Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back. In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.) While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Three of Four.
I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.
If you’d like to support what I do, and would like to get your hands on some extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge, if any.) This gets you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff. Of course it goes without saying I’m keeping the free channels going, free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.
Today’s tale begins April 24th 1965. The setting, Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs Arkansas.
One imagines the scene as the town come to pay their respects to one of the good guys. Owen Vincent Madden, had arrived in the town in 1936, in an effort to turn his poor health around in their famed healing waters. A wealthy businessman from Leeds, England – by way of New York – Owney fell in love with the relaxed pace of life in Hot Springs. Somewhere, the charming, middle aged bachelor fell for Agnes Demby – the 34 year old shop clerk and daughter of the postmaster. Though certain rumours persisted about the man, he soon became a pillar of the community. Owney Madden passed away of emphysema, aged 73, and many a gangster and civilian alike would mourn his passing.
I’ve seen it written in the weeks following his funeral, the people of Hot Springs would be surprised and horrified at news of the monster who walked among them. I’ve no doubt some were, but we are talking about Hot Springs – a then corrupt town, and known safe haven for gangsters on the lam. It was the place where US Attorney Thomas Dewey finally handcuffed the legendary mob boss Lucky Luciano – when he couldn’t do him for multiple acts of murder, Dewey got Luciano for his part ownership of a brothel. I believe a lot of locals were aware of his past, and it would be naive to say Owney either pulled the wool over all their eyes – or that in some form or another he didn’t have some racket or other going there. Naive as this is also going to sound, I also believe, he was also a much better man in his later years than he had been when in New York.
So who was this man? And what was this mysterious past which may have shocked some in the community? Let’s explore that today.
Owen Vincent Madden was born in Leeds, England on December 18th 1891, to an Irish family. The Maddens emigrated to New York in 1902, settling in the tough Irish American neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. With an over-abundance of street gangs in the neighbourhood, it was no surprise that by the age of 11, Madden was a member of a group known as the Gopher Gang. Even at this young age, Madden was well known as a handful – his favourite weapon, a length of lead pipe.
As he reached his teens, Madden ascended through the ranks, but nearly found his career derailed in his late teens. He killed William Henshaw, a store clerk who made a pass at a young woman he’d laid claim to. Though Henshaw’s murder took place in front of dozens of witnesses, Henshaw himself living just long enough to ID his killer – the collective amnesia of the witnesses was something to behold, and Madden walked without conviction.
Following his release, the Gopher Gang upped their violence game, taking over the protection rackets in other neighbourhoods and rubbing out rival street gangs. This was hardly all one way traffic. The Hudson Dusters were a rival gang, formed by an ex Gopher Gang member named Goo Goo Knox. On November 6th 1914, the Hudson Dusters ambushed several Gopher Gang members outside the Arbor Dance Hall. Three Gophers were killed, and Madden was shot anywhere between six and eleven times, depending on whose recollection you read. Madden survived, and sought revenge – which led to him being sentenced to 20 years at Sing Sing Prison before the year was out. By the end of 1914 both gangs would be disbanded in a wave of murders, drug overdoses and incarcerations.
When released in 1923, Owney found a different world waiting for him. Shaking down shopkeepers for protection money was so yesterday. The 1920s were all about bootlegging.
As I state in the main episode (the original upload ran alongside Mussolini v The Mob) .. this will be a little meta…
‘On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities.’
Madden soon found employment as hired muscle for a bootlegger called Larry Fay. He arranged the import of whiskey from Canada, smuggled in the boots of American taxi cabs. Having learned the ropes, Madden set up a rival operation. Big Bill Dwyer was another rival bootlegger, who had several shipments hijacked from under his nose. Dwyer was then made an offer he could not refuse by Madden – to hand his whole business over – which he did.
Madden soon turned profits into ownership of several speakeasy’s – Most notably the Cotton Club.
In 1920, the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a supper club on the corner of 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue, Harlem. Johnson struggled to keep the club open during prohibition, and turned to Madden for a quick sale. Johnson remained, nominally, the owner of the re-branded Cotton Club – which took off under the guidance of the mobster. Though a largely segregated club, open to white patrons only unless the guest a celebrity like Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson (this was still the Jim Crow era), many of the greatest black performers of the era played there – from bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb to featured singers and dancers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers and the Dandridge Sisters.
The Cotton Club was well up there with The Savoy Ballroom as the hot tickets in town. It was always full of celebrities, had a fantastic range of alcohol available, and some of the greatest swing music ever.
It was here that Madden met, and for a while dated Mae West. He’d fund her first play, ‘Sex’ in 1927, when no-one else would. She would comment Owney was “Sweet, but oh so vicious”. He also took George Raft on as a driver. The stylish Raft would leverage his friendship with Madden to launch a career as a Hollywood actor.
By 1931, Madden had become extremely rich out of bootlegging, and various other criminal activities. After a brief stint back inside in 1932 – he’d caught the attention of authorities after putting a $50,000 price on the head of a gangster and child killer called Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll – but went away for a minor parole violation – He turned his hand to promoting boxing matches. On June 14th 1934, Max Baer – a boxer of some renown, later the father of Max Baer jr, (Jethro in the TV show The Beverley Hillbillies)
Faced off against Primo Carnera – a two metre tall monster, called The Ambling Alp, who still holds the record of winning more fights by KO than any other world heavyweight champion.
The fight, was extremely one-sided, with Baer knocking Carnera down eleven times in eleven rounds. It’s long been speculated Madden fixed the bout to maximise gambling profits.
The mid 1930s were a time of relative peace – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31 led to mafiosi setting up a ‘Commission’, which ensured some peace and stability – but Madden knew it wouldn’t last. The mafia were soon likely to muscle the likes of himself out of the market. He was feeling a little old, and suffered aches from his many gunshot wounds. Possibly with the blessing of Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, he closed shop and retired to Hot Springs Arkansas. Some point out he may have been sent there by the Mob to set up a gambling house – it is notable soon after moving to town Madden paid for a wire service to be laid in the town, allowing bookies to get the horse racing results.
Whatever the case, he arrived in town, and sought out hydro treatment for his gunshot wounds. He met, and fell in love with Agnes Demby – who almost certainly knew her husband’s past life. Beneath the surface, Hot Springs was a corrupt place, with it’s fair share of illegal gambling and prostitution – their mayor Leo P. McLaughlin was later found to be controlling much of the trade. For 30 years Madden, at the very least gave the impression of living the life of a modest, legitimate businessman. His bar, The Southern Club, did well. Whether gone legit or not, he had many visits over the years from Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis.
On the flip side, this Owen Madden was no longer a man of violence. He lived in a modest house with his wife. He was active in the community, and supported a number of local charities. He was a well known, and well liked figure, often seen round town – the trademark Fedora hat of the gangster replaced by the big, slouchy cap of the country gentleman. Whether completely clean or not, he was a remarkable figure for having gone into an idyllic semi-retirement when most of his contemporaries were either jailed or murdered.
Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back. In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.) While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is One of Four.
I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.
If you’d like to support what I do, and would like to get your hands on some extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge, if any.) This gets you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff. Of course it goes without saying I’m keeping the free channels going, free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.
Hi all, today’s post is a short one. Today I want to share a Tale of the last Chinese Emperor, a man known simply as Puyi.
Puyi came to power just shy of his third birthday in 1908, after his predecessor – the Guangxu Emperor Zaitian died unexpectedly. Zaitian had around 2,000 times the normal level of arsenic in him, so we can guess the cause. Puyi himself was deposed following the Xinhai Revolution just four years later. The people wanted increased representation with less foreign encroachment – the crown wanted to sell the railways to overseas investors and rule with an iron fist- things escalated.
For most of his life, Puyi was kept like a bird in a gilded cage. Kept in luxury in palatial surroundings, but without the freedom to go where he chose. He was a cruel, capricious bird – who made the lives of the royal eunuchs miserable. For 12 days in July 1917 he was restored to the throne by the warlord Zhang Xun – but for the Tale’s sake let’s imagine him there – a prisoner of fate and circumstance. Somewhat nicer than he really was.
Puyi had a learned tutor named Reginald Johnston. Johnston was a diplomat who served as the last British commissioner of the treaty port of Weihaiwei, in the North of the country. Later in his life, Johnston wrote a book, Twilight in the Forbidden City, which was adapted into the movie The Last Emperor. Peter O’Toole played him on the big screen.
Johnston taught the captive emperor a great many things about the world outside – but the one thing which most enraptured Puyi was the telephone. We currently live in a world where new technology has a crazy fast uptake. In 2021, perhaps everyone’s grandma has a tablet or smartphone. In 1921 telephones were still largely an odd device owned by few– decades after it’s invention. It was still very much a shiny new toy. As with many teens, the last emperor insisted on getting the shiny new toy – to the consternation of his handlers.
“But, your majesty, the palace has never had a telephone before” they said. “Bringing in such Western technology will upset the celestial balance” they pleaded (I paraphrase), un-ironically – while surrounded by Swiss cuckoo clocks, under electric lightbulbs – down the hall from a grand piano. Puyi dug in his toes and fought like hell over this; a phone line was going in. So it was the last emperor ended his splendid isolation from the world.
But, what did he do with his new found freedom? Did he place diplomatic phone calls to world leaders? No. Enter into a romantic courtship with some forbidden love? Apparently not. Negotiate a book deal? Not a chance.
He spent his time making countless prank phone calls to other anyone else unlucky enough to also have a phone.
His pranks were hardly comedic gold. He took to ringing the Chinese Opera singer Yang Xiaolou and giggling uncontrollably when he answered. He regularly ordered expensive meals from restaurants, pretending to be other people, and sent them out – cash on delivery, to strangers houses. Though not a prank, he regularly called Reginald Johnston at all hours to ask a question or complain about something someone did in the palace to upset him. I really hoped for a ‘is your fridge running’ gag at the very least.
A few years later he used his phone to plot an escape, with the Dutch ambassador. Unfortunately for him, this plot was rumbled.
Emperor Puyi married in 1922. He was exiled to another gilded cage when the warlord Feng Yuxiang took over Beijing in 1924. From 1932 to 1945 he was the puppet ruler for the Japanese in a state named Manchukuo, largely Manchuria. Throughout the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and World War Two, he called for the people to support Japan. After the war spent time in jail for war crimes – and spent his final years living in an ordinary house in Communist Beijing with his sister.
In old age people commented he became humble, kind and considerate. I have no word on whether he had a phone installed in his sister’s place, or what he may have done with it.
Hey everyone Happy Holidays. I had something in mind for a Christmas episode this year – and that thing ballooned out to around two hours of audio. Apologies all, I’m burned out. I don’t think I could get a two hour episode together before the 25th.
I’m going to zoom in on the one aspect of that episode that I think best sums up this time of year – and release some of the outtakes as their own mini episodes throughout 2023.
A few episodes back we spent some time on the Thames, looking at those poor weeping willow trees, and of course the profligate King who gamed the system with Tallysticks made from those trees, passing his debts onto the city’s jewellers. Today we’ll return to that river, and to that king, but first a flash forward.
In 1831 a bridge along the Thames was opened to the public. The project was begun by a Scottish engineer named John Rennie senior. It took a while, and would be completed upon his death by his son, John Rennie junior. This new London bridge was a solid, dependable replacement for an older London bridge – though it looked a little old-fashioned by the time it was completed. By the 1960s, as motorised vehicle use greatly increased, the 1831 bridge became no longer fit for purpose and would itself be replaced. The 1831 London Bridge would be dismantled, then reassembled in a town in Colorado, USA.
If the Tallysticks were our hero in the earlier tale, then this bridge is the villain of this tale – or at least a massive killjoy. It had a far greater clearance than it’s predecessor, and fewer arches – and water flowed with ease through it’s arches.
Because of this, the Thames river never froze again.
On nine occasions in London’s past, not only did the Thames freeze over in winter, but when it did a frost fair rose up – bringing in all in sundry out to play. From 1564 to 1813 Rich and poor alike came together on the ice, and partook in the carnivalesque atmosphere. In 1564, the event was simply a great outpouring of the people onto the ice. People strolled along the river. Some played games. Queen Elizabeth I, enraptured by the festive scene going on outside her window gathered her entourage and joined in on the fun. In 1608 people set up stalls on the ice for the first time. As you made your way through the pop up village you could buy a beer or a glass of wine. You could buy fruit, or even get a full meal on the river. Shoe shops, barbershops, and much more set up on the ice.
It is December 1683, and it looks like, yet again the Thames is going to freeze. The nights grew longer. A bone-chilling cold pervaded the air. Increasingly large chunks of ice formed on the water – some of those chunks breaking away, endangering the many river ferries who plied their trade on the river. After a cruel year which saw a smallpox epidemic tear through the city, it must be said the people had every right to feel cold, tired and miserable. To want to hibernate till spring and wish good riddance to the year. Those people did nothing of the sort. Filled with Christmas cheer, they gathered by the riverside in their thousands. They waited for hell to freeze over.
On the Twelfth day of Christmas, January 5th 1684, when – to quote the writer John Evelyn – “the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there has not been the like,” the Thames finally solidified into one solid sheet of ice. Was it strong enough to hold a fair? Two men took a bet it wouldn’t hold a coach and six horses. It did, easily.
All of a sudden, rows and rows of stalls and tents appeared, as thousands of Londoners made their way out onto the ice. For three days the populace forgot all of their troubles and partied amongst the carnivalesque atmosphere. Then, just as quickly, the thaw began… the people held their breath.
It turns out the Frost Fair was not done yet. A bracingly cold wind reared up, and the Thames froze back over again – well mostly froze over again. Several people found themselves wandering out onto less than solid parts, and accidentally fell through the ice. There were several deaths. Surprisingly, this didn’t dampen the spirits of the revellers. The frost fair partied on. Whatever passed for weather reporters looked upon the ice, and prophesied the Thames would stay frozen till March.
One day a man, well inebriated at an ice tavern, boasted he could build a three storey house on the ice, spend a night there, then tear it back down again before the frost broke. Bets were taken on this and construction began. I could find no confirmation if the man won his bet.
King Charles II looked out his window at the teeming mass of subjects below, and forthwith ordered a painter to the palace. Orders were made for a panorama of the scene outside, to remind the king of the joyousness of the crowd. Any time he felt blue, Charles could look upon it and remember the Frost Fair. On the 23rd January, Charles ordered a collection be taken from the rich, for the poor of London. Looking out the window, it appears the king began seeing the partygoers as people, and certainly felt more compassion for them than he had the jewellers of the city. On the 31st the King gathered his entourage and headed out onto the ice himself.
