Category Archives: War & Peace

…. Not Count Leo… yet anyway.

Mussolini’s Hat, and the rise of the Mob (Revisited)


Hi all, we’ve got a little unfinished business from last fortnight’s episode, so I’m revisiting this older episode, and giving it a serious rewrite. Last fortnight we discussed the Black Hand organisations that pre-dated the Mafia. This time let’s look at how the Mob we’ve all come to know through the gangster films arrived in America.

But first, I do need to spend a couple of minutes on headwear.

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Setting aside resurgences in hat wearing in recent years – and no we’re not talking about the Orange guy today … there is a kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all bareheaded- surrounded by a sea of top hats. People commented this was how the new guard rolled, and many men followed suit. Milliners complained this was the death knell of their profession, and hat shops did close across the nation.

But this was only part of the wider picture. Like that gross, Orange guy; Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson going hatless was more a symptom than a cause of change.

As early as 1923, newspaper articles reported a growing dislike of hat wearing among the young. World War Two also had a measurable impact on hat wearing. In one postwar survey by The Hat Research Foundation which asked the hatless why they no longer wore a hat – one in five respondents claimed some bullying officer yelling at them for not wearing their hat during wartime was the main factor. As civilians no-one was ordering them to wear a hat. 

Also, less people worked outdoors, so needed a hat less. Popular culture was full of singers with quiffed hair, all ducktails and pompadours. As the black power movement came to prominence, so too came the Afro; and then there were those four British kids with their mop tops who took the world by storm on February 9th, 1964.

There were, of course a slew of other reasons why hats became less popular. Car culture taking off in a big way post World War Two cut down exposure to the elements when going out to work, shop or play. Similarly, improvements in air conditioning in offices and other large buildings saw a decline in hat, scarf and glove use.

Finally I should mention hats are less of a cultural marker now. Pre-war, high powered moguls wore top hats, working men wore flat caps – this was a kind of uniform. With all the other factors in play, this element of hat wearing got lost a bit – other markers of social capital taking it’s place. In this day and age, I struggle to think of too many of our most wealthy and powerful wearing hats – well there is that Orange guy we won’t mention today and his signature red trucker caps… But again he is not the hat-wearing fascist we are talking about today.

But it is fair to say, once upon a time hats were taken far more seriously. Mess with a man’s hat and he may just throw down over it.

Take, for example, Lee Shelton. Shelton was a gambler, a gangster and a pimp whose sartorial eloquence was a sight to behold. On Christmas Day 1895, Shelton sauntered into St Louis’ Bill Curtis Saloon adorned in a black dress coat, a high collared yellow shirt beneath a red velvet waistcoat. He wore gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, and jewellery aplenty. A cane with a glistening gold cap, and, most importantly, a white Stetson hat.
In the saloon that night, his rival – Billy Lyons. The two men put rivalries aside, and had a few drinks, till talk of politics got the better of them. First Shelton grabbed Lyons’ hat, caving it in, then Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson. Lyons drew a knife, Shelton a gun.
Lyons’ murder by that bad man Stagger Lee became the stuff of legend – giving life to dozens of songs, prison toasts, poetry – and even a breed of badass movie anti-hero (think Youngblood Priest on Superfly, Richard Shaft or Jules in Pulp Fiction.)
However you feel about Stagger Lee, everyone understands you don’t mess with a man’s hat.

Then there was the great straw hat riot of 1922.


In 19th Century big city America it was understood, though rarely discussed – the straw boater hats that were wildly popular among young men at sporting events should never be seen in the big city. This unwritten law was relaxed at the turn of the twentieth century, but only for summer. New York’s stockbrokers, stevedores, and sanitarians? Could wear their boater hats until felt hat day, September 15th. After this, you needed to leave the straw hat at home. If you were seen wearing a straw hat, you risked it being knocked from your head and stamped flat in front of you.

This tradition got out of hand September 13th 1922, when a gang of youths got started two days early, in Lower Manhattan among the working class folk. This escalated into a series of running battles over several days. Reports were made of at least one gang with a pole with a nail on it to skewer any straw hats they saw. Several young gangsters were arrested, one victim lost an eye, and one presiding judge – suitably named Peter Hatting – made the call one has the right to wear a straw hat any damn time they like – even in January if they wished.

All of this is to say I’m working towards a tale of a massive overreaction with global, long lasting ramifications – which, strangely may have seemed a little less so to your average Joe on the street at the time.


Last fortnight we mentioned how the Island of Sicily was just the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. This was due to a merry-go-round of oppressive conquerors. The island was perfect for agriculture, was strategically important, and a beautiful place to live. From Roman times onwards a large number of mostly North African Berber slaves were brought in, setting the pace for all those working the land. I won’t rehash it all, if you haven’t yet please check out The Black Hand first. Hannibal in Bithynia and the blog post The Bagradas Dragon also fill in a lot of background on Sicily. I did particularly zero in on the reign of Charles I of Anjou – also king of Naples. In 1282, one of his soldiers raped and murdered a Sicilian woman, leading to a large number of cells of Sicilians rising up against the French, killing 4,000 of them, and expelling them from the land.

This was the first indication to the world at large there was anything like a Mafia in Sicily. These ‘Sicilian Vespers’ who may or may not have coined the phrase mafia there and then – were a collection of like-minded locals who banded together to oppose cruel behaviour and disrespect from the colonizers. From everything I’ve read I understand these groups to be more like a series of mutual aid societies than an army of criminal geniuses. Nor were they terribly interested in self determination at the time. The Norman rulers that preceded Charles, had done well for the nation, so were invited back.

These groups well preceded the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and continued well beyond that. They joined up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860. 2,000 mafiosi fought alongside the red shirts, expelling the Bourbons. The Mafia were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. By now this was the name these groups went by. They were families, run by capos. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis of the rest of us. 

I also mentioned the power vacuum that arose in the 1870s onwards, and how this increase in violent crime, particularly of violent robberies by highwaymen, was our first indication the Mafia had turned to crime. Playing on both sides of the law, they became criminal and enforcer. A number of Capo also became extremely rich and powerful in this climate. These were generally not the guys fleeing to America – life was too good where they were.

Now, a small handful of bona fide Mafiosi did leave for America. Last episode we mentioned Giuseppe ‘The Clutch Hand’ Morello – the nephew of the Don of Corleone Sicily. He was charged with killing a man, so at some time between 1892 and 1894, he fled for the USA. His tale is worth a closer look some time, but suffice to say he set up a number of rackets in New York which would seem familiar to us now. His ruthlessness – He personally ordered more than 30 men stabbed to death, stripped naked then crammed into barrels – was excessive by Black Hand standards. Morello, later in his life, bought a pig farm – I’m sure everyone can imagine what happened there – and saw his family morph into the first of New York’s Five Families – The Gambino Family.

But back home you had the likes of Francesco Cuccia. Cuccia used his power and influence to become both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and a mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

Unfortunately for Don Francesco, the 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce.
Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who ran the nation immediately following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian. Benito was a staunch socialist himself, a renowned journalist and a public intellectual, until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. God was dead, which to Benito meant he was free to put his moral compass in a draw somewhere and do whatever the hell he felt like – so long as it furthered the cause.
The more he stared into the abyss, the more Mussolini became convinced liberalism and individualism had lead Italy down the wrong path. He dreamt of moulding Italy into a new society, based on an imagined Ancient Rome no less syllogistic than that Orange guy’s imaginary 1950s America.
Order, discipline and hierarchy were the words of the day. Extreme corporatism was essential – his belief the modern day plebeian needed to give their all, unquestioningly to their job was much admired by many American one percenters and British aristocrats at the time.
Ignoring anything beautiful about Italy’s past – Mussolini aspired to do one better than the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, briefly Duce of the regency of Carnaro – a proto- fascist state which existed in Fiume, Dalmatia in 1920. Like his hero and role model, he saw Italy as an expansionist power, out to regain lands it once ruled over. Mussolini was also a deplorable, racist man, and though less specifically anti-Semitic than Hitler – his treatment of ethnic minorities set a standard for the early Nazis.


As any fascist, Mussolini’s phrase, Benito believed in extreme, unquestioning nationalism (so long as he was the guy in charge,) and in isolating and punishing any and all dissenters, all talk of equity, or any diversity. He insisted a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and the LGBTQI+ community’s place was on prison islands like San Domino, Lampedusa and Ustica. The arrest and forced relocation of gay and trans people was horrific, but in another way empowering for some people on these islands, as Mussolini unwittingly created spaces where you were free to be your authentic self, free of the shackles hetero-normativity (the prison guards aside) but that is a whole other story.

In short, the man stared too long into the abyss, and when the abyss stared back it saw an amoral ghoul with an insatiable Will to power.

Unfortunately for the world, his words found an audience, in the dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as his ‘black shirts’. Many of these Black Shirts had fought in the Arditi, Italy’s elite troops, in World War 1 – and wore a distinctive fez hat we’ll all come to know, thanks to another man.

With a ludicrous promise to resurrect the Roman Empire – to make Italy Great again – Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – and demanded the government resign immediately and appoint him leader. Terrified, they did so.

