The Killing of Dr. King, Part Three: Ray's Reasons

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Having examined Ray’s version of events—that he was manipulated by a mystery man named Raoul into bringing the murder weapon to the Memphis rooming house that served as the sniper’s perch, but that he himself did not pull the trigger—and finding it sorely lacking in credibility, we now move on to consider the scenario that Ray was the shooter. Some of the points raised against this version include that he was a bumbling and failed crook and could not have possibly planned such a nearly perfect assassination, a perspective that doesn’t take into account his successful capers, like his bank robberies and his prison escape—and in fact, he would go on to escape from prison again for a short time while serving his sentence for murdering King. Others point to the fact that he was not a murderer and therefore seems an unlikely culprit. However, he had made a career of armed robbery, of threatening people with murder if they didn’t give him what he wanted, and once he is said to have stabbed someone in a Kansas City bar for no reason other than that they had spoken to him. Then there is the point that Ray was no sniper and therefore isn’t likely to have been the shooter, but to suggest that he couldn’t possibly have made the shot that killed King from 200 feet away doesn’t take into account the fact that when he joined the Army in 1946, he qualified as a marksman during basic training. Therefore, the real question needs to be one of possible motivation, of what may have driven Ray to commit the crime. He claims that not only was he not aware that Dr. King would be in Memphis at the same time as he would be there, but also that he didn’t really know who Martin Luther King was and that he certainly never talked about him. Moreover, he and his surprisingly numerous supporters, which include many people of color, insist that he is not a racist. Therefore, it would seem that he had no concrete reason to plan Dr. King’s murder and must have been a patsy. But are his supporters only seeing what he wants them to see? And what evidence is there to belie his true motivation?

Expectedly, after his arrest, Ray was grilled about his feelings toward African Americans in an effort to ascertain whether racism was a driving factor in his assassination of Dr. King. Did he hate black people? Was he connected to white supremacist organizations? Ray has always consistently denied any racist views, though his denials often included odd quibbling and admissions of feeling estranged from people of other races, which one might take as the equivocation of a guilty mind or as an attempt at complete honesty. Certainly many African American believers in a conspiracy have embraced the idea that Ray harbored no hatred toward them. Yet a close investigation into James Earl Ray’s past, as Gerald Posner provides in his book, Killing the Dream, which I’ve relied on extensively in this series, turns up some real evidence that Ray’s ideas about race tended toward bigotry all his life. He grew up in a poor little area of Missouri that some called Little Dixie, as it had been settled by Southerners and had a strong Ku Klux Klan presence (Posner 80). Although Ray himself has never been connected to the Klan, beyond the fact that later in life he accepted the representation of a famously Klan-associated attorney, he did evince some social and political ideas that would line up perfectly with that notorious hate group. While working at a tannery in 1944, he befriended a German named Henry Stumm who spoke admiringly of Hitler and the Nazis. It has been reported by people who knew Ray during this period—including one of his brothers, who shared some damning information about Ray with book authors before later denying he had said them—that it was during this time that James Earl Ray developed an intolerance of and hatred toward Jews and African Americans. From his point of view—again according to statements made by his own brother—Ray believed that the U.S. would be a better place if Nazis took control because they would ensure that it would be a racially homogeneous nation: all white. He thought not that they would exterminate all other races, but that they would exile them, deport them to some other country. In fact, so charmed was he with Nazi race politics that when he joined the Army after the war had ended, he requested to be stationed in occupied Germany, where more than one family member assumed he hoped to learn from or even support the Nazis.

A young James Earl Ray, already in trouble with the law, via the   LA Times

A young James Earl Ray, already in trouble with the law, via the LA Times

After the Nuremberg trials, however, he became disillusioned with the Nazis and with the Army, going AWOL and getting himself discharged from duty and sent back to the states. On the ship back, he was enraged, according one of his brothers, because black soldiers who had married German girls were put in first class while single white soldiers like himself were left in second class. Once home, Ray turned to a life of crime, and some who knew him said he developed an unreasonable hatred for African Americans, making occasional statements about how they should all be kicked out of the country, or even that they ought to be killed (Posner 111). This bigotry apparently continued or even worsened during his time in prison. Beyond the statements of his brothers and others close to him, some of which have since been recanted, some two dozen men who served time with Ray testified to his hostility toward black people. In fact, his animosity kept him from taking advantage of the opportunity to get out of his cell at Leavenworth and enjoy more freedom. In 1957, he had the chance to live on the prison’s honor farm, but he refused because it was integrated and apparently he much preferred the segregated living arrangements of the prison. Then while serving a sentence at Missouri State Penitentiary, he refused to attend any sporting events because the teams were comprised mostly of black players, and he once said of a black guard that worked his cell block, “that’s one nigger that should be dead.” And upon hearing of JFK’s assassination, he remarked, “That is one nigger-loving SOB that got shot. After his escape from the penitentiary, during his time courting Claire Keating in Montreal, Keating remembered their conversations turning to race and to black people specifically, saying that Ray told her, “You got to live near niggers to know ’em,” adding that everyone who knows them hates them (Posner 165). And after that, Ray again showed his true colors to the next woman he spent any significant time with, a prostitute in Mexico. One night, while drinking at a cantina, Ray seemed bothered by the fact that four black men had come in to drink at the same establishment. He began insulting and provoking the men before leaving the bar and coming back in to abuse them more. Returning to his seat, he had his companion feel inside his pocket, where she found that he was now carrying a pistol. One of the black patrons approached him and tried to make peace, but Ray snubbed him. Eventually, Ray drove all four men from the cantina with his disrespect, and he would have gone after them if his companion hadn’t stayed him by convincing him that police would be making their rounds.

Among the racist sentiments that Ray revealed in prison were comments about other countries to which he’d like to immigrate because they were less diverse or had ideas about relations between races that he found more sensible. For example, he told other inmates that he was considering moving to Australia because, as he understood it, there were no black people there. And he spoke a lot about the country of Rhodesia, a southern African nation built on harsh segregationist laws that was frequently in the news at the time because of its social and political turmoil. There, some 200,000 whites had maintained their extravagant lifestyles and their hegemony over the more than three million black native inhabitants by refusing to concede to black rule like the rest of the British colonies in Africa. Under Prime Minister Ian Smith, the colony declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and broke away from Britain. According to his brother John, James Earl Ray had not only expressed interest in travelling to Rhodesia but admiration for their stand against black majority rule, telling his brother during a prison visitation that he believed Ian Smith was doing a fine job. Things quickly fell apart, however, as The ensuing economic sanctions did little to bring the Rhodesians to heel, and as the white Rhodesians faced economic sanctions and a guerilla war at home, with multiple black nationalist groups, some armed and trained by Russia and others by China, engaged in a bush war with the relatively small Rhodesian army. This war was framed as a stand against Communism and heathenism, but to be certain, at its heart, it was a struggle to preserve a way of life made possible by white minority rule. And rather than Rhodesia’s troubles discouraging Ray’s interest in immigrating there, he seemed even more drawn to go and contribute in some way to their cause. While in Mexico, he wrote to an address he found in U.S. News and World Report advertising for immigrants to Rhodesia. Later, from Los Angeles, he wrote to the American-Southern African Council, expressing his interest in immigrating to Rhodesia and asking how he might obtain a passport since the U.S. wasn’t issuing them for travel to Rhodesia at the time, and then to the Friends of Rhodesia, Orange County chapter, purchasing a subscription to a pro-Rhodesian publication called the Rhodesian Commentary and asking further questions about immigrating there.  Indeed, his flight to Europe after the assassination seems to have been an effort to make his way to Africa and offer his services as a mercenary. After his London bank robbery, he flew to Lisbon, which was a hotspot at the time for recruiting white mercenaries to fight in Angola’s civil war. In Lisbon, he visited the South African Embassy and asked them about mercenary recruitment, but finding that they were no longer recruiting, he went to the Rhodesian mission and the legation for Biafra, making clear his desire to join a white mercenary group at each location. Thereafter, when he was caught with his pistol back in London Heathrow Airport, he said he was carrying it because he intended to make his way to Rhodesia, where it was quite dangerous. Judging from these actions, it would appear that his plan to go to Africa centered either on some ideological desire to support a country fighting for white supremacy or on some deep yearning to shoot at black Africans.

Rhodesian Army recruitment poster

Rhodesian Army recruitment poster

Another point supporting the notion that, despite whatever weak denials he made or tolerant facades he adopted after his arrest for King’s murder, James Earl Ray did indeed harbor racist ideology is his vociferous support of Alabama governor George Wallace, whose conflict with Dr. King and stringent stand against civil rights I discussed in the most recent installment of this series. By the time Ray escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary, Wallace was concentrating on a bid for the presidency of the United States. His populist campaign has been aptly compared to the campaign of Donald Trump numerous times by many historians, like Wallace biographer Dan Carter and presidential historian Ronald Feinman, as well as by respected news organizations, including the New York Times, and National Public Radio. Like Trump, Wallace fanned the fires of resentment and fear of progressive social change, in his case specifically over the Civil Rights Movement and its recent legislation, calling the Voting Rights Act “one of the most tragic, most discriminatory pieces of legislation ever enacted” and bemoaning the civil rights legislation for setting “race against race and class against class.” With this reactionary message, he drew massive crowds to disorderly rallies, just like his 2016 counterpart, and like Trump, he appealed to the poor white demographic, suggesting that politicians in Washington were out of touch with the people and that they had a rude awakening coming. As were Trump’s rallies, Wallace’s were troubled by protesters who called him a racist and whom Wallace mocked from his lectern. While Trump called his followers to Make America Great Again, Wallace urged his supporters to Stand Up for America. It’s almost as if Trump was working from a George Wallace playbook when he decided to declare the press his opposition and spend more time discrediting them than his opponents.  And much like Trump, he surprised many pollsters and analysts with his unexpected success, winning some 10 million popular votes and carrying 5 states.

We know that James Earl Ray was a strong George Wallace supporter because his brother John Ray, another Wallace supporter, has stated that James approved of his politics and even suggested that, after leaving Montreal following his failure to obtain a passport, he probably chose to go to Birmingham not because a shadowy mystery man directed him there but rather because he wanted to go somewhere people shared his views on race. After his sojourn in Mexico, Ray ended up in Los Angeles at the same time that Wallace was holding his raucous rallies up and down the state of California, and it would be no stretch to think he attended one of them. But even if he didn’t, we know that he read the Los Angeles Times, which devoted much column space in those months to Wallace’s effort to get his third party on the California ballot, and we know that in establishing his Eric S. Galt alias in L.A., he told people he was in town working for the Wallace campaign. In fact, he even appears to have done some stumping for them, of a sort. It turns out that his first trip to New Orleans from Los Angeles had not been made in order to rendezvous with Raoul—a character that he never mentioned to anyone until after his capture—but rather he made it as a favor to a woman he’d met, driving her, her brother and another friend there to retrieve her two daughters, but before he would take them, he demanded that all three sign a petition to get Wallace on the ballot. Finally, there is the indication that Ray may have been planning Dr. King’s assassination long in advance, and that George Wallace was an integral part of the plan. Ray’s brother Jerry told George McMillan, one of the writers researching the assassination, that there had been such a plan, and that Ray chose to establish his Eric S. Galt identity in Birmingham after returning from Canada because, much like Donald Trump can be counted on to use his pardon power as a sort of political patronage, James Earl Ray assumed that if he murdered Dr. King in Alabama, Wallace would make sure he went free. Of course, Jerry Ray would later deny that he said any such things, even though the statements are present in McMillan’s interview notes (Posner 169). And this would not be the only such statement indicating that James Earl Ray had entertained the idea of killing Dr. King for years.

Wallace campaign poster, via  Wikimedia Commons

Wallace campaign poster, via Wikimedia Commons

Ray claimed that he had only the vaguest knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King’s existence, a dubious notion considering how much we know he read and kept up with the news, and that he certainly never spoke about him to anyone, but statements collected from people who knew him prior to the assassination contradict this. Back in prison, more than one inmate remembered how Ray would become agitated while reading weekly newsmagazines over the actions of civil rights leaders and King specifically, and one inmate, Cecil Lillibridge, recalled him scornfully calling Dr. King “Martin Luther Coon” (Posner 135). Likewise, statements made by Ray’s brothers, Jerry and John, who had visited him in prison and appear to have rendezvoused with him more than once after his escape, indicate that James Earl Ray was more than aware of Dr. King, that he was actually entertaining ideas about killing him.  Several weeks after his escape, according to Jerry Ray, all three brothers met in an old, rundown Chicago hotel and plotted some ways they might make money. Ideas bandied about ranged from as dangerous as kidnapping someone of importance for a ransom to as seedy as making and selling pornography, the latter being a scheme James Earl Ray found quite enticing. During this meeting, though, James told his brothers, “I’m going to kill that nigger King. That’s something that’s been on my mind. That’s something I’ve been working on.” According to their story, told to author George McMillan, both brothers refused to have anything to do with this plot. And later, both brothers claimed such a meeting had never taken place and denied they’d ever told McMillan it had. But the brothers were known to lie about their meetings with Ray. For example, John had visited James in prison the day before James’s escape, and there is reason to believe he aided his brother’s escape since James afterward used an alias and a social security number that John had previously been known to use. And despite prison records that prove the visitation happened, John claimed he had not visited James the night before the escape. And years later, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations questioned Jerry Ray about this meeting in Chicago at which James reportedly expressed intentions to murder Dr. King, Jerry tellingly did not deny it happened but rather refused to talk about it, hiding behind the Fifth Amendment on the grounds that discussing this meeting might incriminate him. Considering the fact that the bank robbery the brothers are suspected of committing together took place shortly after the meeting, it is possible that their discussion of kidnapping and robbery plans was what Jerry worried would be incriminating, but there is the further possibility that the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the plots hatched by the brothers in that Chicago hotel room, and that rather than it being James’s plan alone, the brothers raised it and planned to pursue it together. The question, then, is why? After the assassination, Jerry said that if Ray had done it, “there had to be a lot of money involved” (Posner 41). But he told McMillan that he had refused to go along with Ray’s plan of killing King because “There ain’t no money in killin’ a nigger” (Posner 152). Yet shortly after the manhunt for his brother had begun, he reportedly told a friend who asked him if Ray had done it that “This is his business… If I was in his position and had eighteen years to serve and someone offered me a lot of money to kill someone I didn’t like anyhow, and get me out of the country, I’d do it.” So was there, after all, money in it for the man who killed Dr. King? And did the brothers discuss this, among other moneymaking schemes, during their brainstorming session in that Chicago hotel room?

Of course, it is part of Ray’s legend of Raoul that he was drawn unwittingly into a plot to kill King on a promise of money, but if Ray had taken it upon himself to plan King’s murder as a moneymaking scheme before he claims he ever even met Raoul, then where would he have gotten the impression there was money in it? His prison acquaintance Cecil Lillibridge, who had listened to him rail against civil rights leaders, says that Ray also used to wonder aloud whether or not there might be some group out there that would reward the killer of a civil rights activist like King (Posner 135). Other inmates told interviewers that Ray spoke about murdering Dr. King for money, speculating that he might get as much as $10,000 for it. One inmate, Harry Sero, remembers suggesting to Ray that, what with King advocating boycotts, some wealthy businessmen might pay a lot to have King put out of the way. Ray’s comments appear to have graduated after that from speculative to seemingly assured, telling other inmates that some “businessman’s association” was offering a hundred grand for King’s murder, though he couldn’t name the group, simply saying he would find out who they were (Posner 136). Were there such bounties on Dr. King? The short answer is yes, of course there were, bounties ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 offered by a variety of far right hate groups like the KKK, the National Socialist White People’s Party, the Minutemen, and the American Nazi Party. Which of these groups Ray might have come into contact with, however, is a more important question to demonstrating that Ray may have undertaken the assassination in the hopes of collecting a bounty. There are reports that some prisoners in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City were aware of a $100,000 bounty on King from the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK as well as of another bounty by a local criminal enterprise calling itself the Cooley’s Organization (Posner 137). But one such supposed bounty stands out. In the late ‘70s, the House Select Committee granted immunity to a St. Louis man in exchange for his testimony about being offered money to assassinate Dr. King. Russel Byers testified that in late ’66 or early ’67, a real estate developer with ties to the criminal underworld named John Kauffmann approached him about an opportunity and took him to see a wealthy segregationist named John Sutherland. Byers’s tale has him entering a well-appointed study adorned with memorabilia from the Confederacy to discuss a proposition. Sutherland, with a Confederate hat on his head, offered Byers fifty grand to kill King or to arrange his death, a bounty he said would be provided by a wealthy organization out of the South. Byers said he declined to take part in their plot. The House Select Committee was able to corroborate Byers’s story, and it seemed quite feasible that Ray might have found out about this offer before he escaped the penitentiary, as Byers’s brother-in-law was incarcerated in the same cell block with him, and Ray has admitted to knowing him. Then there is the fact that Kauffmann, the guy who brought Byers in on the plot, was a convicted amphetamine dealer, and during his trial, it came out that he was having the drugs smuggled into Missouri State Penitentiary, where James Earl Ray was using and selling them. A strong indication that Ray had heard of the Sutherland bounty on King comes from another inmate’s testimony, given long before Byers ever spoke about the bounty, that Ray had tried to bring him in on a plot to kill King for money, no longer claiming the bounty was ten grand or a hundred, but now naming the $50,000 amount we know was offered by John Sutherland and assuring the fellow prisoner that, if they killed King in the South, it wouldn’t even matter if they were caught because “who in the South like niggers?” (Posner 139).

An older Ray, in trouble with the law again, via  Newsweek

An older Ray, in trouble with the law again, via Newsweek

So there is good reason to believe James Earl Ray had it in his head that he and his brothers might make a considerable amount of money by planning and carrying out King’s assassination. After their meeting in Chicago, Ray made his way to Birmingham in order to establish his alias Eric S. Galt as an Alabaman because, as Jerry Ray explained to George McMillan, James Earl Ray thought getting rid of King would help the George Wallace campaign, and he believed that, if he were caught, Wallace would surely pardon him for the murder, maybe not right away, but eventually, when the outrage had subsided (Posner 169). And in fact, John Sutherland, the wealthy lawyer who had put up the fifty grand bounty on king, was a major player in the George Wallace campaign, a fact that lends credence to the conspiracy theory that the Wallace campaign may have actually been linked to the King assassination. Months later, after Ray’s vacation in Mexico, when he made his visit to New Orleans while living as Galt in Los Angeles, rather than meeting with Raoul as he claimed, there is a chance that he actually met with one of his brothers there and that they further discussed the idea of killing King and collecting the Sutherland bounty. Since Ray’s departure, his brother John had opened a tavern in St. Louis in an area where numerous Wallace rallies were held, and it had quickly become a haunt for ex-cons and underworld types looking for jobs, just the kind of place where the bounty would have been whispered about. Then, after Ray’s visit to New Orleans, John converted the tavern into a Wallace campaign center, distributing literature and helping to register voters. And in another connection to the Sutherland bounty, John employed a woman whose husband was friends with Russel Byers, the man Sutherland had propositioned about killing King. After Ray’s visit to New Orleans, there are clear signs that he wasn’t just looking forward to skipping the country or engaging in some more light smuggling but rather planning something big. He underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance. He would later explain that he did this because he expected soon to show up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, a rather telling excuse, since surely he didn’t think a small-time escaped armed robber would be placed on the Most Wanted list so long after his escape unless he had it in his head that he would soon be committing a far more heinous and high-profile crime. He even went so far as to manually adjust his bandaged nose after his rhinoplasty so that even his plastic surgeon wouldn’t know exactly what he looked like. As James Earl Ray prepared to leave L.A., Dr. Martin Luther King visited the city and spoke at numerous events over the course of a couple days. Less than a month later, King would lie shot on the balcony at the Lorraine, and James Earl Ray had also begun the final leg of his journey to be in that same city block at the same time. As he headed east, staying at cheap motels, newspapers reported that Dr. King would be in Selma, Alabama, on the 22nd, and Ray drove straight there, indicating that, after all, he was stalking the reverend. When King left Selma, Ray took his leave as well, driving then to King’s hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, and it is worthwhile now to remember the map the FBI would eventually discover in one of his rooms, with King’s home and the church where he preached both circled in pencil. It was during this stay at a rooming house in Atlanta that Ray made the two hour drive west to Birmingham several times to visit multiple gun stores, and of course, if he really had no idea that the gun he would be buying was going to be used to murder someone and instead just thought it was going to be a showpiece to impress their Mexican connection, there would have been no reason not to buy the gun right there in Atlanta. Driving so far to buy it betrays Ray’s concern that the gun might later be traced back to him. Astonishingly, Jerry Ray, in the 1975 interview with George McMillan that he would later claim never happened but which is corroborated in McMillan’s notes according to Gerald Posner, the author of my principal source, Killing the Dream, Jerry said he actually met up with James in Birmingham, cagily implying they had test-fired the first rifle Ray bought together and that he had concerns about whether the gun could “do it in one shot” (Posner 223). Recall that when Ray returned  the first rifle he’d bought, he said that he’d changed his mind after speaking with his brother. After exchanging the rifle, Ray brought it to Memphis. There is some debate over when Ray left for Memphis with the rifle, whether it was before or after the announcement that King was returning to that city for another march, but we know that he only arrived at the New Rebel the night before the assassination.

The details coalesce to form a clear picture, it seems to me, that there may have been numerous conspiracies to have King killed in the form of bounties being put on his head, whether implicitly or explicitly, by hate groups as well as, perhaps, by some Southern boosters of the George Wallace campaign, but that Ray was not necessarily part of those conspiracies in the sense that he may only have heard of the bounties second or third hand and undertook to murder King with the hope of collecting on them after the fact. The clearest evidence of any conspiracy is between James Earl Ray and his brothers John and Jerry, who if McMillan’s interviews can be believed, might more accurately be called accomplices than co-conspirators. And there is little reason to trust known dissemblers and convicted felons over George McMillan, whose journalistic work appeared in the most distinguished of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, while close scrutiny of the available research paints a surprisingly clear picture of a virulent racist and lifelong outlaw driven to murder out of greed who after his capture and conviction devoted the remainder of his life to spinning a web of lies and conspiracy innuendo, there are still a couple details that give one pause and prove a bit harder to explain away. For example, most of the aliases that James Earl Ray used, among them Eric S. Galt, John Willard, and Ramon Sneyd, were the names of real people, all of whom lived near each other in the same suburb of Toronto. The fact that a few of these Canadian men could’ve passed for Ray has led some to believe that the mysterious Raoul, Ray’s supposed handler, had provided him with these cover identities, although Ray himself never claimed this. Instead, he said he probably got the names out of a phone book, a believable enough explanation until one discovers the fact that the real Eric Galt’s middle name was not “Starvo,” as Ray had given it, but rather St. Vincent. Curiously, though, the real Galt customarily wrote out his middle name abbreviated, as St. V., with the periods looking like little o’s, so that it appeared to read as StoVo. So the only reasonable explanation seems to be that, rather than getting this name from a phone book, Ray must have seen some paper on which Galt had handwritten his name and simply guessed at pronouncing the middle name, corrupting it from Stovo to Starvo. But there is evidence that Ray stalked some of the men whose names he would later use, as among his possessions was another map with marks on it, this one of Toronto with marks near the homes of these men. And we know that after the assassination, he contacted the real life counterparts of several of his known aliases, pretending to be a government official in order to ascertain whether they already had passports, since he would be trying to get a passport in one of their names. So considering this, it is perhaps not impossible to imagine that he had previously gone to Toronto, stalked some men who looked like him, and took some papers from Galt at least, perhaps from his trash in order to find out what his signature looked like. It certainly is a complicated routine to go through when other fugitives might just make up a name, but perhaps it just reflects the fact that he had given a lot of thought to how he might establish an ironclad identity and obtain a Canadian passport, which eventually he did.

Ray’s Canadian passport photos, via  Another Nickel in the Machine

Ray’s Canadian passport photos, via Another Nickel in the Machine

Then there are the hypnosis sessions he underwent in Los Angeles before setting out to assassinate Dr. King. Assassination conspiracy theorists are no stranger to the notion that unwitting patsies can be programmed to commit murder through hypnosis. This is a major element of the conspiracy theory that Sirhan Sirhan was not alone responsible for the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. Sirhan Sirhan was an enthusiast of self-hypnosis and actually practiced it on himself by following the instructions provided by a group of supposed Rosicrucians. Now, who the Rosicrucians are, or were, is a topic better left for its own likely sprawling edition of Historical Blindness, but it’s understandable that this tidbit has fueled many conspiracy theories. Well, it turns out that James Earl Ray was interested in self-hypnosis as well. He had read about hypnosis in prison, bought more books on it in Canada, and attended several sessions with a psychologist in L.A. who specialized in hypnosis and found Ray to be an excellent subject of it—much like it was found that Sirhan Sirhan was easily hypnotized. This, of course, all sounds very suspicious and sinister, until you read what his hypnotists had to say about him. When interviewed, Dr. Freeman, his L.A. psychologist, said Ray revealed no secret plan to kill King while under hypnosis, but that he did betray his immense dislike for African Americans. Ray also visited the International Society of Hypnosis and spoke with its head, Rev. Xavier von Koss, who disagreed about Ray being easy to hypnotize, saying he showed a “strong subconscious resistance” (Posner 209). And for what it’s worth, during his encounter with Ray, Koss also claims to have surmised that Ray wanted recognition above all else. And the simple truth about these assassins’ interest in self-hypnosis might be far more mundane that one would anticipate. The fact is, self-hypnosis was something of a self-help fad at the time. It was becoming popular as a self-improvement technique that could improve memory and sleep and help one overcome personality problems like shyness and social disorders like anxiety. Some more common uses of self-hypnosis that many may be more familiar with are its use in helping people quit smoking or lose weight. So rather than it being a nefarious brainwashing technique that some mysterious conspirators used to program both Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray, isn’t it a simpler and therefore more logical explanation that they just used it to overcome the shyness with which they were both known to struggle? In fact, as an escaped convict who may have also been planning a high-profile assassination, Ray’s shyness, his tendency to not look people in the eye and seem squirrely and nervous, was something he would have certainly wanted to correct, as it could very well get him caught. In fact, in the end, it did, as the immigration officer at the passport desk in Heathrow on June 8th, 1968, looked a little closer at him and his papers, double-checking his name against those on his “Watch For and Detain” list, because he seemed “slightly nervous” (Posner 45).

Time, it is said, marches on, and like the marchers at whose head Dr. Martin Luther King strode, it has gone on to remember him well. Just days after his murder, with his killer still on the loose and the fires of rioters still burning, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and several months later, before an election that LBJ had backed out of, he spoke again on the passage of a landmark Gun Control Bill that was directly inspired by the horrendous murders of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy by men that never should have been allowed to get their hands on a firearm. But, of course, even after these tragedies which roused our nation to action, much like today, the influential gun lobby prevented the passage of comprehensive gun control legislation. Within weeks of the Gun Control Bill’s passage, we elected president Richard Nixon. After the failure of his presidential campaign, George Wallace returned to Alabama and licked his wounds, winning the governorship back in 1971 and once again campaigning for president in 1972, when he became the victim of his own assassination attempt. Unlike King, surviving the attempt, he lived to the age of 79. Despite publicly moderating his views on race, Wallace is not remembered well, unlike Dr. King, who is popularly viewed today as a visionary, a hero, a saint, and a martyr. As for James Earl Ray, he died in 1998 at 70, failing to ever win a new trial despite decades of sowing doubt about his guilt. Nevertheless, speculation about Ray’s innocence and the possibility of a conspiracy will not die.

View of Lorraine Hotel from the window where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot at Martin Luther King, Jr., via  Flickr  (uploaded by Mr. Littlehand, licenced under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.)

View of Lorraine Hotel from the window where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot at Martin Luther King, Jr., via Flickr (uploaded by Mr. Littlehand, licenced under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.)

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Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998

The Killing of Dr. King, Part Two: The Legend of Raoul

Killing Dr King pt 2 logo.jpg

Last time, after honoring Dr. King’s life and work before the day set aside for remembering him, we followed the FBI on the killer’s trail, looking at the evidence turned up along the way, until the suspect, James Earl Ray, was captured at a London airport. Already, conspiracy theories abounded, suggesting that the CIA, the FBI, Memphis police, the mafia, white supremacists, or black militants had plotted King’s murder. Flatly listing these theories tends to make them sound ridiculous, but there were good reasons to harbor suspicions in those post-Warren Report years, when New Orleans DA Jim Garrison was making noise about a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination. And there were certainly some details around King’s death that contributed to the speculation. First, the failure of the police to set up road blocks and inform neighboring states about their search for a white Mustang suggested to many that local authorities were letting the assassin get away. The fact that a hoaxer led police on a wild goose chase with a phony CB radio broadcast also suggests to some the idea that a conspirator was working to help the assassin escape, even though that hoax broadcast took place more than half an hour after the shooting, when the shooter was likely already in another state. Then there was the fact that the principal witness at the rooming house, Charlie Stephens, who claimed to see a man matching Ray’s description leaving the shared bathroom carrying a rifle-length bundle, was a known drunk who appears to have been intoxicated that day, though police who took his statements indicated he was not exceedingly drunk. And Stephens was important to placing James Earl Ray in the rooming house, for while police did find Ray’s fingerprints on items in the abandoned bundle, they found none in the room he had rented and only a partial palm print in the bathroom. This is easily accounted for by the fact that, a career burglar and escaped convict, Ray himself spoke in some interviews about his habit of wiping his fingerprints. As for ballistics evidence, the FBI determined that the bullet fired into Dr. King matched the other bullets in the abandoned bundle, but that it could not be confirmed that it had been fired from the rifle in the bundle. This was simply because the bullet had been damaged and identifying marks could not be perceived, and in no way indicated that the bullet had not been fired from the gun discarded on the street outside the rooming house. Nevertheless, it has contributed to theories that the bundle was planted as part of a frame-up. As for the sniper’s perch, though most were certain the gunshot had originated from the building across the street from the Lorraine Motel, some few others thought it had come from some shrubbery above a retaining wall. Dr. King’s driver thought he saw some movement in those bushes, and months later, one of the rooming house residents said he was in the bushes drinking wine and had seen a figure with a gun dashing through the foliage. Later, it came out that the driver, who was known for telling tales, had actually been in the pool area and would have been unable to see the foliage across the road, and the rooming house resident had previously told the authorities that he’d been in his room, not in the bushes, and that he’d seen nothing. Nevertheless, the foliage above the retaining wall has since become a legendary place, like the grassy knoll at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And just as Lee Harvey Oswald proclaimed himself a patsy before his murder by Jack Ruby, James Earl Ray insisted he had been set up. The difference was that great care was taken to protect Ray from a similar fate, and so he survived and had far more to say. The story he told his lawyers and the author William Bradford Huie involved a mysterious figure whom he had met in Montreal while on the lam. This man, named Raoul, had drawn Ray into a smuggling operation, bought him the Mustang and paid his living expenses, maneuvered him various places on the promise of eventually providing him with a passport, ordered him to buy the rifle as part of an arms deal, and eventually schemed to get him in Memphis, in the wrong place at the wrong time, a completely oblivious patsy.

