Tag Archives: 20th Century

Repost: The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

The sincerest form of flattery… a bonus tale

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” – Oscar Wilde.

Hi all, FYI I held off writing this bonus episode till early in the week. While this tale reveals an injustice which happened all too often in the postwar music business, there are elements to this bonus tale I don’t have my head around as much as I would like. For one I don’t feel the most comfortable around the position of written music in the era in question – oh by the way we’re talking about covers today. Written music still made up a sizeable percentage of music sales in the 1940s and 50s. The songwriters often wrote in the hope that multiple artists would pick up their work, and release their own arrangements of it… much more so than a songwriter today, who will often write with a particular artist in mind. In 2020 songs are usually associated with a single artist, and it has been that way for decades. Songs often weren’t in the 40s and 50s. It only seems fair I state this up front.


The other element I feel uncomfortable working around is how, exactly you designate one song a tribute (i.e. Elvis records Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night), another a rip off (i.e. The Diamonds cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall in Love). I think it is fair to say some covers are better than others. Elvis, for example, covered a lot of songs – and on most of them he brought something new to the table. There was also an authenticity to the work of the King, and a respect for the original artist. I don’t know his work well enough to say for certain he never released a cover within weeks of the original artist – tracks like his cover of The Drifters Such a Night came seven years after the original. Even his cover of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes came six months after Perkins version. There just seems something very different with releasing a note for note copy within weeks of the original, with the express purpose of stealing its thunder.

Give me Scottish witch trials, Chicago mobsters or Victorian era conmen I feel pretty confident – but this topic takes me a little out of my wheel house is all I’m saying. But now I have said that….


Our tale starts today in Los Angeles, California in late 1948. Albert Patrick, a record executive at a small rhythm and blues label called Supreme Records, bought the rights to produce a song called A Little Bird Told Me. The writer an acclaimed songwriter and arranger named Harvey Brooks. They soon went about producing a catchy ear worm with an R&B piano, handclaps on the backbeat, and the vocal talents of Paula Watson – an African American R&B vocalist and piano player newly arrived from Mobile, Alabama. The song, at first, proved a wise investment – it shot up to the top of what was then called the ‘race music’ charts (now the R&B charts). What proved especially pleasing no doubt would have been A Little Bird Told Me also entered the far bigger, and largely white pop music charts. The song was an exceedingly rare case of a black artist on a small, black owned label having a hit song in the white channels – well exceedingly rare until around 1956 in any case. The song rose through the charts till it hit number 14… then it died away just as dramatically.

The song’s trajectory was stalled because Decca records, a large label mostly making safe pop records – largely white music for a largely white audience- had been paying attention. They quickly realized if they made a sound-alike version – copied the formula, the jaunty R&B piano, hand claps, the backing vocals – and put an attractive young white woman out front – they would have a huge hit on their hands. They may not capture the fire of the original; the singer may not be as good as Ms Watson – but they had the bigger label, far more connections, and a society more willing to buy music from the white artist. Evelyn Knight’s cover, released within weeks of Paula Watson’s went to #1 with a bullet, staying on the charts for 21 weeks. It killed the momentum of the original.


Supreme records took out a lawsuit against Decca. While they could not claim copyright of the song, they felt comfortable they could claim rights to the arrangement of the song. When the case went to trial in 1950 the courts sided with Decca – you cannot copyright an arrangement. This was bad news for Supreme records, who were broke at the time, and soon after shut their doors. It was not the worst of news for Paula Watson, who had, in the interlude signed up with Decca herself – but it was awful news for a number of early rock and roll groups and singers, who may have broken bigger, and sooner – had some judge not set a precedent which allowed major labels to relegate their work to the trash heap with their inferior, but far more privileged cover versions. The examples are numerous, but let’s discuss a few.

The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’ is an often cited example, not least of all because the early Doo Wop song was on track to become the first rock and roll song to hit #1 on the pop charts. Sh-Boom (some of you may know it as ‘Life Could Be a Dream’, but Sh-Boom is it’s real name) was written by the members of the black, Bronx based group themselves – and released in 1954. It shot up both the R&B and pop charts – until the Canadian pop group The Crew-Cuts cut an insipid, watered down version of the song. With all their advantages, their cover killed the Chords original just as it hit #9 in the charts. Their cover went to #1, and stayed in the pop charts for 20 weeks. Despite being, by far, the better version – the Chords version would miss out on sync opportunities in movies and television until the 1990s.

The Crew-Cuts were one of a number of white acts preying on black artists. They would go on to make inferior versions of The Penguins ‘Earth Angel’ (mentioned in last week’s bonus episode), and Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo (I just wish I had the time to talk about this song, dozens of artists covered this song, including Rosemary Clooney’s sister and the actor Andy Griffiths – it was HUGE – it is now forgotten). Of course Pat Boone was another serial offender; ripping off songs by Fats Domino, the Flamingos, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner… and most famously Little Richard.
And then of course, there was the LaVern Baker v Georgia Gibbs feud.

