Category Archives: War & Peace

…. Not Count Leo… yet anyway.

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? Tales of History and Imagination

When trying to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on April 18th 1943, I get a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, head off on an adventure into the woods – free from the encumbrances of adult supervision. I imagine something out of an Enid Blyton book, or perhaps a scene from Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. An image of kids just being kids. Wrongly I suspect, I want to imagine those four kids too preoccupied with schoolyard politics, games, pop culture and urban legend – kid’s stuff – to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

The adults that weekend perhaps read the Luftwaffe bombed a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler ran into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy – who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in Nazi concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, targeted a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto above Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. They took their revenge for his part in Pearl Harbour, shooting the Admiral out of the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what occupied these kids’ minds on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Bless em All’ as they rode into the forest… maybe singing the ‘other’ lyrics? (The ones likely to get me an adult rating on iTunes). For that matter if those kids themselves had family serving abroad in the war. I do know the boys were on a covert mission to steal whatever birds’ eggs they could from Viscount Cobham’s ancestral land – Hagley woods – and that the day would conclude more like a Stephen King novel for the young lads.    

The so- called Witch Elm

The boys searched high and low for bird’s nests, till they came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge, only to find an old animal skull staring back up at him. Farmer picked the skull up – presumably to make his friends jump a little – but as he did, he noticed tufts of hair, a human jaw bone and traces of human flesh still attached to it. In a mad panic, the boys ran for their bikes, and took off for home. The gravity of their find had dawned on them, but as they frantically pedalled home it also dawned on them they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land when they found the skull. A sound thrashing from angry parents was one thing, but would they risk a criminal record over the skull? I cannot say what else the boys may have been thinking – whether it felt to the boys like they’d just fallen into a gothic horror tale, spy novel, or crime procedural. It appears the boys were all spooked by the experience. Before they split from one another, they made a pact not to disclose their grisly find to anybody else.  

But, as anyone who’s ever picked up Shakespeare might tell you “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, had an especially hard time dealing with the find, and told his father about the skull. They reported it to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the following day. 

Officers reached into the tree, and finding much more than a skull. A near complete skeleton was laying inside ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, apparently amputated. The hand bones would be found 13 paces away from the tree as investigations continued. Taffeta cloth had been shoved a long way down her throat. Some scraps of clothing, and shoes were found. As was a rolled gold wedding ring – a thin strip of gold bonded or fused to the outside of a brass or copper base. It was a cheap alternative to a solid gold ring. 

The remains were taken to Professor James Webster, the local pathologist. The body was of a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth, including a tooth pulled a year before her death. She had given birth at least once. 

The body had been placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, and she was presumed to have died of asphyxiation from the cloth shoved down her throat. She was put in the tree some time around October 1941. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They identified her shoes, tracking down the shoemakers in Northampton, and all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs were sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands. The stall holders there kept no records. They scoured through lists of missing persons but were unable to make a match. The ‘Battle for Britain’, where German planes flew over British cities at night, bombing the hell out of the locals – had left no shortage of missing people. Most were presumed buried under the rubble somewhere. None of those people matched the lady. Her irregular teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. This too drew a blank.

There was a single incident in the vicinity of Hagley wood in late 1941 that seemed very promising. A businessman and a school teacher separately phoned the police to report a woman was screaming uncontrollably in the woods. Police were dispatched to the scene, but found nothing on arrival. That lead was re-opened, but led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared locally in the form of graffiti. They were written in chalk, all in a similar hand. The first one read, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’. Soon after ‘Hagley Wood Bella’ appeared etched on a wall. Finally the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ Started to appear in the vicinity. Police presumed the graffiti was always done at night, as they were never able to locate a single witness to the act. An inky darkness owing to the wartime blackouts no doubt helped the mystery tagger. They rechecked their missing persons lists, looking specifically for a Luebella, or a Bella. They investigated the kinds of people known for defacing walls and obelisks – but could not get a break in this case.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? Today I can only offer a handful of theories on the case. 

Starting with Margaret Murray. Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Her career in active field work was hampered, first by most field work being given to her male counterparts; then later by the First World War. Murray diversified – becoming an expert folklorist, most notably writing a series of books on witchcraft that the modern Wicca movement based itself on. In 1945 she weighed in on the case – offering a possible explanation. Was Bella murdered by occultists? Was she in fact a witch herself?

Her reasoning was twofold – the amputated hand, and the tree. 

The following is far too vague for it’s own good, but to explain her reasoning. Several groups of people have had a funny thing with hands and thieves since at least as far back as the Mesopotamian lawmaker Hammurabi wrote his famous law code. With many punishments being like for like – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lawmaker stated if a thief took property with their hand, that hand should be cut off as punishment – hardly like for like, but you get the gist. This piece of ancient Talionic law morphed into something wildly different throughout parts of Medieval France. From there the idea spread throughout Europe. 

If you cut the left hand off a dying criminal as they twisted on the gallows – or if the criminal in question were a murderer, then whichever hand did the killing – you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled, was believed to have magical powers. If you yourself were a thief, your mere possession of the hand rendered sleeping occupants of a house into a deep trance. You could rifle through their prized possessions without fear you too might end up on the gallows. A hand of glory presented to an attacker could freeze them. It also protected the possessor from evil spirits. Treasure hunters believed a hand of glory could also lead them to buried treasure troves. 

A hand of glory

That the hand was cut off was a clue to Murray. That it was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to the folklorist – as did the disposal of the body inside a tree. 

According to Murray several pre- Christian European societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge on the living. 

Her assertion was lent some weight by a murder in Lower Quinton, 40 miles South East of Hagley Wood, on Valentines Day 1945. 

Charles Walton, a local 74 year old was brutally murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. While doing some grounds keeping, he was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe. As he lay on the grass, bleeding out from a cut throat, he was then pinned to the ground through the throat with his own pitch fork. Circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – as Walton was said to have loaned Potter a sum money he couldn’t afford to repay. Others placed the blame on Italian prisoners of war kept locally. The Italians having surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the POWs were at ease to freely wander the town in the day. 

In 1954, local papers reported on another, similar killing. This murder in the town of Long Compton, fifteen miles from Lower Quinton. The murder happened back in 1875. The victim was an octogenarian named Ann Tennant. Newspapers reported locals whispered behind Tennant’s back that she was a witch. She too was killed, ritualistically in this case, by being pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood – a man variously described in the press as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood was tried for murder, but spent the rest of his life in an asylum. He claimed he was a witch hunter, and would kill more witches ever let out – so authorities threw away the key, leaving him there. The press largely underplayed Heywood’s mental illness, and many wondered aloud what secret groups of witch-hunters, Satanists or witches had lived among them for at least the past seven decades?

All this fed back into Murray’s witchcraft theory. It was hardly the only theory, however. 

Another possibility centres around a troubled young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic drinking buddy – a man known as ‘Van Raalte’. 

Jack Mossop was an engineer, employed making plane parts in a Banner Lane factory during the war. In 1937, prior to the war, he’d taken flying lessons, and was an air reserve. When asked by workmates why he was in a factory, rather than having aerial dogfights with Nazis, he claimed he’d crashed too many planes in RAF training, and suffered from a traumatic brain injury. This is often presented in Bella lore as fact, often cited as an explanation for his subsequent behaviour. There’s no evidence he was ever in the RAF, let alone invalidated out after a crash. It appears far more likely he had essential skills, so was unlikely to be called away to fight. 

It can neither be confirmed, not denied whether Mossop had crashed a plane while taking flying lessons – and certainly it would explain his subsequent descent. 

Mossop was a heavy drinker, who it appears, followed in the loutish footsteps of his father and uncles – known to locals as the ‘seven sods’ for their rowdy behaviour. It must be said, he wasn’t brought up by his father, but by the parents of the ‘Seven Sods’. His mother died of the Spanish Flu when he was six years old. He was subsequently brought up by his grandparents. Mossop was a bright child, and often suffered from debilitating headaches, and regular nightmares. As the war progressed, he grew increasingly distant from his wife Una. 

At 1am one morning, believed either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home to Una in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalte (or Van Raalt). Una suspected Van Raalte was a spy, as the man never worked, but always had plenty of money. It’s since been suggested he was a local rogue, making his money by selling rationed goods on the ‘black market’. 

On the night in question, both men came in terribly shaken by an incident which may have haunted Jack for the rest of his life. 

After settling his nerves with another drink, Jack told Una the following. They had been drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman he only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalte and the ‘Dutch piece’ possibly got into an altercation (Jack states simply she got ‘awkward’). The three then left the pub together. 

They piled into Van Raalte’s Rover, Jack in the driver’s seat, Van Raalt and ‘Dutch piece’ in the back. Something never properly explained happened in the back seat, and the woman ‘passed out’ slumping towards Jack. Van Raalt ordered Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men got out of the Rover, carrying the unconscious woman to a hollowed out oak tree in Hagley Wood. The two men placed her inside the tree. 

At least this was the story Una finally gave the police in 1953. 

Una was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was long deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He worked less – but if anything, his cashflow seemed to increase. Una was convinced Jack too was a spy. He became increasingly emotionally distant, violent and moody. While Jack may well have been seeing other women before the incident with the ‘Dutch Piece’ he was now increasingly turning to other women for comfort. A fed up Una had enough, and left him in December 1941. 

After Una left, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became noticeably erratic – and in June 1942, he was committed to a mental health facility. He died there in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report has been read by some to that he was suffering from the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers, professional wrestlers and American football players can often suffer from. My read, as a former investigator often employed to find next of kins of deceased customers with unclaimed insurance policies – ie. not a medical professional, but someone who has read many death certificates – His heavy drinking had badly damaged his heart. His kidneys were also shot. He more likely than not died of a stroke caused by the heart damage. 

This Tale was kept under wraps to the public at large, but leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower, in 1958. That leaker, Anna of Claverley was Una. These articles told of a Nazi spy ring in the Midlands, who were out to infiltrate the many arms factories dotted across the region. Bella was, according to this telling, a Nazi spy and occultist known as ‘Clarabella’. She’d parachuted in earlier in 1941, under the direction of a Nazi intelligence service known as the Abwehr. Abwehr records released postwar state a woman, code named ‘Clara’ was parachuted into the West Midlands – but after she failed to make contact, they presumed her killed in action. ‘Clara’ was far from the only Nazi spy parachuted into the United Kingdom. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worthy of discussion is Josef Jakobs.

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old when he was captured in January 1941. Born in Luxembourg, he fought for Germany in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight – serving as an officer until the Nazis discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland between the wars, for selling imitation gold as real. Surprisingly Nazi Germany felt this made him unfit to lead men into battle. This didn’t make him ineligible for a job as a spy.

On 31st January, Jakobs parachuted into Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He landed badly, breaking his ankle. He was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. He was carrying £500, a counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter, a photograph and a German sausage. He was caught after he fired his pistol into the air like a flare gun. The pain of his broken ankle had gotten too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him over to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5. This included an explanation of the photograph of a woman he had on him – the woman was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to jump somewhere over the West Midlands. She knew people there. Bauerle was a cabaret singer in West Midlands clubs in the 1930s. Jakobs was court-martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad on August 15th 1941. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So mystery solved? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress – allegedly with occult leanings – parachuted in to sabotage weapons factories? Had she, for some unexplained reason, fallen out with her compatriots – who then killed her? For decades this was advanced as the most likely scenario. This theory imploded in 2015. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.

So where does this leave us? Use of DNA as with Australia’s Somerton Man case in Australia? Impossible in this case, as Bella’s remains went missing at an undisclosed point between her discovery and the advent of DNA testing. Currently there is one lead. Bella’s skull was photographed, and those photos do still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who specialises in creating facial reconstructions of the long deceased created a portrait of Bella. It’s always possible someone, somewhere has a shoebox of old family photos. While these are often treasured items for the children, such ephemera often gets donated to museums by the grandkids’ generation. It’s not inconceivable a photo may surface – not out of the question someone will recognise it’s significance when it does. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm is a nice to know, and we may never know – but who she really was? That’s the question I’d really like answered. 

Quick sidebar especially for the New Zealanders: Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. He was a member of the English cricket team, who toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton Cobham fell for our little part of the world while here. He served as Governor General, from 1957 to 1962. 

Governor General Cobham was a popular proxy for the crown. He established Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation who help struggling kids by providing them adventures designed to teach the kids they are capable of much more than they ever realised. He compiled a book of his speeches while in office, which sold well. All profits from the book were donated to Outward Bound.

The Lytteltons’ had deep ties to New Zealand. Charles’ great grandfather, George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ – who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason several names in this tale may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of George, the elder Lord Cobham. 

The Wall Street Coup, Part Two

The Wall Street Coup Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all the following is Part Two of a Two Part Tale. Part One is Here

If I may, folks, I’d like to resume this Tale by doing something totally irresponsible. Before we come back to General Butler, I want to take us on a digression which has no great bearing on, or relation to our story.
Today we pick up the tale on a hot, balmy night in Miami, Florida – the time, 9.35pm, February 15th 1933. 

In Bayfront Park that night, a man stood in his open top car, and gave an impromptu speech to an enraptured crowd. As he concluded, stating this was his first time in Miami in seven years, but it would not be his last – it almost became just that. The sound of six gunshots pealed through the air, to the shock of all in attendance. 

In the crowd that night, an unemployed 32 year old brick-layer named Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara. I imagine Joe looking rather flustered, having worked his way frantically through the crowd, looking for a single good vantage point – this is only my imagination at work. At only 5.1” tall, Zangara had to perch atop a bench, steadying himself against a Mrs Lillian Cross, 5.4”, standing in front of him. He leant over Mrs Cross’ right shoulder, aimed his 32 calibre pistol, and pulled the trigger, yelling 

“Too many people are starving!”

Joe Zangara may have succeeded in his assassination attempt, but for the fact Mrs Cross was all kinds of fierce. The first bullet passed so close to her it burned the side of her face, but she spun around and wrestled Zangara for the gun. This caused the remaining shots to veer off wildly. Five people near the car were struck by bullets, including mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak. Cermak died days later, with a bullet still in his lung.
Lillian got the better of Zangara, the furious crowd then piling in on him. The crowd were ready to tear him limb from limb, were it not for the speaker – President Elect Franklin Roosevelt – calling for the man to be handed to the police, to be dealt with through legal avenues.  

Roosevelt, Miami Feb 15 1933

The authorities did deal with Giuseppe Zangara. He was up before the courts, and sentenced to eighty years in prison. When Mayor Cermak passed, a subsequent murder charge was added. He was re-charged and found guilty of murder – spending just ten days on death row before he was executed, on March 20th 1933. 