When considering the likelihood of a plot against King, one has to begin with the local authorities. Dr. King had been considered a thorn in the side of numerous municipal and state authorities in areas he had visited. Alabama serves as a principal example. One of Dr. King’s most zealous adversaries was Alabama governor George Wallace, a segregationist who had staked his political career on racism, famously standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from entering. His calls for Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever helped make Birmingham the frontlines for the Civil Rights Movement, and under his auspices, led by his terrible example, Birmingham police resorted violence during the SCLC campaign in that city. Another of King’s worst opponents had been the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, “Bull” Connor, who, taking his cues from the bigoted governor, callously turned the hoses of the firemen and the batons of the policemen he commanded against King and his protesters. And later, demonstrating against illegal, racially motivated obstacles to voting registration that Governor Wallace tacitly allowed to persist in his state, King and the SCLC planned a historically lengthy march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where on Bloody Sunday unarmed protesters were welcomed by tear gas and truncheons. Indeed, if Dr. King had been assassinated in any city in Alabama, the very first suspects might have been members of its police force, with implications that orders might have come down all the way from the governor’s office to rid their state of the troublesome activist. But King was killed in Tennessee, a state where he had not done any extensive organization previous to the sanitation strikes, which had only begun about a month before his arrival there. This is not to say that Tennessee had not seen its fair share of struggles for civil rights. On the contrary, since the ’50s there had been multiple bombings in Nashville in response to the desegregation of schools and in retaliation for student-led sit-in campaigns in the ’60s aimed at integrating lunch counters. And Dr. King did have some influence on the activism in Tennessee, as it was spearheaded by the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, an affiliate of King’s SCLC, and King had sent one of his own to tutor them in the techniques of non-violent resistance. But Dr. King himself only came to Nashville after a bomb destroyed the home of a lawyer who represented sit-in participants, and he came not in a leadership capacity, but rather to express his admiration for all the work that had been done there without him, saying he was there “not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration.”  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Alabama for "loitering,"  via  Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Alabama for "loitering," via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not impossible to imagine that he had enraged many in Tennessee simply through his very famous work, which had spread to states all over the country, or even that police in Memphis blamed King, despite his non-violent message, for the violence that erupted during the March 28th demonstration that he attended, but it would have been a drastic step to resort to assassinating him, and they would have had a very short time to organize their plot. Some have pointed to the fact that police were not providing any security for Dr. King as proof that they were part of a conspiracy bent on seeing him killed, but in truth Dr. King preferred not to be surrounded by police officers, who of course represented the immediate opposition in any street demonstration and who only days earlier had shot a 16-year-old rioter to death. So wary was he of having a police escort that he and his group actually made an attempt to elude their police security detail before it was finally called off them in favor of surveilling the group from a distance. Others have contended that King and his entourage had been maneuvered to the Lorraine Motel in order to put him in the cross-hairs, a contention that is also untrue. King and his group customarily stayed at the Lorraine, an establishment owned by African Americans, and moreover always stayed in the same room. In fact, days earlier, during the March 28th violence, the police had warned him away from the Lorraine for his own safety, directing him to stay at a Holiday Inn instead, a change of lodgings for which Dr. King was subsequently criticized. Their failure to order roadblocks or extend their APB certainly reflects poorly on them, but they were dealing with rioting in the wake of the news that Dr. King had been murdered. And a bigger problem with the notion that King’s assassination was the object of a plot by Memphis police is that it simply doesn’t work with the idea that James Earl Ray was a patsy. Ray had only just arrived in Memphis the night before the assassination. Even King himself had not long been there and had been in and out of the city three times in the preceding weeks on impromptu visits, making a Memphis-based plot unlikely. Moreover, for the local conspiracy theory to work with Ray’s story about Raoul, it would require that the authorities in Memphis or Tennessee generally so wanted Dr. King dead that they planned his assassination long before the sanitation strike that drew him there had even begun. And it would mean they sent an agent to Montreal, of all places, to skulk around bars scoping out promising scapegoats, only to lead him on a circuitous escapade all over North America, from Canada to Mexico and from California to Georgia, before finally sending him to Memphis in order to frame him. While this seems manifestly unlikely, the idea that Ray was groomed as part of a plot at a higher level of government may seem less unlikely. After all, the FBI were present with the Memphis police in that nearby fire station, spying on Dr. King at the Lorraine.

A plot against King at the FBI is certainly not unbelievable, for it’s well-documented that one actually existed. The FBI had been keeping an eye on Dr. King’s activities since his earliest activism in Montgomery in 1955, with Director J. Edgar Hoover suspecting that King harbored Communist leanings and classifying him as a national or domestic security risk.  Indeed some of those closely involved with King and SCLC leadership were known members of Communist organizations, including Bayard Rustin, Hunter Pitts O’Dell, and Stanley Levison, but this should not be surprising of progressive activists in their era. Today, we know that the FBI tasked a sophisticated surveillance network with spying on King, complete with wiretaps on his phones and paid informants on his staff. Because of this surveillance, there is ample evidence of just how little Dr. King thought of Communism, which he called “an alien philosophy contrary to us.” But despite evidence that he was not a Communist insurgent, in 1964, King incurred the redoubled wrath of Director Hoover when he declared that the FBI was “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the Negro in the deep South,” to which, like a child, Hoover responded by calling King a liar. True to his peace-loving nature, Dr. King arranged a meeting with Hoover, who received King with no outward animosity. Meanwhile, Hoover’s FBI engaged in an all-out smear campaign, maligning his character to Roman cardinals in an effort to prevent a meeting between Dr. King and the Pope that year, and sending a notorious package to his house in an effort to sow discord in his marriage. This package contained a tape with moaning sex sounds and a letter that addressed him only as “King,” continuing, “In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior (sic) I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.” The letter called him an immoral, sexually psychotic fraud and a liability to the cause of civil rights, insisting that his extra-marital liaisons with both women and men would soon be made public, suggesting that the tape was a recording of him and insinuating that the only thing left for him to do was to kill himself. Although the letter made statements intended to indicate it had been written by an African American and perhaps someone in his own organization, Dr. King perceptively guessed that it had been sent by the FBI. Indeed, now, due to recently declassified files, we know that the FBI was preparing reports on Martin Luther King all the way up to the time of his assassination, still claiming that he was a Communist agent and that workshops King held were really only fronts for drunken orgies at which attendees committed adultery with prostitutes and engaged in homosexual acts. It is certainly true that Dr. King was no saint. Indeed, he once penitently confirmed as much to activist and singer Joan Baez who had seen him intoxicated the night before. In response, Baez said, “And I’m not the Virgin Mary. What a relief!” Ralph Abernathy, in his autobiography, did reveal that King, a man frequently on the road and away from home and family, had been involved in extramarital affairs, but there appears to be no evidence whatsoever for the salacious and defamatory claims made by the FBI in their efforts to ruin Dr. King.

NY Herald Tribune article from 1964, via the University of Virginia’s  Office of African-American Affairs

NY Herald Tribune article from 1964, via the University of Virginia’s Office of African-American Affairs

Clearly the thought that Hoover’s FBI might have been responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was well justified. But this would have to be a compartmentalized plot, for surely the President of the United States, to whom the FBI answers, would not condone such action against a non-violent reverend. Or can some credence be given to the conspiracist who claims the plot went all the way to the top? Well, above Hoover was the Attorney General, a role Ramsey Clark served at the time of King’s murder, but Clark is an unlikely suspect for involvement in a plot against King as he was a consistently staunch supporter of the civil rights movement. And above the Attorney General, of course, would be the President himself. Now, many take it for granted that King had positive relationships with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but both executives had J. Edgar Hoover pouring poison in their ears, trying to convince them of what a threat Dr. King really was. While Kennedy had made promises to King about getting civil rights legislation passed, behind his back he was signing his approval of the wiretaps Hoover had requested. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson reached out and made clear his intentions to take up Kennedy’s civil rights agenda. And in fact he did, working with Dr. King on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an effort to end segregation and discrimination. King found in Johnson an accommodating ally. Although sometimes he prioritized other objectives, like his War on Poverty initiatives, over the most pressing concerns of Dr. King and the SCLC, like ensuring obstacle-free black voter registration in order to get black Southerners on juries and into civic service, nevertheless King found that with a little persistent pressure, LBJ always seemed to do the right thing, and in 1965 Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to help remove illegal barriers to black voter registration in the South. And certainly, after Dr. King’s death, Johnson expressed grief publicly and continued to work to cement King’s legacy in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It would be misleading to suggest, however, that Dr. King never represented a problem for LBJ. The simple fact that he was known to work with King, whom so many others in power despised, appears to have been an issue for him, and he was known to distance himself from the reverend, denying their relationship like Peter denying Jesus. And their partnership was certainly strained in the end, when Dr. King very publicly split from him on the issue of the Vietnam War. And of course, taking a stand against the conflict in Vietnam surely gave Hoover more ammunition against him, more reason to claim he was a Communist. So the question, then, is could Hoover have exploited this rift between Johnson and King to convince the Commander-in-Chief that some covert action was warranted to rid the country a man he portrayed as a dangerous agitator? This is pure conjecture based on speculation. All we really know is that the President’s often positive partnership with King was lately troubled and that the director of the largest domestic law enforcement organization was waging a very personal campaign against King, one that even included threats. Beyond this, to support the notion of a conspiracy, there is only the legend of Raoul.

LBJ and MLK, via  Wikimedia Commons

LBJ and MLK, via Wikimedia Commons

Even before his extradition to the United States, James Earl Ray, still stubbornly sticking to his alias Ramon Sneyd at the time, began shopping his story around through his attorney. Indeed, from the time of his extradition to the time of his guilty plea, he went through a couple of prominent lawyers, all of which he retained on the promise of sharing the profits from his story, which he anticipated would be substantial. William Bradford Huie was first to sign a deal with and interview him, but before long numerous authors were hard at work on numerous books. Nevertheless, Ray worked exclusively with Huie, a journalist known for checkbook journalism, or paying handsomely for his stories, and famous for his recent work in what would today be considered the true crime genre, with particular focus on notorious cases of interracial murder, such as those of Emmett Till and the Freedom Summer murders. When Huie published the first of his interviews with Ray in Look magazine, he faced contempt of court charges, and not for the first time, for the judge feared Huie’s inflammatory revelations would influence the outcome of the trial. Huie’s article told of how Ray had escaped from prison in Missouri and hid out in Illinois before making his way to Montreal in hopes of getting travel documents and going overseas. There, he haunted a waterfront tavern, making it known that he was in trouble with the law in the U.S. and that he would be willing to engage in unlawful activity in order to gather some money and obtain false identification. That was when Raoul, a man Ray described as being a blond Latin, approached him. Over the course of several meetings, Raoul convinced Ray to make a few trips over the border to Detroit with some packages that he assumed contained narcotics. After receiving some money for this apparent smuggling operation, on Raoul’s promise of an eventual bigger payoff and provision of a passport, Ray made his way to Birmingham, where Raoul eventually caught up with him, bought him the white Mustang, and sent him down to Mexico to do some gun running south of the border. After a significant period of time in Mexico and thereafter in Los Angeles, Ray used a New Orleans contact number and arranged to meet again with Raoul in that city. At this rendezvous, Raoul continued to string Ray along, urging him to come out to Atlanta for some more gun-running, still dangling the promise of a big payoff and the paperwork that would finally ease Ray’s passage out of the country. Chasing after those promises, Ray returned to LA and made preparations to move to Atlanta. Once he’d settled in Georgia, he met with Raoul, who gave him $700 to buy a hunting rifle with a scope and some ammunition. The reason Raoul gave him was that the rifle would serve as an example to their Mexican connection of the kinds of guns they could provide. Raoul then directed Ray to take the rifle to Memphis, thus setting the stage for the final scene of the plot.

This was the story of James Earl Ray’s grooming by Raoul as Ray told it. And on the surface, to a lot of people, it makes sense, for how could James Earl Ray, a hapless small-time burglar, manage to get away with a high-profile murder and then obtain the money and the false identification necessary to make his escape to Europe like some smooth secret agent? But there are significant issues with this tale, even beyond the simple foundational flaw that he was encouraged to come up with a sensational story in order not only to defend himself but also to sell books and thereby make a tidy profit. One issue is that for most of the rest of his life, Ray failed to identify this Raoul character, and his descriptions seemed to constantly change, shifting from a Latin to a French Canadian, with hair that changed color from blond to red, to dark, auburn, and sandy and skin that was at times pale and at others dark and ruddy (Posner 162). Once he fanned the flames of conspiracy theory by identifying Raoul with one of the Three Tramps photographed at JFK’s assassination, but even then he only admitted some similarity. Then there are the simple logic problems. Why would any smuggler worth his salt even trust Ray with stashes of narcotics and guns on the promise of a later payment for delivery, when Ray might easily have just taken the contraband for himself? Moreover, why would their Mexican buyers have even needed them to procure guns when U.S. gun stores at the time were selling firearms over the counter without requiring any identification? And if all these smuggling operations were simply a ruse meant to draw Ray into their machinations, why on earth would they engage him, a wanted escapee, in risky criminal activity that could have easily landed him back in prison, abruptly foiling all the time they had spent grooming him as a patsy?

A young James Earl Ray, via the  LA Times

A young James Earl Ray, via the LA Times

It is also not entirely inconceivable that James Earl Ray might have financed his own travels. He was after all, a burglar known for keeping himself in money by pulling the occasional heist. Immediately after his escape from prison, he took a straight job while lying low, washing dishes in a restaurant. Yet somehow he had enough money to live on when he made his way up to Montreal some weeks later. There is some indication that he met up with his brothers, Jerry and John, during this period, so perhaps they loaned him some money, but interestingly, at just that time, a nearby bank was robbed by two masked men with shotguns. Taking 27 grand, even a share of this haul would have easily bankrolled Ray’s subsequent travels, and records show that the next day, Ray bought the car he would drive to Canada for some $200. Moreover, the FBI suspected James’s brother John of the robbery, as he may have been involved in five similar holdups during the last two years, for one of which he was actually convicted. And the indications of James Earl Ray’s continuous thievery during the time between his escape from prison and his arrest for murder does not stop there. Ray told Huie that the night before paying a lease on an apartment in Montreal, he visited a brothel and after availing himself of its services, he robbed its pimp. By the time he got to London, he lacked the money to move on. He told Huie that he should have committed a robbery in Canada before getting on the plane. To renew his capital, he ended up robbing a bank there in London, leaving a thumbprint behind to prove it (Posner 249). He is often portrayed as being a bumbling and incompetent thief based on an early robbery of a taxi driver that had earned him a year in prison, but based on his successful escape from prison, the reports of various successful robberies he pulled, and indications of even greater heists he may have been involved with, the idea that he financed his own travels seems a lot more likely than that he relied on the piecemeal payments of the tightfisted Raoul.

Likewise, the notion that he would have allowed himself to be strung along for so long on the unfulfilled promise of obtaining a passport also strains credulity. For one thing, Ray had an idea of how to get a passport in Canada back when he was still in prison. He had read a newspaper article about an Italian criminal that had exploited the simple process of getting Canadian papers and had spoken with a fellow inmate about how one could use newspaper archives and city records to get a birth certificate and establish identity. Indeed, that appears to be the reason why he had gone to Canada in the first place. He had one misconception that held him back, though. He was under the impression that in order to get his passport he needed a voucher, a Canadian citizen willing to attest to his identity. So in Montreal, he bought himself a suit and got himself a haircut and went about trying to meet a lady friend that he could eventually convince to vouch for him. And he did meet someone, a polished woman in her thirties by the name of Claire Keating, with whom he had a fleeting romance. One of the bigger logical flaws of his story about Raoul was that he continued pursuing women, and Ms. Keating specifically, in his effort to obtain a passport even when Raoul had supposedly already offered to obtain the papers for him. One might suggest that he continued to pursue her for genuine romantic reasons, and considering the fact that she was by all accounts quite lovely and throughout his life his only other liaisons appear to have been with prostitutes, this would be quite plausible, were it not for the fact that he abandoned his pursuit of her as soon as he learned she worked for the Canadian Department of Transport. He was using her, and when he felt she represented a threat, he dropped her. Regardless, even according to Ray’s own legend of Raoul, the mystery figure never actually provided him with those long-promised papers. After making his escape from the scene of the crime and getting himself back up to Canada, he did that himself, using his old tricks to establish false identity and this time scheming to create a second identity that could vouch for him until he discovered he had no need for a voucher. In the end, we know exactly how he got himself overseas, and we have a clear idea of how he kept himself in money.

James Earl Ray’s fake Canadian Passport, via  ABC News

James Earl Ray’s fake Canadian Passport, via ABC News

As for the day in question, Ray contends that not only was he unaware of the plot against King, but he was wholly ignorant that King was even present in Memphis when he followed Raoul’s directions and drove there. We know that he checked in to the New Rebel Motel, alone, under his known alias Eric S. Galt, on the evening before the murder, and we know he was up late based on the clerk’s report of seeing his light on at 4am. What Ray tells us is that he met Raoul at the New Rebel, received directions to check into the rooming house across from the Lorraine Motel the next day and meet Raoul at the nearby restaurant Jim’s Grill at three in the afternoon. Ray claims he handed the hunting rifle he’d recently purchased in Birmingham over to Raoul in the New Rebel and never saw it again, the implication being that Raoul had asked him to buy it not for some weapons deal but merely to connect him to the murder weapon and to get his fingerprints on it. Of course, this story already doesn’t make sense in a few ways. For example, if the gun deal were real, they could have done it right there at the New Rebel, with no reason to switch hotels, and if that were just a ruse to get Ray into the rooming house and connect him with the sniper’s nest, why wouldn’t Raoul have just had him take the rifle there as well, on the understanding that they’d be completing their gun deal in the room? But regardless of why or at whose direction, Ray did indeed head to the rooming house the next day and check in under the alias John Willard, and then the various stories he has told over the years in crafting his alibi become muddled. He met with Raoul either at Jim’s Grill, in the parked Mustang, or in room 5B in the rooming house (Posner 230). We know that after checking into the room, Ray drove to buy a pair of binoculars, and he says he did that on Raoul’s instructions. After returning to the room and giving Raoul the binoculars, Ray made himself scarce at Raoul’s insistence. This is the critical hour before the assassination, and Ray asserts that he wasn’t even in the rooming house, claiming instead that he was in Jim’s Grill, or perhaps another restaurant or an ice cream parlor, but also at a movie theater, and maybe in a drugstore, plus sitting in his car for a while (Posner 231). Quite the vaguely busy hour. It was when he was sitting in his car that he heard the shot, and then Raoul, he claimed, burst out of the rooming house and got into the Mustang’s backseat, pulling a sheet over himself to hide. Ray drove him several block away, let him out, and that was the last he ever saw Raoul. The only problem with this alibi was that there were witnesses at a record store who saw a single man climb into an empty white Mustang after the shooting and drive off alone. True to form, Ray laughed it off, said that first story was just a joke, and emended his alibi (Posner 231). A gas station attendant named Willie Green had been quoted in a newspaper as reporting that during the assassination, a suspiciously nervous man was at his filling station pacing around the public phone. He said he believed Ray was the man he had seen and had identified him from a photo, and moreover, he believed there had been a white Mustang in the lot. In truth, the attendant’s claims to have identified the nervous man from a photo of Ray must have been false, as police did not have a photo of Ray when the attendant was questioned. And Gerald Posner, in his fantastic book Killing the Dream, which has been instrumental in creating this series, uncovered in the notes of the journalist who first quoted Green the detail that the gas station attendant had actually seen this nervous fellow sometime after the assassination, and that he had hung around the station until long after Ray would’ve been out of state.  Nevertheless, Ray’s new alibi became that he had been at a gas station—one he couldn’t quite pinpoint in his memory—getting a spare tire repaired. As for why he suddenly fled the city and the country, he explained that he spooked when he ran into a police roadblock—already a doubtful scenario since there was a recognized failure of the police to establish roadblocks—and afterward, hearing on the radio news of the assassination and the fact that police were looking for a white Mustang, he put the pieces together and headed to Canada.

Ray’s story about Raoul has been found by many, including the House Select Committee on Assassinations that convened in 1978 to further examine conspiracy claims in both the King and the JFK slayings, to be wholly unreliable. Some of the strongest evidence against his claim that he had bought the rifle at Raoul’s direction simply to show a prospective Mexican buyer the kind of weapon they might provide in an arms deal comes from the testimony of the several gun store clerks who dealt with Ray in and around Birmingham during the weeks leading up to the assassination. They said he asked numerous questions about different rifles’ accuracy and about the quality of different scopes. They remembered him inquiring how far a bullet might be expected to drop over certain distances. When he finally did purchase a rifle, he returned it the next day, explaining he needed a more powerful gun as he intended “to hunt bigger game” (Posner 13).  These appear to be the statements of a man with specific needs who plans to make a particular use of the firearm, not of a man picking up a rifle on behalf of someone else just to show to a third party. In the end, the House Select Committee on Assassinations determined that all evidence suggested James Earl Ray had pulled the trigger and killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they were a bit less definite on the question of whether he acted alone, suggesting that he may have had some help. So, if Raoul was simply a fabrication, meant to stir up conspiracy claims and help Ray sell his story, it seems the issue becomes who else might have aided or been aware of Ray’s plans to assassinate King, and in the reports of gun store clerks we have some further clues to this mystery. In explaining why he was exchanging the rifle he had bought for another, he said he had made the decision after speaking with his brother about it.

James Earl Ray and his lawyer testifying before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, via  The Telegraph

James Earl Ray and his lawyer testifying before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, via The Telegraph

Be on the lookout for the next installment in this continuing series, as we examine this and the further mystery of why James Earl Ray murdered Dr. King, in Part Three: Ray’s Reasons.

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Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998

The Killing of Dr. King, Part One: A Dream Defied

Killing_Dr_King_p1_logo.jpg

It occurred fewer than 5 years after the murder of the 35th president of the United States at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, during the era of disillusionment and mistrust that his assassination provoked. And it was followed within 2 months by the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, presidential hopeful and bearer of the standard of hope that many believed had been torn asunder by his brother’s assassination. Thus the optimism of the 1960s was killed by a handful of bullets, and trust in our government was forever diminished by the persistent questions of who was really behind these slayings. And of course you’ve heard plenty of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassinations, from the plethora of books and films that explore it. You have likely heard quite a lot about the RFK assassination as well; in fact, the creators of podcast giant Crimetown recently produced a fantastic mini-series on it called the RFK Tapes. But there appear to be fewer books and less media attention generally on the assassination that occurred between the two Kennedy assassinations. The victim of this assassination was a champion of the marginalized, so this may reflect a further historical disregard for him and those he represents.  I am writing, of course, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., firebrand and spearhead of the American Civil Rights Movement. His assassination differed from that of the two Kennedys in several regards. Aside from simple differences of race, King, while a political figure, was not a politician. He was not a candidate for the presidency; he was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a preacher and activist, a symbol of non-violence and proponent not only of equality and social justice but of peace and harmony. After his murder, an international manhunt commenced, concluding in the arrest at Heathrow Airport in London of a white Missourian named James Earl Ray. This accused assassin accepted responsibility for King’s death in a guilty plea, but over the course of the next 30 years, he fought for a new trial and encouraged the conspiracy theories that swirled around the crime. By the time of his death, incredibly, he had convinced even those closest to Dr. Martin Luther King of his innocence, and today, many still believe he was a patsy in a nefarious and well-planned plot. But we know, readers, that an idea being popular or even prevalent doesn’t make it true.

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Dr. King had not planned to visit Memphis, Tennessee, in March of 1968.  At the time, he was busy planning a march on Washington, the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to unite poverty-stricken populations across racial lines. But recent events in Memphis drew his attention. The predominately African-American sanitation workers had gone on strike over poor pay and lack of benefits, driven to action after two workers were accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck and the city refused to provide any compensation to their bereaved families. The impasse reached during their strike precipitated the city’s first civil rights march, which ended in violence between marchers and police after a police car rolled over a marcher’s foot. When Dr. King came to speak at the strike headquarters on March 18th, he was met by 15,000 people, and despite all his plans and busy schedule, he agreed to return later that month to lead them in another march. However, upon his return, before he and other members of the SCLC could hold their planned workshops on non-violent resistance with the Memphis protesters, a new element of violent protesters had invaded the city, rioting, looting and starting fires. 4,000 National Guardsmen were sent in, and three hundred rioters were arrested. King was distraught, but not defeated. Holding a press conference, he announced that he would return within a few days to lead a non-violent march.

“I am a Man (Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, 1968)”, by Ernest Withers, image courtesy  St. Lawrence University Art Gallery , licensed via Creative Commons   (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“I am a Man (Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, 1968)”, by Ernest Withers, image courtesy St. Lawrence University Art Gallery, licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After a brief time at home in Atlanta, the time had come to fly back to Memphis. It was April 3rd, and when his friend Xernona Clayton came to pick him up and drive him to the airport, his children began to behave strangely, begging him not to go, almost as if they had some premonition about what would befall him on his trip. Then in another ominous sign, once he had boarded his plane, it remained on the tarmac and King waited as they searched the plane from nose to tail, for a bomb threat had been made. Eventually, the plane took off, and King joked that it looked like he wouldn’t be killed after all, prompting his friends to assure him that no one was going to kill him. Upon arrival in Memphis, though, another dark portent arrived in the form of their car and driver, which had been provided by a funeral home. That night, King had turned in, but a phone call roused him. It turned out that some 2,000 people had gathered at the strike headquarters hoping to see the newly arrived Dr. King speak. Reluctantly, King dressed and made his way there. His friend, SCLC Program Director Reverend Ralph Abernathy, delivered a grand, impromptu introduction for him that has since been likened to a eulogy, and then Martin Luther King, Jr., took the pulpit.  Based on the content of the now famous speech he delivered that night, it is clear that death was on his mind. He had faced it throughout his career, in countless states where he had gone to confront systemic racism and violence as well as to curb the rioting of his own brothers and sisters. In his speech, he spoke of one incident in particular, in which a deranged woman had stabbed him at a book signing. He quoted the letter of a little white girl who had written him thankful he had not sneezed, remarking that if he had sneezed he would have died. And he listed all of the accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement that he would not have been around for if he had sneezed. Then, uncharacteristically, he remarked upon risks to his life that he may still face, expressing a sense of peace tinged by defiance. Watching the speech is a remarkable experience, especially knowing its context. King steps suddenly away from the microphone to sit back down, seemingly overcome with emotion, collapsing into Reverend Abernathy’s arms looking almost shocked. He seems to have truly confronted his death, facing his fear and overcoming it. The next day, he is described as being in a far more hopeful and joyous mood than he had been in some time. Before the end of that day, Dr. King would be dead, his life taken before he even reached his fortieth year.

This man, who inspired and outraged the world, was born on January 15, 1929, to a family of preachers, and his name was actually Michael. For generations, members of his family had served as the pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, first his maternal grandfather, then his own father. When he was six years old, his father decided to change both their names; they would be known from then on as Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., after the Great Reformer. From a young age, Martin Jr. showed himself to be devoted to non-violence, turning the other cheek when bullies brutalized him at school or when he encountered the scorn of bigots. Not to say that he was a preternaturally mature or saintly character as a child. He was also a bit of a scamp, an innocent prankster, tying his mother’s furs to a stick and thrusting them through bushes to scare passersby. He loved board games and ice cream and was less than enthusiastic about washing dishes and reciting bible verses, skirting the latter chore by choosing John 11:35, the shortest verse in the bible, in which Jesus weeps. He was indeed precocious, however, when it came to his intellect and education. He breezed through high school over the course of only two years and entered college at 15. Early in his college years, it is apparent that Martin Luther King, Jr., was already wrestling with what he would later call “the race problem.” This is evident in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that he wrote at just 17 years old. In it, he censured people who “raise the scarecrow of social mingling and intermarriage” when the question of racial equality is discussed, saying, “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.” During those years, he also became interested in Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience and “became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” In grappling with the problems his race faced, he began to consider how he might best contribute to a solution, and that was when he considered the church. He explains his reasoning most clearly himself: “I had been brought up in the church and knew about religion, but I wondered whether it could serve as a vehicle to modern thinking. I wondered whether religion, with its emotionalism in Negro churches, could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.” So he applied himself to following in his father’s footsteps. Graduating with a sociology degree at 19, he immediately began preaching at Ebenezer Baptist with his father and continued his education, earning his theology degree at 22 and entering graduate studies in theology at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate at just 26 years old. His father did not appreciate his more cerebral style of preaching, nor did some of his associates understand some of his allusions to Thoreau and Nietzsche, https://theundefeated.com/features/hbo-king-in-the-wilderness-reveals-the-loneliness-of-martin-luther-king-last-years/ but all doubts about the efficacy of his approach evaporated when in the mid-fifties he helped organize and lead numerous historical civil rights protests. 

Ropsa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr., via  Wikimedia Commons

Ropsa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr., via Wikimedia Commons

The same year he earned his PhD, King became involved with Rosa Parks and the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery in organizing the bus boycotts and establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association to protest segregation. Within a month, he was receiving threats and facing angry crowds. His home was bombed. But before the year was out, bus segregation was defeated in the courts, and King himself rode on the unsegregated transportation system. His success in Alabama led to his appointment as chair of the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, as African American ministers across the South sought out his guidance in making strides in their own states, and it is this organization that King would transform into the SCLC. He was thrust into sudden fame, appearing on the cover of Time in 1957, and during the next few years meeting Vice-President Nixon, President Eisenhower, and presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy, travelling abroad to meet foreign dignitaries and the followers of Mohandas Ghandi, and giving national addresses—his first, a plea for enfranchisement, given before the Lincoln Memorial.  Meanwhile, his civil rights work continued. In Atlanta, he participated in a department store sit-in and was arrested. He was arrested twice more in ’61 and ’62 during segregation protests in Georgia. Then in 1963, he faced fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham and led 200,000 marchers on Washington, where he delivered his most famous speech. As if in response to the historic demonstration, 2 weeks later, a bomb killed four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and King attended the funeral service to eulogize them. Two months later, JFK, with whom King had been working to advance the cause of civil rights, was gunned down in Dallas. Following the assassination, Dr. King began working with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a collaboration that would eventually bear fruit in the form of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and in recognition of all his tireless and fearless activism, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite all this progress, King still saw a long and hard road ahead. During an attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he and his marchers were met with violence, a day remembered as Bloody Sunday. And later that year, King confronted racism that was also tied up with economic issues when the riots erupted in Watts, California. He traveled there to preach non-violence, but he was met with scorn by some who saw lawlessness as their only recourse and heckled him during his pleas for peaceful resistance. Therefore it wasn’t only white racists by whom he was met with resistance in that turbulent period, as he entered a new phase in the SCLC’s struggle for change. Learning from what he saw in California, he expanded the scope of their activism beyond segregation, tackling the problem of slums and inequality in housing practices and education in Chicago in 1966. In the process, he met resistance from black community leaders as well, like Reverend Henry Mitchell. Many African American ministers in Chicago liked the system the way it was, being that they wielded power in the community through the patronage of the mayor, Richard Daley, who ran the city through machine politics. This was by no means the first time Dr. King had encountered criticism from members of his own race. At the beginning of his career, racial separatist Malcolm X had strongly criticized Dr. King’s non-violent approach, and after Watts, it seemed that other elements of the civil rights movement were also beginning to turn away from his message of peaceful protest. In Mississippi, young activist Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee began to express disillusionment with non-violence despite his organization’s name. He began to call for a show of strength from the black community, a push for so-called “Black Power” in opposition to the racist creed of “White Power.” King stood with Carmichael and marched beside him, but he never endorsed his message, instead preaching his consistent message of non-violence and racial alliance, not conflict.

