a little work in Vaudeville, and eventually snuck back in to Hollywood – directing films under the nom de plume Will B. Goodrich. The actors he worked with commented he seemed a broken man, who more or less directed as if on autopilot. He’d die of a heart attack at the age of 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. 

The Max Headroom Incident

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.  



Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

This week’s Tale is part one of a four-part series on scandals of Hollywood’s Silent film era. It’s due to run on the non-podcast weeks.

When I think of Olive Thomas and her sojourn in Paris, a tiny part of me wonders how she found the ‘City of Light’? Did she and hubby Jack Pickford, (of the superstar acting family of the era, most notably including Mary Pickford) play tourist, wandering the expansive, well lit boulevards which were masterminded by Baron Haussmann. Did they stop along the way to take in statues, fountains and historic buildings? Did they ride in a hot air balloon or cruise the Seine river by pleasure boat? Make the pilgrimage to the Louvre – the former palace rebranded an art gallery in the 1790s, or view the splendour of the palace of Versailles?

Was Olive afflicted, as so many Asian tourists allegedly are, by ‘Paris Syndrome’? A sense of culture shock which leaves one with an intense feeling of ‘Meh-ness’ at Gay Paree? 

One thing I know for certain, both Olive and Jack did experience Paris’ vivid nightlife on the night of September 5th 1920. The couple drank, and partied, and arrived at their Hotel Ritz suite, presumably the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. Jack, it is said, went straight to bed. The couple had a flight booked for London that morning, and he needed a little shut eye. Olive, not yet ready to turn in, took to writing a letter to her mother back in the USA – at least until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and made her way in the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed to hear Olive shriek “Oh My God!” and collapse as if struck dead. The unfolding event would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal, and proof that sometimes, tragedy sells. Before I get into that too deeply I really should introduce the cast? 

Paris

Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. She was sent to live with her grandparents at the age 12 when her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, to work in a department store; and married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, in April 1911. By the age of 18 she’d left Bernard, moving to New York to make her fame and fortune. Her first big break came in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. The win opened doors for her as an artist’s model – her painted image featuring in several 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) established after the model of Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She was soon dating the impresario, which in turn saw her move up the pecking order at the Follies. By 1916, Olive was appearing in films – and after she came to the attention of the film producer Thomas Ince in 1917 – she signed up to a six film a year contract with Triangle Pictures. She often played innocent, girl next door types.

Her real life was anything but girl next door – though that IS why they call it acting I guess? 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 A list as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, she would be known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second hubby 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. The couple secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were heavy partiers, Jack especially. He was an extremely heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from a one woman man. It was rumoured he’d contracted syphilis, an STI for which there would be no effective known cure for till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943. As it was, it was reputed ‘Mr Syphilis’ as he was known in Hollywood circles – used mercury bi-chloride as an ointment on his syphilis sores as they arose. It’s worth mentioning now that mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat the condition in the mid 16th Century by Paracelsus – is highly dangerous if ingested. 

To take us through to September 6th… Olive continued to have a career – nothing Earth-shattering. She left Triangle for Selznick pictures for an eight picture a year deal. She had a string of moderately successful films, one of which – The Flapper – lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s. Something may have happened in the lead up to her and Jacks’ cruise to France however, as she was off their payroll by time the couple set sail in August 1920. Jack continued to party, drink, ingest drugs and play the field. In 1918 he created a scandal of his own when he – a Canadian born Canadian citizen volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to World War One. He volunteered knowing a number of sons of wealthy patricians were doing the same, then paying generous bribes to Naval brass to keep from getting sent off to fight. Jack was one of a number of these ‘slackers’ caught out, and named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal charges – but his image was tarnished, as was the wider Pickford families’ good name. 

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with a little 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 it was the couple left by ship to Europe in mid August 1920 – Olive possibly let go of her contract. Jack still working, but down to one or two films a year at this point. 

