Category Archives: Women (& Gender Diverse)

Will this category pass the Bechdel Test? Possibly not. History books typically only give 4% of their time to womxn, I’m consciously trying to ensure female characters get more than that here…

Madame Fiocca – Part Two

Madame Fiocca – Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was unable to provide any further details. 

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

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

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

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

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

Madame Fiocca – Part One

Madame Fiocca – Part One Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Tale in Honour of Transgender Awareness Week – 2022

A Few Short Tales on Trans Awareness Week 2022 Tales of History and Imagination


Edit: (Monday 21 November 2022) I put a script to bed during Transgender Awareness Week. My original intent was to highlight two points; first, trans people have existed forever (as opposed to garbage far-right takes that we’re an invention of ‘post-modernists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, invented to undermine traditional society – and other similar dumb things often repeated by the Peterson’s and Shapiros of the world), and second – that Visibility matters.
This episode is not a be all and end all – it’s the first part in an ongoing series I’ll return to every late November, as Transgender Awareness Week rolls around.

The senseless murder of LGTBQ+ People in a gay bar in Colorado Springs over the weekend did make me rethink the scope of this subject – Did I need to write something more strident, more defiant? The more I thought about it though, the act of LGBTQ+ people even deigning to exist was enough to set a miserable, insecure sociopath off, to tragic effect.
If the ‘radical’ act of existing so offends some people, then maybe the following is enough?
My deepest condolences to the loved ones of those lost, and to those injured in the deplorable attack.

Today I’d like to start with a poem. 

“Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .”

Thus wrote Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus in ‘Even Bokhan’ (1322).

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus was born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286. They – and I should say up front, as far as we know Kalonymus only ever presented as male to others, but given their poem, I don’t think it terribly disrespectful to use a gender neutral pronoun? 
So, they, Kalonymus became a scholar, receiving an extensive education in theology and philosophy. Kalonymus distinguished themself as a translator of many of the classical Greek and Roman works that were brought to Europe during the crusades. Their one true love, however, was satirical poetry. When it came to writing angry invectives on society, Kalonymus was said to be quite the pistol. 

Even Bokhan is apparently an angry invective, raging against the comparatively easy life Jewish girls had compared to the boys. Girls got to be the home makers. They got to play games. Boys only buried themselves dutifully in dusty old books, till they were old enough to go to work. They were burdened with all the responsibility, apparently – quoth Kalonymus…

“Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.”

But it does not read quite that way to me. When you take tone into account, there is a genuine mood of sadness and resignation. Kalonymus writes on, begging God to transform themself into a woman, before stating

“If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.”

We don’t know enough about the satirist to offer any diagnosis on them. If we did I’m certainly no psychologist with expertise in trans health. The work is interesting though, as – whether it represented Kalonymus’ feelings of not – it is clearly a representation of gender dysphoria.
For centuries, this feeling of, to use Kalonymus’ words, feeling maimed and deformed is something millions of people have felt. Not all trans people feel gender dysphoria, but many do. It’s worth knowing The UCLA think tank The Williams Institute estimate 0.6% of the population is transgender. Extrapolated over human history this means many millions of trans people have existed; felt Kalonymus’ discomfort, and maybe begged their god to change them too. Kalonymus sees their condition as immutable, unchanging. Unlike many today, who have healthcare options, Kalonymus may feel powerless to the whims of a malevolent God they have been taught to love and worship.
Can I understand why such a figure might turn their depression outwards into writing angry invectives at society? Yes, we see people just like him still in this day and age.

Did Kalonymus have role models, should they choose to look for them? Many have been lost to the whims of history, but, yes. For one let’s discuss Eleanor Rykener.   

We really don’t know enough about Eleanor – but thanks to a set of court documents preserved on a vellum scroll in London, in 1395 – we know she existed, and get some little sense of her life. On Sunday 6th of December 1394 Eleanor was arrested by two officers while ‘laying with a man’ at an address in Cheapside. That part of town was well known for prostitution -as reflected in the names of the streets (trigger warning: rude words follow, please skip forward a little if need be). She was arrested on Soper Lane – a Soper a now antiquated slur for a homosexual man. This was not far from a Gropecunt Lane, a street name often used when brothels were nearby – and replicated in towns across England wherever there were brothels until the 16th century. 

Eleanor, and the gentleman – one John Britby, a former church Chaplain, were brought in and questioned before the Lord Mayor of London. From Eleanor’s testimony we discover she was assigned male at birth and upon moving to the city had, as much as one could at the time, transitioned. She took up work as a bar maid and a seamstress before turning to prostitution. For a while Eleanor moved to Oxford, and worked in a pub there. We don’t know why she returned to Cheapside, but do know as a sex worker she made better money than she could doing bar work. Eleanor returned to her pimp; a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer.
We don’t know anything really about Eleanor’s life outside of work – her hopes and dreams – but we know from her confession that in her work life she had a large clientele who included many men and women, included three knights of the realm, and both male and female clergy. She made good money from sex work, and – however one feels about sex work – it afforded her an authentic life Kalonymus could only ever dream of. 

The Lord Mayor of London carried out the interrogation personally, apparently to appear a ‘tough on crime’ mayor; however there is no evidence Eleanor was ever found guilty of, or sentenced for anything.  

Individual characters in this time are often footnotes. The remarkable, and for this tale’s sake I should point out cisgender, Margery Kempe had yet to drop her ground-breaking autobiography, though she was alive at the same time as Eleanor. Telling one’s own truth before Margery was not a thing people did. If you made it into a history book, typically you were some well off aristocrat, a general or perhaps a merchant with tales of faraway lands. Types later coined the ‘great men’ of history.

As such many early records of trans people are often archeological in nature – take, for example, a 5,000 year old trans skeleton dug up in Prague, Czech Republic. The bones show the effects of male levels of testosterone. The accoutrements code female. A tenth Century AD Viking grave in Birka, Sweden contained a possibly FTM (Female to Male) warrior buried with his weapons and masculine items. Iron Age burial plots in Hasanlu, Iran show evidence the people of that time observed a third gender, considered neither male nor female. In aboriginal cultures from Africa to the Americas, to the Pacific, to Asia many peoples were, on early contact with Europeans noted to be trans, or non-binary. All too often this was unremarkable to those peoples themselves – it’s just the way people were. The way they always have been. Trans people slip through the cracks of history far too often. 

But sometimes a movement, or an Emperor comes along – and they are harder to ignore. 

The polytheistic religions of the Near East allowed a space where trans people could be themselves – and play a role in society. The Gala, Mesopotamian priests from the 3rd Millennium BC were considered nominally male by their society, but presented as female. They wore womens’ clothing, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. If the Galli, a Phrygian cult (from modern day Turkey) were not a continuation of the Gala, the Gala were certainly a template for them. The Galli worshipped Cybele, the mother of the Phrygian Gods. They lived as women, and were castrated on joining the sect, apparently as Cybele’s consort Attis had originally done.

One of the central icons of the religion was a black meteorite, kept in a temple in Phrygia. The Romans looted this meteorite while away, fighting against Carthage in the 2nd Punic war. In 204 BC, the meteorite, a statue of Cybele and a number of Galli priests were brought back to Rome. Cybele was quickly taken into the pantheon of Roman gods. Rome even added a national holiday for the deity, between April 4th -10th, where the statue of Cybele was paraded through the streets, flanked by Galli. 

A number of Romans, their gender expression forced underground by the stifling Roman culture, found a level of utility in this new religion, and became Galli. As with right wing reactionaries in our time, the ascension of the Galli was met with a moral panic fed by conservative fury. These people with their strange ways were turning the world all topsy-turvy, apparently. They were a whole order of terrible if you were to take the satirist Juvenal seriously – his second and fourth satires were particularly unkind to the Galli. All the same, the Galli remained out and proud until Rome adopted Christianity. In the Council of Nicaea, May to August 325 AD, a meeting set out many of the ground rules of Western Christianity, the first cab off the ranks was a prohibition on self castration among the clergy. 

Speaking of Rome – Varius Avitus Bassianus, is someone we should discuss. Born in Emesa (now Homs), Syria, a 14 year old Varius was promoted from high priest of a temple to Emperor of Rome, in 218 AD. Re-named Elagabalus, after her God Elah-Gabal (a variation of the god Baal) her reign wasn’t terribly long, or distinguished. Rather than invading the neighbours, Elagabalus spent most of her time throwing extravagant, hedonistic parties. At least one of those parties turned deadly, when a false ceiling fell away, deliberately dropping millions of rosebuds on the diners. Legend has it so many rosebuds fell on the diners, that people suffocated. Elagabalus executed generals and tried to enforce the worship Elah-Gabal as the state religion. She may have bigamously married a Greek athlete named Zoticus, and a charioteer named Heirocles, all the while visiting bars and picking up random men. Some of this may well be propaganda to excuse her assassination at the hands of her own guards just four years into her reign. 