King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, via  Wikimedia Commons

King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a year before his death, answering the entreaties of many despite the reservations of many others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. To King, it would be hypocrisy to protest violence at home when our country acted as a purveyor of violence abroad. In 1967, he identified three evils in society. The first was racism, which he had fought his entire career. The second was poverty, which he had come to realize was hopelessly entangled with the race issue. The third he acknowledged was militarism. He encountered stiff backlash from quarters both expected and unexpected after opposing the Vietnam War, as he began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Thus when called to Memphis in March of ’67, he struggled to sustain his hope and confidence, but those around him on his final day saw a change in his disposition after delivering his Mountaintop speech, as though he were renewed with purpose and had exorcised the fears and doubts that plagued him. In fact, he was downright playful, engaging in a pillow fight with his friends in their room at the Lorraine Motel and looking forward to a dinner of real soul food at a friend’s house. Unbeknownst to them, across the street from the Lorraine, past some bushes, a wall and an embankment, at a cut-rate rooming house full of drunk and infirm tenants, a thin white man calling himself John Willard had checked in. During the next hour or so, tenants remember hearing someone stalking back and forth between a room and the shared bathroom at the end of the hall, which had a clear line of sight from its window to the Lorraine, and tenants who tried to use the bathroom during this hour found it always occupied. At approximately 6:01 p.m., the tenants heard what sounded like the pop of a firecracker, and on the balcony of the Lorraine, little more than 200 feet from the rooming house’s bathroom window, Martin Luther King, Jr., collapsed. A .30-06 bullet had shattered his jaw, entered his neck, and opened his jugular vein. Despite attempts by his friends to stop the bleeding and rush him to medical care, the single shot fired that day killed Dr. King.

Police were on the scene immediately, as they happened to be ensconced at a nearby fire station keeping King and his entourage under surveillance. They went to the Lorraine first, where witnesses indicated that they believed the shot had come from the direction of the boardinghouse. Converging on the building, they found other witnesses who had seen a man leaving the building with a bundle, which he had abandoned at a storefront before fleeing in a white Mustang. In the bundle, they found a rifle, bullets, clothing, a radio, binoculars, and a toiletry bag, and in the rooming house bathroom, they found the window screen pushed out, the tub moved under the window, and a scuff mark on the sill. In Mr. John Willard’s room, they found a chair by an open window and binocular straps on the floor. Not ten minutes had passed since the shooting before police had a description of both the suspect and his vehicle, but from the rooming house, it was quite possible to have driven out of state within that time frame. Authorities changed all traffic lights to red in order to slow the suspect’s escape, but in an egregious failing, they did not establish road blocks or extend their all-points bulletin to neighboring states. Meanwhile, a CB radio operator led police on a wild goose chase, claiming to be in a high speed pursuit of the white Mustang. This hoax, in addition to the fact that a large portion of the police force did not engage in the hunt because of the growing threats of rioting, contributed to the assassin’s escape.

King’s friends pointing to the rooming house as King lies in a pool of blood at their feet, image courtesy  Mr. Littlehand , licensed via Creative Commons   (CC BY 2.0)

King’s friends pointing to the rooming house as King lies in a pool of blood at their feet, image courtesy Mr. Littlehand, licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

As the killer, it was assumed, had crossed state lines, the FBI took over the manhunt, while riots broke out across the country. Tracing the rifle as well as a laundry mark on the discarded clothing, they soon had a number of aliases other than John Willard, including the name John S. Galt, all for a man matching the suspect’s description. Then a white Mustang was reported abandoned in Atlanta by a man matching the same description. It was registered to one Eric Starvo Galt, connecting the Mustang to the abandoned bundle containing the rifle, garage service and tourist visa stickers showed the Mustang had been in Mexico and Los Angeles during the last year. Fiber evidence further indicated that the Eric Galt who drove the car had been in the rooming house across from the Lorraine, and as they traced his movements in California previous to the assassination, they came up with a photo of him from a bartending school he had attended in LA. The seller of the rifle thereafter picked that photo out of a lineup to identify him as the purchaser of the firearm. Finally, a lead on Galt’s whereabouts came their way when a money order purchased in California was used by an Eric Galt for a correspondence course in locksmithing that had been completed in Montreal, Canada. When they investigated Galt’s rooming house lodgings in Montreal, they found a map of Atlanta on which Ebenezer Baptist Church, SCLC headquarters, and the King family residence had been circled. The manager of the rooming house also identified Galt’s photo from among others. Fingerprints from the bundle items and from the map found in the room in Montreal eventually came up as belonging to one James Earl Ray, a career thief and escaped prisoner from Missouri State Penitentiary. Now with a real name and more photos, the FBI put Ray on the Most Wanted list, went to the press and disseminated wanted posters all over North America. Eventually, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, through a painstaking search of passport applications, connected Ray to another alias, Ramon Sneyd, and further traced his activities under that alias to a travel agency that had booked him on a flight to London. So the manhunt went international, while back at home, on June 5th, the country suffered yet another horrifying tragedy in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Two days later, James Earl Ray turned up at Heathrow airport, trying to use his false Canadian passport to travel to Brussels. He was detained for having a handgun without a permit. More than 2 months after Dr. King’s assassination, the chief suspect in his murder was caught and awaiting extradition.

From the beginning, conspiracy theories abounded. Dubious informants claimed that Ray had escaped to South America with the CIA or to Cuba aboard a yacht, or that like Knight Rider, he had driven his Mustang into a moving truck and was being harbored by the Ku Klux Klan. JFK conspiracy theorists asserted that Ray greatly resembled one of the Three Tramps, the unidentified vagrants photographed at Dealey Plaza, while white supremacist groups claimed that the real people behind the killing were the SCLC themselves, unhappy with King’s leadership, or perhaps militant black youth disillusioned with King’s insistence on non-violence. To others, the likely culprits were the mafia or the FBI or perhaps both! Among the most vocal supporters of conspiracy claims was Ralph Abernathy himself, who spoke for others in the SCLC and for King’s family in demanding further investigation. Conspiracy theories multiplied and grew ever more specific after Ray began to talk to a writer, William Bradford Huie. Long before his trial was set to start, Huie began publishing a series of articles in Look magazine detailing James Earl Ray’s claims that a man named Raoul had manipulated him, maneuvered him to Memphis, and arranged for him to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. On Ray’s 40th birthday, during a special hearing ahead of his trial, he pleaded guilty on his lawyer’s advice, but he insisted that he was only “legally” guilty, and that he did not accept sole responsibility for the crime, actually dropping the word “conspiracy” to the judge. Within hours, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta, released a statement confirming that she did not believe Ray had acted alone and demanding that authorities continue their investigation until all those responsible had been brought to justice. Within days, Ray recanted his guilty plea, for the rest of his life, he fought to win a new trial and convince the world of his innocence. Even today, many are inclined to believe him, subscribing to some conspiracy scenario or another. But how logical and credible are these theories? Keep an eye out for the next part in this series as we examine the legend of Raoul.

FBI Wanted poster for James Earl Ray, via  Wikimedia Commons

FBI Wanted poster for James Earl Ray, via Wikimedia Commons

*

Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998.

A Very Historically Blind Christmas

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I love Christmas: the family time, the music, the classic movies, the decorations, the aroma of evergreen trees and spice apple, the taste of gingerbread with my coffee and nutmeg in my eggnog. I am not, however, much of a churchgoer or man of faith; therefore, I have some ambivalence about this holiday which is so often and heatedly defended as a Christian tradition. We must remember the reason of the season, and we must keep Christ in Christmas, or so many remind us while lamenting a culture that does not encourage people to keep the nativity scene at the forefront of all thoughts throughout December. Recently, I saw an image being posted on social media with these statements: “Christmas is based on a pagan holiday. Jesus wasn’t born in December. Christmas trees are a Heathen tradition.” And of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard these claims. Being something of a know-it-all and a pedant who is only too happy to challenge preconceived notions about both history and religion, I have been known to make such statements myself. But of course, as I have learned in making this show, critical thought challenges all preconceived notions, not only the ones that you dislike and want to dispel. The claims of the agnostic, the atheist, and the anti-religious must be examined just as skeptically and fairly as any assertions made by the religious. So this holiday season, I’ve set out to explore the veracity of these claims and get to the bottom of just how pagan or Christian are Christmas’s origins and traditions.

Perhaps the first assertion we should examine is that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th, as this is a frequent point used to undermine the entire Christian basis of the holiday.  In truth, we don’t know when Jesus was born. The two gospels that depict the nativity, Matthew and Luke, fail to record a birthdate or even to identify the month or the season of his birth. We can, however, make some judgments based on details that are included. Both gospels indicate vaguely that the story of the Nativity took place during the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, but there are inconsistencies. Matthew says the Christ child was born during his reign, and goes on to tell the story of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, but Luke actually only mentions the reign of Herod as being the time when an angel foretold of the birth of John the Baptist and implies a significant passage of time between that and Mary’s angelic visitation. Rather, Luke explicitly places Christ’s birth during the Census of Quirinius, taken during the imposition of Roman rule, for which male landowners were required to return to their ancestral homes and be counted. Thus a problem arises with the timeline, as this census took place a decade after Herod’s death, which would make the two nativity narratives entirely contradictory. Moreover, it would not make sense for Joseph to take Mary on his journey while she was “great with child” if she need not be counted for the census when she could instead remain in the comfort of their home on whatever land Joseph presumably owned. And one detail stands out from Luke as evidence that whatever the month of Christ’s birth, it couldn’t be December, this being the verse that states there were shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night when Mary delivered the child. This would seem to place his birth during a warmer time of year. However, if these inconsistencies tell us anything, it is that we should not be looking to Matthew and Luke as accurate records of the past. The most likely explanation for all of these discrepancies is that, writing about events at a seventy to eighty year remove, the authors simply got things wrong or invented details to flesh out their stories. So why, a few hundred years later, did the church settle on December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity? Some have claimed that it was a simple matter of doing the math, that December 25th falls nine months after March 25th, when the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is observed, celebrating Christ’s immaculate conception. One might then reasonably ask how they determined March 25th to be the anniversary of the annunciation, and the answer raises the odd notion that martyrs are predestined to be martyred on the anniversary of their conceptions. But there may be a simpler explanation. Records of the first Feast of the Nativity predate the first Feast of the Annunciation by about 100 years, so if simple math determined these dates, then if anything, that math was done in reverse, counting backward nine months from December 25th to be certain the date of the Annunciation lined up with the chosen date of the Nativity. So the question remains, why choose December 25th?

Our answer may indeed lie in pagan and secular traditions in the form of midwinter feasts and festivals that were common and popular in the Roman Empire during the time when Christianity was only just establishing its own traditions. The first record we have showing December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth comes from a calendar produced in Rome in 354 CE, an era when Christianity was vying for ascendancy against various pagan traditions. There is a quotation from a supposed 4th-century scribe called Scriptus Syrus that appeared as an annotation on another work, and it clearly makes the claim that the Christian Church simply adopted pagan traditions for its own purposes: “It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.” This is the heart of the contention, that the Christmas we know is simply a pagan celebration appropriated by Christianity out of either convenience or for the purpose of asserting religious dominance, which of course it succeeded in doing. The quote itself is suspect, though. The annotation actually appeared on an 18th-century edition of a 12th century work, and the name Scriptus Syrus only means “a Syrian writer.” Therefore, it doesn’t appear to be a claim made in the 4th century, but rather one made some 800 years later by an unknown writer. Still we may ask whether or not it is true. What was this festival of the birthday of the sun? This can easily be recognized as dies natalis solis invicti, or the birthday of the unconquered sun, a civil holiday timed to coincide with the winter solstice to honor the symbolic rebirth of the sun as days began once more to lengthen and the light, therefore, was seen to overcome the darkness. This festival was associated with the Cult of the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, a sun god that held a place of honor as a principal deity in the Roman Empire. But it is the roots of Sol Invictus in far older Mithraic traditions that raise further questions about how pagan influences have defined Christianity.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s The Nativity at Night c. 1490, via  Wikimedia Commons

Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s The Nativity at Night c. 1490, via Wikimedia Commons

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Pretty much everything about Christ and Christianity is actually derived from Mithraism and its central figure, Mithra. Born to a virgin on December 25th, Mithra too was visited by shepherds. In his life he traveled and taught and performed great miracles, gathering 12 followers before he sacrificed himself and ascended to heaven. Remembered as a messiah, his followers, who were baptized and observed a Eucharistic ritual meal, worshiped him on a day set aside as sacred: Sunday. Listening to this litany of similarities and knowing that Mithraism preceded Christianity by hundreds of years, many have been led to believe that Christianity was little more than a knockoff religion repackaging the Mithra narrative. Some suggest Jesus may have been an initiate of the Mithraic mysteries, and that his death and resurrection was nothing more than a reenactment of Mithra’s rebirth. Others go further and propose without evidence that there may not have been a real Jesus, as such, that his story was merely a retelling of Mithra’s. Are you still with me? Have you shut off skipped to another Christmas podcast? If you’re still listening, the truth of matter seems to lie somewhere in between the two extremes. Certainly Mithraic traditions predated Christianity. Indeed, they predated the Roman Empire. Long before his entrance into the Western world, the figure of Mithra appeared in India and Persia as Mitra, a marshal of peoples and binder of men in covenants and contracts (Laeuchli 74). Even in these earliest of iterations, he is associated with the sun, first as a kind of intercessor, mediating between the heavens and the earth, ensuring the rising of the sun and thus the success of agricultural endeavors. As the figure made his way into Persia and became Mithra and thereafter reached the West and became Mithras, he developed more martial qualities, and indeed his cult was eventually widely spread by soldiers (Hinnells). His association with the sun also developed to the point that, while he was depicted as a man, often killing a bull, he was also depicted as the very sun itself. Aside from any similarities, there are myriad pronounced differences from Christianity, and some have even argued—with no real support—that, rather than Christianity borrowing from Mithraism during the time of their competition for devotees, it was actually Mithraism that modeled itself after Christianity. While this is not well-supported, there is at least the possibility of it being true, for most of the similarities that are cited relate to the later Roman Mithraic traditions that developed contemporary to Christianity.

The question of who plagiarized whom—if the syncretism of religious traditions can even be called plagiarism—becomes moot, however, if it turns out that the similarities themselves aren’t actually there. For example, the date December 25th, which I’ve already argued in unsupported in the birthdate of Christ, may not actually have been universally accepted as Mithra’s birthdate either, as archaeological evidence indicates Mithra and Sol Invictus may have been considered separate deities, perhaps closely connected or even a dualistic manifestation of one divine being but certainly possessing their own identities. As for the virgin birth, some versions of the Persian Mithra were born to a virgin water goddess called Anahita, conceived either by the “milky fountain of immortality” or by some kind of incestuous relationship between the two of them that simply doesn’t make sense in a purely chronological, chicken-before-the-egg way. However, the Roman Mithras was said to have sprung fully formed from a rock, witnessed by two torchbearers that have somehow been distorted into shepherds for the purpose of forcing the comparison to the nativity. And while it is true that some ancient versions of the nativity have Christ born in a cave, none have him born of stone. Moreover, Mithra was never said to be a man traveling the land and imparting his wisdom as was Christ, and while there are plenty of works of art in Mithraic temples that have been construed by scholars as depicting Mithra performing some wonder or another, there are no testimonial stories of him performing such miraculous works as we have of Christ. Some of that art also portrays Mithra surrounded by twelve other figures, but these weren’t disciples or even men; they were the signs of the Zodiac. Meanwhile, their supposed Eucharist was essentially just a ritual meal, common in religious ceremonies, comprised of more than just bread and wine, and lacking any suggestion of the consumption of Mithra’s flesh and blood, which would of course make it not Eucharistic at all. Indeed it does appear that the Mithraic mystery cult engaged in ceremonial washings and baptism, and Mithra did have Sunday, the day named for the unconquered sun, set aside for him, but as can be seen, the lion’s share of these claims are either demonstrably false or dubious.

Relief depicting Mithras slaying a bull, via  Wikimedia Commons

Relief depicting Mithras slaying a bull, via Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, doubt can be cast upon the assertion that Christmas trees were a heathen tradition. Like many others, I have smugly pointed to the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 10, verse 3, to suggest that Christians were hypocrites for putting up and decorating Christmas trees. It reads, “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” How upsetting these lines can be to a God-fearing Christian at Christmastime. And as Jeremiah was likely composed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, it would seem to be a clear cut case of pagan traditions incorporated into Christmas. But in fairness, with the context of the following verses, it is clear that Jeremiah is talking about the creation of idols carved from the wood of trees and then covered in precious metals. And what we know of the history of Christmas trees does not support an origin so far back in antiquity.

The tradition of decorating homes and churches with greenery in the winter has a long history, and it is closely connected to other traditions in other seasonal festivals, such as the lighting of candles, as it observes the same theme of light, warmth, and life persisting amidst the darkness, the cold, and the death present all around us in winter. In London, as early as 1444, it is recorded that a proto-Christmas tree was erected outdoors in the form of a maypole that had been adorned with ivy and sprigs of holly. So we do indeed see a secular basis for this tradition, but for true Christmas trees, we must look to Germany, where in that same century two legends grew. One told of a saint Boniface who foiled a pagan human sacrifice to Thor by felling the oak tree on which it was to take place and putting up a fir in its stead, the evergreen serving as a metaphor for eternal life through Christ. The other legend told of an apple tree miraculously blooming on Christmas Eve, a miracle that inspired others to claim they also witnessed trees inexplicably flowering on Christmas. These stories may also have been inspired by the so-called paradise plays that were popular on Christmas Eve. The plays dramatized the events of the Garden of Eden in Genesis with an evergreen tree standing in for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and apples tied to its branches to represent the forbidden fruit. Imagine that for a moment. Isn’t it the perfect precursor to the Christmas trees of today, festooned with red sparkling bulbs? The people eventually stopped putting on their paradise plays, but they kept the decorated trees, displaying them in public squares and eventually bringing them into the home. The practice became so popular that some municipalities actually passed ordinances limiting the chopping of trees and the number of trees people could have in their houses. And this tradition, in which again we might see pagan, secular, and Christian influences, spread from Germany the world over. 

So it’s not such a cut and dry affair as some loudmouth atheists might present it.  Yes, elements of Christmas may have derived from Mithraic traditions, but clearly some prominent mainstays—the nativity narrative, the Christmas tree—have decidedly Christian origins. And if the theme at the heart of the evergreen tree being displayed in the dead of winter owes something to more ancient and non-Christian traditions in the form of decorating with greenery, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The same can be said of the Mithraic celebration of dies natalis solis invicti, for neither was theirs the first midwinter celebration to mark the solstice, or solstitium, when the sun stood still. For an even more ancient forerunner, we must look to the celebration of Saturnalia in primitive Rome. Since at least the first century, and likely even longer, a festival was held by farmers to observe the conclusion of the planting season. Starting as a 2-day event honoring the god Saturn, the sower of seeds, as its popularity grew with the Roman Empire, it expanded, and like the Advent began earlier in the month and concluded in late December, near the solstice. Saturnalia appears to be the origin of the season’s merrymaking, for it was a time of great feasts, lavish banquets when social order was relaxed. In fact, the excesses of Saturnalia were so great that the notoriously extravagant and libertine Emperor Caligula even felt it needed to be reined in. So there appears to be a long and storied history to our Christmastime wassailing and inebriety. Other connections include, of course, decorating buildings with greenery, lighting candles, and even giving gifts, usually of candles, wax dolls, and caged birds. And Saturnalia is not alone as a precursor or contemporary midwinter festival with similar elements to Christmas. Other secular and pagan festivities include the Kalends, a civic celebration of the New Year during which people feasted, decorated buildings with greenery, gave gifts and even enjoyed the spectacle of parades. Then there is the decidedly Christmas Germanic celebration of Yule, an ancient name for the month of January that was synonymous with “festivities.” This celebration appears to have been related to Norse mythology, as Odin, the Yulefather, was said during this time to lead an army of the dead on a hunt, riding across the sky on an eight-legged horse. A more realistic but no less fun explanation is that Yule marked the end of harvest and therefore the beginning of the season for brewing beer, and so was a time for carousal, when in addition to feasting and burning a yule log in the hearth, many were known to “drink yule.”

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s The Wild Hunt of Odin, 1868, via  Wikimedia Commons

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s The Wild Hunt of Odin, 1868, via Wikimedia Commons

So what we are talking about here is not plagiarism, as I so clumsily put it before, but a well-known phenomenon known as syncretism: defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” If Christmas, the Christian Christ Mass, blended purposely or organically with religious and cultural forms that preceded it, it is nothing that all its predecessors had not already done. As the Kalends grew in prominence, they adopted the traditions of Saturnalia, and even if we do not know the means of their transmission to other regions, we certainly see their similarities in the Yule festivities as well. And of course, we see them further appropriated by the Mithraic cult of Sol Invictus, and Mithraism is a serial offender in this regard. It has been called “wildly syncretistic… a bizarre mixture of primitive and more advanced cultural elements” (Laeuchli 77-78). In fact, some suggest that Mithraism’s success in spreading so far across the ancient world is owed specifically to the fact that people of other cultures, when exposed to his myth, were easily able to conflate him with other deities, solar and otherwise. He was identified with the Babylonian Shamash and Marduk as well as the Mesopotamian Bel, and then his cult folded in nicely with that of the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus. Then we have Christianity, which shared prominent commonalities with other so-called mystery religions, including the celebration of god’s birth, death, rebirth and ascension, and an emphasis on initiation in the form of baptism and, for a long time, secrecy, using the ichthus, or Christ fish as a kind of secret password or signal. Should anyone be surprised then that in the melting pot of religion that was Rome some blending took place? And should Christians be defensive at the suggestion or deny its truth? The answer to both should be no, in my opinion. If anything, a better understanding of the robust and many-faceted history of Christmas traditions just shows that this most wonderful of holidays belongs to Christian and non-Christian alike, that all of us can see in it a history and a theme of great value: the bravery of making light in the darkest time of the year, the hope of renewal, of the return of the sunshine and life springing forth again from a cold earth, a belief in resurrection in every sense. So rather than quibble over how each tradition started, instead of mocking others for what they see and value in the holiday, let us all take what merriment we can from it and kindle a fire of fellow-feeling in every breast. Merry Christmas to all!

Further Reading

Flanders, Judith. Christmas: A Biography. St. Martin’s, 2017.

Laeuchli, Samuel. “Urban Mithraism.” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 31, no. 3, 1968, pp. 73–99. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3210985.

Lincoln, Bruce. “Mitra, Mithra, Mithras: Problems of a Multiform Diety.” History of Religions, vol. 17, no. 2, 1977, pp. 200–208. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1062362.

Blind Spot: Tracking the Devil in Devon

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In this final October edition, I’ll look at a puzzling event that, when considered in context, seems a complementary tale to my last. In the previous edition, I discussed the haunting specter of Spring-Heeled Jack, a figure described as having devilish qualities—beyond his preternatural abilities to leap over walls and onto rooftops, he was said to have glowing eyes, fiery breath, and sharp facial features like the Devil himself. One diabolical feature I failed to remark upon, since it only appeared in one report, had to do with the creature’s feet. For the most part, Jack was described as wearing boots—boots it was assumed contained some spring-loaded mechanism in the heels to help propel him in his leaping—but there is a report that, in 1826, a masked and cloaked figure attacked a young man by clasping the boy to his body and somehow setting him afire, and this attacker was reported by the badly burned victim to have had cloven hoofs instead of feet. And like the Devil is wont to do, Spring-Heeled Jack disappeared from the public eye for around three decades: the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Interestingly, though, smack in the middle of these quiet years, when the diabolical figure of Spring-Heeled Jack was absent from the scene, an incident in the county of Devon, some 254 kilometers or 158 miles southwest of London, had people believing the Devil still trod the earth. On the morning of February 9th, 1855, people all over the county woke to discover tracks in their garden paths and streets, and many believed these were not ordinary animal tracks. The incident has been called the Great Devon Mystery, and the tracks have been described as the Devil’s Hoof-marks, for many concluded that Satan himself had visited their neighborhood, creeping up near their doors in the cold darkness of the previous night.

*

That winter of 1855 was unusually cold, freezing over the rivers of Devon County, the Teign and the Exe, and falling a full degree lower than anyone remembered it ever falling before. On the evening of February 8th, a heavy snowfall blanketed the region, and covered it also in a deep peaceful silence—only one report exists of a resident’s dog kicking up a row that night, which is especially curious considering the indications of widespread disturbance and activity that were discovered the next morning, after dawn brought some rain and a subsequent frost. Within a few days, reports began to circulate about what the residents of Devon villages found that morning: strange tracks that these hardy country folk, who were not unaccustomed to the sight of animal sign, found unnatural and even upsetting. They appeared not only in open areas, where an animal might be expected to venture, but also within the walls of locked gardens, and some of the trails seemed to walk purposefully up to their doors and disappear, or reappear on rooftops as though the creature that had left them had walked easily up the walls. And many agreed that these tracks looked like those that might be left by a pony or donkey: a hoof—sometimes cloven and sometimes not, but hooved, certainly. But of course, a donkey could not get inside their garden walls or onto their rooftops. Moreover, the tracks seemed too straight and purposeful, and appeared to have been made by a bipedal creature. And what cloven-hoofed creature walks about on two legs like a man? The Devil, of course, and almost immediately, this seems to be the conclusion many reached. It only took a few hours before hunting parties formed in multiple villages, setting out to track down this mystery night visitor. These tracking parties discovered some remarkable oddities, including tracks that disappeared and then reappeared in the middle of a snowy field and others that went directly up to a haystack and continued on unimpeded on the other side, with no sign of having disturbed the hay itself, as if whatever left them had merely walked right through it. And one story has a party following the tracks into a wood, where their hunting dogs came whimpering back with their tails between their legs, so terrified were they of whatever they had cornered. This last story would be easy to dismiss as folklore, were it not for its corroboration by a reverend at Marychurch.

Map showing locations of reported hoof-marks, from  Mike Dash’s research

Map showing locations of reported hoof-marks, from Mike Dash’s research

Indeed, much of the original source support that is available comes from churchmen and would seem, perhaps, the more reliable for it. A Reverend Ellacombe of Clyst St. George, collected numerous documents on the incident, including letters from a Reverend Musgrave of Withycombe Raleigh and some tracings of the tracks likely made on the scene. These, along with some letters from locals published in the Illustrated London News, serve as the extent of the primary source documentation of the event, which, once again, researcher Mike Dash has delved into extensively in his investigation of this phenomenon, which again I have relied on as my principal source, since his is the definitive work on the topic. As Dash points out, much of the primary source material is contradictory, and the evidence it presents is meager, but this has not limited the development of many theories to explain the tracks. One, as might be expected from paranormal researchers, is that the marks were not tracks at all, but rather the result of laser beams fired from flying saucers engaged in some kind of land surveying. Another rather interesting theory developed in later years is that the marks were made by some as yet unidentified weather phenomenon, an idea first floated by J. Allan Rennie, a Scotsman who claimed to have seen, in the wilds of Canada in 1924, similar tracks being formed before his eyes by no visible being or creature, just tracks being laid into the snow by a phantom and being blamed on a wendigo by his Native American companion. However, according to Rennie, as they drew right up to him, a splash of water hit his face and the marks continued on behind him, suggesting some strange meteorological even whereby large raindrops may fall only in one line and successively, like a trail.  A more down to earth explanation, though still up in the clouds, puts forth the idea that the tracks were laid by a balloonist out for a lunatic midnight flight on the frigid and windy night of February 8th, and that a loose rope, perhaps with a horseshoe or other grappling device at its end, had been left to drag along beneath. While all three of these explanations account for the appearance of tracks that disappear and then reappear elsewhere, as well as for tracks on rooftops and in walled gardens, there are other contemporary reports that weaken them. For example, despite the legend that evolved, saying that the tracks were one single trail in a straight line that went purposefully all over Devon, there are many reports of meandering and crisscrossing trails that would not seem to fit these theories or the idea that one evil Adversary left the hoof-marks. One hunting party out of Dawlish did track one trail as far as five miles, which is a long distance for one creature on a snowy night, but no parties tracked any trails long enough to confirm that they were all one trail. Moreover, these parties reported the tracks passing beneath low tree branches and through small holes in hedges and 6-inch drainage pipes, which would eliminate not only UFO lasers, strange rain, and balloon ropes but also any suspected creatures that were large, such as donkeys, ponies, and of course the odd escaped monkey or kangaroo that are sometimes suggested. It would also eliminate the Devil himself, unless Satan is very small indeed, with strides only ranging from eight to sixteen inches.

This leaves smaller creatures, and of them there was no shortage of suspects. At different times, badgers, otters, rabbits, birds, and rodents have been named as possible culprits of the tracks. The descriptions of the tracks themselves have been so varied—ranging not only from cloven to not cloven but also to having toe marks or claw marks or the impression of pads—and so many explanations have been offered for why an animal without hoofs might leave prints that resemble hoof-marks—rabbits and rats, for example, hop, and landing with four feet together can create a hoof-like impression, and birds like gulls, driven inland by the cold, might have ice on their feet that could take the shape of a hoof—such that it becomes difficult to rule out many of the suspects. Add to this the fact that it had rained at dawn, likely melting whatever tracks had been laid and then distorting them when they refroze. A similar explanation has been put forward to explain how bear tracks might be mistaken for yeti prints, and in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, it means an argument can be made for nearly any creature being the culprit. One reverend of Dawlish reported that a farmer had found what appeared to be hoof-marks but upon closer examination, seeing claw marks in them, realized they were just his own cat’s tracks, thawed and misshapen by the frost. This tends to make one doubt most of the reports. Could it have just been a brief panic or hysteria, causing many in Devon to mistake common animal tracks for something supernatural and sinister? If so, why did these savvy country folk suddenly act like they’d never encountered such trails, and why did such panics not recur every time similar trails were seen? They surely must have been, for snowy nights were not uncommon, nor were rodents and birds. And what of contemporary reports that the tracks of cats and other animals could clearly be made out that morning, indicating that the distortion of a thaw and a refreeze was not the explanation, or the reports that these hoof-marks were not indistinct but rather extraordinarily clear and sharp, as one witness put it, “as if cut by a diamond or branded with a hot iron”? This, of course, leads us to an alternate explanation: that of a hoax perpetrated by men.