When I first heard this tale, perhaps 20 years ago, the teller inferred Zangara was a stooge, a patsy; some unknowing schlub doing the dirty work for a cadre of shadowy elites. Subsequently I’ve heard others state he was from Calabria, Italy – close to Sicily – Therefore he must’ve been a Mafia tough, or possibly an anarchist. As far as anyone could gather, Zangara was none of those things. He was an angry, frustrated, and extremely unstable guy – sick and tired of struggling by on whatever work he could get. His meagre savings had waned in the depression, and the guy was doing it hard. One factor contributed to his actions; from the age of six he’d been in near constant agony from adhesions on his gall bladder. He lived the majority of his life suffering from crippling stomach pains. Joe Zangara was not a man who valued his own continued existence terribly highly when he tried to kill FDR.

We can safely assume MacGuire and his backers never went to Zangara to take care of their ‘Gold Standard’ problem – though I wonder what General Butler made of the incident with just a few months’ hindsight.

Back to Smedley Butler’s timeline. When we last saw Major General Butler, he’d met with Robert S. Clark; former soldier, multi-millionaire banker and heir to a sewing machine fortune. Clark attempted to bribe the general for his support, by offering to pay his mortgage for him. Clark was willing to spend half his fortune, if need be, to stop Roosevelt. Butler, took this badly, and all but threw Clark out of his house…but not before Clark made a phone call to his guy – Gerald MacGuire – to go with plan B. Plan B was to flood the American Legion (a prominent veterans’ group) with telegraphs demanding the leadership call for a return to the Gold Standard. This subsequently happened. 

Smedley Butler could well have expected the bankers would move on and look for another ex-general to do their bidding. 

To his surprise, Gerald MacGuire kept showing up to his public speeches. In Boston he offered to throw a banquet in his honour. He would pay him $1,000 to attend, and of course make a pro-Gold Standard speech. Butler declined. In October, he was preparing for a trip to Brooklyn, to deliver a speech in support of a former Marine running for political office. This speech was unannounced to the public, but MacGuire somehow knew all about that too. Days prior he dropped in on Butler asking if he could tag along. Butler told him no. MacGuire then offered to pay Butler $750 every time he just mentioned the Gold Standard in a positive way in a speech. 

This spooked the General – how did MacGuire even know about this engagement? Did he really have eyes and ears everywhere? It started to dawn on Butler this group may actually be extremely dangerous. He felt he should report them to someone – but also knew he didn’t yet know enough about their schemes to do so. If he went to authorities now, he’d come off looking like a lunatic.

As 1933 wrapped, big business were increasingly vocal in their hatred for President Roosevelt. Several moguls, and a growing number of editorialists in mainstream newspapers, began asking a question – Was FDR a secret communist? They increasingly painted a picture of a ‘creeping socialism’ – their new buzzword –  a stripping of Americanism by stealth. Roosevelt wasn’t there to save us from ruin, he was in the White House to kill the American Dream and capitalism itself. In November they collectively pearl-clutched as Roosevelt recognised the USSR as a legitimate confederation of states. When he announced no more American soldiers would be sent to South or Central America as muscle-men for big business, the moguls and business papers were livid. 

And what’s more, FDR’s recovery was slow and methodical. That Mussolini chap appeared to be working wonders at lightning speed. Unions? Forget about it! The man even reputedly had the trains running on time. Of course this was done with all the subtlety of a guy who runs over a child at 70 miles per hour, then doesn’t even stop to check on the victim. Hitler had been in power since January, and was of increasing interest to certain moguls. A wave of fascist organisations were taking over Europe at the time. Portugal in 1933. Austria and Bulgaria in 1934. Yugoslavia in 1935. Greece in 1936. Spain just prior to the Second World War. This is not mentioning the many nascent movements the Fascists supported into power later; from Slovakia to Vichy France, Romania to Norway. This flurry of action made this deplorable world view seemed fresh and exciting to many a Wall Street banker or industrial titan. 

Many wondered, what would it be like having their own Authoritarian strongman in the White House? 

On the upside, MacGuire disappeared suddenly. Butler later found out he was sent off on an all expenses paid mission to Europe – all paid for by the shadowy cabal. He learned this when he received a postcard from the Riviera in early 1934. MacGuire was in Berlin when he sent a second postcard in June.
Meanwhile, in July 1934, Fortune magazine – a favourite of the rich – added further evidence of the mood of the boardroom. They spent an entire issue, in excess of 120 pages, effusively praising Mussolini and Fascism. 

MacGuire returned in August, dropping by Butler’s on the 22nd. He told the General he was sent to investigate the role of former soldiers in the fascist movement, specifically their role in the formation of dictatorships. MacGuire wasn’t crazy for Mussolini, or Hitler – but was quite taken by the Croix de Feu in France. 

On 6th February 1934, France’s left wing Government came under attack – quite literally – from a confederation of Far Right groups. As a needed aside, MacGuire appears in the telling quite impressed by the Croix de Feu’s role – and I need to add context to his telling.

The French Government were under heavy financial pressure and in the process of enacting austerity measures, some of this in relation to American business interests calling in overseas debt following the stock market crash. The final straw was a series of financial scandals involving corrupt people with ties to politicians, and the final, final straw was the Stavisky Affair. 

Alexandre Stavisky was a conman and pawnshop owner who was on the run from the authorities after getting caught selling counterfeit bonds, and borrowing large sums of money against a collection of glass trinkets. He claimed the costume jewellery were emeralds formerly owned by the Empress of Germany. Just prior to February 6th, Stavisky showed up dead from an alleged self inflicted gunshot wound. Others claimed forensic evidence stated it wasn’t self-inflicted – unless Stavisky had arms long enough to drag across the floor as he walked. They pointed the finger at the Gendarmes who found his body. As with similar cases, ie. Jeffrey Epstein, it was revealed the fraudster had powerful friends. One friend, Prime Minister Camille Chautemps, was even said to have protected him.  The anti-Semitic far right were particularly livid that Chautemps would help Stavisky, a jew.

The Croix de Feu were a coalition of military veterans led by a Colonel Francois de la Roque. Anti-Semitic, right wing and staunchly pro business – they looked much like Fascists. They did support a woman’s right to vote, however, and the establishment of a minimum wage. They were also wary of the Germans in general, and of Hitler in particular. Historians have long argued whether they qualify as fascists, but certainly they were a very hateful far right group. 

It was their inaction that day that made them of interest – something that I don’t think comes across in MacGuire’s conversation with Butler. While other groups attempted on February 6th 1934 what similar groups tried in Washington DC on January 6th 2021 – de la Roque ordered his group to stay out of the attempted putsch. 

They peacefully protested in the South of Paris. The other groups failed in their coup without their considerable muscle. Soon after, feeling intense pressure from the public – Chautemps government resigned in disgrace. The Croix de Feu, having not disgraced themselves on February 6th, ended up in a position of influence over the right wing government who followed – although they had personally burnt bridges among the far right. 

MacGuire’s interpretation of the incident is somewhat different to mine. He saw their role on the day as far more active… Back to the narrative. 

MacGuire stated his organisation wanted to build something similar in America – a super-organisation of former soldiers they could use to seize power. Butler responded if they did such a thing he’d gather his own army together to fight them. MacGuire countered they had no plans to depose Roosevelt – they planned to convince him he needed to hire an ‘assistant president’ – a ‘Secretary of General Affairs’. The people would understand. Roosevelt was clearly unwell. If the people didn’t, the organisation would run a propaganda campaign. They were helpers, not usurpers. A sick, old man needed support. What’s more, the cabal wanted Smedley Butler to head the movement. 

He also planned to contact James Van Zandt, a veteran, future Republican politician and – as it turns out – the man who invited Butler to speak to the Bonus Army at the start of this tale, to seek his support. MacGuire was sure Butler’s friend would want a part of this.

Butler stated he had no intentions of carrying out a putsch. MacGuire told him he wouldn’t need to. Roosevelt would be so grateful for the help, he’d hand the reins over. He’d been grooming General Hugh Johnson for such a role already – but was finding the man far too indiscreet. FDR planned to fire him in the coming days. It turns out FDR did in fact fire Johnson soon after this conversation, and the man was loose-lipped – he took a job as a newspaper columnist, writing a slew of anti-Roosevelt hit-pieces. 

But how would one fund such a plot? MacGuire replied he now had access to a $3 Million budget. He could get hold of up to $300 million if needed. The Mogul J.P. Morgan was involved, as was Al Smith – yet another former Democratic Party presidential candidate, and a former Mayor of New York to boot. Smith was an associate of the powerful DuPont family. This shocked Butler, Smith was one of Roosevelt’s guys. 

MacGuire claimed Smith would soon break from the Roosevelt camp via an angry invective in the papers. He did just that soon after, joining The ‘American Liberty League’ – a shadowy organisation led by several former high ranking democrats – and top ranking business people from General Motors, DuPont and Sun Oil Company – among others. 

What’s more, if Butler chose to turn them down – well, he was their top pick in spite of J.P. Morgan lobbying for another contender – but he was not their only option. Their second choice was sure to back them. J.P. Morgan had rallied hard for General Douglas MacArthur. They expected MacArthur could be bought, not least of all, as his father-in-law – Edward Statesbury – was involved in their organisation. Hanford MacNider, a former leader of the American Legion was a distant third choice. MacGuire was going down to Miami. He planned to catch up with Butler once he returned. The meeting was over. 

(To the Podcast listeners: We’ll be back in a minute). 

Part Two:

The following month The American Liberty League – an anti-Roosevelt coalition of captains of business, bankers and former politicians launched, with a suspiciously familiar roster of members. Irenee DuPont, J.P. Morgan, Al Smith, MacGuire’s boss – a man named Colonel Grayson Murphy, – and of course sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark. 

It’s list of patrons included the families behind Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Andrew W Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates, General Motors and Sun Oil. J. Howard Pew, who later co-founded the John Birch Society, yet another founder. Al Smith and his buddy John J Raskob (a former Democratic Party member and businessman) were directors of the league. They quickly branded Roosevelt’s New Deal “Jewish Communism”, stating their opposition. In the South a “Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution” a similarly-minded group, but with a focus on KKK ideology, also arose. 

A lot of things suddenly happened as predicted. Butler got on the phone to warn James Van Zandt a cabal of fascist businessmen would be in touch with him. Van Zandt took heed. Next he considered travelling to Washington DC, to report the plotters. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was the authorities would laugh him out of the building. 

In part one I glossed over the fact Butler was briefly Police Chief of Philadelphia. It’s quite a story in itself. The Philadelphia police were notoriously corrupt; in bed with gangsters and bootleggers. Butler was brought in to enforce prohibition, which he soon came to view as a stupid law in need of repeal. He cleaned up much police corruption. He also, as Foucault’s best boomerangs only can, brought in a militaristic style to policing, honed in Nicaragua and Haiti –  from which a thru line can be drawn directly to some of the worst aspects of American policing to this day. I left that out because I wanted you to like this man. We can admit he has a complex legacy right?

Anyway, while in Philadelphia he made several friends in the media. He approached his friend Tom O’Neil, an editor for the Philadelphia Record. O’Neil was shocked by the plot, and only too happy to lend him the talents of investigative reporter Paul Comly French. French started off by going through Butler’s own background with a fine-toothed comb. If the General was plotting to blackmail America’s moguls he would ferret it out. If he was correct some of America’s moguls were planning a takeover, they needed conclusive proof Smedley Butler was above board. 

In the meantime, Butler continued to speak on behalf of the soldiers – and challenge the practice of sending them abroad to fight and die for the further enrichment of big business.   

The midterm elections came and went. The American Liberty League did their best to hobble Roosevelt’s supporters – to little effect. The Democratic Party won by a landslide. 

Something else was happening in Washington DC. A reporter named John L. Spivak, who specialised in uncovering American fascists, anti-semites, racist Southern Sheriffs and other undesirables – caught word of a group of fascist businessman plotting to take over the White House. John McCormack and Samuel Dickstein of the McCormack-Dickstein committee, subsidiary of the House Un-American Activities Committee also picked up on the plot. They went straight to Smedley Butler to ask him what he knew. With proof from Paul Comly French that he was no traitor, he freely told them everything he knew. 

On November 20th 1934, Butler met with the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, giving a full rundown of the wooing of The American Liberty League. At the same time, an article by Paul Comly French ran in the New York Post and Philadelphia Record. It’s headline “$3,000,000 Bid for Fascist Army Bared”

Later that day French too gave evidence. He’d not just done his homework on Butler, but had met with MacGuire himself, on September 13th 1934. He presented himself as ‘Butler’s Personal Secretary’.MacGuire was rather more candid with French, stating they needed a ‘Man on a White Horse’ to lead the coup, and that man could only be Butler. They planned to arm a militia of half a million former soldiers through their connections at the Remington Arms Company – paying for the weapons with DuPont money. The money for the militia’s wages would be doled out from a National City Bank account by himself and attorney for J.P. Morgan, John W. Davis. 

French also mentioned MacGuire pursued two former leaders of The American Legion, who pledged their support for the putsch. Once successful they planned to register all persons in the USA, in an effort to “stop a lot of these Communists”. They planned to tackle unemployment by rounding up the unemployed in concentration camps and forcing them into slavery. 

MacGuire was then called in, and grilled. He denied everything. He was on a rather healthy $150 a week – a little over $3,000 a week adjusted for inflation to 2022, but he couldn’t explain away over $30,000 he’d spent in recent months. That figure would only grow. The Committee concluded their initial proceedings, finding it likely several of the USA’s wealthiest citizens were plotting to instigate a coup. They determined to dig further. The moguls denied this of course, and – with the support of their powerful media connections – publicly branded Smedley Butler a fantasist and lunatic. His testimony, they claimed, was a publicity stunt. 

A large number of senators and congressmen demanded the investigation must go further. Plans were made to subpoena sixteen people. The case was also referred to the Attorney General. MacGuire was called back and questioned further. His testimony was contradictory, showing him as a liar. Former leaders of the American Legion were called in, as was James Van Zandt – who corroborated Butler’s testimony. Further information emerged – If Smedley Butler refused, another potential ‘man on a white horse’ was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt jr. Theodore was shocked anyone would think he’d ever usurp his fourth cousin. Robert Sterling Clark was, rather conveniently, over in Paris and happy to refute Butler’s accusations – when he got home. 

But then on November 26th the committee released a statement it saw no reason for calling in a raft of business moguls or Generals. They reasoned testimony against them was largely hearsay. 

The hearings dragged on till January, all the while the corporate media did all they could to discredit Butler. Eventually Clark sent his lawyer to speak on his behalf – as he was still overseas. The lawyers answers as to why MacGuire was given a verified sum of $75,000 by Clark were unconvincing. In January 1935, Butler took to the airwaves on WCAU Philadelphia to tell his story to the American people directly.  At the end of the month Dickstein stated this investigation would go further.

The committee released their findings on February 15th 1935. They found there had been a plot to overthrow the president – but the newspapers buried the story. And no-one chose to take any further action. MacGuire, Clark, former presidential candidates, business moguls, bankers – they were all let off the hook. They could have, at the very least, prosecuted MacGuire for perjury – Even he walked. If there is any justice in his case, it may be that MacGuire would be dead within months, aged just 37, of a sudden case of pneumonia. 

