Category Archives: Social History

Murder in Hartlepool…

Content warning, the following tale discusses xenophobic folk songs and pamphlets. 

Today’s tale is set in Hartlepool – a seaside town in County Durham in the North East of England.. The date? … please, dear reader have mercy on me this week – I lost two writing days to a bout of food poisoning, then my old tablet died on me – I’ve dumped my proposed Tale this week for something I know well enough to pull together quickly – and unfortunately details are a little sketchy.

The date, has never been stipulated other than to say ‘The Napoleonic Wars’ – so any time between 1803 and 1815, most likely (taking into account the carnage at Trafalgar)  1803 – 1805.

A lone French ship – never named in the sources – has been scattered the length of the beach. Tempest tossed the night before in the merciless North Sea, it has been smashed against the rocks till split in two. Locals gather to see who has run afoul of the weather, what is onboard, and if there are any survivors. One could picture a nightmarish scene. Amid the piles of flotsam and jetsam are dozens of corpses, all sailors ultimately under the command of ‘Little Boney’, the dreaded Napoleon Bonaparte. The assembled rescuers, onlookers and pillagers knew this didn’t bode well for them. Were they a target for the French? Some way down the beach, a survivor crouched low on all fours, observing the scene. Short and excessively hairy, he appeared clad in a child’s uniform. Babbling in a language unknown to the assembled, the small man yelped at the locals, flashed a mouth full of canine teeth, then attempted to scarper. With considerable effort, the short man was eventually pinned by a couple of strong men, then escorted away. 

The locals had no idea what to do next, and had a million questions for the strange man. Was the ship a vanguard for a larger, expeditionary force still on it’s way? Were they there to land a French spy? Why them? Hartlepool was yet to become the industrial centre it would soon become. 

With a growing population just down the road at West Hartlepool – and a spa industry which brought in many tourists every year, a stranger could easily blend in – something which no doubt made the locals very jittery now. 

An impromptu kangaroo court put question after question to the survivor – only to get answers back in an unintelligible gibberish. They were at war with France. The man was in a French uniform, seemingly having come from a French warship wrecked on the beach. When they asked him if he were a spy, he never denied it. This strange, hairy man seemed dangerous – incredibly agile, and considerably stronger than he looked. This was enough for the locals to condemn the man to death by hanging.  A gibbet was constructed in the town square. The Frenchman was hung by the neck till pronounced dead. 

Some time later it was discovered the hairy man was not a man after all, but a monkey – probably a ship’s mascot. The people of West Hartlepool, who considered the people of Old Hartlepool little smarter than the average chimp, mocked them mercilessly for the hanging. They might have regretted this as urban sprawl led to a conjoining of West Hartlepool and Old Hartlepool into one greater Hartlepool. They were all ‘monkey hangers’ now, by British estimation. What does one do with such an embarrassing appellation? Lean into it. 

In Hartlepool, where a statue to the poor, unfortunate monkey stands memorial to his unwarranted execution – many wear the name ‘Monkey Hanger’ with pride. Their soccer team, Hartlepool United are nicknamed the monkey hangers. Their mascot ‘H’Angus the Monkey’. In 2002, Stuart Drummond successfully one upped Screaming Lord Sutch and Count Binface by actually getting himself elected mayor. Campaigning in a H’Angus the monkey suit, Drummond ran on a simple promise of free bananas for all school children. 

Later writers suggested there was something more diabolical at play in this hanging – children were often ‘powder monkeys’ aboard ships. Their job, to ferry gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the cannons. Did these locals mete out summary justice to some poor prisoner of war, then concoct this monkey tale to avoid a hanging themselves? –  

Did this change the complexion of the legend for the locals? Well…. their soccer team are still the monkey hangers. Mayor Drummond presided over Hartlepool for three terms. 

But did any of this actually happen?

Almost certainly not. 

From 1803 to 1815 over 38,000 ships wrecked along the coast of the United Kingdom. Just fourteen of those were in, or around Hartlepool. It is a matter of public record that all 14 ships were English. No monkeys were hanged on any of them.So where did the Tale come from?