LaVern Baker was a popular R&B and early rock and roll singer from a family of blues and gospel singers. She had come to national prominence in 1953 with the torch song Soul on Fire, released on Atlantic records. Her first big hit, however, would be Tweedle Dee, an up-tempo piece with a Latin feel to it. The song is dumb, but Baker’s performance elevates the track to something truly listenable. Tweedle Dee crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #14, to be knocked off the charts by white former big band singer Georgia Gibbs note for note cover of the song. Gibbs version, released by the then much larger label Mercury records, shot to the top of the charts. To add insult to injury Gibbs had hired the same arranger and musicians Baker had used for her version. She had tried to hire her audio engineer, Tom Dowd also, but he demurred. Baker was furious at the gall of Gibbs, more over the lost opportunities – more the airplay and lost exposure, than the lost sales (which she estimated at $15,000 in 1955 dollars). She went all out to ensure no rip-off artist ever did that again.


First, Baker carried out a publicity stunt meant to embarrass Gibbs. After booking a long distance flight, Baker took out a life insurance policy for the journey. Who was listed as the beneficiary on the policy? Georgia Gibbs of course – If the plane went down and LaVern Baker died, Baker let all in sundry know, Gibbs’ career would die a horrible death too. Second, she approached Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr, asking congress to look to pass a law banning note for note copies of other peoples’ records. All indications are congress looked into the issue, but decided it was out of their purview to do anything about it. What she did do however, in publicly embarrassing Gibbs and rallying congressmen to the cause, was to make it suddenly very uncool to just steal another artists act like that. Gibbs would go on to record one more dodgy knock off cover – this time Etta James’ answer record The Wallflower (retitled Dance with me Henry) before swearing off stealing R&B artists music. She kept her word for two years. Lavern Baker had another single, Tra La La, which was flying up the charts – so Gibbs copied it note for note. Her version bombed. The listeners were buying Baker’s disc for the B side, a great rock and roll song called Jim Dandy – today’s attached song.

I’ll do another one of these Tales of Rock and Roll next week – probably the final of these for a little while. IF the Batavia series doesn’t capture the imagination as I hoped it would I’ll have a look at running another short Thursday series… Please love Batavia though, you have no idea how many hours I spent on it. See you all next Tuesday for the final episode of Tom Horn. – Simone.

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 2)

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, on today’s episode we’re continuing the tale of Tom Horn – This is part two of a three parter so if you haven’t read part one yet, you might want to check it out here first. In part one I discussed how Tom had grown up a loner in a strictly religious family, in Scotland county, Missouri. How following the loss of his faithful dog Shedrick, and a terrible beating from his father, 14 year old Tom struck out west – taking up several jobs to make ends meet. He increasingly found himself employed as a man of violence; becoming involved in the Apache Wars, railroad wars, one of America’s bloodiest family feuds, as a lawman, then – and this brings us up to date – as an enforcer for the Beef Barons of Wyoming. Though ostensibly his role was to protect their interests from cattle rustlers, in reality his role would be much more complex.

We discussed the kind of guy Tom Horn was. While he excelled under pressure, and became notable for several brave acts, he was also a braggart and, at times a bold- faced liar. Also worth reiterating from part one – while a capable gunfighter, Horn became known as an expert sharpshooter, what we would now call a sniper. Sharpshooters were rare, but occasionally known at the time – the best known known victim of a sharpshooter just prior to Horn’s era was Union General John Sedgwick; killed in the American Civil War after stating to his men “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”.

Tom Horn had killed dozens of men by sharpshooting, but his time was the end of an era. Times were a changing, the west began to tame. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 10, Tom Horn – Gunslinger, Part Two.


(theme music)


We left off last episode as Tom Horn had just left the Pinkerton detective agency in 1894. He soon found himself in Wyoming, officially working for the Swan Land and Cattle company as a ranch hand. Unofficially, he was there as an enforcer – hired muscle for when asking nicely wouldn’t do. To explain why the group we now refer to as the Beef Barons needed hired thugs, we need to delve back to the 1860s, first via a war with the neighbours.

To put a little context in explaining why the west was so wild, and less developed than the east coast at this time, it is worth pointing out places like Wyoming were still new to the USA. The United States seized the west coast of the country, by conquest, off the Mexicans in the Mexican – American war (1846- 48). Prior to Mexican rule, the west coast was conquered – their peoples almost annihilated – by the Spanish Conquistadors following the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521. The West was then part of what was called New Spain. Prior to that the west was ruled by various indigenous tribes.


A few things happened during, and in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65) which would bring two new groups in to this region. The first that from 1866 cattle farming became extremely popular in these states – starting in Texas, then up to regions like Wyoming. The model of much of this farming was to grab a big piece of land, but to take your cattle out onto a common area- the range- to graze. The Beef Barons – I prefer this to their other name, the Cattle Barons – were often farming large, essentially squatting on massive swathes of land. Up until the mid 1880s these barons were making a killing – America was growing rich, eating better, and anyone selling good dry-stock like cattle was making great money. This wealth reflected in the region, Cheyanne, Wyoming particularly had the newest and best of everything- gas lighting throughout the streets, phone lines – The Cheyanne Club, a plush gentlemen’s club where wealthy cattle investors spent their days.