What is certain, however – Elagabalus wore women’s clothing, wigs and make up; insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and approached several Roman surgeons with promises of ample reward if they could develop a genital reassignment surgery for her. Elagabalus is not an ideal avatar for trans people everywhere – she strikes me as an awful person. However as emperor, she was probably the most high profile trans person in the ancient world. 

I have one final subject I’d like to discuss, while we’re in the Ancient world – a figure we’ve met before and never fully discussed. You may recall Hypsicratea as Mithridates VI of Pontus’ lover at the very end of his life. The Cimmerian warrior princess fought alongside the Emperor, escaping across the Caucasus with him to the Crimea. Rumours circulated on the emperor’s passing, the Cimmerian warrior princess had adopted the masculine name Hypsicrates, and lived the rest of his life as a man. 

In 2004, in the Black Sea city of Phanagoria, an epitaph was uncovered to a Hypsicrates, former wife of Mithridates. It once had a statue of the warrior set above it – but the statue was long gone by then. 

This is intriguing. we know Mithridates’ Hypsicratea was said to have been stereotypically masculine in appearance, and behaviour. Mithridates called her Hypsicrates. A Hypsicrates was among the slaves brought back from Pontus by the victorious Romans. This same Hypsicrates served Julius Caesar, until freed by Caesar sixteen years after Mithridates death in 47 BC. After this, we’re not sure what happened to him, but some scholars believe he later became a well-regarded military historian of the Near East – quoted by later writers like Josephus, but whose works have all been lost to the ravages of time. 

That tale makes for a tantalising what if, that leaves more questions than answers. If they are one and the same, was Hypsicrates/ea assigned male or female at birth? If so, did the change reflect a transitioning or de-transitioning? Were they essentially, before some so-called ‘cultural Marxist’ or ‘post modernist’ ever made a word for the phenomenon, non-binary? Sadly we’ll never know the specifics, but in the abstract isn’t it good to know he/she or they existed?

Beyond the Archway…


Content Warning: This episode discusses Pseudocide – the act of faking one’s own death.
I also cut and slashed at this script considerably in the podcast editing process. I think some parts which still work here didn’t in that format this week.

This week we start with a brief detour to Waitakere, New Zealand – the city where I grew up. If telling a tale closer to my own time I might be speaking of a fiercely proud, growing, largely working class city that really boomed in the wake of World War Two. Postwar the country moved from a largely agrarian economy – one big old farm – to an increasingly industrial one. Suburban, quarter acre dreams flourished among the returning soldiers, as the back blocks of West Auckland grew into suburbia. Many of these burbs seemed a little soulless when compared to earlier villages, and suburban neurosis grew among the mothers particularly, who at least in the 1950s were still the homemakers, as a general rule – cue Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’  

But no, this tale is somewhat earlier – even if it too concentrates on dissatisfaction and inertia. In the 1840s European settlers arrived in Waitakere, some buying large blocks of land from the Maori, Ngati Whatua tribe. Our digression is seven decades after this, when a handful of small, rural settlements were in existence in West Auckland – largely surrounded by towering kauri forests. Intrepid souls came to log the Kauri trees, dig the kauri gum, and turn flax into rope. Over time orchards and wineries grew on land already denuded of Kauri. A brick works supplying a familiar red block first appeared in the 1860s – a few years after Crown Lynn pottery (first set up in Hobsonville in the 1850s- an area later known for it’s airforce base – but moving nearer the brick works in New Lynn in the 1920s)  

Kauri loggers in the Waitakere Ranges

Waitakere was quiet, largely rustic and enveloped in bush – the local word for local forest.

On those red bricks… It is 1910 and a couple of young kids are out exploring the mangrove swamps in a small, leaky rowboat. Mangroves like these are still there, though the creeks, streams and inlets – Huruhuru, Henderson’s, Oratia – and the rest were all much deeper then as a general rule. With little expectation of finding anything man-made, these two kids pushed on through twisting, convoluted waterways – till they stumbled upon an archway made of those red clay bricks. Someone had tunnelled into the shoreline – cutting a small harbour just beyond the arch. Beyond that, an orchard full of apple, plum and pear trees. Further tunnels were cut into the shore, containing store rooms for apples, a fairly rudimentary shack, and a library. 

Docked, a sea-worthy vessel named the Awatea. On board a man presumed dead for close to a decade. That man is a diversion from our main Tale – but he’s worthy of a little explanation. 

Henry Swan was born in Gateshead, England around 1856. Born to wealthy railroad investors, Henry wanted for nothing growing up. He studied law, and on graduation, went straight into partnership with the firm Arnott and Swan. From what little we know of him, he worked at Arnott & Swan till the mid 1890s – afterwards, with his wife Edith, packing up and moving to New Zealand.

I can’t say what he wanted out of New Zealand, but Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore – even now a village with more than it’s share of Victorian English charm – wasn’t it. Henry became increasingly restless, and in 1901 bought the Awatea. In 1895, an American adventurer named Joshua Slocum set off on a record-breaking voyage in his own sloop – the Spray. A little over three years later he returned, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. His book, ‘Sailing alone Around the World’ – retold Slocum’s voyage. In 1901 this book was a popular new release. 

Henry Swan announced to Edith he was following in Slocum’s footsteps. Little did his friends or family know he’d quietly bought 69 acres of land near Henderson Creek. He sold all but 13 acres – which he kept for himself. 

While Henry’s friends and family all thought he was lost at sea, he was living the simple life.  He toiled in his orchard, cross-breeding fruit trees. He read his books. He swam in the creek. When word got out there was a hermit in the creek, numbers of curious visitors started to show up. Henry, it turns out, enjoyed their company. He made friends in the area and started to dig further into the embankments to make a wading pool where local kids could learn to swim. A fire and, later, flooding wrecked much of his orchard, library and shack in the 1920s. 

Henry Swan continued to live on his boat – beyond the brick archway – till his death in 1931, aged 75. Edith lived on till 1940, in Devonport, apparently none the wiser as to her husband’s fate. 

I mention Henry’s tale as, though the water is long gone, a portion of his arch remains along Central Park Drive. When I taught at a West Auckland high school I’d pass it most mornings. When I’ve explained the origin of Swan’s Arch to friends before, most were surprised and had never heard the Tale, though they knew the landmark… so to any curious Westies, there you go…  

But Henry Swan is also an example of pseudocide – the practice of faking one’s own death to begin anew. New Zealand has a few notable tales to tell on that subject.   

Take, for example, Grace Oakeshott. 

Grace Oakeshott was born in Hackney, England in 1872 to Elizabeth and James Cash. The Cash family were upwardly mobile, James making a good living selling stationery. They were also progressives who believed women deserved many of the same opportunities as men – education included. Because of this, Grace and her sisters did receive a good education -Grace going on to study at Cambridge University for a year in 1893. At this point Cambridge had begun admitting women, but not yet allowing them to gain any qualifications for their hard work (they could only sit an exam referred to as ‘a little go’ – and presumably tell people they gave university ‘a little go’). In the years following Cambridge, Grace became involved in activism. Briefly a teacher, she took a job as a factory inspector for the Women’s Industrial Council – a group concerned with women’s wages and workplace safety. Some time in the early 1890s she met and fell in love with Harold Oakeshott – a tea taster by day, socialist activist by night. The couple married in 1896. 

Though a tea taster, Harold was far from a teetotaller – unbeknownst to most who knew him, Harold was a raging alcoholic. This was very likely a big push factor in Grace’s disappearance. 

Walter, Harold and Grace – 1907. Sorry, every time I tried to cartoon this Grace’s face disappeared.

In 1899 Grace and Harold joined Grace’s brother on a sailing holiday. Also on the jaunt, a young medical student friend of Grace’s brother, named Walter Reeve. A good time was had by all, and afterwards all went back to their day to day drudgery. They repeated the holiday the following year, and the first signs appeared that Grace and Walter were fond of one another – one night as the two went for a moonlight boat ride. Harold missed the boat, having drunk himself into a stupor. Following this holiday, not only did Grace, Harold and Walter keep in touch, the three became inseparable….

… and nothing much of note happened till 1907. Walter graduated from medical school, and was looking for working opportunities in New Zealand. One view of New Zealand in 1907 was it was a burgeoning working class utopia. Some time in 1840 a carpenter named Samuel Parnell started the eight hour workday by refusing to work longer. This took off with other workers, becoming commonplace. 

In September 1893, owing to a lot of lobbying, women gained the right to vote in elections. Universal male suffrage didn’t even come to the UK till 1918 – New Zealand was there in 1879. 

While I don’t want to gloss over all manner of issues New Zealand had at the time, largely around treatment of Maori, and of Asian immigrants – it was seen as a workers paradise, where the proletariat had no need to doff one’s cap to their supposed betters. 

