Category Archives: War & Peace

…. Not Count Leo… yet anyway.

The Old Man of The Mountain

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

The Old Man of The Mountain Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

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

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

A Turkish statue of Alp Arslan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But oh did they assassinate. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The messenger left, alongside the two bodyguards.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mongols are Coming!

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

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

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

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

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

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

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and around 30 camels. 

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

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

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

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah

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


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

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

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

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

Conrad of Montferrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern depiction of Omar Khayyam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the modern ruins of Alamut Castle.

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

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

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

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

For a while after this peace ensued. 

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

Njinga of Ndongo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imbangala warriors.

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

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

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

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

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

Premium Content: Yasuke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrus sited his brother

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

But

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Hey all let’s finish off the Hollywood Trilogy next week. For this week I was planning something more in keeping with Halloween. 

When I try to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on, or around April 18th 1943, I get a picture in my mind’s eye of a particular type of literature. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, heading off on a boy’s own adventure into the woods. Rightly or wrongly, I want to imagine a scene out of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, or at a push, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – just a group of kids just being kids. Far too preoccupied with childhood politics, games and urban legend to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

That weekend the Luftwaffe would, notably, bomb a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler would run 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 concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, got wind of a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto, flying over Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. Unsurprisingly, they took their revenge for Pearl Harbour on the Admiral – and shot him from the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what these kids were thinking on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ or ‘Bless Em All’ as they rode into the woods. For that matter, If they were chased by an angry junkyard dog like Stephen King’s motley crew.  

I can tell you the four young lads were on a covert mission – to sneak into old Viscount Cobham’s land, Hagley woods – and steal themselves some birds eggs. 

The so- called Witch Elm

As they searched high and low for bird’s nests, the four boys came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Thinking a hollowed out tree just the place to find eggs, Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge. He found an old animal skull staring back up at him. Boys being boys, Farmer picked it up, to show the skull off to his friends. It was then that he noticed tufts of hair, a human mandible and the tiniest amount of human flesh still attached to the former noggin. In a mad panic, the boys took off for home. The gravity of their find dawned on them, but on the frantic trip home it also dawned on them they found the skull because they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land. A sound thrashing from angry parents is one thing, but a criminal record? The boys made a pact to keep their grisly find to themselves.  

But, as Shakespeare once wrote “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, conscience got the better of him. He told his father of the skull. They went to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the next day. Officers reached into the tree, and found more than just a skull. A near complete skeleton was stashed away in what would later become known as ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, but the bones would be found 13 paces away. A taffeta cloth had been shoved far down her throat. A cheap rolled gold wedding ring (where a thin strip of gold is bonded or fused to both sides of a base metal, usually brass or copper, to make inexpensive jewellery), some scraps of clothing, and a shoe. The victim’s remains were taken to Professor James Webster, a local pathologist of note. He noted our victim was a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth (also having had a tooth removed a year before her death) and had given birth at least once. She was placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, was presumed to have died of asphyxiation – and had been in the tree since October 1941 or thereabouts. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They tracked down the shoemakers in Northampton, and actually managed to track down all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and the stall holders kept no records. They went through lists of missing persons but could not make a match. Her teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. All to no avail. They had a single record in the vicinity of Hagley wood 20 months before she was found, of a businessman and a school teacher calling in to report a woman screaming in the woods. Police were sent out at the time, but found nothing. That lead also led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared in the form of graffiti. First, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’, then ‘Hagley wood Bella’ appeared on another wall, then the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ The graffiti was always done in chalk. Always in a similar hand, in letters around 3 inches high. The police presumed always at night, when there were no witnesses. Besides giving them a name to work with, it also shared more than had been released to the public about the murder. They re-ran their investigations looking for a Luebella, or Bella. They also looked into the graffiti, but – in an age without video surveillance – and when enforced blackouts until April 1945 gave the artist an inky blackness to work amongst – it shouldn’t be surprising they had no luck with either lead.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? We don’t know, and given her remains were lost, may never find out. Some fascinating theories have arisen over the years however. 


Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Because sexism saw more field work go to male counterparts, and then because the First World War broke out in 1914 – stopping field work altogether, Murray diversified – becoming an expert anthropologist and folklorist. Of note, she wrote a series of books on witchcraft, in the 1920s and 30s which later became codified into the modern Wicca movement. In 1945, she offered a possible explanation to the mystery. Was Bella murdered either by occultists, and/or was she a witch herself?

At risk of more digressions than plot here, the practice of cutting off a felon’s right hand goes back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Hammurabi’s Code. In what we’d recognise as a Talionic principle now (an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – the punishment should somehow reflect the crime) taking away the hand used to rob someone seemed poetic the lawmaker. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, this practice grew into something far more macabre. If you were to cut the right hand from a criminal as they twisted on the gallows, you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled to preserve it, was thought by some to have magical powers. If you were a thief yourself, you could use the hand to put sleeping occupants of a house into a deep sleep, while you rifled through their possessions. A hand of glory was also supposed to protect the possessor from evil spirits, and could even lead treasure hunters to long forgotten troves. That the hand was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to Murray – as did disposing of the body inside a tree. 

Some pre- Christian societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – thus preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge. 

Her assertion was lent some weight in following years, by a murder 70 kilometres to the South East in Lower Quinton, on Valentines Day 1945. Charles Walton, a 74 year old local was murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. He was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe and pitch fork – the latter of which was used to pin him to the ground through his own cut throat. A lot of circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – some suggesting Walton had loaned his boss money he couldn’t repay, as a motive. Others blamed Italian prisoners of war, kept in a facility of so minimum security, they were at ease to freely wander the town. 