The other group we have to mention is the Homesteaders. The Homestead Act of 1862 was actually the first of a series of acts passed by Abraham Lincoln, in relation to the new territories of the USA. If a settler wished to stake a claim to unclaimed land up to 160 acres – most of which was west of the Mississippi river, they just had to possess the land, and still be living there five years later. This would become a wildly successful scheme, with around 1.6 million homesteaders occupying around ten percent of the land in the USA. Though they would come in various waves, the bulk of them would begin to arrive in Wyoming around 1874.

A family of homesteaders on their way to Nebraska.

In effect you had two very different schemes, competing with far less oversight than there should have been – and a region with nowhere near enough law enforcement to ensure anyone’s safety. One model was based around a large commons where everyone could use what they needed, without restriction. The other on outright ownership, but with a caveat that if you could be unseated from your land, you would lose it. It really isn’t hard to see how this could get ugly, fast.


By 1886 Wyoming, now overrun by homesteaders, found itself flooded with far too many cattle, which was lowering the cost they could sell their stock for. Some of the homesteaders were running into conflict with the Beef Barons by bringing sheep onto the range, putting further stress on resources. By 1886, counting cattle alone, there were already an estimated 1.5 million cattle in the state, and the free feed which had previously allowed a Beef Baron to buy young cattle at $5 a head, sell them grown at $60 a head, and pay very little in overheads- was fast diminishing. What did people do in this time to protect their livelihoods? For one, you hired a private army of gunslingers, two, you designated anyone you didn’t like a ‘cattle rustler’ and sent your enforcers out to mete out summary justice.


With murders of homesteaders a common occurrence in this time, one particular event did become particularly shocking nonetheless. Now I am sitting on the Johnson County war for an episode in it’s own right some time in the future – but I do need to touch on it today. From 1889 to 1893 the Wyoming Stock Growers Association – a group of barons who regularly gathered at the Cheyanne Club – went to war with a group of homesteaders who’d grown tired of being threatened and attacked by the baron’s heavies. The first flashpoint was the lynching of two homesteaders, Ella Watson and Jim Averill – having falsely been accused of cattle theft. This escalated on both sides, till, in 1892 the Stock Growers Association hired a fugitive killer and bank robber, turned sheriff, turned gun for hire who went by the name Frank Canton to put together an army of Texan killers to come to town and carry out a night of long knives style hit on 70 targets. It has been said Horn was among the killers for hire, though he does not appear in the photo they took to memorialize the planned killings. Nor was he arrested with the others after. I won’t spoil this topic for later, but there were up to three dozen murders resulting in this conflict. It does not go exactly as planned, but is plenty bad enough. This was the world Tom Horn settled into, full time in 1894.


Tom Horn came to work for the barons at a point where their power began to dissipate. Before the Johnson County War they owned the judiciary and politics. At the next round of elections the homesteaders made their numbers known, and got rid of a lot of the barons’ stooges. Were Horn able to see the writing on the wall, one wonders what he would have done differently. It is clear though he really didn’t see the shift in power in the region. He kept doing what he always did.

1895 saw two murders of note which were probably carried out by Horn. The first victim was an English settler named William Lewis. Lewis genuinely came with a bad enough reputation that many were happy to see him dead. In his short time in Cheyanne he had been caught stealing clothing, cheating at faro (a card game mentioned in the last episode) and genuinely cattle rustling. On 30th July a bullet struck Lewis from out of nowhere via a hidden assailant. Lewis was left walking wounded, but in good enough shape to get on with his day, which included fighting with his neighbors – and butchering more stolen cattle. The following day William Lewis was out in the open air skinning a stolen animal when a second bullet, fired from a Winchester 30-30 at a range of 300 yards, struck him in the chest, this time killing him.


The second murder that year was another bona fide rustler, named Fred U Powell. Powell met his end by the same modus operandi. In both cases Tom Horn was arrested and charges brought, but Horn had witnesses who put him elsewhere when the murders occurred. In both cases he walked free. If inclined to make Horn out as some good guy vigilante, it is worth remembering that days after Horn was released without charge for Powell’s murder, a letter arrived at Powell’s old house. Powell’s brother in law Charles Keane had moved in following his murder. The letter threatened Keane with the same fate as Powell if he wasn’t gone in 3 days’ time. Sometimes Horn killed bad men, but bad appears to have had little to do with the killings.


For a little while Horn would be selective over his contracts, not jumping for every job as he had previously, and particularly avoiding anything where he would have to work in a posse. In 1897 Horn was involved in the killing of a cattle rustler in Arizona named William Christian, then later his associate Robert Christian – presumably related. In 1898 he would head off to Cuba however, to get involved in a war.
In February 1898 an American warship, the USS Maine blew up outside of Havana, Cuba. They had been there to look out for Americans in the country, which had broken out in a war of independence between the Cubans and their Spanish rulers. Although the explosion was caused by a malfunction, which in turn set off several rounds of ammunition, and not a Spanish attack- it was just the provocation America needed to enter the war. When the Spanish American war broke out, Tom Horn was quick to re-enlist, as a mule packer. Although Horn was not directly involved with the fighting, he was fired upon numerous times by the enemy, while transporting goods to and from the front lines. Around 1900 he would catch yellow fever and he would be sent back to Wyoming, in spite of wanting to continue on to the Philippines for the next stage of the war.