He was, of course, not the only member of the ruling class to take to the fair. It was one of those rare occasions when all classes got amongst it together, cheek by jowl. The aforementioned John Evelyn – a writer, landscape gardener and, when remembered these days, remembered as London’s second most famous diarist of the time (to Samuel Pepys) – visited the fair on January 24th. Evelyn wrote.
“The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London, was still planted with boothes in formal streetes, all sorts of shops and trades furnish’d and full of commodities even to a printing-presse… Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-playes, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”
A city within a city, where all observances of class and everyday sorrows were on hold – a place so remarkable it brought a profligate king who twelve years earlier bankrupted all the jewellers in the city, to order a significant act of charity for the poor. A ‘bacchanalian triumph’ a ‘carnival on the water’- well, such an utopia could not last. Utopias rarely do. First the watermen, a trade employing 20,000 Londoners – who had been unable to make money during the fair – petitioned to convert their boats to makeshift sleds. When told no, they petitioned for a ban on coach rides across the Thames – if they had to suffer why should coach drivers be allowed to profit?
This all became a moot point soon enough, and as February 1684 came, the river slowly defrosted. The taverns, stalls, horse races and all manner of buskers returned to terra-firma. The many joys of the Great Frost Fair of 1684 were relegated to the memories of Londoners – until the next time – a three month long carnival beginning in November 1715.
In the midst of adversity – three years in to our own great pandemic – I hope everyone is keeping safe… and everyone finds joy in the season this year.
Stay safe all, I’ll be back January 25th with more Tales of History and Imagination.
This is Part Two of a Two Part Series. For Part One Click Here.
On 17th June 1943, Nancy arrived back in England. German U Boats had taken down a lot of Allied ships of late, so the escapees had to wait till there was cause to send an entire convoy back to Britain. This meant a stay of a few months in Gibraltar. She returned to find a vastly different London to the city she left in the early 1930s. The Luftwaffe had bombed the living hell out of the place.
For a time, Nancy tried to return to Civvy Street. She rented an apartment in Piccadilly, and made a home for herself there. She bought nice furniture and furnishings. Soon, she presumed, Henri would join her. Days ran on to weeks with no sign or word of her husband. Knowing their phones were likely tapped, Nancy determined she would not call, but would wait it out. Restless in civilian life, and probably pining a little for Henri, she looked for a way back into France. Various military organisations were not keen to sign her up, but finally, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took her in. They had a very important role in mind for Madame Fiocca.
When the Nazis defeated the French, tens of thousands of men went bush, taking to the forests. These bands of merry men were known collectively as Le Maquis – the men singularly known as Maquisards. They were, by and large, untrained and underfunded – but were of great potential value to the war effort – if only someone could train them, organise them and arm them. Once organised, those partisans could wreak all kinds of havoc. Nancy was to be sent in as one third of a team code named Freelance. One of a number of similar teams, they would organise the Maquis. Freelance were trained up for the job in Scotland, then parachuted in to France, on 29th April 1944.
I won’t go into a day by day breakdown of Nancy’s time with the Maquis of L’Auvergne – I’m still hoping to keep this one a half hour episode – give or take – but there are a handful of details I need to cover.
There were seven thousand men in the forest, living nomadically in temporary camps. They slept under the trees, and mostly lived off the land. They were already somewhat active, carrying out the occasional ambush or act of sabotage. The game, however, for the allies was to get the men prepared for a big operation on D Day. As the Normandy landing neared, airdrops of equipment ramped up.
Even at this stage, the missions could get ropey. One day London sent a message to Nancy, to pick up a weapons instructor, code named Anselm. He was in a safe house in Montlucon with a former cook named Madame Renard. London presumed she would know the location of the safe house, and the password when she got there. The partisan who knew the house, and password had unbeknownst to London, ‘disappeared’ a while back. What’s more, Montlucon was by then swarming with Nazis who tended to pounce on any strangers asking questions. The mission was central to their plan – and it was also like looking for a needle in a haystack.
This tale, it turns out, ended with no great drama. Nancy evaded Nazi scrutiny, and eventually deduced the location of the safe house. Madame Renard played dumb to Nancy’s questions when she answered the door, till Nancy complimented her on the aroma of a cake Madame Renard had in the oven – Her reputation as the former cook to the ambassador well proceeded her. Renard presumed no Nazi would know this about her and let Nancy in. Anselm was hiding in a cupboard, pistol at the ready if the visitor was from the Gestapo. Just one broken link in the chain could ramp up the level of danger.
On 5th June 1944, a cryptic message came through via a BBC radio broadcast. “The crocodile is thirsty. I hope to see you again, darling, twice at the Pont d’Avignon… You may now shake the trees and gather the pears”. D Day was coming and Le Maquis moved into position. Armed with guns, and several tons of explosives, they descended upon twelve hundred designated targets, in the dead of night. Factories, telephone lines, railways, bridges, roads – were all blown to smithereens.
As the allies landed en masse at Normandy, Le Maquis did all the could to stop the Axis from deploying reinforcements from the South of the country.
Of course the Nazis weren’t just going to let them blow up all transport and communication lines, and fierce fighting broke out. Nazis being Nazis, where they couldn’t strike back at partisans, they took their anger out on the local population. Many houses were burned down. Many civilians were lynched in the streets, hung from lamp posts. Villagers were gathered en masse and executed by firing squad. Four days after the Maquis operation, the Nazis refocused and send an army of 7,000 troops, artillery and tanks into the forest, to crush a camp of 3,000 Maquis embedded at Mont Mouchet. A pitched battle erupted between the Nazis and the partisans. Nancy was tied up fighting her own Nazis too far away to help, but close enough to hear the carnage going on for days. The Maquis in the other camp, led by a man code named Gaspard, more than held their own.
In the meantime, thousands of French civilians flooded in to Nancy’s camp, asking to join the resistance. They were suddenly flat out arming these newcomers and preparing them to take on the Nazis at ‘Gaspard’s hill’. Several days into the battle, with casualties well in excess of partisan losses, the Nazis withdrew.
From here on in, the weapons drops increased, as the fight back took a pace. One day, a fatigued Nancy narrowly avoided being shot to pieces by a German plane, while she was picking up a supply drop. She dodged the planes strafing runs a couple of times by emergency braking, causing the plane to misjudge her trajectory. She abandoned the car at just the right moment. One final strafing run pierced the gas tank, and the car went off like a Roman candle. With just one package in hand retrievable – a special personal order of makeup and tea – she ran off into the forest. Another day, after several days of running on just two hours sleep a night, she narrowly avoided being blown to bits by German artillery. Worried she’d fall asleep at the wheel, Nancy took to a bed in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. A comrade burst in, warning the Nazis were coming. They relocated to the tree line just in time to see the farmhouse demolished by artillery fire.
There are a couple further tales I need to cover in the Nancy Wake story. First there was that bike ride.
In the days following their D Day operation, the Maquis withdrew to safer ground. They were fighting a guerrilla war after all. As they relocated, Nancy’s radio operator ‘Denden’- by all tellings a fascinating character as a wonderfully camp, openly gay man at that time – had been injured in battle, receiving a leg wound. He’d recover from the injury and did escape the Nazi grasp – but at the time he worried he’d be captured, along with the radio, so he destroyed his radio and codes. It was imperative get a replacement ASAP. Without contact with London they were flying blind.
The following day, Nancy rode twenty miles over the mountain to a pub where she hoped to make contact with another cell. She was greeted outside the pub by the publican. A communist was inside. He planned to shoot her. Nancy rushed into the pub, sat down across the table from the communist and slammed her pistol down on the table.
“I hear that you are going to shoot me. Well, you’ll need to be very quick on the draw”.
Nancy ordered a drink, all the while eyeballing the communist. She discovered the cell had left town, and there were now Nazis all over the place. The next closest spare radio was two hundred kilometres down the road in Châtearoux.
Given the distance and sudden influx of Nazis, Nancy decided her best hope was to get all dolled up, leave the gun behind – and do her best to pass for a local out to pick up the groceries. She left for Châtearoux in twilight. Sixty kilometres in, through hilly country roads, Madame Fiocca was exhausted, but she pushed on. As she reached some town or other on the way she’d stop for a drink, and do her best to glean whatever information she could about Nazi movements in the area. She’d jump back on her bike and continue. She arrived at the town of Bourges to find it boarded up. A troop of Nazis massacred a group of locals earlier in the day, and everyone was keeping their heads down. As she inconspicuously passed through, a group Nazis were packing up to leave for the next town.
The town of Issoudon was safer, and Nancy had a chance to have a drink and clean herself up a little. On her journey she did pass several troops of Nazis. Some waved as she went by, others cat-called after her. So far, no one bothered to ask her for her identification papers.
Within eighty kilometres of Châtearoux, the road was too congested with German trucks, so Nancy took a detour – and within a day and a half, she reached her destination.
When she finally found the radio operator, he obstinately refused to help her. She didn’t have the password. Prior to her run in with the radio operator, Nancy came across a Maquisard from another camp who was there to contact another radio operator in the town. Could he help her perhaps? She was told not. The contact had legged it, and there were Gestapo officers laying in wait in his apartment for whoever showed up. There was yet another cell camping out in the forest on the other side of town, however, and they had a spare radio. The ride back was complete agony. Every muscle in her body ached, and by now Nancy had worn away the skin on her thighs. Kilometre after kilometre she pushed on, not daring to stop as she worried she’d never get going again.
Three days after she left, Nancy returned – exhausted and in need of medical attention – having covered 400 kilometres.
For context the cyclists on the Tour de France cover a little over 3,300 kms in 23 days. She’d kept up one hell of a pace for an amateur, unaccustomed to riding, on an old-fashioned bike.
There are many other tales – many stories of gunfights with Nazis – one tale from July 1944 when the Maquis decided the Nazis needed a good shake up, so Nancy and a group of other Maquisards drove up to their makeshift headquarters at the Montlucon town hall at midday. The building was unguarded outside, so they had no trouble bursting through the doors, tossing hand grenades in, then running off. This attack maimed or killed 38 men, mostly officers. There’s also the story of the time Nancy killed a man with her bare hands. She was on a mission to take out an armoury in Mont Mouchet. Two guards would pace the perimeter in opposite directions, meet in the middle, then turn around. Once they walked a significant distance away from one another, the plan was to jump the guards and incapacitate them. Nancy and her comrades mistimed their run, one guard stabbing Nancy in the arm with his bayonet – before Nancy took him down with a karate chop to the neck. The chop allegedly broke his neck. A doctor at the camp patched her up afterwards.
And then there were tales of an aggrieved Maquisard who tried to have Nancy killed, so for some time she had a crew of Spanish Maquisard bodyguards with her wherever she went. There was another tale of Maquis behaving atrociously, when Madame Fiocca discovered one day one of the camps had a couple of women held captive – one a girl from the village who was being pimped out to the men, and another, a Nazi collaborator. One should never play ‘both sides had…’ around Nazis – they are always the worst people in any room – but it’s disturbing to think of this cell of Maquis who kept a woman as a sex slave.
Nancy freed the sex slave, but she begged Nancy to let her stay on as an assistant, which she assented to. The other lady was far more problematic – if they let her go, she would bring the Nazis back to the camp – On the other hand, she couldn’t be left with a cell of men who kept sex slaves. Feeling she had no other choice, Nancy executed her with her side arm. There were other tales that were far more acadian, like the night the partisans held a grand celebration in the forest to celebrate the beginning of the end for the Nazis, or another feast in honour of her 32nd birthday.
We probably know the broad strokes of how his tale ends, right? On August 25th 1944 Paris was liberated, and town after town were quickly freed from the Nazi yoke. The Nazis high-tailed it back to Germany, to protect their motherland, as the noose closed in on them. The Eastern front had very much turned the way of the Allies, though at an absolutely staggering loss of life. By late 1943 the USSR had recovered half of their land lost to the Nazis. Throughout 1944 they pushed on and on, till they were in Germany. The war in Europe effectively ended in a Berlin bunker, 30th April 1945. The Russian Red army had the city besieged, an ailing Hitler had just married his mistress Eva Braun on the night of the 28th. Probably thinking of how Mussolini was hung from a lamp-post and shot, Braun bit down on a cyanide pill – Hitler unholstered his gun. For decades rumours would circulate about their charred remains, and speculation the Hitlers faked their own death to live out the rest of their lives under the surname Wolff, somewhere in Argentina.
But those two monsters are certainly not the lovers we’re interested in. The question remained, what became of Henri?
Soon after the war, Madame Fiocca got the awful news. As Nancy arrived in Vichy she came across a woman she knew from Marseille. This lady was now working the reception desk at a hotel. The two women spoke, and the receptionist asked her what the future held for Madame Fiocca? Nancy answered she was going back to Marseille, and Henri. The receptionist, aghast, exclaimed ‘Oh no, Nancy, don’t you know? He’s dead.’
She was unable to provide any further details.
It was a long, arduous journey back to Marseille – some roads were too strewn by the wreckage of Nazi tanks. Bridges were blown to pieces – but she eventually found a path through. Once there the story came in bits and pieces.
Not long after Nancy’s escape, in March 1943, Pat O’Leary was arrested by the Gestapo. In May he stumbled across some random piece of information that simply had to be passed to the resistance. He shared this information with a prisoner who was due to be released, asking him to pass it on to Henri. It was all a ruse. The prisoner was a Nazi spy. It is not clear to me if the information was fake also.
Henri was arrested, and brutally tortured. To compound matters, the Gestapo approached Henri’s parents to say he was being tortured because he refused to divulge Nancy’s location. If someone gave up where the White Mouse was hiding, Henri would be released. It’s unlikely he would ever have been released, and Nancy was safely in Gibraltar by then. The Fioccas’ blamed Nancy for Henri’s death. Henri’s torture continued until October 1943, when he was finally lined up against a wall and shot. Heartbroken, and with nothing to stay for, the widow Fiocca set off for London.
She did return to Paris, spending time working for the British Air ministry in the city – before returning, briefly to Australia in 1949. Nancy ran for a seat in Parliament under a conservative ticket (one fault I guess, was she wasn’t a Labour supporter, but there you go). After a loss in 1949, and subsequently in the 1951 election, she returned to Britain. Back in London, a 1956 newspaper article on Nancy caught the attention of a former Flight Lieutenant Nancy had met in Paris named John Forward. John served in the war, but, having been shot down in 1942, spent most of that time in a German prisoner of war camp. One day he looked Nancy up, and dropped by her flat. The two hit it off, and would remain married for 40 years until John’s passing in 1997. In 1959 the couple moved back to Australia, and had two kids.
Nancy Wake passed 7th August 2011, aged 98; having lived several lifetimes worth of adventure. One wonders what Aunty Hinamoa would have thought of her investment?