And, here we rejoin the tragedy at the Ritz. Olive has collapsed – a bottle of poison at her side. Jack called for a doctor, and proceeded to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding throat to try to purge the dangerous substance. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (it usually came in tablet form) thinking it was a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a pill down with a dissolved tablet left in a glass – thinking she was downing water. Mary Pickford would later claim an errant maid must’ve left some poison out after cleaning their room, in an effort to absolve Jack and save her family brand from further damage. A doctor would arrive, and pump Olive’s stomach three times, then – five hours after she collapsed – have her taken to the hospital. At this stage it was too late, Olive Thomas would pass on 10th September 1920.      

Not meaning to trivialise Olive’s tragedy, she’s just passed after all, but the waves in the wake of her passing were something to behold. The Pickfords immediately sprang into damage control mode. On the day Olive passed, Mary’s recently ex husband Owen Moore made a press announcement – hoping to stop the press muck-raking. He stated Olive was extremely unwell when the couple left for France – inferring she’d died of natural causes. Just a moderately successful 25 year old actress dying suddenly of a mystery illness we don’t feel the need to explain to you – nothing to see here folks. Please don’t poke around the Pickfords facade in their time of mourning. 

But poke around the press did. Stories emerged, whether true or not, of Olive’s night of Parisian debauchery. Was she hanging out in disreputable dens with the criminal underclass – where the entertainment ran from women bare knuckle brawling to darker-skinned men biting the heads off live rats? Did she drink rocket-fuel containing high amounts of ethanol? Were these seedy clubs being run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper claimed?

Probably not. But American papers announced this in the tradition of Yellow journalism they were then so well known for. 

But then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding – a former American army captain sentenced to six months’ prison time at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? Organising cocaine-fuelled orgies. It was rumoured his little black book had Olive’s contacts in it. 

And then, the rumours of Jack’s syphilis emerged. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive must have contracted the disease from Jack, and in a moment of despondency – taken her own life. People started to blame Jack for her death. This was followed by another rumour – that Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive – and some began to look askance at him now as a possible murderer. Questions arose about the way Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing. This wouldn’t be helped any when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow named Marilyn Miller. Marilyn herself would die young, though at that point she was recently divorced from Jack (turns out he was physically abusive to Marilyn) and on the operating table having surgery on her nasal passages. 

Public opinion soon fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by this family of dodgy Hollywood aristocrats. 15,000 mourners gathered outside her funeral. Her movies – all honesty I have no idea if she was any good as an actress, and best as I can tell next to nothing of her work survives – suddenly looked a whole lot better to the public. Her films, re-released all became blockbusters. 

When the wowsers who banned alcohol in America via tireless rallying for the 18th Amendment – followed by the Volstead Act found themselves at a loose end, Hollywood would become their next target. I won’t get into the various reasons behind this, not least of all that waspish killjoys were also racist killjoys who detested the number of Jewish folk involved in the movie industry – but for now it suffices to say the tragedy of Olive Thomas was an early parable trotted out by that crowd.  

While there is a lot of rumour and supposition in this Tale – it probably does bear to mention Jack Pickford, of who it was only ever rumoured he had syphilis – did return to Paris in late 1932. He collapsed as suddenly as Olive had, and died days later, January 3rd 1933. The cause of death, “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” This could well have been caused by his alcoholism, but it’s worth pointing out it is often caused by syphilis also. 

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)


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.

Prelude: Scandals of Hollywood’s Silent Era

Hey everyone, on in-between weeks (i.e. weeks I don’t publish a podcast episode) I’m resuming blog only posts. The plan will be to run several series on those weeks. 

The on-weeks will be completely unlinked to the series. The weeks I drop a podcast episode, the subject could be anything; maybe the time Kazakhstan imprisoned a bear for 15 years for mauling campers, or the tale of a Flemish man as tall as Andre the Giant, who turned pirate after the Hapsburgs murdered his family – or the American soldier of fortune who became an Afghan prince…. You come here often, you know the kinds of things. The alternating weeks, on the other hand, may run four or 5 posts on, say, Old Hollywood scandals – Yeah, let’s start with that.

This post is part one of a five part series on old Hollywood scandals, scheduled to run fortnightly, in between the podcast weeks.  

