This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…
“Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I” This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.
The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.
Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.
That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.
The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.
In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.
While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.
Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.
One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.
In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“This ain’t one body’s story. It’s the story of us all. We got it mouth-to-mouth. You got to listen it and ‘member. ‘Cause what you hears today you got to tell the birthed tomorrow. I’m looking behind us now. . . .across the count of time. . . .down the long haul, into history back. I sees the end what were the start. It’s Pox-Eclipse, full of pain! And out of it were birthed crackling dust and fearsome time. It were full-on winter. . .and Mr. Dead chasing them all. But one he couldn’t catch. That were Captain Walker.
He gathers up a gang, takes to the air and flies to the sky! So they left their homes, said bidey-bye to the high-scrapers. . .and what were left of the knowing, they left behind. Some say the wind just stoppered. Others reckon it were a gang called Turbulence. And after the wreck. . .some had been jumped by Mr. Dead. . . but some had got the luck, and it leads them here. One look and they’s got the hots for it. They word it “Planet Earth. ” And they says, “We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “
(all)”We don’t need the knowing. We can live here. “
Time counts and keeps counting. They gets missing what they had. They get so lonely for the high-scrapers and the video. And they does the pictures so they’d ‘member all the knowing that they lost. ‘Member this? (Holds a viewfinder toy to Max’s eyes- picture of a city scape)
(all) Tomorrow-morrow Land! ‘Member this? (time lapse picture of a motorway at night) (all) The River of Light! ‘Member this? (picture of an aircraft) (all) Skyraft! ‘Member this? (a pilot) (all) Captain Walker! ‘Member this? (a burlesque dancer) (all) Mrs. Walker!
The Tell of Captain Walker – from Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome (1985)
I may be the only one who thinks of Mad Max – Beyond Thunderdome when I think Cargo Cults, but hey I was 9 when the film was released, and maybe 10 or 11 when I first saw the film. It is one of those silly, formative things which has stuck with me forever. This Tale of History and Imagination involves a group who would look strangely familiar to Savannah Nix and her Cargo Cult of Captain Walker.
On 15th February every year a fascinating ritual takes place on the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (known for the longest time as the New Hebrides). It is the holiest of holy days on the island. Large groups of ‘Ni Vanuatu’, the people of Vanuatu gather beside a home-made landing strip. Some are stripped down to just a pair of jeans or cargo pants; the letters ‘USA’ painted on their chests, others are in full military uniform. In the shadow of Mount Yasur – bamboo ‘guns’ in hand – they get into formation and drill before their gods. The sacred hoisting of the flags follows – first the Stars and Stripes, then the US Marine corps insignia, then finally the state flag for the American state of Georgia. Having paid observance for another year they depart, hopeful this year their messiah returns, bringing on a golden age.
Who is their saviour you may ask? Jesus? Muhammad? Siddhartha Gautama?
Their saviour is an American soldier named John Frum. He first appeared during the second world war. The first many folk would have seen of the cult of John Frum would be a 1960 documentary by Sir David Attenborough called “The People of Paradise”. Attenborough is on the island and asks one of the locals to describe Frum, the local replies…
“E look like you. E got white face. E tall man. E live long in South America”
The tale of John Frum has fascinated me for years. It is an insight into how a religion can form, the significance of folk heroes, and the need for ‘noble myths’ to bring people together for a greater good. To understand this tale, first we needs must discuss the history of the Ni Vanuatu.
The Melanesian adventurers we now call Ni Vanuatu first came to the islands by boat around 3,300 years ago. Archaeological evidence confirms this approximate timeline. All indications are once arrived they stayed put, and thrived. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the archipelago, and claimed the chain for his employers, Spain. He established a small, short lived colony, who gave up and decided to sail for home. The Spanish forgot the location of Vanuatu, leaving them free to be claimed by the French admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. Captain James Cook came across the archipelago in 1774, naming them the New Hebrides – after the Scottish Island chain the mystery of Eilean Mor was set on. For the better part of the following century they were left to their own devices by these strange, pale visitors, however colonization would wreak havoc on the Ni Vanuatu soon after.