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. With a two thirds ‘majority’ he was free to do whatever he wished. As an unimpeachable faux super-majority we went about enacting his cruel policies – but first – like another bloviating orange demagogue, he planned a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail in tow. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this – how impudent to think a Mafioso could offer him protection. Cuccia, similarly felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways – each man plotting revenge for the perceived sleight. Cuccia was the first to up the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s speech that day. Il Duce preached his gospel of hate to a group described as around 20 ‘village idiots.’ The large public square was otherwise deserted. This PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, were it not for another incident a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time it is full of inquisitive villagers. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere, that buzz in the air you get when large groups gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – and probably not unlike the crazies echo show up to the other guy’s rallies… though I doubt Mussolini has a fedora wearing financial services manager whom the crowd are convinced is John F Kennedy Junior reborn.
But this place is the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he hopes to declare himself dictator outright.
Picture if you will, Mussolini – the self styled strongman – in full regalia. On his head that trademark black fez- worn by the elite Arditi shock troops who follow him, and underpin his tough guy cred.

There’s a hushed silence, all eyes on Il Duce. Any moment now the tough guy is going to feed their rage and indignation. He will also give them answers – for they are the greatest people brought low by minorities, people who believe in kindness, and those who believe in rule for the people, by the people…

Il Duce clears his throat….. Just as some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it onto the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat from atop his head. 

In that moment the strongman is laid bare; left bare headed in front of the large crowd. His police escort are dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square. I imagine a gasp of horror from the crowd, and whether some burst into peals of laughter – it was sufficient this ridiculous man felt impotent, stripped of his plumage. We’ve all seen something like this in our time, right? In 2019, if protesters had come out swinging at the racist British demagogue Tommy Robinson, bloodying his nose, it would have made him a man of action. Douse him in milkshake two days in a row, it just makes him look ridiculous. When racist Australian senator Fraser Anning showed up at a press conference to blame the Christchurch terror attacks on the Muslims who were murdered, a young man named Will Connolly took the wind out of his sails by pelting the senator with an egg. Needless to say, Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied by the murder of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local thug and police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy the mob. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. They couldn’t go outside without being harassed for some crime, alleged or otherwise. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

Picking up on last fortnight’s Tale – Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the suspected mastermind behind the murder of New York police officer Joseph Petrosino, was charged with an historic murder in June 1930. He got a trial, with an iron cage, as Iron Prefect Mori wanted to make an example of him. On the 69th charge to be laid against him in his lifetime, he was finally found guilty of something and sentenced to life imprisonment. The only words he uttered in his defence were “Gentlemen, as you have been unable to obtain proof of any of the numerous crimes I have committed, you have been reduced to condemning me for the only one I never committed.”

While in jail, he shared with others the only man he killed by his own hand was Joseph Petrosino – though he was one of a number of people who have done so over the years, and as such not taken seriously as the trigger man. His ultimate fate is murky, but there is a possibility he died of dehydration after the prison was cleared of everyone but him, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Mussolini’s purge did not bode well across the Atlantic. The USA were well on their way to contain the ‘Black Hand’ organisations who had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were still a problem – and it turn out, a sign of things to come. The Mafia did very well for themselves in the wake of the power vacuum left by the liberation of Sicily. By fleeing to a land with a similar power vacuum in it’s crime networks, they’d become bigger than U.S Steel by the 1960s.

The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, and must’ve felt pretty sure Petrosino’s lists would protect them from any mobsters arriving at Paris Island – but gangsters snuck in regardless – mostly via the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba. 

To add to this, the USA gave the mob with the perfect pathway to massive growth and prosperity. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty; and largely through the rallying of religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment. This banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement the authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than sending hard working civilians blackmail letters. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left a number of ‘Young Turks’, many refugees from Mussolini’s wrath, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

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Roxelana


The following is the tale of a loving wife and mother. A philanthropist and a catalyst for change both within a stuffy old establishment, and among a wider nation. The tale of a figure of great fascination in her own time, especially to Europeans. It is the story of someone who rose from – well we don’t know enough about her beginnings in Rohatyn – a town near Lviv, Ukraine to say humble beginnings- but our protagonist did ascend the heights, from slavery to royalty.

 She was no action hero. She never burnt a bath-house to the ground while crammed full of Drevlian warlords like Olga of Kiev; but was impressive in other ways. For one to survive what she did, and thrive after, shows a remarkably cool headed, brave, and adaptable character. The Ukrainians thought Roxelana – our heroine – remarkable enough, that on gaining freedom from the USSR in 1991, they built a bronze statue of her in Rohatyn. Ukraine, in looking for heroes and role models from their past, saw fit to include Roxelana in their pantheon.   

 Before we get to Roxelana, Hurrem, or Haseki Sultan – all names she was known by – we need to detour to mid 13th century Anatolia, modern day Turkey to add a little context.

At an unspecified date in the mid 1200s, a Turkish warlord named Ertugrul made his way to Anatolia, accompanied by his tribe of ‘four hundred tents.’ Like the Seljuks who arrived a few hundred years earlier, they were Steppe people – in their case from Uzbekistan. More likely than not, they were refugees, who suddenly had to flee the Mongol hordes. Initially, the Seljuks gave the Turks some of their land to settle in, but in the course of a couple of generations, the Seljuks lost their prominence – while the Turks rose to prominence in the region. Ertugrul’s son, Osman graduated from warlord to king. In a dynasty which ran for 37 Emperors, Osman – Uthman in Arabic – would be their first; and lend his name to the dynasty. Uthman soon becoming Ottoman to western ears.

By their seventh Sultan, Mehmed II, the land was all theirs – with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed’s armies conquered the Byzantines at Constantinople – renaming the city Istanbul. He arrived with a numerically superior army and navy, but succeeded where many other large armies failed by using cannons and bombards as wall breakers. The fall of Constantinople ushered in a new age of warfare where the most impressive of defensive walls no longer guaranteed you victory. 

Not that I buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, but Mehmed II was an impressive commander, whose actions changed the world. As impressive as Mehmed was, a legend pervaded that their tenth Sultan would really be something else entirely. 

Sari Saltik was a Turkish Dervish who travelled deep into the Balkans, proselytising Islam to the people. His hagiography became wildly popular with Islamic children for it’s tales of adventure. One day, Sari Saltik allegedly came across a magnificent European city, with a beautiful church. Atop the church roof a golden sphere. To the saint, the sphere looked just like a golden apple. As he sent men up to bring him the golden apple, the prophet Khizr was said to have appeared and warned him to leave the apple where it was. That apple was only to be picked by the tenth Sultan – who will be their greatest conqueror. 

Time rolled on, and with a couple of Ottoman Sultans engaged in empire building – the presumed location of the golden apple moved upwards and westwards. As Emperor number ten came into focus with his coronation in 1520, the apple was believed to be in Hungary. That emperor, a man named Suleiman, would become a great conqueror – much to the chagrin of European kings who hoped for a peaceful emperor next. The son of the bellicose Emperor Selim I, he continued in that family tradition, personally leading five major campaigns. However, as we will see he was an altogether more complex individual than his father, and many of his other ancestors. We’ll come back to Suleiman the Magnificent in a moment.  

In 2022’s The Old Man of the Mountain, we briefly mentioned the Crimean Slave markets, when discussing a Mongol raid into modern day Bulgaria in the 1220s. This was a mission to punish the Kipchaks – another steppe people who had gotten on the Mongols’ bad side. One boy captured and sold off to a wealthy Egyptian through those markets, rose through the ranks to become the leader of a movement which overthrew the Egyptian ruling class. Known as Baybars, he became the first in a long line of Mamluk sultans. The slave markets, established in the 12th century, would continue until 1769. 

By 1475, Venice and Genoa – two Italian maritime nations – were ejected from their established bases in the Crimea, having briefly taken over the Black Sea slave trade. Control was passed over to the Giray Tatars – a Crimean vassal state of the Ottomans who were of Mongol origin. From just before this handover, in 1468, until Russia finally put a stop to them in 1769 – the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate ‘harvested the steppes’ of Ukraine and Southern Russia for tens of thousands of villagers every year. Their ideal target were young women, who could be sold into domestic work, or into sexual slavery. From Baybars’ time up till the abolition of the Crimean slave trade, around 6.5 million people were rounded up and sold. The slaves lives were generally harsh, and thoroughly miserable – their treatment often cruel. A Lithuanian observer told of domestic servants who were branded on their foreheads or cheeks like cattle. They also told of people locked in cold, damp dungeons when not engaged in work. 

Many also died on their way to market, a fate considered a blessing by the Ukrainians and Russians they preyed upon. Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish courtier and traveller writing in the mid seventeenth century stated it was a wonder any slaves got to market, they were so poorly treated on the slave trails. Success stories like Baybars, were extremely rare.