Alleged yeti footprints at the Himalayas photographed by Frank Smythe in 1937 and printed in  Popular Science , 1952, via  Wikimedia Commons

Alleged yeti footprints at the Himalayas photographed by Frank Smythe in 1937 and printed in Popular Science, 1952, via Wikimedia Commons

But who would go to the great trouble of committing this hoax, and why? In the 1970s, one Manfri Wood revealed in his account of growing up as a Romany gypsy that the hoax had been perpetrated by seven tribes of Romany for the purposes of claiming their territory by scaring away other tribes, such as Pikies, who held deep-seated fears of the devil. They had planned it for a year and a half, he explained, and it had been accomplished using stilts made from stepladders. However, Wood’s version of the hoax suggested the prints would have been far larger than they were actually reported to be, and that the tracks would have been laid at intervals of about 9 feet, rather than every 8 inches. Add to this the idea that seven tribes of gypsy could possibly descend upon so many Devon towns in one night, tramping on stilts through gardens and atop roofs, without ever being spotted and only ever disturbing one dog, and you have a legend second only to Santa Claus’s massive Christmas Eve undertaking in its lack of feasibility. There is, however, a second possibility. As many of the reports of tracks were said to cross churchyards, it has been suggested that the signs of the devil were set down as a kind of protest, a display of dissent against recent happenings in the Anglican Church. For the last few decades, the so-called “high church” clergy had inflamed the ire of so-called “low church” parishioners who held some disdain for ritual and other trappings commonly associated with Roman Catholicism. The Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism as it had commenced with the publication of a series of tracts, had been moving the church toward an Anglo-Catholic revival, to the indignation of many. This theory posits that protesters, disliking this move away from simple Protestantism, had visited churches on the night of February 8th to make the point that the devil had returned, come home to roost in the Anglican Church.

The fact is, this would not have been the first time even that year that hoof-marks were laid around places thought to be corrupt as a statement. A month earlier and 150 miles or 240 kilometers northeast of Devon, several pubs around Wolverhampton had hoof-marks on their walls and roofs, and these seem to have been left by teetotalers hoping out to indicate that alcohol was the devil’s drink. So this appears to be a well-established ideological stunt designed to imply the presence of evil at a place. The problem in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, however, is that the hoof-marks were not only found on church grounds, but all over, in private gardens and atop the roofs of homes owned by simple citizens. And what would have been the point of laying the tracks all the way out of town, as far as five miles out into the wilderness? And these tracks appeared in towns all over the county in one night. Not only is it unlikely that the vast conspiracy required to perpetrate such a stunt could have long stayed hidden, but it would also have been quite the ill-conceived failure, since by failing to place the hoof-marks only on churches, its hypothetical message had been very poorly conveyed. But if, in this instance, the notion that mere men could have been behind the phenomenon seems rather more a stretch than a reasonable explanation, we might still find a sensible solution, as we have before, by suggesting that it may have been a combination of several proposed explanations. Could not some tracks, when out in the open, have been made by donkeys and ponies, while others were made by birds with icy feet alighting on roofs and in fields, and still others by rats who had climbed into walled gardens? But then one encounters another problem… that of the seemingly honest and earnest residents of Devon County themselves. Why would so many sensible people who were quite familiar with their home and the common wildlife thereabout suddenly take to the snowy morning searching out mundane animal tracks and ascribing supernatural significance to them? Did it just take one person to suggest that the marks in the snow were unusual and represented something uncanny to set off the hysteria? And if so, what are the chances that one such person made the suggestion in more than thirty places across Devon County? If doubting the strangeness of the tracks requires us to make this leap in logic, would it actually be more reasonable to believe these simple country folk, these farmers and reverends, that something strange stalked all over their county that winter’s night? As Mike Dash asserts, with so little evidence and so many puzzling aspects, this mystery may forever remain a blind spot in the past. 

An example of the tracks as shown by the  Illustrated London News , 1855, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of the tracks as shown by the Illustrated London News, 1855, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Dash, Mike. “The Devil's Hoofmarks: Investigating the Great Devon Mystery of 1855.” Fortean Studies, vol. 1, 1994, pp.71-150. mikedash.com, www.mikedash.com/research.

The Diabolical Features of Spring-Heeled Jack

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As we make our way through the dark nights of October, let us consider the disturbing and intriguing story of a Victorian-era bogeyman who has been portrayed variously as a mischievous spirit, a violent creature, a nefarious prankster, and an extraterrestrial being. Some commonalities with that far better known Victorian villain, Jack the Ripper, include that he was responsible for numerous violent assaults against women and that he was popularly given the same appellation, Jack, but this was certainly a different beast, as it were, entirely. From 1837 to the 1870s and on into the 20th century, London and its surrounding environs—as well as other English cities—were periodically haunted by an unsettlingly tall and dark figure who ambushed his victims in the dark of the night and was said to display various preternatural and even, perhaps, supernatural, abilities. Legends of this Jack were lost to history and not popularly known until the 1960s, when an editorial call for stories of extraterrestrial encounters prior to Kevin Arnold’s 1947 sightings were answered by one J. Vyner in an article called “The Mystery of Springheel Jack.” Vyner’s article focused on the various inconsistently reported details that indicated there was something weird about this figure, presenting a picture of a being with pointed ears and claws who could leap to great heights. In Vyner’s depiction, he wore a sparkling metallic helmet and tight-fitting suit, reminiscent of a spaceman, with a light affixed to his chest, as if it were Iron Man armor—and indeed it proved to be bulletproof! Moreover, his eyes glowed, and he fired a futuristic gas gun that sent his victims swooning. This is the image of the so-called “Spring-Heeled Jack” that became popular in modern times: that of an alien creature, likely stranded after a UFO crash, searching for refuge in 19th century England. But as researchers return to the original newspaper sources and other contemporaneous documents upon which all understanding of this figure must rest, they find that elements of Vyner’s depiction cannot be corroborated and likely were embellished to please his particular audience. One researcher, Mike Dash—whose work I relied on heavily in my episode on the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers and whose thorough investigation into the Spring-Heeled Jack mystery will serve as my principal source in this episode—found no confirmation in contemporary sources for the cropped, animal-like ears or the sci-fi gas gun, and shows that the idea of a light attached to his chest was a simple misrepresentation of a report that he held a lantern up in front of his chest. Dash tracks all the different unnatural aspects attributed to this figure: superhuman leaping ability, slashing talons, a hide or suit of armor that proved impervious to bullets, and—far more disturbing than a gas gun—the reports that he spat fire! These attributes were not reported consistently in all of Spring-Heeled Jack’s appearances, but they appear consistently enough to warrant the consideration that this was no common attacker. So what was Spring-Heeled Jack? Is his a story of hoaxes in newsprint, as we have seen before, or of mass hysteria, as is a useful explanation of so many other phenomena? Or was he real? And if real, was he a creature out of nightmare or just a uniquely equipped human criminal? And if a mere man, who was this steampunk villain?

We’ll begin on a dark winter’s night in February 1838, east of London in the village of Old Ford, where what would become Spring-Heeled Jack’s most famous attack is about to occur outside the little cottage of the Alsop family. The hour approached 9 p.m. when 18-year-old Jane Alsop heard the bell at their gate ringing forcefully. She went to the door and looked out across the dooryard, seeing the figure of a man standing in the darkness at the gate. What’s the matter, she inquired and asked him to stop ringing the bell so violently. The figure identified himself as a policeman and said, “For God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane!” Jane rushed to fetch a lighted candle and hurried across the dooryard with it. When she handed the candle to the shadowy figure, she saw that he wore a long cloak, and instantly, he threw aside the cloak, revealing the garments beneath: a tight-fitting white suit of a material that appeared to be something like oilskin. He held the candle to his chest, illuminating himself for Jane to see: a hideous face, with diabolical features. He wore a helmet of some sort, his eyes shone like red fire, and he vomited blue-white flames from his mouth. Springing at her, he seized Jane by her dress and gripped the back of her neck. His fingers seemed to terminate in metal claws, and forcing her head under his arm, he proceeded to slash at her clothing. Jane shrieked and wrenched herself out of his grasp, dashing back toward the front door of her house. Just as she reached the front steps, though, Jack was on her again, ripping out her hair and slashing her arms, shoulders, and neck. Just then, her sister rushed out and pulled her from his clutches, and the alarm was raised in the house. The family rushed upstairs to shout for help from the police, and there they claimed to see the attacker fleeing across a field. Afterward, Jane’s father, having heard his daughter’s story, went out to his gate, expecting to find the cloak that the villain had thrown off still lying on the ground, but there was nothing there, leading him to suspect the attacker had not been alone.

Spring-Heeled Jack, depicted making off with a young lady victim, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack, depicted making off with a young lady victim, via Wikimedia Commons

Hearing this tale, what stands out, aside from the terrifying aspect of the attack, is the fact that this attacker lured Jane out by saying he was a policeman and that he had caught Spring-Heeled Jack. Therefore, he must have assumed that the name was familiar to the Alsop girl. So where did this character make his first appearance and what legend had already grown up around him by the time of the Alsop attack? First mention of the attacker appears in London newspapers in December of 1837, and strangely, his first appearances bear little resemblance to the specter as he later became known. It was said that in September the previous year, he had appeared in the village of Barnes as a white bull, although it was believed he was a ghost or devil merely assuming that form. Over the course of a few months, when he appeared to attack people, both men and women, he was variously described as, once again, an animal, such as a bear, or as a ghost or devil. It is unclear whether these latter terms were used rather more figuratively than literally. Yet in some of these early appearances, elements of his eventual depiction emerge: He is described in some instances as wearing mail or armor, and in others as wielding iron claws. Even his ability to leap, which we don’t really see evidenced in the Alsop testimony, was well established by then, with accounts of the figure scaling the walls of Kensington Palace to dance on its lawns. His preternatural leaping ability was attributed to his having springs in his boots, leading the newspapers to dub him Spring Jack, a nickname that had evolved quickly to Spring-Heeled Jack. And Alsop was not even the first to associate a blue fire with this attacker, as one young woman of Dulwich had been accosted by a ghost in a white sheet enveloped in blue flame. With these reports multiplying in newspapers over the course of those several months, it is safe to say that by the time the shadowy figure approached the Alsops’ gate that February night, the idea of a devilish attacker named Spring-Heeled Jack lurking about in darkness to pounce on innocent young women was widespread and causing a veritable panic.

After the Alsop attack, Lambeth-street police office undertook an investigation headed by one James Lea, a renowned detective. Lea had found some fame ten years earlier while investigating the sensational Red Barn Murder. This case revolved around a young couple, William Corder and Maria Marten, who were much disgraced in their community—he for his philandering and swindlery, and she for her promiscuity and bearing of bastard children. They made plans to meet at a red barn and elope, but Maria’s family grew suspicious when she never wrote to them, despite the excuses William made in his letters. Then, perhaps on the basis of a dream his wife had, Maria’s father searched the red barn and found his daughter’s corpse. Detective James Lea had done the police work of tracking down Corder in London, confronting him with the charges, and searching his new residence, where he discovered some pistols that may have been the murder weapons and turned up some letters Corder had written claiming Maria was living with him and happy, evidence that helped to condemn William Corder to the gallows. Ten years later, and Lea found himself working another sensational case.

The Red Barn, scene of the crime, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Red Barn, scene of the crime, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon interviewing the residents of Old Ford, Lea found that this figure, or someone matching his description, had been haunting the area for a month, wearing a cloak and springing out at passersby in the lanes to frighten them, and some reports do indeed remark upon his agility in fleeing from those who had pursued him. Over the course of Lea’s investigation, he would come to the conclusion that this assailant need not necessarily have been a demon out of hell, as he inquired at the London Hospital and observed experiments that showed a man could reproduce the fire vomiting effects that Jane Alsop had described by blowing alcohol and perhaps other ingredients, such as Sulphur, into a flame, which of course the Alsop girl provided for her attacker. Moreover, he had suspects. When the Alsops cried for help from their windows, a trio of men from a nearby pub answered their call and reported encountering a cloaked man who told them a policeman was needed at the Alsop’s cottage. Another witness, James Smith, a wheelwright who at the time of the Alsops’ cries for help had been carrying a wheel up the lane, said he ran into two local men, Payne, a bricklayer, and Millbank, a carpenter. Smith described Millbank as being dressed all in white, white hat and shooting jacket, which could have been mistaken by Jane for the tight white oilskin and helmet she believed she had seen. What’s more, Smith asserted that, later that night, recognizing him as the man they had passed in the lane, Millbank asked him, “What have you to say to Spring Jack?” Then a shoemaker, Richardson, who had been on the same street and confirmed seeing Millbank and Payne there, claimed he had also seen two others, young men, one in a cloak, joking about Spring-Heeled Jack being in the lane.

So we have contradictory testimony from three sources--and indeed, because of this uncertainty, no one was ever charged with the crime—but all of these witnesses would seem to agree that the Spring-Heeled Jack in Old Ford that night was nothing more than a man or boy who thought the violent assault on Jane Alsop little more than a jest. This agrees well with Detective Lea’s assessment that this was a local criminal, for he had been reported in the area and apparently, as Lea pointed out, the perpetrator knew the family, as he seems to have called out to Mr. Alsop at some point, perhaps while at the gate. If this Spring-Heeled Jack were a resident of Old Ford, could he possibly have been the same assailant troubling so many villages in the previous months, ranging all over Isleworth, St. John’s Wood, Brixton, Stockwell, Vauxhall, Camberwell, and elsewhere? And was he the same Spring-Heeled Jack who, only five days after appearing at Jane Alsop’s gate, knocked on a door in Whitechapel and dropped his cloak to scare the wits out of a servant boy? And three days after that, could it have been the same man who waylaid the Scales sisters in an alley in Limehouse, once again wearing a cloak and some kind of headgear—described as a bonnet here rather than a helmet—throwing off his outer garment, lifting a lantern before him and spitting blue fire from his mouth into Lucy Scales’s face? Perhaps… perhaps it was simple recklessness to perpetrate his crimes not only in surrounding villages but also in his own neighborhood. But it may be impossible to tell, for already there were confirmed reports of copycats, so all of these must be considered dubious. In March, a man attacked the proprietress of a public house with a club, announcing he was Spring-Heeled Jack; a cloaked man assaulted a woman in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, slapping her face; and two cloaked men, who had blackened their faces, frightened a child. A young man in Kentish Town was let off with a warning after running around with a mask and blue paper in his mouth to approximate the fire of other reports, and another man was fined for going about in a mask and sheet. Meanwhile, a blacksmith in Islington saw in this panic a perfect opportunity for sexual assault and was charged with crimes against several women. And though most of these have little or nothing in common with the previous attacks, newspapers did not hesitate to print headlines announcing that Spring-Heeled Jack was out and about in their neck of the woods. So the name became a catch-all for any person going about in costume to scare pedestrians and grope young women.

Spring-Heeled Jack, leaping a gate, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack, leaping a gate, via Wikimedia Commons

After 1838, the specter of Spring-Heeled Jack disappeared for more than thirty years. Therefore, it is surpassingly unexpected that the figure would reappear over the course of multiple flaps in the 1870s and beyond. In early October 1872, the so-called “Peckham ghost” made his first appearance in that village. The term likely used in the metaphorical sense of a phantom figure, but perhaps also in reference to the ghostly appearance of this white-clad figure, this “ghost” made a habit of jumping out at women in roadways and rising up menacingly from behind fences to startle unsuspecting passersby. This figure’s costume was decidedly less sophisticated, a dark cloak lined in white so that he need only throw his cloak open for the desired effect. But still, some reports suggested the presence of fire around his face and the ability to leap high fences in a single bound, leading to the old speculation that his boots were rigged with springs or perhaps had soles of India rubber, which I suppose in English imaginations of the time had properties akin to flubber. A man was accused and held on charges of being the Peckham ghost, but appearances continued while he was in custody, so again, no one suspect proved a believable culprit for all the incidences. Then at the end of that year, another “ghost” scare has been subsequently linked with the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, this time in Sheffield, the farthest flap from London at the time at some 227 kilometers to the northwest. This appears to have been a tall man in a classic ghost costume: a simple white sheet. But the fact that he is described as being swifter and more agile than a normal man and was reported to have jumped over walls and gates has led to his being linked with old Jack. It seems to be, however, that he, and perhaps many others tenuously identified as Spring-Heeled Jack, may have only been an early practitioner of free-running, the sport now called Parkour.

Perhaps the boldest iteration of Spring-Heeled Jack sprang up in 1877 at a British Army camp at Aldershot to bound around sentry boxes and powder magazines, dodging bullets and slapping guards. It’s said that this Jack made no answer when the sentries saw him approaching and demanded he identify himself. With astonishing speed, he came close enough to slap some of the sentries’ faces with a hand that felt cold, like that of a corpse, and then hopped off toward a nearby cemetery. The guards in more than one instance gave chase and fired their weapons after him, to no avail. This has added to the legend that Jack was bulletproof, though the original reports could actually just be indicating that the guards missed their mark. That same year, Spring-Heeled Jack was reported by certain publications to have appeared numerous times, once climbing the Newport Arch, an ancient Roman landmark, with bullets fired by locals bouncing off the strange hides he wore. But ’77 was not his last hurrah, for 11 years later, during the Ripper murders, he showed up in Everton, in Liverpool some 288 kilometers from London, crouching in church steeples. Then into the 20th century he ventured, showing up again in Everton in 1904, leaping over rooftops in front of hundreds of witnesses. This last appearance, however, came with something of an explanation. It seemed that this scare actually originated with a supposed haunted house known to have poltergeist activity. The place was so famous in those parts that crowds of Liverpudlians used to gather outside in fearful expectation of seeing the ghost within. Add to this the presence of a local man who suffered from some mental imbalance who used to run around rooftops shouting about his wife being a devil, knocking bricks and mortar down on baffled onlookers, and you had a perfect recipe for a leaping ghost scare. With such an explanation in this flap, one wonders whether all the previous flaps might be similarly explained.

Spring-Heeled Jack among the headstones in a cemetery, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack among the headstones in a cemetery, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly there appears to have been some hysteria involved in many of the reports. Newspaper reporters themselves were skeptical at first, back in 1837, suggesting these were just the kinds of chilling tall tales passed around by servant girls, and in the few instances in which they did any real investigation, there seemed a dearth of first-hand witnesses. On some occasions, the ghostly beasts that had been reported lurking on the streets were simple cases of misidentification: a pale-faced cow or a white police horse became a ghastly demonic bull or bear or a hoary devil. Even the report of Jack dancing on the lawns of Kensington Palace was actually a re-imagining of something far less nefarious that happened 15 years earlier. And during the thick of the panic in January 1838, The Morning Herald’s investigation turned up plenty of people repeating the stories of Spring-Heeled Jack, but no one who had actually seen him firsthand. The reporter found himself chasing after empty leads, tracking down people who were said to have been injured by the phantom attacker only to have them say it hadn’t happened to them personally and send him on looking for someone else to whom it had happened. As Mike Dash has pointed out, this is a textbook example of an urban legend.

However, there do appear to be verifiable reports of some attacks, such as in the Alsop case, where we also have some very human suspects, and years later at Aldershot, where again it seems a human man may have perpetrated the attacks on sentries as a prank. It was reported that an unknown individual had earlier been stopped entering the camp carrying a carpet bag that could have contained a costume but that he was allowed to enter when he claimed to be a soldier. And there is some indication that the Aldershot Jack may have indeed been a soldier, for after being shot at, he ceased his nocturnal games until such time as the soldiers had been ordered not to waste any more ammunition firing at him, at which time he resumed his escapades. Only a soldier stationed there would have been aware that there was no further risk of being gunned down. And while of course the Alsop attack was a serious act of violence, as were all the sexual attacks associated with Spring-Heeled Jack, there is plenty of precedent for the notion that many attacks may have just been undertaken as pranks, as in Aldershot. All the way back in 1803, a ghost was said to be haunting the lanes of Hammersmith. His clothing, if nothing else, was described in terms quite similar to Jack’s, as white like a sheet and sometimes similar to an animal’s hide. Eventually a man encountered him, shot him, and was tried for his murder when beneath his costume he turned out to be a respected member of the community just out scaring people for a laugh. And the idea that Spring-Heeled Jack may just be a prankster, or several pranksters, was considered even in early 1838, as several newspapers reported on rumors that a group of bored noblemen were behind the attacks, performing them as part of a wager. One particular young nobleman, The Marquess of Waterford, Henry Beresford, known to drink heavily and enjoy a practical joke, was among those suspected of being involved in the wager, but there is no concrete evidence to support this speculation.

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, via  Wikimedia Commons

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, via Wikimedia Commons

Hard evidence, however, is not something that 19th century newspapers always require before putting a story into print, as we have seen before, most recently in our examination of the phantom airships in America. London newspapers helped spread this panic by printing second hand accounts of the attacks, by calling him a ghost and a devil, and by dubbing him with the catchy name Spring-Heeled Jack. And some less scrupulous newspapers, such as the Illustrated Police News, which reported a number of sensational encounters with Spring-Heeled Jack in 1877 that no other sources corroborate, may have been fabricating incidents out of whole cloth. And the secondary literature also is rife with embellishment and falsification. Mike Dash has done the hard work of fact checking other writers who had researched the topic before him, and one of them, Peter Haining, seems to have manufactured stories for the specific purpose of confirming the theory that the Marquess of Waterford was behind the crimes. He tells of an attack on a servant girl named Polly Adams and has her describe her attacker as a laughing nobleman with protruding eyes like those of Henry Beresford, when no contemporary source has been turned up to confirm that such an attack ever occurred. Likewise, to one appearance of Jack that does appear in newspaper reports, he added the specific detail that a witness had identified a crest with a gold filigree “W” stitched into Spring-Heeled Jack’s cloak. This report is often repeated today as support for the notion that Waterford was behind the crimes, but there is no indication that it ever happened beyond Haining’s claim. And Dash has proven that Haining lacks all credibility, as he completely invented one encounter: the murder of a prostitute named Maria Davis that he attributes to Spring-Heeled Jack. Haining provided a woodcut illustration that he claims shows the recovery of Davis’s body from a ditch, but Mike Dash tracked down this woodcut to discover that it only depicts someone gathering water, not recovering a corpse. With distortions as shameless as these obscuring the truth here, it’s hard to tell what can be trusted.

The picture Haining misused, via  Morgue of Intrigue

The picture Haining misused, via Morgue of Intrigue

Nevertheless, while some of the attacks may have been contrived, and some may have been mere imitations, there must have been some original. A legend does not spring up from nothing, does it? And despite all the different variations on his appearance, the different modus operandi, far-flung settings and disparate time spans, one still sees similarities, a pattern that is hard to dismiss. Even outside of the UK, there have been other, similar encounters, and it is hard to imagine that the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack would have spread so far, especially since the newspapers there never made such a link. In Georgia, in 1841, a man dressed as the devil attacked and robbed a woman, and when confronted, he swelled and emitted smoke, pronouncing himself the Prince of Darkness before being shot to death. In Cape Cod, more than thirty years after his final appearance in England, a phantom called the Black Flash skulked around Provincetown with flaming eyes, spitting fire into his victims’ faces, laughing when shot at, and springing easily over 8-foot fences. In those same years, during World War Two, a “Spring Man” was known to hop down the darkened streets of Prague after the German-imposed curfew. Then the fifties saw a similar figure appear in Baltimore, clad in a black cloak and leaping onto rooftops. In fact, to a modern audience he might sound like a proto-Batman, and indeed, despite the terror he struck in many, he also appeared as a heroic figure in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, terrifying villains with his preternatural leaps and acting the part of the outlaw hero, an anti-hero like Robin Hood. So one could certainly see Batman, the vigilante with acrobatic skills and a frightening persona, as being part of the same tradition as Spring-Heeled Jack. Is this then something universal, an archetype, a folkloric tradition like others we see appearing independently in different cultures? Or is it just testament to the eternal appeal of dressing up and leaping out to scare people? At this time of year, I lean toward the latter. Happy Halloween!

*

Further Reading

Dash, Mike. “Spring-Heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo from Suburban Ghost.” Fortean Studies, vol. 3, 1996, pp. 7-125. mikedash.com, docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7bb090_e0f718375aa54f789586c062f29dd204.pdf.

The Myth and Mystery of Christopher Columbus

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Ahead of the now controversial holiday Columbus Day, it is worthwhile to examine the myths and mysteries surrounding that much vaunted explorer who in fourteen hundred and ninety-two went and sailed the ocean blue: Christopher Columbus. As with many of you listeners, I’m sure, I vividly remember the legend of Columbus as it was taught to me by teachers and illustrated children’s books. As the legend went, Columbus was a man of conviction; he believed the world was round and thus that he could sail west to reach the Indies in the east. But he had trouble obtaining financial backing for his journey, for the advisers to Queen Isabella scoffed at his ignorance. Finally, Queen Isabella, who believed in Columbus, pawned her crown jewels to pay for his endeavor, and after a long and perilous crossing, Columbus’s ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria landed in the New World, for rather than reaching the East Indies, Columbus had discovered America. This is a story that many children have heard, and some embellished particulars might be forgiven as necessities in making history palatable to youngsters, such as the fact that Queen Isabella never pawned her jewels for Columbus—she had done this before, to provision her armies, but in the case of Columbus, she had only expressed a willingness to do it. But in the early 1990s, as the quincentennial, or 500th anniversary, of Columbus’s landing at the Bahamas approached, far more central aspects of the legend than this were challenged. And in the years since, Columbus has become a villain in the eyes of many who see him as a figure representative of terrible colonial atrocities against native inhabitants. Native American activists have disrupted numerous Columbus Day parades, and today many cities have chosen to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day, and just as there has been a continual push to remove or relocate confederate monuments, so have activists petitioned to do away with Columbus’s statues. As with the controversy over Confederate statues, which I discussed in my episode Jubal Early’s Lost Cause, there are still many who vociferously oppose this trend, which they see as historical revisionism of the worst sort, meant only to libel and demonize. And it is not at all clear which of these contending sides will win out in this historiographical conflict. While it may seem that the majority of professional historians ascribe to a less than idealized version of Columbus, this may mean nothing when it comes to whether the legend will continue to be disseminated as it always has been. In fact, Christina M. Desai, in a 2014 article in Children’s Literature in Education called “The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks about Christopher Columbus,” showed that children’s literature continues to promote the same ideas about Columbus, regardless of how modern views of the man have changed. What is this myth? What revelations about Columbus do modern historians offer? What do we know and what do we not know about the so-called Great Discoverer? Thank you for listening to Episode 26: The Myth and Mystery of Christopher Columbus.

One might ask, what are these conceptions of Columbus that children’s literature teaches? What are these myths propagated by schoolbooks? First and foremost would be the myth of discovery. To children in the United States, we teach that Columbus discovered America, but of course, in his 1492 voyage, he landed at the Bahamas, and his various subsequent journeys likewise saw him land at other islands in the Caribbean, such as that which today we call Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but which Columbus called Hispaniola. He can hardly be said to have discovered our country, which is essentially what children are allowed to believe. Now, one might cry “semantics!” Clearly he landed in the New World, so one can accurately say he discovered the Americas. But Native Americans have a deeper misgiving here, for how can it be said that Columbus discovered a land that was already inhabited with a native Arawak population numbering somewhere around 8 million? Books and traditions that assert Columbus discovered this land thereby transmit to future generations an age-old colonialist ideology that is intrinsically Euro-centric. Yes, some dark-skinned Other was already present, it tells children, but their existence was incidental, as they were inferior to the Western European explorers who made their way to those lands. Thus the inherent right of colonial powers to claim lands for themselves is tacitly asserted. The ridiculousness of this idea being in any way approved of today, regardless of how commonly held it was in that era, was illustrated dramatically by Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall, a Native American Chippewa activist who in 1973 flew to Italy and emerged from his plane resplendent in his tribal regalia to proclaim that he had discovered Italy and would claim possession of it on behalf of Native Americans, despite the little detail that it was teeming with Italian inhabitants.

Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall meeting the Pope, via  The Bemidgi Pioneer

Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall meeting the Pope, via The Bemidgi Pioneer

Some would argue this may be misconstruing the meaning of the word discovery as it’s used in this context, for surely it is a worthwhile accomplishment to be the first explorer to “discover,” as in find out, that other continents existed in this world, regardless of whether they were inhabited, just as a Native American sailing across the Atlantic and landing in France could be said to have “discovered” that Europe existed. But can Columbus even claim this honor for himself? There are many theories and indications that Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact occurred, some of course dubious, and others intriguing. It has been suggested that an Irish monk, Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is said to have made a great voyage across the sea to a legendary Isle of the Blessed, may have actually landed in North America as long ago as the sixth century. Then, of course, there were the Norse voyages to the mysterious, fertile shores of Vinland west of Greenland detailed in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, which if believed would place the first European explorers on North American shores somewhere around 1000 C.E. and give credit to Leif Eriksson, or perhaps to a lesser known Norseman named Bjarni Herjólfsson around 14 years earlier. And if the Norse claim is soured by some of the doubtful claims over inscribed rune stones that proponents tout as proof, then there’s always the Welsh claim that in 1170 an illegitimate prince by the name of Madoc ab Gwynedd, son of a Welsh prince and the daughter of a Viking lord, set sail with his brother and 200 Welshmen. Declared missing the next year, a legend transmitted by Cherokee tribes would have us believe that these resolute Welshmen made their way to the shores of what is today Mobile, Alabama, and thenceforth, harried by native attacks, sailed up a series of rivers until they settled in Georgia and intermarried with the indigenous peoples there. Then again, perhaps this story strains your credulity even more than that of the Viking voyages to Vinland, due not only to its folkloric roots but to the suspicious fact that it gained prominence in Elizabethan England as a means of countering Spanish claims to the New World. As an example of its questionable veracity, one of its biggest promoters was the colorful character of John Dee, whom I’ve mentioned before in my episode on the Voynich Manuscript and to whom I still plan to devote at least one full episode in the future. Dr. Dee not only asserted that Madoc’s voyage strengthened Elizabeth’s claim on the New World; he further insisted that King Arthur had discovered it long before that!

And so, with such outlandish contentions as these, perhaps you give no credence to any theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. But still, can Christopher Columbus be credited even with being the first European to “discover” that a hitherto unknown continent existed if he never realized it himself? Columbus sailed west searching for a new route to the Indies, those East Asian lands rich in gold and spices. When he landed on what today are the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, he believed that he was visiting the distant shores of China and Japan, a conviction most evidence shows he held throughout his subsequent voyages and maintained to his death. This, of course, is why the Americas are named for the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, who was first to realize the significance of what Columbus found. However,  this is disputed as well, with some pointing to another Welshman, Richard ap Meryk, who anglicized his name to Amerike when he moved to Bristol and founded a Society of Merchant Adventurers. Some say America was named for him, as he was a principal financier of John Cabot’s 1497 expedition to Newfoundland, and others take it further, asserting that Bristol fisherman landed at Newfoundland in 1480 and named it for Richard Amerike. So the claims do not cease, and indeed are not limited to Europe. Some have claimed Chinese voyager Zheng He found the New World in the 15th century and point to an 18th century map of the world clearly showing the Americas as proof, for a dubious notation on it claims it was a copy of a 1418 map. And even more recently, Turkish president Erdoğan, a despot and known propagandist, suggested that Muslims had preceded Columbus to Cuba. His evidence? In Columbus’s writings, there is mention of finding a mosque on a hill, but historians agree this was a metaphor. Nevertheless, this gives a clear indication of just how muddled is the history of the New World’s “discovery.”