The American Liberty League continued to fund a number of hostile fascist organisations till they disbanded in 1940. Roosevelt, found the mainstream press continued to push the “Creeping Socialism” line. He took to the radio as Smedley Butler had. His ‘Fireside Chats’ were extremely popular with the American people. It’s a trend that continues to this day – I’m watching New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doing something similar on Instagram as I edit this piece.

For all the animosity of the super rich – they enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth under New Deal politics – all the way up to the mid 1970s. Yes, they paid levels of tax many would now consider unbelievable – if you were earning in excess $200,000 a year (around $2.4 million today) 94c in every dollar over $200,000 went to the taxman. 

The ‘great acceleration’ this tax money fed, made for a true golden age for capitalism – as the American economy boomed like never before, and the world moved at an unrivalled pace – in every way imaginable. Wealth, technology, life expectancy, living standards, education – and also infuriatingly, oil consumption, pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas production. 

As for our hero? Smedley Darlington Butler, one time muscleman for big business turned peace campaigner. One time oppressor of other nations in the name of American capitalism, turned America’s staunchest defender of democracy – against those same capitalists…. He died of cancer aged only 58, on July 21st 1940. Friends, family and former colleagues saw him off, and no doubt remembered him fondly but – like Lillian Cross – I don’t believe the extent of his courage was truly recognised in his own time. 

The Wall Street Coup – Part One

The Wall Street Coup, Part One Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, this is part one of a two-parter. The Podcast episodes typically run between 20 – 25 minutes. I expect this one will take over an hour to tell.

This week’s tale opens on a ‘Hooverville’ – a makeshift village of the dispossessed; all in attendance hit hard by the Great Depression of 1929. The location? A swampy, muddy field in Anacostia Flats – near downtown Washington DC. It is July 17th 1932. A shantytown on a mission, this camp holds ten thousand American military veterans. They’ve gathered together, under the leadership of one Walter Waters – a former sergeant from Portland, Oregon – to demand the Government keep a promise made to them years ago. Hailing from all across the USA, many have hiked the length or breadth of the country to be here. Others have freight-hopped boxcars, like characters in a Steinbeck novel. They’re mostly veterans of the First World War. All are members of the Bonus Army. 

As fighting men, they were promised a sizeable bonus for their part in World War One – but when the bill came due in 1924, the Government deferred payment. Though the Great Depression was a few years off, the boom which preceded it was still a year away and money was tight. The veterans would have to make do with promissory notes for the amount agreed; plus compound interest – to be paid in 1945. This seemed reasonable to many at the time; but now, with one in four working Americans jobless, millions homeless – close to half the nation’s banks insolvent – that money was needed more than ever. The men of the bonus army were tough and resourceful, but were struggling – often in jobs hit hard and early by the depression. Besides, many felt they had done their bit, and then some. They made the world safe for democracy and capitalism, and in their time of greatest need, was it really too much for democracy and capitalism to come through for them, and hand over the two billion dollars collectively owed them? 

Some politicians listened. A bill was introduced, and passed through Congress to grant the men an early payout. But then President Herbert Hoover threatened if it went through, he would use his powers to veto it immediately. He didn’t need to – the Senate did the dirty work for him, killing the proposal stone dead. The Bonus Army were tired, dejected, and much in need of an inspirational leader to revive their spirits. On the podium on July 17th, one such leader; Major General Smedley Butler. 

Butler was a retired Marine Major General with one of the most impressive records in Marine history – more on that later. A soldier’s general, he spent much of his career fighting alongside the men – in 120 battles – mostly south of the border and throughout Asia. He was well known as a guy who always had the soldiers’ backs. A guy who would never ask another to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. On retirement, Butler joined the public speaking circuits, as a vocal advocate for soldiers’ rights. The Bonus Army asked him, as an ally, if he could come to Anacostia Flats and speak with the men. He gladly obliged.

 Onstage, a worked up Butler addressed the men in his gruff, booming voice that belied his small, wiry frame.

“It makes me so damn mad a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and 18.” He exclaimed, in response to media commentary the men were an unkempt rabble. “You are the best-behaved group of men in this country today. I consider it an honour to be asked to speak to you”. 

Furthermore, he called on the men to remain peaceful – the people will be on their side so long as they kept to the rules.

“Don’t make any mistake about it, you’ve got the sympathy of the American people – Now don’t you lose it!” 

He called on the Bonus army to keep it together, and continue their fight for the bonus. If they lost this battle don’t despair – they hadn’t lost the war. Recalling a recent personal experience of defeat “I ran for the Senate on a bonus ticket, and got the hell beat out of me”

Many of these men were then considering a free train ride home, a government bribe aimed at thinning out the crowd. The army would then swoop in and break up the camps. No doubt Butler knew this. knowing many who had a home to return to would take that ticket, he advised – 

“When you get home, go to the polls in November and lick the hell out of those who are against you. You know who they are… Now go to it!” 

Two weeks’ later, the army did break up the camps, sent in by General Douglas MacArthur. There was an ugly, messy, tear gas filled stoush. Cavalry officers, men with bayonets, even six tanks and machine guns were rolled out to move the unarmed protesters – many of whom had nowhere else to go at this point. Two protesters from the Bonus Army were killed. The Bonus Army continued their fight however – and in November 1932 the voting public – sick and tired of President Hoover’s callous, ineffectual management of the depression – emphatically voted for the Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first 100 days, FDR brought in a raft of policies to lift the economy out of the doldrums. Given multi-letter acronyms, some referred to his plans as ‘Alphabet Soup’. One policy – and this is very pertinent to our tale – was to uncouple paper money from the Gold Standard.

Under the gold standard all money must be backed by an equivalent sum in gold. By dumping this, moving the economy towards ‘fiat money’ – money was realigned more as a current reflection of the expected future value of the wider economy. Politicians could much more easily speculate on a brighter future under Fiat money. The term a riff of the Latin ‘Fiat Lux’, ‘Let there be light’, one could proclaim “let there be money”, and treasury could print the money needed to pay workers to literally rebuild the nation. Amid the wide-ranging public works, vast infrastructure projects kicked off – many of which paid huge future dividends. Projects like freeways, schools, city halls, wastewater plants – even the Hoover Dam – started prior to Roosevelt’s New Deal was completed on New Deal funding – owed much to FDR’s plans. People were working, paying taxes and spending. This created virtuous circles. The USA was on it’s way towards resuscitating the nation’s economy by the eve of World War Two. 

A move from the gold standard was in no small part also meant to put the brakes on rich Americans or investors in the American economy, exchanging all their paper money for gold – as is often the case in times of recession – then moving that wealth offshore for the foreseeable future. 

The downside to this plan? – it drove inflation, lowering the value of each solitary dollar. This was also a threat to anyone still wealthy enough to have millions of dollars in cash stored away. How would America’s wealthiest citizens react to this? We’ll come to that, but for now, back to Smedley Butler.

On the morning of July 1st 1933, General Butler took a phone call from an acquaintance at the American Legion – a large servicemen’s organisation that, unlike the Bonus Army, regularly took the businessman’s side. Legionnaires were often used as strike breakers in industrial actions. The call was to advise a couple of war veterans from the Legion were on their way to meet with him. Five hours later a chauffeur driven limousine pulled up outside. Two well dressed men got out. These men were Bill Doyle, commander of the Massachusetts division, and Gerald MacGuire, former commander of the Connecticut chapter and, by day, bond broker on Wall Street. Butler was wary of the Legionnaires’, but always happy to give any old soldier a hearing. He warmly welcomed the men in. 

After small talk on adventures and war wounds, the visitors got to their point. They represented a shadowy group of veterans who were tired of the Legion’s leadership. They hoped to roll them in the upcoming convention in Chicago, and needed Butler’s help. They asked Smedley to take to the stage at the convention, and call for the ouster of the ‘royal family’ – as they referred to the leadership. 

Though no fan of the ‘royal family’, Butler had no interest whatsoever in getting involved. It was none of his business who ran the legion. 

The men countered – would he at least attend as an honoured guest? Well, not an honoured guest exactly… They could sneak him in as the delegate from Hawaii? Again he demurred. The two men returned to their limo and left. 

This would be far from the last time they would meet – MacGuire especially. A month later they returned to the Butler household with a new plan. Butler could gather three hundred legionnaire friends of his, then travel to Chicago by train. The men would holler for Butler till the Royal Family had to let him speak. The men had a written speech for the general to deliver. Butler pointed out most of his friends in the legion didn’t have the money for a ticket to Chicago. The men replied they had sufficient funds to pay for that, showing Butler proof of a $100,000 operational budget. 

Butler was a man with a ferocious temper; he was a hair’s breadth from letting rip at the men. 

But he was also curious as to their endgame. Playing it cool he told the men he’d think about it. He could be interested in their scheme, but needed to know much more before he could commit himself.

Once Doyle and MacGuire left, Butler read through the speech. It demanded the legion lobby government for a return to the Gold Standard. Their reasoning? bonus payments should be backed by something far more tangible than fiat money. 

So… Who was Smedley Butler? 

Smedley Darlington Butler was born on July 30th, 1881 to a distinguished, largely pacifist Quaker family – Largely, as both grandfathers fought for the Union army in the American Civil War. His family were previously active in the fight against slavery in the underground railway network – helping runaway slaves to freedom – and when war broke out, they felt they too must play their part. They were politically active and influential – his lineage including Congressmen. His own father, Thomas Butler, was one such politician. 

As a child, Smedley dreamt of becoming a soldier. Aged 12 he joined up with the Boy’s Brigade – giving him at least some sense of military life. The Battleship USS Maine exploding in Havana Harbour on February 15th 1898 gave Smedley the reason he needed to sign up. Prior to the Maine incident, a war of independence between Cuba and their colonisers, Spain, had been in full swing for several years. The Maine was stationed in the harbour to protect American business interests in Cuba. A boiler had malfunctioned, causing a catastrophic explosion, but speculation ran rife the Spanish had blown the ship up. A large number of Americans were livid with Spain and called for a declaration of war. The politicians soon obliged. Many young men, including a sixteen year old Smedley Butler, enrolled in the armed forces to fight the Spanish. Butler signed on as a Marine. 

The USS Maine

Cutting his teeth in Cuba, he returned home in 1899. Promoted to lieutenant, he was then deployed to the Phillipines, where he led a battalion. This war was a continuation of the war with Spain, taking place on another of their colonies. Showing the kind of derring do that later became his trademark – he led an assault on the heavily armed stronghold of Noca-leta – battling through a rain of heavy gunfire to capture the enemy base. In downtime he had a massive tattoo of the Marine corps emblem tattooed onto his chest, which made him deathly ill for a time, as the tattooist had used a dirty needle. 

From the Philippines, Butler fought alongside a multi-national peacekeeping force against The Boxer Rebellion in China. America, of course, had business interests in China that needed protection – a constant of Butler’s service.  One of his first missions was to protect an American compound near Tientsin against fifty thousand Boxers. He was in charge of a considerably smaller force. At one point in the conflict he risked his own life by weaving through enemy gunfire to rescue an injured Marine private. Remarkably, the Marines broke the siege, sending the Boxers running. He was shot in the thigh by a stray bullet, while taking out the high-walled Boxer compound at Tientsin, but fought through the injury. While healing from the battle, he was promoted to captain. He went on to fight at Peking, his leg injury not yet fully healed. 

In 1902 Butler was in Panama. In 1903 a revolution erupted in Honduras, and Butler was sent in to protect America’s banana exporters. He continued to serve with distinction, and in 1908 was promoted to Major. 1909 saw him stationed in Panama, then Nicaragua, both hot spots with American business interests. In the latter mission, he protected a highly unpopular government – who had seized power – but who also had the virtue of being friendly to American businesses. 

One tale from Nicaragua – in 1912, Major Butler was sent in to liberate a captured railway line with a crew of 100 men. The train was being guarded by a much larger force. Rather than risk being outgunned, Butler turned to asymmetrical warfare – putting his own life on the line. walking towards the rebel forces with two cloth sacks in hand, he demanded the rebels hand the train over to him. He told the rebels if anyone tried to stop him taking the train, he was carrying two bags full of dynamite. Get in his way they’d all be blown to kingdom come. His bluff worked. 

He briefly rose to governor of the district of Granada In Nicaragua. This mission sat particularly uncomfortably with Butler. He knew this time, in no uncertain terms, the majority of the population detested the conservative government of Adolfo Diaz. He was becoming increasingly aware of his role – in his own words “A high class muscle man for Big Business… a racketeer, a gangster for Capitalism”. Later that year he was ordered to, and successfully carried through, the rigging of a governmental election in Diaz’ favour. 

In 1914, Butler was sent to Mexico. He served in the midst of their rebellion both as spy, carrying out reconnaissance work, and a soldier. By 1915 he was stationed in Haiti. 

Germany had economic interests in the island nation – at an unsettled time in which four regimes ruled that year alone. Washington DC worried if a revolution broke out, Germany would swoop in and establish a naval base. The marines were sent in to protect the American sphere of interest and restore order. It was coincidental American business interests – banks particularly – had money tied up in the nation? Butler was sent after the Cacos – precursors of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoute. At times the marines were outnumbered 20 to one, but Butler’s marines prevailed, battling through fields of sugar cane and taking out compounds in the middle of the night. Butler was put in charge of the Haitian police force for a time – a role he reprised in the 1920s, as the police chief of Philadelphia. By 1916, now Lieutenant Colonel Butler, he became increasingly worried of his role in other nation’s affairs – to quote Butler

“War is a racket…in which the profits are reckoned in dollars, and the losses in lives”.  

When the USA entered the First World War, Butler begged to be sent. After much lobbying he was sent, but to Camp Pontanezen, a French camp through which most American soldiers came and went. Promoted to General, for once he was not in a combat role – but he did have responsibility for some strategically important, and at the time poorly maintained real estate. Butler soon had the camp orderly, and won the respect of many of the soldiers passing through the camp. The First World War seemed futile to the seasoned warrior. He later wrote “what on earth (are) these American boys …doing getting wounded and killed and buried in France?”. 

Smedley Butler served for some time postwar. In 1927 he was stationed in China, as that nation fell apart, amid battling warlords. He was sent into Shanghai, to protect the interests of the Standard Oil Corporation. All up he saw action in eleven countries – in excess of 120 battles or armed conflicts. Back home by 1930, people were starting to question just what the marines had been doing in some of those occupations in Central and South America. Butler, near retirement, shed light on some of those activities – the 1912 interference in a Honduran election top of his list. The most awarded soldier in American history in his own time, he had quite a reputation to preserve. He was increasingly willing to tarnish that reputation, if it meant keeping future marines safe from being sent into conflict for the sole benefit of big business. By the early 1930s, Smedley Butler was a popular advocate of soldiers rights and a notable anti-war campaigner.   