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Lying northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on a 80 square kilometre plot, 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 set up a farm on the land, but finding farming wasn’t for them, drew up plans for a community. A Prohibitionist, Harvey wanted Hollywood (the name contributed by Daeida) to be a Christian neighbourhood, free of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Harvey died four years after establishing the community, in 1891. Following her husband’s death, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took an active role in the development of the district. From the short write up I found of her, Daeida’s focus was to build a place of beauty. She died in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios moved to Tinseltown. 

The first movie to be shot in Hollywood was all the way back in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs had filmed most of the ‘five act play’ in Chicago, but headed out to Hollywood to complete the silent film. More productions would follow in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies would be settled there. The large number of sunny days each year, and great light for filming in, combined with a diverse landscape and rapidly growing population (California on the whole was a rising agricultural and industrial area at the time) made Tinseltown the ideal place to film. 

An emergent film industry, (booming in part due to the USA enjoying a large economic upswing in the nineteen-teens up to the Great Depression) was a great thing for Hollywood, and Los Angeles in general. One could imagine Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave, however. With the film industry came all manner of scandal. By 1930 the industry would be bound to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known. The code would be enforced by Will Hays, former postmaster general to one of the USA’s more scandal-ridden presidents himself, Warren Harding. The code would, in part, be felt necessary due to a number of high profile incidents involving Hollywood’s leading figures. As these figures were prevalent in the Silent Era their Tales are less well known these days – but I figured it might be fun to take a look at a few of them. 

Over the next four fortnights I intend to delve into the tales of Olive Thomas, William Desmond Taylor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and the events surrounding the death of Thomas Ince. These four really are the tip of the iceberg, but make for interesting subjects due to the levels of ambiguity in their stories. I’ll possibly run through a handful of others and cover the Hays Code itself as an epilogue if you all dig this series.. Let me know in the comments as we progress.  

I’ll have a ‘regular’ blog post, podcast episode, and Patreon bonus episode next week – but we’ll break ground on this series the week following. 

eden ahbez – Nature Boy (revisited).


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. 

The Bottle Conjuror

Hey all, just a quick foreword. I’m not sure if I’ll be on track to release the Lord Lucan podcast episode exactly to schedule – besides small technical things like writing appropriate music (the man is/was a huge fan of Bach, which doesn’t reflect the era terribly well + from a technical standpoint is probably easier for me to approximate on an acoustic guitar (which takes longer for me to mic up properly and record) than on the tiny GarageBand keyboard on the iPad) I’m also two days off schedule as is. I’ll have the episode out as soon as humanly possible in any case. 

In the meantime, a short Blog Only Tale this week. If going from this to John Bingham, arguably only the third worst person on his family tree – in spite of being a killer and massive loser (if you’re still alive John, and want to argue that fact, there is a comment box below) … to this tale, it may seem I’m consciously taking a swipe at the Hooray Henrys’ – I am. 

It’s also a short Tale at a time when I’m a little time poor – unlike the deadbeat aristocracy of the 18th Century, many of whom it seems had but world and time to get sozzled on gin all day – and do dumb, cruel things to those they deemed beneath them. 

Anyway, please enjoy.

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 taken up by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there seemed a bit 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, often highly critical of the ruling elite. In 2021 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, would seem painfully conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully conservative values – These writers, and indeed thinkers, were trailblazers at the time. They advocated for property rights for the middle classes, more say in government, championed individualism, and demanded the aristocracy give a free hand to the market, to grow and innovate (something thought unthinkable in England before the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688). 

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 packed with paying customers, waiting in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd would wait for several hours – staring at the empty stage – before the booing and calls for their money back started to shake the walls.

Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out of the wings in an effort to calm the angry mob. As 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 seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. A significant portion of the audience rushed the stage, and began smashing, looting and engaging in arson. In short order, the rioting crowd had all but demolished the Haymarket, completely gutting the theatre.

A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, made from the smashed up benches. Lit by the torn down curtains.    

All other write ups on the incident mention at least one aristocrat was in the mixed crowd that night, Prince William – Duke of Cumberland. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but was stripped of a jewel encrusted sword, which has never been seen since. 

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 was a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle and kidnapped the performer during rehearsals. 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” had put the night together. 