This is Part One of a Two Part Series. For Part Two, Click Here.
To the Nazis she was the White Mouse, a resourceful operative who evaded their clutches after having helped 1037 people escape Nazi territory along the “Pat O’Leary Line”. Britain’s Special Operations Executive called her Hélène. To them she was a member of their Freelance cell embedded within the French resistance. To Marseille’s high society, she was Madame Fiocca, an intrepid foreign journalist who arrived from a far-away land, fell in love with one of their most eligible bachelors, and subsequently become one of their own. To the French resistance she was the tough as nails Madame Andrée – a woman who could kill a man with her bare hands.
To Australia, the land she fled in her teens, in search of glamour and adventure, she is remembered as Nancy Wake – war hero.
As is often the case with Aussie icons, (see Phar Lap, the pavlova, the flat white coffee, the lamington, Crowded House, Russell Crowe, Stan Walker and Admiral Markham’s flag), Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand. Born in 1912, in Roseneath, Wellington to Ella, a homemaker, and Charles Wake, a journalist – the family moved to North Sydney, Australia when Nancy was two years old. Charles had been offered a much better job across the ditch, so they packed up all their belongings, rounded up all six of their kids and took off across the ditch – as so many young kiwi families still do. Biographies paint a picture of the family briefly enjoying a comfortable, middle class existence there, though Charles and Ella’s marriage had grown quite loveless at this stage. One day Charles just disappeared on them. Far from foul play, he’d abandoned the family and gone back to New Zealand. Before Ella and the kids had come to grips with the estrangement, they found out Charles had sold the new house from under them without warning.
The Wake family moved to a poorer neighbourhood, but stayed on in Australia. From here on, Nancy’s childhood was one of financial struggle, filled with dreams of moving to somewhere glamorous and exciting, and of regular conflict with her mother.
Aged 16, Nancy ran away from home to become a nurse. Technically as she was a runaway minor, wanted by the police, Shirley Anne Kennedy enrolled in the course in Mudgee, north-west of Sydney. This would be the first of many noms de plume she adopted in her life. A mining town with a poorly staffed hospital, and a never-ending supply of miners brought in with broken limbs, burns and nasty cuts – Nancy became an expert at patching up wounded men. Two years later, no longer a minor, she returned to Sydney, dropping the disguise. She worked for a shipping company for a while. Her big break, however, came in 1932. Her Aunty Hinamoa – the original black sheep of the family (Hinamoa ran off with a married sea captain) wrote to her to say she often thought about Nancy and wished her every success. She was sending Nancy £200 so she could live the life she wanted. A sum of around $11,000 Australian dollars today, this was a reasonable sum of money to go on an adventure with. Nancy booked passage on the RMS Aorangi II, headed for Vancouver, Canada.
From Vancouver, Nancy spent three weeks in New York – where she discovered their speakeasy’s – before moving on to London, England. In London she enrolled in a journalism school. By day she learned to be a reporter. By night she was a regular denizen of the nightclubs. One holiday weekend she jumped a plane across the English channel to Paris. Nancy adored Paris. On graduation she lied her way into a reporting job for the Hearst corporation, by convincing the interviewer she could read ‘Egyptian’ – her mock Arabic writing was just Pittman’s shorthand written backwards. As a Hearst corporation reporter based in Europe she got to relocate to Paris. Nancy learned the language, fit in well with the locals – and one night in 1937, while on holiday in Marseille, she met and fell in love with Henri Fiocca – a wealthy industrialist and eligible bachelor. The couple married in 1939, weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Here I need to rewind for a second, to discuss the future Madame Fiocca’s first visit to Marseille. Any story of Europe in the 1930s is bound to intersect with a particular type of lowlife. Her visit to Marseille on 9th October 1934 would not have been her first experience of fascists in action – she was still in Sydney in 1932 when a fascist on horseback gazumped the socialist premier of New South Wales, Jack Lang. As Lang prepared to cut the ribbon on the newly built Sydney Harbour bridge, one Francis De Groot beat him to it with his cavalry sabre. What happened in Marseille, however, was far more ominous.
On October 9th, Nancy Wake was sent to Marseille to cover the arrival of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. ‘Alexander the Unifier’, had formerly been the king of Serbia alone. He was having one hell of a time unifying his now multi-ethnic empire, particularly from ultranationalist groups who wanted self determination. The Ustase – a Croatian fascist organisation, run in exile from Italy, were by far his greatest threat. Yugoslavia also faced pressure directly from Fascist Italy, as they claimed ownership of regions within Slovenia and Croatia. On the political front, federalists wanted to split the empire into smaller constituent parts through legal avenues. A number of landlords were also furious with him, after Alexander dispossessed them of rural land, which he then redistributed to the serfs living on the land. The Austrian and Hungarian barons who lost out were a minor threat, but several Muslim landlords – remnants of Ottoman rule who lived locally, wanted the king gone. To top everything off, his Communist neighbours were looking across at him, just waiting for an opportunity to bring Yugoslavia into the fold.
In 1929, Alexander temporarily suspended democracy after fascists attempted a coup. Afterwards he fired corrupt, and fascist civil servants. He arrested the seditionists and troublemakers. The Ustase responded with a wave of bombings and assassinations. Desperate for help, and increasingly worried Hitler’s ascent in 1933 would lead to a combined Italian, German and Ustase coup attempt next time – the king called on France for help, and a military alliance.
Alexander arrived on the Dubrovnik on the 9th to a rapturous greeting from the locals.Greeted at the dock by French foreign minister Louis Barthou, the two men climbed into the back seat of a waiting car. They barely travelled 100 yards when an assassin approached the car, shouting ‘God save the King, then shooting both men dead. The assassin was, in turn, beaten to death by a furious crowd. The assassin, Vlado Chernozemsky, was an experienced killer who worked for a Macedonian ultranationalist group aligned with the Ustase. He’d already murdered two politicians before this incident, and was by then the guy who trained other assassins. Judging this job too important to leave to an apprentice, he went to Marseille himself to do the deed. Nancy was there to witness the assassination, and wrote a report for Hearst corporation – but as one of the first assassinations caught on film – the film footage is what people remember. All the same it left a lasting impression on her.
Mind you, violent fascists doing violent fascist things wasn’t something one could ignore in the mid 1930s. Besides France’s own home grown far right groups, like the Croix de Feu (who I mentioned in episode two of the Wall Street Putsch), there was a lot going on with the fascists. As a roving reporter based in Europe, Nancy saw, or heard of much of it. In 1933 she was even sent to Germany to interview Adolf Hitler. In 1935, she travelled to Vienna, Austria – then well in the grips of the fascists. Nancy was appalled to witness roaming gangs of fascists assaulting Jewish citizens in the streets without fear of reprisal. She vowed, should the chance ever present itself – she would help bring Hitler down. Right, back to 1939.
It is Christmas 1939 in Marseille, and after only a couple of months of wedded bliss, Henri was called up to serve in the army. Everyone feared the Nazis would be coming after France next, and while France had both the Maginot line, and a well trained, standing army of 800,000 men, the speed with which the Nazis took our Poland was utterly terrifying. Nancy was determined to play a part in the conflict – and had her millionaire beau buy her a truck she could use as an ambulance, should they be invaded. In March 1940, Henri was sent to the Maginot line on the North-East border with Germany.
As the Nazis blitzkrieg’ed through the North of the continent, at first through neutral Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; Italy launched an attack on the South of France. Madame Fiocca was soon in the thick of it, providing medical help to, and evacuating the wounded. The Axis powers soon overran the Maginot line, crushing French defences. Wherever possible they just went around the big guns and defences. On 17th June 1940, Marshall Philippe Pétain – a World War One hero known as the Lion of Verdun, surrendered to the Axis. He soon after took charge as a puppet dictator of a breakaway nation in South of France. The new capital, the town of Vichy. In reaction, a Colonel named Charles de Gaulle crossed the English Channel – declared a government in exile who would continue to resist, and started planning that resistance alongside the British.
In October, Pétain announced Vichy France had agreed to collaborate with the Axis powers.
As local resistance networks formed, Nancy and Henri – now back from the front – joined the resistance.
Madame Fiocca started off as a courier, shipping radio parts and other equipment to agents in the field. This was dangerous enough – In Vichy France this carried a death sentence if caught. Nancy and Henri continued regardless. They would live double lives – well regarded socialites and pillars of the community on one hand, partisan spies on the other. Though every meeting brought the risk of being uncovered, tortured and executed, they continued to build networks among the disaffected. At night they listened intently to BBC radio broadcasts from Britain for news on the war, with a second radio blaring in the neighbours direction, to obscure the noise of the first.
As Paris fell, German troops throughout Vichy France became a regular sight – as did captured allied soldiers. Fort Saint-Jean, an old fortress on Marseille harbour became a prison camp for several hundred captured soldiers, sailors and airmen. As the authorities believed their captives couldn’t go anywhere, they were allowed to roam freely in the daytime. After a chance meeting in a cafe with a captured officer, Nancy started to courier them goods. A Commander Busch, who adopted the code name Xavier, was their first connection. Xavier would later escape the camp – and become an important resistance fighter himself.
In a matter of a few months the scope of their mission had increased greatly. The couriers were now part of a network smuggling people out of France into neutral Spain, then British controlled Gibraltar. They were a link in the chain known as the Pat O’Leary line – named after a Belgian doctor and agent who took on the nom de guerre. They took in soldiers and occasionally compromised agents – hiding them in rented apartments, or in Henri’s factory. They acquired documentation for them, before taking them to the Pyrenees mountains. Soon increasing numbers of French Jews came to them for help. Vichy France started sending Jews off to the concentration camps in October 1940.
In September 1941, the agents of the Pat O’Leary Line were sent into disarray when a rogue operative turned on them. An alleged British officer, allegedly named Paul Cole stole a large sum of money from the resistance he had been given to courier from one cell to another. Cole was confronted, but as the agents argued if they should kill him, Cole jumped out of a window. Cole, real name Harold Cole, handed himself in to the Gestapo, informing on the resistance. It turns out he was actually a British deserter with a long civilian history of theft and fraud. Cole was in Nancy’s house just the once, and Nancy having taken a dislike to him, had thrown him out. It was possible that one visit wasn’t enough for Cole to remember her location. All the same, 50 members of the resistance were captured and executed on his information.
On 8th November 1942, Britain’s General Montgomery led 110,000 troops into Northern Africa in Operation Torch. As the Allies pushed back the infamous Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel – taking swathes on land across the Mediterranean from France – the Nazis decided to formally annex Vichy France. With a flood of German soldiers into the region, the work of moving escapees along the Pat O’Leary line became all the more dangerous. The Vichy government had never taken to the ports of Marseille en-masse, setting fire to a neighbourhood which housed 20,000 people, to disrupt resistance activity in the area. The Nazis had no problem doing this, and did so. This led to a growing number of angry newcomers, now looking to join the resistance. Every new recruit brought added muscle – but also the real possibility of admitting another turncoat or double agent.
By 1943, having helped over a thousand people escape, Nancy – or the White Mouse, as the Nazis called her – was on the Nazis radar. Strange men began following her. The phone developed a strange click every time she picked it up. A man was caught going through her letterbox one day by a neighbour. Nancy and Henri discussed the situation; Nancy was to escape down the Pat O’Leary line immediately. Henri would get the factory in order to keep running without him, then follow her. Madame Fiocca’s escape was fraught with difficulty – the first two attempts scuttled by terrible weather. While in Toulouse, to meet with Pat O’Leary, she was arrested while trying to flee from a train. The police, unaware she was the White Mouse, detained her on suspicion of being a sex worker. Pat O’Leary came to her rescue, explaining to police she wasn’t a sex worker, but was in fact his mistress. Multiple times she tried to cross the Pyrenees – only to find the Gestapo had just rumbled one link or another in the O’Leary line.
Just prior to her sixth attempt, Nancy joined in on a jailbreak of ten Allied officers, then, with the officers in tow, she made her escape. This involved all manner of complications, like having to jump from a moving train and a dash away from Nazis, as they fired a rain of bullets at her. Having legged it, the escapees made their way on foot over the mountains, a trip which took several days – much of the journey was without food and drink, in unsuitable clothing for the freezing nights. One night they had to sleep in a pig pen, where it is thought Nancy contracted scabies. The officers were often a millstone around her neck, complaining and stating they were too tired to go on. Madame Fiocca escaped the clutches of the Gestapo after a long, arduous journey. Soon she would be in England.
By mid 1944 however, she would be back in France – living in a forest, and leading a band of merry men against the Nazis.
Edit: (Monday 21 November 2022) I put a script to bed during Transgender Awareness Week. My original intent was to highlight two points; first, trans people have existed forever (as opposed to garbage far-right takes that we’re an invention of ‘post-modernists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, invented to undermine traditional society – and other similar dumb things often repeated by the Peterson’s and Shapiros of the world), and second – that Visibility matters. This episode is not a be all and end all – it’s the first part in an ongoing series I’ll return to every late November, as Transgender Awareness Week rolls around.
The senseless murder of LGTBQ+ People in a gay bar in Colorado Springs over the weekend did make me rethink the scope of this subject – Did I need to write something more strident, more defiant? The more I thought about it though, the act of LGBTQ+ people even deigning to exist was enough to set a miserable, insecure sociopath off, to tragic effect. If the ‘radical’ act of existing so offends some people, then maybe the following is enough? My deepest condolences to the loved ones of those lost, and to those injured in the deplorable attack.
Today I’d like to start with a poem.
“Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water, You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot, You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl, You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes, You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white and the sea to dry land. In the desert you turned rock to water, hard flint to a fountain. Who would then turn me from a man to woman? Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .”
Thus wrote Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus in ‘Even Bokhan’ (1322).
Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus was born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286. They – and I should say up front, as far as we know Kalonymus only ever presented as male to others, but given their poem, I don’t think it terribly disrespectful to use a gender neutral pronoun? So, they, Kalonymus became a scholar, receiving an extensive education in theology and philosophy. Kalonymus distinguished themself as a translator of many of the classical Greek and Roman works that were brought to Europe during the crusades. Their one true love, however, was satirical poetry. When it came to writing angry invectives on society, Kalonymus was said to be quite the pistol.
Even Bokhan is apparently an angry invective, raging against the comparatively easy life Jewish girls had compared to the boys. Girls got to be the home makers. They got to play games. Boys only buried themselves dutifully in dusty old books, till they were old enough to go to work. They were burdened with all the responsibility, apparently – quoth Kalonymus…
“Woe to him who has male sons. Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed, restrictions and constraints.”