In 1931, he was passed over for the top position in the Marine Corps, then slipped up at a speaking engagement. Speaking on the need to still keep a defence force, for protection against foreign invaders – he shared a story of a friend’s armoured car ride with Benito Mussolini. The two men flew through the countryside at a constant seventy miles an hour. The pace was constant as they shot through any towns or villages in their way. Coming to one settlement Mussolini’s car ran straight over a young child without even attempting to brake, much less stop to check on the victim. Horrified, Butler’s friend screamed, only to be lectured by Mussolini. The child “was only one life, and the affairs of the state could not be stopped by one life”. Smedley Butler wanted a far less interventionist military – but as long as monsters like Mussolini existed, the USA had to keep a defence force. The speech caused an international incident. Italy demanded Butler be court-martialled. He was arrested and charged with conduct unbecoming his position. The public were furious over Butler’s arrest – and the wave of anti-Mussolini sentiment was so palpable, Il Duce asked for the charges against Butler to be dropped. Butler went free.

Mussolini’s request didn’t kill the story as he hoped. Butler’s friend, the journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, confirmed the tale, adding Mussolini patted his knee immediately after, stating “Never look back, Mr Vanderbilt – Always look ahead in life”. 

Benito Mussolini

As the Great Depression bit, citizen Butler – a lifelong Republican – gave his support to the Democrat, Roosevelt. This was not just at the ballot box, but through his public speaking. In one speech he proclaimed himself “a member of the Hoover for Ex-President league” Whether Butler would have done this unprompted is mere speculation – the fact is the ‘Roosevelt Republican Organisation’, a political pressure group something akin to The Lincoln Project in Trump’s time,  approached him for support. He was happy to oblige them.

We really should rejoin Butler in 1933, as he tours the nation giving public lectures and speeches.

The Wooing Continues…

As an influential man; a man with the ear of an army’s worth of dispossessed soldiers; a man who recently took a public stand against a sitting president – Smedley Butler appeared worthy of pursuit to Gerald MacGuire and his masters. As we’ll discuss in part two, they had a particular interest in winning over an army’s worth of soldiers. Who else could they call on for that? Douglas MacArthur? He’d ordered the attack on the Bonus Army, so was persona non grata at the time. Throughout the remainder of 1933, MacGuire pursued Butler at every opportunity.

In September, while Butler was in Newark, New Jersey on a speaking engagement, MacGuire dropped by his hotel room. When Butler asked him was there really any real money behind this shadowy organisation – MacGuire threw $18,000 in notes on the bed. This was just loose change, but could get him and a gang of legionnaires to Chicago. Butler demanded he pick the money back up immediately – was he trying to get him arrested? The moment he tried to do anything with any of those thousand dollar notes, he’d leave a traceable footprint tying him to the scheme. MacGuire countered he could arrange smaller denominations. 

Moving forwards, Butler advised him, he would only speak to the backers directly. Arrangements were made for a face to face meeting in Chicago with Robert Sterling Clark, a millionaire banker and heir of a founder of the Singer sewing machine company. 

Butler knew Clark, as it happened. As a young man Clark was a Marine Lieutenant who fought alongside Butler in the Boxer campaign. The two men spoke on the phone, then met face to face, at Butler’s house. In their talk, Clark let slip the writer behind the gold standard speech was none other than John W. Davis. Davis had been a Solicitor General for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1918. After a brief stint as Ambassador to Britain, he ran as the Democratic nominee for President in1924, losing to the Republican Calvin Coolidge. As a private citizen, Davis returned to the law – defending big business interests. Though now remembered – if at all – as the guy who argued against school desegregation in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, he was then the head counsel of the mogul J.P. Morgan.

As they talked in his study, Butler challenged Clark head on – this speech had very little to do with soldiers, still unpaid, getting their bonus. It felt like another racket, another big business plot. What was his interest in all this? Clark briefly hesitated, took in a deep breath, then honestly answered. He was a wealthy man, with a $30 million fortune to think about. The movement away from the Gold Standard was driving up inflation, which would massively devalue of his fortune. Clark was convinced Roosevelt would beggar him, and was willing to spend half of his fortune to force the country back onto the Gold Standard.

But why would Roosevelt give in to pressure if a group of old soldiers started making some noise over this? Clark answered Roosevelt was a blue blood like him – He had class loyalties to people like him, and would bow to pressure given half a chance. When he did, the blue bloods would descend to offer their support, and all would be forgiven. 

Butler told Clark he wouldn’t let veterans be used to undermine democracy. He wanted no part in this scheme. Clark countered. Butler was working because he had to – all his years of service may have brought a wealth of experience, but no great financial fortune. Butler had a large mortgage still to pay. If Smedley was willing to do this, the cabal would pay his mortgage for him. 

Butler was enraged – and though he knew he should stick to the plan – just keep on collecting evidence on these people – he lost it with Clark, hollering at him to go out into the hallway. Go look at all the mementos of his long career – all on display out there. They were rewards for loyalty to his nation, and to his people. He would not risk that reputation for anything. Buddy you picked the wrong guy. 

Minutes later, Clark sheepishly returned, and asked if he could use Butler’s phone. He made a call to MacGuire to advise him go with plan B. In Chicago the Royal Family would be inundated with telegrams demanding they back a return to the gold standard. He then left. 

Days later, Butler read in the papers – they indeed had been inundated with such telegrams. He may have been excused if he thought this was the last he’d hear of the shadowy cabal… but what kind of tale would that make?  

Sorry all, this will have to be a two-parter. Readers, podcast listeners – my own slowly growing ‘bonus army’ please return in two week’s time and we’ll conclude this tale. 

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One: The Secret Agent. 

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

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

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

A Lancaster bomber

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

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

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

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

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

Three: The Brothel…

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

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

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

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

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

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

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

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

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

Four: Mechanical Failure

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

Five: …….

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Man of The Mountain

Hey all this is the third and final instalment on the Assassins. If you’re coming to this first, part one is here – part two here

The Old Man of The Mountain Tales of History and Imagination


I want to start this episode with a confession – when I say the Mongols brought our tale of the Persian Assassins to an end, in a sense they absolutely did. After the Mongols established the Ilkhanate, the Assassins ceased to be a powerful and shadowy force in the area. However the Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah survived – just quietly living their lives in the background. When Western academics arrived in Northern Persia in the 1810s they found the cult still in existence, centuries on from their last killings. In 1818 a young man named Hasan Ali Shah, who claimed ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Fatima was the sect’s leader. The Shah of Iran had recently granted him the title the Aga Khan. 

In 1838, rather unusually for Assassins at this stage, he led a failed revolt against the Shah and had to flee to Bombay, India. His story is convoluted – he gets involved on the British side of the first Anglo-Afghan war among other awful incidents. What is pertinent to this story however is while in India the Aga Khan tried to tax the Indian Ismaili – who flat out refused to pay him a rupee. They acknowledged their religion had come from his organisation, but they had long separated from the Persian Assassins, and owed him nothing. When this dispute came before the British run courts in the second half of the nineteenth century it was a shock to Western world in general the Assassins survived the Mongol hordes, and had spread so far. 

Speaking of spreading outside their boundaries – The first Ismaili missionaries crossed into Syria in Hassan-i Sabbah’s time – from the 1090s. Their experience was quite different from the Persians. 

For one, they found both a wide range of older beliefs still in existence, in the many isolated villages – this country was a potential goldmine for them. The first complication was the country was in the middle of a conflict with several armies of Turkish invaders. These Turks first come in from lands East of the Oxus river around 1064, and being very new recruits to Islam, held both very narrow and very ardent views on the religion. This marked them out as dangerous foes to the unorthodox Ismaili. By the mid 1090s the earlier, Seljuk rulers were fragmented. Their Sultan, a man named Tutush I, was killed in battle in 1095, and two of his sons formed rival states. 

The second complication was the European crusaders. The reasons the Europeans invaded are slightly more complex than my following explanation, but the major impetus was an escalation in fighting between the Byzantine Empire – the large, thriving empire in modern day Turkey which was once the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire, and the Seljuks. Both Turks and Seljuks were recent converts to Islam who arrived in the region from Transoxiana. In 1071 the Byzantines and Seljuks fought at the Battle of Manzikert. The Byzantines lost badly to the Seljuks. The far more agile Seljuk archers rode at them in waves, hitting then running till the Byzantine army wore down. One legend from this battle tells of a group in the centre of the battlefield, mostly comprised of  the elite Varangian Guard, were one of the last to fall. One bloodied, mud-caked man was captured and brought before Alp Arslan, the Seljuk leader. 

A Turkish statue of Alp Arslan

It turned out the man was Byzantine emperor Romanos IV. Alp Arslan threw the emperor to the ground, putting his boot on the man’s neck. 

“What would you do if I were brought to you as a prisoner?” He asked. 

Romanos replied he might kill the warlord, or perhaps march him through the streets of Constantinople for his subjects to jeer at.

Arslan replied his punishment would be considerably worse – he’d forgive the emperor and send him home. 

He, of course ransomed the Emperor back to the Byzantines for a crippling sum of money – you get nothing for free. When Romanos was returned, he discovered just how right Arslan was. An angry junta in the court quickly deposed Romanos, blinded him and sent him off to live the rest of his life in a monastery. 

His successor (one removed), Alexios Komnenos was spooked enough by the rapid Seljuk encroachment on their land, he wrote to the Pope to ask for help. In 1095 Pope Urban II kicked off the first of the crusades to the Holy Land. By 1097 the soldiers of the First Crusade had beaten the Seljuks at Nicaea, then swept clean through the Levant – establishing four Christian city states – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. While this led to utter disarray among various Turkic, Shi’a and Sunni groups, a large number of Syrian locals gravitated towards the Ismaili – who they saw as their best hope against the invaders.

Also quite different, the Ismaili were largely performing without a safety net until 1131. It took them close to half a century to capture a mountain fortress, and were far more vulnerable to counter-attack than their Persian counterparts. 

But oh did they assassinate. 

Take for example the 1st May 1103 killing of Janah al-Dawla, ruler of Homs. A group of assassins ambushed him while praying in the mosque. A massive brawl broke out in which several of the ruler’s bodyguards and the assassins were stabbed to death. Or the attack on the Citadel of Afamiya. At the time the fortress was occupied by a warlord named Khalaf ibn Mula’ib. One day in 1106 six men showed up at the entrance with a horse, Frankish shield and armour. They claimed they had come across a crusader knight on their travels and murdered him. They were now here to pay tribute to the warlord, to gift him these belongings. They were welcomed in. In the following days they murdered the warlord and temporarily took over the citadel. As with many attempts to hold down a fortress in these early days, they were outnumbered and eventually lost the fortress. 

Another notable assassination – In 1113 the Persians sent the emir of Mosul to Syria with an army. They were there to fight against the Crusaders. The Assassins finished the emir off with their usual efficiency. Several other murders and attempts to secure a castle continued, at one point a ruler even knocking down an old castle to stop them from taking it. In 1124 the sect were successfully expelled from Aleppo. They continued on, in the shadows. In 1126, they killed a governor of Mosul. There is a story from that particular murder that a gang of eight Assassins carried out the deed. Seven were killed on the spot – and, unusually – one escaped. Days later that Assassin returned to his home village to find his hometown celebrating the kill – and him, as a martyr. His overjoyed grandmother was suddenly ashen at his return. Sinking into a deep depression she disowned the young man. 

In 1129 the Assassins successfully knifed another vizier, this time in Damascus – but this time a militia rose up, slaughtering thousands of Syrian Ismaili in retaliation. By 1131, however, they finally got a couple of toeholds by way of fortresses in the Harim mountains. While the Assassins were not in open conflict with the Crusaders – some Muslim writers even suggested the two forces were in allegiance with one another – they did profit from Crusaders being driven out of a handful of fortresses by the Turks. As soon as no one was looking, they swooped in. They spent the next two decades consolidating their power in the mountain regions. 

While one Assassin leader did ally with a Crusader, Raymond of Antioch, there were only two assassinations from this time. A revenge attack on a Muslim leader for the massacre of 1129, and in 1151 the murder of a Crusader, Count Raymond of Tripoli. 

In 1162, Rashid al-Din, a man later known as The Old Man of the Mountain, arrived in Syria via Alamut Castle. Just a young man of around 30, he was an up and coming star in the organisation. He was the son of a wealthy family from Basra who had trained in alchemy, and had been radicalised into the sect. The Hasan who briefly convinced the Persian Ismaili the end of the world was coming, so it’s fine to pray facing away from Mecca, with a glass of wine and minstrels serenading you, sent him. Rashid was in charge when Hasan ordered the sect to renounce Islamic law. Though Syrian records are hazy, it appears he fell in line with Persia on this. 

In these years the ruler of Aleppo sent an army after the Ismaili, who withstood the attack. It is from around this time that a legend arose of a garden of earthly delights behind their fortifications – where young men are brainwashed into martyrdom. Following this attack, Rashid put a lot of time and effort into making all their fortresses unbreakable – while building new castles throughout the mountains. Rashid al-Din became such a well loved, and capable leader that Assassins were actually sent from Alamut Castle to murder him, for fear he would usurp their authority. 

In the meantime, much of the Islamic Near East was coalescing behind a Sunni Kurdish general who came to be known as Saladin. He would rise from general to Sultan of a sprawling empire which took in parts of North Africa, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Of his many victories, he led an army of 40,000 Muslims against a Crusader army of a similar size at the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Crusader army was exterminated to all but a handful of men; while Saladin’s forces lost but a handful of archers. This is to say the man was a respected leader and a more than formidable general. In a sense it was inevitable he would come into conflict with the Assassins. 

In 1181, Saladin wrote to the caliph of Mosul. He accused the caliph of underhanded behaviour in using Assassin forces against the Crusaders. His concern was not one iota for the Crusaders, but the rest of Islam as he feared the caliph was planning an attack on his empire. This was probably in truth a pretence to attack Mosul and bring the city under his sway. It also revealed a hidden animosity towards the cult. His animosity was not unfounded. 

In December 1174, while Saladin’s army was besieging the city of Aleppo, a letter was sent from the city to The Old Man of the Mountain. If they assassinated Saladin, the ruler of Aleppo would shower land and money down upon them. Soon after, a team of assassins breached Saladin’s camp and may have gotten away with the murder but for an emir who recognised the men. The Assassins struck down the emir, getting into a fight where many people, including themselves, were stabbed to death. Saladin survived the attempt on his life. Assassins tried again on 22nd May 1176. In this case a group of assassins, disguised as soldiers, got to the General – stabbing him several times. Saladin was wearing armour under his clothes and only received a handful of minor cuts. Several men were killed, however, while subduing the killers. 

These assaults unnerved the General, who made it a point of never letting someone he did not personally know, come within striking distance of him ever again. 