Back to Walter’s job opportunities, Grace’s unhappy marriage – and, well… poor old Harold. Grace had by then fallen in love with Walter. She wanted nothing more than to move to New Zealand too – but being now of a respected class – she counted H.G Wells and William Morris among her friends – she felt divorce was not an option. 

On August 27th 1907 Grace travelled to Brittany, France for a holiday. One day (for some reason I imagine it a stormy, inky dark night; the water frigid and crashing hard on the beach – but this was in summer, and I’ve never seen a report that states at what time of day she disappeared) Grace folded her clothes on the beach, went out for a swim – and was never seen again. 

Joan Reeve, on the other hand – newly wedded to Dr Walter Reeve, appears to have swum over to the next beach, got dressed, met up with her husband – and on 26th September boarded a ship, first to Australia, then New Zealand. Joan and Walter settled in Gisborne, New Zealand. They had three children together. Joan became involved in local activism, earning an MBE for her hard work. 

Joan Reeve, formerly Grace Oakeshott, died of multiple sclerosis, 11th December 1928.

My final case study, that of Ron Jorgensen, is altogether far murkier. To tell this Tale I needs must cover an infamous murder. But first, briefly back to the era of the Reeves. 

A self portrait of Ron Jorgensen

New Zealand were the first nation where women had the right to vote in democratic elections. One major reason for this was, since the 1880s there had been a big push to ban alcohol by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement – headed by one Kate Sheppard. While some politicians pushed for the enfranchisement of women from the late 1870s primarily due to the influence of utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill, there was also a faction swayed by an opposition to “the demon drink”. Others were likely populists who recognised women were a large potential voting base for them. 

When women won the right to vote in 1893, under prime minister (technically premier) Richard Seddon – a former pub landlord – prohibition did not naturally follow. 

In December 1917 the prohibitionists got a partial ban. A law passed which forced bars to close at 6pm.  This had a range of unexpected side-effects. First, the publicans were relieved by this law – as this meant an end to the meddling of the prohibitionists. Second, it caused the ‘Six O’Clock Swill’. Most drinkers finished work at five, rushed to their local, then tried to force an evening’s worth of booze down their necks in the space of an hour. One could guess how that often worked out. Third, it created opportunities for petty criminals to make easy money by setting up ‘sly grogs’ and ‘beer houses’ – after hours bars in suburban homes. 

For the following five decades the sly grogs operated, catering to ship and dock workers, beatniks, rugby league players, boxers, rich folk with a penchant for ‘slumming it’ and career criminals. These secretive clubs were, it turned out, also instrumental in embedding organised crime networks in New Zealand. Many connections were forged in the sly grogs. Many plots hatched. 

The six o’clock swill was still very much a thing on December 7th 1963 when Eric Lewis, a landlord, banged at the door of 115 Bassett Road, Remuera. He was there to collect the rent from the tenants. When no-one answered, Lewis dodged the growing pile of milk bottles, and unlocked the door. On cracking the front door the landlord was struck by the stench of two bodies on the turn. In the front bedroom the bodies of Kevin Speight, a 26 year old sailor and George ‘Knucklehead’ Walker, a 34 year old with a reputation as a gangland enforcer. Both men had been shot to death with a Reising sub machine gun – as unreliable a gun as you could hope for in the early 60s. This was evidenced by the fact only six bullets were found in the victims – it’s thought the gun jammed at this point. This didn’t stop the NZ Truth Newspaper framing the killing as our version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – their headline “Chicago Comes to Auckland”. 

Police soon ascertained the property was being used as a sly grog.

A few days after the killings, police were visited by future Prime Minister of New Zealand Rob Muldoon. With the politician, a chef who had a story to tell. The chef was visited at work, just after the killings, by an old friend named John Gillies. Gillies was a petty thief and occasional seaman who had recently been expelled from Australia. He was drunk and had a tale to insinuate.

Rob Muldoon at a later date (see further down)

As Gillies told it “one general sent another general a telegram – Grenades on the way…” The other general, naturally got machine guns. Some big trouble was on it’s way. The public would be shocked. The crook indicated his involvement in whatever happened. When the bodies were found, the chef put two and two together. 

Now, New Zealand was not a place full of machine gun murders. Some soldiers were believed to have come back from World War Two and held onto their guns in civilian life. It was said smuggling all manner of illicit goods into the country was not terribly difficult at the time. In 1934 a group of thieves stole a Vickers machine gun from a New Lynn church (where it was stored for a group of Territorials). The culprits were never caught – but in a country where murder was then a rarity, death by machine gun was unheard of. The gun, of course was public knowledge. That police found two disarmed grenades and a telegram threatening another Sly Grog owner, was not known outside of the investigation. 

After some effort by police the tale unravelled. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Gillies was badly beaten up trying to break up a domestic incident between a bouncer from a rival club in Anglesea Street, Ponsonby and the bouncer’s girlfriend. His ego as bruised as his body, Gillies swore revenge on the bouncer, Barry ‘Machine Gun’ Shaw (so named for mowing down other players on the rugby field as a younger man). Gillies found a friend of a friend who collected rare guns. This friend of a friend, the son of a wealthy clothing manufacturer, had a machine gun. 

As a quick sidebar, a teenaged John Banks – another unpleasant guy, who later became mayor of Auckland – saw the machine gun a week before the shooting. His family were underworld figures, and the tale has it Banks got to fire the gun in his back yard. 

When Gillies showed up at the Anglesea Street Sly Grog to machine gun machine gun, he found Shaw had taken the night off. With nothing else to do, he entered, bought a drink, and got talking to a couple of blokes there. They turned out to be the owners of the pub. The pub was run by an ageing sailor with a teenaged girlfriend named Gerry Wilby – and a hard-boiled crim named Ron Jorgensen. A few drinks in Gillies got his gun out, and someone there offered him a little work. Gillies and a second person would go to 115 Bassett Road and deal to Speight. The issue it seems, that led to Gillies being hired for a murder – Wilby – a man in his 60s only needed his seventeen year old girlfriend when on land. He was happy for her to see other men while he was away. When home however, he expected her to be all his. Mary, his girlfriend had fallen for Speight while Wilby was away. Likewise Speight had fallen in love with Mary and planned to take her from Wilby. This had led to the conflict, angry telegrams and threats of grenades – and eventually murder. After Jorgensen called the operator for driving instructions to Bassett road, two people left for the property. 

The police arrested Gillies and Jorgensen, and with some evidence pointing towards Gillies (not the gun itself – that apparently got thrown off the Auckland Harbour bridge), and not a lot of evidence towards Jorgensen – both men were convicted of the murder and given life sentences. 

But to our pseudocide? 

Ron Jorgensen became something of a celebrity while in prison. He learned to speak Maori and translated Maori language books into braille. He also learned to paint – proving extremely adept at it. His lawyer, Peter Williams …

(sidebar, not the news reader who hosted the episode of Mastermind I was in, this was another Peter Williams – kiwis of a certain age will remember the lawyer well)

…launched a campaign to release Jorgensen. Though the campaign got a lot of support, Jorgensen never got a retrial. He was released in the mid 1970s, but was soon returned after getting caught up in a drug ring.  

A Ron Jorgensen painting of Kaikoura

He served his jail term until 1983, then was paroled to his father’s home in Kaikoura – a former whaling town on the other side of the country where you can now shoot whales – with a camera. I’ve never been there myself, so could not testify to the merits, or lack of for the town – Jorgensen hated being stuck with his father out in the sticks. He continued to paint, though never saw much back for his works. Paintings given away for a couple of beers have since gone on to make thousands of dollars at auction. 

Though generally tied to Kaikoura, he got approval to help his friend, property tycoon Bob Jones and his ‘New Zealand Party’, run for parliament. For a while he stayed in the city of Christchurch. Jones’ party failed to get into parliament, but stole enough right wing votes to knock Rob Muldoon’s National Party out of contention. Of course Muldoon wasn’t helping himself – his slurred, drunken announcement of a snap election summed up his final tilt for power – Muldoon’s run as prime minister was over. 

Soon after, Ron Jorgensen’s car was found down the bottom of a cliff, near the ocean. It was an odd scene in that no body was inside the vehicle. Had he been inside there was no chance he could have crawled away from the wreck – the car was so compacted in on itself. Up on the cliff there were no brake marks. 

It is believed Ron Jorgensen faked his own death by pushing the vehicle over the edge. He was never conclusively seen again. 

