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…

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. 

Nellie Bly: 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, desperate for advice – and worried how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. Their columnist Erasmus Wilson replied in an editorial piece entitled ‘What girls are good for’.
According to Wilson, girls were not good for terribly much. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of (some) parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you’d be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him.

The next day, a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran – a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who dropped out to help her mother run a boarding house – arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by the “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for seven years, writing mostly on fashion, high society, gardening and the like… but she also covered the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time, official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico. Looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story, they did have a challenging job for Nellie, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge without hesitstion.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her back to the station, then before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what then passed for expert doctors.

She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, she uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”.

She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy) bread, rancid butter.

The inmates were, also, not bathed enough. When they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time.

Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time, was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides the effects of being trapped in an asylum.

Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away by her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with another man. She mentions a German maid named Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What’s also pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on Bly’s case), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.

The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye, the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She recorded her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which was compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates led to a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). She documented her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly retired from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reins of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, died of pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen

Today’s tale starts with a meeting at Greenwich palace, a now demolished royal residence – the date, September 1593. The ‘fairy Queen’ of England, Elizabeth I, awaits the arrival of a rival monarch. The two queens have been at loggerheads since 1574; since Elizabeth laid claim to the other’s land. One wonders just what was going through Elizabeth’s mind, in anticipation of this meeting. It’s easy to write these two off as an odd couple, one cultured and erudite, the other a swashbuckling adventurer – a warlord from beyond the pale. But it is also very wrong to do so. Were you to judge these two ladies by their professions, they weren’t at all dissimilar. To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson – quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

Elizabeth, of course, was very much the law lord. She didn’t need to engage in piracy and war herself. Earlier, rougher ancestors had been the warlord – thuggishly climbing the crooked ladder. From child of warlords, to law-lord, Elizabeth I had no need to murder, and plunder personally – but through her edicts, a lot of blood was on her hands. Our protagonist? Well, the daughter of a warlord, she too had taken on her father’s mantle. From a wild, feudal land which required her lordship to be an enforcer at times – she had far less time for banquets, pleasantries and dressing in posh frocks while someone painted your face with Venetian ceruse. She was lord, enforcer, protector and occasionally, conqueror.

And, of course, it would turn out they had considerably more in common besides. But more on that later.

On this day Queen Elizabeth I was to meet with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught.

Grace O’Malley, aka Grainne Mhaille, was born around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – or ‘John and Margaret’. Eoghan was the lord of Umhaill, in Connaught – now County Cork – Ireland. As lord he gave protection to his locals, for which he taxed them; and earned as a privateer and occasional merchant. Much of the family’s wealth came from being men of violence.
In the West of Ireland, they were well beyond the pale – the Dublin region‘s outer border – controlled by England. In his lifetime though, Eoghan saw Elizabeth’s father – Henry VIII – take more and more Irish land – till he had enough land to crown himself King of Ireland in 1542. Grace grew up a witness to the aggressive imperialism of the English – and a few changes of monarch. Henry VIII died in 1547. His crown passed, first to his 9 year old son Edward VI, who died in 1553. From there it passed to Lady Jane Grey, a grasping cousin once removed, for nine days, before she was arrested and locked up in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. When she died of ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, the crown of both nations passed to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I


Grace’s rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. As he was the bastard son, the title was destined to pass to Grace. No doubt this suited Donal just fine. Far from a man of violence, Donal was a well liked musician who loved nothing more than a sing-along in a local tavern. Grace, on the other hand, lived for adventure. From childhood she wanted nothing more than to be a pirate like her father. Legend has it young Grace once plead to join the crew on a mercantile trip to Spain, only to be told her long hair would get caught in the ropes by Eoghan’s bemused sailors. She cut her hair off, embarrassing her father, but leaving no excuses. As it turned out, she was a natural. and from then on would regularly sail with her father, learning the art of piracy from a master.

Aged 16 Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain. They had their first child together within a year. Compare and contrast to Elizabeth: she may have found love- for one she was probably lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing factions at the court, it was politically difficult, if not outright dangerous for Elizabeth to ever marry – at least without sparking an insurrection. Grace’s marriage was, of course, political – it was intended to be a consolidation of two feudal regions as the old chieftains passed.