Who was “Strange Man”? Academics’ 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; and philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children – as well as having paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams… Montagu is clearly a complex character. For our purposes, what’s worth knowing is he had a sense of humour which normally ran to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.


He was rumoured to detest the rising middle classes, and it is said he staged the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other toffs. It’s said he made a bet enough Londoners would be stupid enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, that 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, would die in July of that year.  

Would they have been met by a wall of silence, had authorities called on the toffs to turn on one of their own? Well, maybe let’s discuss that after the episode on Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan. 

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.

Soon May the Wellerman Come

Hey all, I wasn’t planning this topic, but a friend asked me if I knew anything about this sea shanty craze on Tik Tok at present. My friend had seen a news report claiming ‘The Wellerman’ was written by a New Zealander. I knew little beyond the broad strokes. I could say whalers and sealers made up the vast majority of white folk in New Zealand from the early 1790s till some time after most Maori tribes signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. While most early contacts between Europeans and Maori (New Zealand’s first peoples) were peaceful and fruitful – a couple of violent incidents, most notably a massacre aboard the European ship the Boyd in December 1809 – made Europeans wary of attempting to colonize New Zealand in those early days. Whaling would continue in New Zealand until December 1964. I could recall a television interview with the last of the whalers discussing how they sometimes turned the sea around Kaikoura red with whale blood, and in hindsight felt guilty for their actions.
It certainly was conceivable the song belonged to the kiwis. We had a long history of whalers. It stands we should also have a history of sea shanties.  

Clearing an evening I got out a few old course books from university, and I went surfing the net. I found a few items of interest. In short, yes, ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ was likely written in Timaru, New Zealand. It was written between 1860 and 1870, by an anonymous author – believed to have been a young man of around 19. The Billy O’ Tea appears to be a fictitious ship, though there were plenty like it in reality around the lower South Island at the time. Here’s what I found.

The Setting:

I should quickly set the scene on this tale, seeing over 98% of people following Tales are from places other than New Zealand. New Zealand, sometimes called Aotearoa, is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. A little over 5 million people, colloquially ‘kiwis’ live here. Thirteen out of our estimated 600 islands are inhabited, but most people live on the North Island (Te Ika-a- Māui) or South Island (Te Waipounamu). Maori migrated here in several waves between 800 and 1000 years ago. Europeans first ‘discovered’ New Zealand in December 1642 – when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman tried to land at an area now called Golden Bay. The Maori, who had surveilled Tasman’s two ships for two days beforehand, attacked the landing boat – killing four Dutch sailors. The Dutch fired upon the Maori, hitting one of the defenders. The reason for the defense is unknown, but one theory states the locals believed the Dutch to be ghosts, there to steal their women and children. Another theory suggests word may have already reached Aotearoa from other island nations about the cruelty of European explorers. Tasman named the site Murderers Bay, and departed.



The next undisputed European visit would put Aotearoa on the map. On 6th October 1769, a 12 year old cabin boy named Nick Young called out to all aboard The Endeavor he had spotted land. The ship’s captain, James Cook, promised a reward of rum and a piece of headland named after them to the first to see land. The Endeavor was officially sent out in the pacific to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti – part of a larger experiment to determine how to measure longitude – and unofficially to look for the mythical ‘Terra Australis’, a massive continent thinkers at the time believed must be on the bottom side of the globe. One presumed Cook paid the cabin boy his rum – the headland he spotted is now called ‘Young Nick’s Head’.

The first whaling ship would arrive in New Zealand in 1791, The William and Ann, captained by Eber Bunker. Several other ships arrived in the early 1800s, congregating around the far north or far south of the country. Kororareka, now known as Russell, was an early settlement of note. Local tribes saw an opportunity to do business with whalers and sealers, and a town emerged in this far north location which would soon become known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ for it’s drinking, lawlessness and prostitution (sex seen as a commodity by some tribes to get their hands on muskets, which they used to wipe out rival tribes – but this is another story).