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, quite unsure of where he was, via  Wikimedia Commons

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, quite unsure of where he was, via Wikimedia Commons

Another persistent myth about Columbus is that he was in the minority, or even alone, in believing that the earth was round. This is not merely a simplification used to embellish his story in children’s books; even scholars have been known to repeat this myth, suggesting that Columbus’s venture was so adamantly opposed at first because ignorant and narrow-minded officials in the Spanish court scoffed at him for suggesting one could reach the East by sailing westward, reminding Columbus that his ships would fall off the edge of the world. This part of the story helps to build the legend of Columbus as a brilliant and inspired genius, a hero opposed by small-minded men. In truth, however, it was commonly held at the time that the earth was round, and had been since antiquity. Aristotle himself worked out what he believed was the circumference of the planet some two hundred or more years before the Common Era, as did librarians at Alexandria, and their measurements differ only about 5% from current day calculations! It had been common knowledge among the educated for centuries, and for everyone else, the curved shadow of the Earth on the Moon during eclipses made it obvious enough. Moreover, anyone who observed ships on the ocean was able to confirm it, for as they sailed away over the curvature of the Earth, they dropped slowly out of sight, their hulls long before their masts. In fact, the oldest surviving globe, the Erdapfel or “earth apple,” was made the same year as Columbus’s first voyage, 1492; though it shows no indication of the existence of the Americas, it is quite spherical, and it was likely not the first of its kind. Columbus cannot even be credited with being the first man to realize the world’s globular shape would make it possible to sail west to reach the East, as Greek historian and geographer Strabo suggested back in 63 BCE that India could be reached by such a westward route. In truth, Spanish resistance to Columbus’s venture derived from the very fact that knowledge of the Earth’s shape and size was far greater than the received myth would have us believe. Court officials scoffed at Columbus’s specious projections, insisting sailing westward to reach the Indies would take far longer than Columbus claimed. And, of course, they were right. Indeed, one cannot even credit Columbus with proving what everyone previously had only reasoned about the Earth’s shape because he never actually circumnavigated it. Recognition for that must go to Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition 30 years later.

This myth that Columbus set out to disprove the theory of Earth’s flatness began in the work of America’s great mythmaker, Washington Irving, perhaps best known for his iconic fiction stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Having gone to Madrid to help translate some documents on Columbus, Irving decided to write the man’s history for American audiences. Along the way, though, he relied more and more on his tendencies as a writer of fiction, filling in the blind spots by reasoning what must have happened or what may indeed have occurred and weaving those imagined scenes into the narrative, resulting in The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, an 1828 work presented to the reading public as scrupulous historiography when it was really something closer to historical fiction. And when it came time to write about Columbus’s meeting with the Council at Salamanca, he embellished the scene to create the drama he assumed the true encounter must have had. In fairness to Irving, Columbus himself had a tendency to portray himself as persecuted and unfairly treated in his own writings, so Irving may have thought his sources justified his elaboration, but the result was a fictional passage in which Columbus faces the derision of closed-minded men in power. This is the origin of the myth that objections were raised over Columbus’s notion of a round Earth, but actually, Irving does have some council members concede the roundness of the planet, and the principal reservation that Irving has his the councilmen raise against Columbus’s reasoning is doctrinal, having to do with the idea of the antipodes, an idea rejected by the church because it meant the existence of people on the other side of the planet who must not have been descended from Adam. Still others in the council Irving depicted as more concerned that the distance around the earth was far greater than Columbus anticipated, which of course is accurate. Nevertheless, it was the idea that the council members were all Flat Earthers that caught on and soon found itself included in other books. And this notion of enlightened scientific thinking being suppressed by dogmatic reactionaries became an especially popular trope used by Darwinists in the later 19th century to defend the theory of evolution, equating Columbus’s struggle against ignorant Flat Earthers with Copernicus’s struggle against the 16th century church in an effort to depict their religious detractors as brassbound and standpat. As true as this may have been in Copernicus’s case and in the case of the dogmatists opposing Darwinian thought, it was not the case when Columbus went seeking support for his venture. And just as today reactionaries parade outlier examples to suggest there is not scientific consensus when it comes to climate change, so then the champions of science in the 19th century held up obscure claims of Flat Earthers in antiquity as representative of common belief, suggesting that 15th century science owed its backward notions to the ideas of Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century or Lactantius in the 3rd century, even though few in the 1400s likely even knew about these thinkers and their religious opposition to the idea of the Earth’s roundness and probably even fewer gave weight to their opinions.

Washington Irving, looking rather proud of his mythologizing, via  Wikimedia Commons

Washington Irving, looking rather proud of his mythologizing, via Wikimedia Commons

A final facet of the Columbus myth as it continues to be conveyed to generations of youth has to do with Columbus’s motivation. Many treatments of Columbus emphasize his devoutness, portraying him like a saint. In this view of Columbus, he had no other purpose for crossing the Atlantic than to spread the word of God to those benighted souls across the water whom he considered to be heathens. This mythical portrayal of him has Columbus finding inspiration, even as a child, in his namesake, Saint Christopher, who according to a decidedly folkloric tradition once carried the Christ child across a river. In just the same way, so the myth goes, Columbus had been chosen to carry Christ across the dark waters metaphorically in carrying His Word to the godless, and most depictions of his arrival in the New World show him kneeling in prayer upon stepping foot on shore. This element of the Columbus myth also seems to have been derived from Columbus’s own self-aggrandizing writings. In his efforts to acquire backing for his voyage, he presented himself as a heavenly-anointed character, divinely chosen to spread not only Christendom but also Spanish influence abroad. In fact, later in his career, when he had lost his position in his colony and no longer held favor in the court, he spent time searching the scriptures for indications that his voyages had been foretold in prophecy and compiled them in a manuscript never published in his life. Around this time he also began to sign his name as Christo Ferens, or Christ Bearer, an indication that he actively publicized himself as a figure analogous to St. Christopher. But to accept and promulgate this image of Columbus is to allow the man to make his own myth, and it means turning a blind eye to more clearly supported motivations, such as the gathering of wealth for the Spanish crown and, of course, self-enrichment. Columbus did not sell his voyage on the basis of the opportunity it would afford for evangelizing natives. The Spanish court expected returns on their investment, and Columbus’s actions after his “discovery” indicate that the gathering of gold and other riches was paramount. Now there may have been some overlap with these two motivations attributed to him, as some recent scholarship has suggested that Columbus hoped through his venture to finance a new crusade in order to take Jerusalem from Muslims. Among the prophecies compiled by Columbus, alongside those foretelling the conversion of all peoples to Christianity, were those prophesying the final reclamation of the Holy Land from Muslim control. But an accurate evaluation of what drove Columbus cannot be taken directly from the man’s own words alone. Rather, we must consider his actions in the New World to gain a more perfect understanding of his enterprise.

And it is here where we sail into the deepest and darkest waters of the Columbus myth. Since the quincentennial, a clear revisionist effort has been made to rewrite his character in memory and history. Rather than a saintly hero or harbinger of enlightenment, he was the father of slavery and a perpetrator of genocide. Traditionalists decry this trend as libel, arguing that Columbus’s villainy has been exaggerated and his actions judged out of context according to the moral sensibilities of modern society. Further, they insist that he cannot be held accountable for events he only set in motion, especially when he did so inadvertently. So it becomes incumbent on us to examine these two allegations. First, was Columbus responsible for the New World slave trade? We know he was no stranger to the slave trade, as the earliest records we have of him indicate he was sailing around the west coast of Africa on a Portuguese slaving vessel. And on his 1492 voyage, he appears to have personally planted the first sugar plant in the Caribbean, a crop which would flourish in that climate and would eventually require a massive labor force for its cultivation, leading directly to the establishment of a slave trade between Africa and Hispaniola. But if that is too unwitting an act for us to lay blame on Columbus, then let us look to his second voyage, when he returned to Hispaniola with 17 ships. This was his voyage of conquest, and when he took control of the island, he quickly discovered that the gold and riches he believed would be so plentiful were actually not so forthcoming. Therefore, in an effort to boost the disappointing return, he began to see the native population as another resource he could exploit, and he established the institution of slavery. Not only did he enslave natives in the New World for the purposes of gathering wealth for the crown, but he also shipped the natives back across the Atlantic. Although many died during the crossing, he took comfort in the fact that, as he wrote, “this will not always be the case, for the Negroes and Canary Islanders reacted in the same way at first” (Fernández-Armesto 6). Traditionalists may insist that Columbus cannot be judged a villain even for these actions, as the world’s understanding of the evils of slavery was not then prevalent. But the surprising fact is that the Spanish had laws against slavery even in that era. Slavery was only to be condoned with prisoners of war and criminals who had violated natural law, and even then must be approved by a royal court. This is not to say that the Spanish disapproved of all slavery in the New World. In fact, they did approve of the enslavement of certain Carib natives of the Lesser Antilles who it was said practiced cannibalism, as such acts broke natural law. The problem was that Columbus traded mostly in Arawak natives, and specifically the Taino population, whom he had often stated were responsive to evangelization, making their enslavement unlawful. Columbus actually received warnings from Spanish royal courts, which ordered these illegally enslaved natives to be emancipated. So, the fact that he appears to have had far fewer reservations about human bondage even than those he served would seem to justify the revisionist perception of Columbus as the man who brought slavery and its concomitant evils to the Americas.

A depiction of Spanish atrocities in the work of Las Casas, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of Spanish atrocities in the work of Las Casas, via Wikimedia Commons

So we come to the worst of the crimes laid at Columbus’s feet in modern times: that of genocide or the deliberate murder of an entire people. Apologists rightly point out that it would have been foolish for Columbus to deliberately stamp out the population of Taino natives on Hispaniola, as he relied on them to gather wealth from the island, and he could hardly be said to have redeemed them in Christ if he simply killed them all. Moreover, there was the matter of rebellion to consider. Wholesale slaughter would have made the Taino ungovernable, and Columbus even said as much, exhorting the Spanish to “take much care of the Indians, that no ill nor harm may be done them…so [they] should have no cause to rebel” (Fernández-Armesto 7). And yet, over the course of the first three years of his governorship, the Arawak population plummeted by some 5 million! Of the remaining 3 million, only about 22,000 remained 18 years later. 30 years after that, they were all but extinct. And a similar pattern prevailed across the Caribbean basin. To account for these numbers without laying blame on Columbus and his governorship, apologists point to disease, and certainly contact with Europeans meant the spread of disease. In fact, disease took many Spanish lives as well, but one of the worst diseases to spread in the aftermath of the Spanish invasion was syphilis, and it spread because of Spaniards routinely raping native women. And Columbus’s programs and policies would prove just as brutal and deadly as any illness. Many among the indigenous population, in addition to being enslaved, had their valuable cultivated lands seized by the invaders, and for many, this meant starvation. As for those who escaped enslavement, there remained an unrealistic tribute program. Upon their arrival, the Spanish had delighted many natives with gifts, including baubles such as hawk’s bells, the little brass bells that falconers customarily affixed to their birds’ talons. During Columbus’s subsequent rule, however, these gifts became a curse, as around 1495, Columbus ordered that every native over 14 years old had to bring him enough gold to fill his or her hawk’s bell every three months. This proved to be an impossible task for many, as gold was not as plentiful there as had been imagined, and as a consequence for failing to meet one’s tribute, the Spanish chopped off the natives’ hands and let them bleed to death. Historians estimate more than 10,000 natives were murdered in this way. And the atrocities do not cease there, with reports of Spaniards wagering on who could behead a native or hack him in half with one fell strike and of Spaniards taking infants from their mothers’ breasts and throwing them against rocks or cutting them into pieces with their swords and feeding them to their dogs. They hanged the natives, burned them at the stake, and cooked them on spits just to teach them respect, or rather, fear, and they even engaged in wholesale massacre, putting men, women, and children—whole villages—to the sword until the streets ran with blood like the floor of an abattoir. All this was reported by Bartolome de Las Casas, a Dominican friar who arrived at Hispaniola in 1502 (Churchill 8). Again, apologists argue with a straight face that Columbus cannot be blamed for atrocities that occurred when he was no longer governor of Hispaniola, but these outrages were made possible not only by the atmosphere first established under his rule, but also by his policies, which remained in effect and, after 1509, were enforced by Columbus’s own son.

For many Italians and Italian-Americans, these facts do not sit well, for despite the fact that Columbus sailed and claimed land for Spain, it is said Columbus was born in Genoa and was therefore ethnically Italian. And he has become a symbol in Italy just as much as he has in the United States. During the quincentennial in 1992, a ceremony was held in Las Vegas to marry the Statue of Liberty to a statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. But to illustrate just how many blind spots remain in our understanding of who Columbus was and what he stood for and did, it should be pointed out that we know shockingly little about him. In portraits, he is always depicted differently because we don’t really know what he looked like and can’t even guess about his appearance based on race or culture because we don’t even know for a certainty where he came from. The Italians make the strongest case, but the fact remains that there exists no record of his birth, even though birth records were kept at the time in Genoa. Moreover, Columbus never wrote himself about his youth, leaving the place of his birth and upbringing a mystery, and he wrote and apparently spoke not in any dialect of Genoa but in Castilian with a smattering of Latin and Portuguese. Of course, the fact that he sailed for Portugal, had some knowledge of the language, and took a Portuguese wife led to claims he was Portuguese as well as theories that he ran a map shop in Lisbon. Then his Castilian fluency and his service to Spain, along with the fact that he kept a Spanish mistress, led to claims he was Spanish; perhaps you’ve heard the Hispanic version of his name, Cristóbal Colón. In the 1920s, some historical documents surfaced purporting to prove his Spanish heritage, but these turned out to be forgeries. Nevertheless, the claims did not cease there. In 1913, a theory arose that he was Jewish, or more specifically that he was a Spanish Jew, either a converso who had converted to Christianity, or that he had been forced to hide his Jewish identity because of King Ferdinand of Aragon’s 1492 order expelling Jews from Spain. There is little concrete evidence for this theory, however, and some who have promoted it relied on awful anti-Semitic stereotypes, suggesting Columbus’s Jewishness explained his excessive greed for gold (Churchill 11). While the notion of a Jewish Columbus may add new dimension to the theory that Columbus’s central motivation was to reclaim Jerusalem, and has even led to other theories about his motivation, such as that he was really interested in tracking down the lost tribes of Israel in the New World, there is virtually no evidence for it beyond some linguistic analysis that suggests he occasionally dropped a Hebrew word into his compositions. It would seem to me, though, that this proves nothing, since foreign words are frequently adopted by other languages, and Columbus specifically was known to use a mix of several languages and dialects, as already noted.

Various portraits of Columbus showing no resemblance to each other, via  vanderkrogt.net

Various portraits of Columbus showing no resemblance to each other, via vanderkrogt.net

Mystery follows Columbus from his origins to the end of his life and beyond. More than 30 years after his death in 1509, his remains, along with his son’s, were transported to Santo Domingo to be laid to rest in the New World according to his wishes. With the end of Spanish power in Hispaniola in 1795, the remains were sent to Havana, but in 1877, a lead box was discovered back at Santo Domingo containing bones and clearly marked as the casket of Cristóbal Colón. Thus there were two sets of remains, those in Cuba—which, with the outbreak of war with the U.S. in 1898, were shipped again back to Spain and are still there—and those in the present day Dominican Republic, where their keepers claim they never left, the Spanish having taken the wrong bones, whether by accident or because someone loyal to Columbus’s memory switched the remains since Columbus had wished to stay in Santo Domingo. They point to the evidence of arthritis in their bones as proof, as it is known Columbus suffered from that condition. The Spanish have somewhat weightier proof for the authenticity of the remains in their possession in the form of DNA analysis confirming their bones share DNA with those of Columbus’s brother, but the Dominicans refuse to accept these results and at the same time have declined to allow similar testing on the bones in their possession. So even in death, Columbus remains a man between worlds, claimed by many but belonging to none. The apologists who would reclaim his identity as a hero cry that modern revision indulges in the so-called “Black Legend,” the trend in historiography to tear down and demonize persons and cultures that in the past may have been idealized, and to ignore or minimize their positive contributions. But if the scholarship is sound, if the facts that have caused revisionists to reexamine previous portrayals are accurate, then what other response can there be but to recoil from such deeds?  Some argue for more balance in our consideration of Columbus, such as the Smithsonian and other museums, which in recent years have altered their discourse to stress not Columbus’s “discovery” but Spanish “contact,” and use the antiseptic term “exchange” to encompass all that transpired during the clash of these cultures. This historiographical trend warns us to strive for balance and fairness, and above all not to engage in reductive archetypes like heroes and villains (Bigelow, “Two Myths”). This may be a worthwhile and even admirable endeavor, in theory, but one wonders if such evenhandedness is always warranted. In the future, for example, will we be censured for suggesting that some villainy was at work in orchestrating the holocaust?

*

Further Reading

Bigelow, Bill. "Once upon a genocide: Christopher Columbus in children's literature." Social Justice, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, p. 106+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A13850074/AONE?u=cclc_merced&sid=AONE&xid=3057a024. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.

---. "Two myths are not better than one." Monthly Review, July-Aug. 1992, p. 28+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A12478791/AONE?u=cclc_merced&sid=AONE. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.

Churchill, Ward. “Deconstructing the Columbus Myth: Was the ‘Great Discoverer’ Italian or Spanish, Nazi or Jew?” Social Justice, vol. 19, no. 2 (48), 1992, pp. 39–55. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29766673.

Fernandez-Armesto, F. “Columbus--Hero or Villain?” History Today, vol. 42, no. 5, May 1992, p. 4-9. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=9205183670&site=ehost-live.

Paul, Heike. “Christopher Columbus and the Myth of ‘Discovery.’” The Myths That Made America: An Introduction to American Studies, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2014, pp. 43–88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxsdq.5.

Koning, Hans. Columbus: His Enterprise. Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Singham, Mano. “Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 88, no. 8, Apr. 2007, p. 590-92. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brb&AN=504303125&site=ehost-live.

Vizenor, Gerald. "Christopher Columbus: Lost Havens in the Ruins of Representation." American Indian Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, Fall92, pp. 521-32. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=9305145094&site=ehost-live.

Blind Spot: Charles Dellschau and His Extraordinary Sonora Aero Club

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In the last edition, I surveyed the history of innovation in ballooning before telling the tale of the mysterious sightings that occurred in 1896 and ’97, but is it possible that there is a further history of aviation pioneering that didn’t make it into the historical record? Could some inventors have made great strides in the design and building of airships? If fleets of flying machines really were seen in 1896 and 1897, then it would seem someone must have. And there does exist a body of work that claims to answer these questions. In all, it comprises some 2000 pages, with watercolor paintings and handmade collages as well as handwritten passages that purport to reveal the existence of an organization of airship inventors who made great advances in aviation in the 1850s, but did so entirely in secret. But is this a work of history or a work of art? Does it impart fact or simply weave an intriguing fiction?

The work began around the turn of the 20th century. The artist was then a man of around 70 years, a Prussian immigrant by the name of Charles Albert August Dellschau who had arrived at Galveston in 1849 at the age of 19. He lived much of his life in Texas, working in Richmond as a butcher, as had been his father’s trade. In 1861, he married a widow with a 5 year old girl. Decades later, after losing his wife and most of the children he had fathered with her, he moved from Richmond to Houston to work as a clerk for his step-daughter’s husband, a saddler maker. In the mid-1890s, his son-in-law also passed away, and Dellschau moved in with his widowed step-daughter and her several children. He retired right around when the airship flaps began. Not long after these incredible sightings of flying ships, Charles Dellschau, who seems to have spent most of his time in his step-daughter’s attic, began to write his illustrated memoirs. This undertaking thereafter turned into a seemingly endless series of drawings, paintings, and collages on butcher paper. It seems he produced one new intricate work of art of this sort about every two days, working by candle light up in his attic studio, until he died in 1923 at the age of 93. He never tried to publish his writings or sell his artwork in life, and after he was gone, his family left it moldering up in that attic until the 1960s, when a house fire prompted a fire inspector to clean out the attic. Thinking all the old papers a fire hazard, he dumped them all on the curb. Somehow, the artwork thereafter came into the possession of the owner of a local store, where for even longer it remained hidden under various other items—tarps and carpets—until its rediscovery and sale to various art galleries and museums, and to a researcher named P. J. Navarro, whose interest lay principally in the mystery airship sightings of the late 1890s. From there, the work of Charles Dellschau entered history and the public consciousness.

A manuscript of Charles Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

A manuscript of Charles Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

You see, rather than the simple autobiography of a butcher, as one might have expected from him, his writings and his illustrations and collages depicted in vivid detail his involvement with a society of airship makers in California. If Dellschau’s work is to be believed, then sometime in the early to mid-1850s, not long after he first arrived in Texas, he traveled to California, to the gold rush country west of Yosemite, where in a small town called Sonora, he served as the draftsman for a secret society of airship builders. This group, the Sonora Aero Club, was composed of men with Germanic names, likely immigrants to America just like Dellschau, and they met among miners in the saloon at Sonora, talking not of gold but of flight. One man in particular stands out in Dellschau’s works as the leader or principal innovator in the Sonora Aero Club: one Peter Mennis. A German miner and rough sort, he is described as a drunk and a genius, tinkering with airships for the sole purpose of astonishing friends and maybe making enough money to keep himself in drink. It is he who engineers or discovers the miraculous “Lifting Fluid” that eventually allows all the Sonora Aero Club’s ships to float and fly. Mennis calls this material “Supe.” Essentially, it replaced hydrogen in their designs, as drops of it, released onto rotating metal plates called an “Electrande,” resulted in a gas that filled the airships’ envelopes to provide lift. So you might say they were driving around souped-up hot-air balloons. From his memoirs, one gets the impression that the club is a group of jovial aviation enthusiasts, keenly interested in the mechanics of flight, yes, but perhaps even more interested in telling a good tale and having a raucous good time at the local tavern.

Example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

Example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

But there is mystery and intrigue in Dellschau’s club as well, for theirs was a secret society, and their undertakings performed under a strict code of silence. In one margin, among the many tales told in scrawled annotations on his paintings, he tells of an airship pilot that the club suspected was taking payment for transporting cargo, and how the club orchestrated the crash of his vessel in retaliation. There is mention of members being forbidden to build the ships they had designed because they had been sharing too much information with people outside the club, and of a nosy boardinghouse owner who tried to eavesdrop on their meetings and got stranded on a cliff for her snooping. When ships were built, they had to be disguised as wagons so that no one who saw them would think anything of them. Indeed, even a half a century later, Dellschau didn’t seem entirely comfortable writing about the secrets of the Aero Club, so some of his work is written in code, which of course is very odd for a memoir or a history. Some details that we have come from the researcher P. J. Navarro, who claims to have cracked Dellschau’s code after years of studying his work. Acccording to Navarro, one prominent coded phrase, seemingly in Greek characters, ĐM = XØ (delta mu = chi phi) represents the name of a mysterious organization that financed or somehow otherwise supported or made possible the innovations of the Sonora Aero Club. Navarro says this phrase decodes to NYMZA, although no one really knows what that acronym might stand for. Other researchers suggest that these coded portions were only responses to the Great War in Europe that Dellschau introduced after 1914, as though he had to keep things secret in a time of war, and judging from context, they seem to just be a code for the name of the club itself. But that hasn’t stopped the shadowy NYMZA from becoming a dark and looming entity that casts its shadow over the entire legend, a development we will explore shortly.

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

As Dellschau tells it, this was a golden era of aviation in the deep gold country of California. Members of the club held forth about their designs in their secret meetings behind their boardinghouse. They traveled the roads in airships disguised as covered wagons waiting until no one was around so they could take flight and go on extended voyages through the skies, sleeping and eating their meals high up in the clouds. But as with all good things, the club eventually came to an end. Crashes are not uncommon in his stories about the club, a fact which really lends his tales authenticity or verisimilitude. For example, one story tells of an aero being commandeered by a pilot who was not up to the task and drove the ship right into a redwood and broke his neck. For the most part, though, the club easily recovered from such accidents. But when, in the 1860s, Peter Mennis himself died in a fiery crash, the secret of his Lifting Fluid died with him. Apparently the Club floundered for some time, trying to recreate Mennis’s miraculous substance, but in the end, club members went their separate ways, like Dellschau, who ended up back in Texas, if you believe his stories, content to marry and work for 26 years as a butcher after all the profound adventures he had experienced. Now some would argue that this was not the end of the Aero Club, and would suggest that after thirty to forty years of experimentation, former members must have finally perfected the Supe, resulting in the appearance of all those many airships in the 1890s. And these believers will likely point to some recognizable names in Dellschau’s work, suggesting that a Smith that Dellschau mentions must be the same Smith that patented an airship design in 1896, or that a Wilson he refers to is likely the same Wilson mentioned in a series of Texas airship sightings, but these are common names being linked to persons decades and many miles apart. There is only one concrete piece of evidence remaining that the Aero Club existed, and it is the artwork of Charles A. A. Dellschau, which cannot be taken as definitive proof.

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this has not kept conspiracy theorists and fringe thinkers from doing what they do best, and now the Sonora Aero Club is all tied up in a variety of outlandish ideas with little basis in fact. Take the books and articles of Walter Bosley for an example. Bosley claims that, not only was the Aero Club real, but that the reason why their technology never went mainstream, so to speak, and simply disappeared after the airship sightings, was that this represented the beginning of a breakaway civilization. If you are unfamiliar with idea of breakaway civilizations, think about bad sci-fi in which Nazis developed advanced technology and then withdrew from the world to start their own society in Antarctica, or within the hollow earth, or on the moon. It’s wild stuff, and Bosley doesn’t hesitate to draw connections between the Aero Club and its financiers, NYMZA, and the Nazis with their rumored experimental aircraft, the Nazi Bell. In fact, drawing connecting lines is what Bosley does, even when there are no dots to connect. He suggests that in 1903, when the Wright Brothers were struggling to get their plane off the ground, a rumored airship flight to Mars actually did take place using technology from Nicola Tesla, and that this represents the beginning of another breakaway group. What’s more than that, he even manages to bring Donald Trump into the conspiracy, pointing out that one Dellschau painting has the name Homer Trump below a particular ship, suggesting that maybe one of Donald’s Trump’s relatives was part of the Aero Club, and further pointing out that Trump’s uncle, John G. Trump, was one of the FBI agents who went through Tesla’s documents after he died, hinting at some kind of cloak and dagger intrigue between these two rival breakaway civilizations. But even Walter Bosley himself seems to have embraced his critics’ biggest complaint against his theories and freely admits that he engages in “wild ass speculation.”

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, though, that elements of Dellschau’s story invite speculation as to its authenticity. It has been observed that the machinery he drew was very precise, and that he used the same mechanisms over and over again, which would likely be the case if inventors were building their designs on previous iterations. Does this just represent a lack of imagination on Dellschau’s part or is it a stroke of realism? It can hardly be said, when looking at his work, that he lacked imagination, and this may actually be a mark against the veracity of his stories, for many of the stories in his early memoirs are ridiculous, featuring a very fictive protagonist-antagonist relationship between Peter Mennis and an obese foil named Christian Axel von Roemeling who crashes his airship and thereafter becomes the butt of various pranks. Indeed, the simple fact that Dellschau purports to remember verbatim the words spoken so many years ago is itself suspect, like when he goes into some of Mennis’s speeches, such as when Mennis tells of a dream he has and it becomes a narrative about rescuing the corpulent Roemeling from the moon. And yet, when one wants to confirm that Dellschau wasn’t in Sonora in the 1850s, one finds a blind spot in his past. No one seems able to confirm his whereabouts between his arrival at Galveston in 1849 and his marriage in Richmond in 1861. But likewise, no one has been able to dig up any historical evidence of any of the principal characters ever having lived around Sonora at the time either. And even if this evidence were ever discovered, wouldn’t it be easier to believe that these were just some pranksters spouting off at a saloon, maybe something akin to the The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, that drinking club and parody of a fraternal organization called the Clampers, which was active in Sonora at the time and is known for its pranks and false mythology. And in the same way, isn’t it easier to believe that after the airship sighting hysteria, and during the decades of genuine aviation breakthroughs afterward, this old man undertook an ingenious art project, rather than that at twenty years of age, fresh in the country and with no experience doing anything other than carving meat, this young man was spirited away to California to serve as the draftsman for a secret society of balloonists with near-magical technology? Then again, I suppose, just because something is easier to believe doesn’t always make it true.

Further Reading

Charles A. A. Dellschau (monograph), edited by Stephen Romero, Marquand Books, 2013.

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The Phantom Airships of 1890s America

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In this edition, we return to the rich topic of historical UFO sightings. As I showed way back in my Brief History of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, sightings of unusual lights and what appeared to be craft in the skies stretch all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. In that edition, I chose to conclude my enumeration of strange sights in the sky without covering the 19th century, but these marvels did not cease in the 19th century only to resume when Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting set off the modern era of UFO reports. There is, however, good reason to draw a boundary between the celestial wonders of bygone epochs and sightings that occurred squarely within the era of aviation. Now, many would point to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s invention of and first successful flight in an airplane as the beginning of this age, but mankind had devised ways to fly more than a century before this, at the dawn of the age of ballooning, and a great many men had been working on improving the technology, moving from captive and free balloons to lighter-than-air aircraft that made use of buoyant gas for lift but also had some means of propulsion and control. However, the engineers of these aerostats, more commonly known today as dirigibles, or blimps or zeppelins, depending on the rigidity of their structure, and back then usually just called airships, never quite mastered the trick of powered, steerable flight before the Wright Brothers launched their heavier-than-air craft at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It is therefore exceedingly strange that, a full seven years before Kitty Hawk, people all over the United States started to see advanced aircraft plying the skies overhead.

After numerous demonstrations of hot-air balloon flight, the first manned flight ever recorded occurred in France in 1783 in the Montgolfier brothers’ globe aérostatique. A decade later, in America, Jean P. Blanchard ascended to nearly one mile above the earth and crossed the Delaware in a balloon of his own, and thus the age of ballooning commenced. It continued through much of the 19th century, with few developments in the way of powered and steerable craft. These were hot-air balloons of the classic sort, although they varied in design, with buoyancy controlled by the release of hydrogen gas and the jettisoning of ballast, usually in the form of sand bags. Powered flight was not achieved until 1852, when Henri Giffard’s airship used a 3-horsepower steam engine to turn a propeller with three blades and drive his dirigible 17 miles or 27 kilometers from Paris to Élancourt. Such designs became more common, and improvements were made; for example, in 1884 Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs managed to return to their place of departure in their powered airship, La France. And dirigibles weren’t the only design being experimented with: Clément Ader designed more of a glider in the form of a go-kart with bat-like wings and a steam engine that never accomplished much more than sustained hops off the ground, and Otto Lilienthal is credited with several successful flights with what was essentially a hang glider modeled after the physical frame of a bird. Clearly, innovations in aviation were becoming more and more common, but most ended in failure, and some in catastrophe. Ader’s glider crashed over and over, and Lilienthal, buffeted by a stiff wind, actually broke his back and died. And perhaps some of the worst airship disasters happened in 1897. In that year, Swedish balloonist Saloman Andrée’s balloon expedition to the north pole ended with three men crashing onto the ice, where they remained stranded for months before dying. That same year in Berlin, Friedrich Hermann Wölfert demonstrated an airship powered by a Daimler motor, but sparks ignited the hydrogen, and he and his mechanic died in the resulting blaze.