The first encroachment came in the mid 19th century, after Europeans discovered sandalwood on the island of Erromango. European traders landed large crews of Polynesians from other island chains to cut down the trees. This led to violent skirmishes between the groups.
In 1862 a practice known as ‘Blackbirding’ also came to the island chain. Blackbirding was a name given to the indentured, long term servitude of tribal peoples. This sometimes came in the form of conning tribes into signing predatory contracts with horrendously bad terms. Sometimes it involved kidnapping locals and forcing them to work. It was slavery by another name, occasionally with a pittance of a wage which would disappear in the cost of the victim’s keep. The first blackbirder to find them was an Irishman named J.C Byrne, who was on the prowl for cheap labour for the plantations of Peru. Unfortunately for Vanuatu, in 1862 a blight had killed off much of their supply of coconuts and there was a famine – a large number of men jumped voluntarily at the work. Once word got out Byrne had so easily conned 253 Ni Vanuatu to work in Peru, many other ships arrived. Between September 1862 and April 1863 over 30 European ships arrived, looking for wage slaves for South and Central American plantations. At it’s height several Vanuatuan islands had lost over half their male populations to blackbirding. To this day their population numbers have not fully bounced back.
Soon after, with less locals to defend the islands, white settlers settled on the archipelago. They established their own plantations – first to plant cotton, then later bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruit.
This was also around the time God arrived. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arriving to spread the gospel. By the 1880s an insidious takeover had well and truly occured. The British were offloading more and more, mostly Australian, settlers. The French, reminded he who the spiky bougainvillea is named after found the archipelago earlier, were now arriving 2 to 1 to every British settler. Rather than come to blows, Britain and France decided to jointly rule the island chain – first by gentleman’s agreement in the 1880s, then a written joint agreement in 1906, then the Anglo-French protocol of 1914 – then finally a formal ratification in 1922. The Ni Vanuatu were suddenly overrun, told what to think, where they can and cannot go. Only marginally less slaves than the men Blackbirded away decades earlier. Did they need another hero? A handsome stranger with an odd accent to descend, deus ex-machina, to save them? Too bloody right they did. We will look at this in part two next week. [Edit: for reposting purposes I rewrote this post as a one parter. Simone]
Part Two: He came to them with thunder and lightning…
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indestinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke – Hazards of Prophecy: The failure of imagination.
“He came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it” Joseph Conrad- Heart of Darkness.
Hey everyone welcome back to part two of the legend of John Frum. In part one I sketched out for colonization encroached upon the lives of the Ni Vanuatu. Leaving the Mad Max metaphor behind I would like to propose that, blinded by science, they would find their own Captain Walker, but the heroic struggle to break the manacles of oppression was all on them. I would also invite you all to re-read the quotes directly above; the first generally referred to as Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, the latter from a conversation in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Mr Kurtz’s Russian acolyte explains to Marlow how Kurtz took over the tribe – fairly accurately portraying the tactics of the likes of Leon Rom – who Kurtz is believed to be based on. No doubt the British and French came with requisite thunder and lightning – though in the Ni Vanuatu’s case, thunder and lightning would also be their salvation.
Think for a second on the conquistador Hernan Cortes, conquerer of Montezuma’s Aztecs. He used modern weapons to convinc the Aztecs he was their god Quetzacoatl. Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavor were mistaken for the ghost of the ancestors by the Australian Aborigines when he arrived on his first voyage. On his final voyage, this time on the Resolution, he was thought a god by the people of Hawaii. Unfortunately for Cook, gods, like mortals, can outwear their welcome – and he was stabbed to death and dismembered. My favourite example from history, where an advanced person used technology to seem magical is in 585BC; where the philosopher Thales of Miletus, had calculated an eclipse, and managed to convince the warring Medes and Lydians the event signified the gods were displeased with the war. When the world went dark, fighting stopped and a truce was signed.