Saladin did lead an army against the Assassins in 1176, but had to call off the siege, due to an attack by Frankish crusaders elsewhere. After this point, for all his rhetoric, Saladin chose to tolerate the Assassins. 

There is a story which may explain this sudden tolerance. The tale has it Saladin also sent a letter to the Old Man of the Mountain, only to receive one in return. Saladin received the messenger, having him checked for knives. The messenger then stated he was to give the message to Saladin alone. The Sultan waived away most of his entourage except for two well-trusted guards, stating “Give your message”. 

“I have been ordered to deliver it only in private” the messenger insisted. 

The Sultan doubled down, stating if he wished, he should deliver Rashid al-Din’s reply, otherwise leave. 

“I regard these men as my own sons” he stated of his bodyguards. 

The messenger turned to the guards, and asked “If I ordered you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?” Both men drew their swords, replying in the affirmative. 

The messenger left, alongside the two bodyguards.   

Of course in the following years, assassinations of powerful rulers continued in Syria, especially the powers that be in Aleppo. 

And that time they killed a crusader king – The Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, mentioned in part one of this series. Two Assassins disguised themselves as Christian monks, became friendly with the Bishop, and from there the King – and just bided their time till the opportunity presented itself, on 28th April 1192. Contrary to popular legend it appears – if Saladin’s chroniclers are to go by – both Assassins were captured alive, and under questioning broke, admitting they committed the murder on behalf of England’s King Richard the Lionheart. He wanted his nephew and protege Henry II of Champagne on the throne. As it turned out he did get his way, when Henry married Conrad’s widow and took the position. Other Islamic historians have claimed at this stage Saladin was friendly with The Assassins – and that he ordered the murder. Whatever the case, the assassination cleared Conrad, the most belligerent of the crusaders, off the battlefield. This left an opening for Richard and Saladin to sign a peace treaty soon after. This treaty recognised the lands of the Assassins – henceforth not to be attacked by either side. 

And this was how the Assassins of Syria achieved respectability – at least until the Mamluks disbanded them. 

There is one final tale I wish to tell, in this rather episodic Tale of History and Imagination. 

The Kipchaks were a tribe of nomadic Steppe people, coming from somewhere close to the Mongols. In the 1220s they got on the bad side of the Mongols, then fled to Eastern Europe hoping to find sanctuary. Some rulers, like King Bela IV of Hungary, did take in Kipchaks, and faced off against the Mongol hordes as a consequence. One can imagine how those defences played out against the near unstoppable power of a Mongol army. One tribe known as the Barli fled to Bulgaria. The Mongols pursued, retrieving thousands of Kipchaks, then selling them through the Crimean slave markets. In that haul, a giant, broad-faced young man we would come to know as Baybars.   

Baybars, then around 24 years of age, passed to the household of a powerful Egyptian. In 1247, his master got on the wrong side of the Egyptian Sultan, who had the master executed. He personally confiscated all his belongings, including his gigantic slave. In 1254, this largely Steppe born slave population – Mamluks by their terminology – gained freedom when given small state. They then proceeded to overthrow the Egyptian Sultan. Baybars took on the name we known him by now – meaning Great Panther, and the leadership of the nation. Mamluks would still be in charge of Egypt in the late 1790s when Napoleon Bonaparte landed there. 

The Mamluks came into conflict with the Assassins in the 1260s, after having taken control of Syria, and done the near impossible – They defeated the Mongols in battle at Ain Jalut in September that year. The Assassins accepted their authority and began paying a cash tribute to them. Baybars decided, however, they could not be allowed their independence. He saw them as a dangerous complication in his plan to unite the Near East, and eject the Mongols and Crusaders. In 1270 he deposed the Assassin chief, Najm al-Din, putting one of his own men in charge of the sect. Of course the sect sent Assassins to kill the Sultan. in 1271 two men tried, and failed, and were arrested. Najm al Din and his son Shams al-Din were arrested and taken to Cairo where the Sultan could keep a closer eye on them. The Assassins – no longer independent – continued for some years in the service of Baybars and his successors. Several high ranking crusaders were stabbed to death by unobtrusive men, who had simply blended into their courtly surroundings – till unexpectedly, clinically, they struck. 

By the Thirteenth Century the assassinations ended, and the Assassins sect faded into obscurity. 

Hey readers, I’m taking a month to prepare the next run of episodes – we’re not likely to hit anything quite this episodic again till the end of the year – when I hope to cover one of the most wicked individuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve got a couple of well…. Odd blog posts to drop in the following month, quite frankly. Anyone up for some magic talismans and pro wrestling tales in June? 

Listeners, I’ve got a couple of ‘from the vaults’ blog posts I’ve recorded. 

In July we’ll jump into some tales – blog and podcast alike – of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, volley guns, pirates, range wars, man eaters and – well, we’ll come to those Emus. Congratulations Australia, I approve of your new Prime Minister. 

The Mongols are Coming!

Hi there this is part two of what will probably be a three part tale. If you haven’t checked out The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah first, click here. 

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination


To unravel this part of this tale, we needs must flash forward 96 years, then work back a ways. We left off in 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah, had built a fiercely autonomous state in the North of Persia. In doing so he arranged the blood-soaked murders of close to fifty high ranking Persians who called for his destruction. On his way out Hassan sued for peace in the only way he knew how – an assassin close to the Sultan stuck a dagger deep into the sultan’s floor, next to his bed while he slept. This was a reminder Hassan was in fact a friend – if the men were enemies the dagger would have been stuck elsewhere – and Hassan had eyes everywhere. A peace treaty was agreed on. We’ll return to this in a moment. 

What we need to know now is – just prior to where we pick up, another faction on the edge of the Caliphate had come to prominence. Founded in a city on the border of modern day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 1079 – and originally a vassal state – the Kwarazmian Empire had grown into one of the biggest empires in history. It’s ruling family had ascended from slavery to freedom. By the mid twelfth century their aggressive expansion began. In 1198 the Kwarazmians reached their largest extent, ruling over much of Central Asia, Northern India, Pakistan, and Persia. Their ruler, Shah Ala al-Din Takish didn’t enjoy his empire for long, however. In 1200 a mouth abscess turned septic, killing him. Legend tells on his deathbed, Takish called his son and successor, Ala al-Din Muhammad to his chamber. 

I believe it myth-making but if true, Takish’s words were rather Karmic. Takish’s, alleged, final words to his son – were to the effect of “whatever you choose to do in life, you can do little wrong. The one thing you must never, ever do – is pick a fight with the barbarian hordes to the North-East of us”. 

It took Muhammad II of Kwarazym till 1218 to allegedly ignore this alleged advice, but, oh boy – that fight he picked changed the course of history dramatically. 

The Mongols, those Steppe barbarians, were an empire on the rise by 1218. We’ll be on that topic forever if I go into too much detail. In short – For centuries the Chinese empires had the measure of the Steppe people. Recognising how dangerous they were, they paid certain tribes protection money to leave them be – while helping foster inter-tribal rivalries amongst the others. The Mongols lived far North on the Steppe, on less fertile land. They enjoyed no Chinese largesse. Compared to other tribes, they were thought poor scavengers – mostly living off whatever marmots, rats and fish they could catch, and drinking a lot of fermented milk. Some time around 1162 a child was born to the tribe. He had a rough childhood which included the tribe abandoning his family for some time, and a time he was enslaved by his father’s enemies – but the boy proved tough and resourceful -and he secured patronage from a Steppe Warlord, Torghil, the Ong Khan – of the wealthy Kereyid tribe. 

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

This young man, then known as Temujin, fought for the Ong Khan against other tribes, such as the Merkid – who once kidnapped his wife (long story, we will come back to him in detail one day), Tayichiuds, Tatars and others. He grew to become a fantastic strategist and an inspirational leader through this endless warfare – but he also tired of it’s pointlessness. Through warcraft and diplomacy he put an end to the wars. By 1206 Temujin was rebranded Genghis Khan (pron. Chingis) – King of the Mongols. When, in 1218, he sent a peaceful trading envoy to Muhammad II of Kwarazym, he ran a prosperous empire – which controlled the Chinese Western Xia and Jin Dynasties, as well as the Qara Khitai – whose sprawling kingdom took in modern day Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek territory.

The records suggest the great Khan had no intent other than to trade with a powerful neighbour. Muhammad was convinced, however, that the trade delegation were spies – sent to reconnoiter his kingdom for a Mongol invasion. Muhammad ordered the envoys arrested, stole their goods, then disfigured the merchants’ faces. When news reached Genghis of their arrest, he sent a political envoy of three men to Kwarazym to de-fuse the situation. Muhammad had these men executed. At news of this insult, Genghis was apoplectic. He prepared his army for war. 

In March 1220, Muhammad II braced for what he thought was the entirety of Genghis’ army, coming via the roads one expected them to tread. Little did he realise he was watching the B team. Genghis was already within striking distance of the oasis city of Bukhara. He’d marched several thousand men for two thousand miles through the Kyzyl Kum desert – a vast, inhospitable hell-scape frequented by a handful of nomads, several Russian tortoise, and far too many six foot long monitor lizards. No one believed an army could survive in this desert, so no-one was looking out for them. 

The Bukharans must have been comforted a little by the fact they were inside a well stocked, well fortified city. Steppe barbarians, however deadly in battle, never carried siege engines. It is true Genghis and his men arrived with very little – they even lived off the meagre pickings of the desert so as not to be slowed down by a supply train. The Mongols took their time, however. They set up camp. They cut down a small forest to construct siege engines, ladders, trebuchets and catapults. They gave the people an ultimatum – open the city gates to us and we will treat you favourably. Fight and we will show you no mercy. 

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

Well, at least they made a half- hearted effort to. After three days of raining hellfire and thunder upon the city, the bulk of the 20,000 defenders attempted to flee – though one source I read claimed they charged towards, not away from, the Mongols. Whatever the case they were butchered. The mongols then stormed the city. 

A large contingent of soldiers who didn’t charge or flee their attackers had set up in the citadel at the heart of the city. They managed to hold their attackers at bay for two weeks before Mongol siege engines broke them. 

The 280 wealthiest men in the city were rounded up and ordered to show Genghis’ men where they buried their treasure. The pillage, and eventual burning of the city began. Genghis, a man who was never known before to have actually entered a city (in his many battles, once won he’d leave it to his generals to handle the looting and burning), did enter Bukhara. He had a message for the survivors. 

“O People, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

The punishment of God was upon the Caliphate, as city after city fell. Those who surrendered were made vassals of the Mongol empire. Those who put up a fight were wiped from the face of the earth. Muhammad II of Kwarazym fled to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of pleurisy weeks after his arrival. 

We’ll come to what this meant for the Assassins in a moment. Now back to where we left off. 

Bukhara would remain under Mongol rule till the 1920s, pictured the Emir of Bukhara Muhammad Alim Khan.

Peace was short-lived for the Ismaili. The Sultan Hassan-i Sabbah had so terrified died in 1126. His replacement, Sultan Sanjar, immediately sent an army into Assassin territory with orders to kill all Ismaili they came across. The Sultan was not particularly anti-Assassin, but he had a Vizier, Mu’in al-Din Kashi, who particularly detested them. The invasion failed in its ultimate objective, but did lead to the massacre of two villages – Tarz and Turaythith. The Assassins took revenge the way they best knew. 

On March 16, 1127, the Vizier called on two of his most trusted servants. The Sultan’s birthday was coming up and he needed to know which two of his prized horses should he gift him? The servants were, you guessed it, Assassins – who proceeded to murder the living daylights out of Mu’in al-Din Kashi. By 1129, the Ismaili actually gaining territory, Mahmud – the Sultan of Isfahan – called for peace. Regional rulers passed on leading to power vacuums in the regions surrounding the Ismaili – itself leading to civil conflicts among the Sunni. In 1139 the Caliph of Baghdad, himself embroiled in the war, was captured by a Sultan named Mas’ud. Moving his captive to the city of Maragha, it appears the Sultan had every intention of keeping the Caliph alive. No-one expected a group of Assassins would be capable of entering the compound and stabbing the Caliph to death. They were. They did, publicly celebrating the hit for a week afterwards. 

As a rule however, there were fewer assassinations under Hassan’s successor, Kiya Buzurgummid, who would have preferred a peaceful existence. He passed in 1138, passing the mantle to his son Muhammad. Muhammad’s reign saw just 14 assassinations, including another Caliph. Of interest, a Sultan named Da’ud, murdered in 1143. His death, it was claimed, was on behalf of the ruler of Mosul. It was also curious the killing was carried out, not by Persian assassins, but by Syrians. Under father, then son the Assassins were more concerned with governance of their own people. They also took to sending out missionaries to Syria, Georgia, and modern day Afghanistan. 

Waves of violence against the Ismaili continued from time to time however. In Rayy, the governor, a man named Abbas, launched a massacre of Ismaili in the city, afterwards proudly exhibiting a tower of skulls from the dead. Abbas was murdered by Sultan Mas’ud of the Caliph debacle before the assassins could come for him. For all this violence, the Persian Ismaili largely resisted the urge to assassinate. For a while they became a little boring, and respectable. 

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

Early on the heir-apparent made waves. He publicly preached the Assassins needed a return to the revolutionary ways of his namesake, gathering a small army of followers. Hasan was something of a Millenarian – he believed when the Millennium came, the messiah would return and reinstate the faithful in paradise. Muhammad, concerned these new extremists would undo all his hard work, had 250 of his son’s followers arrested and put to death as heretics. Muhammad passed in 1162, ushering in Hasan’s era. 

For two years Hasan behaved himself, then in the middle of Ramadan in 1164 he announced the Millennium was upon them. From now on they would pray with their backs to Mecca. He announced to his people end times were coming, the ‘hidden Imam’ had spoken to him and advised the Holy Law no longer applied to them. If you wish to break the fast, do so. Want a glass of wine? Go for it. Want a glass of wine while in prayer, and a band of musicians playing in the background to break the silence? Why not? They are the righteous, they are saved from sin. All those old rules no longer applied. 

If there were ever a time Assassins ate pork, as Christian monks reporting from Armenia – another place to be visited by Ismaili missionaries at this time – this might just be it. Hasan reinvented himself as a modern-day Imam and a messiah-like figure. To drive home his message everyone must enjoy their newfound freedom, he executed numerous Ismaili who were perfectly happy with the old ways. You better damn well be free – the boss commands it of you seemed the mood of the day. The party lasted till 9th January 1166, when Hasan’s brother-in-law, in true Assassin style, stabbed the Imam to death. The next leader, Muhammad II was altogether less controversial. 

He saw the rise of the  Kwarazym. A handful of assassinations happened in his time. Orthodoxy restored itself among the Ismaili. Muhammad died in 1210, passing the mantle to his son Jalal al-Din Hasan. Jalal was far more orthodox than any other Ismaili ruler – they were all Muslims and he wished to leave cultish practices and mountain fortresses behind him. He sent secret messages to the Caliph of Baghdad asking how he could bring the Ismaili back into the fold? His reign saw a return towards orthodoxy, and the burning of many of their more heretical texts. This did not mean the assassinations stopped – The Persian Assassins became a part of the machine, now killing on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. 