You may have noticed that all of these flights were European attempts. The odd truth is that, after Jean Blanchard’s 1793 flight, which first ascended at Philadelphia, there are few reports of American aviation attempts. We have John Wise, who in 1835 made his first ascent in Philadelphia as well and would later use his balloon for postal delivery purposes, and then we have some instances of captive balloons being used for military reconnaissance during the Civil War. Then there was Charles Ritchel, the inventor of the funhouse mirror, who managed, in 1876, to fly a little one-man airship with a hand-cranked propeller at the Centennial Exposition, again in Philadelphia, and in the 1880s John Joseph Montgomery in California had some luck with gliders. But in the heyday of 1890s, no American stands out until Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, who in 1896 flew several unmanned Aerodromes, or steam-powered gliders. Langley’s drones, which he launched with a catapult, made some successful flights that year, and Langley would go on to be a significant rival to the Wright brothers in the early 1900s. But if, in 1896, Langley’s gliders were the only aircraft flying American skies, as history would lead us to believe, it is unaccountable that, from late fall 1896 to spring 1897, hundreds of reports describing sightings of powered, steerable airships zipping through the skies appeared in newspapers across the country.

The San Francisco  Call , 19 Nov. 1896, via  Chronicling America

The San Francisco Call, 19 Nov. 1896, via Chronicling America

It began on a cold and gloomy evening in Sacramento, the capital of California, located east of San Francisco in the middle of the state’s fertile Central Valley. On November 17, after a gray and squally day, hundreds of witnesses saw an erratic light flying over the city, like an arc lamp, according to the newspaper reports. It made no noise, this light, and it appeared to be suspended beneath a dark shape that many would liken to a cigar. Beyond this, reports varied: it either had a rudder and propellers, or it did not, and some said pilots could be seen operating its workings, turning something by working bicycle pedals. More than that, they could be heard! When they descended to near the buildings below, witnesses heard them shouting to “Lift her up quick!” and some streetcar workers heard music and a voice that said, "Well, we ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow noon" as the craft flew away to the southwest, against the prevailing wind. For the next few days, hubbub circulated in the Sacramento Evening Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Call, but there was little sign of the airship until passengers on an Oakland cable car claimed to have seen an airship with a searchlight on November 21st. That’s when it went from isolated incidents to a full-blown flap, with thousands of sightings in one day across multiple cities: Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, where it floated over landmark buildings and the bay and scared off seals with its arc light. This of course would mean an impossibly fast ship, numerous ships, or false reports. And at least some hoax or mistaken sightings seem likely, since after that day, appearances of the airship or ships seem to spread in many directions. On the 25th of November, it was seen in eleven different places, again around Sacramento and the Bay Area, but also north of the Bay Area in Napa and Petaluma, where some ingenious entrepreneurs charged admission to view the airship through their telescope, and even as far as Chico, 81 miles north of Sacramento. By the end of November, sightings became intermittent. On November 29th, a Bakersfield paper reported a sighting, but also included the opinion of an astronomy professor that it had only been a sighting of Mars or Venus, and on November 30th, residents of Los Angeles saw three lights overhead, but a local expert on bicycles assured the newspaper it was likely just university students pranking the city by attaching reflectors to a balloon. On the first of December, another airship appeared over Oakland, a hundred-foot-long cigar-shaped object with a triangular fishtail rudder, its surface aluminum that appeared darkened by weathering, zooming off at high speed toward San Francisco but seen again later the same day making the same maneuver in the same direction. On December 3rd, an airship was seen in no fewer than 6 locations, in San Francisco, in Vallejo, where it had been reported that residents had been searching the skies, disappointed at not seeing an airship, and in a scattering of smaller towns to the east: Davis, Dixon, Brown’s Valley and North Bloomfield, all indicating an easterly flight path, except that later in December, on the 17th, a ship was seen farther west, in Biggs, and then the last of the sightings in California, after the New Year, happened away south of there in Lodi. Still, if one were inclined to believe in a real airship or airships flying around California that autumn, one might discern a vague course from Sacramento to the Bay Area, and back and forth and around for a few jaunts before setting off eastward, toward the interior of the country.

The first indication that the airship sightings were not over and done with came in February 1897, when an airship was reported skulking around Hastings, Nebraska, some 1,200 miles from where one had last been seen. Some assumed this was the same airship as had been seen in California, and that it had made a miraculous flight over the Rocky Mountains, even though the original report seems to indicate that the airship had been seen around Hastings during the previous fall as well and just hadn’t been reported on by the paper. Meanwhile, another reporter around a hundred miles north in Norfolk remarked that “[i]t would be interesting to know just what brand of liquor the Hastings correspondent drinks, that enables him to see airships carrying powerful lights gyrating about through the atmosphere. It must be a remarkable brand of goods, and…we would be glad to try a few gallons of it.” https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH1979UFOs.pdf  But despite aspersions cast by snarky newspapermen, sightings continued. On February 6th, south of Hastings in Inavale, six folks leaving a prayer meeting heard voices overhead and spied a 30 to 40-foot airship with a bright headlamp and six smaller running lights. In fact, during this flap, reported sightings spider webbed out in all directions from Hastings, appearing, clockwise, in York, McCool Junction, Lincoln, McCook, Big Springs, and North Platte, where some trouble reportedly caused the ship to descend in a shower of sparks. By the 16th of that month, a ship arrived over Omaha, where a girl saw it and ran into a party being held at 26th and H, encouraging everyone to come out and have a look at the “funny thing in the sky,” leading to a few dozen more witnesses seeing the object aloft around 400 to 500 feet in the air. These airships, if real, seem to have been grounded for a while after that, but in April they returned in force, it seemed, with reports in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and all the way East to New York and way down south in Texas. Researchers have tracked down more than 150 sightings in around 20 states, far more than I could possibly survey in this podcast episode without it becoming repetitive and boring. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at a few of these encounters in April. The Chicago Tribune started their coverage by claiming that hundreds had seen a ship in Omaha on the 6th of April and continued by reporting on the 10th that hundreds had spotted a winged airship above their own windy city. The Chicago Herald thereafter printed the claims of one William McCann, who along with three others said he had seen and photographed an airship over Rogers Park. The Herald printed an illustration from a wood carving of McCann’s photo, which we still have today for examination. It is unfortunate that newspapers could not at the time print photographs, otherwise we might actually have a blurry pic of a phantom airship. As it turned out, however, the photograph itself has been lost, if it ever actually existed. We do, though, have reports that the plates of the photo were given an acid test and determined to be genuine before the Herald printed its illustration. But the Tribune, on the other hand, pronounced the photo to be a fraud on April 12th, citing the cryptic proof that it displayed “too much scope of lens,” whatever that means.

The Chicago Times-Herald of 12 April 1897 with the illustration of McCann's photo, via  University of Florida

The Chicago Times-Herald of 12 April 1897 with the illustration of McCann's photo, via University of Florida

And while Chicago newspapermen squabbled, the airships seemed to float inexorably onward, appearing in both Jefferson, Iowa, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, on April 15th, although these two couldn’t possibly be the same airships, even disregarding the fact that an aircraft travelling 450 miles in a day at that time would have been ludicrous, because the airship in Jefferson reportedly crashed into the earth. Town residents gathered at the huge smoking crater it had left and even sent someone down to investigate. The same issue of the Jefferson Bee that reported this reported multiple other airship crashes in Greene County. Curiously, just as the airship mania was reaching its highest elevation in the Midwest and reports of airships falling to the earth were becoming more popular, a spate of sightings took off in Texas, many of these reporting landings and crashes as well. On April 20th, the Galveston Daily News gave a highly detailed report of a ship seen in Uvalde, Texas, by Sheriff H. W. Baylor. A bright light and the sound of voices drew him out to an alley behind his house, where he found an airship with wings and fins. A crew of three men greeted him, asking for water and explaining they were on a trial run with their airship. One man called himself Wilson, claiming to be from Goshen, New York, and discovering that Baylor was a sheriff, asked after a Captain C. C. Akers, who used to be the sheriff of Zavalla County. Wilson claimed to have met Akers in Ft. Worth in 1877. Baylor told him Akers was then at Eagle Pass working for the customs service, and Wilson asked him to say hello from him. He and the other pilots then took water from Baylor's yard and flew away north. This uncommonly detailed story even had a corroborating witness in county clerk Henry J. Bowles, who apparently saw the ship leave Baylor's alley, and other articles appear to have confirmed with C. C. Akers that he had indeed made the acquaintance of someone named Wilson, although that is a common name. But the seeming credibility of the witnesses—a sheriff and a county clerk—has led many to give these reports credence.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent reliability of witnesses in these matters, it should be remembered that the true source of these accounts are the newspapers that reported them. If you are curious about just how scrupulous newspaper editors were when it came to publishing fraudulent stories to entertain their readers and sell more papers, just go and listen to my 10th episode, Joseph Mulhatton, the Liar Laureate of the World. Hoaxes appeared frequently in papers during these years, and often the reliable witnesses they named had come right out of the imaginations of the fraudsters who wrote them. And this was the dawn of Yellow Journalism as well, when sensationalist rhetoric often only loosely connected to facts dominated newsprint. Much Yellow Journalism centered specifically on the question of Cuba, which at the time was still a colony of Spain but had seen a revolutionary struggle for some years. As many Americans wanted to see the Spanish ousted, big newspapermen like Pulitzer and Hearst published a lot of stories depicting the Spanish colonial powers as villains and the revolutionaries as heroes, and they didn’t let a little thing like accuracy or truth get in the way of a good story. And to cement the very real connection between the airship flaps and the age of Yellow Journalism, not long after the sightings in California began, a well-known attorney named W. H. H. Hart was quoted in a paper as claiming that he represented the phantom airship’s inventor, and that the vessel had been built for the sole purpose of flying to Cuba and bombing the Spanish in Havana. Similarly, the San Francisco Examiner claimed to have it on strong authority that the airship was called the Thunderbird and was bound for Cuba with the mission of bombarding General Weyler, the island’s Spanish governor, with eggs.

The San Francisco  Call , 29 Nov. 1896, clearly engaging in Yellow Journalism, via  Chronicling America

The San Francisco Call, 29 Nov. 1896, clearly engaging in Yellow Journalism, via Chronicling America

With the question of the reliability of newspaper reports hanging over this entire affair, we now turn to one of the most fanciful explanations of these phantom airship sightings: that they were really extra-terrestrial spacecraft! There are in fact some newspaper reports that indicate the object in the sky may have come from away across the ocean, which would make it extremely unlikely that these were the maiden flights of experimental aircraft. On September 20th, 1896, a Professor Swift spied a light of the magnitude of Venus over the Pacific Ocean and sent a telegram to a Professor Perrins at Lick Observatory, wondering if he had discovered a new comet. And on October 22nd, none other than the mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro, reported that several people had seen a light flying eastward about 500 feet above the surface of the Pacific, and that it emitted an electrical glow. But these reports do little more than indicate that Mars and Venus and meteors and comets might have been frequently mistaken for flying lights. Some reports of crashed airships in Iowa certainly added to this hysteria. In fact, the aforementioned man who climbed down into the crater in Jefferson carried a Volapük dictionary with him. Volapük, meaning “world language,” was a constructed international language, like the subsequently more common Esperanto. One can only imagine who the intrepid investigator thought he might encounter at the bottom of that crater to bring that with him. And of course, one does not need to wonder, as newspaper reports of other crash sites in Iowa, such as one at Churdan, described encounters with extra-terrestrial creatures! And on an empty road outside Springfield, Missouri, one W. M. Hopkins, a travelling salesman, saw a landed airship while driving his wagon, and outside of it, two nude aliens that he found beautiful indeed. He kissed their hands and boarded their craft when invited, and when it began to ascend, he escaped abduction only by leaping off! And late in April, we get a story out of LeRoy, Kansas, from a farmer named Alexander Hamilton, who with his son and a farmhand saw a 300-foot ship with a carriage-like construct beneath it, crewed by an odd looking family—man, woman and children. This airship actually lowered a rope and carried away a struggling calf. Hamilton and the others gave chase, but lost the ship. Later, another farmer named Lank Thomas found the calf’s remains, which consisted only of skin, legs, and a head. This would appear to be an early report of cattle mutilation, complete with reliable officials swearing to its veracity, as eleven men, including the postmaster, the sheriff, and the justice of the peace swore an affidavit. But then, all of these purported facts were reported in a newspaper, and if that isn’t already suspect enough for you, there’s the fact that the farmer Hamilton who reported the event and provided the affidavit was a known member of a local liar’s club.

Perhaps the longest-lived of these reports came out of Texas. In the Dallas Morning News of April 19th, 1897, a column attributed to a correspondent named Haydon with the headline “A Windmill Demolishes It” told a wild tale of an airship with some mechanical malfunction flying low over Aurora, Texas. It struck a windmill on the land of one Judge Proctor and exploded, spreading debris over acres of land. Those first on the scene, found only one pilot, horribly injured from the explosion, but still apparently whole enough for everyone to plainly see he was not of this earth. In fact, according to Haydon, a signal corpsman named T. J. Weems, given as an authority on astronomy, expressed the opinion that the pilot must have been a Martian. And to further excite speculation, Haydon reported that the pilot had some papers on his person, miraculously intact after the explosion that had so disfigured his body, and that they were inscribed with strange hieroglyphics. Finally, he claimed the ship was composed of some unknown metal, though he cites no expert opinion on this detail. Oddly, the piece ends with the tidbit that they would be giving this otherworldly creature a standard, Christian funeral. The simple fact that this news did not make many waves at the time tells us that those who read it probably thought it was one of the tall tales or hoaxes common in newspapers back then, which most people could easily discern were not meant to be taken seriously. Not until UFOlogists in the early 1970s looked into it did it really become a legend. MUFON investigators descended on Aurora and walked the land with metal detectors, hoping to turn up some of that alien metal. Some iron alloy that seemed to not display the magnetic properties one might expect actually was found, but this ended up being an iron-zinc roofing shingle. Undeterred, they scoured the local cemetery for the unmarked grave of the alien and, indeed, found a site with a marker that looked like it depicted an airship. Authorities, however, refused to let them go digging up graves, and when the marker ended up stolen, likely by one of the UFOlogists themselves, they cried conspiracy! But perhaps the real conspiracy had taken place back in 1897, for recent historical research indicates that Haydon, the author of the article, had an agenda. It seems that the town of Aurora had recently been devastated by agricultural problems, fires, a failed railroad, and so-called “spotted fever,” or cerebro-spinal meningitis, which had taken Haydon’s wife and sons. It has been suggested that Haydon may have penned the hoax in an effort to promote his dying town.

San Francisco  Call  article of 23 Nov. 1896 mentioning the inventor and his attorney, Collins, via  Chronicling America

San Francisco Call article of 23 Nov. 1896 mentioning the inventor and his attorney, Collins, via Chronicling America

Even if one wanted to believe that the flying objects were real, isn’t there a simpler and far more believable explanation than that little green men were flying them? Why not normal, earthling men? After all, as I discussed earlier, it’s not like no one was working on creating flying machines. So the question then becomes, who were the inventors of these aircraft? Right from the very start of the California flap, there are plenty of candidates offered up by the newspapers covering the story. In the first article to report an airship, the Sacramento Evening Bee, by way of explanation for the outlandish sighting, claimed a New York man had built an airship and would be flying to California in it, though they offered no further details. And the LA Times, almost in the same breath as it insisted that the ships were all mistaken sightings of Mars and Venus then claimed that the ship’s inventor was a man from Los Angeles. And, well before the attorney Hart had made his claims about the ship’s mission to Cuba, another prominent lawyer, George D. Collins, claimed to represent the inventor of the ship that had been seen. The inventor’s name was E. H. Benjamin, Collins said, and after 7 years of work, bankrolled by a mysterious company and using parts manufactured on the east coast, he had been successful and had already made several flights. According to a New York Herald article that appeared during the April flap the following year, the ship described by Collins was 150 feet long, with two wings, and would fly eastward next, which would tend to explain the path of the sightings. On April 10th, the Herald claimed one Max Harrhar, secretary of the Chicago Aeronautical Association, claimed to be expecting a powered, steerable airship with a crew of three out of San Francsico, on its way to D. C. For full info, Harrhar directed inquirers to Octave Chanute, the well-known President of his association, who he indicated was the wealthy bankroller of the venture. Then on the 13th, the same paper reported on the authority of one Oscar R. Booth, an airship inventor from Chicago, that the famous airship making the rounds belonged to one Charles Clinton of Dodd City, Kansas. The Dallas Morning News of April 6th named a G. M. Padgitt of Springfield, Missouri, as an inventor engaged in balloon flights, and the Chicago Tribune of April 12th had the inventor’s name as A. C. Clinton of Omaha. Later that month, though, they revealed that A. C. Clinton was just a pseudonym of Clinton A. Case; this they had from one Wakefield, the Secretary of the Omaha Exposition, where Case had requested 87,000 Square feet for a landing place. Another suspect out of Omaha was one Alva J. Grover, who had reportedly shown people plans for a powered, steerable airship, and yet another was a country tinkerer named John O. Preast, who it was said had covered the walls of his home with drawings of his ships. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015679/1897-04-01/ed-1/seq-7/ The list goes on… the St. Louis Post Dispatch on April 25th reported an airship like a headless, tailless fish, with propellers and wings and a 9-foot-long passenger car. It landed for repairs, and its pilot, a Professor Charles Davidson, claimed to have left Sacramento a month earlier. And on May 7th, the Chicago Tribune gave a similarly detailed description of an airship that, according to a New York Times article describing the same craft, was 40 feet long, with propellers, attached to a bicycle for take-off. Its inventor was reported as Professor Arthur W. Barnard of Nashville, and he claimed he had demonstrated his airship at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition to general amazement but apparently little news coverage.

Not all candidates for inventing the airship were named by newspapers during the flap. For example, researcher Micah Hanks dug up a patent filed in April 1896 by one Charles Abbott Smith of San Francisco, an inventor of some repute who had previously sold some patents for tools useful to shoemakers farmers, and builders. In a San Francisco Call article some 9 months before the California flap, Smith talks about his proposed airship, and mention is made that the U. S. government may have been offering a $100,000 for the invention of working airship. This may be relevant to the story of another popular contender for our airship inventor. John Worrell Keely was a Philadelphian who, inspired by the vibrations of a tuning fork, began experimentation to determine how vibrations might allow him to tap into the power of luminiferous ether, the medium by which light was propagated and the stuff that many believed filled all empty space. By 1872, he claimed a breakthrough and convinced some wealthy capitalists to bankroll his motor company, for soon he would build an engine using his proprietary technology. In 1874, he demonstrated his etheric generator, a device that ran on the vapor produced by ordinary tap water, and yet produced enough energy to break iron bars and drive bullets into wood. Whenever his investors wanted progress, he always had a new device to demonstrate in a dramatic fashion, showing how musical tones he played on his flute or harmonica could through vibration activate etheric energy and thereby operate the machines he showed them, such as the “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine.” Some, however, suggested the music was only a signal to hidden accomplices, indicating when to operate the machinery. Nevertheless, his career was a long one. In 1884, he demonstrated a “vaporic gun” for the government at Sandy Hook, impressing some and not impressing others, who complained that a “healthy donkey could kick harder than the projectile struck.” Then in 1896, perhaps trying to win that hundred grand offered by the government, he gave a demonstration that showed revolving copper spheres and claimed it showed his manipulation of “polar-depolar force,” further explaining that “[g]ravity is nothing more than a concordant attractive sympathetic stream flowing towards the neutral center of the earth,” all of which to say that he would soon be able to control gravity and therefore raise heavy airships into the sky. While many would like to believe that it was his astounding science that raised the airships of that year, the truth is there is no evidence that he ever accomplished this or any of his other plans. After his death, skeptics raided his lab, and no one could ever make his devices work as he had in demonstrations. So he is remembered today as one of history’s greatest frauds.

John Worrell Keely, via  Lock Haven University

John Worrell Keely, via Lock Haven University

While it is tempting to believe some inventor really made these airships, considering all the many inventors and true balloonists diligently working in those years to perfect a powered, steerable airship capable of the kind of flights reported in 1896 and ’97, the simple fact that these ships were not demonstrated to great fanfare in public exhibitions, as nearly every major flight before them had been, tends to cast doubt on the idea of them being real at all. The mysterious Wilson who supposedly piloted a ship around Texas claimed this was because no patent had been filed yet, so they didn’t want their invention stolen, but this strains credulity as well. What inventor would wait until well after the successful completion and flight test of their airship to file a patent? And even if one were to accept this explanation, there remains the final question of why, after the April 1897 flap, the airships were never seen again. Surely they had proven viable! Why would no one patent them and go public at that point? So then we are left with the theory that these sightings were artifacts of Yellow Journalism, a media hoax. Some have pointed out that the Midwest sightings clearly travel eastward along the path of the telegraph lines, suggesting that as one newspaper perpetrated its hoax, the next received word of it by telegraph and perpetuated it. But there are problems with this theory as well. Even in the era of Yellow Journalism, a newspaper’s reputation could be damaged by engaging in outright fraud, especially in such an extended way. These were legitimate news sources, not supermarket tabloids like we have today, and they were often in direct competition with other papers that would jump at the chance to prove their rivals were spreading falsehoods. Moreover, when these papers did print outrageous hoaxes, like those written by Mulhatton, they were usually standalone stories, often so absurd that their readers could easily determine what was news and what was satire meant only for entertainment. These sightings, however, were reported on over and over again, like real news, and in between eyewitness reports, the correspondents often injected their vocal skepticism, such as in the San Francisco Examiner of December 5th, 1896: “Fake Journalism has a good deal to answer for, but we do not recall a more discernible exploit in that line than the persistent attempt to make the public believe that the air in this vicinity is populated with airships. It has been manifest for weeks that the whole airship story is pure myth.”

Perhaps it is impossible now to make heads or tails of this mess. It seems like people must have seen something, at least in Sacramento, at the beginning of things. If there truly were no ships in the sky and never had been, how did this hysteria ever get started? It’s possible that some combination of all the various theories offers the best explanation. Maybe there were real sightings at first, and maybe some or all of those had been mistakes, confusing Venus, which was bright that year, or a big box kite, as has been put forth as an explanation for the airship sightings. Then perhaps, as newspapers wanting to boost sales wrote up these reports, they embellished them, added details or increased the number of witnesses. After that, it was spread by telegraph to other locales, which then caused people there to look for airships in the skies and to make further mistaken sightings or even to perpetrate hoax sightings. Some newspaper articles even seem to playfully toe the line between professional skepticism and engagement in the hysteria. For example, in the April 14th 1897 New York Herald, a reporter expresses frustration over the unreliability of airship news but then goes on to report that a steam-powered ship called the Pegasus had been flying around for the last month. And in May, just at the tail end of the final flap, the Houston Daily Post published a piece about a reporter at a train station being told by a train official to ask a certain stranger about airships, for the official had heard that the man had something to do with them. Upon inquiring into it, the stranger, a Mr. Dodson from Texas, scoffed, “My, my, has that old stale April fool story ever received any serious consideration here? ...Why, that was a clean-cut fake from the start…a fake pure and simple, started by some enterprising reporter like yourself, and rolled along by all other scribes.” So there we have it, yes? An epic April fool’s joke. That could account at least for the massive spate of sightings that April, and it recasts some details as decidedly humorous, such as the Herald's April 10th article citing a Max Harrhar, which in retrospect sounds like it's quoting someone named "Utmost Laughter." But this Mr. Dodson of the Houston Daily Post article wasn’t quite finished. “I have the only airship which has ever been successfully invented,” he claimed mildly and went on to explain that he compressed air was the trick, for the eagle, he expounded, flies without flapping its wings simply by holding its breath. It was as easy as that. In order to float, he said, one only has to be full of hot air. 

A contemporary cartoon and poem makes of the airship sightings a metaphor, via  Chronicling America

A contemporary cartoon and poem makes of the airship sightings a metaphor, via Chronicling America

Further Reading

Arts, Steven A. "Airship Hysteria in Mid-1890s America." Nexus Magazine, Aug. - Sep. 2013, www.nexusmagazine.com/articles/doc_view/287-airship-hysteria-in-mid-1890s-america.

Busby, Michael. Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery. Pelican, 2004.

Danelek, J. Allan. The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative Look At the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited, 2009.

Winkler, Louis. “The Not-So-Mysterious Airships of 1896-97.” MUFON UFO Journal, No. 169, March 1982, pages 3-6. (not officially available online, but transcribed here)

The Memorable Arrest of Martin Guerre

Return+of+Martin+Guerre+from+Dumas+Joanne+of+Naples cover.jpg

In this edition, in an effort to cite precedent supporting my pet theory about the Campden Wonder case—namely that the William Harrison who returned to his wife after an absence of two years may not have actually been the real Steward of Lady Campden—I share the story of the most famous case of imposture ever recorded. And it is a true precedent, for it did precede the events of the Campden Wonder by nearly a hundred years. For its true beginning, however, we must look back more than a century and off across the Channel, more than 600 miles, or 1000 kilometers south of Chipping Campden, to a little peasant village in the very south of France, among the foothills of the Pyrenees. The village of Artigat, 32 miles or 51 kilometers south of that larger burg of the Languedoc, Toulouse, was situated on the Lèze River, which to an American ear sounds delightfully like a lazy river. As this might suggest, it was a sleepy village in the mid-16th century, with some 60 to 70 families in the surrounding area, and none paid manorial dues to a seigneur, for no feudal lords held lands in the area. Thus, the peasants of Artigat owned their own lands, holding their titles in allodium by occupying and defending them and, of course, cultivating them. They grew millet, oats, wheat, and grapes, raised sheep, cows, and goats, and forged a modest legacy from the land, such that successful peasant families passed their estates on to heirs much like their far wealthier seigneurial counterparts. And this facet of the culture would have great bearing on the famous case we shall be focusing on, as would their popular conception of marriage, which, with the rise of Protestantism dividing the community, was then much debated in that corner of France, where the idea of “clandestine,” or secret and common law marriage, had been common but was then being challenged. And in this quiet Languedoc hamlet, where the biggest quarrels were over matters of Catholic orthodoxy and doctrinal dispute, a scandal would emerge from family discord, involving accusations of desertion, betrayal, and imposture. But more than any of this, it would cause some to call into question prevailing assumptions about guilt and innocence and the very nature of identity.

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The Deguerre family were peasant Basques with ancestral lands at Hendaye, near the Bay of Biscay, one branch of which family ended up settling 162 miles or 260 kilometers away to the east in Artigat and assimilating, learning to express themselves in the Occitan language of the Languedoc and changing their name to the more French Guerre.  Two brothers, Sanxi and Pierre, headed the Guerre family in Artigat, and in 1538, in an effort not only to further the family’s assimilation but also to make a fruitful bond with another affluent peasant family, the de Rols, Sanxi Guerre arranged a marriage between his son Martin and their daughter, Bertrande. Martin was 14 at the time, and Bertrande may have been as young as nine or ten. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two children failed to immediately consummate their marriage, despite their families’ encouragement. Nor did they succeed, it seems, for years afterward, even after they reached ages of sexual maturity, which caused the families to believe that young Martin Guerre, despite his apparent vigor in playing at swords and acrobatics with the other village boys, was impotent, perhaps because a spell had been cast on him. And to undo the charms of whatever jealous sorceress had cursed them, it would take the charms of a very different kind of sorceress, a wise woman versed in the ways of magic but who remained true to god and church. They sought the aid of several such women, and eventually, eight years into their failed marriage, one mysterious old enchantress told them how to defeat the spell they were under. They had village priests say several masses for them and administer the eucharist, and then they ate special cakes that the wise woman said would stoke their passions. One wonders just what was in those cakes, for sure enough, the couple thereafter consummated their union, and Bertrande soon became with child. She bore Martin a son, another heir to the Guerre family lands, named Sanxi after Martin’s father. For a time, Martin must have had the approval of his father, but in 1548, at 24 years old, Martin lost any goodwill he might have earned with the birth of his child when he allegedly stole some grain from the family. Rather than face the wrath of his father, he left Artigat, abandoning not only his heritage but his wife and infant son as well.

Bertrande’s position in the family and the village was much reduced in the absence of her husband. There was a place in the village society for a wife and a place for a widow, but she found herself suddenly neither, and her life remained in a limbo. After some years, Martin’s parents passed away, but not before they forgave their absent son and named him heir to the family lands in both Artigat and Hendaye. But in Martin’s absence, the uncle, Pierre, took control of the family lands and guardianship of Martin’s sisters. Himself a widower, Pierre Guerre remarried to none other than Bertrande’s widowed mother, and so she found herself living again with her mother, but now also with her missing husband’s family. She had gone from being the wife of the family’s heir with a household all her own, to little more than a houseguest and a burden, a deserted woman much whispered about in the village. And this was her life during the eight years that her husband was gone. Then one day in 1556, news reached Artigat that a man claiming to be Martin Guerre had checked in to a hostel in a neighboring village. When the hosteller brought up the wife and child he had left behind, this Martin Guerre, it was said, had wept. Martin’s sisters were the first to go see him at the hostel, and they came back with their verdict, telling Bertrande that it was indeed their brother Martin. So Bertrande also made haste to see him, but she shrank from this bearded stranger who seemed heavier than her Martin. When he spoke to her with love, however, and proved himself with knowledge of their shared experiences and conversations and other specifics, she relented and embraced him. He had been away in Spain fighting in King Henri II’s war against the Habsburgs, but he had come back for her and their son, and to reclaim his birthright. Bertrande took him home to Artigat, and while some whispered that he was not Martin Guerre, he further proved himself by recognizing villagers he had known long ago, calling to them by name, and reminding them of things they had done together a decade earlier. Certainly his appearance had changed, but there was enough of a likeness that any differences could be ascribed to his eight-year absence and the hard years he had spent at war. While some harbored their suspicions, Martin convinced the only people who mattered: his sisters, his uncle and the administrator of his family’s property, Pierre, and his wife, Bertrande, who took him eventually into her bed. And this was the greatest of proofs, for most believed that no wife could be so deceived that she did not recognize the touch of her true husband.

And happy marriage seemed to come easily with the returned Martin Guerre. Within a few years, Bertrande had borne Martin two more children, daughters. Sadly, only one survived, little Bernarde, but it did go to prove that whatever marital difficulties they’d had a decade earlier were gone. And Martin threw himself not only into the role of husband and father but also into that of heir and head of the family, taking his father’s house for himself and taking back guardianship of his sisters from his uncle, Pierre. Moreover, he moved to make his family’s business more mercantile, selling the grains they grew, the wool they harvested, and the wine they made. Beyond this, he looked to capitalize on the family’s substantial property holdings, and it is this that eventually brought him to loggerheads with his uncle, who stood aghast at his nephew’s attempts to sell their ancestral lands. Eventually, suspecting that Pierre was not being entirely forthcoming with the profits and holdings of the family, Martin sued his uncle. It was then, in the first months of 1559, that Pierre began to suspect this Martin Guerre to be an impostor. He looked at Martin, and the difference in his physical frame from the boy he remembered stood out. He looked at Martin’s boy, Sanxi, and saw little resemblance there. How is it, he asked, that this pseudo-Martin no longer remembered certain phrases in the Basque language of his youth? He persuaded his wife, Bertrande’s mother, of the imposture, and soon all of Bertrande’s family was convinced that she shared her bed with a stranger. From them, the scandal spread, and the village became divided as to the identity of Martin Guerre. The shoemaker said Martin’s feet had shrunk, and others in the village suggested he had become shorter, stockier, his complexion lighter. They said that the real Martin’s nose had been flat and his bottom lip protruding, unlike this new Martin, and where, they asked, was the scar they remembered on Martin’s eyebrow? In response, Bertrande insisted, “He is Martin Guerre my husband or else some devil in his skin. I know him well. If anyone is so mad as to say the contrary, I’ll make him die.”  And she is not alone in resorting to violence, for Pierre spoke with friends about helping him pay a cutthroat to murder his supposed nephew, and when that failed, he and Bertrande’s own brothers accosted him and beat him with a truncheon. Seeing her family thus assaulting her husband, Bertrande forced herself between them, shielding her Martin with her own body, so that if her brothers and Pierre wanted to club Martin, they would have to strike her as well.