But it does not read quite that way to me. When you take tone into account, there is a genuine mood of sadness and resignation. Kalonymus writes on, begging God to transform themself into a woman, before stating
“If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me and has maimed me with an immutable deformity, then I do not wish to remove it.”
We don’t know enough about the satirist to offer any diagnosis on them. If we did I’m certainly no psychologist with expertise in trans health. The work is interesting though, as – whether it represented Kalonymus’ feelings of not – it is clearly a representation of gender dysphoria. For centuries, this feeling of, to use Kalonymus’ words, feeling maimed and deformed is something millions of people have felt. Not all trans people feel gender dysphoria, but many do. It’s worth knowing The UCLA think tank The Williams Institute estimate 0.6% of the population is transgender. Extrapolated over human history this means many millions of trans people have existed; felt Kalonymus’ discomfort, and maybe begged their god to change them too. Kalonymus sees their condition as immutable, unchanging. Unlike many today, who have healthcare options, Kalonymus may feel powerless to the whims of a malevolent God they have been taught to love and worship. Can I understand why such a figure might turn their depression outwards into writing angry invectives at society? Yes, we see people just like him still in this day and age.
Did Kalonymus have role models, should they choose to look for them? Many have been lost to the whims of history, but, yes. For one let’s discuss Eleanor Rykener.
We really don’t know enough about Eleanor – but thanks to a set of court documents preserved on a vellum scroll in London, in 1395 – we know she existed, and get some little sense of her life. On Sunday 6th of December 1394 Eleanor was arrested by two officers while ‘laying with a man’ at an address in Cheapside. That part of town was well known for prostitution -as reflected in the names of the streets (trigger warning: rude words follow, please skip forward a little if need be). She was arrested on Soper Lane – a Soper a now antiquated slur for a homosexual man. This was not far from a Gropecunt Lane, a street name often used when brothels were nearby – and replicated in towns across England wherever there were brothels until the 16th century.
Eleanor, and the gentleman – one John Britby, a former church Chaplain, were brought in and questioned before the Lord Mayor of London. From Eleanor’s testimony we discover she was assigned male at birth and upon moving to the city had, as much as one could at the time, transitioned. She took up work as a bar maid and a seamstress before turning to prostitution. For a while Eleanor moved to Oxford, and worked in a pub there. We don’t know why she returned to Cheapside, but do know as a sex worker she made better money than she could doing bar work. Eleanor returned to her pimp; a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. We don’t know anything really about Eleanor’s life outside of work – her hopes and dreams – but we know from her confession that in her work life she had a large clientele who included many men and women, included three knights of the realm, and both male and female clergy. She made good money from sex work, and – however one feels about sex work – it afforded her an authentic life Kalonymus could only ever dream of.
The Lord Mayor of London carried out the interrogation personally, apparently to appear a ‘tough on crime’ mayor; however there is no evidence Eleanor was ever found guilty of, or sentenced for anything.
Individual characters in this time are often footnotes. The remarkable, and for this tale’s sake I should point out cisgender, Margery Kempe had yet to drop her ground-breaking autobiography, though she was alive at the same time as Eleanor. Telling one’s own truth before Margery was not a thing people did. If you made it into a history book, typically you were some well off aristocrat, a general or perhaps a merchant with tales of faraway lands. Types later coined the ‘great men’ of history.
As such many early records of trans people are often archeological in nature – take, for example, a 5,000 year old trans skeleton dug up in Prague, Czech Republic. The bones show the effects of male levels of testosterone. The accoutrements code female. A tenth Century AD Viking grave in Birka, Sweden contained a possibly FTM (Female to Male) warrior buried with his weapons and masculine items. Iron Age burial plots in Hasanlu, Iran show evidence the people of that time observed a third gender, considered neither male nor female. In aboriginal cultures from Africa to the Americas, to the Pacific, to Asia many peoples were, on early contact with Europeans noted to be trans, or non-binary. All too often this was unremarkable to those peoples themselves – it’s just the way people were. The way they always have been. Trans people slip through the cracks of history far too often.
But sometimes a movement, or an Emperor comes along – and they are harder to ignore.
The polytheistic religions of the Near East allowed a space where trans people could be themselves – and play a role in society. The Gala, Mesopotamian priests from the 3rd Millennium BC were considered nominally male by their society, but presented as female. They wore womens’ clothing, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. If the Galli, a Phrygian cult (from modern day Turkey) were not a continuation of the Gala, the Gala were certainly a template for them. The Galli worshipped Cybele, the mother of the Phrygian Gods. They lived as women, and were castrated on joining the sect, apparently as Cybele’s consort Attis had originally done.
One of the central icons of the religion was a black meteorite, kept in a temple in Phrygia. The Romans looted this meteorite while away, fighting against Carthage in the 2nd Punic war. In 204 BC, the meteorite, a statue of Cybele and a number of Galli priests were brought back to Rome. Cybele was quickly taken into the pantheon of Roman gods. Rome even added a national holiday for the deity, between April 4th -10th, where the statue of Cybele was paraded through the streets, flanked by Galli.
A number of Romans, their gender expression forced underground by the stifling Roman culture, found a level of utility in this new religion, and became Galli. As with right wing reactionaries in our time, the ascension of the Galli was met with a moral panic fed by conservative fury. These people with their strange ways were turning the world all topsy-turvy, apparently. They were a whole order of terrible if you were to take the satirist Juvenal seriously – his second and fourth satires were particularly unkind to the Galli. All the same, the Galli remained out and proud until Rome adopted Christianity. In the Council of Nicaea, May to August 325 AD, a meeting set out many of the ground rules of Western Christianity, the first cab off the ranks was a prohibition on self castration among the clergy.
Speaking of Rome – Varius Avitus Bassianus, is someone we should discuss. Born in Emesa (now Homs), Syria, a 14 year old Varius was promoted from high priest of a temple to Emperor of Rome, in 218 AD. Re-named Elagabalus, after her God Elah-Gabal (a variation of the god Baal) her reign wasn’t terribly long, or distinguished. Rather than invading the neighbours, Elagabalus spent most of her time throwing extravagant, hedonistic parties. At least one of those parties turned deadly, when a false ceiling fell away, deliberately dropping millions of rosebuds on the diners. Legend has it so many rosebuds fell on the diners, that people suffocated. Elagabalus executed generals and tried to enforce the worship Elah-Gabal as the state religion. She may have bigamously married a Greek athlete named Zoticus, and a charioteer named Heirocles, all the while visiting bars and picking up random men. Some of this may well be propaganda to excuse her assassination at the hands of her own guards just four years into her reign.
What is certain, however – Elagabalus wore women’s clothing, wigs and make up; insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and approached several Roman surgeons with promises of ample reward if they could develop a genital reassignment surgery for her. Elagabalus is not an ideal avatar for trans people everywhere – she strikes me as an awful person. However as emperor, she was probably the most high profile trans person in the ancient world.
I have one final subject I’d like to discuss, while we’re in the Ancient world – a figure we’ve met before and never fully discussed. You may recall Hypsicratea as Mithridates VI of Pontus’ lover at the very end of his life. The Cimmerian warrior princess fought alongside the Emperor, escaping across the Caucasus with him to the Crimea. Rumours circulated on the emperor’s passing, the Cimmerian warrior princess had adopted the masculine name Hypsicrates, and lived the rest of his life as a man.
In 2004, in the Black Sea city of Phanagoria, an epitaph was uncovered to a Hypsicrates, former wife of Mithridates. It once had a statue of the warrior set above it – but the statue was long gone by then.
This is intriguing. we know Mithridates’ Hypsicratea was said to have been stereotypically masculine in appearance, and behaviour. Mithridates called her Hypsicrates. A Hypsicrates was among the slaves brought back from Pontus by the victorious Romans. This same Hypsicrates served Julius Caesar, until freed by Caesar sixteen years after Mithridates death in 47 BC. After this, we’re not sure what happened to him, but some scholars believe he later became a well-regarded military historian of the Near East – quoted by later writers like Josephus, but whose works have all been lost to the ravages of time.
That tale makes for a tantalising what if, that leaves more questions than answers. If they are one and the same, was Hypsicrates/ea assigned male or female at birth? If so, did the change reflect a transitioning or de-transitioning? Were they essentially, before some so-called ‘cultural Marxist’ or ‘post modernist’ ever made a word for the phenomenon, non-binary? Sadly we’ll never know the specifics, but in the abstract isn’t it good to know he/she or they existed?
This week I’m starting with a quick anecdote. Please bear with me, this is not going to be a regular thing. Nor is the general tone of this Tale regular. I thought I was making something short and a little strange, to give me extra time on the last couple of episodes for 2022 – a bit of a firebreak I guess. This episode took off on me as I laid pen to paper – taking on complexities I didn’t foresee.
Anyway, I ask you give me time to set the scene on this one, and suspend disbelief on occasion. If this tale is not for you, no worries – we’ll be back to regular programming in two weeks’ time if you want to skip it. That said…
I’m no animist, but there’s a dream I had years ago. Apparently it’s a dream that I can still clearly recall. In 2007 I worked for a call centre by day, as a kind of in-house investigator. By night I was a guitarist in a rock band that had a level of local buzz and a local following. The band never really broke through – and eventually split – later taking up other creative endeavours- like podcasting. In 2007 we were self funding an extended EP, and when money ran short – I took to hiring myself out as a studio player for our producer for more studio time. This was a fair piece of barter; I got to redo all the guitars on one track, our producer got to finish an EP she was working on. On having arrived home one night from a mix-down session that ran to 2 am, I fell into a deep sleep… to dream of, well, musical instruments.
I was in a studio we’d borrowed for a day that was full of esoteric percussion and orchestral instruments. Amid their collection, a rather beat-up old cello with a string missing. At the session I picked the instrument up, and had a play – before deciding it wouldn’t add anything to the song. A scratch track on the instrument was subsequently cut. In my dream I picked the cello up, took a seat, and plucked at the strings till something musical came out. “Cello, it’s been a long day” I said.
“It’s been a long life” The cello replied. “Once I was majestic, the tallest Maple on the block. When it rained, elk sheltered beneath my canopy. When the sun was out, robins perched upon me and sang like angels.”
“We had our own song too, you know? When the wind blew, we sang – and what a song it was!”
Three and a half hours later an alarm sounded, and I trundled off to work. “Funny dream” I thought. I recalled the last thing I’d read that week was an account of the Emperor Charlemagne and his vendetta against a tree, the Irminsul. Yeah, that’d be it – exhaustion plus Charlemagne equals dreams of talking cellos?
In that spirit I invite you to suspend disbelief with me, and take a boat ride down the River Thames, England. The year is 43 AD, and we’re cruising the river in search of a suitable place for a fortress. Everywhere we look there are trees – a heavy covering of Weeping Willows rising up from the wetlands, then bowing down again to kiss the water. As day-trippers in modern times we appreciate the Acadian beauty of the scene. To a boatload of Roman Legionnaires sailing into parts unknown where – as far as they know – they could meet the same end as Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg forest (we’ll come back to that tale, eventually) – it must’ve been terrifying? This is not the tale of those Romans – They establish London, well, Londinium to use the name they did – and do many other things – we’re interested in those willow trees. We’ll return to London – and eventually those trees – in a minute.
But first we need to discuss money.
In the episode on Martial Bourdin I stated time itself is a very real phenomenon, but how we measure it is nothing more than a standardised set of measures agreed upon by all. We do this in part because of precedence, and in part because it’s in the interests of those in power to do so. Sometimes it’ll be in the interests of society as a whole. We call this a noble myth, or a noble lie. Though the origins of money are somewhat murky, we can fairly safely say in it’s every iteration it has been a noble myth.
On to that origin story – nobody ever recorded the why’s and wherefores. There’s a tale that states money came about from necessity, as the earlier system of barter reached it’s limits. Once all our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the advent of the ice age pushed many of the animals they hunted towards places sure to still have food – fertile river valleys. Humans, still hunter-gatherers, followed their prey. Once in these enclaves, as land elsewhere became barren, our ancestors became territorial, claiming ownership over the land. From 10,000 years ago we began to domesticate certain animals as pets or beasts of burden. Many humans learned to farm the land for food and other supplies.
Around 4,000 years ago, at several places all at once, we invented the plough – creating massive surpluses, and freeing up 5/6 of the workforce to diversify. The working theory is that this diversification led to greater choice in how one swapped their surplus goods for other things – but it proved terribly inefficient.
Say you made arrows and needed grain, but none of the hunters who use your arrows grew crops – and none of the farmers who have the grain need arrows anymore – then what do you do? Without a double coincidence of wants between the parties, it was hypothesised, barter failed. There a standardised proxy for goods seems sensible, right? Something quite rare, and durable enough to withhold being passed from one person to the next many times.
Where this theory falls down, is there is some proof of barter in some places – but no proof found yet of a community who bartered, then ditched the practice for a system of money – let alone giving any reason for doing so for posterity.
Somewhere along the line though, the idea of money of account – a token of standardised value – grew . Early methods included cowrie shells, and beads. The Mesopotamians (of modern day Iraq) invented the shekel somewhere around 2,150 BC. A silver coin which borrowed it’s name from a measurement of barley – approximately a weight of 11 grams – one can guess what it originally stood in proxy of. The shekel was used throughout much of the near east. Money was truly standardised, however by the Lydians (of modern day Turkey) around 1,000 BC. They had different coins, worth differing amounts. Their rulers even put their faces on the coins for the first time. In the late sixth century BC, their King Croesus, a man with a great love of his ample fortune, became a person of interest in Greece – as did those coins which bore his image. Croesus love of money, his meeting with the Athenian lawmaker Solon, and later run in with the Persians is of interest – but let’s shelve that too for another day – we’ve got too much ground to cover. From Lydia to Greece, to Rome and beyond you can sketch more or less unbroken lines to modern coinage.
Back in England, those Roman soldiers sailing down the Thames settled. They, of course were paid in coins. Over the course of the first century they brought destruction, conquering as far as what later became Hadrian’s wall (the wall itself built from 122AD) in the North of England. They also brought vast building and infrastructure projects – roads and canals, public buildings – built in stone and sometimes clad in marble. Groves of willow trees were felled to make way for a walled city which held 50,000 at it’s Roman era peak. There’s no word if the weeping willows wept at such carnage (stick with the plot device, it’ll make sense in the end).
A section of the English public, then a pre-literate society, learned to read, write and count. The Roman presence opened up lines of trade with the empire in Europe, and as such, opportunity for some. They also brought money to a people completely unaccustomed to the concept. For a small percentage of elite Britons, the Roman presence brought great wealth, prestige, and nice things like costly villas to live in. For perhaps as much as 99% of Britons, however, life was a similar daily grind to before – where one mostly subsisted, and occasionally starved – but at least they had roads to travel along, and slightly nicer pottery?