Back to Vanuatu, we pick up the tale in the late 1930s. With a world on the verge of war, the USA decided it may need a military presence looking after their Pacific interests. They sent soldiers to Tanna Island, Vanuatu – brandishing technology sufficiently advanced that to the people of Vanuatu, it did seem like magic. Unlike plantation owners or missionaries these new people, with their magical wonders, never worked … at least not in a way understood by the people of Tanna as work. When something broke for the plantation owner, it had to be fixed. When something broke for the soldiers, new things just appeared; dropped out of the sky by giant iron birds. The Americans prayed to the magic box with the poles, and long wires. The magic box, with it’s glowing lights, spoke back to them in strange voices. Record players seemed magic. Cameras seemed so. Their food was magic, as they never needed to harvest it.
The Ni Vanuatu saw the radio masts as a totem to their gods. They saw their uniforms, and marching, and drills as rituals to please their gods. Their radio operators were the priests. And the cargo, dropped by magical giant birds, was manna from heaven. The Ni Vanuatu began to ask if they were to imitate these rituals, would the gods be so kind to them too?
Around 1940 a legend began to spread of the messianic American soldier. The first recorded ‘sightings’ of John Frum occur. Some of the villagers tell tales of a white visitor appearing to them, stating he used to be called Manehivi, before he was blackbirded to South America. Now he had come back with a new look, and name, to save them. Follow me and you will have more cargo than you know what to do with. To others he claims to be a manifestation of their old, abandoned god, Keraperamun; returned to take the island back, and usher in a golden age. To all Frum promises a better, happier future.
In 1941 the villagers of Tanna act. Frum has spoken, telling them to quit the schools and churches. Down tools and walk away from the plantations. Rid themselves of the white man’s money, and go back to their old ways. He was coming to save them – so they did. The missionaries and plantation owners went to the colonial administrators to kick up a fuss. The colonial office sent some soldiers in to force the people back to the fields, churches and classrooms. They found them inland; feasting, dancing, and practicing the old rituals as they best remembered them. They refused to leave. The officers did arrest the ringleaders, and exiled them to another island in the archipelago, but this had no effect on the Ni Vanuatu of Tanna. The people of Tanna had turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Over time some equalibrium would return; some would pick up some work in the plantations, but they would never be beholden to the colonizers and their ways again.
After World War Two the Americans left. The villagers took over what was left of the base, and rebuilt the runway. Often they would try to flag passing planes down, in the hope one would land – carrying John Frum – laden with cargo. In 1957, under the command of a priest called Nakomaha, they formed the ‘Tanna Army’, to march and drill in uniform,- hoping this would bring John Frum home. In the 1970’s, as legal independance beckoned; members of the religion of John Frum worried an independant Vanuatu would be a Christian Vanuatu. They formed a political party to safeguard their interests. In 2011 they had their first female leader of the religion of Frum; a Vietnamese born lady named Thi Tam Goiset. For a short time Ms Goiset was Vanuatu’s ambassador to Russia, though her appointment would end in scandal in 2013.
To this day the people of Tanna believe their messiah, the American soldier John Frum, will return, He has not forgotten them. Every February 15th they march, raise the flag, and wait. Their messiah shall come again.
Originally posted 17th and 24th April 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Reedited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
Hi all, I’m writing week to week again and will likely do so till I take a break at Christmas – when I can build up a stockpile of Tales again. I am hoping to get back on the weekly blog cycle again now the podcast is back up, and can be listened to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts,Podbean, Stitcher, Tunein radio… and hopefully a few more pod-catchers to follow. Episode one, on Martial Bourdin, is up now.
Recent news reports about mysterious monoliths appearing as if out of nowhere, first in Utah, then in Piatra Neamt, Romania, then on a mountain in California has me thinking about an older tale…. and of course 2001 A Space Odyssey, how do you not think A Space Odyssey with those things? The following tale is set in Georgia, USA – which of course has been on the minds of many folk of late too – for completely different reasons.
