What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails. I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.
What goes up must come down.
Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.
The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise. But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.
First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?
Well……… What goes up?
On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.
Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.
They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.
Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.
What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.
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.
Hi folks, welcome back to the blog. This week I want to delve into Hollywood a little, and look at a tale I personally find tragic, disturbing, and a little window into just how much our mores have changed in the last couple of generations. Today I think the reaction by many to our subject’s twin secrets would be on the first count, so what? And on the second, to show great sympathy for our subject’s hellish upbringing – her mother’s too for that matter. Hopefully some righteous anger towards her deadbeat father- but I am getting ahead of myself a little. In her, less enlightened, less woke time her secrets hung on her like a scarlet letter, and if exposed to the more puritanical folk of her time, would likely have ruined her. She bore these secrets heavily. In 1978 her façade began to crumble, the effects of this possibly bringing on her early death the following year. Today I want to shine a light on the tale of one time Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon, a Dark Angel if ever there was one. Apologies ahead of time if this comes out remotely Kenneth Anger-esque – this is not my intention.
To start we should begin in Hobart, Tasmania in 1978. In the numerous texts exact dates are scarce, but it appeared to be in November, maybe early December. Several months earlier the Lord Mayor of Hobart (also never named in the sources, but it has to be Doug Plaister, a former competitive swimmer, turned business owner, turned Lord Mayor from 1976 to 1984.) well, Mayor Doug contacts Merle Oberon directly. ‘As one of our most famous and successful expatriates, the city of Hobart would love to throw a shindig in our town hall in your honour. We’ll put on some food and drink, get the press out – even put on a band – and then there’ll be speeches and stuff- it’ll be a blast’. This is how I imagine the conversation going anyway. Truthfully it was to be quite a flashy, and formal shindig, probably with a very formal letter. The town hall had been host to another famous guest that year, thanks to Mayor Doug – none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Merle accepted the invitation.
Now the story of Merle Oberon that everyone knew at that time was she was born in Tasmania, to an aristocratic British family in 1911. When she was young her father died while away on a hunting expedition, and she moved to India to live with her wealthy, aristocratic godparents. As can happen there was a fire in the building holding her birth certificate and other official documentation, and all official papers concerning her origins went up in smoke. In 1928 Merle left India for Britain to be in the movies, eventually catching the eye of acclaimed film director Sir Alexander Korda in 1933. Korda cast Merle as Anne Boleyn opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Whether Korda, or anyone else thought her a great actor – and I suspect probably not, what film I could find of her online lacks all subtlety and nuance… basically she recites lines in a breathy, Mid Atlantic accent: all melodrama – I doubt anyone questioned her X factor in front of a camera. Strikingly beautiful, luminous; a raven-haired, almond eyed beauty with an aristocratic air – Merle Oberon certainly commanded one’s attention. Besides being beautiful, she also looked kind of exotic – there was something almost oriental about her appearance, but nothing you could pin down for certain. Given the racial politics at the time, being slightly exotic looking made one quite bankable, but actually being from an exotic place would limit the amount of work, and the type of work you might get… but this was ok for Merle, she was an English blue blood after all – even if born in Tasmania.
To run a potted history of Merle Oberon’s acting career – it went pretty well for her. She may not have been in the first rank of actresses, but she did play the lead in a number of films opposite some top leading men. Besides her role in The Private life of Henry VIII she had a leading role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) opposite Leslie Howard, played a love interest caught in a love triangle in Dark Angel alongside Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. She had the role of Claudius’ wife Messalina in a 1937 production of I Claudius, which got canned after Oberon was involved in a serious car crash. She starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), played Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine opposite Marlon Brando in 1954’s Désirée. Her career stretched all the way out to 1973.
She had four marriages, first to director Alexander Korda (1939- 45), then a cinematographer called Lucien Ballard (1945-49), third a wealthy Italian industrialist called Bruno Pagliai (1957-73) and finally Robert Wolders, a television actor, from 1975 till her death. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 1935 for her role in Dark Angel, but lost out to Bette Davis – clearly a lot of people disagree with my claim she was an awful actress. She had a couple of notable off screen dramas – a car crash in 1937 left her badly injured. In 1940 her biographers claimed she got a bad skin infection from an allergic reaction to antibiotics, and had to spend a small fortune on dermabrasion treatments to try and fix the damage. The sources also claim she used skin whitening cream early in her career, and over time began to look more and more olive skinned – so I guess you can take that with a grain of salt. She became Lady Korda in 1942 after then hubby Alexander was knighted. She had two known affairs, one in 1941 with a disfigured RAF fighter pilot called Richard Hillary. The other affair was an on again- off again thing with the Duke, John Wayne, throughout most of the 1940s. For her affairs and multiple marriages however, she maintained an elegant, respectable public image.
Back to 1978, Merle Oberon arrives in Hobart for her shindig. Things have been going on at the council however – after the Lord Mayor had invited, and Merle accepted someone decided to go do a little research. Sure, Merle Oberon claimed to have come from Hobart, and sure over the years people popped up to claim they remembered the time in school when Merle did this or that, and how they knew she was destined to be a star and so forth – but people lie, and sometimes memories are nowhere near as sharp as we like to believe. It soon became apparent to the researcher in the council’s employ that Merle’s origin story was bullshit. There was no aristocratic father killed out hunting. There was no fire which destroyed a bunch of birth records. No documentation full stop. The problem the council faced however was they discovered this a little too late. The advertising was out, Merle Oberon’s arrival was imminent. The decision was made to just keep quiet, have the shindig, let her go on her way. The problem was, when she did show up she was clearly under huge pressure. At the ceremony she broke down during her acceptance speech and fled the room.
During the rest of her stay she remained hidden in her hotel room, refusing to speak with reporters – allegedly, well actually almost certainly correctly claiming she was very unwell. Friends and family have claimed the stress from the Hobart incident did send her health into a downward spiral, from which she never recovered. She died November 23rd 1979, after having a stroke.
So, who was Merle Oberon exactly? What were these twin mysteries which dogged her career and ultimately sent her into a downward spiral. Well, firstly that she was, shock – horror, Anglo-Indian in origin – I know right, in a day and age where the entertainment industry is at least making an effort to cast a little more diverse some of us might shrug that off – I don’t know if Anglo Indian, or Iranian, or Afro-American, or anyone other than white actors would feel that imbalance is anywhere near redressed today- but I think we can all agree Hollywood at the time was very very white. Often when the role required a non white, they cast white actors anyway – Anna May Wong, Lupe Valez and Sabu the Elephant boy were rarities, and very often typecast into one type of role for their short careers. The second part, is genuinely disturbing.
Charlotte Selby was born sometime around 1885 in Ceylon – modern day Sri Lanka. The sources say she was part Indian, part Maori. Many also refer to her as Eurasian so she may have had some European blood too. For many years though, she was known in Hollywood circles as Merle Oberon’s Indian valet. Aged only 13 or 14 she met an Irish tea planter out on the plantations, and had a brief relationship which left her with baby. Soon after Constance Selby was born. Clearly Charlotte and the unnamed Irishman (in two dozen articles and two books!!) never married, Constance carried her mother’s maiden name – and whether out of a sense of having brought shame to the family, or because the opportunities were better elsewhere, Charlotte Selby – a child with a child – moved to Bombay, India – known as Mumbai since 1995.
Things looked on the up and up when Charlotte met a young railway engineer from Darlington UK named Arthur Thompson. The two fell in love, and married…. And Arthur impregnated Charlotte’s 12 year old daughter Constance, who gave birth to Estelle Merle Thompson in 1911.
To avoid a repeat of what I imagine was a great scandal which befell Charlotte, she adopted Estelle as her own, claiming to all who would ask, Constance was her elder sister and not the mother. Arthur high-tailed it out of Bombay, joining the army soon after. His death certificate states he died of pneumonia in 1915, caught in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme.