Enter Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan (1830 – 1865). Corvan, born in Liverpool, moved with his family to Newcastle upon Tyne aged four. At the age of only seven his father died, leaving Ned the man of the house. He was sent to work for sail makers, but having no aptitude for the work was let go. After this he took on any work he could find for Billy Purvis’ Victoria Theatre – a travelling music hall troupe, based in Newcastle – but regularly touring the North of England. Corvan soon went from gopher, to child star. The boy could not only sing, he could make up songs on the fly about whatever town they were playing in… In 1855 he wrote ‘The fisherman hung the monkey O!’, while in Hartlepool.

In former times, mid war and strife
The French invasion threatened life
And all was armed to the knife
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

The fisherman with courage high
Seized the monkey for a spy
Hang him says yen, says another he’ll die
The fisherman hung the monkey O!

Dooram a dooram a dooram a da
Dooram a dooram a da

They tried every means to make him speak
They tortured the monkey till loud he did squeak
Says one that’s French, says another that’s Greek
For the fishermen then got drunkey O!

He’s hair all over some chaps did cry
He’s up to something cute and sly
With a cod’s head then they closed an eye
Afore they hung the monkey O!

Corvan’s song had precursors, which may have been sources for The Fisherman hung the monkey O! In 1825, an anonymous pamphlet, The Monkey Barber, was doing the rounds. It told a tale of an unfortunate Irish farm labourer come to Glasgow, Scotland to harvest crops. Having stopped at a barber’s shop, he found a hairy little barber waiting for customers, so he asked for a shave. I think you can guess the rest of this xenophobic tale, but if not, things don’t end well for the poor Irishman. There was allegedly another song in 1825, The Baboon – toasting a baboon who recently visited the UK with a party of Cossack soldiers. I couldn’t find anything specific about the song, other than several secondary sources mention it’s existence. 

Then there was a tale, allegedly from Boddam, Aberdeenshire – Scotland. the date, some time in 1772. A ship washes up on the rocks, killing all on board. Local pillagers arrive to find a sole survivor – a pet monkey. Believing a shipwreck with no survivors fair pickings, the men murder the monkey – then continue to strip the wreck of anything of value. There is as much evidence for this case as there is for anyone in Hartlepool ever having executed a monkey. 

Repost: John Frum, messiah.

“This ain’t one body’s story. It’s the story of us all.
We got it mouth-to-mouth. You got to listen it and ‘member.
‘Cause what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow.
I’m looking behind us now. . . .across the count of time. . . .down the long haul, into history back.
I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain!
And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time.
It were full-on winter. . .and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch.
That were Captain Walker.

He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies to the sky!
So they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers. . .and what were left of the knowing, they left behind.
Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck. . .some had been jumped by Mr. Dead. . .
but some had got the luck, and it leads them here.
One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth. ” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

(all)”We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “

Time counts and keeps counting. They gets missing what they had.
They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video.
And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost.
‘Member this? (Holds a viewfinder toy to Max’s eyes- picture of a city scape)

(all) Tomorrow-morrow Land!
‘Member this? (time lapse picture of a motorway at night)
(all) The River of Light!
‘Member this? (picture of an aircraft)
(all) Skyraft!
‘Member this? (a pilot)
(all) Captain Walker!
‘Member this? (a burlesque dancer)
(all) Mrs. Walker!

The Tell of Captain Walker – from Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

I may be the only one who thinks of Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome when I think Cargo Cults, but hey I was 9 when the film was released, and maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw the film. It is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever. This Tale of History and Imagination involves a group who would look strangely familiar to Savannah Nix and her Cargo Cult of Captain Walker.

On 15th February every year a fascinating ritual takes place on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (known for the longest time as the New Hebrides). It is the holiest of holy days on the island. Large groups of ‘Ni Vanuatu’, the people of Vanuatu gather beside a home-made landing strip. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants; the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others are in full military uniform. In the shadow of Mount Yasur – bamboo ‘guns’ in hand – they get into formation and drill before their gods. The sacred hoisting of the flags follows – first the Stars and Stripes, then the US Marine corps insignia, then finally the state flag for the American state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they depart, hopeful this year their messiah returns, bringing on a golden age.