On an unspecified winter day, when the Tatars could quickly traverse the frozen rivers on horseback – a band of slavers flooded into Rohatyn. The two most likely years 1509 or 1516 – two years they definitely reached Rohatyn. They slashed and burned everything in sight, killed anyone who fought back, then rounded up any villagers they deemed saleable at market. The prisoners, our hero included, were forcibly marched for weeks to the Black Sea port of Caffa. If captured in 1516, Roxelana would have been thirteen – very young, but at a push, as capable of taking care of herself as most adults on the long march. If captured in 1509, aged six, it doesn’t bear to think of how terrifying this must have been for the young child. Legend has it, recorded with less evidence than the tale of Sari Saltik’s golden apple – she was the daughter of a preacher. Other tales suggested a name, Aleksandra Lisowska – also without evidence. Soon her birth name would be deleted. Her religion supplanted by Islam. 

Transported to the Caffa Slave Markets, she would have been examined like livestock, bought as part of a bulk purchase, then put onto a ship for a ten day voyage – to the slave markets of Istanbul.

We don’t know where Roxelana spent the following years until 1520, though we know she would have been taught about Islam, and learned the basics of Ottoman language and culture. We can also guess her owners saw something special in her – seeing her as just the kind of slave a Sultan would pay them a lot of money for. This possibly affected the level of training the young girl had. 

The sultans kept harems of the only best quality slaves, kept separate from the men in Istanbul’s Old Palace. One important reason for the slaves was to keep their bloodline going. 

In the early years of the Ottoman Empire, emperors chased old world authenticity, by strategically marrying children to foreign royals. As their kingdom grew, and their neighbours’ golden apples looked far too good to resist, this caused a problem. What if they declare war on the princess’s homeland – and that princess turns saboteur on them? What if, God forbid, a princess murders her own children to deny any further Ottoman emperors? 

Around 1400, potential Ottoman emperors stopped marrying. When it came to love or procreation Sultans courted slaves from the harem. A sultan would be expected to have many favourites over their reign. Once a favourite became pregnant, that favourite would be elevated to a much higher position in the harem, with a large bump in pay. She would take on much of the responsibility of bringing up the child. The sultan would, typically dump her for a new favourite.

When a sultan passed on, there was no regulated order of succession, and the male children often fought one another to the death for the top job. Suleiman’s father not only went to war with his brother, but personally deposed his own living father to take the crown. In 1402 the emperor Bayezid I lost a war against the warlord Tamerlane, which led to a succession crisis. His son Mehmed I fought a bloody four-way civil war with his remaining brothers. Bayezid himself had his younger brother strangled upon becoming Sultan, to avoid getting into a civil war.  

This made for complex dynamics at court. 

Another element to this is young, would be Sultans usually turned to outsiders as their top advisors and generals. Many enslaved boys were brought up in Istanbul’s New Palace, and trained to be advisors. Suleiman’s top advisor was a young Greek or Albanian man given the name Ibrahim. A close friend since childhood, Ibrahim Pasha would become Suleiman’s Vizier and a top general. 

In September 1520, while making plans for a European invasion, Selim I died suddenly. Suleiman, then a 25 year old father of four and governor of Manisa – rushed back to Istanbul to take the reins. His mother, a former slave named Hafsa, rushed ahead of him to prepare his ascension. 

Around this time, as Suleiman took charge unopposed, someone – possibly Ibrahim – bought and gifted Roxelana to the Sultan.

Were this Suleiman’s tale, we’d discuss his quest for the golden apple. He led five major campaigns personally, and oversaw several others – vastly expanding Ottoman territory. By 1526 he ruled much of Hungary after a heroic victory at Mohacs. He captured Rhodes and Corfu. He defeated the Persians, and unsuccessfully faced off against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Vienna, Austria. Today we’re interested in his wife. 

In Manisa, royal protocols around dumping favourites once they bore you a child were looser – he had a favourite in the mother of one of his children – a beautiful Circassian named Mahidevran. When Roxelana arrived at the harem, a clear pecking order was in place. Hafsa, Suleiman’s mother ruled the roost, followed by Mahidevran. Roxelana found allies in the harem – she was very likeable, and apparently a ray of sunshine; the name given to her in the harem, Hurrem – meaning the joyful one – is testimony to that. 

The one ally she absolutely won over though was the Sultan – by all indications, one day he crossed the road from the new palace to the old palace looking for somebody to spend a little time with – and when he saw Hurrem, the Sultan was thunderstruck. They spent time together, then spent a little more time together, and at some time Mahidevran was said to have become insanely jealous and attacked Hurrem – scratching up her face and tearing out tufts of hair. Once Suleiman found out, he was furious with Mahidevran. Ignoring all the things we don’t know, and some of the things we do – like the couple’s massive power imbalance alone should give us pause for thought before saying this – but it appears the couple may have fallen in love. By the fall of 1521, Hurrem bore Suleiman their first child. 

When he was away chasing golden apples, the couple exchanged love letters. Roxelana’s survive – only scraps of Suleiman’s do. Of course when he returned, in spite of the dump the concubine and get yourself a new one rule, the couple remained together. In spite of others in his court gifting him a pair of beautiful Russian concubines, Suleiman was now pretty much a one woman man. Between military campaigns they had more children – six all up. Roxelana rose to prominence in important circles – by 1526 the Venetian ambassador Pietro Bragadin wrote she was “young but not beautiful, although graceful and petite.” – As if Bragadin’s observations meant a jot to the Sultan. 

With growing prominence, Roxelana took on the role of Suleiman’s eyes and ears in the kingdom while he was away. Her role as a diplomat also increased over the years – by the 1540s she was in regular contact with King Sigismund II Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – one of Europe’s great powers at the time. 

Despite the couple living in separate palaces for years, in 1530 they were officially recognised as a couple at the circumcision of the three eldest sons. No mere operation, this was a nearly three week long party with half the known world’s dignitaries on the guest list. Among the feasts, fireworks, performers, large scale war re-enacters, and exotic dancers – the acknowledged first couple were on display. They would not move in together, and officially marry until some time soon after the death of Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa. When they did, it was the first time in anyone’s living memory an Ottoman Sultan had married. 

Now of course they were hated by some – For one the Sultan’s elite Janissary troops – a group apt to riot over extended times of peace – detested Roxelana. As did a number of Istanbul’s wealthier citizens, who spread rumours she must be a witch – how else could she have won the Sultan’s heart if she hadn’t hexed him? 

And then there were those rumours she was a Machiavellian schemer, responsible for several high profile executions – including Suleiman’s closest friend Ibrahim Pasha, and Mahidevran’s son,  Mustafa. The former had been in charge of the 1532 invasion of Persia – and had largely been responsible for the invasion taking far too long, and the victory coming at an eye-wateringly high cost. Some say Suleiman had him garrotted in March 1536 because Roxelana convinced him to do so. Others say Ibrahim had become haughty and arrogant, and a liability on the battlefield. Contemporary sources claim Suleiman executed Mustafa in 1553 because he was caught plotting to kill his father and declare himself Sultan. 

But Roxelana had a lot of fans too. She brought back marriage among the women of the Old Palace – playing matchmaker to hundreds. This led to an uptick in marriages in general. She sponsored mosques and hospitals, and schools – improving the living standards in the empire. The Haseki Sultan complex, built between 1538 and 1551, contained a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. She established foundations to pay for her public works for generations after her passing. 

The couple had a long, apparently happy marriage. Roxelana never lived to see her children fight it out for the crown. There was no fight, though succession was messy. With Mustafa strangled, Mehmed dying of smallpox, and Bayezid dying of also getting on Suleiman’s bad side while plotting to take out his brother – Selim II, an unlikely contender popularly known as Selim the Drunk – ended up last man standing. Roxelana, or Hurrem, or possibly Aleksandra? Pre-deceased Suleiman by a little over eight years, passing of an unknown illness in April 1558. 

Over the following weeks I’m planning to move us from domesticity of a kind – to warring samurai, a murder mystery, corporations fighting literal wars against one another, filibusters, conmen and all manner of other things… so please excuse me sharing one final tidbit. Though much of Suleiman’s letters have been lost to time, one poem he wrote his wife comes down to us. He wrote the ode under his pen name, Muhibbi… and I think it rather telling of their relationship. 

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”

The Dog Days King

The Dog Days’ King Tales of History and Imagination

Hi everyone welcome back, to season four of the podcast. This week we’re delving into the picaresque, and the life of one Jorgen Jorgensen – a man whose trajectory in life was akin to the character in Sinatra’s That’s Life. A puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a King. Jorgensen was all of the above and more besides. For a start you could add explorer, spy, war tourist, gambler… and another word my humble pop filter will despise – a prisoner. We’ll get to Jorgensen in a moment, but first we need to visit Britain’s House of Commons, the year 1779.

Britain had quite the problem having arisen from both it’s changing demographics, and from the rise of their middle classes following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. 

In last year’s post on The Bottle Conjuror, I briefly touched upon the Glorious Revolution – and while it really deserves it’s own episode – we need to know the following today. In 1688, a Dutch aristocrat named William of Orange sailed an armada of ships more than twice the size of the Spanish Armada down the River Thames. For months he’d made his intentions clear, he was going to be the next king of England. A growing number of British aristocrats, displeased with their King, James II, were happy to sanction the invasion. In return they expected the Royal family to be less autocratic – to give politicians more sway – and to allow wealthy Britons to pursue capitalism more freely. 