In 1954, local papers reported on a killing in the town of Long Compton, 25 kilometres from Lower Quinton. This murder happened in 1875. The victim, an octogenarian woman named Ann Tennant. The papers reported she was suspected of witchcraft, and was similarly, ritualistically killed by being pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood, who is variously described as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood spent the rest of his life in an asylum; a lone wolf who claimed he was intending to kill more witches if they ever let him out. This was overlooked by many in 1954, who branded both victims witches, and wondered aloud what kind of cabal of witch-hunters, Satanists or fellow witches were responsible for two executions, seven decades apart?

All this fed into the rumours of witchcraft, and occult rites surrounding Bella. Turbulent and uncertain times give birth to crazy beliefs, as people seek to find or invent a monster to hang their insecurity on – and this was no exception. On the witchcraft theory itself? Truthfully, while there is nothing to falsify this theory, there is absolutely no evidence for it either – and that which can be stated without evidence should be dismissed just as easily. 

Another possibility centres around a young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic friend ‘Van Raalt’. 

Jack Mossop worked as a fitter, making plane parts – but had been a trainee RAF pilot, until a crash left him with serious head injuries. A troubled heavy drinker, who suffered debilitating headaches and regular nightmares, he’d grown distant from his wife Una. At 1am one morning, either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalt. Una had suspicions Van Raalt was a spy, as he never worked, but was always well off. Others stated he sold black market goods. 

On the night in question, both men were terribly shaken by something I suspect Una only ever hinted at to the police. 

They were drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalt and the Dutch piece got into an altercation, and the three left the pub – one presumes under duress from the publican. 

Jack allegedly told Una the three piled into Van Raalt’s rover. Van Raalt and Dutch piece in the back, Jack behind the wheel. The Dutch piece was out cold. Some way down the road Van Raalt told Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men then got out and carried Dutch piece to a hollowed out oak tree – placing her sleeping body inside the tree. 

At least this was the story she gave the police in 1953. 

She was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He went to work less – but somehow seemed to have more money than ever in his pocket. Una was convinced he too must’ve been a spy. Emotionally distant, violent and moody – Jack increasingly turned to other women for comfort. Una left him in December 1941. 

After this, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became increasingly erratic – and in June 1942 he was committed to a mental health facility, where he died in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report suggests he was suffering from something like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers and American football players often suffer from. 

A version of this Tale was leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower in 1958. 

In this story however, the leaker – known in the papers as Quaestor – named Una ‘Anna’. Anna, allegedly spoke of a spy ring who were out to infiltrate the munitions factories dotted across the midlands. Bella was a Nazi spy and occultist named Clarabella. She’d parachuted in earlier in the year under the direction of Nazi intelligence, the Abwehr. Abwehr records released after the war suggest they did send a woman, code named ‘Clara’ into the West Midlands – but she failed to make contact and was presumed killed in action. 

If this were the case, ‘Clara’ would be far from the only Nazi spy to parachute into the United Kingdom in the war. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worth brief consideration is Josef Jakobs. 

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old at the time of his capture. Born in Luxembourg, he fought alongside the Germans in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight, and served as an officer until it was discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland for selling fake gold. After this he was taken in by the Abwehr. 

On 31st January, Jakobs jumped from a German plane flying over Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He broke his ankle when he landed, and was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. Carrying £500, counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter and a German sausage. He’d brought attention to himself by firing his pistol in the air, as the pain of his ankle was too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him in to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5, including an explanation of a photograph of a woman he had on him – a woman who was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress called Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to be dropped somewhere over the West Midlands, as she had worked there as a cabaret singer in the 1930s. Jakobs was court martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So that was it? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress with occult leanings, sent in to help a German spy ring in an area heavy with munitions plants? For some as yet unexplained reason she had a falling out with her compatriots and was killed? For decades this was considered likely – but subsequently has come into disrepute. 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? Currently with one lead. Although Bella’s skull has been lost over time, photos of it still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who made a facial reconstruction of King Richard III took on Bella, creating an artist’s impression of her. There is always a possibility someone, at some time will be sorting through shoe boxes of old photos and put two and two together. Will the truth finally come out? Only time will tell. 

Quick sidebar for the New Zealanders: This Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. As a member of the English cricket team he toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton served as Governor General from 1957 to 1962. His great grandfather George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason their name may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of Lord Cobham. 

Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

Mussolini vs The Mob Tales of History and Imagination


There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

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 took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and 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. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

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. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. 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, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. 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 in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. 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. 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 so much as a 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’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning 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 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 other illegal activities. 

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 the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

Ungern’s Army

Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.   


Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.

I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?

Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords – 

And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –

Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help. 

This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war. 

With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia. 

Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big. 

Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920. 

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army. 

For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch. 

Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about. 

He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.

Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol. 

In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.

Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force. 

Urga in 1921

Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?

Then, one night in February ….

Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.

The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa. 

They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety. 

As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds. 

The last Bogd Khan.

Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven. 

Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence. 

Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.

Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region. 

This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression. 

In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion. 

On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers. 

Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners. 

When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash. 

Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him. 

A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.

Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go.  Ungern mounted his horse and left.

He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.

In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.

They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture.
Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.

Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part Two)

Jack Parsons – Babalon‘s Rocketeer (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination


Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back. 

This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. 

Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.      

Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort. 

Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass. 

This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably. 

Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party. 

In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage. 

At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself. 

The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.

In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
!”

Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention. 

Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.

In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons. 

In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “…  only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.” 

Enter Ron, in late 1945.

It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.  

From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast. 

Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife. 

When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”. 

Jack and Candy soon became an item. 

The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit. 

Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money. 

All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup. 

The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947. 

In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.

A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes. 

In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately. 

Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House. 

On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.  

On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt. 

Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist. 

Ok, one more thing. 

Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.