Who is their saviour you may ask? Jesus? Muhammad? Siddhartha Gautama?

Their saviour is an American soldier named John Frum. He first appeared during the second world war. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would be a 1960 documentary by Sir David Attenborough called “The People of Paradise”. Attenborough is on the island and asks one of the locals to describe Frum, the local replies…

“E look like you. E got white face. E tall man. E live long in South America”

The tale of John Frum has fascinated me for years. It is an insight into how a religion can form, the significance of folk heroes, and the need for ‘noble myths’ to bring people together for a greater good. To understand this tale, first we needs must discuss the history of the Ni Vanuatu.

Origins.

The Melanesian adventurers we now call Ni Vanuatu first came to the islands by boat around 3,300 years ago. Archaeological evidence confirms this approximate timeline. All indications are once arrived they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, and claimed the chain for his employers, Spain. He established a small, short lived colony, who gave up and decided to sail for home. The Spanish forgot the location of Vanuatu, leaving them free to be claimed by the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. Captain James Cook came across the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain the mystery of Eilean Mor was set on. For the better part of the following century they were left to their own devices by these strange, pale visitors, however colonization would wreak havoc on the Ni Vanuatu soon after.

The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century, after Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesians from other island chains to cut down the trees. This led to violent skirmishes between the groups.

In 1862 a practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ also came to the island chain. Blackbirding was a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This sometimes came in the form of conning tribes into signing predatory contracts with horrendously bad terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery by another name, occasionally with a pittance of a wage which would disappear in the cost of the victim’s keep. The first blackbirder to find them was an Irishman named J.C Byrne, who was on the prowl for cheap labour for the plantations of Peru. Unfortunately for Vanuatu, in 1862 a blight had killed off much of their supply of coconuts and there was a famine – a large number of men jumped voluntarily at the work. Once word got out Byrne had so easily conned 253 Ni Vanuatu to work in Peru, many other ships arrived. Between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships arrived, looking for wage slaves for South and Central American plantations. At it’s height several Vanuatuan islands had lost over half their male populations to blackbirding. To this day their population numbers have not fully bounced back.

Soon after, with less locals to defend the islands, white settlers settled on the archipelago. They established their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit.

This was also around the time God arrived. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the gospel. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French, reminded he who the spiky bougainvillea is named after found the archipelago earlier, were now arriving 2 to 1 to every British settler. Rather than come to blows, Britain and France decided to jointly rule the island chain – first by gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s, then a written joint agreement in 1906, then the Anglo-French protocol of 1914 – then finally a formal ratification in 1922. The Ni Vanuatu were suddenly overrun, told what to think, where they can and cannot go. Only marginally less slaves than the men Blackbirded away decades earlier. Did they need another hero? A handsome stranger with an odd accent to descend, deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they did. We will look at this in part two next week.
[Edit: for reposting purposes I rewrote this post as a one parter. Simone]

Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning…

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indestinguishable from magic”
Arthur C Clarke – Hazards of Prophecy: The failure of imagination.

“He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it”
Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness.

Hey everyone welcome back to part two of the legend of John Frum. In part one I sketched out for colonization encroached upon the lives of the Ni Vanuatu. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science, they would find their own Captain Walker, but the heroic struggle to break the manacles of oppression was all on them. I would also invite you all to re-read the quotes directly above; the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz took over the tribe – fairly accurately portraying the tactics of the likes of Leon Rom – who Kurtz is believed to be based on. No doubt the British and French came with requisite thunder and lightning – though in the Ni Vanuatu’s case, thunder and lightning would also be their salvation.

Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs. He used modern weapons to convinc the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor were mistaken for the ghost of the ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived on his first voyage. On his final voyage, this time on the Resolution, he was thought a god by the people of Hawaii. Unfortunately for Cook, gods, like mortals, can outwear their welcome – and he was stabbed to death and dismembered.
My favourite example from history, where an advanced person used technology to seem magical is in 585BC; where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, had calculated an eclipse, and managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the event signified the gods were displeased with the war. When the world went dark, fighting stopped and a truce was signed.

