Category Archives: Strange and Enigmatic Characters

Three Short Tales…

Hey folks the internet tells me you all like lists, so I thought I’d fill a gap in the schedule with a short list, of short tales. This week’s tale is a triptych – a little like the Francis Bacon piece I borrowed for the featured image today…

One – Pirates!

Our first tale takes place on a Merchant vessel, off the coast of Honduras in 1717. This was an unsettling time to be a sailor in the Caribbean – The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a great time to be a privateer, but the resolution of the conflict (Philip V was allowed to ascend to the throne, but ceded numerous territories to Britain, Savoy and Austria) left many said privateers out of work. Large numbers of British and American pirates flooded into the Caribbean, making easy pickings of the merchant ships sailing through the region.

Picture this, the crew of a merchant vessel is completely blindsided by pirates. In the early hours of morning a boarding party sidled up to them in a sloop. Before the crew could react all hellfire and thunder breaks loose – as large, heavily bearded men threw the sailors around like rag dolls, brandished swords in their faces and corralled the crew onto the quarter deck. The crew are then forced onto their knees, then poked and prodded. “Look at the noggin on that one” I imagine one pirate commenting – “he’d do you right Pete”. I get an image of Pete passing comment that he must be a smart man, big headed people always are, while he runs a length of twine around the man’s forehead. I recall another passing one of the men over. “Nah, far too threadbare. I do have standards, you know”. The crew beg the pirates for mercy,
“Please spare us, take anything you wish – we just want to make it home to our loved ones”

A particularly terrifying pirate steps forward, demanding “Who’s the captain?” This pirate is Benjamin Hornigold – an up and coming buccaneer with five ships and 350 men under his command. Among his men one Edward Teach – known to history as Blackbeard.

“Why, sir… I… I am. Please sir, as a good Christian I beg you, spare our lives” The captain responded, meekly.

“Well, captain. What size hat do you wear?”

The night before Hornigold and his crew were out carousing. A good time was had by all. The drinks flowed, and the men partied into the wee small hours – when it struck them as a smart thing to do to throw one’s hat into the air – on a moving ship – with a wind strong enough to send the hats scattering. From there the hats all sank to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. As daylight came, and the men worried that sailing on bareheaded would lead to disaster, a plan was hatched to steal all the hats from a merchant ship spotted in the distance.

The pirates took the hats they needed, and nothing else. They returned to their own ship and let the merchant ship return to their business.


Two – Mr. 380.

Though really not big on ‘Big History’, I’ve heard it said a student once asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered the first sign of civilization. Her answer? A broken femur which has healed. In my time I have read a sum total of three books on Big History, little specific to anthropology, so am in no way qualified to offer an opinion – but I think it is a great anecdote to open my next short Tale…. Which is definitely not Big History.


The Lombards were a tribe of Germanic people who conquered and ruled much of Italy from 568 AD, till they were conquered themselves in 774 AD by the Frankish king Charlemagne. They are of indeterminate origin – their own 8th century historians stating they were from Southern Scandinavia – but Roman historians in the 1st Century BC count them among the Suebi, a group which originated in the Elbe river region of modern Germany and the Czech Republic. Their name lives on in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy.

Over two seasons 1985-86 and 1991-92 a group of archeologists came across, then excavated a Lombard graveyard in Veneto, Northern Italy. They uncovered 164 bodies, buried between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. One is of particular interest to our next tale.


The man in tomb T US 380 is a man of mystery. Examination of his remains suggest he was a warrior – not uncommon for a Lombard male. At the time of his death he would have been somewhere between 40 and 50; for this time and place in history that was a reasonably good age to make it to. His grave was not filled with earthly treasures, or his favorite horse, or a team of slaves to serve him in the afterlife. By all accounts T US 380 was an average Joe – in all ways but one – Mr. 380 was missing his right hand, and part of his forearm. In place of the missing limb, it appears he had a knife attached to his stump.

No-one knows exactly how Mr. 380 lost his limb. It looks like it was removed in one heavy blow – though it could have been done in battle, or it could have been an amputation of a limb too badly damaged to heal itself. There is a possibility Mr. 380 had a hand cut off as punishment for theft – this was not unheard of among the Lombards. The stump showed signs of a callous built up, suggesting a (probably leather) device used to attach the blade. Signs of wear on the man’s teeth and shoulder suggest a daily routine of using his teeth, and spare hand, to fasten the prosthesis with laces.

In medieval times people generally didn’t survive amputations. If the blood loss didn’t kill you, the post amputation infection would likely finish the job. Margaret Mead’s rationale at the top of this tale – if a group takes care of it’s damaged members, cares for them, nurses them back to health – then that’s a civilized society. There is no question the Lombards were a civilization, but knowing their tough as nails, warrior reputation – Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin for one described them as like an Outlaw Biker gang – it is remarkable to think of the group of people who handled the tourniquet, who sewed him back together, and who nursed Mr. 380 through the inevitable days of normally deadly fevers.


Three – Doll Babies.

In November 1983 a wave of madness broke out across America, leading to a number of riots and physical altercations. The tale most often told took place in a Zayre department store in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania. 1,000 Adults pushed, and punched, pulled hair and tussled with one another. Boxes flew across the store, shelves were sent sprawling over. Weapons may have been used on one another. Store manager William Shigo, surrounded by the melee grabbed a baseball bat, climbed atop the counter and yelled at the horde to leave immediately. His requests fell upon deaf ears as the assembled continued to beat the living daylights out of one another, hoping to defend their prized item. This scene played out at toy shops all across the United States that year. Of course opportunists swooped in, buying up stock then selling on the black market for huge mark ups. Some parents drove hundreds of miles looking for this elusive item. Others resorted to bribery. Zayre resorted to issuing tickets to lucky parents, then serving the lucky ones out back, but this hardly solved the problem. What was the cause of all this kerfuffle? This thing, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll… If I may offer an opinion, a doll as ugly as the behavior of the parents willing to beat another parent down to get one.


Legend has it the Cabbage Patch Kids started their lives as ‘Doll Babies’, developed by Martha Nelson Thomas of Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas was a folk artist, specializing in doll making. She developed her doll babies some time in the early 1970s, and would exhibit them at local art and crafts fairs in the area. Though running a business, she appears to have had no intention of ever selling in large numbers.

In 1976 she met a then 21 year old Xavier Roberts at a fair. Roberts, an aspiring artist living in Georgia convinced Thomas to let him sell some of her dolls in his state for a cut of the profits. The two would do business till 1978, when they had a falling out. It was at this point that it’s alleged Roberts stole Thomas’ idea, and began working towards scaling up the business. Martha would begin a protracted legal battle with Xavier in 1979.

In 1982 Roberts signed a contract with toy company Coleco to produce the re-branded ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’. While the agreement was to mass produce the dolls, they had two things working against them. 1. Production was always to be a little laborious – no two dolls were alike, from their appearance to the packaging which contained a personalized name for each of the dolls and 2. This angle contributed to the dolls becoming the most desired toy of Christmas 1983.

Martha Nelson Thomas would settle her $1 Million lawsuit against Xavier Roberts in 1984, out of court for an undisclosed sum. In the meantime Xavier Roberts continued to rake in much more money than that. There was now a 9 month waiting list for one of the dolls – and the price had skyrocketed from $30 to $150 per doll.

The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part One)

If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark. – Dorothy Kilgallen on Marilyn Monroe.

Warning! This Tale begins with a shaggy dog tale involving YouTube and my recurring insomnia.