Under the old system, if you had a brilliant idea that could somehow improve the world and make yourself rich in the process; the idea could still be killed the instant a monarch refused to grant a patent. One often quoted example is of William Lee – a 16th Century clergyman and inventor, who made a knitting machine. The reverend had fallen for a local woman who knitted to make money, and who either was far too preoccupied by knitting, or was very slow at it – so was ‘always busy’ when he came calling. Lee, smitten with the lady – invented a machine that automated the process, speeding the job up considerably. 

It should have been a no-brainer to patent this machine. An effective labour saving device, it could have sped up the production – giving thousands of women thousands of hours of their lives back (possibly to date a Reverend Lee, or possibly the lady just wasn’t that into the reverend so thousands of hours of ‘washing her hair that night’, till the reverend took the hint?)  

but if this didn’t hook the royals, how about the fact increased productivity equals more product, equals more trade – equals more sales – equals more tax money in the Royal Coffers?

None of this impressed Elizabeth I. She worried the machine would lead to skilled artisans losing their valuable skills forever, and, so declined the patent. When Elizabeth died soon after, and Lee’s business partner got involved in a coup attempt against her successor, James I, Lee fled to France – who in turn loved his invention and granted that patent – England’s loss was France’s gain. 

Anyhow, long story short – a greater freedom to pursue inventive ideas, combined with offshoring a lot of agricultural work to the colonies, and a rising coffee house culture where ideas could percolate like coffee beans among inventors; and finally having all the pre-requisite concepts needed for an industrial revolution – meant the Industrial revolution came to Britain first. It also meant Britain was became urbanised and industrialised, and experienced the rise of a wealthy, powerful middle class. The middle classes were determined to have their say in this new Britain – a top priority for them was more laws to protect all the shiny new things their new-found wealth was buying.

On one hand, a group of people with some things already, suddenly had more things – and were becoming increasingly serious about protecting those things. On the other hand, many people moving to the cities were headed in the other direction. The former villagers lost old community ties when they moved. In hard times, those former connections had banded together to help those in need – but the tyranny of distance made this more difficult. Many also had to work new factory jobs, and the unskilled jobs particularly, did not cover their basic needs when times were good. Add job loss, or sickness and suddenly times were dire for many. This led to a sharp rise in what we now think of as petty crime.

The law codes moved with these changes – in favour of the rich. Even minor crimes became hanging offences. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, 220 crimes carried the death penalty. At the time of this meeting in Parliament in 1779, people were looking for an answer to the ‘Bloody Code’ as it later became known. Owing to a squeamishness in executing a starving person for thieving a meal, 35,000 people were sentenced to death, but only 7,000 executions actually occurred. ‘Just lock em up’ wasn’t working terribly well for them either, and the prisons were overflowing. Prisoners had to be moved en-masse to prison boats until an answer could be found.  

Speaking to Parliament that day, one of the rock stars of Pacific exploration, and head of the Royal Botanical Society – Captain James Cook’s former botanist, Joseph Banks. 

We don’t need to go into detail on his speech – we have a half hour podcast episode, and an infamous Filibuster still to speak of – but we need to know Banks had been on Cooks voyage which put New Zealand and much of the East Coast of Australia on the map in 1770. He loved Australia, and saw huge potential there. Based on the land he’d seen – Banks imagined a land teeming with farmland. He suggested parliament save hanging for the more serious offences – and to start shipping petty criminals out to Botany Bay, in their colony of New South Wales. 

This wasn’t an entirely new idea. Before the USA separated from the empire, 60,000 convicts were sent over there as indentured labourers. If they survived a couple of years of back breaking work (many didn’t) they might even become land owners themselves at the end of their servitude. 

In May 1787, the first eleven of many convict ships, set off for Australia. In excess of 160,000 men, women and children would be shipped out to the prison colonies between 1787 and 1868. 

Now we’ve added some context, let’s discuss Jorgen Jorgensen. 

Jorgen Jorgensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on 29th March 1780. His family were comfortably middle class. His father, Jorgen sr. was so well thought of as a watchmaker, he was contracted to make timepieces for the Danish Royal family. While Jorgen’s family expected the boy would set up a business like his father on adulthood, as a child he’d longingly sighted a Dutch East India-man setting sail for faraway lands. From that day on he dreamed of becoming a sailor. At 14 his father partially relented and apprenticed him to an English Collier named the Janeon – a coal carrying vessel which rarely voyaged. After four years, Jorgensen had enough of that and quit. He signed up for a whaling ship headed for South Africa. 

This gave Jorgensen his first experience of life at sea – and a part of the world he’d come back to later in life. First on a whaling ship called The Fanny, then on The Harbinger, which on at least one occasion carried convicts to Algoa Bay – he worked the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1798 – well before Napoleon lost two thirds of his fleet at Trafalgar – he survived being fired upon by a French gunship. In 1801, Jorgensen finally got a chance to go exploring, when the Lady Nelson arrived at the Cape, en-route to Sydney Australia. They needed men, so Jorgensen – now going by John Johnson – signed up for the voyage. 

In Sydney, Jorgensen met the famed explorer Matthew Flinders. He travelled on the Lady Nelson as it sailed southwards into what is now the state of Victoria; surveying Port Phillip on the way, before crossing the Bass Strait to Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania. They surveyed much of the shoreline, before setting up camp in Risdon – where another group of explorers entirely would senselessly massacre a large group of aboriginals in 1804. He helped found a settlement down a ways – at the now state capital, Hobart. They explored the Derwent river, Jorgensen taking time out between missions to wander inland near Sydney with a French explorer who was determined to claim he’d been further inland than any other European. Once it seemed they reached that point, one would upstage the other by taking just another twenty paces, before the other reciprocated. 

This first visit to Australasia sounds like one big boys own adventure. Jorgensen took time out to join a sealing ship headed to New Zealand. Once back, he spent time as a chief officer on a whaling ship that travelled between both countries. Two decades before the Weller brothers arrived in Sydney themselves and started buying up their own whalers – such as the Billy O’ Tea, now famous thanks to Tik Tok sea shanties – Jorgen Jorgensen was out on Tasmania’s Derwent river, harpooning the first whale ever killed on that river. One presumes many a Sea Shanty were sung onboard Jorgensen’s whaler – well before Soon May The Wellerman Come?  

After an eventful couple of years, he sailed for London in 1806. Along the way, he convinced two Maori, and two Tahitians’ to join him on the voyage homewards. His plan was to bring them to someone in England who would show them western ways, especially Christianity. Once schooled, the four would be sent back as brand ambassadors for European ways. Back in London, he met royal botanist Joseph Banks – and handed his guests over. Banks found them a home among the church – but tragically, all four guests would be dead within the year.  

In 1807, Jorgen returned to Copenhagen to a hero’s welcome. The locals were ecstatic this local boy done good was back, with tales of his many adventures – but Jorgensen was far from ecstatic. The town was a mess! Denmark was a neutral party in the Napoleonic wars, albeit a party with a large collection of war ships. The British worried Napoleon would invade Denmark just to get his hands on their ships – so twice, first in 1801, then again in 1807 – The British navy sidled up to Denmark and bombed their fleet to smithereens. Jorgensen was incensed at this act of terrorism, and convinced eight of Copenhagen’s wealthiest citizens to buy him a gun-boat. With a crew of 83, and 23 big guns – Jorgen Jorgensen set sail as a privateer on the Admiral Juul – his mission, to rob and incapacitate any British ship that crossed his path. 

Jorgen Jorgensen’s war started out well. From the get-go he captured three merchant ships in open waters – but then he decided to try his luck along the British coast. Just outside of Yorkshire, he ran across two large British war ships – the Sappho and the Clio. Jorgensen engaged the two ships in battle, and managed to hold his ground for around 45 minutes before – the Admiral Juul all shot to pieces – he saw it prudent to surrender before he was sent to Davy Jones locker. He was taken to a jail cell in Yarmouth. 

He was not there for terribly long. Jorgensen has claimed he was a double agent – having been approached by a British spy back in Copenhagen – but he was also a notoriously unreliable narrator. It is as possible someone high up who knew him and liked him – like Joseph Banks – caught wind of his capture, and figured why not make use of him elsewhere? Either way, he was called to London and asked what he could do to help the British war effort?

A suggestion was made by Jorgensen to let him sail to Iceland. 

High up in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Iceland had suffered greatly over the course of the Napoleonic wars. Then a colony of Denmark,  they were only allowed to trade with the Danish. Denmark now had fewer ships left to do things like trade with remote Northern outposts. This left Iceland bereft, in the midst of a great famine. Jorgensen planned to brave the waters and land a ship full of supplies. He was to set up a trading post between the two countries, and wage a soft-power operation while there. While saving the Icelanders from starvation, he’d convince them the Britons were not so bad after all. When Jorgensen sailed off, most people expected he’d run afoul of the weather, or a Danish warship – and never be seen again. He did, however, land at Reykjavik safe and sound.  Having offloaded his cargo, he sailed back to Liverpool, England – this time to pick up two ship loads of supplies. 