Soon word reached Persia of this new, unstoppable force in the East – Barbarian Animists who believed God WAS the eternal blue sky – the Tengri in their language. Jalal al-Din Hasan was the first Muslim leader to reach out to the Mongols – proposing they too could be friends. Jalal passed soon after, in 1221 – passing the leadership to his nine year old son Ala al-Din Muhammad. During his reign the Assassins picked up land lost by the rapidly crumbling Kwarazmian Empire, and sent missionaries off to India. Ala’s behaviour, in turns cruel and eccentric, or depressed and heavily intoxicated – led to his assassination in 1255. At this point others worried his erratic behaviour was drawing bad attention from the Mongols – and no-one wanted the ‘punishment of God’ banging at the fortress door. His son Rukn al-Din took over. 

Which leads us to the Assassin’s inevitable conflict with the Mongols. 

Back to the Mongol invasion. Under Genghis, the Mongol army conquered wherever they went. They methodically took over all the major Central Asian cities – Samarkand, Balkh, Marv and Nishapur all ceded to them sooner or later. Genghis also controlled East Persia by the time of his passing in 1227. Everything went on hold for a few years, as often happened when a Khan died. Leaders would return to Mongolia to mourn, then call a meeting – a Khuriltai – to decide a new leader. Genghis’ son Ogedei ascended to the position and ordered the invasion to continue in 1230. In 1238 what was left of the Kwarazmian empire, alongside the Assassins, sent out envoys as far afield as China and England begging for assistance. By 1240 most of Persia was under Mongol control, and the Great Khan turned towards Georgia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. 

Dying Khans slowed Mongol progress yet again. When Ogedei passed in 1241, Eastern Europe, Korea and the Assassins must have all breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sudden cessation of war. The following decades saw a few starts and stops. In 1246 the Assassins sent an envoy to the coronation of Ogedei’s son Guyuk – they were not warmly received. 

In 1253 The Great Khan was Genghis’ grandson Mongke. He gave orders to his brother Hulegu to capture the Near East as far as Egypt. Their first port of call was the Assassins. In Ala al-Din’s declining years, he chose to fight them – but on his passing, Rukn al-Din was quick to capitulate to the Mongol war machine.  But this wasn’t where his story ended. The Assassins were spread over dozens of mountain fortresses. Expert warriors as the Mongols now were, they knew some of these fortress required a year or longer to overthrow, a great deal of effort, and many lives. No one besides the Imam had really called it a day. Rukn al-Din was suddenly taken in as a valued employee of the Great Khan. His job, to visit every last mountain fortress and convince them to surrender. His reward, he and his family would be kept safe, in the lap of luxury – for now – 

and around 30 camels. 

I feel silly mentioning the camels, but its mentioned in every book on the Mongols I’ve read over the last decade or so – and two books I read on the Ismaili for this post. The Mongols must have presumed the Imam wanted them for breeding purposes – but it seems nothing brought more joy to his life than to watch two male camels in a knock em down, drag em out street fight. To each their own I guess…

Rukn al-Din was taken from castle to castle, convincing most to surrender. Between the camel fighting and capitulations he found time to marry a Mongol woman. As a few castles held out, the Imam’s value to the Khan came under question. Two fortresses, Lamasar and Girdkuh held out for a while. No longer of use, Rukn al-Din was murdered on his way back to Persia from the Great Khan. A small resistance movement hung around till the 1270s, at one point even re-taking Alamut castle, but the Assassins Cult was all but over in Persia. 

They, of course survived – thrived even – in Syria. They even found themselves in places as far afield as India. We’ll look at those Tales in two weeks’ time for the final part – The Old Man of the Mountain.  

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah Tales of History and Imagination


This post/podcast episode is part one of a two (edit: probably Three) part Tale. I’ll be dropping part two in a fortnight.

There is a shadowy tale from the medieval Near East that persists in the modern imagination.  At some time in the 11th Century a heretical cult arose in the mountains of northern Iran and Syria. They lived in rugged castles – only approachable through near impenetrable passes. Approaching the fortress you soon had the sense the hills had eyes, and if those eyes did not approve of your presence, acolytes would rain stones down on you from high above. If you made it through the valley, a steep, narrow goat path awaited. Thousands of feet above, the cult’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – Alamut castle, and it’s charismatic leader – a prototypical James Bond supervillain if ever there was one. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Old Man of The Mountain’ – more on that in a second – this man was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Sultans, administrators and Holy Men. One tale of note, when the Crusaders arrived, and set up four Christian kingdoms on the Levant, the cult brutally murdered the soon to be crowned, new King of Jerusalem. 

Rather than sending in an army, a small party of men arrived at court disguised as monks. They blended in perfectly, winning the trust of Conrad of Montferrat -a savvy, capable warrior who came to prominence through his actions in the Third Crusade. When they sprung their trap, Conrad was no match for two knife wielding murderers. He never even saw them coming. On his way home from business, days after being elected King, two men rode alongside him and unhesitatingly thrust their daggers into him. One shot apiece and the king bled out at the scene of the assault. 

Meanwhile, neither man even attempted to flee the scene. One was killed by the king’s bodyguards, the other taken in and questioned. He said nothing, but they knew who he was. He was an Assassin. What was strange, the hit was purportedly carried out on behalf of King Richard The Lionheart of England – who was furious his nephew Henry II of Champagne lost the crown to Conrad. 

Conrad of Montferrat

It was a strange killing, the Assassins almost never targeted westerners. For one, they had no shortage of enemies in the Islamic world to keep them busy. The method of murder was exactly as first reported to the west by Catholic priests in Armenia. The killers were chameleonic, able to present as one of their own. When it came time to deal the killing blow, it came swiftly, dispassionately – and with a brutal precision. The Assassin rarely attempted to fight their way out, and if brought in alive, were even less likely to give a reason for the murder. Their choice of murder weapon was always the same – a hitherto concealed dagger. Their victims were always powerful people whose loss greatly affected their kingdom.

 According to 12th century reports they were utterly heretical. For one they were rumoured to eat pork (for a while at least they did give up all orthodoxy, so for a few years this was possible). The explorer Marco Polo also claimed they got their name, by his telling the Hashhashins – as they smoked a lot of hashish. It’s now more generally accepted their name comes from the Arabic word assas, meaning principle. They were people of principle. This scans. Whether deeply religious, or in their heretical phase, they always followed the teachings and principles set out by their leader.  

In another tale which comes down from Marco Polo, the old man had a valley blocked off from the world at large. Inside the valley he built a magnificent pleasure dome – based on religious depictions of paradise. He drugged acolytes into unconsciousness before ‘magically’ transporting them into the valley. Every pleasure imaginable was theirs – from stunning vistas to music, sumptuous feasts to, one presumes, 72 virgins? The acolytes truly believed they were in heaven – till, suddenly, they were thrust back into the real world. On coming to, the old man was there to greet you. From day one this man educated you in the ways of the world. Now he was here to console you for having attained, and lost, heaven. 

“There is a way to return, you know. Just take this dagger, and when the time is right…” Well, you know how the rest plays out. 

This part of the legend is categorically false. There was no pleasure dome built for nefarious purposes. The founder of the cult, an Ismaili preacher named Hasan-i Sabbah, for that matter became an old man living in a mountain fortress – but the badass sobriquet old man of the mountain belonged to a later leader of the cult. We’ll discuss that man, Rashid ad-Din Salam in part two, as he is often considered the greatest of the Assassin chiefs. It is fair to say though Hasan-i Sabbah was something of a supervillain – the man practically invented terrorism.

To discuss Sabah we need to know a little about the politics and religion of his time. The following is reductive – we have a lot of information to share.
Hasan was born on an indeterminate year – probably 1050 AD, in the city of Qom, south of Tehran. He was born to a Twelver Shi’a family. 

Regarding, Shi’a and Sunni, Twelver and Ismaeli – In 632 Islam’s originator, the prophet Muhammad, died without a clear succession plan. Two factions developed in the power vacuum. One, the Sunni, believed Abu Bakr – an early and learned follower of Muhammad – should take the reins. Bakr was named Muhammad’s deputy – his Khalifa – from which we get the term Caliphate. Another faction backed Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali. They became known as the Shi’atu Ali – the party of Ali. This later shortened to Shi’a. Though initially a political division, both groups religious views diverged over time. 

Power, for the most part stayed with the Sunni. Ali did get a run as Caliph in 656, but his short run was mired down in an ugly civil war. He was murdered in 661, ushering in the Sunni, Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads remained in power for a century before losing power to the Abbasids, also Sunni’s. 

In the meantime the Shi’a followed a shadow Caliphate run by a series of Imams – mostly comprised of descendants of Ali, and his wife Fatima. 

Being cut off from power didn’t mean the Shi’a didn’t attempt to take over on occasion. On several occasions between 680 and the 750s, the Shi’a did attempt to rebel. Several preachers took on increasingly messianic personas. They also picked up a number of discontented peoples. 

One of the side effects of the spread of Islam was, owing to much of it’s being through military conquest – a class of disaffected, conquered people coalesced. These people often found themselves locked into a lower social class than they belonged to pre-conquest. Many were antagonistic towards the religion of the oppressors; but many were open to an edgy, alternative version of that religion which promised them fairness and equity.  

The uprisings were mostly pretty similar. A charismatic gathered a dedicated following through promising his followers better. Once of a significant size, that faction took a shot at overthrowing a local ruler by force. However violence started off, sooner of later it gravitated towards a traditional showdown – two large groups facing off against one another on a battlefield.  The bigger, more powerful Sunni faction always won. The spate of attempted putsches ran out of steam in the mid 8th century. 

Shi’a Islam itself was fractious. The two sects we need to discuss are the Twelvers and the Ismailis. 

When the Shi’a reached their seventh Imam, they ran into an important juncture. Ja’far ibn Muhammad originally intended his son Isma’il to follow in his footsteps and become the seventh Imam – but for an unspecified reason the two men had a falling out. Isma’il was banished, and when the Imam passed in 765, his younger son Musa took over. The Ismaili sect separated from the rest of the Shi’a. They built a new doctrine concerned with uncovering hidden truths. At the heart of their doctrine, a radical desire to oust the Sunni from power. The remainder of the Shi’a followed the succession of Imams till they hit number 12. The twelfth, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan, disappeared mysteriously in 874. His followers, known as Twelvers, believe he ascended into a spiritual realm, and will return alongside the prophet Isa (Jesus) on judgment day. By Hasan-i Sabbah’s day the Twelvers were largely moderate, the Ismailis radical. 

In short, Sabah grew up a smart kid into a far less privileged set, but among the more conservative of that group. One could imagine he had something of a chip on his shoulder. His father’s bloodline was from Yemen, where he claimed to be a descendant of the Himyaritic kings of Southern Arabia. They followed Judaism, and ruled over much of the country – till one day they massacred a Christian enclave. The massacre brought down the wrath the Ethiopian Aksumite Kingdom in the 520s. The Aksumites destroyed their kingdom.
As a teen he was a self described seeker, and hoped to become a scholar of Twelver Shi’a. That all changed when his father moved the family to the city of Rayy- a city known for it’s radical thinkers. In his late teens he fell in with the company of an Ismaili preacher named Amira Zarrab, who patiently debated young Hasan over many points of their faith. Amira hadn’t radicalised Hasan outright, but their debates opened his mind to other possibilities. 

His conversion to the Ismaili sect came after the young man caught a mysterious life- threatening illness. He pulled through, claiming his near-death experience gave him all the insight he needed. On recovery he sought out a Ismaili tutor. 

There’s a legend around Hasan’s turn to super-villainy that comes to us through the 19th century poet and writer Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald states, in his introduction to his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a popular book of Persian poetry), there were once three young, ambitious friends. They went to school together, where each child excelled. Omar Khayyam, now known to us as a poet, was an excellent mathematician and astronomer. Hasan a theologian. The third young man was a budding politician who came to be known as Nizam al-Mulk. The three made a pact that when one achieved fame, they would help the other two get to where they needed to be. 

A modern depiction of Omar Khayyam

The legend tells Nizam al-Mulk was the first to reach prominence, quickly rising through political circles to become Vizier – a high official – to the Seljuk Sultan. Both men approached Nizam, and were offered governorships in far flung regions. Neither accepted. Khayyam wanted nothing more than an academic life and – if you’ve read his poetry you know this – a life full of pleasure. Hasan was rather hurt by the offer, and chose to put himself forward for his friend’s position at the first opportunity. Feeling threatened, Nizam dug up dirt on Hasan. He hoped to disgrace him so badly he’d leave the kingdom immediately. Whatever he found worked, and a shamed, and henceforth vengeful Hasan left for Egypt. 

This is another falsehood. Nizam al-Mulk, who did become Vizier in 1072, was three decades older than the two other men. Al-Mulk and Hasan did know one another however, and would cross paths on a couple of occasions. The circumstances of Hasan’s exile were rather different.

Hasan suddenly left Rayy in 1076, first for Isfahan in Central Iran, then Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus – then finally Egypt via modern day Lebanon and Palestine. His studies in Ismailism led to him becoming a missionary; an active recruiter to the cause. A vocal political agitator considered a threat to the order, it’s believed al-Mulk himself ordered Hasan’s arrest. On his journey he ran into further trouble elsewhere while proselytising. In Farquin, Turkey he was expelled from the city after making claims no-one but a Shi’a Imam had the right to interpret religious texts. On route via Damascus, Syria he ran into trouble of another kind, when a military conflict broke out. He finally arrived in Shi’a controlled Egypt in 1078, where he was warmly welcomed by the establishment. 

Even in Egypt, ruled by a Fatimid Shi’a regime, his radical preaching got him in trouble yet again. Egypt’s top general ordered him imprisoned, then expelled upon release to North Africa. In 1081 he was placed on a French ship – but the ship sank en-route. Hasan was rescued, then dropped off in Syria. From there he snuck back into Persia.   

Hasan-i Sabbah spent most of the following decade preaching his gospel in the far flung regions of Persia – especially in the rugged mountains of the North. Locals there were resistant to the spread of Islam. Many of his converts felt similar animosities towards the regime as he did. They were tough, resourceful people who could handle themselves in a fight, and many were happy to sign up to any cause that might bring them a better life. In Khurasan, to the North, Hasan-i Sabbah built himself a small nation’s worth of followers. 