I’ve no idea why YouTube algorithms saw fit to drop episodes of the 1950’s-60’s gameshow What’s My Line? in my feed – maybe my love of ephemera, or the time I watched every episode of A.J. Benza’s ‘Mysteries and Scandals’ (a 1990s series on the scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age). Maybe the suggestion came after a session of looking in vain for live footage of 1940s jump blues shouter Wynonie Harris… I wanted to see if Elvis really did steal all his moves. Whatever the site’s rationale I’m glad they did. On many a night where I’ve woken at 3am, old episodes of What’s My Line? Have become a bit of a guilty pleasure.

Running from 1951 to 1967, then rebooted several times after that – What’s My Line? was an American game show that pitted a celebrity panel of sleuths against hundreds, if not thousands of contestants. The contestant could be a dynamite salesperson, the man who made President Kennedy’s inauguration top hat, a hotel detective, a flight instructor – at one point an unknown Colonel Harland Sanders – the year before he sold Kentucky Fried Chicken and became the public face of the franchise. By asking questions the sleuths had to work out the contestant’s job. If the panel got ten ‘no’s, the contestant would walk away with $50 winnings. There was always a celebrity mystery guest where the panel wore blindfolds while guessing – the celebs are the primary reason most of the show footage survives to this day.

Colonel Sanders and John Charles Daly on What’s My Line, 1963.

For this bleary-eyed writer, struggling to get back to sleep in the wee small hours, these shows were a godsend… not because they would bore you to sleep either. I think as much as I like the concept itself, I think (yes the same me who loves The Sopranos and Breaking Bad) it’s refreshing to watch a cast so intelligent, personable and so damned charming just being so mannered and respectful to one another. The actress Arlene Francis would enter and formally introduce comedian Steve Allen, who would welcome journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, who would in turn welcome book publisher Bennett Cerf, who would in turn welcome the host, John Charles Daly to the stage. The cast wore evening attire – evening gowns or tuxedos – they stood on ceremony and manners. The show was nicer, and more wholesome – probably by a factor of 1,000s than my usual fare. It was because of this I was shocked, one night to click on a partial episode aired on November 14th 1965, where the cast made an announcement.


John Charles Daly: “Now, until next week, good night Arlene Francis”
Arlene: “Thank you John, and I just want to say that in the… more than 15 years of Sundays that we’ve spent together on this programme, we have become, not just associated but a kind of family. And, it is not so much as a co-worker that we miss Dorothy, though certainly she was a game player that was better than almost all the rest of us – it is really as a family that we are saddened by her absence.”

And so they go on down the line, Steve Allen eulogized her stating “the world knows her as a very brilliant woman, very quick- minded and very intelligent. A writer of a very fine newspaper column… but we also think it is very important that she was a very fine wife and a mother, and we all miss her in those capacities”. Dorothy’s ringer for the night, actress and panelist on the similarly themed show To Tell the Truth, Kitty Carlisle, briefly spoke her condolences, passing to Bennett Cerf.

Well, a lot of people knew Dorothy as a very tough game player, others knew her as a tough newspaper woman. When she went after a story nothing could get in her way. But we got to know her as a human being, and a more lovable, softer, loyal person never lived; and we’re going to miss her terribly.”

John Charles Daly, it turns out when I found the complete episode, said his piece up front. The poor guy looked and sounded completely devastated by the loss.

Dorothy! What the hell happened to you? I thought. Though it does happen, as a general rule most middle aged people don’t just die suddenly. Yes, her death occurred half a century ago, but healthy, well heeled, middle aged folk tended not to die suddenly, even then. On some digging, I uncovered her immediate family all lived well into their 90s, making a sudden demise all the more shocking.

It turns out she had been out filming an episode of What’s My Line? the day before her death. Stopping at a bar after for a drink with producer Bob Bach, she then left to meet a ‘mystery man’ at the Regency Hotel. The two were seen in the bar of the Regency at around 2am, where it was believed she made a phone call to a friend around 2.20am. At 9am, her friend and hairdresser Marc Sinclaire would drop by Dorothy’s Manhattan townhouse, finding Dorothy not yet awake, or in her usual bedroom. He would find her body, sat upright in bed in the master bedroom – her makeup and false eyelashes still on, decorative hairpiece in, wearing a dressing gown he’d never seen her in before. Open beside her, Robert Ruark’s final novel The Honey Badger. Rigor Mortis had set in, which put her time of death somewhere between 2am and 4am.

A modern photo of Dorothy’s 16 room townhouse.


I’m getting a little ahead of myself, we’ll come back to the scene, going over it’s oddities later. What I think germane to our understanding of the tale right now though, Dorothy was on a mission. Convinced there was much more to the assassination of her friend John F. Kennedy. For 18 months she had investigated his murder, publishing a number of articles already which cast doubt on the Warren Commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. She claimed she had uncovered a lead which would expose a conspiracy to kill the president, and planned to travel to New Orleans to meet a source. She never made that trip. Before I lay all this out it pays to first discuss What’s Dorothy’s Line? as I believe she has largely faded from the public consciousness.

What’s Her Line?

Dorothy Mae Kilgallen was born in Chicago, Illinois, July 3rd 1913 to James and Mae Kilgallen. Mae had been a promising singer before her marriage. James was an accomplished journalist himself, having covered, among a great many other tales, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Germany’s surrender in World War Two. James once commented on his own career he had

…covered railroad wrecks, airplane and ship disasters, sitdown strikes, beauty contests in Atlantic City, eucharistic congresses in New Orleans and Barcelona, Spain, the World Series, golf championships, major prize fights, courtroom dramas, executions and national political conventions – in fact every conceivable type of story in this country and abroad.”

Dorothy had shown an early interest in her father’s work, and on graduating Erasmus Hall High School, then two semesters at The College of New Rochelle, she took a writing job at the New York Evening Journal. Though initially there for work experience, once she got her first by-line (a story about a child who was hospitalized in some accident my secondary sources don’t explain) she decided to leave college and take on a full-time role at the paper. By age 20 she had covered many stories, including a number of murder trials.

She came to national prominence in 1936, when she took part in a race around the world using only public transport. Reminiscent of our earlier tale of Nellie Bly, she raced against two male journalists, filing updates for the paper as she went. Dorothy came second, but got the lions share of the publicity, and the material for her first book ‘Girl Around the World’. Her book would inspire a 1937 movie, Fly-Away Baby – itself the second in a series featuring the intrepid reporter Torchy Blane, a character believed to be based on Dorothy herself. (As an aside, Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, would in turn influence Jerry Siegel to write Lois Lane into the Superman universe). In 1938 Dorothy would become “The Voice of Broadway” in William Randolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal- American’ newspaper – a role which would see her eventually syndicated with 146 papers, to 20 million readers across the country.

Dorothy married an actor named Richard Kollmar in 1940. The couple met while she was writing on, and he acting in a play called Knickerbocker Holiday (a play which both loosely adapted a Washington Irving tale, and was a thinly veiled attack on Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal). They would have three children together, and from 1945, host a morning radio show from their townhouse called ‘Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick’. The couple would have a less than functional marriage – which plays into the tale later – though, being Catholic, they never divorced. Richard’s extravagant spending and womanizing led to the couple becoming estranged. They continued to live at the townhouse together, in separate rooms, and never let on to the public they had grown apart. In private they had an open relationship for many years.