Grace had two sons and a daughter with Donal, and retired from swashbuckling for a while. Her life was soon thrown into chaos – however – when Donal was killed fighting the neighboring Joyce clan over a disputed castle. A distraught Grace took revenge on the Joyces, invading the castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib, and ousting the clan. In spite of Grace‘s children, or immense talent as a military leader, Donal’s titles and land were taken from her, and passed to a male cousin of Donal’s. She returned to her family with a small militia in tow, and set up a base on nearby Clare Island. Grace O’Malley returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’.



Grace’s following years were busy, and profitable. She grew her army to 200 fighters, who she put to work fighting both neighboring chieftains, and raiding towns along Scotland’s coast. She transported ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland when allied chieftains needed extra muscle in their blood feuds. Grace O’Malley was also involved in the resistance movement who were fighting further English encroachment on Irish lands. One story which makes it’s way to us – In 1565, a ship ran aground on nearby Achill Head, in a particularly wicked storm. Though the texts I read didn’t state if Grace was acting as a wrecker – having caused the wreck by leaving a horse near the rocks with a lantern around it’s neck (to fool the sailors into thinking they had entered a safe harbour) – or showed up as an opportunist – Grace was soon at the scene, looking to salvage whatever she could.
She found one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but didn’t have him long. Hugh was murdered by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took her bloody revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. Twice unlucky in love, she was at least lucky in piracy – now controlling a choke point, from which she could control all passing ships – she was soon both extremely well known; and extremely wealthy.

Another tale tells how Grace chased one rival chieftain to a small island containing just a church, and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church, Grace besieged him, threatening to stay there till he starved to death if need be. The chief dug a tunnel to safety.

In another tale, Grace was returning from a raid one night – when she moored up for a breather at the town of Howth, near Dublin. Running low on provisions and in need of water, she called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth. Finding the castle gates locked, and sent packing by the porter with the message the Earl is dining and not to be disturbed – Grace left, dejected. On her way back to her ship, she come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. Days later, the distraught Earl arrived in Connaught- willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace returned the child, not for money, but a promise the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors. When he dined he was to always keep a chair free, for any passing travellers. His descendants continue this tradition to this day.

In 1566 she remarried, to the chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – (he owned an ironworks, not for the other thing) – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued to plunder and freeboot. They soon divorced, but did have a child together – known as Toby of the Ships, as he was born while Grace was at sea. The legend states a day after giving birth, their ship was boarded by Barbary pirates. These picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by an angry, half naked lady with a musket. It was bad enough they had the audacity to attack her ship at all, but interrupt her while she was breastfeeding? The interlopers fled for their lives.

1576

Grace O’Malley’s life, and the lives of the other chieftains, took a turn for the worse in 1576. While Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542, this was largely a nominal act. At the time, he was far too busy bringing Wales, newly acquired, to heel. Henry planned to turn his attentions to Scotland next, but a costly war with France broke out in 1544. Henry put his local ambitions on the back burner, then he died. Elizabeth I allowed English expansion, into Ireland – but only made it a necessity in the wake of a threatening letter from the pope in 1570. The letter, Pope Pius V’s ‘bull Regnans in Excelsis’ excommunicated the queen, and urged her peoples to overthrow her – a Protestant – for a God-fearing Catholic. The ’Bull’ was, essentially, a call to whack the queen.

Elizabeth I started to worry a Catholic nation like Spain could capture Ireland, use the country as a base of operations, then invade England. The court discussed this as early as 1565, as war raged between Spain, and the then breakaway state of the Netherlands. Many English mercenaries were involved in the ’80 years war’. For this alone, England was on the radar of the mighty Spanish empire. Not having the cash to mount an invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth allowed takeover by mass immigration. Many arrivals were just the kind of tough guys you want to repel a Spanish Invasion, but this also meant Ireland was also overrun by a whole new class of heavies, happy to run amok and seize whatever land they wanted. In 1569 England sent military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to Connaught. The chieftains opposed his arrival – imported thugs were one thing, an occupying force allegedly there to bring troublemakers in line seemed the bigger threat by far. Fitton had a counterpart in Munster, Sir John Perot. The governors made plans to carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many chieftains resisted. The MacWilliam of Mayo (the chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam died in 1570, and much of Connaught was lost. In 1576, the chieftains all but defeated, English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting. Pledge allegiance to the crown. Pay tax to the queen. Abide by English laws. Return the Gallowglasses to Scotland. Establish an Irish contingent of soldiers, just in case Spain attacks. If the chieftains did all this, they could keep their titles, and some of your land would be returned. Anyone who kept fighting would be erased.
Grace met with Henry Sidney In 1577, and pledged her allegiance to Elizabeth. She also spent some time speaking with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. I couldn’t say what she thought of the poet, but Philip thought Grace a remarkable figure.