This in itself presented a problem. Now you have an army, what do you do with it? Past efforts were all failures – like In 680 a group aligned with Ali’s son Husayn who tried to overthrow the Umayyad Caliphate. All but one of the conspirators were executed. Another movement in 685, fighting on behalf of another of Ali’s sons, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, lasted two years before they were done away with. Dozens of other groups, one of whom bore a resemblance to the Indian Thugee – they ritualistically strangled their victims – all fell by the wayside. Hasan realised he couldn’t ever go toe to toe with a Sunni army. He needed a force of special operatives who could blend in, then strike down leaders unexpectedly. If he could get people to believe it a righteous act, he was a good way there. Just convince them an action of removing an irreligious leader was not just right, it was their ticket to paradise. If these people were bold enough – it would cause ripples of terror that spread well beyond the Islamic world.
That was all good, but sooner of later, the enemy would mount a counter attack on their terms. What Hasan also needed was a mountain fortress so unapproachable, no-one would ever attempt to counter-attack. 

Alamut Castle was ideal. Set on a narrow ridge in the middle of the Elburz mountains, the castle was only approachable by a steep, narrow path. It was currently owned by another sect. That wasn’t going to stop Hasan. He sent several of his followers to the surrounding villages to convert locals. In September 1090, with several of his own sect now embedded in the castle, he was snuck into Alamut. Hasan delivered the owners an ultimatum. He had 3,000 gold dinars on him to buy the castle. The owners could take the money and leave. If they refused Hasan would have them all killed. The pervious owners took the money and left. Hasan stayed at Alamut castle for the rest of his life, another 35 years all up. In that time he never returned back down the mountain.

His cult continued to grow. The assassins captured several other mountain fortresses through similar means.

Part of the modern ruins of Alamut Castle.

First blood was shed soon after. One of Hasan’s missionaries came into conflict with a muezzin – an official who calls the people to Friday prayers. The missionary tried to convert the man, who refused to give the assassin the time of day. This led to his murder. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk was so furious he ordered the assassin responsible executed, his body subsequently to be dragged through the streets. In 1092 in reprisal, Sultan Malik-Shah ordered two expeditions to Alamut to kill the Assassins. Hasan only had a force of around 70 men to defend Alamut, but they withstood both sieges. 

On October 14 1092 the Assassins took out their first major target. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk continued to wage war against the cult. The Vizier was travelling from Isfahan to Baghdad with an entourage, when approached by a Sufi travelling in the opposite direction. Drawing no suspicion he was allowed to approach the Vizier. Once within striking distance the man, an Assassin named Bu Tahir Arrani, drew his dagger and stabbed the Vizier to death.
This was the first of nearly fifty successful assassinations carried out in Hasan-i Sabbah’s lifetime. All the victims at this time were princes, generals, governors and holy men who called for action against the Ismaili. The names of the assassins were entered on a roll of honour. The cult continued to grow, even infiltrating the Sultan’s army. Many high officials refused to leave the house without chain mail armour under their clothes. Further military expeditions were sent after them. Though surrounding villages were often pillaged, their mountain fortresses withstood the attacks. 

One expedition in 1107 was nearly derailed from within. False reports of uprisings elsewhere held them up for over a month. Insiders at court then delayed further by starting a religious debate. If a mission was being sent to depose the Assassins as heretics, can we honestly say they really ARE heretics? If so, how? All the while Assassins within the court attempted to kill the prominent Emir speaking the loudest against them. In this case the assassination attempt failed. Ultimately in this one case they did lose a fortress. The siege was extremely costly however. It only drove home certain castles held by the Assassins, Alamut included, would be several orders more difficult to take. 

When Hasan-i Sabbah passed on in 1124, they moved a long way towards peace with the Sunni and independence from the Caliphate. One tale told of their fight for legitimacy, Hasan sent a large sum of money to the Sultan, with a request for a meeting. When rebuffed, Hasan sent another gift days later. One morning the Sultan awoke to find a dagger, blade stuck deep into the floor next to his bed. The Sultan, clearly shaken, ordered the incident be kept secret. Hasan sent him a messenger the following day, the message “Did I not wish the Sultan well that dagger which was struck into the hard ground would have been planted in his soft breast”

For a while after this peace ensued. 

But, of course this would not always be the case. Crusades featuring glory-seeking Europeans began in 1095 and would continue in the region for centuries after. In Egypt a new regime, the Mamluks – comprised of enslaved Central Asians from the Altai basin – would take over, changing the geopolitical landscape. Of course the unstoppable Mongol horde eventually arrived on the scene. We’ll cover all of that in part two, The Old Man of the Mountain, in two weeks’ time.

Njinga of Ndongo


Today’s tale is set in the African kingdom of Ndongo, modern day Angola – we touched upon this kingdom a few weeks back in the Tale of Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Today we’re taking a closer look at that strand. The year, 1622. Joao de Sousa, the Portuguese governor of Luanda prepares to meet with princess Njinga Mbandi, sister of king Ngola Mbandi, ruler of Ndongo. Their mission, to broker a peace after decades of on-again, off-again conflict.

Though allied with the neighbouring kingdom of Kongo from the late 1490s, Portugal’s first contact in Ndongo was in 1510. Initial contact was sporadic, but increasing demand for slaves to work Portugal’s Brazilian plantations – primarily – led to an increased presence in the region. In 1575, Paulo Dias de Novais – grandson of the explorer Bartolomeu Dias – set up a township on the Ndongo island of Luanda. Accompanied by 100 settler families, 400 soldiers, and a handful of Jesuit priests – Novais’ mission was to set up an enclave, exploit the silver mines of the native town of Cambambe, and to gain control of lands south of the Kwanza river. The jesuits were to convert as many locals as they could to Catholicism – having largely done so in Kongo decades earlier. Of course they were also there to look for slaving opportunities. 

The township at Luanda was tolerated by Ndongo till 1579, when a member of Novais’ party met with the Ngola (king) of Ndongo to spill the beans on an alleged plot to take over their whole country. Understandably, the Ngola responded by expelling the Portuguese from Luanda. Novais would call on their Kongolese allies to back them in a war with Ndongo – and so it was a multi-generational war would rage in the nation. 

During the wars tens of thousands of captives, warrior and civilian alike, were shackled, stored in cages called barracoons, then shipped off to the new world – to be worked to death on a plantation. The adversaries fought to a stalemate in 1599,  but hostilities ramped up again in 1610, when Philip II of Portugal discovered Ndongo had large reserves of copper. Copper could be alloyed to make bronze cannons to one’s heart’s content – cannons which would prove very useful in their colonial pursuits. Forced into exile by a combined Portuguese/Imbangala force (the Imbangala were a rival tribe, newly arrived in the region who were happy to act as extra muscle for Portugal) – Ngola Mbandi called on his sister Njinga to broker a peace treaty. 

There’s a tale, I’m paraphrasing the following but the sources all depict something to this effect. Njinga arrives for negotiations in full indigenous attire – breaking with the practice of attending diplomatic meetings in western attire. Led to the meeting room she found de Sousa reclined in his chair – with a mat laid out on the floor for herself. Unperturbed, but knowing the importance of meeting eye to eye, she called for one of her ladies in waiting. The servant got down on her hands and knees – providing a seat for the princess. After some discussion – in Portuguese (Njinga spoke several languages), the governor and the princess concluded. 

“What about your chair?” Asked de Sousa, gesturing to the lady in waiting. 
“Keep her, I have many chairs in my home”

While I have no idea if the poor servant was left with these slave traders after all, I think the anecdote highlights the princesses shrewdness and tenacity. She was unwilling to be anything less than an equal of the governor. It’s also an insight she had a ruthless streak not dissimilar to the Portuguese. 

De Sousa, allegedly, saw Njinga as an impressive figure, and the two parties came to a peace agreement which saw Portugal agree to leave Ndongo, and recognise their nationhood. The cost? A trade agreement with Portugal, and the royals – Njinga included – would convert to Catholicism. The princess also took on the name Dona Anna de Sousa after her baptism – a name she would use in official correspondence from this point on. Life seemed to be returning to normal.

But then, in 1626, Portugal suddenly discarded the treaty. They resumed hostilities – pushing the Ndongo out of their lands. At this stage Ngola Mbandi had passed, in 1624 – the crown passing to Njinga. The Ndongo were slowly driven further inland. In 1631 they took refuge in the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. 

Njinga was well acquainted with these neighbours. She was in exile there when Ngola Mbandi called on her to broker a peace with Portugal. When their father, the previous Ngola died, Mbandi had Njinga’s only child murdered, and Njinga sterilised before ordering her out. Both siblings were front runners for king – but neither had an outright claim to the throne as they were born to the king’s slave wives. Again in exile, Njinga was declared ruler of Matamba.

Imbangala warriors.

While away, the Portuguese put a puppet ruler on the throne of Ndongo, Ngola a Hari – soon baptized as Felipe de Sousa. In an effort to turn the people against Njinga, they spread sexist propaganda against the queen, stating a woman cannot be king. To counter Njinga symbolically ’became a man’, from what I can gather by taking on the title king – and ‘doing manly things’. 

If by ‘manly things’ the sources mean Njinga led zir (am switching to Spivak pronouns, when in doubt) army into battle on numerous occasions – this was nothing new. Njinga, formerly a warrior queen, was very much the warrior king too. Despite fighting an enemy whose numbers increased year to year, with a large technological advantage, Njinga’s Matamba stood their ground against Portugal. Then in 1641, the landscape changed over night, yet again.

The Dutch arrived in 1641, making quick work of defeating Portuguese forces at Luanda – setting up base on the island. As soon as news arrived in Matamba, Njinga sent a diplomatic envoy to the Dutch. With a new ally, the king of Matamba was soon winning major battles, like the 1644 battle of Ngoleme- and would besiege the new Portuguese capital, Masangano, in 1647. Portugal called on reinforcements from Brazil to save them. In the wake of the failed siege, Njinga retreated to Matamba – but then the guerrilla war against Portugal began. The Portuguese couldn’t take a walk outside without risk of a sneak attack against them. Matamba, alone again after 1648, would bolster their numbers by making alliances with other kingdoms – and by offering a safe haven to any and all escaped slaves in need of a new homeland. This gained the king a compliment of loyal troops in the battle. 

Finally, Portugal gave up. On 24th November 1657 they withdrew all claims to Ndongo. This doesn’t mean they gave up entirely on getting revenge on King Njinga, backing a number of assassination attempts against the monarch. 

Njinga Mbandi, Ngola of the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba would die in 1666, at an estimated age of around 80. The monarch would spend zir final years settling escaped slaves to the kingdoms. Njinga built on Matamba’s location as the ‘gateway to Central Africa’ to build a wealthy, mercantile nation. Legend has it ze also kept a harem of 50 – 60 men who would fight for the right to sleep with the monarch. In the morning, the unlucky concubine would be put to death. Needless to say Njinga was a highly troublesome character – but also an absolutely fascinating one.     

Premium Content: Yasuke

The following, like the recent Salmesbury Witches Tale, is a script for a Patreon bonus episode. Both these episodes are free to all – though most Patreon scripts will be subscriber only at a cost of US $10 a year.
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The Reverend Alessandro Valignano was a commanding presence in most any room he ever walked into – while I’m not one to buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, this guy was impressive. He obtained a doctorate in law aged 19, and after some unspecified trouble with the law for which he was jailed for a year, he pivoted to theology. By his mid 30s the Napolitano priest was sent out to supervise the conversion of non- Christian souls from Goa in India, to Japan. One reason he was allegedly so much larger than life, was he was literally larger than life. Valignano towered above anyone around him. Well, most people of his time anyway. So imagine this scene in 1581. Alessandro Valignano is in Kyoto, Japan – making his way through a busy street to their lodgings. The locals, not terribly used to seeing foreigners of any kind, crane their necks up in awe of the missionary. ….

While their eye might first be drawn to the Jesuit missionary, it’s the presence of his valet – well technically his bodyguard – who transfixes them. Bigger again. Powerfully built. His skin ‘as dark as charcoal’. The young man caught the imagination of onlookers, and scuttlebutt quickly spread throughout Kyoto of this living wonder. Soon locals clamoured to their lodgings to catch a glimpse of the man. Some even attempted to break down the front door. 

The impressively built, dark skinned man was a former African slave, who was believed to have been transported to India. Over there he secured his freedom, and found work as hired muscle for the Jesuits. Ethnically he was possibly from the Makua people of Mozambique, or the Habshi of Ethiopia. He may have belonged to the Dinka tribe of South Sudan – though if so he was enslaved young – He bore none of the facial tattoos the Dinka get at puberty. He was possibly named Yasufe, or Yisake – an Ethiopian variant of Isaac. We know him today as Yasuke. Word of the clamour soon reached the warlord – or Daimyo to use his proper title – Oda Nobunaga. Fascinated, he sent for the young man. Oda found him no less interesting in person. He enjoyed the man’s company. He was also quite the find – skilled with weapons and remarkably strong; people in Oda’s court commented he had the strength of ten men. The two men quickly became friends. By May 1581, Oda had taken Yasuke onboard his crew as a bodyguard. By 1582, Yasuke had become a Samurai. 

While this may sound like a rags to riches story – and to a degree it was – Yasuke’s new role came with high levels of risk to match the pay rise and room at court. 

From 1336 to 1573 Japan was ruled by the Ashikaga Shogunate. Their rule very much like a military dictatorship, the Shogun enforced absolute authority – with a Junta of 260 Generals, his Daimyo – providing the muscle. In the late 1460s a succession dispute broke out between two factions of the Ashikaga clan, which escalated into a civil war which ran for well over a century. Long suppressed grievances over land rights
eventually led to a massive realignment of society after 1600.

(Sidebar: much of the land in Japan had been handed out to the Shogun’s favourites back in the 800s – many of whom were Kyoto based Daimyo; who happily took rents, but were uncaring absentee landlords in return.)

Yasuke arrived in the midst of the Sengoku Period or ‘age of warring states’. The old Shogunate was gone. Decreasing numbers of Daimyo were at war with one another. At the same time, a new class – often headed by the former estate managers of deposed Daimyo – were on their way to becoming the new Daimyo. The country was in the midst of an all on all battle royale.

Oda himself may have been considered similarly new to the game. Coming from a relatively small land-owning family, he’d built an army of 30,000 men, and expanded his own holdings considerably. While still in his 30s he’d deposed the Shogun and several other Daimyo. He had also put down several Buddhist monasteries, who wielded great power themselves through religious influence and powerful armies of their own. Oda was the odds on favourite for the next Shogun. In an age where many sides were adopting muskets, then later field artillery in place of the traditional samurai sword, people started building western-influenced forts. Oda Nobunaga’s home at Adzuchi Castle was the biggest fort in the country at the time. In a time when tactics were modernising, he also just got it. 

We don’t know much specific about Yasuke’s time with the Daimyo. He took part in the battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582. Oda’s forces, in tandem Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army, faced off against Takeda Katsuyori’s army. When it was clear from the outset Takeda was outclassed, so he set fire to his own castle and fled into the mountains. Takeda had a mountain fortress he hoped to hide out in but an upstart officer refused to open the doors for him. With Oda and Tokugawa’s forces closing in, Takeda committed ritual seppuku – running himself through with his own sword. His army were slaughtered to the last man. Our African samurai played some unspecified role in this decisive battle. 