Back in Wyoming, Horn would commit two more murders before we get to Willie Nickell. The first was Matt Rash, the head of the Brown’s Park Cattle Association – a group of smaller ranchers who had banded together in an effort to stop the beef barons running them out of business. Horn was given instructions to investigate Rash for cattle rustling, allegedly finding him a rustler. The barons green lit his killing. Horn left a note on his door giving Rash 60 days to vacate the area, and when rash would not, on July 21st someone came up to his front door while he ate, and gunned him down at close range. Although not his usual M.O, a dying Rash wrote the name of his killer in his own blood. The writing pointed to Horn. Days later an associate of Rash, a cowboy called Isom Dart – formerly a cattle rustler who went by the name Ned Huddleston, was gunned down from a distance. As per modus operandi 30-30 cartridges were found from the vantage point where the shot had been fired. Which finally brings us back round to where I started this season – the assassination of Willie Nickell.

Willie Nickell


Though Horn knew of the Nickells, his first dealings with them came in 1901. That year Horn took a job with a baron called John Coble, at the Iron Mountain Ranch Company. Coble was a man who hated rustlers, and even more then the rustlers hated sheep farmers. There was one particular sheep man he hated most, and that was Kels Nickell. A feud between the two had turned ugly only prior to Horn’s employment, when Coble and Nickell had come to blows at the Iron Mountain railway station. Reports state Coble threatened Nickell with death if he didn’t leave town immediately. Coble then drew his pistol, but Kels Nickell was too quick for him, pulling out his Bowie knife and stabbing Coble in the gut. The wound was not enough to kill Coble, but more than enough to make him hire an assassin to finish what he started.


The Nickell family had been in the area for 15 years, having come up from Kentucky. Kels had made few friends in that time. Soon after his arrival Kels had dammed water on his property, cutting the water supply to a number of lower ranches. It took other ranchers taking him to court, and the Nickells being fined $500 to stop him doing this. He had also clashed with a neighboring family, the Mahoneys. In all fairness to Tom Horn and John Coble, a lot of people wanted the Nickell family gone. Horn however was the one sent to their farm to deliver the message, pack up and leave, or die.

Soon after Horn began stalking Nickell, watching his every move for weeks. At the time Kels was especially paranoid – packing a sidearm at all times. Tom Horn visited the Nickells’ neighbors, the Miller family on July 15th, finding they too hated Kels Nickell. The following day someone took a shot at Kels from a long distance, though unusually for Horn, he only managed to catch him in the elbow. Kels Nickell managed to escape to the safety of his ranch house. Kels kept his head down for a little while. Meanwhile his son Willie was sent out to do a lot of the jobs his father normally would have. In the cold, dim light of morning on the 18th July 1901 Willie Nickell would be gunned down while opening a fence, his body to be found three days’ later. As usual Horn would have an alibi – another employee of John Coble, who had seen him on Coble’s ranch at around the same time as the murder. Early in August, following the mutilation of several of his sheep, someone took another shot at Kels, but again only managed to injure him. This could have ended like all the other murders, but it didn’t. I’ll be right back after this break to discuss how Tom Horn found himself in a cell, weaving the rope which would hang him.

I’ll pick this tale up for it’s conclusion, part three, next week – Simone

Quoth the Raven – The tale of the Poe Toaster

Hi everyone welcome to the final blog tale before we jump back into the podcasts again – and of course the podcast scripts here. As some of you will know, or have guessed I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe – why steal from his ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ for the name of your blog if not? It seems fitting to do a quick tale on ‘The Tomahawk Man’, Eddy to Mrs Poe, before we jump back into season two of the podcasts.
With Poe there are several tales you could tell, and I am saving most of them for another time. In this episode I want to talk about the mysterious ‘Poe toaster’ – apparently a Poe Superfan?

By way of quick biography, Edgar Allan Poe (January 19th 1809- October 7th 1849), was one of the greats of American literature. Though never receiving the plaundits or monetary rewards he should in life, in the years since his passing much of his work has been recognized for it’s brilliance, often groundbreaking style and the sheer breadth of Mr Poe’s intellectual capabilities. An accomplished poet, short story writer, occasional novellist and critic, Poe also exhibited he knew more than a thing or two about science, cryptography, seafaring, and investigation. While American readers initially struggled to recognize his genius, French writers like Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme sung his praises loudly – in no small part because they owed much of their style to Poe. His work did have some influence at home however – the seafaring tale ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’ was a huge influence on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’. His Auguste Dupin stories, ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Murder of Mary Roget’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ are among the first detective stories written – most critics would consider him the father of detective fiction. He was a master of the horror story, an early sci-fi writer, and a poet of note. If he had only ever written ‘The Raven’ his place in American anthologies of poetry would be assured, but ‘To Helen’, ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ulalume’, ‘A dream within a dream’ only reinforce his greatness.