Almost immediately afterward, Grace broke the law, launching a raid on the Earl of Desmond, a rival chief who sold out early to the English. This raid went badly, and Grace was consequently jailed for 18 months. In 1581 both she and Richard Bourke officially pledged fealty to Elizabeth in a ceremony, and were rewarded with British titles. This may have been the end of our tale, but for the 1584 arrival of a new, and particularly sadistic governor. Sir Richard Bingham – yes the ancestor of both June’s You Choose contestant John Bingham, Lord Lucan – and the officer responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Bingham was determined to eradicate all opposition whatsoever. He saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.



Bingham first stripped Grace of her title. Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace, technically, a widow. English law stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, and executing two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage for treason. He then kidnapped her beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships. Bingham Finally had Grace arrested and charged with treason. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham allowed.

Seizing the opportunity, Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and sailed for London. She no longer had an army to fight Bingham – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. They were of a similar age. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us back to that meeting at Greenwich palace, September 1593. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we know Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- so the two queens spoke at length in Latin. We know Grace arrived dressed up to the nines in a gown worthy of a queen, She caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, and a knife was found on her ‘for her protection’. Elizabeth’s court Was horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace.

We know she convinced Elizabeth she was a loyal subject who was being terrorized by Bingham. He murdered her family, robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She convincingly argued Bingham was stopping the pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to reinstate Grace’s lands and title – and release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595. This time Elizabeth removed Bingham from his post. This was far from a happily ever after for Connaught – Bingham eventually regained his title. Things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish. Grace O’Malley, However – a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword lived to the ripe old age – for those times – of 72, and died of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

Buried Alive!

Content warning! This tale contains macabre, ghoulish subject matter – as one may expect on a Halloween Tale. Proceed with caution.

Taphophobia is the name given to the irrational fear of being buried alive; the word deriving from the Greek taphos (meaning grave or tomb) and phobos (fear). In 2020 it is accepted by most this IS an irrational fear – science and medicine has come along far enough to detect even the tiniest signs of life. For most our history however, this has not been the case. In 1895, J.C Ouseley, a physician of whom I could find little information but many citings, stated his belief that even at the end of the 19th century 2,700 English and Welsh were prematurely buried each year. Others countered this was an exaggeration – the real figure was only around 800 a year – only! Of course for most our history, life was determined by a heartbeat or signs of breathing. As it became possible to restart a stopped heart or lungs – mouth to mouth resuscitation was first used on drowning victims in France in 1740, and chest compression in the USA from 1903 – people in those states were re-categorized ‘unresponsive’. Proof of life focussed on brain death – something not defined in a modern sense till 1968.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone a great many poor souls were buried prematurely. Nor should it surprise anyone there are a few horrifying signs of folk who came to while six feet under, and fought desperately to escape entombment.

In July 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn was one such victim. A journeyman butcher, working at London’s Newgate Market; single, and without property – he lived at a Mrs Cook’s boarding house. When Cawthorn fell ill his landlord contrived to have him declared deceased as soon as possible. For one his ‘passing’ would free up a bed for a paying resident – an ailing Cawthorn hadn’t paid rent for a few days. Also, with no next of kin, Mrs Cook would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions – but only if he died in her premises. He must not be allowed to be taken to hospital. Three days after falling ill – sans condensation on the looking glass placed under his nose – Cawthorn was pronounced dead, and sent to the undertaker. As the last sod of earth was placed down, a tortured scream was heard from below. The undertakers dug down as frantically as they could, but it was all in vain. They cracked the coffin lid to find Lawrence Cawthorn passed. In his panic he had shredded his funeral shroud and beat his face to a pulp trying to head-butt the coffin open.