Now the next part of the tale I only have commentary of friends, confidants and Hollywood gossipmongers to go on, in a handful of online documentaries. The family, it is said, lived in extreme, subsistence poverty for several years in the less attractive parts of Bombay. Constance would come of age and marry a guy called Alexander Soares – she would have four more children who all called their older sister aunty – at least till later in life Harry, the oldest son, discovered the truth chasing up Aunty Merle’s birth certificate. Some sources suggested a teenaged Merle may have sold herself as a high end escort to get the money together to escape India, others stating she continued doing this in England till discovered by Alexander Korda – but somehow Merle and mother/grandmother Charlotte scraped the money together to get over to London in 1928, where Merle was sure she could become a big name actress. I completely understand why she would not have wanted this public knowledge – but ultimately none of this is on her. I hope at least that the vast majority of us in this age would not slut shame a Merle Oberon for a sordid family secret not of her making. In an age of #metoo Arthur Thompson would be excoriated by public opinion – probably shamed out of his job and off all social media. Merle Oberon was probably right though to suspect, in her time, she would have been the one shamed – the one to carry the Scarlet Letter.
For he who grew up tall and proud, In the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Convinced our voices can’t be heard, We just wanna scream it louder and louder
Queen- Hammer to Fall.
Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”
On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused. OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.
Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.
Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.
The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else. As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.
In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).
This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary. See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.
This Tale was an episode in my first attempt at a podcast. It’s since been taken down but you can listen to the YouTube video of the episode here
Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Merry Christmas to all who are tuning in around the time I am releasing this. I want to start this cold open with a bit of a tale in it’s own right.
Having left this a little late I began to write this episode on the 10th December 2019, not intentional but there is a tale around that date I absolutely must share with you. You see on 10th December 1905, a far more accomplished writer than I will ever be found himself in a vaguely similar situation. The writer, a man named William Sydney Porter, had quite a life story of his own. From 1891 to 1894 Porter worked as a teller and book keeper at a bank in Austin Texas, till he was accused of embezzlement. He wouldn’t be arrested for the crime till 1895, and at his first opportunity jumped bail and fled to Honduras, where he struck up a friendship with another fugitive; ex lawyer turned train robber, turned – sometime later in his life – silent film actor Al Jennings. While in Honduras Mr Porter wrote a book, and coined the term Banana republic. Porter had hoped his wife, Athol, and daughter Margaret would come and join him and all would live happily ever after– but Athol, suffering from tuberculosis, had become deathly ill. Porter returned to the USA, to be by his wife’s side, and comfort his daughter if the worst happened. Athol died in September 1897, and William was found guilty of embezzling $854.08 and sentenced to five years prison at Ohio Penitentiary- on March 25th 1898.
While locked away he turned to writing short stories, to provide for his daughter. He wrote under a few pseudonyms, but the one which stuck has many possible origins – the most likely tale though – he was reading through the society pages of a newspaper and he just stole some rich guy’s name and threw a single initial in front of it. When he was released from prison William Porter was, though known by his pseudonym, crazy popular, and the New York World – Joseph Pulitzer’s paper – we have mentioned the World in Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln and the blog piece on Nellie Bly – they offer Mr Porter a job. His job, to write a short story every week, without fail. Well this week he is hours from deadline with nothing, sitting in Pete’s Tavern, Manhattan, and drowning his sorrows. Luckily William is one of the world’s great people watchers, and he catches a glimpse of a young, loved up couple. When I think of this couple my mind takes me to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, and Tommy and Gina. They are young, they are poor. They are in love – they will get by. I have to wonder just a little if William cast back to his own experience with the departed Athol, and just how, in hindsight that played for him. Would his own life be different if he had let love, not greed, guide him? Whatever the case three hours later he had his story. The writer of course was one of America’s greatest short story writers, O Henry. The story, The Gift of the Magi – an exquisitely written gem of a tale, and one of the great Christmas tales of all time. If you haven’t read it before I won’t ruin it for you – but I love Jim and Della, the tale’s protagonists – and you should really make the time to read it at some point this season. It will seem real familiar – everyone from Glee, to Sesame Street to Jackie Gleeson’s The Honeymooners has borrowed the premise. O Henry, on the drop of a hat turned out a beautiful, sad, somehow uplifting tale from the working class in the city of four million- giving voice to the often voiceless, dignity to poverty – and reminding us, the reader that if you have your one true love, then nothing else matters.
Meanwhile it is the 11th hour at the beach house – and I am doing what I do best, running the memory banks for the quirky tales often left out of the history books. O Henry wrote a Christmas masterpiece – I’ll be happy with a Gremlins 2, to be honest with you. Join me today folks as I share a short tale from Christmases’ past. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Series 1 Episode 5: Simone’s Christmas Carol.
[Theme Music – Ishtar’s The Enemy Within]
So, the next tale I want to look at today is the way in which Christmas made a legend, a hero for an oppressed people – the kind of man of whom tales would arise of battles against a repressive regime, and even the devil. A man worthy of song. This song, however is not ‘O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining.’ It starts ‘The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.
This tale is set on Christmas day 1895, in St Louis Missouri- a teeming city of around half a million and rapidly growing. From what I have read St Louis seems a rather dynamic, yet bitterly divided city at the time – while Missouri was on the union side of the American Civil war, opinion was strongly divided among pro secessionists often backed by those concerned an abolitionist USA would see the end of their cotton packing industry… and the pro union forces – which included a large number of African Americans in the state who would fight for the union in the war, and a similarly large number of progressive thinkers who had fled Germany in the wake of the year of failed revolutions, 1848. During the early stages of the civil war were two notable incidents, the first was the Camp Jackson affair in March 1861– where a pro union militia led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon arrested a group of pro secessionist troops. While marching them back in, they were met by an angry mob. When Lyon’s men opened fire on the mob, killing at least 28 civilians and injuring dozens more, the subsequent public outcry almost pushed Missouri towards secession. In May 1861 further violence broke out when a group of pro slavery locals attacked the Union 5th Regiment in St Louis, leading to a gunfight where six people were killed. While public shows like this lessened several social history articles record many a family were divided over the civil war, making for some tense dinner table conversations.
Being on the border of union and confederate states St Louis in particular would pick up a great many African American refugees from the civil war, former slaves left homeless and looking for new opportunities. Now being the gateway to the West, a hub where a lot happened, the city was booming post war. It may not surprise you however not all opportunities were open to all. To highlight the segregationist nature of the state – itself a former slave owning state, one only needs look at the education system in St Louis. The first schools for black children were opened in 1820, and promptly burned down. In 1845 the state banned schooling for black children, so a number of brave teachers set up schools on river boats, as the river was a kind of no mans land where legislators would have no say on anything. Educational segregation was still in force at the time this tale was set in. One could also point to the segregation in housing in the area. As ex slaves flooded into the growing city they were blocked from the white neighborhoods, and largely found themselves crammed into the blacks only slums. 85 percent of the black inhabitants were crammed into an area approximately 2 percent the size of the city, and at around the time of this tale the legislators were taking measures to bar black people from living in areas then 75 percent white or higher. separate? Yes. Equal? When is it ever?. St Louis was a place of much discrimination and segregation, where opportunities existed aplenty for a certain sector of the city. It was also a place of racial tensions, and inequality, and rife for it’s own folk hero.
So… it’s Christmas 1895. To borrow again from Mr. Lloyd Price in 1958, rock and roll singer of such songs as Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Personality, the night was clear and the moon was yellow… and the leaves came tumbling down.
On this night, two men were in a heated conversation. Often the legend has it they were shooting dice, though the truth seems they were discussing politics at the Bill Curtis Saloon. One of the men William ‘Billy’ Lyons was a 25 year old levee hand. He worked loading and unloading boats as they came into dock. He was also allegedly a dangerous underworld figure in St Louis. The other man, Lee Shelton, aka Stack Lee, in some tales he was tall – but prison records had him at 5 foot 7… or Stag Lee, because he was always ‘Stag’ perpetually a loner, and eventually ‘Stagger Lee’ – was very much an underworld figure. Though a carriage driver, Stagger Lee was a well known pimp and gambler in the area. Often he would pick up well to do white male passengers and convince them to drop by his club and gambling den The Modern Horseshoe Club, or spend a little time with one of his girls. He was active in two networks. One was the Macks – a group of extravagantly attired pimps. Picture if you will on the night in question Stagger Lee is wearing a black dress coat covering a high collared yellow shirt and patterned red velvet waistcoat. Gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, rings galore on his fingers. A cane with a glistening gold cap on it, and, most importantly to this tale, a white Stetson hat- it’s hatband embroidered with an image of ‘Lillie’ one of his girls. I’m not one to say in 1895 Stagger Lee was the height of sophistication but his bling certainly gave the impression he was doing pretty well for himself.