Edgar Allan Poe played a number of roles in his short time on earth; a soldier, an assistant newspaper editor, publisher, at one time a political hopeful… Many remember his as a little creepy beyond his writing when recalling how, aged 26, he married his 13 year old cousin. Some will know he was a little too fond of alcohol. You may recall the time he got into a public spat with another titan of American literature, ‘Tales by a Wayside Inn’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow after accusing the professor of plaigarism, or the far more consuming battle between he and Rufus Griswold – who got the last word on Mr Poe when he got to write his, unflattering obituary.

On October 3rd 1849 a delirious, disheveled Poe was found outside Gunner’s Hall (an Irish tavern) in Baltimore, Maryland, quoth his rescuer Joseph W. Walker “In great distress and… in need of immediate assistance”. He was taken to The Washington Medical College, where he would die on October 7th. The suspicious nature of his death was cause for much speculation. Why was he found in clothes which didn’t belong to him? Had he been kidnapped by a Cooping gang and forced to vote at multiple polling booths in the local election that day, and if so had he died of poisoning from bad ‘rotgut’, home brewed alcohol often given to cooping victims after each vote cast? Had he died from the DTs from being denied alcohol, either self inflicted or by others? Could it have been heart disease, cholera? meningitis? syphilis? Any were posible at the time in Baltimore. Was he bitten by a rabid dog? Had he been murdered and if so by whom? I doubt we will ever know as his medical records were, all too conveniently, lost soon after.
Edgar Allan Poe was buried two days later, at Westminster Hall, Baltimore. This is where the tale proper starts.

On 19th January 1949, the anniversary of Poe’s birth, and marking 100 years since his death, a shadowy figure was observed holding vigil in the dead of night, at the writer’s grave. Dressed all in black, save a white scarf masking his face. A wide brimmed hat further obscuring the visitor’s identity – the man knelt at Poe’s grave, laid three red roses, and poured a glass of cognac. Having toasted Poe, the stranger left the remainder for the man in the grave then disappeared from whence he came. A handful of onlookers, whose reason for hanging around a graveyard in the murky darkness escapes me, caught sight of the libation. This was the start of a ritual which would run for decades. Every January 19th between midnight and 6 AM, the shadowy stranger would appear, place three roses, drink to the deceased, then leave. Over time the crowds of onlookers would increase. No-one ever tried to detain, or unmask the Poe Toaster. As such no one has ever been able to ascertain his connection to Edgar Allan Poe, and why the Poe Toaster feels this deep obligation to visit the man on his birthday.

The reason for the three roses is equally uncertain. It could represent a rose for Poe, one for his wife Virginia and the third for his mother in law, Maria Clemm – all buried under the cenotaph. No one is sure why cognac – Were he to take a lead from his tales then a glass of the rarer, more expensive Amontillado sherry makes more sense (FYI if you haven’t read ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ before, please do. It is wonderfully unsettling, link to Australian Amazon page here).


In 1990 Life Magazine ran an article of the toaster, with a photograph of him kneeling at the grave. After this the number of onlookers grew exponentially.

On occasion the toaster woud leave a note for onlookers. One year he left a note stating “Edgar I haven’t forgotten you”. In 1993 a note was left stating “the torch will be passed”, and in 1999 a note stating the original Poe Toaster had passed on, and his sons had now assumed the mantle. In 2001 the Poe Toaster broke completely with tradition and left a note commenting on the Superbowl. A 2004 note was critical of the French criticisms of American action in Iraq. The son of the original toaster was noticeably less sartorial, somewhat less of a dashing and mysterious figure. On one occasion he showed up wearing jeans.

In 2009 the world watched, and waited in anticipation. The year marked 200 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. A sizeable crowd hunkered down and awaited the Poe Toaster’s arrival – but he never came. He would never be seen again. Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.

Since 2016 a Poe Toaster has returned, to keep the tradition alive. In the wee small hours he enters the former Gothic church, lays the three roses, and drinks a glass to the memory of Mr Poe – however these days the role is played by an actor in the employ of the city. What started as an act of love, admiration or even repentance has now become a tourist trap.

Next week Tuesday I’ll post the first episode of season two of the podcast, and of course the scripts here. I’m tackling the tale of a wild west assassin. There will be added background music, and sharper scripts (everything is getting multiple drafts now) though the same old narrator, always a little weak and weary from pondering over volumes of forgotten lore in the wee small hours. The podcast music of course by New Zealand hard rock band Ishtar, whose “Just One Life’ borrowed Poe’s trick in the Raven – a simple refrain (in his case ‘Nevermore’, theirs ‘So far away’) then dropping the phrase at a vital point, to knock their listeners off kilter. Tomorrow night I will be trying to mix samples from the song into the background and exporting the finished product to Podbean.
Take care all – Simone

Little Richard- the architect of Rock & Roll – bonus tale.