Of course the Romans also brought a time of peace. With as many as 50,000 legionnaires along Hadrian’s wall alone, elite Britons slept well in their villas at night – assured no Picts, Scots, Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles or Swabians could arrive and steal all their precious money. But this peace wouldn’t last forever. Rome disintegrated throughout the Fourth Century for numerous reasons, both within and without the kingdom. The supply of shiny new silver coins everyone had become accustomed to slowed to a trickle, as the Empire struggled to keep the lights on. Many of those soldiers England’s peace depended on were stationed to other parts of the empire, where trouble brewed for Rome.
The English, knowing money didn’t grow on trees (not yet anyway), started to ‘clip’ their coins to make the money go further – cutting chunks of silver off existing coins to mint new ones. In 409 AD, England, feeling Rome had abdicated all their responsibility to them – Brexited from the Romans in a successful rebellion. Having ‘taken back their sovereignty’, the cashflow stopped completely. What’s more, without garrisons of troops to protect them, the Picts of the North descended with a vengeance upon them.
Thriving cities and expensive villas were abandoned. Many wealthy Britons buried their beloved – though now dog-eared coinage in hoards. The land descended into an anarchy that would take hundreds of years to recover from. The willow trees took back much of London. When the wind blew, they sang a song of victory. When it rained, the red deer took shelter. When the moon was full, the wolves howled ominously.
I am looking to plough too big a field if I described everything that happened in England in the following years. The chronicler the Venerable Bede stated attacks from the Picts and Scots worsened. An English warlord named Vortigern hired a mercenary army of Saxons from the north of modern day Germany to help them fight back. Unfortunately for Vortigern, the Saxons liked England so much, they returned with friends and took over the country. This could contain some truth – Britons were not allowed to use weapons under Roman occupation, so most lacked the skills to repel a professional army. We know the Saxons, Angles and Jutes established several kingdoms in England from the early 440s – and that some kind of widespread slaughter of Britons did take place. Barbarians rolled many other Roman colonies, and they subsequently adopted many Roman ways – but Germanic invaders in England took on around 30 Romano-Britonic words, and nothing else. Virtually everything else was allowed to disintegrate around them.
This suggests several possible scenarios – none of which are pleasant for the original inhabitants of the land. Like the origin of money, the history of this time is incredibly murky, so we’ll move on.
Vikings first showed up in 789, and made a big splash in 793, when they wrecked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Anglo-Saxon England was divided up into at least a dozen kingdoms – at times dozens – ruled by all kinds – but we’re now straying a long way from the money, and the trees – so back to the topic.
Londinium was slowly re-populated, just shy of two centuries after it was abandoned. It would become Londonwik before it became known as London. Shepherds ventured out to the area now called Covent Garden. It seemed a nice place to keep sheep. Over time others would come, and the city would rebound – but to the willows this time must’ve seemed like paradise. Shepherds sheltered under them in the rain. When the stars shone bright, young lovers sung of love and longing like Chaucer’s Absolum to an unattainable Alisoun. One presumes the trees provided swelling harmonies.
Coins returned to England under Offa, King of Mercia (his reign 757 – 796). The man brought back the silver penny. His coins were remarkable in some ways – often of a higher quality than anything being minted in mainland Europe at the time. Some carried Arabic writing on one side. Some carried the image of his wife, Cynethrith – making her the only Anglo-Saxon queen represented on money. An empire builder intent on bringing England under just one ruler, coinage was a kind of propaganda to the king – a way of big-noting himself and letting everyone know he was the new boss. Offa embraced that aspect of money. As did every subsequent king or queen after him. By the time of the Normans in the 11th Century, coins were well established – but wealth had gravitated upwards into the hands of a small, elite class.
A general shortage of ready cash among the populace, to pay taxes with, often proved troublesome to these English royals. Take Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. On his father’s death he had to buy his own fiefdom in Normandy off his older brothers. In 1091 he was deposed of that kingdom by his brother Robert, and had to fight a costly war with him. By 1100 he was king of England, and Normandy – but was broke and facing multiple challenges to his crown. He desperately needed tax revenue… If only money grew on trees.
Well, it did, but not in the way you’re thinking – let’s put China and paper money to one side for now. The royals came up with a plan that, if those willows had emotions, they would have been shaking in terror over it.
Whole groves of weeping willows were press-ganged into finance. Henceforth their song would become less lullaby of the leaves, more a dull clatter as they banged up against one another.
Henry I came up with an interesting way to keep receipts on taxes paid. Tax would be recorded on a Tally Stick, as you had an annual tax bill, but typically paid it in halves, twice a year. A tally stick was a piece of wood, usually willow, that was split in two – both parts marked with identical notches to denote just how much tax the person had paid. The payer kept the longer piece, known as the stock (where we get the word stocks from). The exchequer kept the shorter piece, known as the foil. Willow trees were perfect for use as tally sticks as their distinctive grain pattern meant you couldn’t easily substitute one stock with another foil. When it came time to confirm who had paid their taxes, both parts were joined back together.
People realised if they were in need of money, they could often trade in their stocks for close to that sum of money – the new stockholder knew it was as good as guaranteed money come tax time. Jewellers often got into the business of buying tally sticks off the hard up, creating a secondary market. Henry II realised this also meant he could sell stocks to people for their future taxes at a slight discount, allowing for quick cash injections if money was needed to go fight a war. The stockholder could then sell the stock at a profit too on the secondary market. These tokens often spread far and wide in the kingdom – many times a long way away from the original taxpayer.
On occasion however; a king, such as Charles II, might game the system.
Having been restored to the throne in 1660 (his father Charles I having lost his head, with the Cromwells taking the reins for the interregnum), Charles agreed he would allow parliament to pay him a wage drawn from taxes – granting them the power to dole out his money and set taxes. Unfortunately for the monarch, a cluster of unfortunate things happened. First parliament were stingy, paying him less than expected, while keeping taxes static. Second, The Crown were limited in the printing of new money, due to a lack of bullion entering the country at the time. The Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London wiped out the King’s cash reserves, leading to him making deals with France (one publicly known, to send soldiers to help in their fight against the Dutch. The other a secret pact to expose he was actually Catholic, theoretically forcing the nation back to the old faith – which he did only on his deathbed).
But this still wasn’t enough.
In 1671, Charles was heavily in arrears on his payments to his army, navy, and debtors. He flooded the market, the jewellers particularly, with far cheaper tallies than usual. A buying frenzy on the secondary market, incredibly, pushed the value of the sticks up until their profit exceeded 10%. The debt came due a year later, and the stock holders came to the crown to collect their profits. The king couldn’t repay the debt – but he had a way out. Any debt agreement at the time with annual interest in excess of 6% was considered predatory lending. The usury laws then stated any such debt were null and void and to be promptly ignored by debtors. On these grounds, Charles refused to pay, crashing the value of tally sticks overnight. Many a jeweller went bankrupt, ending up in debtors prisons.
So it is unsurprising Tally Sticks fell out of favour, as useful as they had once been. As a form of alternate currency, they limped on till 1826. I couldn’t tell you what their song was in those days but I imagine it was not terribly festive or uplifting. Certainly they no longer provided shelter, financially or otherwise to anyone. Brought no-one solace, or comfort. Increasingly they took up basement space in the Government’s treasury and collected dust. On 16th October 1834 it was decided our wooden heroes would be immolated. Rather than do something civic-minded, like have a large public bonfire – or kind, like giving the old tally sticks away to people to use as firewood in the coming winter – the palace’s clerk of works decided the sticks should be fed into two ovens beneath the House of Lords. Throughout the day, two full cartloads of sticks were gradually fed into the furnace.
As the workday came to an end, with the basement floor actually hot to the touch, the workmen doused the flames and packed up for home. An hour later, the flames reignited. The wife of the doorkeeper rushed to the deputy housekeeper to advise the fire had not just re-animated – it was burning the entire building down, and threatened to spread to the rest of the palace. As the buildings went up in flame, renowned artists like J.M.W Turner crowded around outside, paint and easel at the ready. Turner painted several canvases of the ‘Great Fire of 1834’.
As I said at the beginning, I’m no animist – I don’t believe plants and trees, rocks, stones or the great eternal blue sky (sorry Genghis Khan) have feelings, souls or sentience… but isn’t it a little fun to suspend disbelief for a second and imagine those sticks – once majestic and content down by the riverside. They sang in the breeze, till someone robbed them of their essential being. Press-ganged into service, they lost their voice. Used and abused by a man, who, quite frankly should have hugged every single tree he ever came into contact with (For a second time, I WILL come back to that story), they were branded villainous and untrustworthy. Left in a basement to moulder for years – they were ultimately robbed of a final chance to be of service to others. Don’t you just want to allow them one final act of revenge? As the painters captured the billowing smoke, and firemen fought a losing battle to contain the damage – Well, I couldn’t tell you their final song – but it brought the house down.
When trying to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on April 18th 1943, I get a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, head off on an adventure into the woods – free from the encumbrances of adult supervision. I imagine something out of an Enid Blyton book, or perhaps a scene from Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. An image of kids just being kids. Wrongly I suspect, I want to imagine those four kids too preoccupied with schoolyard politics, games, pop culture and urban legend – kid’s stuff – to think much on the backdrop of a world war.
The adults that weekend perhaps read the Luftwaffe bombed a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler ran into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy – who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in Nazi concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, targeted a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto above Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. They took their revenge for his part in Pearl Harbour, shooting the Admiral out of the sky.
Truthfully I don’t know what occupied these kids’ minds on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Bless em All’ as they rode into the forest… maybe singing the ‘other’ lyrics? (The ones likely to get me an adult rating on iTunes). For that matter if those kids themselves had family serving abroad in the war. I do know the boys were on a covert mission to steal whatever birds’ eggs they could from Viscount Cobham’s ancestral land – Hagley woods – and that the day would conclude more like a Stephen King novel for the young lads.
The boys searched high and low for bird’s nests, till they came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge, only to find an old animal skull staring back up at him. Farmer picked the skull up – presumably to make his friends jump a little – but as he did, he noticed tufts of hair, a human jaw bone and traces of human flesh still attached to it. In a mad panic, the boys ran for their bikes, and took off for home. The gravity of their find had dawned on them, but as they frantically pedalled home it also dawned on them they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land when they found the skull. A sound thrashing from angry parents was one thing, but would they risk a criminal record over the skull? I cannot say what else the boys may have been thinking – whether it felt to the boys like they’d just fallen into a gothic horror tale, spy novel, or crime procedural. It appears the boys were all spooked by the experience. Before they split from one another, they made a pact not to disclose their grisly find to anybody else.
But, as anyone who’s ever picked up Shakespeare might tell you “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”. Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, had an especially hard time dealing with the find, and told his father about the skull. They reported it to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the following day.
Officers reached into the tree, and finding much more than a skull. A near complete skeleton was laying inside ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, apparently amputated. The hand bones would be found 13 paces away from the tree as investigations continued. Taffeta cloth had been shoved a long way down her throat. Some scraps of clothing, and shoes were found. As was a rolled gold wedding ring – a thin strip of gold bonded or fused to the outside of a brass or copper base. It was a cheap alternative to a solid gold ring.
The remains were taken to Professor James Webster, the local pathologist. The body was of a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth, including a tooth pulled a year before her death. She had given birth at least once.
The body had been placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, and she was presumed to have died of asphyxiation from the cloth shoved down her throat. She was put in the tree some time around October 1941.
The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They identified her shoes, tracking down the shoemakers in Northampton, and all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs were sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands. The stall holders there kept no records. They scoured through lists of missing persons but were unable to make a match. The ‘Battle for Britain’, where German planes flew over British cities at night, bombing the hell out of the locals – had left no shortage of missing people. Most were presumed buried under the rubble somewhere. None of those people matched the lady. Her irregular teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. This too drew a blank.
There was a single incident in the vicinity of Hagley wood in late 1941 that seemed very promising. A businessman and a school teacher separately phoned the police to report a woman was screaming uncontrollably in the woods. Police were dispatched to the scene, but found nothing on arrival. That lead was re-opened, but led nowhere.
Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared locally in the form of graffiti. They were written in chalk, all in a similar hand. The first one read, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’. Soon after ‘Hagley Wood Bella’ appeared etched on a wall. Finally the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ Started to appear in the vicinity. Police presumed the graffiti was always done at night, as they were never able to locate a single witness to the act. An inky darkness owing to the wartime blackouts no doubt helped the mystery tagger. They rechecked their missing persons lists, looking specifically for a Luebella, or a Bella. They investigated the kinds of people known for defacing walls and obelisks – but could not get a break in this case.
So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? Today I can only offer a handful of theories on the case.
Starting with Margaret Murray. Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Her career in active field work was hampered, first by most field work being given to her male counterparts; then later by the First World War. Murray diversified – becoming an expert folklorist, most notably writing a series of books on witchcraft that the modern Wicca movement based itself on. In 1945 she weighed in on the case – offering a possible explanation. Was Bella murdered by occultists? Was she in fact a witch herself?
Her reasoning was twofold – the amputated hand, and the tree.
The following is far too vague for it’s own good, but to explain her reasoning. Several groups of people have had a funny thing with hands and thieves since at least as far back as the Mesopotamian lawmaker Hammurabi wrote his famous law code. With many punishments being like for like – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lawmaker stated if a thief took property with their hand, that hand should be cut off as punishment – hardly like for like, but you get the gist. This piece of ancient Talionic law morphed into something wildly different throughout parts of Medieval France. From there the idea spread throughout Europe.
If you cut the left hand off a dying criminal as they twisted on the gallows – or if the criminal in question were a murderer, then whichever hand did the killing – you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled, was believed to have magical powers. If you yourself were a thief, your mere possession of the hand rendered sleeping occupants of a house into a deep trance. You could rifle through their prized possessions without fear you too might end up on the gallows. A hand of glory presented to an attacker could freeze them. It also protected the possessor from evil spirits. Treasure hunters believed a hand of glory could also lead them to buried treasure troves.
That the hand was cut off was a clue to Murray. That it was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to the folklorist – as did the disposal of the body inside a tree.
According to Murray several pre- Christian European societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge on the living.
Her assertion was lent some weight by a murder in Lower Quinton, 40 miles South East of Hagley Wood, on Valentines Day 1945.
Charles Walton, a local 74 year old was brutally murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. While doing some grounds keeping, he was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe. As he lay on the grass, bleeding out from a cut throat, he was then pinned to the ground through the throat with his own pitch fork. Circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – as Walton was said to have loaned Potter a sum money he couldn’t afford to repay. Others placed the blame on Italian prisoners of war kept locally. The Italians having surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the POWs were at ease to freely wander the town in the day.