Alice Blunden of Basingstoke, buried in 1674, appears a luckier tale, till you hear her story in it’s entirety. Having overdosed on poppy water, an opiate developed by the polymath Nicholas Culpeper, Blunden was pronounced deceased – when in fact in a deep coma. Two days after her burial, a group of children playing in the graveyard heard her screams. The children would not tell anyone for a day, finally spilling the beans to their school headmaster – who alerted the undertaker. The undertaker Blunden out. She was still alive but in a bad way. Collapsing from the stress of her ordeal she was again pronounced dead – and re-buried. Again she came to, her screams alerting locals the following night, however this time she did pass on. When she was disinterred a bloodied and bruised Blunden was found inside – this time having left deep scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lid.



I have one final Tale to tell you all this Halloween; let’s discuss Hannah Beswick (1688 – 1758)– a Taphophobe from Birchin Bower, Lancashire.

Hannah was born to a wealthy family in Lancashire in 1688, and actually had good reason to fear premature burial. When young her brother John passed, or appeared to have passed on. At his funeral, just prior to the lowering of the top on the coffin, someone noticed John’s eyelids were fluttering, and called a stop to the burial. John was re-examined by family doctor Charles White, declared alive after all, and would make a full recovery. This experience left deep emotional scars in Hannah, and she insisted that when she passed efforts be made to keep her above ground long enough to confirm she really was dead. She approached doctor White, tasking him to ensure this happened.

Hannah would pass in 1758, and White would keep his word…. well kind of.. To preserve her body while out in the open, White – a man with a love of cabinets of curiosities – embalmed her. Having mummified her body through an experimental method he never recorded – but was sure to have killed her had she simply been in a coma – for one her blood was drained, her organs removed. Her body was then placed inside the frame of a grandfather clock.

Hannah’s will made it clear she was not to be buried until certain she was dead, but one would infer she was to be buried thereafter. For over a century her body would be kept by doctors, then Manchester Museum, while family members fought over her will (and hidden fortune, but that is a story for another day) – and Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy would not be officially declared deceased, and interred till 22nd July 1868.
Happy Halloween all. Stay safe when trick or treating. We’ll be back to a post a week next Tuesday.

Three Short Tales…

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

One – Pirates!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two – Mr. 380.

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


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

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


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

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

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


Three – Doll Babies.

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


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

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

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

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

Women’s History Month: 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.     

Sophxit

(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)

Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.

Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?


This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.


Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697.
This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.


Joining ‘The Firm’.

To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…

Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.

Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.


Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.

Countess Platen

The Konigsmarck brothers.
We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too.
Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level.
The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army.
Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.

Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall
Who ne’er would have miscarried;
Had he married the woman he slept withal

Or slept with the woman he married.”

Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin.
In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.

The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.

On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.

Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together.
The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.

So…. what happened?
Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.

What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.

Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.

Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.

Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?

Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.

Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.

Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.

By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.

How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.

Dorothy Martin’s Flying Saucer

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.

Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.

Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, at a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm, 21st December 1954. A dozen or so suburbanites – just regular Americans really – gather round the lady of the house, convinced she has supernatural powers. They’ve been camped out at the house for several days now. Many have sacrificed everything to be there. Earlier in the day they may have sung Christmas carols on the lawn to onlookers. They stood outside for some time, gazing skyward, hoping their visitor from Clarion, Sanada, would just arrive already. Perhaps feeling the glare of the camera, they retreated inside. If Sanada can traverse galaxies, surely he’ll have no trouble finding 847 West School Street.

the ‘burbs’, did ‘847 West Street’ look a little like this?


The dozen or so people in the house believe the world will end tonight, deluged by a giant flood. They are the select few to be saved by an alien race who have looked down on Earth for eons. Curious onlookers and reporters have been gathered outside all day, waiting to see what happens, when nothing happens after all. Inside, amongst the believers, a small group of interlopers, led by the psychology lecturer Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One presumes the other named figures in this tale are Noms de Plumes also.

Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she’d been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying an American offshoot which would influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. This finally led Dorothy to Scientology. Something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.