In July 1979 a man described in all the literature only as elegant and grey haired, wearing an expensive suit, walked into the offices of the Elberton granite finishing company, in Elbert County, Georgia. Meeting with company president Joe Fendley, he introduced himself as a representative of a “small group of loyal Americans” who wished to commission a remarkable monument. Said monument would be erected in the county, for the use – perhaps even the salvation of future generations. The man gave his name as R.C. Christian, possibly a bastardization of Rosicrucian – a secret society who claimed to hold all manner of occult and restricted knowledge, who almost certainly never existed in 1614 when pamphlets about them first circulated throughout Western Europe. Rosicrucian sects, however, soon willed themselves into being – grifters couldn’t pass up on that grift, seekers couldn’t pass up occult and esoteric knowledge. Sects exist to this day. Up front I should say I see little of their philosophy in the following tale.
Why did this group of R.C Christian, whoever they were, want to build their monument in Elbert County? According to Mr Christian, because their granite was amongst the best in the world.
The mysterious Mr Christian explained to Fendley his group had planned this monument for 20 years, and intended it – a set of guide stones with more than a passing resemblance to England’s Stonehenge – to be a guide to a future, post apocalyptic society. Living in the nuclear shadow of the Cold War era, where theories of mutually assured destruction could go out the window over a misunderstanding, an errant spy plane, or even a flock of geese – this may not have seemed completely mad. To me it still doesn’t entirely. The guide stones would be set up as a virtual Swiss army knife for the survivors of Elbert County. They would act as sundial, astrological calendar, compass, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and a set of moral instructions to future generations. It went without saying of course they must be built strong enough to withstand a catastrophic event. To stand almost twice as high as the slabs in Stonehenge, and containing over 250,000 lbs of granite, this project presented quite the payday for Joe Fendley – however he was convinced R.C Christian must be some kind of nut. Apprehensive, Fendley quoted a price several times higher than he would otherwise have quoted. The stones required were several times larger than anything they had hewn before. There was so much technical knowledge required in this, and such precision they would, needs must, call on several experts. All kinds of special equipment would have to be brought in from out of state. Without batting an eyelid Christian agreed, and the two men shook on the deal.
R.C Christian then left, on Joe Fendley’s recommendation to meet Granite City Bank president Wyatt Martin – a banker he could trust to keep his details confidential. As it turns out, Wyatt is the only person in this tale who came to know the identity of Mr Christian. To date he has kept his word. I presume he is still alive, though would now be 90 years old. Martin confirmed to Fendley, Christian had the money to complete the project, and set up a labyrinthine payment system to obscure the client’s identity.
By October, Christian had bought five acres of land to build the guidestones on, and construction began. R.C. Christian stayed incognito during the process, but kept tabs on the build via numerous phone calls, letters and the occasional meeting with Mr Martin. Martin commented the letters came from different parts of the country every time, and were never postmarked from the same place twice. Christian often called from an airport lounge. The two men did, however, dine on several occasions, and kept in touch till a few days shy of September 11th 2001. Martin assumed Christian, now appearing in his 80s, had simply passed on.
Work started on the monument in late 1979, concluding March 22nd 1980. The flurry of work was met by a flurry of vocal concern the Devil had come down to Georgia and was setting up shop, accusations Fendley and Martin had concocted the whole scheme as a publicity stunt (both men took lie detector tests to prove otherwise), and an invasion of witches, who appropriated the site for their own purposes – and could be heard chanting as the company worked.
On completion it was a sight to behold. Six giant granite slabs stood a little over 16 feet high, and six feet wide, with a large capstone keeping them together. Slots in the edifice would mark out summer and winter solstices via the first beams of daylight. Another slot would beam the midday sun to a spot on a calendar, marking out the date. A modern day Decalogue, a ten commandments, was written out on different panels in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as well as four ancient languages – Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs. A short distance away from the monument proper, an explanatory tablet is laid in the ground. It is believed to have a time capsule buried beneath it, to be opened at an, as yet, undisclosed time. It bears a message which immediately brings forth Thomas Paine and the founding fathers. “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason”
The ten commandments, or guidelines are as follows. They are fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure.
• Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. • Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity. • Unite humanity with a living new language. • Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason. • Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. • Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. • Avoid petty laws and useless officials. • Balance personal rights with social duties. • Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite. • Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
One cannot miss the eugenicist leanings of the first two guidelines. However one envisions a post-apocalyptic world population, it is hard not to presume we would build up again – and soon be overloading the planet through our numbers. One and two combined make it clear a culling of those of perceived lesser value would be called for. The call for diversity may suggest the author didn’t view the world through a white supremacist lens, perhaps an ableist or LGBTQI+ phobic one? Of course this may not have been the case – the US declaration of independence for example stated all men are born equal, yet contains the signatures of several slaveholders. Further clarification is needed.
Three and four call to dismiss many of the traditions of old, and to start anew. Build a new lingua franca, and dismiss many of the old ideas which have been holding society back. There are strains of secular humanism in this – something reflected in ideologies from LaVeyan Satanism, to a number of philosophers of the Age of Reason. Five and six have been taken as a call for a new world order – a one world government trope popular in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to this day. You cannot help recognize this may have reflected the world of 1980. In an effort to avoid further wars between France and Germany as much as to enrich the region, much of Western Europe had formed a European common market – and would soon forge a formal European Union of 28 nations via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The United Nations, similarly was meant to oversee the interests of all nations. These were two of many treaties and agreements moving the world towards something altogether more unified and interdependent. Besides economic reasons to do so, it was believed such arrangements made a third world war less likely. 7 and 8 don’t seem terribly out of place with a small c conservative, either then, or now.
Nine suggests a believer in deism – a belief in a higher power in the universe, but one which does not meddle, and is utterly disinterested in our moral lives. Again this suggests an author familiar with the writings of the founding fathers – many of whom expressed deist beliefs in their letters. Ten, clearly reflects environmentalism. It’s all quite a philosophical hodgepodge.
As one could imagine, such a list drew criticism from across the board. Alt right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had the monument pegged as ‘Satanic’. After a coven of witches adopted the site, numerous Christian groups claimed much the same. In 1981 a UFO magazine called UFO Report claimed the true purpose of the monument would be revealed in 30 years’ time.
Mark Dice – a conservative pundit now more famous for demanding Starbucks put a T shirt on the topless siren on their logo, and for picking a fight with Korean pop groups – demanded the guidestones be “Smashed into a million pieces”, claiming they are proof of a New World Order in vitro. The Georgia Guidestones have been defaced a number of times by anti NWO protesters.
Which leads us to the question, who was R.C. Christian?
A few names have been put forward from the legendary plane hijacker ‘D.B. Cooper’, to an Iowa doctor named Herbert Kersten. A documentary that appeared online in 2015 indicates, at the very least, Kersten – whose 2005 obituary states he was a learned man and an environmentalist – at the very least owned an address Wyatt Martin mailed to. One name often suggested is television mogul Ted Turner. Turner was then living in neighbouring Atlanta, but had grown up in Savannah Georgia. He started his working life managing his father’s billboard company out of Macon, Georgia. At various points in his life he has expressed all points in the 10 guidelines. He has given to various causes, including $1 Billion to the United Nations, and $125 Million to his own foundation, concerned with ways of curbing population growth. He is also clearly concerned with end times, having a programme pre-prepared to announce the end of the world – in a vault – awaiting the announcement to press it’s all over.
As of the day of writing, neither the creator of the monoliths, or Georgia Guidestones has come forward.
The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.
One: That Dick Cavett Interview…
Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.
The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?“
Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues… “You’re still protected from the…” Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour. Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies “Just the energy…“
Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause “No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know“
“Was there much of that this time?“
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.“
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble“
Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?“
Bill Wyman answers.
“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”
Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.
What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.
“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.
I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.
Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.
In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.
Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.
With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.
On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.
Three: A large visible space…
Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe? First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”
Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later. The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.
Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons. First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.
They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.
Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.
Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients thoroughly.
Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. “Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit” Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.” Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.” Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.” Kantner: “Right.”
All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.
A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.
At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they didn’t have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.
It was Dixie who plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.
Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?
Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated on KSAN Radio San Francisco
“When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it”
He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled. Passaro followed him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.
Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men continued to strike Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.
Post Altamont, the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do… The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.
Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously drown in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.
I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.
The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert. Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.
Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview, which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.
“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?”
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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