In 1954, local papers reported on another, similar killing. This murder in the town of Long Compton, fifteen miles from Lower Quinton. The murder happened back in 1875. The victim was an octogenarian named Ann Tennant. Newspapers reported locals whispered behind Tennant’s back that she was a witch. She too was killed, ritualistically in this case, by being pinned to the ground with a pitchfork.
Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood – a man variously described in the press as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood was tried for murder, but spent the rest of his life in an asylum. He claimed he was a witch hunter, and would kill more witches ever let out – so authorities threw away the key, leaving him there. The press largely underplayed Heywood’s mental illness, and many wondered aloud what secret groups of witch-hunters, Satanists or witches had lived among them for at least the past seven decades?
All this fed back into Murray’s witchcraft theory. It was hardly the only theory, however.
Another possibility centres around a troubled young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic drinking buddy – a man known as ‘Van Raalte’.
Jack Mossop was an engineer, employed making plane parts in a Banner Lane factory during the war. In 1937, prior to the war, he’d taken flying lessons, and was an air reserve. When asked by workmates why he was in a factory, rather than having aerial dogfights with Nazis, he claimed he’d crashed too many planes in RAF training, and suffered from a traumatic brain injury. This is often presented in Bella lore as fact, often cited as an explanation for his subsequent behaviour. There’s no evidence he was ever in the RAF, let alone invalidated out after a crash. It appears far more likely he had essential skills, so was unlikely to be called away to fight.
It can neither be confirmed, not denied whether Mossop had crashed a plane while taking flying lessons – and certainly it would explain his subsequent descent.
Mossop was a heavy drinker, who it appears, followed in the loutish footsteps of his father and uncles – known to locals as the ‘seven sods’ for their rowdy behaviour. It must be said, he wasn’t brought up by his father, but by the parents of the ‘Seven Sods’. His mother died of the Spanish Flu when he was six years old. He was subsequently brought up by his grandparents. Mossop was a bright child, and often suffered from debilitating headaches, and regular nightmares. As the war progressed, he grew increasingly distant from his wife Una.
At 1am one morning, believed either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home to Una in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalte (or Van Raalt). Una suspected Van Raalte was a spy, as the man never worked, but always had plenty of money. It’s since been suggested he was a local rogue, making his money by selling rationed goods on the ‘black market’.
On the night in question, both men came in terribly shaken by an incident which may have haunted Jack for the rest of his life.
After settling his nerves with another drink, Jack told Una the following. They had been drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman he only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalte and the ‘Dutch piece’ possibly got into an altercation (Jack states simply she got ‘awkward’). The three then left the pub together.
They piled into Van Raalte’s Rover, Jack in the driver’s seat, Van Raalt and ‘Dutch piece’ in the back. Something never properly explained happened in the back seat, and the woman ‘passed out’ slumping towards Jack. Van Raalt ordered Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men got out of the Rover, carrying the unconscious woman to a hollowed out oak tree in Hagley Wood. The two men placed her inside the tree.
At least this was the story Una finally gave the police in 1953.
Una was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was long deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He worked less – but if anything, his cashflow seemed to increase. Una was convinced Jack too was a spy. He became increasingly emotionally distant, violent and moody. While Jack may well have been seeing other women before the incident with the ‘Dutch Piece’ he was now increasingly turning to other women for comfort. A fed up Una had enough, and left him in December 1941.
After Una left, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became noticeably erratic – and in June 1942, he was committed to a mental health facility. He died there in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report has been read by some to that he was suffering from the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers, professional wrestlers and American football players can often suffer from. My read, as a former investigator often employed to find next of kins of deceased customers with unclaimed insurance policies – ie. not a medical professional, but someone who has read many death certificates – His heavy drinking had badly damaged his heart. His kidneys were also shot. He more likely than not died of a stroke caused by the heart damage.
This Tale was kept under wraps to the public at large, but leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower, in 1958. That leaker, Anna of Claverley was Una. These articles told of a Nazi spy ring in the Midlands, who were out to infiltrate the many arms factories dotted across the region. Bella was, according to this telling, a Nazi spy and occultist known as ‘Clarabella’. She’d parachuted in earlier in 1941, under the direction of a Nazi intelligence service known as the Abwehr. Abwehr records released postwar state a woman, code named ‘Clara’ was parachuted into the West Midlands – but after she failed to make contact, they presumed her killed in action. ‘Clara’ was far from the only Nazi spy parachuted into the United Kingdom. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worthy of discussion is Josef Jakobs.
Josef Jakobs was 43 years old when he was captured in January 1941. Born in Luxembourg, he fought for Germany in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight – serving as an officer until the Nazis discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland between the wars, for selling imitation gold as real. Surprisingly Nazi Germany felt this made him unfit to lead men into battle. This didn’t make him ineligible for a job as a spy.
On 31st January, Jakobs parachuted into Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He landed badly, breaking his ankle. He was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. He was carrying £500, a counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter, a photograph and a German sausage. He was caught after he fired his pistol into the air like a flare gun. The pain of his broken ankle had gotten too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him over to MI5.
Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5. This included an explanation of the photograph of a woman he had on him – the woman was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to jump somewhere over the West Midlands. She knew people there. Bauerle was a cabaret singer in West Midlands clubs in the 1930s. Jakobs was court-martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad on August 15th 1941. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London.
So mystery solved? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress – allegedly with occult leanings – parachuted in to sabotage weapons factories? Had she, for some unexplained reason, fallen out with her compatriots – who then killed her? For decades this was advanced as the most likely scenario. This theory imploded in 2015. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.
So where does this leave us? Use of DNA as with Australia’s Somerton Man case in Australia? Impossible in this case, as Bella’s remains went missing at an undisclosed point between her discovery and the advent of DNA testing. Currently there is one lead. Bella’s skull was photographed, and those photos do still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who specialises in creating facial reconstructions of the long deceased created a portrait of Bella. It’s always possible someone, somewhere has a shoebox of old family photos. While these are often treasured items for the children, such ephemera often gets donated to museums by the grandkids’ generation. It’s not inconceivable a photo may surface – not out of the question someone will recognise it’s significance when it does. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm is a nice to know, and we may never know – but who she really was? That’s the question I’d really like answered.
Quick sidebar especially for the New Zealanders: Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. He was a member of the English cricket team, who toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton Cobham fell for our little part of the world while here. He served as Governor General, from 1957 to 1962.
Governor General Cobham was a popular proxy for the crown. He established Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation who help struggling kids by providing them adventures designed to teach the kids they are capable of much more than they ever realised. He compiled a book of his speeches while in office, which sold well. All profits from the book were donated to Outward Bound.
The Lytteltons’ had deep ties to New Zealand. Charles’ great grandfather, George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ – who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason several names in this tale may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of George, the elder Lord Cobham.
Hi all the following is Part Two of a Two Part Tale. Part One is Here
If I may, folks, I’d like to resume this Tale by doing something totally irresponsible. Before we come back to General Butler, I want to take us on a digression which has no great bearing on, or relation to our story. Today we pick up the tale on a hot, balmy night in Miami, Florida – the time, 9.35pm, February 15th 1933.
In Bayfront Park that night, a man stood in his open top car, and gave an impromptu speech to an enraptured crowd. As he concluded, stating this was his first time in Miami in seven years, but it would not be his last – it almost became just that. The sound of six gunshots pealed through the air, to the shock of all in attendance.
In the crowd that night, an unemployed 32 year old brick-layer named Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara. I imagine Joe looking rather flustered, having worked his way frantically through the crowd, looking for a single good vantage point – this is only my imagination at work. At only 5.1” tall, Zangara had to perch atop a bench, steadying himself against a Mrs Lillian Cross, 5.4”, standing in front of him. He leant over Mrs Cross’ right shoulder, aimed his 32 calibre pistol, and pulled the trigger, yelling
“Too many people are starving!”
Joe Zangara may have succeeded in his assassination attempt, but for the fact Mrs Cross was all kinds of fierce. The first bullet passed so close to her it burned the side of her face, but she spun around and wrestled Zangara for the gun. This caused the remaining shots to veer off wildly. Five people near the car were struck by bullets, including mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak. Cermak died days later, with a bullet still in his lung. Lillian got the better of Zangara, the furious crowd then piling in on him. The crowd were ready to tear him limb from limb, were it not for the speaker – President Elect Franklin Roosevelt – calling for the man to be handed to the police, to be dealt with through legal avenues.
The authorities did deal with Giuseppe Zangara. He was up before the courts, and sentenced to eighty years in prison. When Mayor Cermak passed, a subsequent murder charge was added. He was re-charged and found guilty of murder – spending just ten days on death row before he was executed, on March 20th 1933.
When I first heard this tale, perhaps 20 years ago, the teller inferred Zangara was a stooge, a patsy; some unknowing schlub doing the dirty work for a cadre of shadowy elites. Subsequently I’ve heard others state he was from Calabria, Italy – close to Sicily – Therefore he must’ve been a Mafia tough, or possibly an anarchist. As far as anyone could gather, Zangara was none of those things. He was an angry, frustrated, and extremely unstable guy – sick and tired of struggling by on whatever work he could get. His meagre savings had waned in the depression, and the guy was doing it hard. One factor contributed to his actions; from the age of six he’d been in near constant agony from adhesions on his gall bladder. He lived the majority of his life suffering from crippling stomach pains. Joe Zangara was not a man who valued his own continued existence terribly highly when he tried to kill FDR.
We can safely assume MacGuire and his backers never went to Zangara to take care of their ‘Gold Standard’ problem – though I wonder what General Butler made of the incident with just a few months’ hindsight.
Back to Smedley Butler’s timeline. When we last saw Major General Butler, he’d met with Robert S. Clark; former soldier, multi-millionaire banker and heir to a sewing machine fortune. Clark attempted to bribe the general for his support, by offering to pay his mortgage for him. Clark was willing to spend half his fortune, if need be, to stop Roosevelt. Butler, took this badly, and all but threw Clark out of his house…but not before Clark made a phone call to his guy – Gerald MacGuire – to go with plan B. Plan B was to flood the American Legion (a prominent veterans’ group) with telegraphs demanding the leadership call for a return to the Gold Standard. This subsequently happened.
Smedley Butler could well have expected the bankers would move on and look for another ex-general to do their bidding.
To his surprise, Gerald MacGuire kept showing up to his public speeches. In Boston he offered to throw a banquet in his honour. He would pay him $1,000 to attend, and of course make a pro-Gold Standard speech. Butler declined. In October, he was preparing for a trip to Brooklyn, to deliver a speech in support of a former Marine running for political office. This speech was unannounced to the public, but MacGuire somehow knew all about that too. Days prior he dropped in on Butler asking if he could tag along. Butler told him no. MacGuire then offered to pay Butler $750 every time he just mentioned the Gold Standard in a positive way in a speech.
This spooked the General – how did MacGuire even know about this engagement? Did he really have eyes and ears everywhere? It started to dawn on Butler this group may actually be extremely dangerous. He felt he should report them to someone – but also knew he didn’t yet know enough about their schemes to do so. If he went to authorities now, he’d come off looking like a lunatic.
As 1933 wrapped, big business were increasingly vocal in their hatred for President Roosevelt. Several moguls, and a growing number of editorialists in mainstream newspapers, began asking a question – Was FDR a secret communist? They increasingly painted a picture of a ‘creeping socialism’ – their new buzzword – a stripping of Americanism by stealth. Roosevelt wasn’t there to save us from ruin, he was in the White House to kill the American Dream and capitalism itself. In November they collectively pearl-clutched as Roosevelt recognised the USSR as a legitimate confederation of states. When he announced no more American soldiers would be sent to South or Central America as muscle-men for big business, the moguls and business papers were livid.
And what’s more, FDR’s recovery was slow and methodical. That Mussolini chap appeared to be working wonders at lightning speed. Unions? Forget about it! The man even reputedly had the trains running on time. Of course this was done with all the subtlety of a guy who runs over a child at 70 miles per hour, then doesn’t even stop to check on the victim. Hitler had been in power since January, and was of increasing interest to certain moguls. A wave of fascist organisations were taking over Europe at the time. Portugal in 1933. Austria and Bulgaria in 1934. Yugoslavia in 1935. Greece in 1936. Spain just prior to the Second World War. This is not mentioning the many nascent movements the Fascists supported into power later; from Slovakia to Vichy France, Romania to Norway. This flurry of action made this deplorable world view seemed fresh and exciting to many a Wall Street banker or industrial titan.
Many wondered, what would it be like having their own Authoritarian strongman in the White House?
On the upside, MacGuire disappeared suddenly. Butler later found out he was sent off on an all expenses paid mission to Europe – all paid for by the shadowy cabal. He learned this when he received a postcard from the Riviera in early 1934. MacGuire was in Berlin when he sent a second postcard in June. Meanwhile, in July 1934, Fortune magazine – a favourite of the rich – added further evidence of the mood of the boardroom. They spent an entire issue, in excess of 120 pages, effusively praising Mussolini and Fascism.
MacGuire returned in August, dropping by Butler’s on the 22nd. He told the General he was sent to investigate the role of former soldiers in the fascist movement, specifically their role in the formation of dictatorships. MacGuire wasn’t crazy for Mussolini, or Hitler – but was quite taken by the Croix de Feu in France.
On 6th February 1934, France’s left wing Government came under attack – quite literally – from a confederation of Far Right groups. As a needed aside, MacGuire appears in the telling quite impressed by the Croix de Feu’s role – and I need to add context to his telling.
The French Government were under heavy financial pressure and in the process of enacting austerity measures, some of this in relation to American business interests calling in overseas debt following the stock market crash. The final straw was a series of financial scandals involving corrupt people with ties to politicians, and the final, final straw was the Stavisky Affair.
Alexandre Stavisky was a conman and pawnshop owner who was on the run from the authorities after getting caught selling counterfeit bonds, and borrowing large sums of money against a collection of glass trinkets. He claimed the costume jewellery were emeralds formerly owned by the Empress of Germany. Just prior to February 6th, Stavisky showed up dead from an alleged self inflicted gunshot wound. Others claimed forensic evidence stated it wasn’t self-inflicted – unless Stavisky had arms long enough to drag across the floor as he walked. They pointed the finger at the Gendarmes who found his body. As with similar cases, ie. Jeffrey Epstein, it was revealed the fraudster had powerful friends. One friend, Prime Minister Camille Chautemps, was even said to have protected him. The anti-Semitic far right were particularly livid that Chautemps would help Stavisky, a jew.