Just a quick note ahead of this blog post. I did have a plan next week Thursday to drop another Tale of Rock & Imagination bonus piece – a piece I’ve got sketched out but will hold off on for another week. I was also planning another episode of this Rock & Imaginaton series for a few weeks’ time and calling it something like ‘Sex & Religion’ or something similar. In it I wanted to discuss people like Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnnie Ray…. maybe Jackie Shane? and in it share a story of a Sister Rosetta gig in Macon Georgia – some time in 1946 or 47 where she invited some 14 year old kid up on stage with her to play a few songs – and how this young, flamboyant kid was dynamite and would go on to revolutionize popular music. Seeing that kid has just passed this does seem timely. Apologies dear readers I’m pasting my Facebook post up here today, unvarnished as it is. RIP Little Richard.

Sad news this morning to read ‘the architect of rock and roll’ Little Richard has passed on. Musically, over the space of a little over two years he turned out several of the greatest rock songs ever. As a person I think it has to be said this vibrant, larger than life personality lived a life often darkened by the caprices of his strict pentecostal upbringing, and his thuggish church deacon father who never accepted his bissexual, non-binary child. This caused Richard to vacillate between his true, authentic self, and the man his God, or his father, or the congregation demanded of him.

There was Little Richard, the flamboyant, iron lunged piano thumper – came up through the carnival circuit opening for snake oil salesmen, then on to a drag revue before being discovered by Specialty records. Androgynous, flashy, overtly sexual. A preacher of the gospel of free love, good times and hedonism. The kind of guy who would write a song about having sex in an alley with a drag queen (Long Tall Sally) and just smile to himself knowingly when stuffy old Pat Boone stole his song……

Then there was Richard Wayne Penniman, deeply religious and terrified he was going to hell – aboard a ferry in Australia in October 1957. The Russians had just launched Sputnik days earlier, he had just endured an extremely turbulent flight to Aussie. Sputnik had been playing on his mind all night and he had been having nightmares of apocalyptic fireballs, hellfire and thunder. This Richard stood at the edge of the boat throwing $100,000 worth of jewellery overboard and proclaiming as soon as this tour was over he was done with rock and roll, boyfriends and partying – he would go on for some time to become a preacher.

I love Richard’s music, feel a little sad to think of the turmoil he must have gone through in life. No doubt will be playing some Little Richard around the house today.

A single light punching through the darkness – a bonus tale.

Hey all I thought I might share a few short tales I have been sketching out of late. The story of these …. lets call them Tales of Music and Imagination… is as follows. In early March 2020, as online talk began to spread of this new disease – and my newsfeed began to fill up with a mixture of genuine news, 5G conspiracy theories, questionable COVID jokes and naysayers – my first inclination was to get the hell away from social media for a while. I would look for the expert analysis, avoid think pieces, dodge hysteria till I knew I had something to panic about.

My social media hiatus lasted half a day.

My second inclination was to try to up my own contribution to the mix – my specialist topic for this round? Tales from the Origins of Rock & Roll. Every day for around two months I posted a new song each day – with a couple of paragraphs about the song or the artist. Every morning as I had my coffee, before I went up into my office, I would drop a new track.

Whether you love old rock songs or not I think, personally, everyone should be fascinated with the tales which surround them. If music is the soundtrack of our lives, as Motown’s Berry Gordy once said – the music of the postwar era is the soundtrack to a tale of rapid change, growth and struggle. It gives one yet another perspective to assess the world from in that time.

In the following bonus tales I’m not going to regurgitate the original project, or run 50 plus episodes, just a handful of short tales I feel should be told more. I need to acknowledge my source for much of the information on the bonus tales. I am a huge fan of Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs – when it comes to rock and roll, Mr Hickey’s knowledge is extraordinary.

Anyway folks, longer intro than the Tale itself. Please enjoy – Simone

On the evening of 23rd December 1938 the most culturally important concert in history took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Funded by the Communist party of America, and stage managed by the talent scout, civil rights campaigner, record producer and scion of the Vanderbilt’s, John Hammond – the From Spirituals to Swing concert was something to behold. To many well heeled, white Americans the concert would be their first exposure to American race music; as some of the brightest lights of gospel, swing, blues and boogie-woogie rocked the venerable old stage.

The tale most often shared of the night is the bluesman Robert Johnson was meant to play, but when Hammond went looking for him, he found he had passed on – legend has it Johnson had expired 16th August 1938 near Greenwood Mississippi. According to legend he was poisoned by a publican, jealous that Johnson had gotten a little too friendly with his wife. The concert opened with a single spotlight punching through the dark – the light aimed at a gramophone playing one of the bluesman’s discs. If this were a tale on the ’27 club’ this would make a fitting start. My focus today however is not Robert Johnson, The Count Basie Orchestra, The Kansas City Six…. On the 23rd December 1938, Blues shouter Big Joe Turner teamed up with Boogie-Woogie piano master Pete Johnson for a short, impromptu set. One song, titled ‘It’s All Right Baby’ on the night, but later recorded under ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ was groundbreaking. 82 years on it may not seem so; but the duo married barrel-house piano with the ‘floating lyrics’ seen regularly in the blues. There was an element of the ‘Hokum song’ a form borrowed by race music from vaudeville, full of sexual double entendre.

