Category Archives: Showbiz

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

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One: The Secret Agent. 

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

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

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

A Lancaster bomber

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

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

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

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

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

Three: The Brothel…

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

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

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

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

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

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

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

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

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

Four: Mechanical Failure

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

Five: …….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bearcat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottle Conjuror


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

This third instalment in our pre-code, silent era Hollywood drama begins February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles – now a parking lot for a men’s clothing store,  but back then an enclave of Hollywood wealth and privilege. Around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visit in the form of his close friend, the actress Mabel Normand. Taylor and Normand had known each other since 1920. During a turbulent time in Normand’s life the two had bonded over a shared love of books. Whether an item or not, Taylor was a rock to Normand – convincing the actress and party girl to check into a sanatorium when she hit rock bottom. Whether a cocaine habit, drinking like a fish, illness or a combination of all of the above were responsible, Normand was burnt out to the point where others feared she was not long for this earth. To compound matters, the recent death of Olive Thomas hit very close to home for her. William Desmond Taylor’s insistence she get some help and/or convalescence that Autumn probably saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so Mabel grabbed a book William promised to lend her. The couple had a few orange martinis. William shared the shocking news he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail that morning – after Peavey was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in a public park the night before. At around 7.35pm Mabel bid William adieu, and left for home. 

Just before 8pm, Taylor’s neighbour Faith Cole McLean – a former actress married to actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across at Taylor’s bungalow, she caught sight of a short, stocky man dressed “Like my idea of a motion picture burglar”. The mysterious figure stealthily vanished into the night. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the peace at the Alvarado Court Apartment complex was disturbed by a rather shaken Henry Peavey. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he ran from the premises. While looking for Taylor, Peavey discovered his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of his study. The police were called, but wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, a couple of curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters. The body of the 49 year old director lay, face down in his office, in his own blood – while the assorted interlopers discussed if his cause of death was a haemorrhage of the stomach, as one suggested, or not. When the police turned the body over, they found Taylor was shot. The bullet pierced his lung, striking him in the neck on it’s way out. 

While this alone was shocking news, it opened a Pandora’s box for Paramount, leaving them in a no-win situation, The ensuing scandals ended the careers of two actresses, and ushered in the Hollywood Production Code era, helmed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. This itself was a direct complication of the murder. The industry were now well aware the Christian conservatives who harangued politicians to ban alcohol would win their crusade to censor the industry. Taylor himself, a well thought of, articulate director with 60 films under his belt, was the man the film industry hoped to appoint chief censor when that day came. 

If hoping to tell this story as both a murder mystery and a continuation of the trilogy we have several aspects we need to tackle. The first of these is the alleged women in Taylor’s life. 

Mary Miles Minter was a young actress who started out as a child star, but in her late teens was repositioned as the next Mary Pickford (in other words, America’s sweetheart). Born Juliet Reilly in 1902, to an actress who went under the name Charlotte Shelby, Juliet got her first acting role aged five. Aged 10 she secured a touring theatre role which would’ve contravened child labour laws, so Charlotte borrowed her dead niece’s name and paperwork, and rechristened Juliet as cousin Mary – age 12. At 15, Mary worked with, allegedly had an affair with, and allegedly fell pregnant to her middle-aged director James Kirkwood Sr. Charlotte was alleged to have organised an abortion for her daughter. One would imagine her a far more protective mum after this. 

Mary Miles Minter

The next director she worked with was William Desmond Taylor. Taylor and Minter worked on four movies together between 1919 and 1920. Taylor was a big supporter of and advocate for Mary. Mary fell in love with Taylor, then in his mid 40s. She wrote him several love letters. A lace handkerchief with her initials was found at Taylor’s home – but more on that later. Though the newspapers would report the two were secretly an item, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Taylor reciprocated Minter’s feelings, nor that the two acted on Mary’s feelings. Some papers also speculated Taylor was dating both Mary and Charlotte at the same time – begging the question was Taylor killed by one or other spurned lady? Again, people in the know stated Charlotte and William detested one another. 

Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself however, in the wake of the killing. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger stated Mary leaned into the coffin, and proclaimed to all in attendance the corpse of William whispered his undying love for her in her ear. While untrue, on being told of his death, she insisted someone transfuse her blood into William, in the hope he’d revive. She only abandoned this plan when taken to view his corpse, and it was all too apparent he was never coming back. 

The hullabaloo around Mary – the press disclosing several details about her which flew in the face of her carefully constructed, demure public image – eventually did her no favours. She made a handful of films following the murder, but was let go once her contract lapsed in 1923. Following the Whodunnit line, Charlotte was considered a suspect in William’s murder. The threesome line was followed up on and eventually dismissed. As was the real line, of their well known mutual dislike for one another. Speculation persisted that Charlotte, herself a gun owner, was the mysterious figure disguised to look like a movie burglar, seen on William’s porch by Faith McLean that night. At one point it looked like the police would charge Charlotte, but there just wasn’t enough evidence. 