The Croix de Feu were a coalition of military veterans led by a Colonel Francois de la Roque. Anti-Semitic, right wing and staunchly pro business – they looked much like Fascists. They did support a woman’s right to vote, however, and the establishment of a minimum wage. They were also wary of the Germans in general, and of Hitler in particular. Historians have long argued whether they qualify as fascists, but certainly they were a very hateful far right group.
It was their inaction that day that made them of interest – something that I don’t think comes across in MacGuire’s conversation with Butler. While other groups attempted on February 6th 1934 what similar groups tried in Washington DC on January 6th 2021 – de la Roque ordered his group to stay out of the attempted putsch.
They peacefully protested in the South of Paris. The other groups failed in their coup without their considerable muscle. Soon after, feeling intense pressure from the public – Chautemps government resigned in disgrace. The Croix de Feu, having not disgraced themselves on February 6th, ended up in a position of influence over the right wing government who followed – although they had personally burnt bridges among the far right.
MacGuire’s interpretation of the incident is somewhat different to mine. He saw their role on the day as far more active… Back to the narrative.
MacGuire stated his organisation wanted to build something similar in America – a super-organisation of former soldiers they could use to seize power. Butler responded if they did such a thing he’d gather his own army together to fight them. MacGuire countered they had no plans to depose Roosevelt – they planned to convince him he needed to hire an ‘assistant president’ – a ‘Secretary of General Affairs’. The people would understand. Roosevelt was clearly unwell. If the people didn’t, the organisation would run a propaganda campaign. They were helpers, not usurpers. A sick, old man needed support. What’s more, the cabal wanted Smedley Butler to head the movement.
He also planned to contact James Van Zandt, a veteran, future Republican politician and – as it turns out – the man who invited Butler to speak to the Bonus Army at the start of this tale, to seek his support. MacGuire was sure Butler’s friend would want a part of this.
Butler stated he had no intentions of carrying out a putsch. MacGuire told him he wouldn’t need to. Roosevelt would be so grateful for the help, he’d hand the reins over. He’d been grooming General Hugh Johnson for such a role already – but was finding the man far too indiscreet. FDR planned to fire him in the coming days. It turns out FDR did in fact fire Johnson soon after this conversation, and the man was loose-lipped – he took a job as a newspaper columnist, writing a slew of anti-Roosevelt hit-pieces.
But how would one fund such a plot? MacGuire replied he now had access to a $3 Million budget. He could get hold of up to $300 million if needed. The Mogul J.P. Morgan was involved, as was Al Smith – yet another former Democratic Party presidential candidate, and a former Mayor of New York to boot. Smith was an associate of the powerful DuPont family. This shocked Butler, Smith was one of Roosevelt’s guys.
MacGuire claimed Smith would soon break from the Roosevelt camp via an angry invective in the papers. He did just that soon after, joining The ‘American Liberty League’ – a shadowy organisation led by several former high ranking democrats – and top ranking business people from General Motors, DuPont and Sun Oil Company – among others.
What’s more, if Butler chose to turn them down – well, he was their top pick in spite of J.P. Morgan lobbying for another contender – but he was not their only option. Their second choice was sure to back them. J.P. Morgan had rallied hard for General Douglas MacArthur. They expected MacArthur could be bought, not least of all, as his father-in-law – Edward Statesbury – was involved in their organisation. Hanford MacNider, a former leader of the American Legion was a distant third choice. MacGuire was going down to Miami. He planned to catch up with Butler once he returned. The meeting was over.
(To the Podcast listeners: We’ll be back in a minute).
The following month The American Liberty League – an anti-Roosevelt coalition of captains of business, bankers and former politicians launched, with a suspiciously familiar roster of members. Irenee DuPont, J.P. Morgan, Al Smith, MacGuire’s boss – a man named Colonel Grayson Murphy, – and of course sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark.
It’s list of patrons included the families behind Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Andrew W Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates, General Motors and Sun Oil. J. Howard Pew, who later co-founded the John Birch Society, yet another founder. Al Smith and his buddy John J Raskob (a former Democratic Party member and businessman) were directors of the league. They quickly branded Roosevelt’s New Deal “Jewish Communism”, stating their opposition. In the South a “Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution” a similarly-minded group, but with a focus on KKK ideology, also arose.
A lot of things suddenly happened as predicted. Butler got on the phone to warn James Van Zandt a cabal of fascist businessmen would be in touch with him. Van Zandt took heed. Next he considered travelling to Washington DC, to report the plotters. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was the authorities would laugh him out of the building.
In part one I glossed over the fact Butler was briefly Police Chief of Philadelphia. It’s quite a story in itself. The Philadelphia police were notoriously corrupt; in bed with gangsters and bootleggers. Butler was brought in to enforce prohibition, which he soon came to view as a stupid law in need of repeal. He cleaned up much police corruption. He also, as Foucault’s best boomerangs only can, brought in a militaristic style to policing, honed in Nicaragua and Haiti – from which a thru line can be drawn directly to some of the worst aspects of American policing to this day. I left that out because I wanted you to like this man. We can admit he has a complex legacy right?
Anyway, while in Philadelphia he made several friends in the media. He approached his friend Tom O’Neil, an editor for the Philadelphia Record. O’Neil was shocked by the plot, and only too happy to lend him the talents of investigative reporter Paul Comly French. French started off by going through Butler’s own background with a fine-toothed comb. If the General was plotting to blackmail America’s moguls he would ferret it out. If he was correct some of America’s moguls were planning a takeover, they needed conclusive proof Smedley Butler was above board.
In the meantime, Butler continued to speak on behalf of the soldiers – and challenge the practice of sending them abroad to fight and die for the further enrichment of big business.
The midterm elections came and went. The American Liberty League did their best to hobble Roosevelt’s supporters – to little effect. The Democratic Party won by a landslide.
Something else was happening in Washington DC. A reporter named John L. Spivak, who specialised in uncovering American fascists, anti-semites, racist Southern Sheriffs and other undesirables – caught word of a group of fascist businessman plotting to take over the White House. John McCormack and Samuel Dickstein of the McCormack-Dickstein committee, subsidiary of the House Un-American Activities Committee also picked up on the plot. They went straight to Smedley Butler to ask him what he knew. With proof from Paul Comly French that he was no traitor, he freely told them everything he knew.
On November 20th 1934, Butler met with the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, giving a full rundown of the wooing of The American Liberty League. At the same time, an article by Paul Comly French ran in the New York Post and Philadelphia Record. It’s headline “$3,000,000 Bid for Fascist Army Bared”
Later that day French too gave evidence. He’d not just done his homework on Butler, but had met with MacGuire himself, on September 13th 1934. He presented himself as ‘Butler’s Personal Secretary’.MacGuire was rather more candid with French, stating they needed a ‘Man on a White Horse’ to lead the coup, and that man could only be Butler. They planned to arm a militia of half a million former soldiers through their connections at the Remington Arms Company – paying for the weapons with DuPont money. The money for the militia’s wages would be doled out from a National City Bank account by himself and attorney for J.P. Morgan, John W. Davis.
French also mentioned MacGuire pursued two former leaders of The American Legion, who pledged their support for the putsch. Once successful they planned to register all persons in the USA, in an effort to “stop a lot of these Communists”. They planned to tackle unemployment by rounding up the unemployed in concentration camps and forcing them into slavery.
MacGuire was then called in, and grilled. He denied everything. He was on a rather healthy $150 a week – a little over $3,000 a week adjusted for inflation to 2022, but he couldn’t explain away over $30,000 he’d spent in recent months. That figure would only grow. The Committee concluded their initial proceedings, finding it likely several of the USA’s wealthiest citizens were plotting to instigate a coup. They determined to dig further. The moguls denied this of course, and – with the support of their powerful media connections – publicly branded Smedley Butler a fantasist and lunatic. His testimony, they claimed, was a publicity stunt.
A large number of senators and congressmen demanded the investigation must go further. Plans were made to subpoena sixteen people. The case was also referred to the Attorney General. MacGuire was called back and questioned further. His testimony was contradictory, showing him as a liar. Former leaders of the American Legion were called in, as was James Van Zandt – who corroborated Butler’s testimony. Further information emerged – If Smedley Butler refused, another potential ‘man on a white horse’ was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt jr. Theodore was shocked anyone would think he’d ever usurp his fourth cousin. Robert Sterling Clark was, rather conveniently, over in Paris and happy to refute Butler’s accusations – when he got home.
But then on November 26th the committee released a statement it saw no reason for calling in a raft of business moguls or Generals. They reasoned testimony against them was largely hearsay.
The hearings dragged on till January, all the while the corporate media did all they could to discredit Butler. Eventually Clark sent his lawyer to speak on his behalf – as he was still overseas. The lawyers answers as to why MacGuire was given a verified sum of $75,000 by Clark were unconvincing. In January 1935, Butler took to the airwaves on WCAU Philadelphia to tell his story to the American people directly. At the end of the month Dickstein stated this investigation would go further.
The committee released their findings on February 15th 1935. They found there had been a plot to overthrow the president – but the newspapers buried the story. And no-one chose to take any further action. MacGuire, Clark, former presidential candidates, business moguls, bankers – they were all let off the hook. They could have, at the very least, prosecuted MacGuire for perjury – Even he walked. If there is any justice in his case, it may be that MacGuire would be dead within months, aged just 37, of a sudden case of pneumonia.
The American Liberty League continued to fund a number of hostile fascist organisations till they disbanded in 1940. Roosevelt, found the mainstream press continued to push the “Creeping Socialism” line. He took to the radio as Smedley Butler had. His ‘Fireside Chats’ were extremely popular with the American people. It’s a trend that continues to this day – I’m watching New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doing something similar on Instagram as I edit this piece.
For all the animosity of the super rich – they enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth under New Deal politics – all the way up to the mid 1970s. Yes, they paid levels of tax many would now consider unbelievable – if you were earning in excess $200,000 a year (around $2.4 million today) 94c in every dollar over $200,000 went to the taxman.
The ‘great acceleration’ this tax money fed, made for a true golden age for capitalism – as the American economy boomed like never before, and the world moved at an unrivalled pace – in every way imaginable. Wealth, technology, life expectancy, living standards, education – and also infuriatingly, oil consumption, pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas production.
As for our hero? Smedley Darlington Butler, one time muscleman for big business turned peace campaigner. One time oppressor of other nations in the name of American capitalism, turned America’s staunchest defender of democracy – against those same capitalists…. He died of cancer aged only 58, on July 21st 1940. Friends, family and former colleagues saw him off, and no doubt remembered him fondly but – like Lillian Cross – I don’t believe the extent of his courage was truly recognised in his own time.
Hi all, this is part one of a two-parter. Part Two is Here.
This week’s tale opens on a ‘Hooverville’ – a makeshift village of the dispossessed; all in attendance hit hard by the Great Depression of 1929. The location? A swampy, muddy field in Anacostia Flats – near downtown Washington DC. It is July 17th 1932. A shantytown on a mission, this camp holds ten thousand American military veterans. They’ve gathered together, under the leadership of one Walter Waters – a former sergeant from Portland, Oregon – to demand the Government keep a promise made to them years ago. Hailing from all across the USA, many have hiked the length or breadth of the country to be here. Others have freight-hopped boxcars, like characters in a Steinbeck novel. They’re mostly veterans of the First World War. All are members of the Bonus Army.
As fighting men, they were promised a sizeable bonus for their part in World War One – but when the bill came due in 1924, the Government deferred payment. Though the Great Depression was a few years off, the boom which preceded it was still a year away and money was tight. The veterans would have to make do with promissory notes for the amount agreed; plus compound interest – to be paid in 1945. This seemed reasonable to many at the time; but now, with one in four working Americans jobless, millions homeless – close to half the nation’s banks insolvent – that money was needed more than ever. The men of the bonus army were tough and resourceful, but were struggling – often in jobs hit hard and early by the depression. Besides, many felt they had done their bit, and then some. They made the world safe for democracy and capitalism, and in their time of greatest need, was it really too much for democracy and capitalism to come through for them, and hand over the two billion dollars collectively owed them?
Some politicians listened. A bill was introduced, and passed through Congress to grant the men an early payout. But then President Herbert Hoover threatened if it went through, he would use his powers to veto it immediately. He didn’t need to – the Senate did the dirty work for him, killing the proposal stone dead. The Bonus Army were tired, dejected, and much in need of an inspirational leader to revive their spirits. On the podium on July 17th, one such leader; Major General Smedley Butler.
Butler was a retired Marine Major General with one of the most impressive records in Marine history – more on that later. A soldier’s general, he spent much of his career fighting alongside the men – in 120 battles – mostly south of the border and throughout Asia. He was well known as a guy who always had the soldiers’ backs. A guy who would never ask another to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. On retirement, Butler joined the public speaking circuits, as a vocal advocate for soldiers’ rights. The Bonus Army asked him, as an ally, if he could come to Anacostia Flats and speak with the men. He gladly obliged.
Onstage, a worked up Butler addressed the men in his gruff, booming voice that belied his small, wiry frame.
“It makes me so damn mad a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and 18.” He exclaimed, in response to media commentary the men were an unkempt rabble. “You are the best-behaved group of men in this country today. I consider it an honour to be asked to speak to you”.
Furthermore, he called on the men to remain peaceful – the people will be on their side so long as they kept to the rules.
“Don’t make any mistake about it, you’ve got the sympathy of the American people – Now don’t you lose it!”
He called on the Bonus army to keep it together, and continue their fight for the bonus. If they lost this battle don’t despair – they hadn’t lost the war. Recalling a recent personal experience of defeat “I ran for the Senate on a bonus ticket, and got the hell beat out of me”
Many of these men were then considering a free train ride home, a government bribe aimed at thinning out the crowd. The army would then swoop in and break up the camps. No doubt Butler knew this. knowing many who had a home to return to would take that ticket, he advised –
“When you get home, go to the polls in November and lick the hell out of those who are against you. You know who they are… Now go to it!”
Two weeks’ later, the army did break up the camps, sent in by General Douglas MacArthur. There was an ugly, messy, tear gas filled stoush. Cavalry officers, men with bayonets, even six tanks and machine guns were rolled out to move the unarmed protesters – many of whom had nowhere else to go at this point. Two protesters from the Bonus Army were killed. The Bonus Army continued their fight however – and in November 1932 the voting public – sick and tired of President Hoover’s callous, ineffectual management of the depression – emphatically voted for the Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his first 100 days, FDR brought in a raft of policies to lift the economy out of the doldrums. Given multi-letter acronyms, some referred to his plans as ‘Alphabet Soup’. One policy – and this is very pertinent to our tale – was to uncouple paper money from the Gold Standard.