In April 1954 Martin begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father. She, allegedly, found more than she was looking for. First she claimed earthbound spirits were speaking through her, but she soon claimed she was receiving ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ spoke through her, then aliens from the planets Clarion and Cerus. By mid April she claimed she was in constant contact with a Clarion alien called Sanada.

Word spread among other spiritualists of her conversations with Sanada, and Martin gained a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada stated they would fly past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people went to see the aliens. No-one saw a spacecraft that day, but Dorothy and a number of others recalled a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While seven attendees walked, now convinced Dorothy was a grifter, the others were swayed by lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife that something strange happened. ‘That man was odd. He must have been one of them. He must’ve wiped our memories of the spacecraft right?’


2nd August Sanada wrote through Dorothy, confirming the doctor’s hypothesis. He also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.

Sanada wrote though her again on the 15th August. There wou soon be a huge flash of light in the sky, followed by a flood which would engulf North and South America. On the 27th August, Sanada stated the whole world would flood. He provided a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong sent notice of the revelation to as many newspapers as he could. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September.
Professor Festinger happened to be reading the Herald that day. Spotting an opportunity to study the effects on a group of a strongly held belief being obliterated – surely there couldn’t be a great flood, let alone UFOs on the 21st? – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.


In the months leading up to 21st December, Dorothy picked up several new followers…. besides Professor Festinger and his assistants. There was ‘Fred Purden’, a student who fell out with his parents over joining the group. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he will flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’, who has given away all her earthly belongings – cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? – is new. ‘Susan Heath’, a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and been banned by her college from proselyting, another acolyte. As the day draws near those who work made a pact to hand in their notice. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre – the extremely judgmental look from her boss makes is abundantly clear she has no job to return to if Sanada doesn’t come. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.

21st December played out as follows.

10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)”
Dorothy is told, be prepared for a message every hour on the hour.
Throughout the day members arrive, the press set up. Onlookers gather and some well wishers pop into the house to wish them well on their journey. There are no messages from Sanada.

11.15 PM. A message from Sanada finally comes. He tells them to put on their overcoats and prepare to leave. They will send another message when they were overhead. Followers remove any metal on them, including underwires in their bras and zips, as forewarned by the aliens.

12.00 AM Nothing happens.
12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the clocks on the wall still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet after all.
12:10 AM. Sanada sends a message, something akin to traffic is hell, will be there as soon as we can.
12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET phoning, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’

At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mother told him she would call the cops if he wasn’t back by 2. Unshaken, the others state this is probably a good thing, he had the least commitment of the group anyway.
At 4 AM the first seeds of doubt crop up. One of the followers bitterly comments they have given up everything, burned every bridge. They know they should leave but have nothing to return to. They have to stay, till the bitter end.

At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their show of great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood – the people of Earth can thank them alone that humankind is again in God’s good graces.

5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens. This news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy, and California that night… they were the first rumblings of the great disaster Dorothy and her followers averted.

At this point – I should drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.

Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. In 1648, when he first announced he was the true messiah, he also claimed the world was coming to an end. When thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a large following – many of whom had sacrificed everything to follow him. Many physically followed him across Europe.

Going from strength to strength, a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board made it less crazy to follow the heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came explaining why you should follow him. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. The movement took on a life of it’s own.
By the time he returned to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.

With flow on effect on top of flow on effect, across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah had come. He was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and made the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi.
In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, they all but ground to a halt.

When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.

And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history. It never really leaves us.

To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.

If only there were a figure in recent memory who epitomized this phenomenon.

On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800
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Today’s tale is set in the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, following the bloody, and costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a monarch broke in its’ wake.

Gevaudan is an isolated, rugged, rural spot – the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason. The terrain is rough and mountainous – far too rocky to grow much by way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock. From a young age, they worked alone, out in the elements – constantly on the lookout for wild predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan is also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place full of packs of wolves, lurking outlaws, footpads and highwayman. It really is the kind of place you could imagine in the most vicious Grimm Brothers tales. It’s against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, came roaring into the consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman provides us with our first description of La Bete. While caring for her cattle, a huge beast came bolting out of the forest. It was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a huge mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. The beast had a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. Far more interested in the cowherd than the cattle, the beast rushed at her with remarkable speed and dexterity. Our witness would have been done for but for the fact several large bulls were between her and the beast. The gang of bulls repeatedly charged La Bete, till it turned tail, back into the forest.