A depiction of criminal proceedings in which, as with Guerre's trial, the public was very involved, via  Kommersant

A depiction of criminal proceedings in which, as with Guerre's trial, the public was very involved, via Kommersant

In the autumn of that year, as their quarrel raged on, a soldier passed through Artigat and after hearing of the scandal and seeing Martin Guerre, he announced that the man in question was a fraud, for he knew the real Martin Guerre, had met him in Flanders after the Siege of Saint-Quentin, where the real Martin Guerre had lost his leg and had it replaced by a wooden peg. As this Martin Guerre clearly had both legs, the soldier reasoned, he must be an impostor! Close on the heels of this pronouncement, Martin Guerre was arrested on arson charges, accused of having burned down a building on a farm west of the village, a charge likely orchestrated by Pierre himself as the complaint included allegations that he was engaging in adultery by sharing Bertrande’s marriage bed. The charges were eventually dropped, but during his imprisonment in Toulouse, Bertrande was forced to move back under the roof of her mother and Pierre Guerre, where they began to coerce her to bring charges of her own against Martin. At first she refused, traveling to Toulouse to visit Martin and complaining about the family’s bullying of her, but eventually, she had no choice. Martin came home from the jail at Toulouse, enjoyed one peaceful evening with Bertrande, and in the morning faced Pierre and his brothers-in-law, all of them bearing weapons. They took him away to stand trial at Rieux on charges Pierre had made in Bertrande’s name. Without Martin, she and the children must live in Pierre’s house, and if she refused to press these charges against Martin, Pierre told her he would throw her out into the street.

So long as Bertrande would endorse the charges, Pierre Guerre was confident in the case he had built, for in addition to the various villagers willing to testify to the differences they perceived in Martin, he now had a suspect. While Martin had languished in Toulouse under the trumped-up arson charges, he had learned some things of interest. Apparently, during the course of some travels Martin had made in some villages to the northwest, an innkeeper had recognized him as one Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin had hushed him and asked him to keep his silence, explaining that Martin Guerre was dead and had given him his goods. Likewise another man had recognized him during the course of his travels, calling him Pansette, which was an alias of the same man, Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin had even given this man some handkerchiefs to pass on as a gift to Arnaud du Tilh’s brother. Arnaud du Tilh was a young man from Sajas, 27 miles or 43 kilometers northwest of Artigat. He had the nickname Pansette, meaning “the belly,” perhaps for his thickset physique or perhaps for his appetites, for he was known to be an enthusiastic drinker and philanderer. A foulmouthed youth, he was known to gamble and to steal, and he was so quick-witted and cunning that he gained the unusual reputation of wielding some kind of sorcery in his underhanded dealings. This Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette, had disappeared from village life to serve in the war, just as Martin Guerre said he had done. Was it possible that this rogue had assumed Martin Guerre’s identity? He certainly had good reason to do so. Du Tilh was heir to his own family properties in Sajas, but the Guerre inheritance would have dwarfed it. And the draw of taking the by all accounts beautiful Bertrande to wife should not be overlooked. But how had he managed to learn so much about Artigat and Martin’s life there? Had he met the true Martin Guerre during the course of his travels in service of France? Had he been coached by accomplices? Or were the resurgent rumors about him true? Was he some sort of warlock, a dark sorcerer leveraging the powers of the devil to usurp another man’s life?

Martin Guerre’s very identity stood trial in Rieux, 15 miles or 24 kilometers northwest of Artigat. The court called on one hundred and fifty witnesses to testify, and about 60 of them refused to indicate one way or the other whether they believed the defendant was the true Martin Guerre. The rest were relatively evenly split. Some who had known Martin before his departure and some who had known Arnaud du Tilh, including Pansette’s own uncle, testified that the defendant was not Guerre or that he was du Tilh. But for every witness to swear to his differences from Martin, there was a witness to swear to their likenesses: Martin had warts on one hand and a scar on his forehead, as did the defendant, and Martin had extra teeth like those that could be seen in the defendant’s mouth. Just as Arnaud du Tilh’s uncle swore the defendant was his nephew, Martin Guerre’s sisters swore he was their brother. And perhaps the most important witness, Bertrande, refused to swear that the defendant was not her husband. Indeed, so confident was the defendant that his wife was being suborned into bringing false charges against him that he told the judge he would gladly accept death if his wife were to say he was not who he said he was. Considering her silence, the judges agreed to remove her from Pierre’s house in order to prevent any further coercion. Indeed, it seemed that the defendant had the court on his side. He confidently confronted each of the witnesses against him with convincing rebuttals, and he proved himself time and time again by calling up specific details from Martin’s life that matched perfectly with testimony taken separately from other witnesses, even validating intimate goings on that Bertrande had shared with the court in confidence. However, there was still much to doubt. Despite the defendant’s brilliant performance, evidence seemed equal on both sides. No handwriting could be compared, for apparently neither Guerre nor du Tilh could write before their departures and so had left behind no samples of their writing. Likewise, familial likeness offered little confirmation, for while the defendant did indeed resemble Martin Guerre’s sisters, he bore little resemblance to Guerre’s son, Sanxi. In the end, perhaps to play it safe or simply to pass the problem on to the court at Toulouse where the defendant would certainly appeal, they found him guilty.

And appeal he did. His second trial began with the defendant confronting his accusers, Bertrande and Pierre Guerre. So convincing were the defendant’s claims that his wife had been coerced by his uncle to bring the charges against him that the court had all three of them imprisoned until they sorted the matter out, for if the defendant really was Martin Guerre, then Pierre and Bertrande could be found guilty of calumny, and if he were not, then Bertrande might be found guilty of fraud as well if she were the man’s accomplice. Neither boded well for the woman at the center of the trial, so Bertrande chose every word carefully, threading the needle between being the innocent wife defrauded by an impostor husband and being the innocent wife compelled to perjury by the villainous uncle. So the trial proceeded much as before, with confident testimonies on both sides, but this time the judges were far more moved by the defendant’s memory of his former life. After questioning Bertrande and others, they attempted time and again to catch him out with any inconsistency, but they failed. According to Jean de Coras, the reporter at the court who would go on to make the case famous with his popular pamphlet about the case, Arrest Memorable, “His remarks sustained at length and containing so many true signs, gave great occasion to the judges to be persuaded of [his] innocence.” But as they prepared to deliver their verdict, a mysterious man came limping up to the courthouse, his wooden peg leg knocking the floor with every step. The proceedings of the trial must be halted, he declared, for he had a vital revelation pertaining to the hearing. The defendant could not possibly be who he said he was, for this peg-legged man was himself the real Martin Guerre.

The first depiction of the case, from  Alle de Wercken  by Jacob Cats, incorrectly portraying the couple as being far wealthier than peasants, via Natalie Zemon Davis's  The Return of Martin Guerre , p. 87

The first depiction of the case, from Alle de Wercken by Jacob Cats, incorrectly portraying the couple as being far wealthier than peasants, via Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, p. 87

The defendant confronted this last-minute witness with a vengeance, calling him a rascal, a newcomer, an evildoer, insisting he was a ringer on Pierre Guerre’s payroll. And indeed, when questioned about his early life as the court had questioned the defendant, this peg-legged stranger could not remember nearly as many details. When it was time to haul Pierre out of his cell to identify this new claimant to Martin’s identity, they arranged a line-up, with several others dressed the same. Pierre easily picked the peg-legged man out of the line-up, but this may not have been much of a feat unless all the others had wooden legs as well, for remember that the travelling soldier had already claimed the real Martin Guerre had lost his leg. What was harder to dismiss were the sisters’ reactions to the man, for each of them, individually, considering the two men side by side, changed their minds and exclaimed that surely this new man with the peg leg was their real brother and the other had deceived them. So it was, as well, for Bertrande, who trembled and wept upon seeing this new arrival and immediately embraced him, pleading innocence for being duped by the impostor, blaming his sisters who had accepted his impersonator and convinced her to do the same. With the tide so clearly turning against the defendant, the judges confronted him, asking how he had summoned the devil that had taught him so much about Martin’s life and about the people of Artigat. He only blanched, for once at a loss for words. For a time he continued to insist he was Martin, but eventually, he confessed to being Arnaud du Tilh, aka Pansette. He had used no sorcery in his imposture, and despite rumors, he had never met Martin in the war, for Martin Guerre had ended up in the Castilian city of Burgos after his departure from Artigat, serving as a lackey in a bishop’s palace, and during the war he had served in an opposing army. Rather, Arnaud had been mistaken in Picardy for Martin Guerre by men who became his accomplices in the imposture, and with their coaching, he had prepared for years to play the part of Martin Guerre. Du Tilh’s crime was considered all the more serious for involving not only adultery but also the theft of an inheritance. The judges sentenced him to death, but not before he made a public apology. In white shirtsleeves, with no hat, he carried a torch through the village of Artigat barefoot, from the church to Martin Guerre’s house, where he would be executed. Among his final words was an entreaty to Martin Guerre himself, for the returned man had dealt most harshly with Bertrande in court, treating her like a disloyal harlot and not taking any measure of responsibility for the situation, even though it was he who had made the entire affair possible by abandoning her in the first place. The self-confessed Arnaud du Tilh begged the newly returned Martin Guerre to treat his wife with kindness and love, for none of this, he said, was her fault, and she was a virtuous, honorable, loyal woman. Then he was hanged in front of them, and in order to more thoroughly erase the memory of this man the village deemed to be so contemptible, his corpse was burned.

So, you may think, where is the mystery here? Mystery there may have been at the time, but surely all of this was neatly resolved with Arnaud du Tilh’s confession. Yet as we have seen time and time again, nagging questions remain, the first being the enigma of Bertrande de Rols. Was this woman a victim of imposture or a willing accomplice? Surely this Arnaud du Tilh could not have fooled her when it came to matters of the utmost intimacy. And certainly he could not have amassed such a great wealth of knowledge based on the coaching he claims to have received from a couple of village acquaintances and must have been further coached by Bertrande herself. But there is a further ambiguity here: namely the question of whether or not the judges in Toulouse made the right verdict, whether justice was served, whether or not the defendant really was Arnaud du Tilh or whether he was whom he had all along claimed to be. As already mentioned, testimony and proofs were about equal for and against him, and he proved himself far better at recalling the details of his life than did the peg-legged man. While his likeness to Martin’s sisters could not be denied, there was the fact that the son, Sanxi, did not resemble him, but recall Martin Guerre’s marital difficulties, their conspicuous childlessness and rumors of his impotence. To a modern observer, the superstitious remedy of masses and special cakes seems like it would have been entirely ineffective, so the fact that Bertrande immediately became pregnant might suggest that the boy Sanxi wasn’t even Martin’s after all, which would clearly explain his lack of resemblance. Why, then, would Martin’s sisters suddenly decide the peg-legged man was the real Martin? On the other side of that same coin, one might just as well ask why they thought Arnaud du Tilh was Martin. But Bertrande had good reason to suddenly change her loyalties. She was in a very precarious position, after all, and she would have had to think not only about herself, but her children as well. When the sisters began to change their story and agree with Pierre that the peg-legged man was the real Martin, she may have seen the writing on the wall. Believing her husband’s cause to be lost, she may have made a hard decision to save herself. Likewise, the defendant had already stated that if his wife were to swear that he was not her husband, he would welcome death. His confession may have only been proof of this. And he had his children to think of as well, for even if Sanxi was not his, his daughter, Bernarde, was. In freely confessing his alleged imposture, he managed to obtain from the court the promise that his daughter would not become a bastard. While she would be disinherited by the Guerre family, the court would allow her to inherit Arnaud du Tilh’s family properties. Even if he wasn’t Arnaud du Tilh, this may have seemed the only possible way to provide for his little girl.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this story is that the man accused of imposture seems to have been a kind and decent man. According to witnesses at trial, even those who believed him a fraud, he acquitted himself with honor in his daily life in Artigat and in his business dealings, and he proved himself a loving husband to Bertrande. The same could not be said about the young Martin who had failed his wife and abandoned her, and the behavior of the man hauled before the judges at Rieux and Toulouse was nothing like that of the young Pansette, with his drunkenness, his petty crime, and his promiscuity. So in the end, whether he was this Arnaud du Tilh or whether he really was Martin Guerre, they killed a good man for the sake of the memory of a lesser man. And what caused even his staunchest supporters to turn on him in the end? Was it certainty, after seeing the face of the other supposed Martin, or was it just doubt? In a time before photographs, in a peasant world where no one had portraits of themselves and few even owned mirrors by which to regard themselves, how closely was physical appearance observed and how accurately could likeness be recalled? It would seem, after such an absence of years, that it would have to be only vaguely. And just as one man might be indistinguishable from another, so the truth can sometimes be indistinguishable from falsehood. As Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne states in an essay that makes mention of the strange case of Martin Guerre, “Falsehood is so neere Neighbour to trueth, that a wiseman should not put himselfe upon a slipperie downefal. Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…. Wee beholde them with one same eye….”

The Return of the True Martin Guerre  by Jacques Wagrez, from Alexandre Dumas's   Celebrated Crimes , Vol. 1, p. 272

The Return of the True Martin Guerre by Jacques Wagrez, from Alexandre Dumas's Celebrated Crimes, Vol. 1, p. 272

The Campden Wonder; or, The Supposed Murder of William Harrison

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Chipping Campden is a quaint little town comprised of rustic, flaxen structures built of stone from the Cotswald Hills. Its most storied property is Campden House, a big country manor complete with proper English gardens. This estate, impressive as it was, did not survive the English Civil War intact. In 1645, the manor was occupied and fortified by Cavaliers, or royalist troops, for five months, and when they left their makeshift garrison, they set it on fire to prevent Roundheads, their Parliamentarian foes, from occupying it themselves. At this time, and afterward, the manor belonged to Lady Juliana Noel, Viscountess Campden. While she mostly resided in another family estate in Rutland, some of the outbuildings that still stood after the fire—stables and banquet halls—she had converted into residences, not only for herself but for the steward of her estate in Chipping Campden, one William Harrison, who still had to remain there after the fire in order to make his rounds and collect rents for the Viscountess. It is with this man that our story begins, in the year of 1660, after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, when William Harrison still remained living with his wife in their home among the burned-out ruins of the Manor of Campden. A man of seventy years old, he nevertheless still made his rounds on foot to collect his lady’s rents, and one day, he did not return. His vanishing began one of the most intriguing historical mysteries in English history, remembered even today as an unparalleled wonder.

On Thursday the 16th of August, William Harrison walked the two miles to nearby Charringworth to begin his collections. His wife expected him home before dark, so when the sun fell low, she started to worry that he had not yet returned. And she had good reason to worry, it seems. As idyllic a place as Chipping Campden may have been, there does appear to have been some crime in the village recently, and much of it centered on her home amidst the razed remains of Campden House. First, a year earlier, after attending a Puritan lecture at the church, she and her husband returned home to the ruinous estate to find a ladder leaning against their banquet hall residence, next to a second-story window, the bars of which had been wrenched away from the wall. Inside, they had found the blade of a plough, which they reasoned must have been used to pry the bars off. £140 had been stolen from the house, and they never had caught the burglars. And then, only a matter of weeks earlier, their servant, a simple boy in his twenties named John Perry who had served them for much of his life, had been attacked in their own garden by two ruffians dressed all in white. These assailants had brandished swords, and poor young Perry had been forced to parry their blades with the only weapon at hand, a pitchfork which afterward showed definite proof of having been hacked and cut. Fearing now that her husband might have been waylaid by the very same highwaymen, she called on John Perry and instructed him to go out and search for his employer. And so she waited, as the light of the sun faded from the sky entirely, and she put a light in the window, that her husband might find his way home, but neither William Harrison nor the servant boy John Perry returned that day.

Campden House at Kensington, likely similar to the manor that burned down at Chipping Campden, via  Chipping Campden History Society

Campden House at Kensington, likely similar to the manor that burned down at Chipping Campden, via Chipping Campden History Society

The next day, William Harrison’s son set out to search for them, and on the road to Charringworth, he encountered John Perry alone. His father was not at Charringworth, Perry told him, so off they went to look for Harrison at Ebrington and then Paxford, questioning everyone they encountered. In this way, they heard that a woman, on her way to work in a field that morning, had found a comb, a collar, and a hat on the road between Ebrington and Chipping Campden. When Perry and his master’s son found the woman and asked to see what she’d found, they recognized that, indeed, they were William Harrison’s items, and were troubled to see that they appeared to be cut in some places and the collar bore a distinct spot of blood. The woman took them to where she had found the articles, but a search of the roadside shrubbery yielded no sign of the vanished steward of Campden House, and the two men returned crestfallen.

It took no time at all—perhaps only the length of their return journey, if Harrison’s son did not already suspect him—for blame to be laid on young John Perry’s shoulders, for had he not been out all night with nothing to show for his search? Surely Perry had found his master alone on the road outside of Ebrington and, finding the seventy-year-old vulnerable there in the dark, his purse full of the rents he had collected, the servant seized this opportunity to rob his master and blame it on highwaymen. After all, he came from a poor family; his mother Joan had been widowed for years and never remarried, and what was worse were the rumors that she may have been a witch. When his master’s residence had been burgled the year before, some of course had whispered that John Perry likely knew where the money was kept in the house and when his master would be away, and his family certainly would benefit from such a windfall, but nothing had come of those rumors. And his recent claims to have been assaulted in the garden had likewise been met with skepticism, seeing as how, despite all the cuts on his pitchfork, John Perry himself had not received a single nick. In short, he seemed the likeliest of suspects, especially given the fact that Mrs. Harrison, so worried for her husband’s welfare on the road alone at night with all that money, had essentially pointed out the opportunity to their servant boy and sent him on his way to take it. 

Within a day, John Perry stood examination before a Justice of the Peace. By his account, which he seemed to piece together in direct response to specific challenges to his story, he claimed to have walked some way toward Charringworth before turning back because of the growing darkness. He testified to having encountered one William Reed, who walked with him back to Campden House before taking his leave. It is not clear then why Perry did not announce his return to Mrs. Harrison nor try to get his master’s horse and go out searching again, as had been his stated intention. Thereafter, he saw a man named John Pearce, and walked with him in a field, although why he did so is also unclear, since it certainly had not been to search for his master. After Pearce left him at the Campden House gate, again, he did not return to his mistress or fetch the horse from the stable but rather lay in the hen-house for an hour. Afterward, when he heard church bell strike midnight, he rose and went out onto the road again to resume his search. When challenged about his behavior, he explained that while it had been dark previously, after his rest in the hen-roost, a bright moon had risen, giving him the courage to continue his endeavor. This was not long to last, however, for he soon became lost in a dense mist and chose to sleep the night under a roadside hedge. At first light, he rose and continued on to Charringworth, where he discovered that his master had collected only £23 from one tenant before setting out for home. It was after this, John Perry testified, that he himself had set out for home and thereafter encountered his master’s son on the path, whence they continued their search.

As much as the Justice may have wanted to disbelieve John Perry, everyone who thereafter gave evidence—William Reed, John Pearce, the tenants he visited in the morning—all corroborated his version of events. Still, it was the gaps that troubled one. What had Perry been doing when he tarried back at the Campden House gates and during that time when he claimed to have lain in the henhouse? And upon resuming his search, had he really, a native of the area, lost his way in a mist and slept beneath a bush? With these remaining doubts in mind, the Justice ordered Perry to be kept prisoner and further questioned, and for a week, young John Perry was interrogated under such circumstances as we cannot know. Was he treated kindly or brutalized? Were his statements taken in good faith, or did his captors torture him until they received an account that accorded well with their own suppositions? Whatever the nature of his week-long incarceration, we do know that John Perry changed his story, and more than once. He suggested, variously, that the servant of some other gentleman had robbed and killed William Harrison, or that some itinerant repairman had perhaps done him in. Then he told his captors that they’d find the old man’s body in a certain bean pile, but no sign of his remains were uncovered there when authorities dug around in it. Finally, Perry said he would confess to the Justice of the Peace, and brought again before him, the servant boy said that he did indeed have knowledge of his master’s murder, and that it was his brother, Richard, and their mother, Joan, who had done the deed.

A depiction of English law in practice, with the swearing in of one witness and another pleading his case, by William Hogarth, 1747, via  The Met

A depiction of English law in practice, with the swearing in of one witness and another pleading his case, by William Hogarth, 1747, via The Met

The picture John Perry now painted was one of a desperate and poverty-stricken family. His brother had been the head of the family since their father had died, and had children of his own as well to provide for. According to John, Richard and his mother troubled him greatly to help them rob William Harrison. A year earlier, while John had been at church with his master, Richard had burgled the Harrisons and afterward buried the money. Unfortunately, he could not thereafter find where he had buried it, and so the family continued to harass poor John, demanding that he tell them when his master went out to make his collections. Young John refused, but eventually, he gave in. Thinking ahead, he built a narrative complete with two bogus suspects by staging the assault by white-clad swordsmen in the garden. Then, on the morning of the 16th of August, he told his family that his master would be leaving to collect rents that day. Then, by sheer coincidence it would seem, Mr. Harrison was late in returning and Mrs. Harrison sent John Perry to look for him. Thereupon, John met with his brother Richard, and the two of them went out searching for his master with ill intent. Having seen someone enter a plot of land called the Conygree owned by Lady Campden by a gate to which his master had a key, and knowing this to be a shortcut back to the Harrison residence, John Perry pointed his brother after the figure but stayed behind himself, not wanting to be seen by his master. After walking in the fields for a time, he eventually went himself into the Conygree and found his brother and his mother standing over the prostrate form of his master, who cowered in fear for his life. By John Perry’s telling, his brother Richard called the old steward a fool and strangled him to death. Then he took the man’s purse and tossed it onto his mother’s lap. Wondering what to do with the body, John Perry suggested they drag it off to a pit that lay near a mill back of the garden, while he himself went to the gate to act the lookout. It was then he would encounter John Pearce, he said, and afterward, having taken his master’s hat, comb, and collar band, he cut them and planted them out on the highway to create a false trail.

Now besides the first problem, being the oddness that Perry and his brother waited until after Harrison was already apparently missing to go out looking to rob him, there were some other issues with his testimony. The first is that the corroborative testimony of William Reed seems to contradict Perry’s confession. While the story accords well with John Pearce’s testimony that he ran into John Perry at the gate and they walked into the fields for a time, and even gives a sufficient explanation for this excursion, since it would seem now that Perry, as a lookout, was just trying lead Pearce away from the scene of the crime, Reed’s testimony confirmed that Perry had met him a furlong away from Campden House on the highway to Charringworth. According to both of them, before Perry’s subsequent confession, they had walked back together, and John’s brother Richard Perry does not appear to have been in their company. Certainly when Richard and their mother Joan were thereafter arrested, they denied John’s claims as outright villainous lies, and when authorities dragged the pit behind the garden and searched the rest of the grounds thereabout, they found no body. So it would seem there was no concrete evidence whatsoever to prove John Perry’s new version of events. Nevertheless, as John Perry insisted that it was the truth, all three of them were kept in custody, and while being marched from the examination by the Justice back to their places of confinement, a balled up wad of what’s called inkle fell from Richard’s pocket. Inkle is a narrow woven band, like colored linen tape, and Richard claimed it was just a bit of lace that his wife used in her hair. His brother and accuser, however, begged to differ, for John Perry said he recognized it and the slipknot on one end of it: it was the very garrote Richard had used to strangle William Harrison. And the next day, as the prisoners were again led from their cells to attend a church service, they happened to pass by Richard’s house, where his children ran out to him as he passed. It is said that upon entering his embrace, both of his children suffered sudden nosebleeds. This was a certain sign, the townsfolk asserted, that Mother Joan Perry had bewitched her whole family into doing her evil bidding.

Importantly, before their case came to trial, Parliament passed “An Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity, and Oblivion,” which issued a general pardon for any crime committed during the Civil War and the subsequent Interregnum prior to the Glorious Restoration, barring such crimes as buggery, rape, murder, piracy, and witchcraft. When it came time in September to face their charges, their judge refused to hear the charge of murder while still there remained no corpse and therefore no corpus delicti, but they still faced the charge of burglary. However, as the crime had occurred the previous year, it fell under the pardon of the Act of Oblivion, so the Perrys were urged to spare themselves and the court the time and expense of trying them since if they would just plead guilty, they could be pardoned. This they did, but remained incarcerated, during which time John Perry not only continued to insist on his family’s guilt but also to accuse his mother and brother of trying to murder him by poison while he was in custody! The following spring, a new judge decided that they could be tried for William Harrison’s murder, since presumably if Harrison were indeed alive, he would have returned by then, but being now charged in the murder himself, as a clear accomplice to the crime, John Perry suddenly recanted his confession, saying he had been suffering a bout of madness when he had accused his brother and mother. This judge, however, viewed the Perrys as manifest criminals who had already confessed to burglarizing the supposed murder victim. It didn’t matter to him that they had only pleaded guilty to that crime on the court’s advice and had always maintained their innocence in the matter. And after all, how could any plea of innocence or any recantation be believed when it was popularly held that their witch mother was controlling them like puppets? He found the three of them guilty, and within days, the Perrys were marched up a hill outside Chipping Campden to a hastily erected gibbet. Joan Perry climbed the ladder first, for many believed that as soon as she was executed, her enchantment of her sons would cease and they would confess all. With their mother dangling, though, they only reasserted their innocence. Next they hanged Richard, who went to the noose pleading for his brother to make some confession that might exonerate him. John told the crowd angrily that he held no obligation to offer them any satisfaction, and he watched his brother hang. As he climbed the gibbet himself, he provoked the bloodthirsty, screaming crowd, shouting that, although he knew nothing about his master’s fate, they might in the future discover something about it. John Perry’s body remained there, hanging in chains from the gibbet on the hill until it had putrefied and decayed entirely.

A Gibbet by Thomas Rowlandson, via Wikimedia Commons

A Gibbet by Thomas Rowlandson, via Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, and John Perry’s final words rang true, for at the old age of seventy-two, William Harrison returned to Campden with an astounding, if not entirely incredible, story to explain his absence. As three people had been publicly executed for his murder, it is no surprise that some official account was demanded of him, and thus we have the particulars of his adventure put down in a letter for all posterity. William Harrison claimed to have been walking late on the highway near Ebrington after his trip to Charringworth collecting for his Lady Campden, when a horseman rode near and accosted him so closely that he felt obliged to punch the horse in its nose! The rider then struck him with a sword—the implication being that this was when his hat and collar had been cut off him—and though he tried to defend himself with his cane, the scoundrel stabbed him in the side. Then another man appeared behind him, stabbed him in the thigh, and dragged him into the bushes. In all, there were three men whom he expected to simply rob him of the meager £23 he carried, but instead they put a cloak on him, sat him on a horse behind one of the riders, manacled his hands around the man’s waist, and rode away with him. They stopped at a haystack, finally taking his money off of him and tossing him into a nearby stone pit. An hour later, they called him out, stuffed his pockets full of an even greater quantity of money than they had taken from him, and handcuffed him on the horse as before. After a long ride, the old man was nearly dead, he says, from having to carry all their money, although one would think the sword wounds in his side and thigh would be bothering him far more than some bruising from heavy coinage. They stopped at a lonely house, where a woman commented that he was at death’s door, but after one night on cushions, with the application of some hot broth, he apparently proved healthy enough to resume their journey. So his story went. His abductors spirited him from one vaguely described house to another until they reached Deal, on the Kentish coast, some 160 miles or 260 kilometers from Chipping Campden. There, Harrison claims to have heard them talk to a man named Wrenshaw about a matter of seven pounds, and he heard Wrenshaw express anxiety that Harrison would die before he could manage to get him on board a boat, which presently they set about accomplishing. Harrison remained aboard this ship for six weeks among others “who were in the same condition,” meaning, we must assume, others who had been abducted and sold into shipboard labor, it would seem. One wonders if all these were also grievously wounded seventy-year-old men, and if so, how poorly crewed this vessel must have been.

When two Turkish ships approached their boat, Harrison and the other captives, oddly enough, were eager to fight for their captors, but in the end were simply given to them. In the dark hold of a Turkish ship, they endured an interminable voyage, and after disembarking, were led on a two-day journey to a prison in which they passed four days before some prospective buyers came to scrutinize them. He and the other prisoners told of their skills, and based on some knowledge Harrison professed to have, a physician some 17 years his senior took him to his home near Smirna to tend his distillery. The old doctor had apparently lived in England for a time, and notwithstanding some infrequent abuse, he took a shine to old Harrison, gifting him a gilded silver bowl to drink from. Upon his master’s death, Harrison appears to have been set free, though when he went to seek passage aboard a ship, all seemed fearful of the “searchers” who might find this old slave aboard their vessel and for this reason take not only their goods but their lives as well. Nevertheless, when they caught sight of his gilded silver bowl, the sailors of one ship agreed to hide him, and so he found his way to Spain, whereupon he encountered some kind countrymen who generously brought him back to the shores of Dover and merry old England. From thence, homeward William Harrison made his way.

A depiction of slavery in Turkey, by Pieter van der Aa, 1725, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of slavery in Turkey, by Pieter van der Aa, 1725, via Wikimedia Commons

Or so his story goes…. But can it be credited? Why, upon finding that the seventy-year-old codger they had just waylaid only had £23 on him, would these highwaymen then think they could get any money for him as a slave? Were highwaymen in rural England even in the business of enslaving their victims? If so, surely they’d seek out the young and able-bodied to fetch a higher price. And certainly they’d not keep running him through with their swords if they intended to sell him as slave labor! And even if these rogues were daft enough to think this a sound money-making scheme, why on earth would the buyer in Deal think the dying old man was worth anything? Likewise the Turkish pirates who took him thereafter, and the even older doctor after that. Why was this 70-year-old Englishman in such high demand? If one begins to doubt his tale, there’s not much to go on in trying to disprove it. His description of every stop on his journey is sorely lacking in detail. He mentions one name, a Wrenshaw in Deal who seems to be involved in the slave labor market, but nothing beyond that, not even a name for the old physician in Smirna with whom he lived nearly two years. His account, plainly speaking, is far more ridiculous than any lie told by John Perry in his absence. In this way, many have pondered the details of what has come to be known, since it was first set down more than a decade later in a pamphlet written by the Justice of the Peace who had first examined John Perry, as the Campden Wonder. Was there truth to any of the allegations against the Perrys? If they hadn’t murdered Harrison, had they burgled him? If he had been lying, why had he falsely accused his own family? Was he coerced or did he suffer from a mental illness that caused him to crave the attention a confession would bring him? And what of the white-clad men who accosted him in the garden? If it had been a lie that he had lied about them, then were they real? Could they have been the highwaymen who abducted William Harrison? Or, if you cannot believe Harrison’s wild story, perhaps every person involved was lying. If so, what was Harrison really doing in those two years? Had he merely abandoned his family and then returned with a ridiculous cover story? Or had he been away on some clandestine business for Lady Campden? Unlikely, as those would seem to be the kinds of adventures a young man would seek, not a septuagenarian. Had his wife known of his doings? Some locals claimed that after her death, they found a letter in her possession that had been sent to her by her missing husband before the Perrys’ hanging. This would certainly tend to discredit Harrison’s tale of abduction and enslavement and may have even hinted at his true activities, which must have been sensitive indeed for Mrs. Harrison to let three innocents go to the gallows in order to keep them secret, but the letter has never been produced.