Back to Vanuatu, we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, the USA decided it may need a military presence looking after their Pacific interests. They sent soldiers to Tanna Island, Vanuatu – brandishing technology sufficiently advanced that to the people of Vanuatu, it did seem like magic. Unlike plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their magical wonders, never worked … at least not in a way understood by the people of Tanna as work. When something broke for the plantation owner, it had to be fixed. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared; dropped out of the sky by giant iron birds. The Americans prayed to the magic box with the poles, and long wires. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, spoke back to them in strange voices. Record players seemed magic. Cameras seemed so. Their food was magic, as they never needed to harvest it.

The Ni Vanuatu saw the radio masts as a totem to their gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were the priests. And the cargo, dropped by magical giant birds, was manna from heaven. The Ni Vanuatu began to ask if they were to imitate these rituals, would the gods be so kind to them too?

Around 1940 a legend began to spread of the messianic American soldier. The first recorded ‘sightings’ of John Frum occur. Some of the villagers tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, stating he used to be called Manehivi, before he was blackbirded to South America. Now he had come back with a new look, and name, to save them. Follow me and you will have more cargo than you know what to do with. To others he claims to be a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun; returned to take the island back, and usher in a golden age. To all Frum promises a better, happier future.

In 1941 the villagers of Tanna act. Frum has spoken, telling them to quit the schools and churches. Down tools and walk away from the plantations. Rid themselves of the white man’s money, and go back to their old ways. He was coming to save them – so they did. The missionaries and plantation owners went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent some soldiers in to force the people back to the fields, churches and classrooms. They found them inland; feasting, dancing, and practicing the old rituals as they best remembered them. They refused to leave. The officers did arrest the ringleaders, and exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but this had no effect on the Ni Vanuatu of Tanna. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return; some would pick up some work in the plantations, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers and their ways again.

After World War Two the Americans left. The villagers took over what was left of the base, and rebuilt the runway. Often they would try to flag passing planes down, in the hope one would land – carrying John Frum – laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of a priest called Nakomaha, they formed the ‘Tanna Army’, to march and drill in uniform,- hoping this would bring John Frum home. In the 1970’s, as legal independance beckoned; members of the religion of John Frum worried an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu. They formed a political party to safeguard their interests. In 2011 they had their first female leader of the religion of Frum; a Vietnamese born lady named Thi Tam Goiset. For a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia, though her appointment would end in scandal in 2013.

To this day the people of Tanna believe their messiah, the American soldier John Frum, will return, He has not forgotten them. Every February 15th they march, raise the flag, and wait. Their messiah shall come again.

Originally posted 17th and 24th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Reedited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Henry ‘Box’ Brown.

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

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

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



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



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

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

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



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

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

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

So… where does this tale get troublesome?

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

Frederick Douglass


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

And Brown’s later life?

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



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

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

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

Soon May the Wellerman Come

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

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

The Setting:

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



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

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

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



But…. Back to Sea Shanties?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Bay Island.

The Wellermen?

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



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

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

Maori perform a haka on board the Astrolabe.

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

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


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

The Max Headroom Incident

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Shaye St John.


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

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

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



On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800
.

For the Podcast Episode of this post Click Here!

Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

Frau Troffea’s dance with the devil.

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

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


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



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

A modern bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht.

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

What could have caused such an incident?

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

What goes up…. The Ballad of Franz Reichelt.

Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.

Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.

Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.

Icarus


The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq.
Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.


Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.

In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself.
In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.

While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.


Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.


To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.


Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.

The Wright Brothers

By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky,  in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.

Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.

Lenormand parachutes to safety.

In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.

In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.

All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars.
Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..


A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.

While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.  

Simone’s Christmas Carol 2020.

John Elwes – The Miser of Marcham Park.

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


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

Charles Dickens.



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

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

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Georgian Architecture.

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

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



Twas a Couple of Days’ Before Christmas…

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

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

One – The Stone of Destiny.


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

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

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

The Bah Humbug moment?

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

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

Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Bah Humbug Moment?

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

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

Charlemagne


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

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

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

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

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

Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]

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

Bah Humbug?

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

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

British troops from London I am told.



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

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