While he was away, the Governor of Iceland – a man named Count Von Tramp – heard about the shipload of British goods and forthwith barred all merchants from trading with him. When Jorgensen returned, he was bluntly ordered away, and told in no uncertain terms he was not to return. He stated his ships would pack up and leave in the morning. 

The following morning – a Sunday when it appears all of Iceland, barring Count Von Tramp and his cook, were at church – Jorgen Jorgensen landed with twelve armed men. The men marched straight to Von Tramp’s residence and arrested the governor. When the congregation left church that morning, they found their governor deposed – and that Jorgen Jorgensen had declared himself King of Iceland.   

In his brief reign as King, Jorgen Jorgensen brought in a raft of policies that radically changed the nation. First, he halved income tax, then forgave all debt owed by anyone to the Danish crown. He took money from former Governor Von Tramp’s coffers, and invested it in upgrading the schooling system. He also radically changed the nature of work in Iceland. For centuries workers had been tied to the land – herding sheep primarily for the European wool markets. Though surrounded by oceans teeming with fish, the Danish crown had refused to grant the people permission to fish full-time. For one thing, the Danish felt they really needed the wool. For another, they didn’t fancy Iceland becoming wealthy enough to no longer need them. Jorgensen not only lifted that embargo, but he threw government money at the nascent industry. He had a fort built, established a small army – and realising he needed to win the clergy over – he gave all the priests on the island a hefty pay rise. 

Where earlier government was autocratic – Jorgensen set up law courts and announced he would establish a system of elected government to help him rule as soon as practical to do so. 

Unsurprisingly, the people of Iceland loved their new king, and, for the most part – embraced the new regime enthusiastically.  

He did one other thing, however, which left the British fuming. All his changes would have brought prosperity over time – but in the meantime, Iceland desperately needed money. To raise funds,  Jorgensen set a tariff on British imports. Two months’ into King Jorgen’s reign, the British warship the HMS Talbot showed up in Reykjavik harbour to find out what in the hell was going on in Iceland. Jorgensen boarded the Talbot, and returned to London to plead his case. When Joseph Banks, furious with him, refused to help him – Jorgensen went into hiding. He was arrested a few weeks later, and had his parole revoked. He was then sent to Tothill Fields Prison, London. As his two month reign roughly coincided with the hottest time of year, when the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius hangs over Iceland’s night skies – Jorgen Jorgensen became their ‘Dog-Days King.’ Historically the phrase refers to a time when the world is altogether too hot and clammy, and people feel altogether too languid to get much done. His brief reign was anything but. 

Sadly for the people of Iceland, life returned to their old normal and would stay so until an independence movement made headway in the 1840s.  

Jorgensen was released from jail in 1811. He was briefly in Tothill, where he met an Irish political prisoner named Count Dillon. Dillon was from a dissident family who had never given up on the idea of Irish independence- and who had been involved in both the American and French revolutions. He was being held at his majesty’s pleasure, as the British feared he could foment a rebellion in Ireland. In the midst of the Napoleonic wars this could have been catastrophic, for one it could give Dillon’s ally, the ‘Little Corporal’ a staging post to invade Britain. Dillon’s conversations with Jorgensen haunted him for the rest of his life. 

Most of his time behind bars was spent on a prison boat on the Thames. 

Once released, Jorgensen turned to writing for a living, and drinking heavily while gambling for solace. His lifestyle wildly swung from wealth to poverty as he burned through his earnings. This included a large state lottery win Jorgensen and a syndicate of 15 others won. For a while he moved to Portugal, but got involved in gambling there – and one day got badly beaten up. He made his way back to England, only after joining a crew of a navy vessel sent out to capture privateers, then either becoming ill, or faking illness so as to be invalided back home.

 In the closing days of the Napoleonic wars, the British government again called on Jorgensen, employing him as a spy. Once back in London in 1813, he’d come across the dissident Count Dillon one day in a coffee house. The Count shared with Jorgensen a French and American plot underway to liberate Australia, using a fleet of heavily armed warships. Jorgensen took this information to the colonial office, who were not terribly interested at the time. Count Dillon took command of a small fleet, and that fleet wrecked off the coast of Cadiz, Spain en route to Australia. An American fleet then showed up in Australia soon after, wrecking seventeen whaling ships before they were stopped. Authorities started to wonder if Jorgen Jorgensen could be of use to the war effort after all? They found him in a debtors prison, and arranged for his release. 

Jorgensen was given a mission. He was to make his way to the European mainland, and write reports on the goings on in Europe. Given a large sum of money, and a wardrobe of new clothes, Jorgensen drank and gambled away nearly all of this money before he even set sail. He had to hitch a ride on a friend’s ship. He drunkenly made his way throughout the continent like a character in a picaresque novel – a real life Barry Lyndon or Candide – surviving largely on his wits and charm. He drank and gambled, often losing his shirt one night, then charming a new set of clothes from some aristocrat in the next town the following day. 

Though not personally involved in the Battle of Waterloo, he was in Belgium when the battle occurred. He was close enough to the action to watch it from the sidelines, and then spent three days wandering the fields in the wake of the battle.

Postwar, now back in England, Jorgensen planned to move to South America – but every time it looked like he might get the funds together to move – he would get drunk and gamble his money away. In 1820, he stole bedroom furniture from his landlady – and was given a seven year prison sentence in Australia. Friends in high places stepped in, and it was agreed his sentence would be waived if he left Britain immediately. Jorgensen was given the money to do so, but fell upon old habits and lost it all at the gambling table. He was re-arrested, and sentenced to death – which in turn was commuted back down to time in an Australian penal colony. So it was King Jorgen Jorgensen, the first European monarch to set foot in Australia, arrived in shackles in 1825. 

His time in Australia doesn’t seem nearly as bleak as much of his life prior – barring one major blot on his reputation. He was transported to Tasmania, where he resumed his earlier work – going out on expeditions into the wilderness to map out the island. For a while he was deputised to go fight the outlaws who escaped from prison camps, and were making trouble for the settlers. Disappointingly, he became involved in the ‘Black war’ where Tasmanian settlers all but wiped out the Aboriginal population on the island. He was on the colonisers’ side. In 1835, Jorgen Jorgensen was granted a pardon, but chose to stay on in Australia – at this point he was settled on his own land, and married to an Irish convict named Norah Corbett. He was living an uneventful, but happy life. 

Jorgen Jorgensen, one time King of Iceland died in Australia, 20th January 1841.  

From Patreon: Puyi

Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.)
While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is One of Four.

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.


If you’d like to support what I do, and would like to get your hands on some extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge, if any.)
This gets you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff.
Of course it goes without saying I’m keeping the free channels going, free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

Hi all, today’s post is a short one. Today I want to share a Tale of the last Chinese Emperor, a man known simply as Puyi.

Puyi came to power just shy of his third birthday in 1908, after his predecessor – the Guangxu Emperor Zaitian died unexpectedly. Zaitian had around 2,000 times the normal level of arsenic in him, so we can guess the cause. Puyi himself was deposed following the Xinhai Revolution just four years later. The people wanted increased representation with less foreign encroachment – the crown wanted to sell the railways to overseas investors and rule with an iron fist- things escalated.

For most of his life, Puyi was kept like a bird in a gilded cage. Kept in luxury in palatial surroundings, but without the freedom to go where he chose. He was a cruel, capricious bird – who made the lives of the royal eunuchs miserable. For 12 days in July 1917 he was restored to the throne by the warlord Zhang Xun – but for the Tale’s sake let’s imagine him there – a prisoner of fate and circumstance. Somewhat nicer than he really was.

Puyi had a learned tutor named Reginald Johnston. Johnston was a diplomat who served as the last British commissioner of the treaty port of Weihaiwei, in the North of the country. Later in his life, Johnston wrote a book, Twilight in the Forbidden City, which was adapted into the movie The Last Emperor. Peter O’Toole played him on the big screen.

Johnston taught the captive emperor a great many things about the world outside – but the one thing which most enraptured Puyi was the telephone. We currently live in a world where new technology has a crazy fast uptake. In 2021, perhaps everyone’s grandma has a tablet or smartphone. In 1921 telephones were still largely an odd device owned by few– decades after it’s invention. It was still very much a shiny new toy. As with many teens, the last emperor insisted on getting the shiny new toy – to the consternation of his handlers.

“But, your majesty, the palace has never had a telephone before” they said. “Bringing in such Western technology will upset the celestial balance” they pleaded (I paraphrase), un-ironically – while surrounded by Swiss cuckoo clocks, under electric lightbulbs – down the hall from a grand piano. Puyi dug in his toes and fought like hell over this; a phone line was going in. So it was the last emperor ended his splendid isolation from the world.

But, what did he do with his new found freedom? Did he place diplomatic phone calls to world leaders? No. Enter into a romantic courtship with some forbidden love? Apparently not. Negotiate a book deal? Not a chance.

He spent his time making countless prank phone calls to other anyone else unlucky enough to also have a phone.