From here it gets murky. One theory has it, after ditching the car he boarded a boat, which took him out to another vessel headed for Australia. In the years since former friends and a prison guard have claimed to have seen Jorgensen in Perth, Western Australia. Another theory has it he went to Australia, but only after sharing information with police about a drug ring running out of Christchurch. This theory presumes he was using his time in Christchurch to do business with the drug ring. Soon after his disappearance, a large drug bust went down. Had Jorgensen turned informer, perhaps even set up this ring. Afterwards, did the police resettle him across the ditch? 

A third theory meets somewhere in the middle. Jorgensen faked his own death, and was on a boat out at sea when he was murdered and thrown overboard? Perhaps he was suspected of talking to police about the drug ring, and perhaps he had spoken to the police, necessitating his hurried attempt to escape? This is the theory many of his friends from the underworld believed. 

While I’d say the case of Ron Jorgensen is likely to never be solved I should sign off by pointing out sometimes the truth does out many years later. The disappearance of Grace Oakeshott was not uncovered till a century after she faked her own death. Joan Reeve’s great grand-daughter wrote a play about her great grandmother. This came to the attention of Jocelyn Robson, an academic based in England who specialises in the female activists of Grace’s time. Robson found society photos of Joan and put two and two together. Something similar could still happen in the case of Ron Jorgensen – stranger things have happened.  

… A Thousand Words?

Hey all, the podcast episode I’m running this week is from the back catalog of blog posts – so I have new, blog only content this week. Today we’re going to look at a couple of famous photos – cartooned of course (cause it’s what I do). If I’ve yet to get back to part two of Xenophon (this post was written over my lunch breaks back in January- early February) I will get back to it as soon as I have a couple of evenings free to finish that tale. It’s one of those tales where the broad strokes are fine – but many tiny details need going over carefully to avoid turning the piece into a shambles… It was a bad choice of quick filler material. 

Anyway, back to today – Though not the first to say it, an ad man named Fred Barnard popularised the phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – let’s see if I can’t shed a little light on the following with a few less than that. 

One: I’m Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train….

Granville is a seaside resort town in Normandy, France. Founded by a vassal of England’s newly minted king, William the Conqueror in the 11th Century – the town played host to Vikings, English invaders, privateers and more besides in it’s history. By the 19th century it had a burgeoning wellness industry, and a train line to Paris. A quick Google search tells me a modern train will do the near 400 kilometre journey in around three hours for 20 Euros. On 22nd October 1895, the Granville to Paris Montparnasse express was expected to do the trip in a little over seven. On the 22nd steam locomotive no. 721 departed ‘The Monaco of the North’ with this expectation. Leaving dead on time at 8.45 am with six passenger coaches, three luggage vans and a coach full of mail, the train lost a few minutes here and there till it was in danger of being seriously late. 

Concerned with the dire consequences of a late arrival, the driver, a 19 year veteran of the company named Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, really put his foot on the gas – so to speak. The furnace running red hot, the train reached speeds in excess of sixty kilometres an hour. Now the train was humming along, maybe – just maybe if they held off on the brakes a little they’d reach Paris Montparnasse station by the allotted 3.55pm. 

When Pellerin did attempt to hit the brakes – the air brakes failed. Albert Mariette, the conductor, had an emergency brake he was supposed to hit in cases like this – but he was in his office buried under a stack of paperwork – blissfully unaware of the runaway train. At 4pm the train and all 131 passengers came flying into the station. The train made short work of the buffers, derailing then cruising across a 30 metre concourse. It then crashed through a sixty centimetre thick stone wall before tumbling ten metres to the Place de Rennes below.

Luckily for the passengers, their carriages were at the far end of the train – and remained safely inside the building. They were jarred about however, five passengers receiving minor injuries. 

On the sidewalk below,  Marie-Augustine Aguilard was less lucky. She was guarding her husband’s newspaper stand at the time of the derailment. Hubby was off to collect the evening edition in preparation for rush hour. Marie, no doubt was expecting nothing spectacular to happen in the interim. She was struck by a falling chunk of masonry and was sadly killed by the debris. 

Conductor Mariette was fined 25 francs for his part in the disaster. Driver Pellerin charged fifty francs and given a two month jail term he never had to serve. 

The photos taken at the time are now well and truly in the public domain, and have appeared the cover of a book on error analysis, record covers for American band Mr Big and Dutch band The Ex. A theme park in Brazil has recreated the scene in one of their buildings. Martin Scorsese recreated the crash in his 2011 film Hugo. 

Two: Migrant Mother… 

In past blog posts I’ve written briefly on the Dust Bowl. The short version of the story is at around the same time as the US economy slumped into the Great Depression, Mother Nature hit the folk living on the prairies with a double whammy. Convinced to move there by a shyster named Charles Dana Wilber, then to tear up the long grasses which held the land together in drought because – in Wilber’s words “…Rain follows the plow” – the unusual wet spell of the past few decades suddenly stopped in 1930. As crops died in the scorching heat, everything holding the topsoil in wilted – and when the winds got up – 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. There are reports from naval vessels hundreds of miles offshore getting pelted by these dust storms. 3,500,000 people were left homeless. 

Herbert Hoover was president when both the Great Depression and Dust Bowl struck, and though he had made a name for himself as an expert in disaster relief – coordinating widespread aid to starving Belgians in World War One, keeping food on the tables of the American public following their entry to the war – and handling the disaster response following ‘The Great Mississippi Flood’ of 1927…

(too long a digression. 1.5 million people were displaced. Hoover was lauded as a hero – his path to the White House at the following election assured. Many, many African Americans were horrifically treated in refugee camps but the press were ordered to keep a lid on that)

…Hoover’s response to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl was catastrophic. ‘Hoover towns’ full of refugees looking for work and accommodation popped up on the roads to California. Luckily Franklin D Roosevelt soon replaced Hoover, and brought a large bag of tricks with him to fix the country. Owing to FDR’s practice of giving his plans acronyms (WPA, CCC, CAW, NIRA), Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was often referred to as ‘Alphabet Soup’. 

Roosevelt employed people in massive public works projects, building highways and other infrastructure. He created vast community education programmes providing work for teachers, and up-skilling for those left behind in the financial turmoil. He sent out sociologists tasked to work out who America was, and what they needed. He employed historians to capture oral history largely ignored – and in danger of being lost forever. People with recording devices captured the life experiences of the last of the former slaves, for one. 

Talented photographers like Dorothea Lange were sent out to chronicle the stories of the people displaced from the prairies in picture – among other arts projects. Before the Great Depression Ms Lange had been working as a portrait photographer, capturing formal, staged images of San Francisco’s rich and powerful. From 1933 she worked chronicling the lives of the Oakies, Arkies and other displaced souls for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Owing to her ability to keenly observe others unobtrusively, she essentially invented documentary photography in the process. 

The photo she is best known for is Migrant Mother – shot in March 1936 among a group of destitute pea pickers. In the photo, a 32 year old woman stares anxiously into the future as three of her seven children lean on her – the childrens’ faces averted from the camera. To me this is a very humanising photo. For one the lady has oodles of dignity – as much, if not more so than any patrician Lange formerly portrayed. For another her desperation reaches out and touches you. For me it is quite a visceral photograph, which challenges me to put myself in the migrant mother’s shoes and ask what would I do if faced with such crushing poverty. 

Dear readers, meet Florence Owens Thompson. 

Florence was born 1st September 1903 to Cherokee parents in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. She grew up on a farm outside of Tahlequah. When young her father abandoned the family. Having served a three year prison sentence, he simply never returned.

Aged 17 she married a young man named Cleo Owens. They tied the knot on Valentines Day 1921 and moved to California, where Cleo found work in a lumber mill. In 1931, while Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Cleo died of tuberculosis. From here Florence, always a worker anyway, suddenly found herself taking whatever work she could find to keep their heads above water. She started a relationship with a man named Jim Hill. The couple struggled with the bills – it was the Great Depression and they now had seven mouths to feed. They were coming back from picking beets when Dorothea Lange shot her in Nopomo, California. 

Her anxiety, likely well founded, was not what one would expect. The family were on their way to another valley to pick lettuce when their car broke down. As Jim walked towards the closest town for a replacement timing chain, Florence and the kids took cover among a camp of pea pickers. Struggling as they were, at least Jim and Florence had work at the time. Jim would return later with the parts, and a meal for the family – all of which would be met with an angry glare from the camp. 

The camp formed when over 2,500 people had showed up expecting work – only to find a hard, extremely cold rainstorm had killed all the crops. Thousands of desperate workers were suddenly stranded in Nopomo without work or pay. Dorothea never asked if Florence was one of the pea pickers, cause why wouldn’t she be? She was taking shelter in the camp after all. Lange, for her part later stated she was exhausted from a long journey to the camp. She normally spoke at length with her subjects. 

Florence had ten children in total in her life – Six to Cleo, three to Jim. I couldn’t tell you what happened to Jim, but she married a hospital administrator called George Thompson in 1952. Her life post World War Two was financially easier. Her children bought her a house in Modesto, California in the 1970s, but Florence chose to stay in the motor home she owned since moving to Modesto instead. She died 16th September 1983. 