Besides her entertainment column, Dorothy also continued to cover a number of murders. Prior to the John F. Kennedy assassination, one of the most famous cases she covered was of Dr Sam Sheppard. I’ll do a short blog post on Shepherd as a coda to this tale – but if you have not come across his tale before – what you need to know for now is Dr Sheppard was a neurosurgeon accused of murdering his wife, Marilyn in 1954. The media circus around the trial ensured he would not get an unbiased trial. Trial by media found him guilty. Dorothy was one of the few who believed Sheppard was innocent, and used her influence, investigative skills, and pen to help the doctor overturn his conviction.

I could write on the myriad connections Dorothy made in high places, or her more colourful feuds with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tonight Show host Jack Paar; her cruel literary hit job on Nina Khrushcheva – wife of Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, or her ongoing campaign against Cuba’s Fidel Castro. I should quickly mention she was famous enough in her time she has one of the initial 500 stars in the Hollywood walk of fame. It is important to discuss her friendship and admiration for former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She had met the president on occasion through friends in common. One particular friend, the fashion editor and journalist Florence ‘Flo’ Pritchett-Smith, dated a young JFK, and remained close friends until the president’s death. Flo had first introduced the two. As a fellow catholic of Irish extraction, with similar political leanings, Kennedy and Kilgallen got on very well together. Dorothy would become an active supporter of the president, and would be absolutely crushed by his assassination.

Next week we’ll look at the death of the president, and Dorothy Kilgallen’s 18 month investigation into the murder. Join us next week.

Repost: Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London.

One: Backward and Forward He Switched His Long Tail….

Over the hills and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he switched his long tail,
As a gentleman switches his cane.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”.

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

In October 1837 Londoner Mary Stevens was walking to her place of employment, a house in Lavender Hill where she worked as a servant. While passing through Clapham Common in the early hours, a demonic- looking figure leapt out at her; seizing her in his vice-like grip, kissing her face frenetically. With claws, described by Stevens as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse” he then tore at her clothes. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Mary brought locals from nearby houses out onto the common. Startled, the demon took of at a superhuman speed.

The following day the attacker reappeared, near Mary’s home in Battersea. Reports tell of a demonic figure leaping from the shadows, directly into the path of a horse drawn carriage. The coachman swerved, crashing and badly injuring himself. Again locals investigated, catching sight of the attacker, henceforth known as Spring Heeled Jack. Several men gave chase, but Jack took off at great speed towards a 9 foot brick wall. The assembled pursuers were astonished as the cackling demon cleared the wall in a single bound.

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, but the ghost was only ever seen by a solitary witness. Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. This picture changed at a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. On the agenda that night one tale which would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

Lord Mayor Cowan reported to the onlookers he had received a complaint, in writing, from a source he only referred to as “a resident of Peckham” an excerpt below.

It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838. At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.

Lord Mayor Sir John Cowan ordered police across the city to make a top priority to locate the revenant, and bring him to justice.

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man evidently of the lowest orders was wending his solitary way”
Edward Bulwer Lytton – Paul Clifford.

Let’s talk about Spring Heeled Jack’s two most famous attacks – the Alsop and Scales assaults.

On 20th February 1838 a stranger rang the bell at the Alsop residence, in the East London village of Old Ford. 18 year old Jane Alsop got up cautiously to see who had stopped by. While not terribly late at quarter to nine, it was – to borrow Lord Lytton’s phrase – a dark and stormy night. Old Ford was an isolated village. The Alsops were not used to visitors so late at night in the best of weather. Staring through the glass Jane could vaguely make out a tall, imposing, claoked figure. “What is the matter?” she enquired.

“I am a policeman. For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane”.

Jane scrambled to fetch a candle for the officer. Back in a matter of seconds she handed a lit candle to the man. The stranger then dropped his cape, holding the candle under his face so as to cast himself in the most terrifying light. Jane Alsop stared in horror at the stranger. Tall. “Hideously ugly”. demonic, with glowing red eyes. He wore a helmet, a tight fitting shiny suit, and had what appeared to be a lamp attached to his chest.

As Jane screamed, recoiling in horror, the attacker leapt forward, exhaling a blue and white flame at her. Grabbing her by the neck and pinning her in a headlock, the assailant tore at Jane’s face and clothes with his clawed hands. Mustering all of her strength Jane struggled free of Spring Heeled Jack, and ran for her door – but Jack grabbed her hair, ripping out tufts from her scalp. Jane’s younger sister Mary leapt up to save her, but froze in fear. Her older sister, Sarah Hanson, entered the affray, shoving Jack off of Jane, then dragging her sister to safety. She slammed the door in the attacker’s face. Violently and frenetically the assailant repeatedly struck the door, as the family screamed for help. In an instant their attacker disappeared into the dark, stormy night from whence he came.

Eight days later he was to terrify another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. Spring Heeled Jack had sprung from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted. Jack then ran off before an attack could occur.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one left a clue. On another dark and stormy night in Turner Street a man came knocking on a door, asking for the occupant by name – Mr Ashworth. A servant boy got up to answer. This night Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy. As the servant opened the door Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, slamming the door in his face. Spring Heeled Jack then disappeared. The boy noticed something no other victim had. On his cloak a letter W was embroidered.

At this point in the tale the diabolical Jack exits London for the better part of three decades. In following years similar attacks occur all over the South of Britain. Historian and guru of all things Forteana Mike Dash notes sightings from Warwickshire in the North to Devon in the South, Yarmouth in the East to Herefordshire in the West. These attacks bore all the hallmarks. Surprise an unsuspecting traveller at night. Rip at them with clawed hands, often leaving the victim with deep scars. An escape familiar to watchers of parcour videos today perhaps, seemingly superhuman… or supernatural, in their age. The attacker would leap over hedges, walls, even horse drawn carriages. The same tall, diabolical figure. The helmet. The piercing, red eyes.

He briefly reappeared in London in 1872, to the distress of the Londoners – then again in 1877. The latter seems an odd choice of target for Spring Heeled Jack, to date a sex pest assaulting lone women. He picked what had to be the worst property in all of London to terrorize.

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop sentry boxes. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions.

Later in 1877 he drew gunfire again, this time from locals, while leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the town of Newport. Locals claim to have hit him but Spring Heeled jack just shrugged it off and kept moving. He then disappears until, in one final reign of terror; this time way up north in Liverpool, in 1904. After several night time attacks he was seen one final time, in daylight bounding through the streets. Legend has it he came to a building, leapt the 25 feet to its roof, then bounded away never to be seen again.

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

He knew what those jubillant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies, or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for all the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus- The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert)

So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”

Lord Byron – So we’ll go no more a roving.

So, how to make sense of this tale? First I feel it’s safe to say the devil did not come to London. What is clear is in the earliest attacks someone very corporeal, either a sexual attacker or someone motivated more out of mysogyny, was operating. By 1877, when the Aldershot Barracks incidents occured, Jack had taken on a more purely mischevious dimension. By 1904 Spring Heeled Jack had become a superhero whose ability to scale obstacles had expanded to clearing two storey buildings in a bound.

In his development, Spring Heleed Jack had become a boogeyman; a scary tale you tell children to scare them into being home by curfew. He had also become a meme, in the sense evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term – an idea which replicated in a viral manner. Memes often take on many forms, but the stronger forms replicate while the weaker fall away. As a birthed concept the meme takes on a life outside it’s creator. Memes, like Camus’s “peste” can have long, dormant periods where they hide “in cellars, trunks and bookshelves”. Spring Heeled Jack would have the strangest of re-emergences in Czechoslovakia in the years 1939- 1945. During World War 2 a folk tale of a Pérák, the spring man of Prague appeared – a tall, diabolical folk hero who could jump buildings in a single bound, and who harrassed the occupying Nazis in the city.