The other network Lee Shelton belonged to was a sporting club with close ties to the Democratic party, known as the 400 club. The 400 club professed to be established for the betterment of young black men, and had a strict policy governing their members’ morals- yeah I know – Stagger Lee was, according to some sources I’ve read, one time president of the 400 club. At the age of 30 he co-owned a few bars, lived in a large brick house far away from the slums, and was on the way up. In a city full of opportunities, forbidden to most black men, Lee Shelton was willing to climb the crooked ladder to power, influence and prosperity. So what was it that happened?
If you are to go by most of the songs, Lloyd Price’s included, Stagger Lee and Billy were gambling, and Lee lost. Not only did Billy Lyons take his last dollar, but he took his beloved Stetson hat, the very symbol of his prosperity. Lee goes off and gets his revolver and shoots Billy Lyons. You don’t mess with a man’s hat after all. The truth is a little different. Now the real story is the two men, apparently former friends but now bitter rivals, came across each other at Bill Curtis’ Saloon. They had a few drinks together that night, and talk turned to politics. Now as much as Stagger Lee was a staunch Democrat, Billy Lyons was an equally staunch republican. The two men had been talking and drinking for some time when talk became heated. Lee was the first to lose his temper, denting Billy’s hat, a derby. Billy responded by grabbing Lee’s Stetson off his head. Lee pulled his 44 caliber Smith and Wesson and demanded the return of his hat. Lyons pulled out a knife saying quote
“I’m going to make you kill me”.
Lee first pistol whipped Billy with the butt of his gun, and when that had no great effect, he shot Billy in the stomach. Stagger Lee calmly retrieved his hat and walked out of the Saloon. Billy Lyons would die of his wounds the next day. This was one of five murders that day in St Louis, and on the face of it nothing terribly out of the ordinary. Lee was caught, tried, sentenced to 25 years. The authorities let him out in 1909 but he was soon back inside, and would die in prison in 1912 from, the disease of this podcast episode, tuberculosis.
So how the hell does this guy become a folk hero you may ask? We’ll get to that. First, yes, he does become a folk hero.
Within two years of the killing it is noted black workers employed in what can only be described as extractive labour – backbreaking work in the fields for far too little pay like picking cotton- were singing a line holler in honor of Stagger Lee the length of the Mississippi. That year, from Kansas, word of a song on Lee by a “Prof Charlie Lee, the piano thumper” appeared in a local paper. His legend spread via oral tradition, all the way till 1910, when folklore expert and musicologist John Lomax got a written copy of “The Ballad of Stagalee” from a Texan woman named Ella Fisher. Various songs on Lee spread, as did Prison Toasts, poems lionizing the subject for his badassery. In 1923 Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians made the first recording of a Stagger Lee song. They would be one of over 400 acts to record a song about the man. I mention Lloyd Price because of the versions I have heard his would have to be my favourite – but it is also noteworthy because his was the first to go to the top of the charts, hitting number 1 on the Billboard hot 100 in February 1959. It was out over Christmas 1958 but at that point languished around number 51 – and nothing was going to boot …… Alvin and the Chipmunks, from the top spot. In legend Stagger Lee had become an outlaw; all the women wanted him, all the men wanted to be him. He took no crap from nobody, not least of all the white man. He lived by his own credo. He was stylish, cocky, successful. The segregationist rules of the white man meant nothing to him. Tales of Stagger Lee went as far as telling how when he died St Peter turned him away from heaven as they don’t want no gamblers here, so he went down to hell and beat down the devil, proclaiming himself the new boss here. Other tales had him fight a duel with the outlaw Jesse James, gave him the power to transform into animals. One even claimed he caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
When the Blaxploitation films of the 60s and 70s needed a cool, tough, amoral lead or anti-hero the Stagger Lee archetype came to the fore, perhaps the two most famous examples are the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks – John Shaft of 1971’s Shaft, and Youngblood Priest, the pimp and drug dealer gone straight in 1972’s Super Fly. Even pro wrestling borrowed from the archetype – Both Koko B Ware and the Junkyard Dog – two of the biggest stars of the Rock and wrestling era borrowed the Stagger Lee moniker at some point in their career.
But why the hero worship? Well I think it is often fair to say people may not always get the heroes they deserve, but, touch wood – they often get the heroes they need at that time. Those of you who read my blog will have maybe read my piece on Tanna Island in Vanuatu and the cargo cult of John Frum. Now there is an element of magical thinking in the Frum tale, the American soldiers came in with thunder and lightning, flying birds, magical talking boxes, and more importantly cargo – manna from heaven. They needed a savior from the cruel plantation owners, the ships trawling the pacific blackbirding off their men to South American plantations – and the soul destroying, extractive labour they were subjected to. A messianic army officer promising to save them, and to restore life to a golden age of cargo for all must happen – and if it wasn’t going to happen by itself the people would think John Frum into being. Similarly one can imagine the same kinds of thought processes in Czechoslovakia during World War Two. As in the tail end of my podcast on Spring Heeled Jack, the Czechs resurrected the Spring Heeled Jack archetype – particularly the strain that popped up in the Aldershot Barracks incidents – in the character of Perak, a demonic prankster who regularly owned the occupying Nazi soldiers for sheer bedevilment. Similar things could be said for England’s Robin Hood under the evil King John, Switzerland’s William Tell under the thumb of the Holy Roman emperor and it’s cruel administrators like Mr Gessler, Australia’s Ned Kelly- and any number of bank robbers in the Great Depression – Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde… the list could go on for days.
One does not have to imagine too hard how a downtrodden group of people, repressed through various means – centuries of being chattels through to disenfranchisement, discrimination and subsistence wages – might look at the guy who climbed the crooked ladder to prosperity and lives life by his own rules, no matter how bad he is, and see something heroic. Stagger Lee Shelton may have been a pimp and a cold hearted murderer but to many he is the guy who stuck it to the man.
Ok, I did have a plan to tell a couple of short tales but this one did get away from me a little. I’ll save those other tales for later, like a miserly parent who hides Christmas presents in the attic for the kids’ birthdays. Thank you for tuning in (or reading, blog readers). I wish you all peace, love, happiness and all that other good Christmas stuff. On the blog page, http://www.historyandimagination.com I will leave links to Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and an Amazon link to some O Henry. Season’s Greetings all, I’ll be back on the podcast in a few weeks’ time. I’ll drop a blog post next week. Music by Ishtar, whose first incarnation back in 2001 cut a cover of the Eagles track Please Come Home for Christmas. It has yet to surface, so we’ll lead out with their 2012 demo of ‘Space Radio, as we always do. Enjoy the holiday season.
“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 about how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. The paper replied in an editorial piece from their columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled ‘What girls are good for’. So, according to Wilson what are girls good for? Not a lot. 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 perhaps 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 would 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, even if, allegedly, the riposte broke many grammatical conventions. 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, all the same. The next day a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran, a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who had to drop 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 “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.
Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a few years, covering the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico; but 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 Bly, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would a to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge.
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, first, back to the station, then second 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 passed for expert doctors at the time. While at Bellevue you get the first sense of a few things she would find at Blackwell Island later – but more of that in a second. She was soon sent off to the asylum.
In her ten days in the asylum, Nellie Bly 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.
It was clear from Bly’s description of bathing conditions the inmates were not bathed enough, and 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 being trapped in an asylum. Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and who did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away on the word of her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with a man other than her husband. She mentions a German maid by the name of Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who had deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What does seem 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 her case, in front of Bly), 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 would record her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which would later be compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates would lead to a grand jury investigation, which 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), documenting her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly would retire from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reigns of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, would herself pass on, from pneumonia, January 27th 1922.
This Tale is part one of a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
“Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, but fear too, is not barren of ingenious suggestions.”– Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Sharer’, from ‘Twixt Land and Sea (1909).
Hi folks welcome back. Before the break we’d left off with Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln’s sentencing to prison, not for his attempted espionage- in all fairness there is no evidence that he was guilty of more than being a wannabe in this respect – but of fraudulently obtaining large sums of money, by way of a forged note in the name of his former employer, the abolitionist Benjamin Seebohm Rountree. So, some of you may ask, how did he spend his time in jail? The answer of course he spent every waking hour free to him writing long, begging letters to his former friends in parliament begging them to be released. In 1918 the prison barred him from writing any more letters, parliament having grown tired of his correspondence and he had a nervous breakdown. Moved to the prison hospital, he alternated between deep depression and all out rage. All the while Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln fantasized about the revenge he would have on his persecutors once released from jail. In December 1919 he was stripped of his British citizenship, released from prison, and deported to the Netherlands. This was the first good luck he’d had in some time as Romanian forces occupied Budapest, Hungary at the time, and he was still wanted in Romania for fraud charges relating to his oil business. From the Netherlands he moved to Germany.