His pranks were hardly comedic gold. He took to ringing the Chinese Opera singer Yang Xiaolou and giggling uncontrollably when he answered. He regularly ordered expensive meals from restaurants, pretending to be other people, and sent them out – cash on delivery, to strangers houses. Though not a prank, he regularly called Reginald Johnston at all hours to ask a question or complain about something someone did in the palace to upset him. I really hoped for a ‘is your fridge running’ gag at the very least.

A few years later he used his phone to plot an escape, with the Dutch ambassador. Unfortunately for him, this plot was rumbled.

Emperor Puyi married in 1922. He was exiled to another gilded cage when the warlord Feng Yuxiang took over Beijing in 1924. From 1932 to 1945 he was the puppet ruler for the Japanese in a state named Manchukuo, largely Manchuria. Throughout the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and World War Two, he called for the people to support Japan. After the war spent time in jail for war crimes – and spent his final years living in an ordinary house in Communist Beijing with his sister.

In old age people commented he became humble, kind and considerate. I have no word on whether he had a phone installed in his sister’s place, or what he may have done with it.

Madame Fiocca – Part Two

Madame Fiocca – Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

This is Part Two of a Two Part Series. For Part One Click Here

On 17th June 1943, Nancy arrived back in England. German U Boats had taken down a lot of Allied ships of late, so the escapees had to wait till there was cause to send an entire convoy back to Britain. This meant a stay of a few months in Gibraltar. She returned to find a vastly different London to the city she left in the early 1930s. The Luftwaffe had bombed the living hell out of the place. 

For a time, Nancy tried to return to Civvy Street. She rented an apartment in Piccadilly, and made a home for herself there. She bought nice furniture and furnishings. Soon, she presumed, Henri would join her. Days ran on to weeks with no sign or word of her husband. Knowing their phones were likely tapped, Nancy determined she would not call, but would wait it out. Restless in civilian life, and probably pining a little for Henri, she looked for a way back into France. Various military organisations were not keen to sign her up, but finally, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took her in. They had a very important role in mind for Madame Fiocca. 

When the Nazis defeated the French, tens of thousands of men went bush, taking to the forests. These bands of merry men were known collectively as Le Maquis – the men singularly known as Maquisards. They were, by and large, untrained and underfunded – but were of great potential value to the war effort – if only someone could train them, organise them and arm them. Once organised, those partisans could wreak all kinds of havoc. Nancy was to be sent in as one third of a team code named Freelance. One of a number of similar teams, they would organise the Maquis. Freelance were trained up for the job in Scotland, then parachuted in to France, on 29th April 1944. 

I won’t go into a day by day breakdown of Nancy’s time with the Maquis of L’Auvergne – I’m still hoping to keep this one a half hour episode – give or take – but there are a handful of details I need to cover.

There were seven thousand men in the forest, living nomadically in temporary camps. They slept under the trees, and mostly lived off the land. They were already somewhat active, carrying out the occasional ambush or act of sabotage. The game, however, for the allies was to get the men prepared for a big operation on D Day. As the Normandy landing neared, airdrops of equipment ramped up. 

Even at this stage, the missions could get ropey. One day London sent a message to Nancy, to pick up a weapons instructor, code named Anselm. He was in a safe house in Montlucon with a former cook named Madame Renard. London presumed she would know the location of the safe house, and the password when she got there. The partisan who knew the house, and password had unbeknownst to London, ‘disappeared’ a while back. What’s more, Montlucon was by then swarming with Nazis who tended to pounce on any strangers asking questions. The mission was central to their plan – and it was also like looking for a needle in a haystack.  

This tale, it turns out, ended with no great drama. Nancy evaded Nazi scrutiny, and eventually deduced the location of the safe house. Madame Renard played dumb to Nancy’s questions when she answered the door, till Nancy complimented her on the aroma of a cake Madame Renard had in the oven – Her reputation as the former cook to the ambassador well proceeded her. Renard presumed no Nazi would know this about her and let Nancy in. Anselm was hiding in a cupboard, pistol at the ready if the visitor was from the Gestapo. Just one broken link in the chain could ramp up the level of danger.

On 5th June 1944, a cryptic message came through via a BBC radio broadcast. “The crocodile is thirsty. I hope to see you again, darling, twice at the Pont d’Avignon… You may now shake the trees and gather the pears”. D Day was coming and Le Maquis moved into position. Armed with guns, and several tons of explosives, they descended upon twelve hundred designated targets, in the dead of night. Factories, telephone lines, railways, bridges, roads – were all blown to smithereens. 

As the allies landed en masse at Normandy, Le Maquis did all the could to stop the Axis from deploying reinforcements from the South of the country.

Of course the Nazis weren’t just going to let them blow up all transport and communication lines, and fierce fighting broke out. Nazis being Nazis, where they couldn’t strike back at partisans, they took their anger out on the local population. Many houses were burned down. Many civilians were lynched in the streets, hung from lamp posts. Villagers were gathered en masse and executed by firing squad. Four days after the Maquis operation, the Nazis refocused and send an army of 7,000 troops, artillery and tanks into the forest, to crush a camp of 3,000 Maquis embedded at Mont Mouchet. A pitched battle erupted between the Nazis and the partisans. Nancy was tied up fighting her own Nazis too far away to help, but close enough to hear the carnage going on for days. The Maquis in the other camp, led by a man code named Gaspard, more than held their own. 

In the meantime, thousands of French civilians flooded in to Nancy’s camp, asking to join the resistance. They were suddenly flat out arming these newcomers and preparing them to take on the Nazis at ‘Gaspard’s hill’. Several days into the battle, with casualties well in excess of partisan losses, the Nazis withdrew. 

From here on in, the weapons drops increased, as the fight back took a pace. One day, a fatigued Nancy narrowly avoided being shot to pieces by a German plane, while she was picking up a supply drop. She dodged the planes strafing runs a couple of times by emergency braking, causing the plane to misjudge her trajectory. She abandoned the car at just the right moment. One final strafing run pierced the gas tank, and the car went off like a Roman candle. With just one package in hand retrievable – a special personal order of makeup and tea – she ran off into the forest. Another day, after several days of running on just two hours sleep a night, she narrowly avoided being blown to bits by German artillery. Worried she’d fall asleep at the wheel, Nancy took to a bed in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. A comrade burst in, warning the Nazis were coming. They relocated to the tree line just in time to see the farmhouse demolished by artillery fire. 

There are a couple further tales I need to cover in the Nancy Wake story. First there was that bike ride. 

In the days following their D Day operation, the Maquis withdrew to safer ground. They were fighting a guerrilla war after all. As they relocated, Nancy’s radio operator ‘Denden’- by all tellings a fascinating character as a wonderfully camp, openly gay man at that time – had been injured in battle, receiving a leg wound. He’d recover from the injury and did escape the Nazi grasp – but at the time he worried he’d be captured, along with the radio, so he destroyed his radio and codes. It was imperative get a replacement ASAP. Without contact with London they were flying blind.  

The following day, Nancy rode twenty miles over the mountain to a pub where she hoped to make contact with another cell. She was greeted outside the pub by the publican. A communist was inside. He planned to shoot her. Nancy rushed into the pub, sat down across the table from the communist and slammed her pistol down on the table. 

“I hear that you are going to shoot me. Well, you’ll need to be very quick on the draw”.

Nancy ordered a drink, all the while eyeballing the communist. She discovered the cell had left town, and there were now Nazis all over the place. The next closest spare radio was two hundred kilometres down the road in Châtearoux. 

Given the distance and sudden influx of Nazis, Nancy decided her best hope was to get all dolled up, leave the gun behind – and do her best to pass for a local out to pick up the groceries. She left for Châtearoux in twilight. Sixty kilometres in, through hilly country roads, Madame Fiocca was exhausted, but she pushed on. As she reached some town or other on the way she’d stop for a drink, and do her best to glean whatever information she could about Nazi movements in the area. She’d jump back on her bike and continue. She arrived at the town of Bourges to find it boarded up. A troop of Nazis massacred a group of locals earlier in the day, and everyone was keeping their heads down. As she inconspicuously passed through, a group Nazis were packing up to leave for the next town. 

The town of Issoudon was safer, and Nancy had a chance to have a drink and clean herself up a little. On her journey she did pass several troops of Nazis. Some waved as she went by, others cat-called after her. So far, no one bothered to ask her for her identification papers.  

Within eighty kilometres of Châtearoux, the road was too congested with German trucks, so Nancy took a detour – and within a day and a half, she reached her destination. 

When she finally found the radio operator, he obstinately refused to help her. She didn’t have the password. Prior to her run in with the radio operator, Nancy came across a Maquisard from another camp who was there to contact another radio operator in the town. Could he help her perhaps? She was told not. The contact had legged it, and there were Gestapo officers laying in wait in his apartment for whoever showed up. There was yet another cell camping out in the forest on the other side of town, however, and they had a spare radio. The ride back was complete agony. Every muscle in her body ached, and by now Nancy had worn away the skin on her thighs. Kilometre after kilometre she pushed on, not daring to stop as she worried she’d never get going again. 