We’ll come back to the reality of Spring Heeled Jack in a second – and discuss who possibly assaulted a number of women from 1837 to 1838 – but it’s worth taking one quick digression

Comic Books

After the Aldershot Barracks incidents, in 1878 Spring Heeled Jack was immortalized in print, getting his own ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Spring Heeled Jack the Terror of London’. The series of tales, written by George Augustus Sala put the figure of Spring Heeled Jack in an unusual position probably not to be said of any other person mentioned in Tales of History and Imagination. Alongside Hugo Hercules (1902), John Carter of Mars (1911), The Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930), The Green Hornet and Kato (1931), Doc Savage (1933) Mandrake the Magician (1935), Doctor Occult (1935), The Clock (1936) and The Phantom (1936); Spring Heeled Jack has become a noted ante-cedant to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.

The Alsop attack revisited.

Returning to the home invasion on the Alsop family on 20th February 1838 we do have a viable suspect, a man who was brought in, but let go because he could not have carried out the other attacks. He was identified leaving the crime scene by an acquaintance, and when caught still had Jane Alsop’s candle in his possession. The man in question was a carpenter named Thomas Millbank. He avoided prosecution on two grounds. First he had iron clad alibis for the other attacks, and second, because he was blackout drunk on the night of the Alsop attack. The Alsop family claimed, wrongly I believe, their attacker was stone-cold sober. He walked without a single charge. I believe Thomas Millbank was a copycat Spring Heeled Jack in the Alsop attack.

Another man is believed to have been Spring Heeled Jack on the other occasions – a young nobleman known in high society as the mad marquess, Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford.

Paint the Town Red.

On 6th April 1837 the young Marquess, recently expelled from Oxford university for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, arrived at Melton Mowbray’s Thorpe end tollgate. He was heavily intoxicated and has an entourage of fellow young inebriates in tow. When asked to pay the toll, a belligerent marquess attacked the tollkeeper. The bridge had just been painted and tins of red paint and brushes were left nearby. Waterford’s entourage held the tollkeeper down, while the marquess painted him. A constable stepped in, only to be beaten, held down and painted also.

The drunken entourage then rioted throughout the town, painting doors and walls, destroying flower pots and business signs as they went. They vandalized the post office, and tried to upturn a caravan. Several police officers tried to stop the gang, but were also beaten and painted for their trouble. An officer finally managed to collar one of the group, Edward Reynard, and throw him into a cell. The next day a hungover Marquess bailed Reynard, paying many times the cost at the tollbridge to release him. They were all charged with several counts of common assault, paying £100 a piece.

This incident gave rise to the term ‘Paint the town red”, to describe a riotous night out on the town.

Not long after, the Marquess and his entourage caused an international incident in Norway. Waterford harassed a local woman, and was knocked unconscious by a local with a morningstar. He soon returned to London, just before the first Spring Heeled Jack attacks happened. He remained in London till 1842, making the news regularly in his own name for a series of drunken, churlish incidents. In 1842 he married the socialite Louisa Stuart, and moved to Curraghmore House, Ireland. Whether he was a reformed man via marriage and behaved himself is debatable, but he avoided further charges and scandals till his death in 1859. The mad marquess died of a broken neck after being thrown from a horse.

The Marquess of Waterford was an athlete, and normally an excellent horseman. His garments bore his family crest, a shield with a giant W on them. His entourage contained a skilled engineer who could have made spring-loaded shoes some believe Spring Heeled Jack must have used. High society long suspected him of being Spring Heeled Jack, and that the slew of attacks were revenge for perceived sleights at Moulton Mowbray, and the Norwegian incident.

Though hardly conclusive, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford remains the prime suspect in the early Spring Heeled Jack assaults.

A version of this tale was Episode three of Season one of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020.

Repost: The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Andrew Jackson’s parrot.

Hi all just a quick update across all the socials. The final episode of the Batavia saga has been waylaid by needing to move home. The house I’ve been living at for close to 12 years has recently been sold, although I do have a new house to move to in the coming weeks.

I’ve got a couple of tales set up in reserve, for next week Tuesday, and the week following. I’ll let those drop as planned, so there is a possibility Batavia part 7 may release the same day as one, or even later.

In the meantime, a short tale for this week. As many of you may know the man in the main picture today (sorry email subscribers, I know main photos get lost) was Andrew Jackson. To anyone unsure of who he was, Jackson was the seventh president of the USA. He fought in the revolutionary war, and it’s sequel – the war of 1812 with great distinction. He was a lawyer and land speculator. As president he brought a dozen spittoons to the White House, and a giant wheel of cheese. He fought duels. He was also a monster, responsible for the deaths of a great many native Americans, but that is a tale for another day.

Today’s tale is about an African Grey just like this beautiful creature, below.

On winning the presidency in 1828 Andrew Jackson bought a companion for his wife Rachel; an African Grey parrot called Poll. He would be especially busy. Being relative political outsiders, Andrew worried his wife would be a fish out of water and need some company. Poor Rachel, heavily stressed from the brutal presidential race, would pass from a massive heart attack before her husband took office. President Jackson took on the rearing of Poll the parrot himself. Thinking it hilarious, he taught the young parrot to swear like a trooper.

Old Hickory would stay in office till 1837. He would pass on June 8th 1845 of dropsy and heart failure.


His funeral looked to be a dignified affair, that was until a lone voice reverberated from the back of the church. Someone was volubly swearing up a storm.
Poll the parrot, visibly distressed at the gathering, was escorted from the church, all the while swearing up a blue streak.

The Wreck of the Batavia (part 2 – The Heretic)

Hi all welcome back, this is part 2 of a six part series. Part one can be found here.

By way of a little background, Jeronimus Cornelisz was born sometime around 1598 in the remote Northern Dutch province of Friesland. Friesland would have been quite the culture shock to Dutch visitors at the time. It was an arduous trek through bogs and marshes to even get there, and once you arrived you were greeted by a province stuck in the past – largely rural, and lacking in much of the conveniences that came from the vast wealth generated by VOC trade in the east. Many Frisians considered themselves Frisian – not Dutch. Many even viewed the Dutch as invaders who had stolen swathes of land from the former Frisian kingdom centuries earlier. I don’t know nearly enough about the history of the Frisians but have always believed the Frankish king Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, not the Dutch, put an end to their self rule in 734 AD – however I’m far from an expert on their history. Many Frisians, whether rightly or wrongly, absolutely hated the Dutch and saw them as oppressors. Friesland was also the kind of place where enclaves of radicalism -particularly religious radicals – held out.

A photo taken of modern Friesland, where the swamps give way to forest.


Jeronimus would have been educated. Everyone in Holland had at the least a primary school education – at a protestant school. Prior to declaring their self determination, the Dutch were ruled over by the Spanish wing of the Hapsburg family. Halfway through the 16th century they engaged in a 8 decade long war of independence against the Spanish. In the process they cast off Hapsburg Catholicism for the shiny new Protestantism, doing the rounds of Europe at the time. Schools were used to embed the new religion. Being of an upper middle class background – Jeronimus’ father Cornelis was an apothecary too – Jeronimus went on to higher schooling. He would have been introduced to humanist thought at college – and from there went on to a five year apprenticeship which would have culminated with his ‘masterpiece’. This would have involved the preparation of some potion or other requiring several difficult stages, which showed his mastery of his studies.