Ignaz joins the Far Right. Now as many of you know Weimar Republic era Germany was a politically fraught place, with many political extremists; some furious over the alleged ‘stab in the back’ which ended WW1 others buoyed on by the fall of four major empires in the war. Some no doubt both. Many were vying to topple the new republic. Germany was hardly the only one, of 28 European democracies in existence just after WW1 very few would still be democracies by WW2 – but Revolution was in the air in Germany and this suited a bitter and twisted man like Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln. In Germany he turned to writing, for the far right wing paper Deutsche Zeitung. While there he made friends with Colonel Max Bauer, a former staffer to General Ludendorff. Bauer was a far right winger and anti Semite.
In 1920 Ignaz was sent to the Netherlands to meet with the son of the deposed Emperor, crown Prince Wilhelm in an effort to win his support for a revolution- but the crown Prince refused to meet with him. He came back from The Netherlands though claiming they had met. Much of his writing in this time was aimed at discrediting former Kaiser Wilhelm and praising the crown Prince.
In March 1920 he was involved in the Kapp Putsch, a short-lived revolution against the Weimar republic that was initially more successful than Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch of 1923.
The Kapp Putsch In February 1920 the British demanded 900 Germans involved in WW1 be handed over for war crimes. The German government refused to do this but did order two marine brigades containing some of these men, in Berlin to disband. This was the trigger for the putsch. Rather than disband, the brigades; led by Generals Ludendorff, Luttwitz, Colonel Bauer, Ignaz and a bureaucrat named Wolfgang Kapp prepared themselves for conflict and demanded the restoration of the monarchy under the crown prince. Luttwitz was immediately stood down and orders were given for his arrest, alongside the others. On 12th March the conspirators decided to march on Berlin and seize power and on the 13th they took over Berlin to virtually no resistance.
Now taking over a city and proclaiming it a state, and governing a state are two very different things. They had absolutely no idea how to do the latter.. Well bureaucrat Kapp, now Chancellor Kapp, may have had a few ideas but the generals disliked him and went out of their way to ignore anything he said. Ignaz was made director of foreign press affairs. The international community almost unanimously condemned the putsch, and the people of Berlin made their feelings clear by going on a general strike from day one of the regime. Things were not going well and none of these guys knew how to govern. Just five days after the Putsch, having lost control and fighting amongst themselves, Kapp resigned and fled to Sweden. General Luttwitz fled to Hungary. The Weimar republic sent in the army to retake the city and Ignaz fled Berlin under the name Wilhelm Ludwig.
The White International Ignaz hid in plain sight for some time in Munich, where he became involved with a network of far right revolutionaries, that included several future Nazis. Sent to Hungary with Col Bauer by the network, to make connections with their far right, the two almost got arrested on a train headed to Austria. They only just managed to escape the German soldiers chasing them. They met with Hungarian and Russian fascists and began plotting, under the name the White International, to first seize power in their own countries, then the rest of Europe. By September 1920 Ignaz, perhaps tired of slumming it, or perhaps having come to the realization he was surrounded by thugs and gangsters who did not look kindly on Jews – one of the plotters a Major Stephani had made it known he wanted Trebitsch Lincoln dead- began to look for an escape route. One morning he packed his bags and fled in the wee small hours when no-one would notice, with a big pile of documents on the White International. Two thugs sent after him tracked him to Vienna Austria but didn’t kill him, as they needed to find out where the documents were hidden first.
Ignaz gave them the slip and fled the country. He tried to sell the White International documents to France, then Britain- without luck- then the Czechs. Czechoslovakia bought the documents, though they, suspecting much in the White International papers was fraudulent short paid him. Czech intelligence leaked the contents of the documents to the press. In 1921 Ignaz had moved back to Vienna, Austria, and attempted to sell more documents to the Japanese, USSR and USA. By this time his family had rejoined him, and they were desperately trying to get a visa for the USA… all the while terrified some death squad sent from the White International would find and kill him. The USA turned down his visa. While fighting the Czech government for payment in full he faked his own death and took on the name Thomas Lorincz.
Having had enough of him the Czech government contacted Austrian police, laying a complaint against Trebitsch Lincoln for attempting to con them. The police raided his hotel room, arresting him and finding multiple fake Id’s, documents linking him to the White International, Kapp putsch and other incidents, along with a pistol. In court he was found not guilty of fraud, and the Czech government were ordered to return the documents back to him. They did sentence him to time served for using false Id, and deported him from Austria in June 1921. Hiding out in Italy he, now living as retired British Colonel Thomas Longford, was yet again turned down for an American visa, but did manage to sneak into the USA as businessman Patrick Keelan. In 1922 the Americans arrested him. Rather than deport him, the Americans gave him the opportunity to leave of his own accord. He did soon after, making his way to China.
Ignaz finds warlords… Having arrived in Japan in 1922 Ignaz jumped on a literal slow boat to China, intending to head to Szechwan, then cross the border into Tibet, where, in an article he wrote in 1925 he claimed “my purpose was to start trouble in Central Asia”
This would be no mean feat. China at the time was in a state of massive unrest, with fractured groups running different parts of the country. Szechwan found itself in the middle of a bloody fight for control of the area by two rival warlords. On his journeys through the area, often posing as an Australian journalist, he seems not to have rubbed too many people up the wrong way. He spent time with a warlord, General Yang Sen, as an advisor.
In the war in the region Yang, a modernizer and a bit of a tyrant, would come out the winner. British reports of the aftermath stated they believed a modernizer in the area should have meant all kinds of lucrative contracts, but a Patrick Keelan- Ignaz- was poisoning Yang’s opinion of the British. Keelan was also trying to get a large investment from Yang to start his own business out there. By the time the British had id’ed him and sent warnings through diplomatic channels, Ignaz had disappeared. He showed up several months later in the company of a rival warlord, on a trip to Europe.
While in Europe he met with his friends Bauer and Ludendorff and almost got dragged into another putsch, this time in Munich… featuring one Adolf Hitler. Of course Ludendorff was a part of this putsch, but Bauer was in Switzerland arranging employment for himself with Ignaz’s employer General Ch’I, as a mercenary. Trebitsch Lincoln reunited also with his family, who sailed back to China under the surname Trautwein. When Bauer never showed up Ignaz returned to Europe, to find he had travelled to Moscow instead. On returning to China with the bad news he and General Ch’I decided to part ways too. Some time in late 1924 the family sailed for Europe. In 1925 he left his wife Margaret, and children, for good and set off again, for the USA. In New York he sold stories of his adventures in China to the New York World, the paper who published his spy stories of 1915.
Ignaz finds spirituality… In August 1925, a now deeply depressed Trebitsch-lincoln returned to China. In the depths of his depression, he had an allegedly mystic experience in October 1925, finding Theosophy – a spiritualist movement drawing on Buddhism, the Kabballah, Egyptian imagery and other Eastern religions to create a new agey belief system – established in 1875 by the occultist Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky makes an interesting digression but I will save this for another episode…
Ignaz set off for Adyar in the South of India to study at the Theosophical society’s headquarters, however he got waylaid somewhere and in 1926 re-appears in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he was studying to become a Buddhist monk under the identity Dr Leo Tandler. He had become disillusioned with Theosophy on the ship over and de-camped on the way. His family were also in the news in 1926. They had returned to England and his son, Ignatius junior, had joined the army. Junior had a sideline in crime like his dad, in his case home invasions. While burglarizing a house he managed to wake the owner, Edward Richards. A fight ensued and Ignatius junior shot Richards dead. As he was a member of the military, Ignatius was tried by a military court – and was sentenced him to death. Ignaz was granted a visa to see his son one last time, if he could get there before the execution, but got there too late.