Three: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper… 

Ok just a quick one to round off this post. Ever seen a photo of eleven daring men just hanging out atop the world like it was nothing? Ever wonder where this was? When this was? Who were the eleven men so willing to risk life and limb to build what was then a futuristic new world of concrete and steel? 

This may leave you with more questions than answers. 

First off the photograph is real – those men are perched 260 meters above the streets of New York. Yes, the apparent lack of safety concerns is real inasmuch as these folk are sitting there, without so much as a net or a safety harness to save them should they fall. The image was staged however, all part of a publicity shoot. Other photos taken that day showed men throwing a football round and pretending to take a nap. All up five people died in the construction of the complex – I can’t help but think if this is how these guys normally had lunch, the death toll would have been much higher? 

The building is New York’s RCA building, part of the complex known as the Rockefeller Centre. The date 20th September 1932.

The building project had it’s origins in 1928, when John D Rockefeller jr announced his plans to rejuvenate midtown New York with a shiny new entertainment precinct. His original plan was to build a new, modern building for the Metropolitan Opera, on land formerly owned by Colombia University. The Met liked the idea of a new headquarters, but were wary of making the move. To do so they first had to sell their old building – and however they planned the move, the interim period of occupying both properties at once would bankrupt them. While they crunched the numbers, Rockefeller dreamt bigger – why not build a vast complex taking up much of Fifth and Sixth Avenue? Eight Art Deco styled skyscrapers would be constructed – the Metropolitan Opera building to be replaced with a 50 story office block. 

One tenant who could afford to move in was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was a girder on their building the men were shot on. 

At the time of the photo shoot, the RCA building was months from completion. The Rockefeller centre arranged publicity shots to be taken of real construction workers to generate buzz around the upcoming opening. The photoshoot appeared in The New York Herald Tribune 2nd October 1932. 

It took several decades to even identify the photographer – a man called Charles C. Ebbets. Ebbets was an actor in the 1920s, who took up residence behind a camera, eventually finding work as a photographer. He was also a keen wrestler, hunter, racing car driver, pilot and occasional wing walker. For a while, he was also the official staff photographer for world heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey – if what little I could find on him is to be trusted? I can’t help but think his life is begging at the least a book, possibly a movie on his adventures? At the very least a man portraying Ebbets on a Dos Equus beer commercial stating ‘stay thirsty my friends’ is in order. He died in 1978, his estate claiming authorship of the photograph in 2003. Complicating matters, others have since claimed Ebbets was not the photographer after all, but a viable alternative has yet to be named. 

The eleven construction workers have been even harder to pin down.

First, there is a pub in Galway Ireland, with a copy of the photo hanging on a wall. On their copy a note from the alleged son of one of the men – who left Ireland for the USA in the 1920s. The note claims “This is my dad on the far left, and my uncle-in-law on the far right”. This lead was tracked back to a family in Boston USA in a 2012 documentary. The Boston lead stated the man with a bottle on the right was Sonny Glynn. On the far left was Matty O’Shaughnessy – both men were Irish immigrants. Since the documentary the third man from the left has been identified as Joseph Eckner. Joe Curtis is the man third from right. Gustav Popovic, a former lumberjack and carpenter from Slovakia is believed to be one of the men.  Late in 1932 Gustav sent a postcard to his wife Mariska with the photo on the front. He wrote “Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti”. Gusti and Mariska’s gravestone in Slovakia bears a copy of the photo. Like the long held claim that the man in the centre is Peter Rice, of Mohawk descent (it has often been said Mohawk tribesmen built the New York skyline) these are all likely identities but none of these men’s identities have been incontrovertibly determined. 

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.     

The Pendle Witches (Part Two)

The Pendle Witches (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination

This week, let me begin with a personal digression. For a little over a decade I rented a place my friends and I referred to as the ‘Beach House’. In a few ways it was what one imagines – a ramshackle old house in a neighbourhood with the word ‘Bay’ in the title. Sure enough you got sea breezes – and could smell the salt in the air out in the courtyard – that sea air was potent enough, by the way, that it rusted ordinary padlocks in nothing flat. Occasionally a passing seagull would drop a present on the roof of your car. Occasionally on a very quiet night you’d swear you could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The naming of the property was just some pompous, facetious, Hyacinth Bucket level nonsense though and we knew it. The worst house on a posh street, we were a long way from the beach. The house was on a stretch of road where our side slumped into a wooded hovel, hemmed in by trees – with never enough sunlight. The other side of the road, however, was occupied by business owners and executives. Their houses stood proud and tall on a hill. Stunning properties with the stunning sea views one expects of a real ‘beach house’. 

I mention this as Alizon’s grandmother, Old Demdike, lived in a property with the suitably witchy name, Malkin Tower. A cursory Google of the name brings up a beat up old tower atop a hilltop. Brooding, solitary and windswept, it looks precisely the kind of place a coven of witches might engage in malicious activity round a steaming cauldron. This however is a Victorian folly called Blacko Tower, built in Pendle Hill by a mill owner who, not unlike my former neighbours, wanted a million dollar view of the valley – some time around 1890. 

When I tell you Alizon’s interview with Justice Nowell went horrifically badly, and 10th April 1612, friends and family gathered at Malkin Tower to plan their next move – they met at an ordinary 17th century cottage. 

Which is precisely what happened. 

We left off last week with Alizon Device being interviewed by justice of the peace Nowell for bewitching a pedlar named John Law. Alizon broke immediately. As soon as Alizon confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and to hexing John Law, she’d unwittingly confessed to being part of a criminal organisation. Witches always belong to covens after all. Roger Nowell wanted to know who else belonged to the Coven? After some questioning Alizon claimed her grandmother once used witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s cow. When Nowell turned his attention to Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, she held up to the interrogation for longer, but eventually broke – admitting she’s seen a ‘witch’s teat’ – an odd lump from which a witches familiar, or even the Devil may suck a witches blood – on the grandmother Old Demdike.

James, who was thought of as ‘simple’ further dug Alizon’s grave, claiming she’d confessed to bewitching a child to him once. 

 Knowing they were in trouble, the women then attempted to divert attention from themselves, towards the Chattox family – the other clan of wise women in the village.   

The Chattoxes were, similarly, a matriarchy run by an ageing grandmother – who was also believed by locals to have supernatural powers. Their matriarch was Anne Whittle aka old Chattox. She had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne Redfern. 

The two families had been at odds with one another for over a decade – after the Chattoxes broke into Malkin Tower in 1601 and stole clothes and oatmeal from the Demdikes. The Demdikes soon cornered Anne Redfearn’s husband, John, demanding a year’s supply of oatmeal, or they would retaliate. John agreed to their terms, and kept to his word, until he could no longer afford to pay them. Soon after John was struck with an illness and died. On his deathbed he accused the Demdikes of murder. 

Alizon shared a tale with Nowell, of Anne Whittle, the matriarch. Anne had gotten into an argument with a Higham village local named John Moore. Moore was telling people in the village Old Chattox had turned his ale sour. In retaliation Old Chattox allegedly murdered Moore’s young son using something like a clay voodoo doll. She went further. Old Chattox had killed four men she knew of, including her own father. For now Alizon was detained, Elizabeth and James released. Orders were sent to bring in Old Demdike and the Chattoxes. The two elders immediately confessed to selling their souls to the devil – and eventually, the other charges laid against them. Old Demdike, Old Chattox and Anne Redfearn were marched to the dungeon below the Assize court and chained to a wall, next to Alizon. They’d remain there till the trial.  

The gathering at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 might have gone unnoticed, but for a stolen sheep. A large gathering required food – so James Device stole, then butchered a neighbour’s sheep. Gossip soon spread about the theft, and the meeting – and as gossip often does, it got exaggerated in the retelling. A strategy meeting soon became a black mass, full of demonic rituals – and of course plans to seek vengeance against the Justice of the Peace. As soon as word got back to Justice Nowell on 27th April, he arrested the remainder of the family, including nine year old Jennet Device. Eight more people; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were charged with witchcraft and multiple acts of murder. 

A trial date of 17th August 1612 was set at the Lancaster Assizes for all but Old Demdike – who became ill in prison and died, and Jennet Preston.

Preston lived in York, and faced charges of murdering a man named Thomas Lister four years earlier. She had beaten an earlier accusation, of murdering a child by witchcraft, so was already known to the two judges, James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. This time she was facing a dying man’s last words, and what then counted as post-mortem evidence. On his death bed, the nobleman Lister allegedly exclaimed 

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me”
before he took his last breath. Preston was brought before his ‘corpse’. Lister’s body, it was said, condemned her by bleeding for all to see. In 1612 a bleeding corpse was seen less as a sign the patient may still be alive, more a sign they had crossed back to the land of the living to ensure their killer was punished. A bleeding corpse was thought a sign of the guilt of the person before the body. As discussed back in ‘Buried Alive’ it’s estimated hundreds of poor souls were buried alive every year in the UK alone. 
This malicious tale was uncovered in the wake of Jennet’s arrest, as the justices made local enquiries.