A quick sidebar on medicine, and pharmaceutical science in the early 17th century. Medicine was a long way away from it’s current state, and was largely based on balancing your four humours – an idea which was codified by the Greek physician Hippocrates in the late 5th century BC – then further extended by the Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century AD. If you felt unwell doctors believed you either had too little or too much blood, phlegm, yellow bile or black bile in your system. You would be sent to an apothecary to make a potion featuring dozens of ingredients alleged to re-balance these humours. These ingredients could be any number of roots, herbs, animal parts or even human flesh. In this era mummy flesh direct from Egypt – or failing that, the flesh of an executed criminal – was a cure-all.
Having completed his masterpiece, Jeronimus married, moved to an exclusive part of the Dutch city of Haarlem, and opened his own shop. To the recently qualified apothecary the world was their oyster. An apothecary could become extremely wealthy in the 17th century, some amassing greater fortunes over a lifetime’s work than some of the nobility, and certainly many merchants.


So what went wrong?


First he and his wife, formerly Belijtgen Van der Knas, had an extremely ill fated pregnancy. At some time in November 1627 Belijtgen had given birth to a baby boy. From late in the pregnancy she had been very unwell, to the point that by her eighth month, certain she would die – the couple called in a solicitor to draw up a will. Both mother and baby survived the birth, though Belijtgen worsened afterwards. The couple had hired a midwife named Cathalijntgen van Wijmen, who appeared to have been going through a paranoid schizophrenic episode around the birth – hearing voices in her head, and sleeping with an axe beside her bed for protection from some inner torment. Her incompetence however was the main concern – having left part of the placenta in Belijtgen’s womb – which caused a horrible infection. With a deadly fever, fighting for her own life, and completely unable to provide milk for the baby – Jeronimus hired a woman named Heyltgen Jansdr, to provide milk for his son. Again Jeronimus chose poorly. Had he asked around he would have realized Heyltgen was known in the neighborhood for having picked up a mysterious illness some years back after cheating on her husband. Soon the baby became unwell and died. The cause of death, syphilis.

As horrifying, and heartbreaking as this must have been for the couple – it would have been an incredibly painful and bloody death for the child. Death by syphilis for a baby generally involved being covered head to toe in sores, and heavy bleeding from the orifices. The death also had a massive impact on his burgeoning business. In spite of Heyltgen’s reputation, Jeronimus and Belijtgen would have come under suspicion as the parties who had passed syphilis to the child. Many patients, not wanting to buy medicine from the potentially syphilitic, would have gone elsewhere. Add to this, throughout much of the 1620s the Dutch were generally a little cash strapped – war had reignited with Spain, costing both countries dearly – Jeronimus was suddenly struggling to make ends meet.

To compound matters he had borrowed a lot of money from a money lender called Loth Vogel – perhaps to start the business. When repayments slowed, Vogel began pursuing the debt aggressively. While Vogel began legal proceedings against Jeronimus, Jeronimus initiated legal proceedings against his wet nurse, Heyltgen Jansdr. As he collected evidence against the wet nurse, of allegations of her illness, and an affair with a syphilitic widower nicknamed ‘Velvet trousers’ Heyltgen herself gathered a posse who loudly and threateningly picketed the shop – telling all in sundry that Belijtgen’s hair had fallen out from syphilis, and yelling abuse up at the couple. This further hampered their efforts to pay off Loth Vogel. On 25th September, by court order Loth Vogel repossessed all of Jeronimus’ worldly goods in lieu of payment.


This was hardly the couple’s only problem at the time. The other involved religion.


The first thing we can say for certain was Jeronimus was brought up an Anabaptist. The Anabaptist church was an offshoot of Protestantism, which had become particularly popular with the working class of Europe. Most Anabaptists in Jeronimus’ time were quiet folk; fiscally responsible, conservatively dressed, hard workers and not the types to share their religious views. However they were generally disliked by the Dutch, occasionally even persecuted. Many people of his time would remember the Anabaptists of just a few decades earlier.

The Amish and Mennonites are modern, peaceful, decendants of earlier Anabaptist groups.


In the early days of Anabaptism, a handful of factions took radical actions recognizable in groups like ISIS today – forming militias and violently attempting to seize cities across Europe. These acts of terrorism were often on a small scale, as when 40 Anabaptists attempted a coup in Amsterdam, 10th May 1535. They killed the mayor and several other bystanders but were soon put down. The most famous, and particularly bloodthirsty example of this was the 1534 Műnster Rebellion – where a group of Anabaptists first led by a local fanatic named Jan Matthys, then the more charismatic Jan of Leiden, took over the city either forcing non believers out or baptizing them. The society within their walls became extremist, polyamorous, a little communist, mostly heavily repressed by the leaders– and very eschatological, believing end times were coming. The siege carried on until 1535, ending in their defeat amid the mass slaughter of the rebels. Much of the reasoning behind this, and other acts of terrorism was they were eschatologically minded, a kind of millenarianism. They believed the end of the world was nigh; they would be the minority saved who would ascend to heaven, but that this was dependent on someone bringing on end times. This was their job. In the wake of this event Catholic and Protestant powers alike began repressing Anabaptists. Some groups redoubled their peaceful ways, like the Mennonites and Amish.


Initially the remaining radicals coalesced under the leadership of a man named Jan Van Batenburg, who turned to robbing travelers on the Dutch border with the Holy Roman Empire. The group would continue to do so after Batenburg’s capture and execution in 1538, at least until 1580. At that point they dispersed, mostly to Friesland. Jeronimus’ parents were Anabaptists – and suspected to have been Batenbergers. He was never baptized. Had he been Protestant he would have been baptized as a child, had he belonged to the Mennonites he would, typically, have been baptized around the age of 18. Most Anabaptists do take baptism as an adult, so it is thought he lost his faith somewhere along the line, or possibly was a hardline Batenberger. He certainly had similar views to them in regards communal property, and the righteousness of killing those different from yourself.

Another influence on Jeronimus was a friend named Johannes van der Beeck, known to many as the Dutch painter Torrentius. Torrentius was an altogether different kind of heretic, having gleaned a number of radical ideas while frequenting a fencing club in Amsterdam, run by a radical thinker named Giraldo Thibault. Thibault’s fencing club was a known hotbed of radical thinking, but largely left alone due to the high number of young adult sons of extremely wealthy citizens who fenced there. How Jeronimus came to know Torrentius is not known. At one point they lived a few hundred yards apart, and Torrentius would have likely picked up art supplies at Jeronimus’ shop, such as white lead, or gold leaf. However they became friends, Jeronimus would become something of a disciple of Torrentius.

So what did Torrentius teach Jeronimus Cornelisz, and how did this lead to Jeronimus’ exit from Haarlem? Starting with the painter’s beliefs.

I guess you could say firstly Torrentius was a known bon vivant. Having become a successful artist he had taken to a life of excess. He wore fancy clothes considered above his station in life. He spent a lot of time, and money carousing in the local taverns – at times with his entourage spending the equivalent of a year and a half worth of wages for an average painter, in a single sitting. He spent a lot of money in the brothels of Haarlem. Torrentius was married, to a well thought of young woman, but when their marriage broke down he refused to pay anything towards his wife’s upkeep – and spent some time in jail because of this. His regular paintings of scenes from pagan mythology, and nudes raised some eyebrows. It was however his loud, drunken conversations which marked him as a possibly dangerous man in Haarlem.