Mabel Normand also came under scrutiny, for similar – yet very different reasons. 

Born in 1893, Normand became an actor aged 16, after briefly modelling for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She soon caught the eye of Mack Sennett of Keystone studios – where Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had got his start. A very capable physical comedian who could pull off dangerous pratfalls just as well as Arbuckle himself, she was something of a rarity in her time – and soon carved out a niche for herself that saw her regularly play opposite both Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. From joining Keystone in 1912, Normand acted alongside Arbuckle in 24 movies. 

A ’Gibson Girl’

Mabel had something of a wild, tempestuous, and sad life. Starting with wild, she was very much the party girl. She loved to party, drink heavily, and occasionally play dangerous pranks on her co-workers. When first the death of Olive Thomas, then the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandals broke, she could empathise with both women. To be blackout drunk enough to drink poison, or to find oneself in a situation like Rappe did were things which could have happened to her at her most hedonistic (though it does bear a quick mention she believed her friend Arbuckle was innocent). 

She had also become an item with Mack Sennett, who may have been physically abusive to her. Just prior to their impending marriage, Mabel caught Mack in bed with another actress. She fought with the actress, and somehow got a heavy bump to her head that left her in a coma for weeks. 

There were rumours she was also a heavy cocaine user – something which could have led to her looking haggard and worn, as mentioned at the top of this tale. It could have just as easily been her childhood bout of tuberculosis coming back for her however. She would die, not terribly out of the frame of this tale – of consumption – in her mid 30s. 

Setting aside the rumours she too, now uncoupled from Sennett, was sleeping with William Desmond Taylor – cause … well, we’ll come to that in a second – A murder theory which was advanced was when Taylor convinced Normand to get medical help in the autumn of 1920, he also chased away a drug dealer who swore he’d get his revenge on Taylor. Hollywood gossip had it not only had William Desmond Taylor upset this one dealer – he was making noises he was going to expose all the dealers who supplied drugs to Normand. This is all supposition. Of course there were some dangerous characters around Hollywood at this time, including an LA Mafia run by Vito De Giorgio – which would soon be taken over by the heavily politically connected Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as a ‘drug fiend’, and of infidelity; failing health – and another incident a few years after Taylor’s murder soon put an end to her career. 

Sidebar: In 1924, Mabel Normand attended a party packed with various rich and famous people. On parking up, she ordered her driver to come get her at a specified time, and if she was too drunk and belligerent at this point, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get to Mabel, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him. Compounding matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer, who’d fled from a chain gang in San Francisco some time earlier. This scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Normand’s career. 

Before we move on with this Tale, I must point out much of the talk of William Desmond Taylor’s womanising, and even the speculation he’d been murdered by gangsters, was actually spin from Paramount pictures. They leaked Mary Miles Minter’s love letters, seized prior to police arriving at the scene of the murder. They also paid someone to break into the house after the fact, to leave Mary’s handkerchief. The studio made a sacrificial lamb of party girl Mabel Normand too. Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in 49 year old bachelor Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently now, but was then taken as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they saw as far more scandalous at the time. For starters, he’d been spotted at both opium dens and secretive gay nightclubs. The studio did their best to explain both away by stating he was researching  upcoming films. His back-story was far more complex than all that however. 

William Deane-Tanner was born 26th April 1872 to an aristocratic British family in County Carlow, Ireland. One of five children, he was brought up in a large, Georgian manor situated on 50 acres of land. William’s father, Thomas, was a retired army Major. His uncles and grandparents were surgeons and politicians. In his late teens, William left his life of luxury behind to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, USA. In his 20s he moved to New York, took up acting, and dated the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor, Ethel May Hamilton. The couple met through acting circles, and would marry in 1901. A year later their daughter Ethel Daisy came along. William took up a job in his father in law’s 5th Avenue antique store. 

For reasons never publicly shared, it appears William was utterly miserable. He drank heavily and regularly cheated on his wife. He exhibited many of the warning signs of depression – or what may well have been episodes of dissociative amnesia. Often distant and unsatisfied with his lot, sometimes zoning out completely in the company of others, he mysteriously vanished 23rd October 1908. 

Little is known about his life prior to Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before joining up with a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 he re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor, in Hollywood. This was the year Ethel finally divorced William – though she hardly knew where he was till she and her daughter saw him acting in a film in 1918. None of this was known to the public at large until after his death. Few in Hollywood knew of his hidden past either. He was an actor for several studios, then pivoted to directing in 1914. In 1914 he also met the actress Neva Gerber – who had separated from, but not yet divorced from her husband. Taylor and Gerber were an item till 1919, but never married.  