The image you get of these early towns is one of vice, sex, and rough men (not just whalers and sealers, but soon enough some escaped criminals from Australia). Maori, however they felt about these rough men, often did business with them – and some Maori did join up with whaling crews in much the same way that Australian Aborigines joined Indonesian ships from Makassar. (Makassan ships began visiting Australia by the 1720s, possibly even several decades earlier than that, to collect sea cucumbers and pick up local labour – but that IS DEFINITELY a whole other story).



But…. Back to Sea Shanties?

Yes. This appears to be quite the rabbit hole. A number of sea shanties originated from whaling towns in New Zealand. The first song on record is probably worth the digression. ‘Davy Lowston’ is New Zealand’s first known sea shanty, dating from around 1815. It tells the story of a group of ten sealers left on Open Bay Island, an island on the west coast of the South Island to catch all the seals there and skin them. Telling the men he’d be back soon, captain John Bedar sailed for Australia. The ship sank on it’s journey, leaving the men stranded on the inhospitable rock for four years (from 1810 – 1813). All ten men survived, rescued, of all people by New South Wales Governor Bligh (The same William Bligh cast adrift by the mutineers on the HMS Bounty in 1789). A musical kiwi wrote the following, which basically just puts the above to music.

Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal.
Oh my name is Davy Lowston, I did seal, I did seal.
My name is Davy Lowston, I did seal.
Though my men and I were lost, though our very lives it cost
We did seal, we did seal, we did seal

Twas in eighteen hundred and ten, we set sail, we set sail.
‘Twas in eighteen hundred and ten we set sail.
We were left we gallant men,
Never more to sail again,
For to seal, for to seal, for to seal,

We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down, were set down
We were set down in Open Bay, we were set down
T’was on the sixteenth day, of February
For to seal, for to seal, for to seal.

Our Captain John Bedar he set sail, he set sail.
Our Captain John Bedar he set sail
“I’ll return, men, without fail!” But she foundered in a gale,
And went down, and went down, and went down
.

We cured ten thousand skins for the fur, for the fur.
We cured ten thousand skins for the fur.
Brackish water, putrid seal, we did all of us fall ill,
For to die, for to die, for to die.

Come all you sailor lads who sail the sea, sail the sea,
Come all you jolly tars who sail the sea,
Though the schooner Governor Bligh took on some who did not die
Never seal, never seal, never seal.

Open Bay Island.

The Wellermen?

The Weller Brothers were an early whaling and trading company, with bases in both Sydney, Australia and what would later become Dunedin, in the South Island. Established by three English brothers, Joseph, George and Edward – they moved across the world, in part, hoping less polluted air in the antipodes would extend Joseph’s life. Joseph had tuberculosis, and would still be the first brother to die.
George Weller, then settled in Sydney bought a trading ship in 1826. The brothers were first attracted to New Zealand in 1830, for the flax and kauri (wood) trade in the far North of the North Island. By 1831 they bought The Lucy Ann from the New South Wales government. The ship’s last act for that government was to transport the descendants of the Bounty mutineers from Pitcairn Island (which was believed too small for them), back to Tahiti.



From what little I could find in a short timeframe it looked like the Weller brothers had colorful lives. Joseph would die young, in his early 30s, while in New Zealand. His body would be transported back to Sydney, Australia for burial. To keep him from going off, he was submerged in a large cask of rum, and presumably arrived in Sydney a little pickled. Edward Weller ran the New Zealand business till 1841. He oversaw the establishment of a whaling village of around 80 huts. The village was close to a Maori village, where Edward would meet his first two wives, both Maori wahine (women). The two villages would eventually merge, and are now known as Otakau. While heavily involved in whaling, Edward built up a trading station handling all manner of goods. One particularly odious trade was the sale of mokomokai – the preserved heads of what was originally defeated Maori warriors – but which increasingly included the heads of unfortunate slaves, as it became apparent a tattooed, preserved head was worth a lot of guns and ammunition.

Edward would be kidnapped and ransomed by Maori in Northland in 1833, but released soon after. Though he had plenty of sailors willing to risk their lives whaling – and it was a risky job where people often died – he insisted on captaining one of their ships. As the market for whale oil temporarily slowed down in the mid 1830s (due to competition, a decrease in whale numbers; and transatlantic politics – whale oil was still needed for oil lamps,  baleen, the whale bone used in corsets, remained popular also – but Britain and America began butting heads over taxes on the oil) Edward put his money into land speculation. Many of his land deals would be overturned as criminally bad deals following the signing of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi.