He was known to regularly toast the devil while drinking. He also cultivated a legend that his extraordinary paintings were created by black magic. Torrentius, allegedly, laid out paint and a blank canvas on the floor, then some unseen supernatural force would paint for him. Rumours spread Torrentius often took solitary walks through the forest, talking with the devil. Ghosts allegedly could be heard in his artist’s studio. Some claimed he performed blood sacrifices with hens bought from the market.


The truth of the matter was far simpler. Torrentius appears to have been a gnostic. He had said to people he did not believe in either heaven or hell, the bible was a “book of fools and jesters” and that religion was a tool used by the ruling class to keep the others in check. All the same he did believe in a greater, divine power, and that everyone on earth had some of that power embedded in them. The power was suppressed by original sin, but could be tapped into if you knew how. Jeronimus had picked up Torrentius’ epicurean taste in hard living, and skepticism of the bible – he did however hold a few dangerous views all his own.

Jeronimus believed every action he made in life was the result of God’s will – once stating to friends “All I do, God gave the same into my heart”. This meant that he could live a completely guilt-free life, regardless of what he did. Wherever he picked this idea up, technically he would be considered an Antinominalist, it was a dangerous idea for a psychopath particularly to have. If you were perfect, in a state of grace – already one of the elect – anything you do is divine, no matter how evil. Sabotage a ship full of people? Kill or incite others to murder? You are only furthering God’s plan. This will be important later. Now we have ascertained Jeronimus Cornelisz would have been considered a heretic, let’s take a quick sidebar and discuss how a conspiracy theory would cause further troubles for our antagonist.


In 1625 the artist Torrentius was arrested, initially on suspicion of being a Rosicrucian.


The Rosicrucians, or Order of the Rosy Cross appear to have been more an idea of what a movement could be, which in turn grew legs, than a bona fide movement in its own right. Manifestos from the group began to appear across Europe, first in the German town of Kassel in 1614, then rapidly elsewhere. The alleged group behind them claimed to be a secret society of German mystics who had collected esoteric learnings from a distant past; powerful truths which they believed were the key to great power and greater understanding of the universe – much of which had been suppressed or forgotten through the ages.


The order was, apparently, established in the fifteenth century by a man called Christian Rosenkreuz. Rosenkreuz had travelled throughout the middle east, bringing back ancient wisdom and supernatural powers. When he returned to Germany he established a group with seven other adepts, whose task was to travel throughout Europe and spread this secret knowledge. Like the comic character The Phantom, each of these 8 brethren were tasked to find a replacement as they grew older, basically to step into their shoes. According to the legend Rosenkreuz died in 1484 aged 106, and was buried in a secret location. His tomb would be left for 120 years, then re-opened, signaling the dawning of a new Golden age. Then the Rosicrucians would spread their learnings far and wide throughout society as a whole – ushering in the Golden age. The legend spread, as memes often do, appealing to many a Walter Mitty type and occultist alike. Both types hoped they would be invited to join this exclusive group. You don’t need to imagine too hard how much this concerned local rulers across Europe, many of whom recalled the real world problems from the Anabaptists.


In 1624 the Dutch Republic began chasing the Rosicrucians, claiming they uncovered a secret plot between French and Dutch Rosicrucians to overthrow both countries. A judicial body was established to locate the heretics and bring them to justice. As they investigated two rumors kept coming up. One, Haarlem was ground zero for the order; and two a Thorentius was a leader in the group. It did not take long for them to hear tales of Torrentius’ toasts to the devil, supernatural boasts and antisocial behaviors. Torrentius would be brought in and interrogated five times between August and December 1625. He admitted to joking about having magical powers, and loved saying outrageous things, he held to the assertion he was not a dangerous heretic.

Feeling they were getting nowhere, the justices applied for permission to torture Torrentius. The torture began on Christmas eve 1627. He was hauled into the air by ropes, weights tied to his feet to stretch him. He was put on the rack and stretched further, until his joints all popped out of their sockets. He was beaten up, had his jaw broken, and shot at, but Torrentius kept to his story. The town torturer and executor Master Gerrit could not get a confession out of him.


In January 1628 Torrentius, still unable to walk or stand, was brought before the courts and tried, extra ordinaris – a method which denied him a defense or right of appeal – on 31 charges of heresy. Though the prosecutor wanted him burnt at the stake, he would ultimately find himself sentenced to 20 years in prison. Though the trial failed to confirm his membership of the Order of the Rosy Cross, it did prove his many other heretical acts. The prosecution lit a fire under the authorities however to find any and all heretics in Haarlem, to rid themselves of them.

So it transpired that Jeronimus Cornelisz, his reputation, family and business in tatters – in serious danger of spending his remaining years in jail on account of an urban legend – suddenly realized he needed to get out of town in a hurry. We don’t know the specifics of what followed. We know on 5th September 1628, the burgomasters of Haarlem ordered Torrentius’ circle of followers to sell up and leave the city within weeks or face dire consequences. We know Jeronimus closed his shop and gave all of his possessions to Loth Vogel, abandoned his wife, and by October was on his way to Amsterdam, where he would join the crew of The Batavia. The likelihood is the two were connected.

Quoth the Raven – The tale of the Poe Toaster

Hi everyone welcome to the final blog tale before we jump back into the podcasts again – and of course the podcast scripts here. As some of you will know, or have guessed I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe – why steal from his ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ for the name of your blog if not? It seems fitting to do a quick tale on ‘The Tomahawk Man’, Eddy to Mrs Poe, before we jump back into season two of the podcasts.
With Poe there are several tales you could tell, and I am saving most of them for another time. In this episode I want to talk about the mysterious ‘Poe toaster’ – apparently a Poe Superfan?

By way of quick biography, Edgar Allan Poe (January 19th 1809- October 7th 1849), was one of the greats of American literature. Though never receiving the plaundits or monetary rewards he should in life, in the years since his passing much of his work has been recognized for it’s brilliance, often groundbreaking style and the sheer breadth of Mr Poe’s intellectual capabilities. An accomplished poet, short story writer, occasional novellist and critic, Poe also exhibited he knew more than a thing or two about science, cryptography, seafaring, and investigation. While American readers initially struggled to recognize his genius, French writers like Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme sung his praises loudly – in no small part because they owed much of their style to Poe. His work did have some influence at home however – the seafaring tale ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ was a huge influence on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. His Auguste Dupin stories, ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Murder of Mary Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ are among the first detective stories written – most critics would consider him the father of detective fiction. He was a master of the horror story, an early sci-fi writer, and a poet of note. If he had only ever written ‘The Raven’ his place in American anthologies of poetry would be assured, but ‘To Helen’, ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ulalume’, ‘A dream within a dream’ only reinforce his greatness.

Edgar Allan Poe played a number of roles in his short time on earth; a soldier, an assistant newspaper editor, publisher, at one time a political hopeful… Many remember his as a little creepy beyond his writing when recalling how, aged 26, he married his 13 year old cousin. Some will know he was a little too fond of alcohol. You may recall the time he got into a public spat with another titan of American literature, ‘Tales by a Wayside Inn’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after accusing the professor of plaigarism, or the far more consuming battle between he and Rufus Griswold – who got the last word on Mr Poe when he got to write his, unflattering obituary.