This was evidence enough for Altham and Bromley. Jennet Preston was tried 27th July 1612 in York, found guilty, and hanged on the 29th.  

It has to be said Altham and Bromley were the last two judges the Pendle witches wanted presiding over their case. James Altham was a true believer in witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, and Daemonologie. He detested witches, believing the only good witch was a dead witch. Bromley was far more level headed, but hated being stuck in the North of England. No doubt he tired of the numbers of recusants (secret Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism) regularly paraded before him in the North. It was the lifestyle in the North that bored him. Bromley wanted a promotion, and a relocation down to London. Something shocking involving a coven of witches may well be a chance to impress King James. These Assizes were his ticket back to ‘civilisation’. 
The Pendle Witches got Bromley.

On 17th August, the Pendle witches were brought before the court. For the most part it went as you might expect. Old Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pled not guilty, then sat there as her earlier confession was read back at her. A boarder at her house, James Robinson was also called to confirm everyone believed her a witch. The verdict? Guilty. The developmentally challenged James had confessed all kinds of things for the family, including two murders among his own crimes. His confession was also read out in court. Nine year old Jennet Device was called to give evidence, and further damned her older brother. Likewise, a guilty verdict was returned. 

Anne Redfearn beat the charge of helping Old Chattox murder Robert Nutter – there was insufficient evidence. Unfortunately for her she was also charged with the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher. Though no evidence of this murder was presented, several witnesses were called to confirm Anne was a witch. This was enough for Bromley. Guilty, next!

Next was Jane and John Bulcock – guilty of murdering Jennet Deane, and of attending the Malkin Tower meeting. Again, they were damned by nine year old Jennet Device. She put them at Malkin Tower on the night, and that alone was good enough. Alice Nutter, the only defendant not to come from the peasant class, refused to make a statement beyond a pleading not guilty in the murder of Henry Mitton. She was found guilty. As was Katherine Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Alice Grey were accused by James Device of murdering a child named Anne Faulds. Based on nothing more than the testimony of a developmentally challenged young man, Katherine was found guilty, while Alice was let go – on the exact same evidence. 

Alizon was the only ‘witch’ to face an accuser in court. When told to look on John Law she broke down and reiterated her guilty plea. 

Alizon’s mother Elizabeth’s case was slightly more dramatic than the others. All along she maintained her innocence, but her life was literally in the hands of her nine year old daughter, Jennet. Whether Jennet had been coached (quite likely) or – as has been suggested was an imaginative kid who loved the all the attention the case brought her… of for that matter, as the folklore suggests – an unpopular kid whose head was suddenly turned by the attention she suddenly got
Whether she was aware of the implications of her star testimony – well, all of that’s all up for debate. What was absolutely certain, her testimony was damning. 

Elizabeth was accused of the murder of two men (James and John Robinson – one presumes a different James to the witness who damned Old Chattox). She was also accused of being an accomplice in the murder of Henry Mitton. As Jennet was brought forwards, Elizabeth lost all composure. She yelled and screamed hysterically at the young child – warning her to stop and tell the truth immediately before she damned the whole lot of them. For God’s sake child, think what you’re doing before you kill the lot of us! Elizabeth was restrained, then removed; kicking and screaming from the courtroom. Jennet proceeded to tell the court mummy had been a witch for some three of four years. She had a spirit familiar who took the form of a brown dog. The familiar was called Ball. Mummy had magical powers, and often spoke with Ball. (Ball of course spoke back). 

What did mummy and Ball discuss? Mummy asked Ball’s help many times to murder other villagers. 

Elizabeth Device was found guilty. The guilty were executed on August 20th 1612, by hanging. You may be pleased to know Sir Edward Bromley’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the King. Though it didn’t happen overnight, he did get his promotion, and moved to London in 1616. Jennet Device, of whom I’m not sure if she really deserved a comeuppance – well, at least if she were coached by unscrupulous adults – she too got her comeuppance.
In 1634 a 10 year old boy named Edmund Robinson accused Jennet of murdering a woman named Isabel Nutter. Again, the court took the testimony of a child as gospel, and Jennet was found guilty. Unlike her family, she was never hanged for her crime, but she did spend the rest of her natural life behind bars for the alleged crime. 

Witch trials continued in England till 1716. The last women executed for witchcraft was a Huntingdon woman named Mary Hicks, and her nine year old daughter Elizabeth. At that point in time few Britons believed in witchcraft anymore. All laws regarding witchcraft were finally repealed in 1735. By the end of Britain’s witch hunting era some 500 ’witches’ were executed in England, and 4,000 in Scotland. Close to 90% of the executed were women.
Several attempts have been made to pardon the Pendle Witches, recently in 1998 and 2018. Governments have refused to overturn the convictions, and at time of writing a petition is live, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth directly. At the time of recording this episode a petition had gone live to demand the Scottish parliament pardon all their executed witches. I, for one, believe it is well past time the victims of the witch hunts were acquitted.

The Pendle Witches (Part One)

The Pendle Witches (Part One) Tales of History and Imagination


One March day in 1612 Justice Roger Nowell of Pendle Hill, Lancashire was called upon by a complainant with a weird tale to tell. As a justice of the peace – an office created by Simon de Montfort in 1285 – his role was to decide what behaviours constituted illegal, or merely obnoxious behaviour in the community. The complaint brought to him today, was one being heard more and more in England since a young King of Scotland got a promotion, and brought some strange ideas South with him. By and large, these complaints came to nought, so Justice Nowell could be excused if he had no idea of the level of harm this meeting would unleash.

The complainant was one John Law, an aged pedlar from Halifax. On 21st March he’d been travelling through Trawden Forest when accosted by a young woman named Alizon Device. Device coming from a family of ‘Wise women’ – pagan folk healers – Law was wary of her, and when she stopped him to ask if he had pins for sale, Law became increasingly uptight. It was well known witches used pins in arcane rituals like curing warts and casting love spells after all. Besides, it was well known the Device clan were poor (she was returning home from a day of begging in the town) and metal pins were quite expensive – why go to the bother of unloading his bag if the young lady didn’t have any money?

 Because of this, Law stated it was hardly worth his bother to sell her any pins that day. Alizon lost her temper, yelling something at Law, the specifics of which have not been recorded. Law retaliated by calling Alizon a thief. The two went their separate ways – till soon after John Law keeled over, as if struck by a curse. The pedlar managed to stumble on till he reached a tavern, from which a doctor could be called.    

A pedlar

John was content to leave things be, but his son Abraham insisted he go to the authorities to lay a complaint. Alizon was brought over to the Law household to see what she’d done to the pedlar, for which she apologised. For Abraham this still wasn’t enough. Witches should not be allowed to simply curse whomever they please, not least of all Abraham’s beloved father. Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and especially her grandmother Elizabeth Southernes – known as ‘Old Demdike’ were well known practitioners of maleficent practices and lifelong troublemakers. The complaint laid, justice Nowell called for a constable to bring Alizon before him as soon as possible.   

Before we get to Alizon’s trial, we should step back and discuss witchcraft itself. The Devices may be the lead characters in this tale – but for these episodes we’re looking at witch hunts in the United Kingdom in general.

Without going too deep, the concept of witches goes way back in antiquity – one of the earliest books to mention witches is the Old Testament of the Bible. 1 Samuel mentions Saul, the King of the Israelites approaching the ‘Witch of Endor’ to contact the deceased prophet Samuel. Saul needed to know what would happen in an upcoming battle with the Philistines. The witch tells him not just Saul, but his whole army will be destroyed. The prophecy proved correct. Elsewhere, in the book of Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and a handful of other advice including “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  From here the inter-relation between witchcraft and prevailing (increasingly Christian) doctrines of society has been complex. Broadly, in ancient history witches were largely to be feared, and occasionally used by powerful people as either an oracle of future events – or to put a hex on an enemy – often with deadly effect. 

Medieval society largely had the hang-ups – and dare I say this of the church? Some degree of common sense from the church to guide them. Notably, St Augustine of Hippo (354- 430 AD) who saw witches as competitors for the hearts and minds of the people, but didn’t believe they had any supernatural powers. As such he urged the church to treat them as heretics rather than dangerous monsters in league with the devil. This viewpoint was the dominant view of witches throughout the most of the Middle Ages – tax the witch a penance, rather than burn them at the stake. A number of big name monarchs followed suit. Charlemagne, a Frankish king who could very fairly crown himself Emperor of much of Europe in 800 AD stated 

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed” 

His call for tolerance and protection of witches was echoed by others. The Canon Episcopi, of 900 AD enshrined Augustine’s views witches were basically harmless. In 1080, after king Harald III of Denmark ordered a mass culling of witches following a year of crop failures, Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to the King demanding he stop the cull immediately. The Lombards of Northern Italy outlawed the murder of witches in the Middle Ages. In 1100, King Kalman of Hungary expressly banned witch hunting in the country, his reason “witches do not exist”.