Most importantly, where the blues and boogie-woogie was typically a ‘four to the floor’ shuffle, Turner – a big man with a big voice who could bellow above an orchestra – stood a way back from the mic, hands out front clapping to the 2 and 4 of the 1,2,3,4 of the song. The inclusion of this ‘backbeat’ may very well make “It’s all right Baby” patient zero for what, 2 decades later would become known as rock and roll.
Of course there is no first rock and roll song. It was a form that developed from several landmark recordings. Long before Elvis gyrated to Arthur ‘big boy’ Crudup songs, Bill Haley rocked this joint to Jimmy Preston covers or Ike Turner’s Rhythm Kings liberally borrowed from Jimmy Liggins’ Cadillac Boogie, dozens of musicians were developing new, rebellious sounds.

The following bonus series is a collection of short tales of rock and roll. None of them will solve which song is patient zero. All of them will, hopefully, cast a spotlight into the dark and uncover something new.

Balloonfest!

What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails.
I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.

What goes up must come down.

Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.

The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise.
But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.

First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?

The Cuyahoga river in flames.

Well……… What goes up?

Balloons.

On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.


Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.


They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.

Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.

What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)

Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Merle Oberon – Dark Angel

Hi folks, welcome back to the blog. This week I want to delve into Hollywood a little, and look at a tale I personally find tragic, disturbing, and a little window into just how much our mores have changed in the last couple of generations. Today I think the reaction by many to our subject’s twin secrets would be on the first count, so what? And on the second, to show great sympathy for our subject’s hellish upbringing – her mother’s too for that matter. Hopefully some righteous anger towards her deadbeat father- but I am getting ahead of myself a little. In her, less enlightened, less woke time her secrets hung on her like a scarlet letter, and if exposed to the more puritanical folk of her time, would likely have ruined her. She bore these secrets heavily. In 1978 her façade began to crumble, the effects of this possibly bringing on her early death the following year. Today I want to shine a light on the tale of one time Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon, a Dark Angel if ever there was one. Apologies ahead of time if this comes out remotely Kenneth Anger-esque – this is not my intention.


To start we should begin in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978. In the numerous texts exact dates are scarce, but it appeared to be in November, maybe early December. Several months earlier the Lord Mayor of Hobart (also never named in the sources, but it has to be Doug Plaister, a former competitive swimmer, turned business owner, turned Lord Mayor from 1976 to 1984.) well, Mayor Doug contacts Merle Oberon directly. ‘As one of our most famous and successful expatriates, the city of Hobart would love to throw a shindig in our town hall in your honour. We’ll put on some food and drink, get the press out – even put on a band – and then there’ll be speeches and stuff- it’ll be a blast’. This is how I imagine the conversation going anyway. Truthfully it was to be quite a flashy, and formal shindig, probably with a very formal letter. The town hall had been host to another famous guest that year, thanks to Mayor Doug – none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Merle accepted the invitation.

Now the story of Merle Oberon that everyone knew at that time was she was born in Tasmania, to an aristocratic British family in 1911. When she was young her father died while away on a hunting expedition, and she moved to India to live with her wealthy, aristocratic godparents. As can happen there was a fire in the building holding her birth certificate and other official documentation, and all official papers concerning her origins went up in smoke. In 1928 Merle left India for Britain to be in the movies, eventually catching the eye of acclaimed film director Sir Alexander Korda in 1933. Korda cast Merle as Anne Boleyn opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Whether Korda, or anyone else thought her a great actor – and I suspect probably not, what film I could find of her online lacks all subtlety and nuance… basically she recites lines in a breathy, Mid Atlantic accent: all melodrama – I doubt anyone questioned her X factor in front of a camera. Strikingly beautiful, luminous; a raven-haired, almond eyed beauty with an aristocratic air – Merle Oberon certainly commanded one’s attention. Besides being beautiful, she also looked kind of exotic – there was something almost oriental about her appearance, but nothing you could pin down for certain. Given the racial politics at the time, being slightly exotic looking made one quite bankable, but actually being from an exotic place would limit the amount of work, and the type of work you might get… but this was ok for Merle, she was an English blue blood after all – even if born in Tasmania.

To run a potted history of Merle Oberon’s acting career – it went pretty well for her. She may not have been in the first rank of actresses, but she did play the lead in a number of films opposite some top leading men. Besides her role in The Private life of Henry VIII she had a leading role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) opposite Leslie Howard, played a love interest caught in a love triangle in Dark Angel alongside Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. She had the role of Claudius’ wife Messalina in a 1937 production of I Claudius, which got canned after Oberon was involved in a serious car crash. She starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), played Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée. Her career stretched all the way out to 1973.