On October 3rd 1849 a delirious, disheveled Poe was found outside Gunner’s Hall (an Irish tavern) in Baltimore, Maryland, quoth his rescuer Joseph W. Walker “In great distress and… in need of immediate assistance”. He was taken to The Washington Medical College, where he would die on October 7th. The suspicious nature of his death was cause for much speculation. Why was he found in clothes which didn’t belong to him? Had he been kidnapped by a Cooping gang and forced to vote at multiple polling booths in the local election that day, and if so had he died of poisoning from bad ‘rotgut’, home brewed alcohol often given to cooping victims after each vote cast? Had he died from the DTs from being denied alcohol, either self inflicted or by others? Could it have been heart disease, cholera? meningitis? syphilis? Any were posible at the time in Baltimore. Was he bitten by a rabid dog? Had he been murdered and if so by whom? I doubt we will ever know as his medical records were, all too conveniently, lost soon after.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried two days later, at Westminster Hall, Baltimore. This is where the tale proper starts.

On 19th January 1949, the anniversary of Poe’s birth, and marking 100 years since his death, a shadowy figure was observed holding vigil in the dead of night, at the writer’s grave. Dressed all in black, save a white scarf masking his face. A wide brimmed hat further obscuring the visitor’s identity – the man knelt at Poe’s grave, laid three red roses, and poured a glass of cognac. Having toasted Poe, the stranger left the remainder for the man in the grave then disappeared from whence he came. A handful of onlookers, whose reason for hanging around a graveyard in the murky darkness escapes me, caught sight of the libation. This was the start of a ritual which would run for decades. Every January 19th between midnight and 6 AM, the shadowy stranger would appear, place three roses, drink to the deceased, then leave. Over time the crowds of onlookers would increase. No-one ever tried to detain, or unmask the Poe Toaster. As such no one has ever been able to ascertain his connection to Edgar Allan Poe, and why the Poe Toaster feels this deep obligation to visit the man on his birthday.

The reason for the three roses is equally uncertain. It could represent a rose for Poe, one for his wife Virginia and the third for his mother in law, Maria Clemm – all buried under the cenotaph. No one is sure why cognac – Were he to take a lead from his tales then a glass of the rarer, more expensive Amontillado sherry makes more sense (FYI if you haven’t read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ before, please do. It is wonderfully unsettling, link to Australian Amazon page here).


In 1990 Life Magazine ran an article of the toaster, with a photograph of him kneeling at the grave. After this the number of onlookers grew exponentially.

On occasion the toaster woud leave a note for onlookers. One year he left a note stating “Edgar I haven’t forgotten you”. In 1993 a note was left stating “the torch will be passed”, and in 1999 a note stating the original Poe Toaster had passed on, and his sons had now assumed the mantle. In 2001 the Poe Toaster broke completely with tradition and left a note commenting on the Superbowl. A 2004 note was critical of the French criticisms of American action in Iraq. The son of the original toaster was noticeably less sartorial, somewhat less of a dashing and mysterious figure. On one occasion he showed up wearing jeans.

In 2009 the world watched, and waited in anticipation. The year marked 200 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. A sizeable crowd hunkered down and awaited the Poe Toaster’s arrival – but he never came. He would never be seen again. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.

Since 2016 a Poe Toaster has returned, to keep the tradition alive. In the wee small hours he enters the former Gothic church, lays the three roses, and drinks a glass to the memory of Mr Poe – however these days the role is played by an actor in the employ of the city. What started as an act of love, admiration or even repentance has now become a tourist trap.

Next week Tuesday I’ll post the first episode of season two of the podcast, and of course the scripts here. I’m tackling the tale of a wild west assassin. There will be added background music, and sharper scripts (everything is getting multiple drafts now) though the same old narrator, always a little weak and weary from pondering over volumes of forgotten lore in the wee small hours. The podcast music of course by New Zealand hard rock band Ishtar, whose “Just One Life’ borrowed Poe’s trick in the Raven – a simple refrain (in his case ‘Nevermore’, theirs ‘So far away’) then dropping the phrase at a vital point, to knock their listeners off kilter. Tomorrow night I will be trying to mix samples from the song into the background and exporting the finished product to Podbean.
Take care all – Simone

Charles Byrne’s longest show.

Hi all, for the following – extended run of blogs prior to season two of the podcast I did promise to keep away from plagues. This tale does discuss doctors, and premature death. If this is not your cup of tea right now I understand. Please scan through some of my other essays on the sidebar for a range of other topics – Simone.

Charles Byrne, it was fair to say, had not been feeling well for some time. At the age of twenty two, the Derry native had made – and lost – a tidy sum of money in London in quite a short space of time. When he had first arrived in 1782 people in the streets marveled as he walked along the street – occasionally casually reaching up to a lit gas lamp to light his pipe, or stooping to walk under a street sign. People may stare, but hell – when life gives you lemons what can you do other than make a little lemonade? Charles had come to the big smoke, first via Scotland– in the footsteps of fellow Irishman Patrick Cotter O’Brien – to make his fortune as a human exhibit. Someone to be looked up to, talked about, stared at – he was London’s hottest ticket in 1782.

Allegedly eight feet four inches – though in all likelihood maybe a little over seven foot seven – Charles was a sight to behold. Billed as ‘The Irish Giant’, Byrne charged 12 ½ p per person to see him, and in the early days of his act the pennies added up. Londoners were astounded by this real life colossus, who played night after night to packed out rooms. Charles Byrne was living comfortably for a short while – even making enough that he could make a few investments. At the age of 21 the sky was the limit for Charles Byrne, an acromegalic giant who began life an average sized kid, later going through a series of growth spurts. By 22 Charles was yesterday’s news. Work dried up. Byrne’s investments failed. Byrne began drinking. He moved to cheaper, less hospitable lodgings where his tuberculosis (he was a ‘lunger’) flared up. His condition caught the attention of the eminent surgeon John Hunter – a man responsible for much of what we know now of microbial diseases, bone growth, the lymphatic system, even artificial insemination. His work alongside Edward Jenner on smallpox began immunology. That day Hunter was not interested in curing Byrne, he offered to buy his body. Horrified and disgusted, Byrne threw Hunter out of his home. Though he would not leave a will, he made it very clear to his circle of friends his body was not to be put on display by some surgeon, museum or carnival barker. He had been gawked at, by necessity, by thousands of Londoners in his short life. He refused to let that be his eternal fate.


When Charles Byrne died on July 1st 1783 the anatomists swarmed Byrne’s home, in the words of a newspaper of the day “just as harpooners would an enormous whale”. A plan was made by his friends to push past them, retrieve his body from the funeral home, and take his coffin out to sea, in the seaside town of Margate. They would give Charles a burial at sea. This is exactly what they did.


Then four years later John Hunter exhibited a skeleton of an acromegalic giant, a little over seven feet seven tall. Hunter had managed to bribe a funeral home employee with £500, around £76,000 in 2020 money, to steal Byrne’s body and fill his coffin with rocks. For a little over 230 years Charles Byrne remained on display for all to see. In 2018 the Hunter museum closed, and people put forward the suggestion now was the time to lay Charles down in a coffin, take him out to Margate, and allow him his final wish. As far as I’m aware this has yet to happen.

Patrick Cotter O’Brien paid close attention to the fate of his countryman – and when he passed in 1806 he made sure he was buried under 12 feet of solid stone, so no one could snatch his remains. In 1906, 1972 and finally 1986 he would be temporarily dug up and his bones would be examined. At a verified eight foot one in middle age he is the first verifiable eight footer in history.

The remains of Patrick Cotter O’Brien in 1906.

Coffee! – The Swedes battle for a good cup of Joe.