In the Netherlands speaking with reporters it was clear Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln had taken leave of his senses somewhat. He claimed while in the Far East he had developed supernatural powers and had telepathically communicated with his son regularly on the way over. Rather than being grief ridden he spent most of the interview discussing how he would like to bury the hatchet with Britain and return for good. Soon after, however, he reappears in historical records trying to get into Tibet. He was refused entry.
He reappears in 1927 as a Buddhist preacher in San Francisco, USA. In late 1927 he shows up in Hong Kong, from there trying and failing to get a visa to enter India, Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Reports surfaced in November he was in Peking giving public lectures and petitioning the Panchen Lama for permission to enter Tibet.
In 1930 he briefly returned to Europe to publish another autobiography… In 1931 Ignaz is ordained a Buddhist monk, taking on the name Chao Kung. Kung settled in Shanghai. In 1932, as hostilities increased between China and Japan, Kung wrote a rambling booklet calling for all wars to end, though in part another semi-biographical piece. With the money raised by the sale of this book he set off for Europe in 1933 looking to establish a Buddhist monastery in Germany. He gave a few lectures but ultimately failed, when Hitler’s rise to power saw a hardening of attitudes towards him and he was again sent packing. He, however didn’t come alone. Remember his Canadian adventures as a protestant missionary where he could not convert a single Jew? 13 Europeans followed Chao Kung back to Shanghai, taking residence with him. He promoted himself to Abbot to celebrate.
He tried, again, to return to Germany in January 1934, writing to Adolf Hitler directly for permission. It is unlikely the letter was actually read by Hitler, although the request was declined by the foreign ministry, citing his Jewish origins as the reason. In February the Belgians granted a visa to him, under the name Chao Kung – possibly unaware of his back story. He had to stop in Liverpool, England on the way however, and they deported him and his followers back to China. Several followers decided to part ways with the Abbot. On the way back he tried to get into Japan, but was sent packing from there too.
One of the departed followers gave insights into life following our abbot – telling of extreme hardship and poverty, 16 hour working days where you were rarely allowed to speak, a meal a day and constant bullying from the Abbot. A picture emerged of Trebitsch as a paranoid megalomaniac who acted like he had millions of followers rather than a handful, and who believed the powers of Europe were conspiring against him to thwart his mission of peace.
He began writing letters to, and paying for ads in Chinese newspapers to both complain about his treatment in Europe, and to threaten Christian missionaries living in China. Writers in the paper fired back at him, stating his past fraudulent behavior and involvement with fascist groups, and not his Buddhist faith, was responsible for his rejection in Europe. All the same his letters caught the eyes of a few wealthy Shanghai residents, who started financially backing him. Trebitsch aka Kung used money gifted to him by his new backers to start an organization, The League of Truth, whose logo bore a reversed swastika and whose aims were to be
“For Truth, justice, kindness, against lies, injustice, hatred everywhere and in everything”.
The general tenor of the pamphlets was that the world was in a mess, in no small part because Europe would not allow Abbot Chau Kung in. In 1936 he wrote of an impending apocalypse, because the “very elements are revolting”, at the evil that had taken over the world. Nothing particularly remarkable about this, there were clear indicators another world war was around the corner.
In 1936 he moved to Tientsin, publishing a final book, Dawn or Doom of Humanity in 1937. He called out all of humanity as stupid and called on the world’s governments to change their ways. Soon after Japan invaded and occupied much of China including Tientsin. Trebitsch wrote a pro Japanese pamphlet soon after, praising them for their treatment of the Chinese – which if you have read anything on the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and the atrocities carried out, does seem rather laughable. He called on the Chinese to
“free yourselves from the corrupting influence of the Kuomintang and Soviet: liberate yourselves from the selfish influence of Occidental nations, and you will find that Japan is your true friend, ready to help you”.
While Trebitsch may not have been completely mad in stating the factional wars between the communists and Kuomintang had been ugly and weakened the nation, and the occidental empire builders- the great European colonizers -were a blight on Asia. Yet again he had proved himself treasonous, and not to be trusted. Trebitsch wrote
“be not deceived a new empire has risen in the world – the greater Japanese empire. This new empire will surely bring about more just, more tolerable, more peaceful conditions on this earth, than the Christians have done. Let China abandon this futile, suicidal and wholly mistaken amenity to Japan, and peace and prosperity will ensue”.
Now I should mention this lackey-ism may have been driven by money. His patronage had dried up and his new monastery was going broke after the Japanese invasion. This would hardly be the first time we have seen him running with the hares and the hounds for cash. It has been suggested the Japanese were paying him to write pro Japanese propaganda. British intelligence responded angrily to this, their final note on on the dossier of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln was “I think the only comment I can make on this is ! ! !”
His pamphlet was commented on in a New York Times editorial saying about him “now he wears a Japanese coat. But he can turn it very quickly”. Soon after writing his treacherous pamphlet he wrote a letter to the regent of Hungary and former ally in the White International, Admiral Horthy, begging to be allowed to return to Hungary. He sent the letter via an emissary, Margot Markuse, a Latvian national and his favorite nun at the monastery, also known as Tao Lo. Hungary refused re-entry. In December 1937 the Panchen Lama died. The Dalai Lama had passed 5 years earlier and neither had been replaced yet. In the midst of this reports came through in 1938 Trebitsch was on his way to Tibet, claiming to be the reincarnation of both Lama.
This may be apocryphal however, as it seems in March 1938 he had moved back to Shanghai, now with only two followers. He spent the rest of his life moving between cheap accommodation and a YMCA, where he would eventually die. In 1939, just before Christmas, it was recorded he made a public plea for world peace, and for all governments, but the Finnish and Japanese, to resign immediately. He threatened if the governments refused to do so there would be terrible consequences. The Tibetan supreme masters would unleash forces never seen before on the earth. In 1940 he made another proclamation, that he was headed to the USA to discuss peace with president Franklin Roosevelt. America responded that he would be denied entry. At this point the world press, just like MO5 had had enough of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
One final act- Abbot Chou Kung, Nazi. Reports of his final years come mostly via German intelligence. In 1941 the Nazis took him on, now aged 61, as a spy. Their plan was to send the Abbot to Tibet to turn Tibetans pro-Nazi, and anti the Allies – then to set up a radio station which could be used to transmit pro Nazi propaganda across to India, undermining the British.
India was under British rule till after the war, in 1947 and still considered the jewel in the British crown. There was, at the time a great deal of hatred towards the British among swathes of the population. Tibet may also have been amenable. At this point the greatest European adventurer to explore Tibet was a rabidly anti-Semitic pro Nazi Swedish explorer called Sven Hedin. Indian politician Subhas Chandra Bose had similarly fled from India via Afghanistan, to Nazi Germany, where he began pumping out pro Nazi propaganda. Setting up something a little closer to home did seem a smart move to the Nazis. German intelligence wrote to Berlin asking for the resources to put his plan into action but there was never a reply.
While waiting Trebitsch did what he always did when impatient, went off the script in a mad way. He arranged a sit down with Colonel Joseph Meisinger of German Intelligence to request a sit down with Hitler himself. Trebitsch claimed he was an envoy for an unofficial world government based in Tibet, and he would like to make peace with the Nazis. He promised once he was alone with Herr Hitler, three Tibetan wise men would materialize out of the wall as proof of his great supernatural powers. Remarkably, rather than dismissing him as a nut Meisinger wrote to the Gestapo singing his praises and requesting the sit down with Hitler. The consul General also wrote a letter back, warning the Gestapo that Trebitsch was a small fish in Buddhist circles, and not to be trusted. Both letters ended up on the desk of foreign minister Von Ribbentrop, who refused Meisinger’s request. After this the Germans distanced themselves from Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
In 1942 British newspapers however did publish a story claiming Trebitsch was in Tibet broadcasting propaganda to India in a slightly Toyko Rose-ish manner. This was not the case but somehow the story of the plan had leaked. Truthfully he went quiet until just prior to his death, giving one final newspaper interview in July 1943. He talked about his life, and how after the war he would like to re-settle Jews from Europe on undeveloped Buddhist land just outside of Shanghai. On 6th October 1943 he was admitted to hospital with intestinal problems, which required an operation. He died in post operative care.