She had four marriages, first to director Alexander Korda (1939- 45), then a cinematographer called Lucien Ballard (1945-49), third a wealthy Italian industrialist called Bruno Pagliai (1957-73) and finally Robert Wolders, a television actor, from 1975 till her death. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1935 for her role in Dark Angel, but lost out to Bette Davis – clearly a lot of people disagree with my claim she was an awful actress. She had a couple of notable off screen dramas – a car crash in 1937 left her badly injured. In 1940 her biographers claimed she got a bad skin infection from an allergic reaction to antibiotics, and had to spend a small fortune on dermabrasion treatments to try and fix the damage. The sources also claim she used skin whitening cream early in her career, and over time began to look more and more olive skinned – so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt. She became Lady Korda in 1942 after then hubby Alexander was knighted. She had two known affairs, one in 1941 with a disfigured RAF fighter pilot called Richard Hillary. The other affair was an on again- off again thing with the Duke, John Wayne, throughout most of the 1940s. For her affairs and multiple marriages however, she maintained an elegant, respectable public image.


Back to 1978, Merle Oberon arrives in Hobart for her shindig. Things have been going on at the council however – after the Lord Mayor had invited, and Merle accepted someone decided to go do a little research. Sure, Merle Oberon claimed to have come from Hobart, and sure over the years people popped up to claim they remembered the time in school when Merle did this or that, and how they knew she was destined to be a star and so forth – but people lie, and sometimes memories are nowhere near as sharp as we like to believe. It soon became apparent to the researcher in the council’s employ that Merle’s origin story was bullshit. There was no aristocratic father killed out hunting. There was no fire which destroyed a bunch of birth records. No documentation full stop. The problem the council faced however was they discovered this a little too late. The advertising was out, Merle Oberon’s arrival was imminent. The decision was made to just keep quiet, have the shindig, let her go on her way. The problem was, when she did show up she was clearly under huge pressure. At the ceremony she broke down during her acceptance speech and fled the room.

During the rest of her stay she remained hidden in her hotel room, refusing to speak with reporters – allegedly, well actually almost certainly correctly claiming she was very unwell. Friends and family have claimed the stress from the Hobart incident did send her health into a downward spiral, from which she never recovered. She died November 23rd 1979, after having a stroke.


So, who was Merle Oberon exactly? What were these twin mysteries which dogged her career and ultimately sent her into a downward spiral. Well, firstly that she was, shock – horror, Anglo-Indian in origin – I know right, in a day and age where the entertainment industry is at least making an effort to cast a little more diverse some of us might shrug that off – I don’t know if Anglo Indian, or Iranian, or Afro-American, or anyone other than white actors would feel that imbalance is anywhere near redressed today- but I think we can all agree Hollywood at the time was very very white. Often when the role required a non white, they cast white actors anyway – Anna May Wong, Lupe Valez and Sabu the Elephant boy were rarities, and very often typecast into one type of role for their short careers. The second part, is genuinely disturbing.

Charlotte Selby was born sometime around 1885 in Ceylon – modern day Sri Lanka. The sources say she was part Indian, part Maori. Many also refer to her as Eurasian so she may have had some European blood too. For many years though, she was known in Hollywood circles as Merle Oberon’s Indian valet. Aged only 13 or 14 she met an Irish tea planter out on the plantations, and had a brief relationship which left her with baby. Soon after Constance Selby was born. Clearly Charlotte and the unnamed Irishman (in two dozen articles and two books!!) never married, Constance carried her mother’s maiden name – and whether out of a sense of having brought shame to the family, or because the opportunities were better elsewhere, Charlotte Selby – a child with a child – moved to Bombay, India – known as Mumbai since 1995.

Things looked on the up and up when Charlotte met a young railway engineer from Darlington UK named Arthur Thompson. The two fell in love, and married…. And Arthur impregnated Charlotte’s 12 year old daughter Constance, who gave birth to Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911.

To avoid a repeat of what I imagine was a great scandal which befell Charlotte, she adopted Estelle as her own, claiming to all who would ask, Constance was her elder sister and not the mother. Arthur high-tailed it out of Bombay, joining the army soon after. His death certificate states he died of pneumonia in 1915, caught in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.


Now the next part of the tale I only have commentary of friends, confidants and Hollywood gossipmongers to go on, in a handful of online documentaries. The family, it is said, lived in extreme, subsistence poverty for several years in the less attractive parts of Bombay. Constance would come of age and marry a guy called Alexander Soares – she would have four more children who all called their older sister aunty – at least till later in life Harry, the oldest son, discovered the truth chasing up Aunty Merle’s birth certificate. Some sources suggested a teenaged Merle may have sold herself as a high end escort to get the money together to escape India, others stating she continued doing this in England till discovered by Alexander Korda – but somehow Merle and mother/grandmother Charlotte scraped the money together to get over to London in 1928, where Merle was sure she could become a big name actress. I completely understand why she would not have wanted this public knowledge – but ultimately none of this is on her. I hope at least that the vast majority of us in this age would not slut shame a Merle Oberon for a sordid family secret not of her making. In an age of #metoo Arthur Thompson would be excoriated by public opinion – probably shamed out of his job and off all social media. Merle Oberon was probably right though to suspect, in her time, she would have been the one shamed – the one to carry the Scarlet Letter.

The Vela Incident; why radioactive sheep matter.

For he who grew up tall and proud,
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Convinced our voices can’t be heard,
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

Queen- Hammer to Fall.

Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”


On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused.
OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.


Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.


Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.

One of the Vela satellites.

The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else.
As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.

In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor.
Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).

This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary.
See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.