He was also present 21st June 1582 at the Honno-Ji incident. Once Takeda was removed, Oda planned a grand campaign to centralise all power under himself. The only clans holding out against him were the already weakened Mori, the Uesugi and Hojo clans. Barring acts of God or treachery, Oda would be the next Shogun. While Oda and Tokugawa took in their new gains following Tenmokuzan, he received a message from a general named Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Toyotomi had been sent out to finish the Mori, but the Mori were proving difficult. Toyotomi had besieged them at Takamatsu Castle by diverting a river, then surrounding the castle with floating siege engines from which they rained down arrows day and night – but the Mori hung in there. A reinforcement army six times the size of Toyotomi’s force was also on the move, with orders to crush them when they got there. Oda left for Honno-Ji temple, to plan his campaign. In the meantime he sent another general,  Akechi Mitsuhide, to rescue Toyotomi. 

Instead, Akechi sought the advice of several poets, asking them if he should double cross his master? Though his reasons for the double cross remain a mystery, the most likely reason was that he blamed the death of his mother on Oda. (She was a hostage of another Daimyo when Oda ordered an invasion. She was subsequently executed). Whatever the case he surprised Oda and his 30 bodyguards at Honno-Ji Temple, forcing him to commit seppuku. Akechi outnumbered him 13,000 to 30 so this was only ever going to end one way. Yasuke escaped, decapitating his old boss on the way out. Had Akechi gotten hold of Oda’s head, he could have used it to claim authority throughout Oda’s realm. 

Yasuke joined up with Oda’s eldest son Oda Nobutada at Nijo castle. They were soon besieged, and Akechi got the better of the younger Oda too. Nobutada also fell on his sword. While most of his fellow defenders were executed, Yasuke was spared. It’s believed Akechi saw him as little more than a trained animal. He was stripped of his weapons and armour, and sent back to the Jesuits. 

As the war dragged on, Toyotomi Hideyoshi made it through the siege of Takamatsu Castle. He sought revenge on Akechi Mitsuhide, easily defeating him. Akechi Mitsuhide fled, and met his end, not at the end of his own sword. Having blundered into a group of bandits – the highwaymen robbed and murdered him. Toyotomi Hideyoshi went on to become ‘the great unifier’, but Tokugawa Ieyasu became last man standing. On the murder of Oda, Tokugawa escaped with help from the legendary Hattori Hanzō and his Ninja warriors, Tokugawa returned home to Edo – modern day Tokyo. He allied himself with the great unifier, and fought alongside him. He became Shogun on Toyotomi’s death in 1598, and in 1600 established the Tokugawa Shogunate – ushering in the peaceful, largely isolationist Edo period, which lasted till 1868. 

But what of Yasuke? In short we know nothing of his life beyond this. There is speculation he may have been injured in the siege of Nijō castle, and died on being returned to the Jesuits, but this is mere speculation. I could just as reliably (though logically far less likely) claim he climbed aboard an ox, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu was said to have hundreds of years earlier – then simply rode off into the sunset, looking for his next big adventure. The truth is he just disappeared from the annals of history. If he lived on a while, settled down and got married, or went on to protect a new missionary we have absolutely no clue. By this western music playing under (the podcast episode), you know I’d prefer that he rode off into the sunset. 

Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

Today’s tale is set in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, much of Syria and parts of Turkey. The date? 405 BC. Mesopotamia is an empire which predates the written word – in fact laying claim to the first known work of literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh.

An empire credited, among a few others of simultaneously inventing the wheel. 

And an empire; because it was situated on incredibly fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grew several of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. Their history is long, and complex – the earliest known parts pre-dating our story by over three millennia – and our own time five and a half thousand years. 

It encompasses Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ur Empires and many more dynasties besides. It’s rulers include Ur- Nammu, who built the first law code. Hammurabi – often mistaken as the first law maker, but an important pioneer of Talionic law codes everywhere. Sargon of Akkad, a man with a mythical origin story (the illegitimate son of an unknown father and a high priestess, he was cast away in a reed basket down the Euphrates long before anyone had ever heard of Moses) and the first ruler in history to whom we can give a personal name. 

And many more. Various Rimushes, Shulgis, Rim-Sins, Kurigalzus, Nebuchadnezzars, Shamshi-Adads, Tiglath-Pilesars, Ashurbanipals, Sennacheribs, Esarhaddons and more besides… many impressive and terrifying figures. 

Which is a long-winded way of saying, when thinking of Mesopotamia, think of an ancient USA in it’s scale and dominance over other states – only the nation has been dominant for over three thousand years as the point of this Tale.  

The dynasty we’re concerned with is the Achaemenid Empire. This Persian kingdom rose to prominence in the wake of a successful war against the neighbouring Medes (believed to be the modern day Kurds) in 559 BC. Soon, their king, Cyrus was not just in charge of the entire region – but had extended the empire’s traditional borders into the Eastern Mediterranean, establishing the largest empire known to humankind to that date in the process. His son Cambyses conquered Egypt, and Cambyses son Darius in turn added much of Northern India to the club. The Tales around Xerxes, and his clashes with a little group of upstarts across the pond who invented democracy – well, much of that can be saved for another Tale. Suffice to say the Achaemenids ruled from 559 BC till Alexander the Great demolished Darius III’s army at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. 

In 405 BC Darius II was King of what was then called the Persian Empire. He ruled at a time when Egypt was successfully rebelling against them, but Athens and Sparta were at each other’s throats – and as such less a threat to his Eastern Mediterranean holdings. Unwell, he called for his sons Artaxerxes and Cyrus the younger to his bedside. 

The Greek sources don’t state what Atraxerxes did prior to his father’s passing – we know he was the dauphin, hand picked by Darius to take over the family business. Cyrus had been stationed in Lydia, modern day Turkey as the local Satrap – running the region and keeping an eye on the Greeks across the pond. Cyrus had given support, in turns to Athens, then Sparta – in the process making friends in the Greek world. His job in Lydia had come about via the displacement of his predecessor – a man called Tissaphernes. Due to the demotion of Tissaphernes, Cyrus also made a number of enemies at home. 

It should also be pointed out, he had allies who would like to see Cyrus the younger crowned in place of Artaxerxes – knowing their own position in society would receive a bump up the ladder. Others, no doubt wanted a man of action who would fight to maintain their grip on Egypt. Artaxerxes had a reputation as a ‘fair’ ruler – not a bellicose one. 

So one could imagine the arrival of Cyrus in 405 BC, with 300 Greek mercenaries in tow, caused quite a scene. 

Cyrus did attempt a coup on the eve of his brother’s coronation, which failed miserably. After much consideration King Artaxerxes pardoned his brother, reappointing him Satrap of Lydia and exiling him Thousands of miles North of Babylon. This proved foolish, and leads to the subject of today’s Tale. 

In 401 BC, Cyrus called upon his supporters, forming an army which at the least ran to tens of thousands of soldiers. A vital component of this army, ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Among this motley crew, which contained both Athenians and Spartans, a young Athenian soldier and philosopher named Xenophon. 

Xenophon

Born around 430 BC, we know precious little about Xenophon’s early life. He was born in an idyllic village outside of Athens called Erchia, to a wealthy, land owning class. He received a philosophical and martial education in line with other young gentlemen of his time, and studied under the philosopher Socrates; who he later counted as a close friend. When approached about joining the grand army Cyrus was gathering together, Xenophon sought Socrates’ advice. Socrates was a veteran of the Peloponnesian War in the 420s BC, having fought in several battles – but he was also purportedly the wisest of all men. Wise in knowing what he didn’t know, that he didn’t know if this campaign was a good idea or not – he advised his friend to seek advice at the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia (priestess) advised Xenophon should sign up – so he did. 

It bears mention up front it was a terrible idea, but few outside of the high command knew Cyrus planned to march into Babylon. They believed they were being called on to conquer the Pisidians – a people in the South-West of modern day Turkey who thus far had remained independent, in spite of several attempts to conquer them. They suspected following this, they would be called on to defeat Tissaphernes – who had been sabre rattling for a war for a few years now. No-one suspected they would be called on to overthrow the king. 

Tissaphernes watched intently as the army rolled through the Pisidians, onwards into Lydia. He could guess, based on the size of the army, they were looking to seize power. He called on Artaxerxes to gather an even bigger army to put a stop to them.

The army rolled through Lydia, then inland to Phrygia – where Alexander would ‘untie’ the Gordian Knot centuries later. As they moved on they collected thousands more troops. Near the river Marsyas the army stopped for a month while another mercenary general, Clearchus, arrived with a thousand hoplites, eight hundred Thracian Peltasts, and two hundred Cretan archers. A Syracusian general arrived soon after with three thousand hoplites. An Arcadian with a further thousand. From there to Cilicia, near the border of modern day Syria – where the Cilician queen begrudgingly handed Cyrus a large tribute of gold – soon after handed to the army, covering four months’ worth of pay. 

Moving south, they faced a number of aggressive states. Several men were killed by locals on their way to the city of Tarsus, so the army retaliated by pillaging the city, and enslaving whoever was unlucky enough to still be there. The local king, Syennesis, brokered a peace with Cyrus – at the cost of further aid to the ever growing army.

But it was also at this point that Cyrus’ army began to realise this force was well in excess of what was needed for the mission. Many refused to go any further – judging an attack on Babylon suicidal. Some of the generals – Clearchus primarily – tried to force his men to continue, but was assaulted by the men. Hours later a tearful Clearchus made an impassioned plea to his men to continue on their mission – begging them, but stating ultimately wherever they chose to go he would follow. After some consideration, and a pay rise, the army continued on it’s way. They marched south, through rugged terrain. Often crossing massive rivers. At one Syrian fortress, where Cyrus expected a battle from the Satrap Abrocomas, they found the fort empty. Rumour had it the soldiers had all left to join up with Artaxerxes’ own growing army -already rumoured to be 300,000 strong. Further on they demolished the palace of the Satrap Belesys with little bother. 

From here they marched alongside the Euphrates, through increasingly inhospitable terrain. Not far from Babylon they reached a prosperous town named Charmande. Exhausted and running on fumes, the men made for the market for provisions. While recuperating, tensions arose between factions in the army – one of Clearchus’ men getting into a fight with one of Menon’s (a rival general) men. This soon escalated to both factions facing off against one another. 

Moving on it soon became apparent somewhere in the order of 2,000 of the enemy were travelling ahead of them, slashing and burning anything which could provide sustenance. Orontas, a relative of Cyrus, offered to take a few thousand horsemen out to track these vandals down and kill them – which Cyrus happily assented to. However, as Orontas prepared to leave, he was stopped in his tracks and arrested. A letter had just been intercepted – addressed to the King. Orontas was a spy for Artaxerxes, and had written ahead to advise he was on his way. This was sensible if he hoped not to be killed by ‘friendly fire’ from Artaxerxes’ men, but it’s interception was damning for him. Cyrus put his relative on trial before the men. He freely confessed to the treachery – was found guilty – and was led away, never to be seen again. 

Soon after, on a dusty afternoon, the two armies faced off, near the town of Cunaxa – just 70 miles North of Babylon. I’ve read varying accounts of the battle – one claiming Cyrus’ combined force of just over 110,000 was dwarfed by Artaxerxes combined forces of 1,200,000 men. Most modern sources estimate Cyrus’ army at closer to 13,000 – Artaxerxes at around 40,000. In all tellings Cyrus was heavily outnumbered. The two armies faced off against one another – Cyrus’ crew positioned with the non-Greeks on the left, the Greeks on the right – closest to the river. Cyrus positioned himself in the middle, alongside his 600 strong bodyguard. On the opposing side Artaxerxes took a middle position, amidst his 6,000 bodyguards. He similarly had his army arranged in a flank either side. 

Then, the battle was on. To quote Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis’

“…with the forward movement a certain portion of the line curved onwards in advance, with wave-like sinuosity, and the portion left behind quickened to a run… Some say they clashed their shields and spears, thereby causing terror to the horses; and before they had got within arrow shot the barbarians swerved and took to flight.”

The left wing of Artaxerxes’ army basically folded. Horses spooked at this wave of caterwauling mercenaries who had broken into a sprint towards them, and took off, riderless -mowing through their own ranks. The Hellenes, as Xenophon refers to his collection of Greeks, made quick work of the Persians who stayed to fight. They were easily outclassed. Having lost few men, the Hellenes would turn back around and enter the affray with the other wing of their army. 

The battle in the centre was a whole other story. Cyrus scanned for his brother before riding out. On reaching the front line, again Xenophon

“Attacking with his six hundred, he mastered the line of troops in front of the king, and put to flight the six thousand (bodyguards) – cutting down, as is said, with his own hand their general, Artagerses. 

But as soon as the rout (by the Hellenes, turning round and headed towards the other Persian wing) commenced, Cyrus’s own six hundred themselves, in the ardour of pursuit, were scattered, with the exception of a handful… his table companions, so called. “

Cyrus sited his brother

“Unable longer to contain himself, with a cry, “I see the man” he rushed at him and dealt a blow at his chest, wounding him through the corselet (chest-plate)”

But

“As Cyrus delivered the blow, some one struck him with a javelin under the eye severely… Cyrus himself fell”.

The man who dealt the killing blow was named Mithridates (not OUR Mithridates from several months back). Though he likely saved the King’s life, Mithridates would be put to death by scaphism – essentially tied between two boats naked, covered in milk and honey – and left prone for the insects to devour over several days – for his troubles. Artaxerxes wanted the honour of killing Cyrus so badly the poor guy couldn’t go unpunished in his view. 

Meanwhile, on the battlefield – The Hellenes, having demolished much of the opposing army, took a defensive position. The battered Persians ceded the field to the victorious mercenaries after attempting one last time to take them on. The Hellenes pursued them back to their base. They had won the battle, but with Cyrus dead – had they lost the war? They would not discover his death till the following morning. Returning to their camp they found it ransacked. They bedded down for the night. 

The following morning they were advised of Cyrus’ passing. Ariaeus – the man most likely to replace him in the event of Cyrus’s death, had fled with the Non-Greek contingent. He had no plans to wear the crown of Persia, and planned to escape before the Persians could regroup and come after then with an even bigger army. 

Later that morning, Phalinus – a Hellene in Tissaphernes employ – came with a message for the mercenaries

“The great king having won the victory and slain Cyrus, bids the Hellenes to surrender their arms; to be taken themselves to the gates of the king’s palace, and there obtain for themselves what terms they can”

The Hellenes, the Ten Thousand – as formidable and battle-hardened as they were, suddenly found themselves thousands of miles from home. Vastly outnumbered. Completely lacking in the geographical knowledge to get themselves home safely. 

Suddenly they were rudderless. Strangers in a strange, hostile land. We’ll conclude this Tale in a week’s time. If I overshoot and don’t get part two out before the 25th, Happy Holidays all.