Conclusion. Well folks there we go – a long, shaggy dog tale of a life, piquaresque in it’s stumbling nature. Our protagonist began life a respectable middle class Jewish kid, and shambled through life a petty thief, missionary, politician, oil tycoon, fraudster, spy, far right revolutionary, and finally an Eastern holy man with messianic aspirations. I personally wonder if he was sociopathic, with his short attention span, need for drama and clear criminal versatility…not to mention his affairs in New York, superficial glibness which served him throughout life – if not quite well enough- and blatant self promotion at the news of his son’s death. It does appear whatever his personality disorders may have been, later in life he suffered from deep depressions and some kind of progressive mental health ailment.
I also have no doubt at times in Britain the young MP Lincoln did face horrendous discrimination – much as I want to laugh at the thought of him sitting across from some high ranking Nazi explaining some scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, there is something sad in his decline.
For decades he was a nuisance to several government departments across several countries. He clearly made for good copy for numerous newspapers too as his life took on one unlikely twist after another. He also mixed in some very dangerous company and probably lead to the financial ruin of more than a few people over his life. I do want to find some redeeming quality to Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln, he is after all the protagonist in our picaresque tale, but in the end I find myself telling this tale cause he was an interesting guy with an insanely unusual life.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
This Tale is part one of a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode..
“We can never cease to be ourselves.” – Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Agent’ (1907).
“Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.” ― William Makepeace Thackeray, ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’ (1844).
Hi folks welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is a bit of a long one, as there are a load of twists and turns in this guy’s life. I totally think of this as a picaresque tale. In the picaresque the protagonist, you can’t always say the hero cause sometimes they are not very heroic- is a likeable rogue, lowly born, who has to live by their wits and charm in a cruel, often corrupt world. The protagonist rolls from one misfortune to the next, often going from bad to worse till you think it can’t get any worse.. then it does. Think Voltaire’s Candide, Henry Fielding’s A History of Tom Jones, a foundling, or Cervantes Don Quixote in books.. Or, if you’re thinking TV shows, Dexter, Breaking Bad or Better call Saul.
Given I make this podcast in New Zealand I’m adding a kiwi title to that list, author and politician John A Lee’s book Shiner Slattery, based on real life tales of a conman called Ned Slattery, who lived in the Otago region in the late 19th century. Shiner Slattery could be described as a snollygoster- from the Pennsylvanian German schnelle geeschter, a quick spirit. Snollygosters are shrewd and not at all swayed by principles. They are always on the look out for the next hustle, and always look out for number one.
On the podcast today we will look into the picaresque life of one Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, more dodgy snollygoster than hapless Candide, roguish Tom Jones or senile Quixote. This week’s episode dear listener, season one episode 2 “Let us work without reasoning” the life of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
(Theme music – Ishtar’s The Enemy Within)
Beginnings Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, also known as, Timothy Lincoln, the reverend I.T Trebitsch, Patrick Keelan and Chao Kung, self-professed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, was born to an orthodox Jewish family in Pak, Hungary on 4th April 1879. He grew up in the capital, Budapest. His father, Nathan was a wealthy businessman who owned a fleet of barges on the Danube river. His mother Julia came from the well to do Freund family, who later married into the Hungarian nobility. The surname Trebitsch suggests – (just quickly check out the weekly blog next week for a little sidebar on Jewish surnames, I found it interesting so am posting) – that his family probably came from Trebic, Czechoslovakia. Little is known of his childhood.
Ignaz was a middle kid in a huge family… Julia had between 14 and sixteen children, several dying in infancy. His brothers were particularly academically gifted – and though Ignaz shone with languages – he lacked discipline and bombed out of school. A reason for his academic failure may have been the trauma caused by his father gambling away the family fortune on the stock market in Ignaz’s mid teens – something which left deep emotional scars on him at such a formative time. Ignaz enrolled in the Hungarian academy of dramatic art in 1895 with plans to become an actor, but he never completed his first year. Records from the academy make Ignaz out as a bright underachiever. He was petulant, prone to violent outbursts, and mad at the world.
In any picaresque novel there is a point where the hero, or protagonist is banished, leading to their travels. Voltaire’s Candide is thrown out of castle Thunder Ten Tronckh after kissing the daughter of the baron. William Makepiece Thackeray’s Redmond Barry, of Barry Lyndon flees after thinking he killed a man in a duel. In Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln’s case he turned, unsuccessfully, to theft. In 1897 he was accused by a local man of stealing a gold watch, just as police from over the border in Trieste showed up in Hungary to question him on similar accusations. Seeing a prison term coming he legged it. In his own autobiographies (he wrote two) Ignaz claimed he first travelled throughout North and South America though this is probably a lie. What is certain is soon after he fled, he showed up living rough on the streets on London’s East End. An Anglican mission made up of former Jews, the London Society for the promotion of Christianity among the Jews took him in.
One of the missionaries, Reverend Lypshytz, saw promise in Ignaz as a potential preacher or missionary for the society, so Ignaz was sent to Bristol to study the bible. He soon got bored and returned to London. In London he stole a watch from Reverend Lypshytz’s wife and jumped a ship back to the continent.
Back in Hungary he tried his hand at journalism, but it wasn’t in his skill set, so he stole another gold watch and used the money to move to Hamburg, Germany. In Hamburg he met Margarethe Kahlor, who he would later marry, converted to Christianity in 1899, and resumed his theological training. In 1900 he bid farewell, for now, to Margarethe and sailed for Montreal, Canada, where he joined an Anglican mission set up to convert the Jews of Montreal. In 1901 Margarethe sailed out, with her son from a previous relationship, and the two married.
The Canadian Mission. So how did he do in Canada? Disastrously. First I should point out he was there to convert a Jewish population who had largely escaped the racism and violent pogroms of Europe to the new world -where they were free to be themselves as much as they were there to make their fortunes… so good luck winning them over. In his time in Canada, try as hard as he might, Ignaz never converted a single soul. He did however have a small, already converted flock to minister to. In the Autumn of 1901 Ignaz and Margarethe tied the knot. In December 1901 his supervisor retired and Ignaz found his chapter taken over by the London Society for the promotion of Christianity- the group who had lodged him, and he had stolen from a few years earlier. Managing for some time not to make any waves in the job, in 1903 he demanded a pay rise or he would quit. The society invited him to quit then, and Ignaz and family sailed for Britain.
On his departure the society discovered quiet is not always good – he had scarpered owing hundreds of pounds to several other missionaries and left behind a huge unpaid gas bill at the chapel. The London Society fired him on his return, though he soon charmed the Archbishop of Canterbury into giving him a job as a curate in Kent. He was unqualified for the role so the church insisted he up skill, and as it turned out Ignaz just wasn’t up to the training. By September 1904 he had moved on from this role. Besides finding the study too difficult, in Montreal there was plenty of conflict with the Jewish community- some of whom openly hated him- and he missed the cut and thrust of the conflict. On the family front Margaret- she had now Anglican-ised her name, gave birth to their son, Ignatius. His father in law had also passed on, leaving Ignaz enough money to explore other options. He handed in his notice to the Archbishop, who noted “I don’t think it is a great loss”.
Timothy Lincoln, MP. Ignaz changed his surname to Trebitsch-lincoln – he was a fan of US president Abraham Lincoln- and bought a town house. Perhaps thinking parliament would be a good place to find the arguments he so missed as a missionary, he began to read every book on economics and politics he could get his hands on. Within 18 months he was working for the temperance movement, as Secretary for abolitionist Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree sent him all over Europe, to study the living standards of the working class on the continent. Despite having an open cheque book, Ignaz never appears to have stolen from Rowntree. He did however use this time to make connections with many politicians and officials. In 1911 Rowntree published ‘Land and Labour, lessons from Belgium’ a book which carried an acknowledgement to the researcher “Mr Lincoln, MP”. In 1910 Ignaz, now Timothy Lincoln, had successfully run as the Liberal party MP for Darlington. The campaign was short, but very ugly– Ignaz and Margarethe ‘damned foreigners’ to their opponents, were pelted with rotten eggs, banana skins and occasionally rocks on the campaign trail – making attack by milkshake these days look a little tame – he took the seat by just 29 votes.
His time as an MP was short. Ignaz got elected in January due to a snap election called over the Liberal party’s “People’s budget” being blocked by the house of lords. The people’s budget was an attempt to tax the rich a higher rate on income over £2000, around £225,000 in today’s money – they wanted 5% of this, a shilling in every pound. The Liberal Party also wanted to bring in an inheritance tax. The money raised would be used for social welfare reforms. The Liberals would need to call a second snap election, in December 1910, to finally secure a mandate for the Parliament act of 1911- an act to limit the Lords from being able to veto such legislation from going through. The act eventually passed after King George V threatened to create enough Liberal party peers in the house of lords to let the bill pass- if the Lord’s didn’t get out of the damn way.