By 1922 Taylor appears to have been in a relationship with a young man named George Hopkins. A set designer, he worked with Taylor on the film The Soul of Youth. A distraught Hopkins sat next to Mabel Normand at Taylor’s funeral. Several of the couple’s friends did confirm they were a couple after Taylor’s death – Hopkins being out and a behind the scenes person, he had nothing to lose by this revelation. More controversially, he was also likely the Paramount employee ordered to grab the basket of letters on the day of the murder. Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s, and winning four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about the man’s life. 

For one man to commit pseudocide – to fake one’s death – is one thing. William also had a brother, Denis. Denis was a former military man, who in 1903 moved to New York to be closer to William. For a while the brothers worked together in the antique store. He married Ada Brennan – a woman from a well to do family – and had three children with her. A ‘lunger’, he also gave Ada tuberculosis. On 25th August 1912, on his daughter’s fourth birthday, and while Ada was in a sanatorium, he disappeared just as William had. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, and took to sending money to her and the children every month. Denis is believed to have been a bit part – a blacksmith – in one of Taylor’s early films. Though his whereabouts beyond this is pure speculation (anyone’s best guess is he died young, in obscurity either somewhere in the USA or Europe – most likely of consumption) – there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

The allegedly lewd Henry Peavey was a fairly recent employee, having taken on cook and valet duties six months prior to the murder. He was a replacement for a guy called Edward Sands. Sands, like most everyone in this tale, was a phoney. Born Edward Snyder in Ohio, Sands was a teenage thief, turned sailor, turned member of the Coast Guard. Prior to working for Taylor, he’d deserted his post and shown up in Hollywood – one presumes to find fame and fortune on the silver screen, but I’ve never seen anyone state this explicitly. As Taylor’s cook and valet he affected a cockney accent, and the name we all know him by. 

While Taylor was away on business in 1921, Sands stole several of Taylor’s suits, his car and his cheque book, among other items. He’d bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured he wouldn’t get in trouble for his sudden behaviour – indicating his intent to bribe Taylor with said information. William fired both employees on his return. Six months later, he received a letter from Sands with a ticket from a pawn shop for one of the stolen items. The name on the ticket ‘William Deane-Tanner’

While it appears highly unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation does lead back to a troubled young man from Ohio – the rumour has persisted over the years that Sands was his brother. 

Edward Sands was working on Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He too disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder – in spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward in the hopes a manhunt would distract from all the other revelations suddenly leaking out everywhere. 

While the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved, there is one final suspect. We’ll come to them in a second. First however, it should be pointed out the uncovering of Mabel Normand’s alleged drug habit, the alleged love triangle, Mary’s alleged penchant for middle aged men, more fake identities than you can shake a stick at, pseudocides, wife abandonments, and the revelation two Hollywood creatives might just be in a loving, same sex relationship was the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Pressure from outraged members of the public led to film bannings across several states. Careers were ended. To placate these wowsers Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official who I hope to come back to next year for a completely different Tale, was appointed chairman of the MPPDA, an organisation established to ‘clean up’ Hollywood. 

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with William Desmond Taylor for a short time at Vitagraph Pictures. She was on her way up from bit parts to a number of starring roles when, in 1917 she was arrested in a park, selling opium to passers by. She avoided prosecution, but the very public trial killed any hopes she had of becoming an A list celebrity. She continued to work, in much smaller roles, under several noms de plume – most notably Patricia Palmer. 

In 1923, Gibson was arrested and charged with participation in a blackmail and extortion ring, which may have taken millions of dollars from wealthy businessmen across America. A George W. Lasher, an electrical contractor, paid her over $1,100 to keep quiet about a violation of the Mann Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific, but Lasher possibly transported a minor over state lines for immoral purposes – this information subsequently falling into Gibson’s lap. She was also connected to two men who were jailed the week before for extorting $10,000 from an Ohio bank president named John Bushnell. 

Gibson again avoided jail, but languished in bit roles taken on under false names till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company exec, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life with no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA. She did return to LA in the early 1940s, after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life from a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat called Rajah for company, let the hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in at her, and did her best to never leave the house – for fear of running into anyone who may know her. 

On 21st October 1964, Gibson had a heart attack. Sensing her time was up she called for a priest and confessed to the murder of William Desmond Taylor. Present at the time, a priest and Gibson’s next door neighbours. When this twist in the tale was finally revealed by the neighbours’ young son – now all grown up – he recalled she did give an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

Did William Desmond Taylor’s killer die in agony, sprawled out on the floor, much like he had? In all likelihood we’ll never know. 

’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

The Max Headroom Incident Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Shaye St John.


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

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

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



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)

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


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

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

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

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

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

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


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

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

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

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).

eden ahbez – Nature Boy Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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