I really feel I should declare upfront, I am very much a fan of coffee. This no doubt sways my opinion of Sweden’s former monarch, Gustav III. I may have quietly raised a mug of Ethiopian coffee in quiet defiance to the mad king while writing this tale.


Coffee has been an elixir of life for many since the late 15th century – when a Sufi Imam from Yemen noticed how chipper a group of birds were, pecking away at coffee beans, on a trip to Ethiopia. He promptly brought the elixir back to Yemen, where it quickly became a tradition to pour a cup of hot Joe on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – so one story goes. Another tale has it the power of coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian herdsman called Kaldi. He noticed the goats who ate coffee beans had boundless energy, so he started eating them himself.


In the recent past, when Cracked.com’s YouTube channel ruled large swathes of the internet, their roving reporter Robert Evans (now of Behind the Bastards, Worst Year Ever and the It Could Happen Here series) explained how the Ethiopians used to ferment coffee beans throughout the day while out riding through their own body heat, for a cheap high at days’ end. It is must see viewing – Evans has several of Cracked’s staff tripping balls on various natural highs and having quite the party in the piece. One TED talk I watched a long time ago and now cannot find to properly reference the author (I particularly closely checked all of Malcolm Gladwell’s talks and, Gladwellian as it sounds I don’t think it was him) claimed – at a time when English water was too polluted to drink – the emergence of coffee houses saved the British Empire. Prior to coffee the everyday Briton sustained themselves on beer throughout the day. Coffee houses gave them both a clearer head and a place to mingle, where the ideas which powered the Industrial Revolution percolated as much as the Arabica beans themselves. I have no idea how true this is – it is an enticing thought though.


On what may well be my favorite episode of the podcast The Constant, ‘Shipwreckless’, Mark Chrisler points to how coffee houses like Lloyds of London morphed into insurance brokers for the marine trade, which, through lack of proper oversight coupled with an ability to make a killing -even when underwriting old death traps – led to the rise of the ‘coffin ships’ – overloaded, decrepit vessels sent out with no regard for the lives of those onboard. Another tale around coffee is how it apparently reached Europe. One tale states in the wake of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman Turks retreated they left behind bags and bags of coffee beans. Not only did the siege of Vienna save Christendom apparently, it continues to save our mornings. The first Austrian coffee house did appear two years after the battle, but it is known coffee had been coming into Europe for quite some time before via Malta and Venice. Sebastian Major dissects numerous food myths which arose around the siege in an episode of Our Fake History.

We still have a week to fill in this schedule. I love coffee. Though the following tale is light on detail – Dates? Names? Pffft, who needs that stuff, History nerds? (Yes please!) – Let’s talk about King Gustav III anyway, and his hatred for the Jitter Juice.


Though Sweden is now the 6th biggest drinkers of coffee in the world, per capita – consuming the equivalent of 18 pounds weight of coffee a year – this was a hard won passion. Between 1756 and 1817 the Swedish Royal family would ban the drink on five occasions. Coffee was first imported to the country in 1674 (that’s right, almost a decade before the siege of Vienna apparently brought the bean to Europe) but remained very much a niche drink until the turn of the century. Coffee then suddenly reached a tipping point, and became extremely popular with all levels of Swedish society just after 1700. One might think an elixir of life such as coffee taking off, and in a lot of cases becoming a substitute for day drinking, would be a great boon for the ruling classes. It was a great socializer of people without the occasional ‘nose painting’ drunkenness can bring. It gave your people greater energy to get through the day and work hard. It warms you up in the cold, Northern climes. What’s not to love right?

Well, if you are to believe the King of Sweden, coffee made people jittery, rude, an altogether all too ‘French’. Such foreign-ness was not to be tolerated. It is far more likely the introduction of the foreign drink was hurting the domestic Swedish market for ale and mead, as day drinking gave way to the coffee houses. Though Sweden did not start brewing alcohol at industrial levels till the industrial revolution reorganized society into several large cities – necessitating larger scale production – they did have many local micro-breweries dotted all over the map. These small businesses suffered. In 1746, in an effort to relieve their suffering, the crown enacted a high import tax on coffee and tea. Did this harm coffee sales? Hardly.
The next stage was to convince the populace that to drink a hot cup of Java was to take your very life in your hands. Enter Physician to the Admiralty Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a brilliant mind who did much for the proper classification of plants and animals – formalizing what we now call binomial nomenclature (a classification system giving all living things a double barreled, Latin name ie. Homo Sapiens for humans, Felis Domesticus for the common house cat). He identified a great many plants in Sweden and Lapland. He worked out wormwood could be used as anti-malarial medication to help fight malaria. He made a raft of small discoveries over the years, such as recommending the best wood to use for the butts of guns, and suggesting to Anders Celsius his newfangled temperature scale should have the freezing point at 0 and boiling point at 100, and not vice versa – and he was well rewarded for his efforts with titles. When the king wanted scientific proof that coffee was bad for you Linnaeus was happy to oblige. Having first tried and failed to find a way of growing coffee locally, then to substitute the Arabica bean with a local alternative, Linnaeus dutifully proclaimed coffee was dangerous, and possibly to blame for hemorrhoids, constipation, senility, even strokes and heart attacks. In spite of this Carl Linnaeus himself was a big coffee drinker.

Carl Linnaeus.


King Adolf Frederick would ascend to the throne in 1751, and would enact a number of bans on coffee in his lifetime – all largely ignored by the public at large, even though at first they risked the seizure of all their cups and saucers, then later, imprisonment. During one ban, in 1794 the first wave feminist, writer, academic, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her travels through Sweden, and how even the coffee made in one’s home there outclassed the coffee in Britain’s finest coffee houses. Perhaps ironically Adolf Frederick would become known for his strange death. He died of indigestion in 1771 after a meal of kippers, lobster, caviar, sauerkraut – the not at all ‘French’ champagne – and FOURTEEN SERVINGS of a local dessert called Hetvagg. Not a single coffee was consumed.

King Adolf Frederick.

Which leads us to our, poorly researched and perhaps dubious tale. In 1771 Gustav III would rule Sweden, till his assassination in 1792. Somewhere in this timeframe he was alleged to have carried out the following experiment. Like his gluttonous father, Gustav hated coffee. He was determined, once and for all to prove it was nothing more than a slow-acting poison. The tale has it he took two prisoners who were on death row for murder – some texts claim they were identical twins, and while I won’t say this was bullshit I will say I think it statistically unlikely – and commuted their sentences to life terms on the proviso one would drink three pots of coffee every day till he died. The second prisoner had to drink the equivalent in tea. The sources all point out not only did the prisoners outlive Gustav – who was very unpopular with the nobles because, as their first absolutist ruler in some time following a run of figureheads, he was determined to mess with a lot of their civil liberties. He had also started a constitutionally illegal war with Russia while they were tied up in another war with the Ottoman Empire. He was shot in the hip at a masked ball on 13th March 1792, later dying of infection. The unnamed doctors supervising the experiment all died off before the, also unnamed subjects. At some unnamed point the tea drinker, now 83, passed on leaving the coffee drinker to enjoy his daily cups of mud in peace. Is this a true story? Who the hell knows. A number of publications, including the Smithsonian have all reported on it though.

Gustav III of Sweden, the man did not like his coffee.

The next time you happen to be sitting out in your courtyard, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo up on your Kindle, Kobo, or even real book – it mentions coffee 92 times by the way – remember the right to drink coffee was hard won by the Swedes, that part of the tale at least is true.

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)

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

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

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

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

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

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


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

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

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