Maori perform a haka on board the Astrolabe.

Edward relocated back to Sydney – where he would die on 11th March 1893. He refused to leave his house, knowing a flood was coming. To escape drowning, Edward knocked a hole in his roof and sat atop his house till the waters receded. He’d die on his roof, of hypothermia. He’d handed the day to day management of the company’s operations to his sister’s husband, Charles Schultz. Shultz was in charge in the 1860s, when a young man composed a shanty about a ship, the Billy O’ Tea (a Billy, by the way, is a kettle), in an epic battle with a whale – and a man wishing the Wellerman, a supply ship – would soon arrive with sugar, and tea, and rum.

There was one final aspect of the tale of the Wellerman which fascinated me; that we came so very close to losing the song completely. We have folk music compiler Neil Colquhoun to thank for it’s continued existence. Colquhoun was a folk musician, teacher and a great compiler of the songs of New Zealand’s whalers, gold diggers and kauri loggers. He came across the song in 1966, having learned it from an F.R. Woods – a man then in his 80s who had learned ‘Soon May the Wellerman Come’ from an uncle, who was a sailor. A number of folk artists recorded the song throughout the 1970s, however Colquhoun preserved it. I did a little further digging, thinking it might be interesting to find Mr. Colquhoun and ask him if he’d be interested in doing a short interview with me, however he appears to have passed on in 2013.


I hope you all found my little meander through my back yard a little interesting. I know this hasn’t been usual ‘Tales’ fare. I don’t get to share a lot of history from my homeland, and hell, it is topical. We’ll be back to normal transmission next week…. Though I am saving a Kiwi tale, just on the backburner for now, which features one of my least favorite politicians while he was still a young boy (I’ve been rude and confrontational to this guy some years ago when he was still in power), a famed killer and artist, and a mysterious disappearance… just to forewarn you all.

Twas a Couple of Days’ Before Christmas…

Hey everyone, this was – almost – this year’s Christmas post. I just wasn’t feeling it this year. On first draft though inspiration struck. I present this as I think it still has some value right? – An actual Xmas post will drop on the 25th.

Hi all, Merry Christmas to you all. After reading the following you may well wonder why I’m not wishing everyone a hearty ‘Bah humbug’. You see, I’ve been wracking my brains for a suitable tale to tell this year – I didn’t even have a subject for this year’s Christmas day blog until I hit the first draft of this post. The following is a blog on things which happened Christmases past – and why none of the following made the cut. The actual Christmas blog will drop Christmas day.

One – The Stone of Destiny.


On Christmas eve 1950, four students from Glasgow, Scotland met at a Lyon’s Corner House in London – an open 24/7 complex full of pubs, foodcourts and barber shops – to plot the theft of the Stone of Destiny; sometimes referred to as the Stone of Scone. For lack of a reliable backstory to this artefact, it is worth mentioning a story from the bible. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – who was out to kill him for usurping him as his father’s favourite son. One night he laid his head on a rock, and had a vivid dream where he climbed a magical ladder to heaven. Up the top Jacob meets God, who tells him his progeny are destined to rule the world, but he best get busy spreading his seed far and wide. He would go on to have twelve children, who would each lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The rock he slept on would be blessed, declared a relic, and eventually taken into the temple of Jerusalem.

Forward to Scotland in the 1290s. The Scots believed the prophet Jeremiah, famous in the bible for authoring a few Old Testament books, and loudly predicting Babylon would invade Israel, to the disbelief of his leaders (he would be proved correct in 586 BCE) – secreted the rock away before the Babylonians attacked. Somehow, in spite of Jeremiah escaping to Egypt, they believe said rock made its way to Ireland. No one knows when exactly the Stone of Destiny appeared in Scotland, but it is assumed most, if not all Scottish Kings were crowned atop this mythical piece of rock, as legend has it the stone was on their soil by the mid 600s AD.