Because of this short parliament Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln only served for a year. He didn’t have the money to run for his seat in December 1910. There is a question whether Austria had leaked documents on his past as a petty criminal to the Liberal party, but it appears he jumped. No-one pushed him. While an MP he only made 3 speeches, asked 7 questions in parliament, but did feature in a cartoon in Punch magazine, see the website and our social media pages…the cartoon is racist but was still highly prized by Ignaz himself. He didn’t have the money to run for two reasons: one MPs in 1910 were yet to get paid for the job and Ignaz had been spending big and two, he had bought an oil company in 1910, in part from his own money and partly from money loaned him by his former employer Seebohm Rountree.
The Oil Baron In 1911 Ignaz, had thrown all his energy, and many others money into the oil business in the Galician region which borders modern day Ukraine and Poland. He Invested tens of thousands of pounds of others’ money – a considerable fortune, not into drilling holes, but purchasing established pipelines to move others’ oil to market.. Had he done some more research he’d have found the Galician fields were almost exhausted. By mid 1912 the company, the Anglo-Austrian petroleum syndicate, had been placed into liquidation. Ignaz did have a 2nd iron in this fire at this point however, also paid for by other peoples’ money – drilling for oil in the Bustanari district of Romania .While this seemed to be running far more successfully, by 1913 it was clear that his oil fields were under performing. The end of his oil empire came soon though, when King Karol of Romania, alongside the Turks, Greeks and Serbians declared war on neighboring Bulgaria. The second Balkan war of June 1913 led to the banks foreclosing on Ignaz, leaving a convoluted financial mess which took receivers a decade to unravel. Short of cash and desperate, Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln returned to old ways, but with a new angle – borrowing money wherever he could having forged a letter from his former boss Seebohm Rountree. The letter agreed to go guarantor for a £750 loan, around $18,000 US today. Ignaz hoped that he could use the money to salvage enough from the oilfields to pay everyone back but with the outbreak of WW1 this was not to happen. Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln added another accomplishment to his list, that of fraudster.
The Secret Agent During the Great War Ignaz had moved from his palatial lodgings, back to a cheap boarding house back in England. He found the British were less welcoming to him this time round. Some people had caught on to his dodgy dealings, but wartime England had also become much more xenophobic- one tale has it his children’s former nanny reported him to the police for the crime of being Hungarian. He found work in the war office censoring Hungarian and Romanian letters, but only lasted a few weeks when he was caught writing notes in the margins, which would have given away the mail had been read and vetted. He borrowed more money using false documentation. At the end of 1914, his fraud uncovered, and also the Romanians sentencing him in absentia to 7 months’ jail for misappropriation of funds, Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln turned to a new avenue… international espionage.
Through a connection he approached MO5, as MI5 was then known, with a plan. His plan was to sneak into the Netherlands, convince the Germans he had turned against the British, then feed false information to the Germans. MO5 turned him down on the offer. Soon after he left for the Netherlands. There has been speculation he went there to carry out his plan as a freelancer anyway, though some believe he had decided to just go work for the enemy- hurt that the British didn’t want him. He went to German intelligence and offered to spy for them.
The Germans took him on as a spy and sent him back to London. Back in London he approached MO5 again offering them supposed codes from the Germans and again asking to work for them. The noose was tightening around him over his fraudulent loans and he desperately needed money quick to pay back the debts. MO5 this time kept him sitting on a maybe while they ran his offer past those higher up- but Ignaz, in a panic to make a quick buck, went and sold his life story to a number of newspapers. This included his life as a spy. MO5 wiped their hands of him. Seeing all was lost Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln fled for America, two days before authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
On arrival in New York Ignaz managed to borrow some money from one of his three brothers who was now living in the big Apple. On the boat over he had begun and affair with one of the female passengers, an affair which continued in New York. The supposed James Bond had also begun an affair with the daughter of his new landlord.
From New York he attempted to sell British secrets to the German consulate but when they showed no interest whatsoever he again turned to the papers, writing two rambling articles for the New York ‘World’ about his life as a master spy. In this article he gave his reason for turning on Britain as systematic xenophobia and ill treatment of Germans and Austro-Hungarians in Britain. While he got paid for the articles he immediately drew the ire of the united kingdom, who otherwise would have let him be- busy as they were with a war at the time. The Americans were not terribly interested in arresting Trebitsch Lincoln, so MO5 used the Pinkerton detective agency to arrest him. In August 1915 Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln was detained at Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn, and on 10th September an American judge ordered his extradition back to England.
Ignaz did manage to buy some time by convincing American intelligence he could De-code German messages they had been intercepting. This also gave him a regular day release from the prison to an intelligence facility. In January 1916, on the way back to jail he managed to escape out of a toilet window in a restaurant. He was recaptured 35 days later, and this time extradited back to Britain, where he was found guilty- not of treason- but of the lesser charge of forgery in July 1916 and sentenced to 3 years in prison.
This seems a good time to take a break, we’ll be right back. (excerpt from Ishtar’s Space Radio) I’ll be back this time next week folks, check out the podcast for both parts of this tale… or hang on till next Wednesday… things are about to get a little crazy for Ignaz… Simone
This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
And then one day A magic day he passed my way And while we spoke of many things Fools and kings This he said to me “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return.
-eden ahbez, Nature Boy.
Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week’s blog will be the last one for around a month, so I can put the time into getting the podcast up and running. I’ll post updates here as I have things to post about. The plan still is run the podcasts fortnightly, and blogs on the weeks in between.
Our tale this week is a quick glimpse at a counterculture figure of the 1940s, and how he contributed one of the most compelling works to the Great American Songbook.
Our tale this week begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out at the top of his lungs. There was a meeting something like this, but this part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to get us into the tale. As it is my device I imagine him middle aged, out of breath, a little pissed he has ruined a nice pair of shoes on this fools errand, all to find some guy he is told “you will know him when you find him: he looks a lot like Jesus. Oh he may be naked when you come across him”. The man in the suit, in the employ of Capitol records, is trekking up the hills of Mount Lee, California, through Griffith Park. He has been searching for weeks for this messianic-looking figure, and no ruined loafers, mountain lions, or human nakedness is going to stop him in his mission. He is looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man, and he will find him.
The search had started in the wake of a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Nat King Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio the crooner was killing it on vocals and piano- it is easy to forget he was primarily a pianist, but if you check old footage of the trio he had monster chops on the ivories. In attendance that night an unusual, long haired man, also a piano player, who had managed to blag his way into the after-party. The strange man had tried at numerous points in the night to catch the attention of Cole, but was rebuffed at every advance. At his wits’ end he finally handed what he had been trying to pass to Cole all night, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. On the paper a song, a very strange, enchanted song… now, dear reader I will have posted a link below to the song on Spotify, please hit the link and listen…. 72 years on it remains haunting, romantic (in the literary sense, the protagonist could be a Byronic hero, the music is powerful, and exotic)… otherworldly. You will thank me for this, even if it is not exactly your bag. Clearly the piece struck Nat King Cole as something special. Taken by the piece he added it to his live sets, and the crowds went crazy for it. The title of the song – Nature Boy. The narrative of the song, I met a mystical traveller and we spoke of many things. He left me with this piece of advice
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”
Crowds went mad for the new song, with it’s peace and love message, mysterious character, exotic score which seems at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Nat King Cole knew he absolutely must cut a track of this… but who the hell was the mysterious, long haired stranger who had given him the song? He would need the writer’s permission. An all points bulletin was sent out to everyone in the know in Hollywood, find this man immediately.
After some searching they worked out who the man was. Going by the name eden ahbez – all deliberately written in lower case as ahbez himself believed only two words deserve to be capitalized – God and Infinity – ahbez had been born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother, and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas, where he grew up, and eventually joined a dance band, first as a pianist, then band leader, as a young adult. In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he took up part-time work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, called The Eutropheon. Established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter, John having come up through John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, the Richter’s were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The sources I have read on the Eutropheon all state the restaurant became a meeting place for the alternative lifestyles of Laurel canyon and the surrounding areas at the time. The groups in particular appear to be early bodybuilders, who had set up a gym nearby, socialists – the Richters were vocal supporters of former senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 third party (socialist party) presidential candidate Eugene Debs, and the Nature Boys. It was the latter that ahbez, if not one of them already, would soon join up with.