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

Again there is a lot to cover here, the broad strokes however are:

First, in 1204 a marauding group of crusaders on their way down to retake Jerusalem got waylaid and wrecked their friends and allies, The Byzantine Empire at Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, Turkey instead. Their occupation of the city opened up a world of forgotten books – long banned by the church in Europe, but kept alive in Byzantine and Islamic circles. From the mid 14th Century onwards Renaissance Occultism – centred largely around the writings of the semi-mythical magician Hermes Trismegistus, and the Neo-Platonists (far too big a field to plow today, we’ll come back to Hermetic orders some day) – suddenly become very in vogue with the wealthy classes. The study of magic suddenly became popular, subversive, and just a little dangerous. 

Second, sects of Cathars arrived in Europe from Bulgaria – providing a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. 

Though nominally Christian, they took on elements of Zoroastrianism – especially the view all of history is played out in front of a cosmic dualist battle of the good powers vs the evil powers. They also adopted Manichaeism to a degree – a 3rd century religion founded around a Persian holy man called Mani. They believed churches should not tax their flock, men & women are equal, and priests should live simple lives, unencumbered by wealth. This was seen as dangerous and subversive for reasons you may guess, and the Cathars were soon murdered and driven out en masse. The widespread persecution of Cathars was an important building block to the witch hunts. 

And of course there was much more religious turmoil in this time that you could shake a stick at – some, like the siege of Münster we’ll come back to later. There were also rulers like Philip The Fair, King of France – who used witchcraft allegations politically. Between 1304 and 1307, he first kidnapped a Pope, justifying his actions by declaring the man a witch – then caused the arrest and destruction of the Knights Templar – effectively because he owed them a lot of money he didn’t want to pay back; but again justified because Philip said they were in league with the Devil. 

The invention of the printing press of course also gave legs to all kinds of dangerous ideas in a way internet users could imagine today. All manner of heretical thought gained popularity in this era, and spread far more easily than they would have through word of mouth alone. While I’m choosing to skip much of this, one book in particular changed the game considerably in regards witchcraft. 

In 1486, a Dominican monk named Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum “The Hammer Against the Witches”. The book compiled a growing list of conspiracy theories levelled against the witches in recent decades. Claims of human sacrifice, wild, orgiastic get togethers in their covens. Demonic ‘familiars’ who would take on animal form and provided a link to the other side. Kramer highlighted many alleged tales of cruel behaviour aimed at their fellow humans by malicious witches. He explained witches were in league with the devil. They were granted supernatural powers, but in exchange they were expected to wreak havoc on ordinary people. Kramer’s book shocked the book-reading public, and for some time was Europe’s second best seller behind The Bible. It kicked off a witch hunting craze which ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Europeans being executed in the most horrific of ways.

But, by and large, England never fell down that rabbit hole in quite the same way – Nor as early as Mainland Europe did. That needs a brief explanation before we return to the Device family. 

While it’s unfair to say James I of England (1566- 1625) was the first British king to go after witches – Cinaed “Kenneth” McAlpin, arguably Scotland’s first king, was witch mad. Henry Tudor also used witchcraft allegations for political purposes –

It is very fair to say his hatred of witches led to the witch hunting craze which in turn led to the likes of Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins only decades after his passing. While several reasons would factor in people dobbing in others as witches – from personal grievance, to professional envy (as the field of medicine grew, many male doctors looked at these mostly female folk healers as competitors who must be done away with) – James I seemed very much a true believer. 

In 1589 James, then King of Scotland only, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark – his future wife. The couple had been trying to get together for some time, but the rowdy North Sea had other plans for them.

Claims of supernatural interference soon crept into this tale when the Admiral originally tasked to sail Anne to Scotland accused a local politician of incompetence- and things took an odd turn. Admiral Peder Munk was in charge of the fleet of 18 ships. They set sail on 18 September 1589. After a couple of odd incidents, like cannons firing by themselves, a bad storm set in, forcing the fleet, tempest tossed – and some springing leaks – to seek shelter in Norway.  

James impatiently awaited Anne’s arrival, penning a sonnet ‘A complaint against the contrary wyndes that hindered the Queene to com to Scotland from Denmarke.’ It was hardly John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, but it’s certainly a sonnet. While waiting, an advance ferry which reached the River Forth in Scotland before the storm set in, was pummelled by the tail end of the storm – causing it to collide with another ship and drown all aboard. On board, a courtier named Jane Kennedy. Jane had come to Scotland to serve the new Queen. First James sent a group of diplomats to Denmark, then set sail himself – directly to Anne. The party eventually made it back to Scotland, but were almost scuttled in the tempest – where one ship was sunk. 

Back in Denmark an investigation was held into the disastrous voyage. Admiral Munk pointed the finger at the Danish minister of finance, Christoffer Valkendorff, who he stated had under-equipped the royal ship for the voyage. Valkendorff rebutted this was not the case – all the blame lay squarely at the feet of a coven of witches who met at the home of one Karen Vaevers. Their meeting, to curse the voyage. At the time, a woman named Ane Koldings was already in prison – already charged with another, unrelated charge of witchcraft. Awaiting her execution she was tortured into admitting her part in the plot. Ane claimed the coven sent small devils up the keel of the royal ship, forcing the ship to take shelter. She also named five accomplices – one of whom was the wife of the then mayor of Helsingor (the ‘Elsinore’ Shakespeare sets Hamlet in – we’ll come to the Bard soon). 

All up thirteen women were burnt at the stake for their alleged part in the storm. 

News of the Copenhagen Witch Trials reached King James back in Scotland. Shocked by the revelations, he set up his own tribunal. The tribunal found a vast conspiracy directly related to the storm, in Scotland – the incident coming to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials. This incident bred a lifelong preoccupation with witches for the King – which included his own treatise on witchcraft – Daemonologie – first published in 1597, and reprinted after he became King of England, in 1603. 

A learned review of all that had been said of witches, demons and more besides – the book was meant as a guide to both uncover witches, and protect those who – in James’ view – had been wrongly accused. Daemonologie would instead act as a guidebook for future witch-finders, like Matthew Hopkins, who personally had 300 Britons executed. The treatise, whether rightly or wrongly, also became a guide to a number of public officials looking to win favour with the King, and move up the ladder. This is something we’ll discuss in part two. One clear example of a public figure pandering to the King’s obsession to obtain fortune and favour came by way of William Shakespeare. 

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen…”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth may not have had it’s first public viewing till 1611, just prior to our main tale – though it’s believed it’s first performance was at court, before the King, in August 1606. The play is, in small part a vindication of King James ascent to the English crown, as well as his ancestors’ to the Scottish title. In act one, scene three the three witches may greet Macbeth “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” but they also address his friend Banquo – a real life ancestor of James “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Later in the play, when Macbeth approaches the witches – to speak with their masters – for advice on how to handle the coming rebellion; he’s shown a succession of kings who “art too like the spirit of Banquo”. 

This procession of future kings, of whom Macbeth exclaims “what, will the one (bloodline) stretch out to th’ crack of doom?” Appear to the tyrant – at one point holding ‘twofold balls and treble sceptres’, indicating Banquo’s successors – James and his kin – were fated to become Kings of a United Kingdom all along. 

Pertinent to our Tale, many of the rituals we see from the witches themselves come directly from Daemonologie. All the talk of ‘scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches mummy, maw and gulf’ corresponds to the treatise. The witches also carry out a supernatural assault on the ship ‘The Tiger’ – recently home in real life following a harrowing 569 days at sea. In real life the Tiger too was ‘tempest-toss’d’, and at one point set upon by pirates. The captain and several crew were murdered by Japanese pirates near Indonesia. It harkens back to, and reinforces James’ experience of bringing Anne back to Scotland, and casts shade the way of the humble folk healers yet again. 

Before we wrap up part one (I’ll be back with part two in a week’s time) we should quickly come back to Alizon Device, our protagonist. On 30th March, Alizon, her mother Elizabeth and brother James were all brought before Justice Roger Nowell to answer John Law’s accusation. Had Alizon denied the charge, events may have played out very differently. Unfortunately for all involved, Alizon herself was a true believer. Bursting into tears she confessed to the hexing. She stated following her altercation with the pedlar, a demon in the form of a black dog suddenly appeared alongside her, asking 

“What should I do to him?”
“What canst thou do to him?” She replied
“I can lame him”

Three hundred yards down the road, John Law was seized by an ‘apoplexy’ in the parlance of the day, and tumbled to the ground as if struck by a lightning bolt. 