This is, at least until the Scots fell afoul of England’s King Edward I, known to historians as Edward Longshanks, among other names. Another sobriquet, The Hammer of the Scots. A constitutional crisis arose when Scottish King Alexander III and his three heirs all died within a few years of one another. With 14 rival claimants, Longshanks was called upon to decide who should be king. He picked John Baliol, sparking an insurrection. Most of the Scottish lords backed Robert de Brus – grandfather of future king Robert the Bruce (mentioned in another recent blog post). Drawn into the conflict, Longshanks just took over the nation of Scotland for himself – and following the 1296 Battle of Dunbar – stole the Stone of Destiny. The stone was incorporated into English ceremonies, insinuating any time an English monarch was crowned, they were de-facto named ruler of the Scots too.

The Bah Humbug moment?

Don’t get me wrong, Edward Longshanks is the kind of historical monster I could spend days on. I am also a sucker for any tale where the underdog – in this case the four students – succeed against the odds. Let’s not understate the importance of the removal of the stone from Westminster Abbey either. In 1950, less than 1% of Scots backed the politicians calling for devolution – a conscious uncoupling from the British Empire. The removal of the stone sparked a conversation which led to a number of referenda, where Scotland secured their own parliament, but fell short of completely devolving. The 1979 vote (to leave) had too few voters to count, the 2014 vote saw a narrow victory to the stay campaign.

Essentially though, the tale itself is a bit of an anti-climax. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart worked out how long it took security to do their rounds, then just nicked the stone while the guard’s back was turned. The stone got accidentally broken in half on the journey – and buried in a field in Kent for a while – then dug up and secreted away to Arbroath Abbey, Scotland. It was found four months later, and returned to London. These four students did a miraculous thing, in my opinion – but every time I have tried to write this tale – the labyrinthine nature of the backstory just seems to rob the impact of their deed somewhat.

Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.

The Soren Larsen, a ship often featured on the Onedin Line.


The following is a tale I have carried around with me for decades. The Onedin line, to the uninitiated, was a British television show which ran from 1971 to 1980 in the UK. In New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 90s it’s majestic theme music greeted me as I arrived home from school. My mum often watched the repeats on a late afternoon timeslot, if not on night shift that day. My family came from a village across the river Mersey from Liverpool, where the show was set (though not filmed). I come from a family with an interest in history, and the Onedin Line touched on a number of historical events which would have affected the fictional shipping line. From Coffin Ships to The Atlantic slave trade, and beyond, the popular soap opera was an insight to the issues of the time. I don’t think I appreciated the show terribly at the time.

The Romanians, however, were on my mum’s side. Legend has it they loved the Onedin Line from the get go. They would not have a legitimate feed to the show for long however.

In the wake of the Second World War, Romania – who were a democratic monarchy till overrun by a fascist organisation early in the war – fell under the control of the USSR. From 1947 the nation would be ruled by a communist assembly. Also early in the regime, a young man named Nicolae Ceausescu began his climb to the top of the party. Ceausescu was a member of the Romanian communist party from before the war – having made a name for himself as a capable street fighter – and was in jail for the duration of the war for ‘anti-democratic behaviour’. From the mid 1960s Romania allowed their people a somewhat westernized lifestyle – to enjoy some television, theatre, music and art from the capitalist world – but in 1971 Ceausescu travelled to North Korea and China. He fell in love with their brand of communism, especially their unaccountable strongmen, and methods of propaganda. The then head of the state council, and future president came back with a 17 point plan, the ‘July Theses’. He banned all foreign television.

In the wake of the ban, fans of The Onedin Line found a workaround, in higher powered aerials which tuned in to feeds from nearby capitalist nations. They followed the saga of the Onedin family. No doubt they picked up many other shows as well, the news especially. As Ceausescu ruled as he saw fit, the people tuned in their sets, and rolled with it. They suffered through abortion and divorce bans which would flood their orphanages with children – (children subsequently sold off to well off foreigners) – and a poorly timed power grab for oil supremacy, which put the country in the poor house by the mid 80s. As austerity bit, all the while their own media selling a message everything was fine, the fans of Onedin saw news coverage of thawing relations between the Cold War rivals – Glasnost and Perestroika – ‘openness’ and ‘restructure’… and then, on 9th November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Try as he might to deny it, the Onedin watchers saw it – they knew the world had changed, and the time was right to take to the streets to demand their freedom.