A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and primitive cabins in the Palm Springs area, the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Himself a follower of a 19th century back to nature movement in Germany called the ‘Naturmenschen’, Pester had arrived in the area in 1906. He wore his hair long, had a big, bushy beard at a time when most men were clean shaven, preferred nudity to clothing, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed we must cast off all the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, closer to nature. In the photos today I have attached a 1917 picture of Pester rocking out on what looks like an Appalachian dulcimer. Tell me he is not a guy who would look completely at home hanging out with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, at Woodstock, or at the Red Dog Saloon in the 1960s? Pester, however would pass on in 1963 a few years prior to the summer of love.
In 1941 eden ahbez would, indirectly, become an acolyte of Pester’s (Pester was in jail at the time. Having come from Germany he was accused of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, was accused of having sex with a minor, and jailed till 1946) and joined the Nature Boys.
Back to the man in a suit, now sweating profusely – I imagine the contract in his hand now looking as crumpled as the piece of paper ahbez had handed to Cole’s valet, eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga apparently, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign.. not far from where Peg Entwhistle jumped – that is definitely another tale I MUST tell sometime. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was a tribute to William Pester.
In August 1947 Nat King Cole headed into the studio to cut the track. The recording was epic, Cole at his coolest. Capitol, for all the bother of finding eden ahbez killed the song in its tracks, deciding it just didn’t jive with the image they wanted to present of Nat King Cole. In 1948, however, fate intervened. The American Federation of Musicians, under orders from union boss James Petrillo, called a lengthy strike for all studio musicians. The strike was in reaction to the 1947 Taft-Hartley act, which was in itself a knee jerk reaction to ‘The great strike wave of 1945-1946’ an unprecedented wave of industrial action across post-war America. Needing something, anything to release Capitol records took a punt on Nature Boy, releasing the track on March 29th 1948. It went to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. This was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed. ahbez saw around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards. He would give around half the money to friends, and likely lost the rest of ih in 1951, when a composer called Herman Yablokoff took out a plagiarism suit against ahbez, claiming he stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez claimed the melody had come to him “as if angels were singing it” while he was out camping in the mountains. Yablokoff claimed the angels must have bought his record then. The song would be covered, later by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). David Bowie recorded an incredible version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Recently Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine the shock of ahbez, had he lived to see her meat dress – avowed vegetarian that he was.
For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. Journalists, similarly to the man in a suit went out of their way to find this messianic looking figure who had scored a monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez would often extol the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. As a coda, eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, died in 1995 in a car crash.
The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.
“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”.
I take his point. When spitballing ideas for these tales it could be easier to pick up, say, the tale of Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, and his victory over the Umayyad Caliphate at The Battle of Tours, 732.. or the epic battle between the Russians and Swedes at Poltava in 1709. While I tend to get a little lost in the fog of war with these tales- I don’t think you’ll ever get a blow by blow description of any battle from me- I know which are more important in the big scheme of things… but, c’mon don’t tell me these moments of social history are not a little intriguing? Who would not have wanted to have spoke of many things, fools and kings, with the Nature Boy?
Ok folks, back to the blogs in around a month, meantime I’ll be posting updates on the podcast here, as things fall in place- Simone
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
Originally published 11th August 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.
“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon”
Allen Ginsberg – A Supermarket in California.
Hi folks welcome back to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. Since completing the piece on Altamont (if you haven’t read yet please scroll down the page a little – it was a 4 parter) I have been a little curious about something I know, or suspect I know, only the outlines of. Being a little time poor for a few weeks I haven’t done all the spade work on this yet, but I figured this week I’d share my thought process, and next week look at a chunk of it. I had a question:
If you take it that the fallout from The Altamont free concert was the beginning of the end for the hippy, peace and love mass movement (and let’s face it there was quite a bit going on in 1969 that contributed) – then where does the hippy movement begin? Who were the first hippies?
Now, on a page in a notebook I keep on my bedside table I have a brainstorm, a mind map. It contains the outlines of my current knowledge on this question. In the middle, encircled “who was Hippy patient zero?” In a circle close to this are a handful of names. One of these ‘Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters’. Now Kesey, an author whose best known work “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” became a major film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson and featuring a cast which included Taxi’s Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd, was definitely an early hippy. He had come from the Beat Generation, and thus was a bridge between the two movements. He was an early adopter of LSD. With his entourage of non-conformists which included the Grateful Dead (then called The Warlocks) ,he, and his ‘merry pranksters’ hopped aboard a psychedelic patterned bus in 1964 and travelled the USA spreading peace, love… and acid. The Red Dog Saloon, a bar in the largely abandoned former gold mining town of Virginia City, Nevada is also in this circle. All the cool people hung out there. There was a sense of commune about the place. People did a lot of peyote there, and many of the jam bands which became associated with the summer of love got their starts playing there.
In an outer circle I have a handful of philosophers. Now Diogenes of Sinope has to be considered right? Living in Greece in the 4th century BC, he had come from a well off family, but very publicly walked away from materialism when he ‘defaced the money’ then hit the road, leaving all he owned behind. Diogenes lived in a turned up barrel, or tub. He hung out with the animals – having all but joined with a pack of stray dogs. He did outrageous things like walking through the streets in the middle of the day with a lantern proclaiming he is looking for an honest man, but cannot find one. He was a fierce critic of society, feuded with Plato for a while, and challenged authority wherever he could. Legend has it Alexander The Great just had to meet Diogenes when travelling through Corinth on his way to conquer the world, so he made his way out to the barrel. Spotting him sunbathing and staring intently at a human bone he came rushing up asking the philosopher if there was anything he could do for him.
“Yes” Diogenes replied “Stand out of my sunlight” A little taken aback Alexander replies “If I were not Alexander I should wish to be Diogenes”. Unimpressed Diogenes replies “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes” and went back to staring at his bone. I think at least in terms of anti-authoritarianism Diogenes would have found kinship with the hippies?
In this circle I have several other philosophical names- Epicurus, who lived in a commune and believed in a lot of the same peace, love and nature messages of the hippies. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama who pondered on the meaning of existence while sitting under the Bodhi tree, who gave up a life of comfort for something more meaningful, and whose philosophies filter down to the hippies. Ditto Lao Tse, who dropped some seriously laid back wisdom in the Tao Te Ching for the Chinese people in the 6th Century BC, before jumping on the back of an oxen and riding off into the sunset.
Much closer to the centre I have the Mazdakian movement written down. I currently do not know a lot about Mazdak, here’s what I can tell you, off the top of my head. Mazdak was a Zoroastrian priest with a commune in Persia around the early 6th century. Though Zoroastrianism was still the religion of choice in the empire, his brand was quite heretical. He preached peace, love, communal living, free love, and a vegetarian diet. More down to politics than anything else Mazdak fell foul of the authorities and the Mazdakians were rounded up. Mazdak himself hung upside down and used for target practice by the archers some time around 528 AD.
Closer again, the Merrymount colony of Quincy, Massachusetts. The Merrymount colony turned on, tuned in and dropped out. They found free love, eschewed much of their clothes, fell in love with nature and grew their hair long… till the Puritans showed up in the 1620s and told them to get a haircut and a real job. I have a little question mark next to Henry David Thoreau , author of the transcendentalist novel Walden (and last weeks opening quote). A bigger question mark next to St Francis of Assisi. A big circle around their precursor, The Beat Generation. Both movements were similar, and a number of beatniks, maybe most notably the poet Allen Ginsberg, who struck up a close friendship with Bob Dylan and was heavily involved in the anti-war movement.
The Nature Boys, however – a group who largely centred round a raw foods supermarket in Laurel Canyon, Southern California are the group which most interests me at the moment. In my opinion they are absolutely fascinating, and on occasion pop up in some odd cultural places…. And no I don’t mean styling and profiling, jet plane riding, rolex wearing, womanizing professional wrestlers.
Next week, the Southern California Nature Boys, and the story of eden ahbez – the non-capitalization is very deliberate, he thought only God and Infinity were important enough to have capital letters.
This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
Originally published 28th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.