I’ll be back next week, a week early, to conclude this Tale.  

Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London

Spring Heeled Jack – The Terror of London Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

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

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

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

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

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, and well, these things have a viral nature to them. There are things I need to talk about in regards that case I don’t want to divulge just yet – if you are reading this Tale prior to late 2021 (note: a post on the Hammersmith Ghost is coming!). Generally, though ‘spirits’ were normally seen by a sole figure, Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. According to newsmen, the perception of Spring Heeled Jack changed following a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. His tale would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

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

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

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, or fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838.

At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.


Sidebar: Admittedly the press were questionable in these times. Newspapers – due to tariffs placed on them, were largely the preserve of the wealthy before the 1860s, and as such published a lot of political news. Spring Heeled Jack broke at a time when Parliament was out, and papers were on the lookout for anything unusual to fill their pages. Also, reporters were paid, essentially, by the word. If you could pad out a piece with older reports, you would. Still, this does not necessarily explain the flood of letters to Lord Mayor Cowan.


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

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight days later another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – was spooked by Spring Heeled Jack on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. A shadowy man had lunged at her from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted, and the man then ran off before anyone could catch sight of him.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one may have left a clue. On a dark night in Turner Street, a stranger came knocking. Asking for the occupant – a Mr Ashworth – by name, he was greeted by a servant boy. Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy this night. As the servant opened the door, Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, and slammed the door in his face. The stranger then disappeared. The press would allege the boy noticed, for all his panic, something no other victim had. The letter W was embroidered on his cloak.

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

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

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop the sentry box. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions – suspiciously only after the order was given to not fire on the demon.

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

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Books

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

The Alsop attack revisited.

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

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

Paint the Town Red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020. 2021.

Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

This week’s Tale is part one of a four-part series on scandals of Hollywood’s Silent film era. It’s due to run on the non-podcast weeks.

When I think of Olive Thomas and her sojourn in Paris, a tiny part of me wonders how she found the ‘City of Light’? Did she and hubby Jack Pickford, (of the superstar acting family of the era, most notably including Mary Pickford) play tourist, wandering the expansive, well lit boulevards which were masterminded by Baron Haussmann. Did they stop along the way to take in statues, fountains and historic buildings? Did they ride in a hot air balloon or cruise the Seine river by pleasure boat? Make the pilgrimage to the Louvre – the former palace rebranded an art gallery in the 1790s, or view the splendour of the palace of Versailles?

Was Olive afflicted, as so many Asian tourists allegedly are, by ‘Paris Syndrome’? A sense of culture shock which leaves one with an intense feeling of ‘Meh-ness’ at Gay Paree? 

One thing I know for certain, both Olive and Jack did experience Paris’ vivid nightlife on the night of September 5th 1920. The couple drank, and partied, and arrived at their Hotel Ritz suite, presumably the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. Jack, it is said, went straight to bed. The couple had a flight booked for London that morning, and he needed a little shut eye. Olive, not yet ready to turn in, took to writing a letter to her mother back in the USA – at least until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and made her way in the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed to hear Olive shriek “Oh My God!” and collapse as if struck dead. The unfolding event would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal, and proof that sometimes, tragedy sells. Before I get into that too deeply I really should introduce the cast? 

Paris

Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. She was sent to live with her grandparents at the age 12 when her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, to work in a department store; and married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, in April 1911. By the age of 18 she’d left Bernard, moving to New York to make her fame and fortune. Her first big break came in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. The win opened doors for her as an artist’s model – her painted image featuring in several magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) established after the model of Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She was soon dating the impresario, which in turn saw her move up the pecking order at the Follies. By 1916, Olive was appearing in films – and after she came to the attention of the film producer Thomas Ince in 1917 – she signed up to a six film a year contract with Triangle Pictures. She often played innocent, girl next door types.

Her real life was anything but girl next door – though that IS why they call it acting I guess? In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as A list as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, she would be known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second hubby Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types. The couple secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were heavy partiers, Jack especially. He was an extremely heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from a one woman man. It was rumoured he’d contracted syphilis, an STI for which there would be no effective known cure for till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943. As it was, it was reputed ‘Mr Syphilis’ as he was known in Hollywood circles – used mercury bi-chloride as an ointment on his syphilis sores as they arose. It’s worth mentioning now that mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat the condition in the mid 16th Century by Paracelsus – is highly dangerous if ingested. 

To take us through to September 6th… Olive continued to have a career – nothing Earth-shattering. She left Triangle for Selznick pictures for an eight picture a year deal. She had a string of moderately successful films, one of which – The Flapper – lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s. Something may have happened in the lead up to her and Jacks’ cruise to France however, as she was off their payroll by time the couple set sail in August 1920. Jack continued to party, drink, ingest drugs and play the field. In 1918 he created a scandal of his own when he – a Canadian born Canadian citizen volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to World War One. He volunteered knowing a number of sons of wealthy patricians were doing the same, then paying generous bribes to Naval brass to keep from getting sent off to fight. Jack was one of a number of these ‘slackers’ caught out, and named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal charges – but his image was tarnished, as was the wider Pickford families’ good name. 

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with a little more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So it was the couple left by ship to Europe in mid August 1920 – Olive possibly let go of her contract. Jack still working, but down to one or two films a year at this point. 

And, here we rejoin the tragedy at the Ritz. Olive has collapsed – a bottle of poison at her side. Jack called for a doctor, and proceeded to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding throat to try to purge the dangerous substance. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (it usually came in tablet form) thinking it was a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a pill down with a dissolved tablet left in a glass – thinking she was downing water. Mary Pickford would later claim an errant maid must’ve left some poison out after cleaning their room, in an effort to absolve Jack and save her family brand from further damage. A doctor would arrive, and pump Olive’s stomach three times, then – five hours after she collapsed – have her taken to the hospital. At this stage it was too late, Olive Thomas would pass on 10th September 1920.      

Not meaning to trivialise Olive’s tragedy, she’s just passed after all, but the waves in the wake of her passing were something to behold. The Pickfords immediately sprang into damage control mode. On the day Olive passed, Mary’s recently ex husband Owen Moore made a press announcement – hoping to stop the press muck-raking. He stated Olive was extremely unwell when the couple left for France – inferring she’d died of natural causes. Just a moderately successful 25 year old actress dying suddenly of a mystery illness we don’t feel the need to explain to you – nothing to see here folks. Please don’t poke around the Pickfords facade in their time of mourning. 

But poke around the press did. Stories emerged, whether true or not, of Olive’s night of Parisian debauchery. Was she hanging out in disreputable dens with the criminal underclass – where the entertainment ran from women bare knuckle brawling to darker-skinned men biting the heads off live rats? Did she drink rocket-fuel containing high amounts of ethanol? Were these seedy clubs being run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper claimed?

Probably not. But American papers announced this in the tradition of Yellow journalism they were then so well known for. 

But then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding – a former American army captain sentenced to six months’ prison time at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? Organising cocaine-fuelled orgies. It was rumoured his little black book had Olive’s contacts in it. 

And then, the rumours of Jack’s syphilis emerged. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive must have contracted the disease from Jack, and in a moment of despondency – taken her own life. People started to blame Jack for her death. This was followed by another rumour – that Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive – and some began to look askance at him now as a possible murderer. Questions arose about the way Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing. This wouldn’t be helped any when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow named Marilyn Miller. Marilyn herself would die young, though at that point she was recently divorced from Jack (turns out he was physically abusive to Marilyn) and on the operating table having surgery on her nasal passages. 

Public opinion soon fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by this family of dodgy Hollywood aristocrats. 15,000 mourners gathered outside her funeral. Her movies – all honesty I have no idea if she was any good as an actress, and best as I can tell next to nothing of her work survives – suddenly looked a whole lot better to the public. Her films, re-released all became blockbusters. 

When the wowsers who banned alcohol in America via tireless rallying for the 18th Amendment – followed by the Volstead Act found themselves at a loose end, Hollywood would become their next target. I won’t get into the various reasons behind this, not least of all that waspish killjoys were also racist killjoys who detested the number of Jewish folk involved in the movie industry – but for now it suffices to say the tragedy of Olive Thomas was an early parable trotted out by that crowd.  

While there is a lot of rumour and supposition in this Tale – it probably does bear to mention Jack Pickford, of who it was only ever rumoured he had syphilis – did return to Paris in late 1932. He collapsed as suddenly as Olive had, and died days later, January 3rd 1933. The cause of death, “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” This could well have been caused by his alcoholism, but it’s worth pointing out it is often caused by syphilis also.