Under the gold standard all money must be backed by an equivalent sum in gold. By dumping this, moving the economy towards ‘fiat money’ – money was realigned more as a current reflection of the expected future value of the wider economy. Politicians could much more easily speculate on a brighter future under Fiat money. The term a riff of the Latin ‘Fiat Lux’, ‘Let there be light’, one could proclaim “let there be money”, and treasury could print the money needed to pay workers to literally rebuild the nation. Amid the wide-ranging public works, vast infrastructure projects kicked off – many of which paid huge future dividends. Projects like freeways, schools, city halls, wastewater plants – even the Hoover Dam – started prior to Roosevelt’s New Deal was completed on New Deal funding – owed much to FDR’s plans. People were working, paying taxes and spending. This created virtuous circles. The USA was on it’s way towards resuscitating the nation’s economy by the eve of World War Two.
A move from the gold standard was in no small part also meant to put the brakes on rich Americans or investors in the American economy, exchanging all their paper money for gold – as is often the case in times of recession – then moving that wealth offshore for the foreseeable future.
The downside to this plan? – it drove inflation, lowering the value of each solitary dollar. This was also a threat to anyone still wealthy enough to have millions of dollars in cash stored away. How would America’s wealthiest citizens react to this? We’ll come to that, but for now, back to Smedley Butler.
On the morning of July 1st 1933, General Butler took a phone call from an acquaintance at the American Legion – a large servicemen’s organisation that, unlike the Bonus Army, regularly took the businessman’s side. Legionnaires were often used as strike breakers in industrial actions. The call was to advise a couple of war veterans from the Legion were on their way to meet with him. Five hours later a chauffeur driven limousine pulled up outside. Two well dressed men got out. These men were Bill Doyle, commander of the Massachusetts division, and Gerald MacGuire, former commander of the Connecticut chapter and, by day, bond broker on Wall Street. Butler was wary of the Legionnaires’, but always happy to give any old soldier a hearing. He warmly welcomed the men in.
After small talk on adventures and war wounds, the visitors got to their point. They represented a shadowy group of veterans who were tired of the Legion’s leadership. They hoped to roll them in the upcoming convention in Chicago, and needed Butler’s help. They asked Smedley to take to the stage at the convention, and call for the ouster of the ‘royal family’ – as they referred to the leadership.
Though no fan of the ‘royal family’, Butler had no interest whatsoever in getting involved. It was none of his business who ran the legion.
The men countered – would he at least attend as an honoured guest? Well, not an honoured guest exactly… They could sneak him in as the delegate from Hawaii? Again he demurred. The two men returned to their limo and left.
This would be far from the last time they would meet – MacGuire especially. A month later they returned to the Butler household with a new plan. Butler could gather three hundred legionnaire friends of his, then travel to Chicago by train. The men would holler for Butler till the Royal Family had to let him speak. The men had a written speech for the general to deliver. Butler pointed out most of his friends in the legion didn’t have the money for a ticket to Chicago. The men replied they had sufficient funds to pay for that, showing Butler proof of a $100,000 operational budget.
Butler was a man with a ferocious temper; he was a hair’s breadth from letting rip at the men.
But he was also curious as to their endgame. Playing it cool he told the men he’d think about it. He could be interested in their scheme, but needed to know much more before he could commit himself.
Once Doyle and MacGuire left, Butler read through the speech. It demanded the legion lobby government for a return to the Gold Standard. Their reasoning? bonus payments should be backed by something far more tangible than fiat money.
So… Who was Smedley Butler?
Smedley Darlington Butler was born on July 30th, 1881 to a distinguished, largely pacifist Quaker family – Largely, as both grandfathers fought for the Union army in the American Civil War. His family were previously active in the fight against slavery in the underground railway network – helping runaway slaves to freedom – and when war broke out, they felt they too must play their part. They were politically active and influential – his lineage including Congressmen. His own father, Thomas Butler, was one such politician.
As a child, Smedley dreamt of becoming a soldier. Aged 12 he joined up with the Boy’s Brigade – giving him at least some sense of military life. The Battleship USS Maine exploding in Havana Harbour on February 15th 1898 gave Smedley the reason he needed to sign up. Prior to the Maine incident, a war of independence between Cuba and their colonisers, Spain, had been in full swing for several years. The Maine was stationed in the harbour to protect American business interests in Cuba. A boiler had malfunctioned, causing a catastrophic explosion, but speculation ran rife the Spanish had blown the ship up. A large number of Americans were livid with Spain and called for a declaration of war. The politicians soon obliged. Many young men, including a sixteen year old Smedley Butler, enrolled in the armed forces to fight the Spanish. Butler signed on as a Marine.
Cutting his teeth in Cuba, he returned home in 1899. Promoted to lieutenant, he was then deployed to the Phillipines, where he led a battalion. This war was a continuation of the war with Spain, taking place on another of their colonies. Showing the kind of derring do that later became his trademark – he led an assault on the heavily armed stronghold of Noca-leta – battling through a rain of heavy gunfire to capture the enemy base. In downtime he had a massive tattoo of the Marine corps emblem tattooed onto his chest, which made him deathly ill for a time, as the tattooist had used a dirty needle.
From the Philippines, Butler fought alongside a multi-national peacekeeping force against The Boxer Rebellion in China. America, of course, had business interests in China that needed protection – a constant of Butler’s service. One of his first missions was to protect an American compound near Tientsin against fifty thousand Boxers. He was in charge of a considerably smaller force. At one point in the conflict he risked his own life by weaving through enemy gunfire to rescue an injured Marine private. Remarkably, the Marines broke the siege, sending the Boxers running. He was shot in the thigh by a stray bullet, while taking out the high-walled Boxer compound at Tientsin, but fought through the injury. While healing from the battle, he was promoted to captain. He went on to fight at Peking, his leg injury not yet fully healed.
In 1902 Butler was in Panama. In 1903 a revolution erupted in Honduras, and Butler was sent in to protect America’s banana exporters. He continued to serve with distinction, and in 1908 was promoted to Major. 1909 saw him stationed in Panama, then Nicaragua, both hot spots with American business interests. In the latter mission, he protected a highly unpopular government – who had seized power – but who also had the virtue of being friendly to American businesses.
One tale from Nicaragua – in 1912, Major Butler was sent in to liberate a captured railway line with a crew of 100 men. The train was being guarded by a much larger force. Rather than risk being outgunned, Butler turned to asymmetrical warfare – putting his own life on the line. walking towards the rebel forces with two cloth sacks in hand, he demanded the rebels hand the train over to him. He told the rebels if anyone tried to stop him taking the train, he was carrying two bags full of dynamite. Get in his way they’d all be blown to kingdom come. His bluff worked.
He briefly rose to governor of the district of Granada In Nicaragua. This mission sat particularly uncomfortably with Butler. He knew this time, in no uncertain terms, the majority of the population detested the conservative government of Adolfo Diaz. He was becoming increasingly aware of his role – in his own words “A high class muscle man for Big Business… a racketeer, a gangster for Capitalism”. Later that year he was ordered to, and successfully carried through, the rigging of a governmental election in Diaz’ favour.
In 1914, Butler was sent to Mexico. He served in the midst of their rebellion both as spy, carrying out reconnaissance work, and a soldier. By 1915 he was stationed in Haiti.
Germany had economic interests in the island nation – at an unsettled time in which four regimes ruled that year alone. Washington DC worried if a revolution broke out, Germany would swoop in and establish a naval base. The marines were sent in to protect the American sphere of interest and restore order. It was coincidental American business interests – banks particularly – had money tied up in the nation? Butler was sent after the Cacos – precursors of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Tontons Macoute. At times the marines were outnumbered 20 to one, but Butler’s marines prevailed, battling through fields of sugar cane and taking out compounds in the middle of the night. Butler was put in charge of the Haitian police force for a time – a role he reprised in the 1920s, as the police chief of Philadelphia. By 1916, now Lieutenant Colonel Butler, he became increasingly worried of his role in other nation’s affairs – to quote Butler
“War is a racket…in which the profits are reckoned in dollars, and the losses in lives”.
When the USA entered the First World War, Butler begged to be sent. After much lobbying he was sent, but to Camp Pontanezen, a French camp through which most American soldiers came and went. Promoted to General, for once he was not in a combat role – but he did have responsibility for some strategically important, and at the time poorly maintained real estate. Butler soon had the camp orderly, and won the respect of many of the soldiers passing through the camp. The First World War seemed futile to the seasoned warrior. He later wrote “what on earth (are) these American boys …doing getting wounded and killed and buried in France?”.
Smedley Butler served for some time postwar. In 1927 he was stationed in China, as that nation fell apart, amid battling warlords. He was sent into Shanghai, to protect the interests of the Standard Oil Corporation. All up he saw action in eleven countries – in excess of 120 battles or armed conflicts. Back home by 1930, people were starting to question just what the marines had been doing in some of those occupations in Central and South America. Butler, near retirement, shed light on some of those activities – the 1912 interference in a Honduran election top of his list. The most awarded soldier in American history in his own time, he had quite a reputation to preserve. He was increasingly willing to tarnish that reputation, if it meant keeping future marines safe from being sent into conflict for the sole benefit of big business. By the early 1930s, Smedley Butler was a popular advocate of soldiers rights and a notable anti-war campaigner.
In 1931, he was passed over for the top position in the Marine Corps, then slipped up at a speaking engagement. Speaking on the need to still keep a defence force, for protection against foreign invaders – he shared a story of a friend’s armoured car ride with Benito Mussolini. The two men flew through the countryside at a constant seventy miles an hour. The pace was constant as they shot through any towns or villages in their way. Coming to one settlement Mussolini’s car ran straight over a young child without even attempting to brake, much less stop to check on the victim. Horrified, Butler’s friend screamed, only to be lectured by Mussolini. The child “was only one life, and the affairs of the state could not be stopped by one life”. Smedley Butler wanted a far less interventionist military – but as long as monsters like Mussolini existed, the USA had to keep a defence force. The speech caused an international incident. Italy demanded Butler be court-martialled. He was arrested and charged with conduct unbecoming his position. The public were furious over Butler’s arrest – and the wave of anti-Mussolini sentiment was so palpable, Il Duce asked for the charges against Butler to be dropped. Butler went free.
Mussolini’s request didn’t kill the story as he hoped. Butler’s friend, the journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt, confirmed the tale, adding Mussolini patted his knee immediately after, stating “Never look back, Mr Vanderbilt – Always look ahead in life”.
As the Great Depression bit, citizen Butler – a lifelong Republican – gave his support to the Democrat, Roosevelt. This was not just at the ballot box, but through his public speaking. In one speech he proclaimed himself “a member of the Hoover for Ex-President league” Whether Butler would have done this unprompted is mere speculation – the fact is the ‘Roosevelt Republican Organisation’, a political pressure group something akin to The Lincoln Project in Trump’s time, approached him for support. He was happy to oblige them.
We really should rejoin Butler in 1933, as he tours the nation giving public lectures and speeches.
The Wooing Continues…
As an influential man; a man with the ear of an army’s worth of dispossessed soldiers; a man who recently took a public stand against a sitting president – Smedley Butler appeared worthy of pursuit to Gerald MacGuire and his masters. As we’ll discuss in part two, they had a particular interest in winning over an army’s worth of soldiers. Who else could they call on for that? Douglas MacArthur? He’d ordered the attack on the Bonus Army, so was persona non grata at the time. Throughout the remainder of 1933, MacGuire pursued Butler at every opportunity.
In September, while Butler was in Newark, New Jersey on a speaking engagement, MacGuire dropped by his hotel room. When Butler asked him was there really any real money behind this shadowy organisation – MacGuire threw $18,000 in notes on the bed. This was just loose change, but could get him and a gang of legionnaires to Chicago. Butler demanded he pick the money back up immediately – was he trying to get him arrested? The moment he tried to do anything with any of those thousand dollar notes, he’d leave a traceable footprint tying him to the scheme. MacGuire countered he could arrange smaller denominations.
Moving forwards, Butler advised him, he would only speak to the backers directly. Arrangements were made for a face to face meeting in Chicago with Robert Sterling Clark, a millionaire banker and heir of a founder of the Singer sewing machine company.
Butler knew Clark, as it happened. As a young man Clark was a Marine Lieutenant who fought alongside Butler in the Boxer campaign. The two men spoke on the phone, then met face to face, at Butler’s house. In their talk, Clark let slip the writer behind the gold standard speech was none other than John W. Davis. Davis had been a Solicitor General for Democratic President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1918. After a brief stint as Ambassador to Britain, he ran as the Democratic nominee for President in1924, losing to the Republican Calvin Coolidge. As a private citizen, Davis returned to the law – defending big business interests. Though now remembered – if at all – as the guy who argued against school desegregation in the landmark Brown v Board of Education case, he was then the head counsel of the mogul J.P. Morgan.
As they talked in his study, Butler challenged Clark head on – this speech had very little to do with soldiers, still unpaid, getting their bonus. It felt like another racket, another big business plot. What was his interest in all this? Clark briefly hesitated, took in a deep breath, then honestly answered. He was a wealthy man, with a $30 million fortune to think about. The movement away from the Gold Standard was driving up inflation, which would massively devalue of his fortune. Clark was convinced Roosevelt would beggar him, and was willing to spend half of his fortune to force the country back onto the Gold Standard.
But why would Roosevelt give in to pressure if a group of old soldiers started making some noise over this? Clark answered Roosevelt was a blue blood like him – He had class loyalties to people like him, and would bow to pressure given half a chance. When he did, the blue bloods would descend to offer their support, and all would be forgiven.
Butler told Clark he wouldn’t let veterans be used to undermine democracy. He wanted no part in this scheme. Clark countered. Butler was working because he had to – all his years of service may have brought a wealth of experience, but no great financial fortune. Butler had a large mortgage still to pay. If Smedley was willing to do this, the cabal would pay his mortgage for him.
Butler was enraged – and though he knew he should stick to the plan – just keep on collecting evidence on these people – he lost it with Clark, hollering at him to go out into the hallway. Go look at all the mementos of his long career – all on display out there. They were rewards for loyalty to his nation, and to his people. He would not risk that reputation for anything. Buddy you picked the wrong guy.
Minutes later, Clark sheepishly returned, and asked if he could use Butler’s phone. He made a call to MacGuire to advise him go with plan B. In Chicago the Royal Family would be inundated with telegrams demanding they back a return to the gold standard. He then left.
Days later, Butler read in the papers – they indeed had been inundated with such telegrams. He may have been excused if he thought this was the last he’d hear of the shadowy cabal… but what kind of tale would that make?
Sorry all, this will have to be a two-parter. Readers, podcast listeners – my own slowly growing ‘bonus army’ please return in two week’s time and we’ll conclude this tale.