Three days after she left, Nancy returned – exhausted and in need of medical attention – having covered 400 kilometres. 

For context the cyclists on the Tour de France cover a little over 3,300 kms in 23 days. She’d kept up one hell of a pace for an amateur, unaccustomed to riding, on an old-fashioned bike.  

There are many other tales – many stories of gunfights with Nazis – one tale from July 1944 when the Maquis decided the Nazis needed a good shake up, so Nancy and a group of other Maquisards drove up to their makeshift headquarters at the Montlucon town hall at midday. The building was unguarded outside, so they had no trouble bursting through the doors, tossing hand grenades in, then running off. This attack maimed or killed 38 men, mostly officers. There’s also the story of the time Nancy killed a man with her bare hands. She was on a mission to take out an armoury in Mont Mouchet. Two guards would pace the perimeter in opposite directions, meet in the middle, then turn around. Once they walked a significant distance away from one another, the plan was to jump the guards and incapacitate them. Nancy and her comrades mistimed their run, one guard stabbing Nancy in the arm with his bayonet – before Nancy took him down with a karate chop to the neck. The chop allegedly broke his neck. A doctor at the camp patched her up afterwards.

And then there were tales of an aggrieved Maquisard who tried to have Nancy killed, so for some time she had a crew of Spanish Maquisard bodyguards with her wherever she went. There was another tale of Maquis behaving atrociously, when Madame Fiocca discovered one day one of the camps had a couple of women held captive – one a girl from the village who was being pimped out to the men, and another, a Nazi collaborator. One should never play ‘both sides had…’  around Nazis – they are always the worst people in any room – but it’s disturbing to think of this cell of Maquis who kept a woman as a sex slave. 

Nancy freed the sex slave, but she begged Nancy to let her stay on as an assistant, which she assented to. The other lady was far more problematic – if they let her go, she would bring the Nazis back to the camp – On the other hand, she couldn’t be left with a cell of men who kept sex slaves. Feeling she had no other choice, Nancy executed her with her side arm. There were other tales that were far more acadian, like the night the partisans held a grand celebration in the forest to celebrate the beginning of the end for the Nazis, or another feast in honour of her 32nd birthday. 

We probably know the broad strokes of how his tale ends, right? On August 25th 1944 Paris was liberated, and town after town were quickly freed from the Nazi yoke. The Nazis high-tailed it back to Germany, to protect their motherland, as the noose closed in on them. The Eastern front had very much turned the way of the Allies, though at an absolutely staggering loss of life. By late 1943 the USSR had recovered half of their land lost to the Nazis. Throughout 1944 they pushed on and on, till they were in Germany. The war in Europe effectively ended in a Berlin bunker, 30th April 1945. The Russian Red army had the city besieged, an ailing Hitler had just married his mistress Eva Braun on the night of the 28th. Probably thinking of how Mussolini was hung from a lamp-post and shot, Braun bit down on a cyanide pill – Hitler unholstered his gun. For decades rumours would circulate about their charred remains, and speculation the Hitlers faked their own death to live out the rest of their lives under the surname Wolff, somewhere in Argentina. 

But those two monsters are certainly not the lovers we’re interested in. The question remained, what became of Henri? 

Soon after the war, Madame Fiocca got the awful news. As Nancy arrived in Vichy she came across a woman she knew from Marseille. This lady was now working the reception desk at a hotel. The two women spoke, and the receptionist asked her what the future held for Madame Fiocca? Nancy answered she was going back to Marseille, and Henri. The receptionist, aghast, exclaimed ‘Oh no, Nancy, don’t you know? He’s dead.’

She was unable to provide any further details. 

It was a long, arduous journey back to Marseille – some roads were too strewn by the wreckage of Nazi tanks. Bridges were blown to pieces – but she eventually found a path through. Once there the story came in bits and pieces. 

Not long after Nancy’s escape, in March 1943, Pat O’Leary was arrested by the Gestapo. In May he stumbled across some random piece of information that simply had to be passed to the resistance. He shared this information with a prisoner who was due to be released, asking him to pass it on to Henri. It was all a ruse. The prisoner was a Nazi spy. It is not clear to me if the information was fake also.   

Henri was arrested, and brutally tortured. To compound matters, the Gestapo approached Henri’s parents to say he was being tortured because he refused to divulge Nancy’s location. If someone gave up where the White Mouse was hiding, Henri would be released. It’s unlikely he would ever have been released, and Nancy was safely in Gibraltar by then. The Fioccas’ blamed Nancy for Henri’s death. Henri’s torture continued until October 1943, when he was finally lined up against a wall and shot. Heartbroken, and with nothing to stay for, the widow Fiocca set off for London. 

She did return to Paris, spending time working for the British Air ministry in the city – before returning, briefly to Australia in 1949. Nancy ran for a seat in Parliament under a conservative ticket (one fault I guess, was she wasn’t a Labour supporter, but there you go). After a loss in 1949, and subsequently in the 1951 election, she returned to Britain. Back in London, a 1956 newspaper article on Nancy caught the attention of a former Flight Lieutenant Nancy had met in Paris named John Forward. John served in the war, but, having been shot down in 1942, spent most of that time in a German prisoner of war camp. One day he looked Nancy up, and dropped by her flat. The two hit it off, and would remain married for 40 years until John’s passing in 1997. In 1959 the couple moved back to Australia, and had two kids. 

Nancy Wake passed 7th August 2011, aged 98; having lived several lifetimes worth of adventure. One wonders what Aunty Hinamoa would have thought of her investment? 

Madame Fiocca – Part One

Madame Fiocca – Part One Tales of History and Imagination


This is Part One of a Two Part Series. For Part Two, Click Here.

To the Nazis she was the White Mouse, a resourceful operative who evaded their clutches after having helped 1037 people escape Nazi territory along the “Pat O’Leary Line”. Britain’s Special Operations Executive called her Hélène. To them she was a member of their Freelance cell embedded within the French resistance. To Marseille’s high society, she was Madame Fiocca, an intrepid foreign journalist who arrived from a far-away land, fell in love with one of their most eligible bachelors, and subsequently become one of their own. To the French resistance she was the tough as nails Madame Andrée – a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands. 

To Australia, the land she fled in her teens, in search of glamour and adventure, she is remembered as Nancy Wake – war hero. 

As is often the case with Aussie icons, (see Phar Lap, the pavlova, the flat white coffee, the lamington, Crowded House, Russell Crowe, Stan Walker and Admiral Markham’s flag), Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand. Born in 1912, in Roseneath, Wellington to Ella, a homemaker, and Charles Wake, a journalist – the family moved to North Sydney, Australia when Nancy was two years old. Charles had been offered a much better job across the ditch, so they packed up all their belongings, rounded up all six of their kids and took off across the ditch – as so many young kiwi families still do. Biographies paint a picture of the family briefly enjoying a comfortable, middle class existence there, though Charles and Ella’s marriage had grown quite loveless at this stage. One day Charles just disappeared on them. Far from foul play, he’d abandoned the family and gone back to New Zealand. Before Ella and the kids had come to grips with the estrangement, they found out Charles had sold the new house from under them without warning. 

The Wake family moved to a poorer neighbourhood, but stayed on in Australia. From here on, Nancy’s childhood was one of financial struggle, filled with dreams of moving to somewhere glamorous and exciting, and of regular conflict with her mother.

Aged 16, Nancy ran away from home to become a nurse. Technically as she was a runaway minor, wanted by the police, Shirley Anne Kennedy enrolled in the course in Mudgee, north-west of Sydney. This would be the first of many noms de plume she adopted in her life. A mining town with a poorly staffed hospital, and a never-ending supply of miners brought in with broken limbs, burns and nasty cuts – Nancy became an expert at patching up wounded men. Two years later, no longer a minor, she returned to Sydney, dropping the disguise. She worked for a shipping company for a while. Her big break, however, came in 1932. Her Aunty Hinamoa – the original black sheep of the family (Hinamoa ran off with a married sea captain) wrote to her to say she often thought about Nancy and wished her every success. She was sending Nancy £200 so she could live the life she wanted. A sum of around $11,000 Australian dollars today, this was a reasonable sum of money to go on an adventure with. Nancy booked passage on the RMS Aorangi II, headed for Vancouver, Canada. 

From Vancouver, Nancy spent three weeks in New York – where she discovered their speakeasy’s – before moving on to London, England. In London she enrolled in a journalism school. By day she learned to be a reporter. By night she was a regular denizen of the nightclubs. One holiday weekend she jumped a plane across the English channel to Paris. Nancy adored Paris. On graduation she lied her way into a reporting job for the Hearst corporation, by convincing the interviewer she could read ‘Egyptian’ – her mock Arabic writing was just Pittman’s shorthand written backwards. As a Hearst corporation reporter based in Europe she got to relocate to Paris. Nancy learned the language, fit in well with the locals – and one night in 1937, while on holiday in Marseille, she met and fell in love with Henri Fiocca – a wealthy industrialist and eligible bachelor. The couple married in 1939, weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War. 