The revolution was quick. On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were tried for their despotism and personal enrichment in the face of massive poverty, and executed by firing squad.

The Bah Humbug Moment?

Besides it being not at all Christmas-y? The only evidence I could find that this ever happened is that a BBC television documentary was made in 1992, outlining the Onedin watcher’s role in the revolution. I am dead certain this is where I picked the tale up from in the first place. Could I find a copy of the actual doco? Not a chance. I may be awful when it comes to footnoting, but I always fact check. Sorry Onedin Line.

Three – Dodgy medieval kings reinforce their ‘divine right to rule’ via Christmas coronations.

Charlemagne


Umm, yeah let’s just jump to the Bah Humbug Moment….

It is true medieval kings claimed their right to govern over a people was God’s will. According to the ‘divine right of kings’ doctrine, not only were they on the throne “By the grace of God” but their rule was preordained – the thuggish warlord who has just invaded your nation and sat himself down on the old bosses chair was all part of God’s plan from before you were born. Many saw Christmas – the day the apparent King of Kings was born in a little town called Bethlehem – as a portentous date to take the crown. If the warlord who now runs our land was crowned on such a holy day – they must be extra blessed by God right?

It’s true several high profile warlords ascended to the throne on this day. Charlemagne, king of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The Danish warrior Sweyn Forkbeard is crowned King of England in 1013 AD – Sweyn would hold onto the position for a little over a month, before being deposed by Aethelred. Mieszko II of Poland was crowned Christmas 1025. As was Polish king Boleslaw II in 1076. William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. Roger of Sicily – someone I have been fascinated with since reading Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the man… but for whom I’ve yet to make the time to read up on – ditto, 1130. Add to this list King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, on 1100 AD.

The problem is it is a list, not a Tale. Often there is no mystery in their motives. It doesn’t even mark out a trend, as many more rulers weren’t crowned on Christmas. Does it have an arc? Any plot to speak of? Any kind of emotional payoff? No, it is a list. Yes I could have taken one of these sword wielding lunatics and spun a decent short biography on them? Oh yes, I could have – but maybe I have plans in the new year for a project along those grounds (hint, keep your eyes peeled on the social media accounts in, probably late January).

Would the piece have made for some useful pub quiz knowledge? Maybe, but probably no more than this none-piece. For the pub quizzers out there you may add one more to the list… kind of. King Clovis I of the Franks was not crowned on Christmas, but he was famously baptized into the Catholic faith in 508 AD.

Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]

I do have one topic for a prospective Christmas story. It is a tale of human endurance, and breaking barriers. It’s a tale of how small acts can inspire massive paradigm shifts. Furthermore it is incredibly pertinent in this day and age. Where it falls over though…

Bah Humbug?

Put simply, I ran out of time. This tale was taking me out into waters I don’t know terribly well, and need to put some time into studying. There is nothing terribly complex in the tale itself, but I am – embarrassingly – unschooled on the cast of characters, or the chronology of events following this juncture. I’ll probably need two weeks to get everything together on it – minimum. I’m hoping to return to this topic some time in 2021. I will also need to use my free monthly articles from various science journals fairly cannily too on this one, just FYI.

So there we go, sorry folks I feel like this week’s post is more lump of coal than stocking stuffer. I did discount several other topics. Washington crossing the Delaware felt like the cast were too well known for a blog mostly featuring obscure figures. I played round with West Point Military Academy’s Eggnog Riots for a little while, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I even revisited that famous soccer game on the Western Front, Christmas 1914. I felt the only thing I could add to the mix, ultimately, was to colourize, then cartoon some old black and white photographs.

British troops from London I am told.



I also toyed with the idea of writing on John Elwes, the probable real life inspiration for …. actually, no, he’s perfect.

Give me a couple of days folks. Don’t Google him, it’ll ruin everything!
Post coming December 25th.