The cowherd reported the incident, but was turned away, everyone else believing the animal to be a large wolf. Soon after 14 year old Jeanne Boulet would be eviscerated, her mutilated body found dumped outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares.

A month later another victim was badly mauled, a 15 year old girl near Puylaurent. She barely lived long enough to give a description of the beast very like the animal in the first encounter. It was around this point people started to entertain the possibility a monster walked among them. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found in the hills. This was followed by a sustained spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. The horrible disfigurement of the victims suggested both an extremely powerful beast, and a propensity to play with it’s meal. Bodies were left heavily gouged The beast, when going in for the kill, went for the neck or head. Speculation at this sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were in fact looking for two beasts. No wolf could traverse the rocky hills with anything like the speed the beast moved at, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with friends. He fought La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which won him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to get the better of the beast. In August 1765 Marie Jeanne Valet was walking with her sister when the beast leapt out. Armed with a spear, Marie squared up to the beast – and after an epic battle with the monster – sent it scarpering with a chest wound. She won no royal plaudits or free education – at least there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle, in Auvers, constructed in 1995 to honour ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

By 1765, the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned that to do nothing would lead to mass panic, and perhaps seeing some chance at redemption for his military – who lost the Seven Year War – he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were now of La Bete, they also gave the small army soldiers and hunters the cold shoulder on their arrival.

A large wolf the likely suspect for the killer beast, Antoine’s army called open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves would be massacred. Some wolves were uncommonly large, but the killings continued unabated. Hunters noticed a big difference between a wolf and La Bete around this time too. Wolves generally drop when you shoot them, but the beast was hit several times – and shook off the shot. A rumour began to circulate some hybrid mastiff-wolf had been bred by these ungrateful locals, then sent out in pig’s hide armour. How else could one explain this creature? Keep in mind guns in the 1760s had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards, and expert musketeers could maybe get a shot off every 20 seconds. Hunters were hardly out there with modern hunting rifles.

At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals on a mass hunt, to canvass the area. They had no luck, and generated a great deal of press attention to boot. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long lone wolf – and sent the  body back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The carcass was loaded on a wagon and taken to the king in Paris. With a long, arduous journey, and an unusually hot summer, the carcass went off, and was too decomposed to identify at the capital. Lore grew around the kill claiming Chastel shot the beast with a silver bullet – something afterwards associated with werewolves. The attacks ceased after Chastel’s kill. All in all 113 people were killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies were partially eaten.

So, what was the beast?

There are a number of suggestions.

First I think we can dismiss the claim the killer was, in fact, a serial killer. There is no evidence of a human killer. The attack marks sound like something a large animal is capable of. The hunters sited, and on occasion did shoot a mystery cryptid. That stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.

Though a little small, a stray hyena is possible. A striped hyena did escape a menagerie, in 1767, having to be put down. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions run the gamut from a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained hound – probably owned by Jean Chastel. Fans of crypto-zoology have suggested long extinct beasts such as the Mesonychid, the Bear Dog or the Dire Wolf. All seem highly unlikely.

Experts generally agree the beast was a sub-adult lion. A young adult is the right size. It would move and behave like the beast. It could also shake off 18th century musket shot. A sub-adult has yet to grow a full mane. That people living in an isolated region, in a time before photographs mistook a lion without a mane for some other monster is completely understandable.

How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is another question entirely. It’s a question which invites guesswork. Had one of the soldiers, stationed abroad in the Seven Years War picked up a fluffy little cub going through Africa, only to dump it when it became too big and dangerous to handle? Alternately, had a formerly wealthy aristocrat found they couldn’t afford to keep a private menagerie, anymore – and chosen to dump the animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? It has been long speculated Britain had a similar moment in the 1970s, after legislation made it all but impossible to keep a private zoo. The Beast of Bodmin Moor, seen by many in the years since, believed by some to be a puma deposited there by its former owner.

Frau Troffea’s dance with the devil

Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel.
At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.

By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.


Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.



On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.

A modern bridge over the river Meuse in Maastricht.

Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.   

What could have caused such an incident?

In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death.  
In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.