Here I need to rewind for a second, to discuss the future Madame Fiocca’s first visit to Marseille. Any story of Europe in the 1930s is bound to intersect with a particular type of lowlife. Her visit to Marseille on 9th October 1934 would not have been her first experience of fascists in action – she was still in Sydney in 1932 when a fascist on horseback gazumped the socialist premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang. As Lang prepared to cut the ribbon on the newly built Sydney Harbour bridge, one Francis De Groot beat him to it with his cavalry sabre. What happened in Marseille, however, was far more ominous.  

On October 9th, Nancy Wake was sent to Marseille to cover the arrival of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. ‘Alexander the Unifier’, had formerly been the king of Serbia alone. He was having one hell of a time unifying his now multi-ethnic empire, particularly from ultranationalist groups who wanted self determination. The Ustase – a Croatian fascist organisation, run in exile from Italy, were by far his greatest threat. Yugoslavia also faced pressure directly from Fascist Italy, as they claimed ownership of regions within Slovenia and Croatia. On the political front, federalists wanted to split the empire into smaller constituent parts through legal avenues. A number of landlords were also furious with him, after Alexander dispossessed them of rural land, which he then redistributed to the serfs living on the land. The Austrian and Hungarian barons who lost out were a minor threat, but several Muslim landlords – remnants of Ottoman rule who lived locally, wanted the king gone. To top everything off, his Communist neighbours were looking across at him, just waiting for an opportunity to bring Yugoslavia into the fold.

 In 1929, Alexander temporarily suspended democracy after fascists attempted a coup. Afterwards he fired corrupt, and fascist civil servants. He arrested the seditionists and troublemakers. The Ustase responded with a wave of bombings and assassinations. Desperate for help, and increasingly worried Hitler’s ascent in 1933 would lead to a combined Italian, German and Ustase coup attempt next time – the king called on France for help, and a military alliance. 

Alexander arrived on the Dubrovnik on the 9th to a rapturous greeting from the locals.Greeted at the dock by French foreign minister Louis Barthou, the two men climbed into the back seat of a waiting car. They barely travelled 100 yards when an assassin approached the car, shouting ‘God save the King, then shooting both men dead. The assassin was, in turn, beaten to death by a furious crowd. The assassin, Vlado Chernozemsky, was an experienced killer who worked for a Macedonian ultranationalist group aligned with the Ustase. He’d already murdered two politicians before this incident, and was by then the guy who trained other assassins. Judging this job too important to leave to an apprentice, he went to Marseille himself to do the deed. Nancy was there to witness the assassination, and wrote a report for Hearst corporation – but as one of the first assassinations caught on film – the film footage is what people remember. All the same it left a lasting impression on her. 

Mind you, violent fascists doing violent fascist things wasn’t something one could ignore in the mid 1930s. Besides France’s own home grown far right groups, like the Croix de Feu (who I mentioned in episode two of the Wall Street Putsch), there was a lot going on with the fascists. As a roving reporter based in Europe, Nancy saw, or heard of much of it. In 1933 she was even sent to Germany to interview Adolf Hitler. In 1935, she travelled to Vienna, Austria – then well in the grips of the fascists. Nancy was appalled to witness roaming gangs of fascists assaulting Jewish citizens in the streets without fear of reprisal. She vowed, should the chance ever present itself – she would help bring Hitler down. Right, back to 1939. 

It is Christmas 1939 in Marseille, and after only a couple of months of wedded bliss, Henri was called up to serve in the army. Everyone feared the Nazis would be coming after France next, and while France had both the Maginot line, and a well trained, standing army of 800,000 men, the speed with which the Nazis took our Poland was utterly terrifying. Nancy was determined to play a part in the conflict – and had her millionaire beau buy her a truck she could use as an ambulance, should they be invaded. In March 1940, Henri was sent to the Maginot line on the North-East border with Germany. 

As the Nazis blitzkrieg’ed through the North of the continent, at first through neutral Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; Italy launched an attack on the South of France. Madame Fiocca was soon in the thick of it, providing medical help to, and evacuating the wounded. The Axis powers soon overran the Maginot line, crushing French defences. Wherever possible they just went around the big guns and defences. On 17th June 1940, Marshall Philippe Pétain – a World War One hero known as the Lion of Verdun, surrendered to the Axis. He soon after took charge as a puppet dictator of a breakaway nation in South of France. The new capital, the town of Vichy. In reaction, a Colonel named Charles de Gaulle crossed the English Channel – declared a government in exile who would continue to resist, and started planning that resistance alongside the British.

In October, Pétain announced Vichy France had agreed to collaborate with the Axis powers.   

As local resistance networks formed, Nancy and Henri – now back from the front – joined the resistance. 

Madame Fiocca started off as a courier, shipping radio parts and other equipment to agents in the field. This was dangerous enough – In Vichy France this carried a death sentence if caught.  Nancy and Henri continued regardless. They would live double lives – well regarded socialites and pillars of the community on one hand, partisan spies on the other. Though every meeting brought the risk of being uncovered, tortured and executed, they continued to build networks among the disaffected. At night they listened intently to BBC radio broadcasts from Britain for news on the war, with a second radio blaring in the neighbours direction, to obscure the noise of the first. 

As Paris fell, German troops throughout Vichy France became a regular sight – as did captured allied soldiers. Fort Saint-Jean, an old fortress on Marseille harbour became a prison camp for several hundred captured soldiers, sailors and airmen. As the authorities believed their captives couldn’t go anywhere, they were allowed to roam freely in the daytime. After a chance meeting in a cafe with a captured officer, Nancy started to courier them goods. A Commander Busch, who adopted the code name Xavier, was their first connection. Xavier would later escape the camp – and become an important resistance fighter himself. 

In a matter of a few months the scope of their mission had increased greatly. The couriers were now part of a network smuggling people out of France into neutral Spain, then British controlled Gibraltar. They were a link in the chain known as the Pat O’Leary line – named after a Belgian doctor and agent who took on the nom de guerre. They took in soldiers and occasionally compromised agents – hiding them in rented apartments, or in Henri’s factory. They acquired documentation for them, before taking them to the Pyrenees mountains. Soon increasing numbers of French Jews came to them for help. Vichy France started sending Jews off to the concentration camps in October 1940.  

In September 1941, the agents of the Pat O’Leary Line were sent into disarray when a rogue operative turned on them. An alleged British officer, allegedly named Paul Cole stole a large sum of money from the resistance he had been given to courier from one cell to another. Cole was confronted, but as the agents argued if they should kill him, Cole jumped out of a window. Cole, real name Harold Cole, handed himself in to the Gestapo, informing on the resistance. It turns out he was actually a British deserter with a long civilian history of theft and fraud. Cole was in Nancy’s house just the once, and Nancy having taken a dislike to him, had thrown him out. It was possible that one visit wasn’t enough for Cole to remember her location. All the same, 50 members of the resistance were captured and executed on his information. 

On 8th November 1942, Britain’s General Montgomery led 110,000 troops into Northern Africa in Operation Torch. As the Allies pushed back the infamous Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel – taking swathes on land across the Mediterranean from France – the Nazis decided to formally annex Vichy France. With a flood of German soldiers into the region, the work of moving escapees along the Pat O’Leary line became all the more dangerous. The Vichy government had never taken to the ports of Marseille en-masse, setting fire to a neighbourhood which housed 20,000 people, to disrupt resistance activity in the area. The Nazis had no problem doing this, and did so. This led to a growing number of angry newcomers, now looking to join the resistance. Every new recruit brought added muscle – but also the real possibility of admitting another turncoat or double agent.

By 1943, having helped over a thousand people escape, Nancy – or the White Mouse, as the Nazis called her – was on the Nazis radar. Strange men began following her. The phone developed a strange click every time she picked it up. A man was caught going through her letterbox one day by a neighbour. Nancy and Henri discussed the situation; Nancy was to escape down the Pat O’Leary line immediately. Henri would get the factory in order to keep running without him, then follow her. Madame Fiocca’s escape was fraught with difficulty – the first two attempts scuttled by terrible weather. While in Toulouse, to meet with Pat O’Leary, she was arrested while trying to flee from a train. The police, unaware she was the White Mouse, detained her on suspicion of being a sex worker. Pat O’Leary came to her rescue, explaining to police she wasn’t a sex worker, but was in fact his mistress. Multiple times she tried to cross the Pyrenees – only to find the Gestapo had just rumbled one link or another in the O’Leary line. 

Just prior to her sixth attempt, Nancy joined in on a jailbreak of ten Allied officers, then, with the officers in tow, she made her escape. This involved all manner of complications, like having to jump from a moving train and a dash away from Nazis, as they fired a rain of bullets at her. Having legged it, the escapees made their way on foot over the mountains, a trip which took several days – much of the journey was without food and drink, in unsuitable clothing for the freezing nights. One night they had to sleep in a pig pen, where it is thought Nancy contracted scabies. The officers were often a millstone around her neck, complaining and stating they were too tired to go on. Madame Fiocca escaped the clutches of the Gestapo after a long, arduous journey. Soon she would be in England. 

By mid 1944 however, she would be back in France – living in a forest, and leading a band of merry men against the Nazis. 

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. Part Two is Here.

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.