An explanation appealing to me is that perhaps the Perrys or the mystery men in the garden had killed the old man out on the highway at night, and the man who returned two years later was not William Harrison at all, but rather an impostor taking advantage of the situation. People, after all, tend to forget a face after years of its absence, especially in a time before photographs, and any change in his appearance could easily have been dismissed as being due to the extreme circumstances he had endured. One could argue that his family would certainly know Harrison, but it has been suggested that his son may have conspired to do away with the old man in order to take the stewardship of Lady Campden’s lands for himself. Perhaps he and this returned Harrison had an arrangement. But what about his wife, you might protest. Well, there have been other examples in history of widows accepting impostors as their returned husbands for the simple reason that women relied on their husbands to provide for them. Going along with the idea that your husband had returned was a simple escape from widowhood. Some historians point to signatures left by Harrison both before and after his return as proof that it was the same man. I’m no handwriting expert, and I do see the distinct similarities, of course, but to me, there does appear to be a marked difference in the “s” after his return, which before his disappearance was looped into the subsequent “O” but afterward appears to have been formed with two strokes and not looped into the next letter at all. What is further troubling and intriguing are the reports that after William Harrison returned, Mrs. Harrison hanged herself. Could this be an indication that her husband was an impostor who kept her silent by threatening her, such that her only escape was death? Or perhaps that she felt such guilt for her complicity in the fraud of her husband’s survival that she could no longer take it? Like most analysis of the case of the Campden Wonder, this is pure conjecture. Maybe her guilt was over the demise of the Perrys. Maybe she suffered from some illness and sought relief from pain in death. Or maybe she endured some pronounced melancholy with no discernible cause. Perhaps she did not commit suicide at all, and this was just a vile rumor. We simply don’t know. Like many blind spots in history, trying to make coherent sense of this story is like attempting to assemble a single puzzle using a pile of pieces from two different puzzles. Some parts may fit together nicely and encourage you to keep sifting through and searching, but you will never piece together a clear picture.

Signatures of William Harrison (from top to bottom: April 1657, April 1660, and October 1663), from Linda Stratmann's   Gloucestershire Murders

Signatures of William Harrison (from top to bottom: April 1657, April 1660, and October 1663), from Linda Stratmann's Gloucestershire Murders

Blind Spot: Little Dauphin Lost

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In 1789 France, the Third Estate, or the commoners, formed the National Assembly in defiance of King Louis XVI, seeking more proportional representation and a constitutional monarchy. Fearing a military coup because of the king’s gathering of troops, revolutionaries seized the Bastille and its armory in July, and the French Revolution was underway. In October, when a mob of angry fishwives protesting the price of bread marched on Versaille and dragged the royal family back to Tuileries Palace in Paris to be held captive, the reality of the situation must of struck the young prince, or dauphin, Louis Charles, who at four and a half years was described as a joyful and carefree child previous to the ordeal his family was about to endure. To illustrate his temperament, upon learning earlier that year that his older brother Louis Joseph had died of consumption, the fact that he had inherited his brother’s dog consoled him far more than the fact that he was now the heir to the throne of France. And while he may have been sheltered from the reality of their captivity in Tuileries for some years, in 1791, when an abortive attempt at escape ended with the royal family returning to Paris, harried the whole way by vicious revolutionary commoners who spit on his father and ripped his mother Marie Antoinette’s clothes, and afterward, when the little 6-year-old was locked away with his family in Temple Prison, he must certainly have become aware of his predicament. When in 1793 his father bade him farewell for the last time before being taken to the guillotine, King Louis XVI made the nearly 8-year-old dauphin promise never to seek vengeance. And it would seem he kept that promise, for according to history, he never made it out of Temple Prison alive. Or did he?

In the summer of that same year, after his father’s death and Marie Antoinette telling Louis Charles that he was now the rightful king of France, Louis XVII, the boy was taken from his mother’s bosom and made to live with a new tutor, Antoine Simon, an illiterate cobbler who rather than edifying the dauphin proceeded to teach him to curse and sing revolutionary songs. Under Simon’s tutelage, the child was transformed into a “little sanscullotte,” an ill-mannered commoner who profaned his own mother as a whore. It went further than this, however, as those in charge of the royal prisoners were determined to debase them entirely. Winning Louis Charles’s affections with bribes of puppies and canaries, they induced him to make the most heinous of accusations against his mother: that she had sexually abused him. And yet, despite what sounds like it may have been a traumatic captivity, there is testimony indicating that Simon and his wife may have genuinely cared for their charge, as he appears to have been fed well and given a considerable amount of freedom within the prison grounds. However, now began the Reign of Terror, during which Marie Antoinette was guillotined—a fact never shared with the young dauphin—and much internal strife prevailed among radical factions. In early 1794, Antoine Simon’s position was terminated, and he and his wife were driven from their lodgings. At around the same time, other guards familiar with the child had also been removed from their positions, and thereafter, the dauphin was confined in a dungeon alone.

The Temple Prison, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Temple Prison, via Wikimedia Commons

It is noteworthy that the dauphin’s sister, Marie Thérèse, reported hearing noises on the day of Simon’s departure and believed it was the sound of her brother being removed and another prisoner being put into his cell. After that, we know little of the dauphin’s treatment except what can be gleaned from the later testimony of guards, who reported that his dungeon was crawling with rats, such that he was accustomed to leaving uneaten food on the table as a distraction so that he might get some rest undisturbed. Apparently, the boy seemed very inactive, and despite the shouting of guards from outside his cell, calling him a child of vipers and demanding he get up, he mostly lay in bed. After Robespierre met his end and his Terror subsided, a member of the National Convention investigated rumors that the dauphin had been rescued and found the child in his cell wasting away in his own filth, covered in vermin, lying on a cradle rather than on the bed because, as the boy claimed, this relieved his pain somewhat, for his knees were terribly swollen and he proved unable to stand. Efforts were made to clean the child and treat his illness, presumed to be late-stage consumption, or as it might be understood now, tuberculosis resulting in severe arthritis—a surprising eventuality since before his solitary confinement some 6 months earlier, he had shown no definite signs of the illness, and as Dr. Jan Bondeson points out in his treatment of the mystery, which I have relied on as my principal source, this would indeed represent an unusually swift progression of the disease.

As the prisoner’s illness continued to worsen, his guards maintained unusual precautions when anyone called on the child, insisting they not speak to him, and later, in 1495, as the child’s illness grew worse and he eventually died, the doctor who came to perform the autopsy, Dr. Phillippe Jean Pelletan, was sworn to secrecy about anything he might see during the performance of his duties. After the autopsy, during which Pelletan cut skin flaps away from the skull in order to saw into it, he replaced the flaps and wrapped a bandage around the head to keep the skin and the top of the skull in place, and it was in this condition that his body was identified by the guards and soldiers of Temple Prison. Thereafter, he was shuttled away in a coffin and supposedly put into a pauper’s grave at Sainte-Marguerite Cemetery, although rumors abounded that his coffin had been fished out and absconded with or that the gravedigger had subsequently disinterred his corpse to give him a more proper burial place nearer the church.

Plaque commemorating the "old Sainte-Marguerite Cemetery where were buried in June 1794 the corpses of 73 persons killed by guillotine, and on the 10th of June 1795 that of the dead child in the dungeon of the Temple," via  Wikimedia Commons . 

Plaque commemorating the "old Sainte-Marguerite Cemetery where were buried in June 1794 the corpses of 73 persons killed by guillotine, and on the 10th of June 1795 that of the dead child in the dungeon of the Temple," via Wikimedia Commons

The following year, rumors that the prince had not died in prison after all became hard to ignore when a teenager jailed as a vagrant in rural France claimed to be the lost dauphin. And he convinced many of his veracity, including one of the dauphin’s former guards at the Temple, before his father appeared and coaxed out of him a confession that he was just a swindler by the name of René Hervagault. Thereafter, in 1801, author Jean-Joseph Regnault-Warin wrote a novel detailing the dauphin’s escape from the Temple, and it would go on to inspire many a false dauphin just as it appears to have inspired Hervagault to renew his own claims, which now included the tale that he had sought help from Pope Pius VI and that the pontiff had acclaimed him the King of France and branded his leg so as to better identify him—a mark Hervagault could easily show to prove his claims. Odd that the Pope would take such a precaution when there had been no others claiming to be the dauphin at the time, but this detail would be taken up in the future by many another impostor claiming to be Louis XVII.

After the claims of Hervagault and the fiction of Regnault-Warin, another revelation helped to cement forever the legend that the dauphin escaped. In 1811, the wife of the prison tutor Antoine Simon began telling the nuns in the hospital where she had been admitted that she and her husband had helped the dauphin escape in a linen basket after smuggling another child into the prison inside a papier-mâché horse to take the prince’s place. She even claimed he had come to visit her in the hospital years earlier to thank her. While there is ample reason to doubt her story as a lie recasting her and her husband as loyal royalists when in fact the Simons were nothing of the sort, her story meshed somewhat with Hervagault’s, as that pretender had said he was smuggled out in a wicker basket. But it did not match well with the stories of the many other pretenders who would soon rear their heads. In 1815, a drunk vagrant who was probably an orphan by the name of Mathurin Bruneau showed up in Brittany claiming to be the Lost Dauphin. He actually managed to gather supporters despite his erratic behavior, which in the end sent him to a madhouse. In 1828, a more refined pretender appeared, although he still seemed to have a background as a petty criminal. Baron Richemont, as he was called, not only claimed to have been rescued as a child from the Temple Prison by a doctor, but also to have been rescued from other prisons since, for he asserted that he was the two previous pretenders, Hervagault and Bruneau. And after facing further imprisonment for his swindlery, he appears to have escaped again in 1835 to live out the remainder of his life insisting he was Louis XVII.

Then there was Carl Wilhelm Naundorff in Berlin, who began asserting he was the dauphin while Richemont was on trial for his own claims. Naundorff’s claim was laughable in some ways. At first, he didn’t even get the dauphin’s name right when making his claim, and he couldn’t speak a word of French! During his career as a false claimant, he moved to London and wrote very fanciful memoirs detailing multiple substitutions at the Temple prison as well as all the abductions and shipwrecks he had survived. He began to build bombs in London, which may seem odd but isn’t when one considers that previous to making his claims he appears to have been an arsonist. Because of all the accidental explosions and fires in his workshop, he nearly drove his neighbors to riot. After a stint in debtor’s prison, the Dutch government paid him for his bomb design, and he pursued a career as a bomb maker in Holland, where he passed away in 1845, his death certificate bearing the name King Louis XVII.  Although all evidence seems to point to Naundorff being a fraud, he was the most successful of all claimants, inspiring numerous conspiracy theories to explain away problems with his tales, and even rallying a set of parliamentary deputies, the Naundorffists, to his cause during the Third Republic in France. His proponents argued for his legitimacy long after his death.

Naundorff on his deathbed, via  Wikimedia Commons .

Naundorff on his deathbed, via Wikimedia Commons.

There have been more than a hundred men claiming to be the long lost dauphin, some of whose claims strained credulity far more than others, such as Eleazar Williams, whose claims were met with skepticism and even outright mockery due to his dark skin and Native American heritage. The claims of all such pretenders suffered from the same inherent flaw; it was hard to credit the idea that the Simons or some other royalist plotter would have been able to smuggle a replacement child into Temple prison, let alone spirit Louis Charles out, when the republican guards scrutinized all objects brought in and out. A perhaps more feasible theory is that, if a substitution had ever taken place, it was with the full cooperation of the officers on duty, perhaps to hide the fact that the dauphin, who remained a valuable political pawn, no longer lived. As we have discussed, he seems to have been quite healthy when he was moved from the care of the Simons into solitary confinement, and the rapid advance of disease in the child who would later die there has led many to believe the dauphin was replaced with a sickly or dying boy. What if this was done to cover up the dauphin’s murder? Some have pointed to a cryptic note of a committee secretary in 1794 indicating a decision had been reached to get rid of the prince as proof that the dauphin’s captors killed him. And furthermore, this may have been the reason for firing Simon and other guards who would have recognized that a substitution had occurred. Or perhaps the guards and even Simon, in an act of extremist republicanism had slain the young royal and had been discharged for their insubordination. Either way, it would have been wise to pretend they still had the prince in custody. One report to corroborate this version comes from 1801, when a prisoner digging in the garden of the Temple uncovered a child’s skeleton that had been buried in quicklime. As the story goes, the prison governor admitted it was the Lost Dauphin’s corpse, but the bones stayed where they lay, and eventually a house was built atop them.

All of these fanciful accounts rely on the idea that sometime just before or after his seclusion in the dungeon, the dauphin was swapped out for some other child, and it was this replacement boy who died in June of 1795. But there is now substantive evidence that that child was indeed the dauphin, for it seems the doctor, Pelletan, upon performing his autopsy, secreted away the child’s heart and preserved it in alcohol. Years later, after the heart had been stolen from him and he eventually regained it, he gave the heart to the archbishop of Paris, who promised to return it to the Lost Dauphin’s remaining family. During a riot in 1830, the archbishop’s home was ransacked, but luckily, the heart was found discarded among the remaining debris. Thereafter, it passed through various hands before finally ending up in an Austrian shrine to the Bourbon dynasty. In 1998, the heart underwent DNA testing, comparing to hair samples from Marie Antoinette as well as blood samples from some descendants of the family. Astonishingly, it revealed that the heart purported to have been preserved at the 1795 autopsy contained mitochondrial DNA identical to that of Marie Antoinette, proving that it belonged to a child related matrilineally to her mother, Empress Maria Theresia. So this would seem the final nail in the coffin of this mystery… but as we always see, there arises reason to doubt almost any seemingly incontrovertible proof. In this case, there is considerable evidence that, back in 1830, when the rioters looted his residence, the archbishop had actually been in possession of more than one preserved royal heart. You see, the hearts of royals were sometimes removed during embalming and kept as relics, and in this case, it seems the archbishop may have had both the heart from Pelletan’s autopsy of the child in the Temple who may or may not have been Louis Charles and the heart of Louis Joseph, the Lost Dauphin’s older brother who had died before the revolution. The possibility then remains that the heart tested for DNA was that of Louis Joseph, another son of Marie Antoinette, mistaken among the wreckage of the archbishop’s house for the heart Pelletan had collected. And as long as that is a possibility, it would seem that science, rather than solving this case, has only created a further mystery.

The organ purported to be the heart of Louis XVII, via  Wikimedia Commons .

The organ purported to be the heart of Louis XVII, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Bastard Princes in the Bloody Tower; Part Two, The Skeletons Under the Stairs

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This installment is part two of a series on the great historical mystery of the Princes in the Tower, so if you skipped the last one, be sure to go back and read it before continuing. In part one, I established the context of familial struggles for the throne of England that one must be familiar with to get a strong understanding of the goings on leading up to the princes’ disappearance, detailing the back and forth conflict between that Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the Plantagenet family that we call the War of the Roses, all culminating in the death of Edward IV and his brother Richard’s taking of the throne from Edward’s son on the grounds that Edward’s marriage to the boy’s common-born mother had been illegitimated. In that episode, we also examined the reputation of Richard III that we have inherited, asking whether or not Richard’s memory has been unfairly sullied by propagandists seeking to please Henry Tudor after he had defeated Richard and established the Tudor dynasty. And indeed it does appear that he was the victim of character assassination after his death and perhaps even while he was still alive. We looked at the claims of his deformity and other legends that would make of him a hideous creature, and relying in large part on evaluations made in my principal source, Bertram Fields’ Royal Blood, we discussed accusations that depict Richard as a greedy, power-hungry despot, all of which seem to lack credibility. And there are further accusations that I didn’t even have time to delve into, such as that Richard’s background shows him to be coldly calculating and murderous and therefore proves he had the appetite for so gruesome a task as killing children if it would benefit him. For example, it is claimed by traditionalists that at the Battle of Tewkesbury, Richard personally killed the young Prince of Wales, likely illegitimate son of Lancastrian Queen Margaret and heir apparent to the feeble-minded King Henry VI, and likewise that it was he who murdered Henry VI in the Tower when the old, crazy king was helpless. And some even claim that it was he who executed his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Firstly, there is no evidence of Richard having been the one who killed any of these men. And if indeed he personally slew the prince at Tewkesbury, it was in defense of his brother, the king, and likely on royal orders. Likewise, in his role as the constable, he may have overseen the killing of Henry VI at the Tower, but it would surely have been at the king’s request. The same might be said for his brother’s execution, but George had stood trial, and actually all indications point to Richard not wanting to see George killed and resenting the fact that Edward had bent to the pressures of his wife’s family to have their brother killed. Now there was a pernicious rumor that seems to have arisen during his lifetime, toward the end of his brief two-year reign, when his wife Anne Neville passed away, that he had poisoned her so that he could marry his niece, Elizabeth. There appears to be no evidence for the poisoning whatsoever. Richard actually took the odd step of publicly denying these rumors, perhaps because by this time he was already plagued by rumors that he had done away with his nephews in the tower. In fact, it makes no sense that Richard would ever have considered marrying his niece, as she had been made a bastard along with the princes and any other Woodville children of his brother. The only benefit to it would have been to keep her from marrying the pretender Henry Tudor, who he knew was scheming in Brittany to take the throne and might strengthen his claim by marrying Elizabeth and uniting the houses of Lancaster and York. Actually, young Elizabeth does seem to have been amenable to the idea of marriage to her uncle based on letters she is said to have written, but this proves nothing besides the fact that she and the Woodvilles likely didn’t believe the rumors that Richard had killed her brothers. This rumor is the true black mark against him, the accusation that likely bred all the others, and it too showed up before the Tudor accession to the throne. So, finally, we must examine this exceptionally cold case of missing children to come to any clear conclusion on the matter of Richard’s character.

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Richard Plantagenet’s and Anne Neville’s coronation, via Meandering Through Time

Richard Plantagenet’s and Anne Neville’s coronation, via Meandering Through Time

After Parliament’s late June declaration that the princes were illegitimate in a document called Titulus Regius, Richard was crowned on July 6th, 1483, and two weeks later departed on his royal progress—kind of a victory tour, if you will. Now there are indications, based on the records of fine cloth being bought for him, that at least one of the princes, the older boy, Edward, was present at the coronation, and the Great Chronicle of London reports that the children had been seen “playing in the Gardyn of the Towyr” more than once during that summer. This may have been before or after Richard had the princes moved to apartments inside the Garden Tower, so called for its access to the garden—a tower that in later years, as I previously mentioned, would be renamed the Bloody Tower after a prominent earl committed suicide there. These sightings that summer appear to be the last time the boys were seen alive, and rumors that the princes had been murdered seem to have arisen as early as July that summer, perhaps even before Richard left on his progress. One contemporary chronicler, Dominic Mancini, an Italian priest who left London in July, brought the gossip back to France, including vague claims that Prince Edward had confided to his physician that he was afraid for his life, although we have other indications that one or both of the princes may have been ill, so these secondhand reports may have been misconstrued. By January the next year the rumor turned into an outright accusation from a bishop in France, and after Easter 1484, the rumor seems to have gained strength in England. And yet, around this time, Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters left sanctuary and appear to have been on friendly terms with King Richard, which would suggest that she must have known or believed that Richard had not harmed her sons. Now, it has been pointed out that, while Richard took the initiative to deny the rumor about his planned marriage to his niece, he kept silent on the far more damaging rumor of the princes’ murder. Why? Perhaps the boys were still alive and the people who mattered knew it. Or if they were dead, it’s also possible that he was not responsible if some other person had done the deed without his knowledge or if the princes had died of natural causes, and Richard may not have wanted the news to get out for fear that it would only exacerbate the rumors of his guilt in the matter. And another possibility is that keeping people guessing was the smart move. After all, the pretender Henry Tudor would rely on his marriage to a daughter of Edward IV to strengthen his claim, but this would only serve his cause if the children of the Woodville marriage were legitimated again, and if the princes were still alive, then their claim would trump his. Therefore, if they were dead, Richard would want Henry to think them alive in order to discourage him, and if they were alive, perhaps Richard had secreted them away for their safety and would prefer that Henry thought them dead, as Henry would seek to eliminate them as well. Thus, whether the princes were dead or alive, Richard would have had good reason not to trumpet the news to the realm.

Indeed, Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne was exceedingly weak. The Tudors had come from the servant class, but Henry’s grandfather had an affair with Katherine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, and after Katherine died, he made unsupported claims that he had secretly married her, which would make their son a legitimate half-brother of Henry VI. This was no claim to the throne, but Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, was of the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets, which gave him a bit more standing. In fact, he had been at court during the Lancastrian restoration, but after Tewkesbury had fled the country and ended up shipwrecked on Brittany, where for more than a dozen years he was essentially a prisoner living in comfort, all the while trying to convince the Duke of Brittany to support his claim to the throne. Well, in 1483, while Richard was on his royal progress, the Duke demanded some aid in defending Brittany against the French, and when Richard failed to provide it, the Duke of Brittany did indeed begin to help Henry Tudor plan his invasion. In the subsequent years, while Richard was dealing with rumors and plots against him, a formidable alliance was formed between the Lancastrian supporters of Henry Tudor and the Woodvilles, who must have at least believed at that time that the princes were deceased even if they did not believe Richard responsible, otherwise why support Henry’s claim to the throne? Moreover, a very powerful man now turned against Richard: the first peer of the realm and constable of England, the Duke of Buckingham, a trusted ally to Richard who had been with him at the beginning, riding daringly with Richard into the midst of the Woodville forces to assert Richard’s protectorship. It is odd that Buckingham supported Henry, being that his own claim to the throne was greater and he had no love for the Woodvilles, but he may have had ulterior motives that we’ll examine later. Buckingham coordinated his rebellion with Henry Tudor’s invasion, but Richard put them both down. While Henry escaped, Buckingham donned a disguise and went into hiding but was betrayed for a reward. Brought to Richard’s encampment, he requested an audience with the king, for purportedly he had a hidden blade and planned to leap at Richard and stab him, but Richard refused his request and had him executed for treason.

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, by Abraham Cooper, 1825, via  Wikimedia Commons

Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, by Abraham Cooper, 1825, via Wikimedia Commons

Undeterred and with further support from the French, Henry Tudor landed another invasion in August of 1485. Although Richard took the threat seriously, he seems to have been confident enough in his own martial prowess to believe he would handily defeat Henry’s forces. There were, however, complications based on whose military support Richard believed he could rely on. First was Lord Stanley, whose loyalties were notoriously unreliable, but Richard took charge of Lord Stanley’s son as insurance that Stanley would not play both sides of this conflict, as his family had done before. Then there was the Earl of Northumberland, a powerful man in the North whom Richard believed he could rely on based on his own ties to the North. However, it seems Northumberland may have taken umbrage with Richard’s decision not to award him authority over the region. Thus, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard had the high ground and was assured victory, his fortune changed suddenly when Northumberland refused to send his forces into the fray at a crucial moment in the battle. Rather than retreating, Richard gave up his high ground and made a bold charge with a hundred knights right into the heart of the opposing army, seeking to punch through their lines and slay Henry Tudor. But in that moment, as they passed in front of Lord Stanley’s troops, the perfidious lord ordered them to attack. Richard III died in that bloody melee, unhorsed and surrounded by his enemies, and all accounts, even those written by his enemies, admit that he fought fiercely to the end. He was the last English monarch to die in battle. When Henry Tudor took the throne as Henry VII, among his first acts were to undo Titulus Regius and marry the newly re-legitimized Woodville daughter, thereby uniting the houses of Lancaster and York and truly ending the War of the Roses once and for all. It is likely, Bertram Fields points out, that he would not have done this unless he knew for a certainty that both the princes were indeed dead and gone; otherwise, he would have been raising their claims above his own. And his bill of attainder months later against Richard, which made cryptic mention of the “shedding of Infants blood” seems to further indicate some knowledge not only of the princes’ death but of Richard’s guilt. This is the era in which the legend or myth of Richard III and his murder of the Princes in the Tower cemented. And it is said that in 1502, some 17 years later, one James Tyrell and another associate, John Dighton, confessed to murdering the princes at Richard III’s request.

The traditionalist account of the murders, based almost entirely on Sir Thomas More’s unfinished history, is supposed to have been derived from what was revealed in Tyrell’s confession. The account is as follows. During Richard’s royal progress in 1483, Richard sent word back to the current constable of the Tower, Sir Robert Brackenbury, to murder the children, but Brackenbury refused. Relieving himself in the privy when he received Brackenbury’s refusal, Richard complained, asking a page whom he could possibly trust for such a task, whereupon the page suggested that James Tyrell would certainly do whatever Richard asked. And so Richard sent Tyrell to Brackenbury with a letter telling the constable to give Tyrell the Tower keys for a night, which Brackenbury did. Tyrell then recruited his horsekeeper, John Dighton, and a jailer by the name of Miles Forest to do the dark deed. At midnight, Forest and Dighton entered the princes’ apartments while they slept and smothered them with their blankets. Thereafter, Tyrell directed them to bury the children at the foot of some stairs. Upon hearing where they had laid them to rest, however, Richard protested that as king’s sons, they must be buried in a more appropriate place and had a priest disinter them and rebury them in a new and secret grave. Quite a detailed account, but is it credible? Needless to say, these letters ordering the murders have never shown up. Moreover, More’s story presents Tyrell as a nobody that earned Richard’s trust by undertaking the murders, but Tyrell had fought at Tewkesbury and been knighted and awarded with substantial lands by Edward IV. Nor was he a stranger to Richard, who had actually fought beside him. And if the account truly were derived entirely from Tyrell and Dighton’s confessions, this presents other problems, for it’s not entirely certain that these confessions were ever actually given. There is no surviving documentation of the confession, and if they were real, it is exceedingly odd that Henry VII didn’t make them immediately public and waited two years to declare Tyrell a traitor and even then only on account of his support of another rebel, not for murdering the young king. There would have been good reason to come forward with such a confession, since Henry had recently dealt with an imposter trying to take the throne on the claim that he was one of the princes. Then there’s the fact that one of the supposed murderers, Dighton, who purportedly confessed as well, was never even punished. If the story is to be believed, Henry VII had evidence that the man had committed regicide and simply let him go. Finally, there’s the fact that these confessions are supposed to have been common knowledge, and yet More and others, like Sir Francis Bacon, indicate that many still doubted that the princes were even dead. I suppose that means the confessions were hard to credit even then.

The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, by James Northcote, 1786, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Murder of the Princes in the Tower, by James Northcote, 1786, via Wikimedia Commons

And what of these rumors that the children lived? There exists a document accounting for the delivery of clothes to the Tower in March of 1485, received by the footman of “Lord Bastard,” but it is possible that this refers to Richard’s own bastard son. There are other documents dating from July 1484 indicating the presence of children at Richard’s northern estate, so could it be that Richard had the princes smuggled out of the tower and hidden in safety. After all, Sir Francis Bacon wrote of whisperings during Henry VII’s reign that the princes, or at least one prince, had survived and been living in secret. This would jibe well with some other theories involving certain pretenders to the throne that appeared during Henry VII’s reign. The first was Lambert Simnel. This pretender, called Edwardus by his adherents, showed up in Ireland claiming to be the son of George, the Duke of Clarence, even though it was common knowledge that George’s son was being held in the Tower. Moreover, there is reason to believe that George’s son was cognitively disabled, so it is very strange that this pretender’s cause drew the support of the earl of Lincoln and his aunt, Margaret. Margaret was a sister of Edward IV and Richard III, and the earl of Lincoln was her nephew. They would have known, firstly, that this Edwardus was not George’s son, and secondly that George’s son, with his disability, was not fit to be the king. So it has been suggested that this Lambert Simnel, who was taken captive after Henry VII put down his rebellion at the Battle of Stoke in 1487 and revealed to be a young commoner, was just a stalking horse, a false claimant knowingly put forward to gauge the strength of opposition to Henry VII. Thus, if Simnel’s rebellion had succeeded, perhaps the earl of Lincoln could have been placed on the throne in his stead. Oddly, though, at this time, Henry VII sent Elizabeth Woodville, now his mother-in-law, to a convent and took her lands, and the only apparent reason for this seems to be that she supported the cause of Lambert Simnel. But why on earth would she do this when her daughter was queen? One explanation seems to be that perhaps this Edwardus was a stalking horse for one of her sons, not dead after all and come forth to claim his birthright, which Henry Tudor had himself reinstated. Another is that Edwardus was actually her son, Edward V, and rather than being captured was killed at Stoke and replaced by Henry VII with a young commoner to make the uprising look like a total farce.

A few years later, though, yet another pretender to the throne appeared, this one openly claiming to be the younger of the two princes thought to have been killed in the Tower: Prince Richard. What’s more, even though Henry VII claimed that his spies had discovered this pretender was nothing but a commoner named Perkin Warbeck, he dressed the part, he reportedly looked the part of a Plantagenet, he supposedly had intimate knowledge of family matters, and he was able to convince numerous members of European nobility and royalty that he was who he said he was. After Henry rebuffed his invasion and captured him, this pretender supposedly confessed to everything Henry VII had said about him. Thereafter, having failed in two attempts to escape the Tower, he was executed after the manner of a commoner: hanged, drawn and quartered. But as has been seen before, when exploring other topics, the confession is obviously suspect, being that it was surely extracted under coercion or at least the threat of it. What’s more, there are certain inconsistencies in Perkin Warbeck’s confession that may indicate it was fabricated or that he may have inserted falsehoods into it as a signal that the whole thing was false. One inconsistency is that his name is given as Osbeck rather than Warbeck, and there are several additional inconsistencies relating to the pretender’s supposed background and names of family members. Then there is the far-fetched quality of the story the confession tells, for it claims that while in Ireland, two Englishman first mistook him for a Plantagenet and then forced him against his will to learn English in a short amount of time and undertake his imposture as Prince Richard! And while a few years later, Henry would make no effort to bring forth proof of Tyrell’s confession, he did have many copies of Perkin Warbeck’s confession circulated, yet no signed original seems to exist! Bertram Fields outlines a compelling notion that Perkin Warbeck may indeed have been Prince Richard, and that Lambert Simnel, if he wasn’t Richard’s older brother Edward, may have been a stalking horse for the younger prince. He points to a legend passed down in the Tyrell family that James Tyrell, the very man accused of murdering the princes, took them in, along with their mother, with Richard III’s permission. And there is some indication of Richard sending Tyrell on mysterious errands abroad and rewarding him with a large sum of money in late 1484 and early 1485. Therefore, it would seem at least plausible that Richard did indeed make arrangements for the princes to live in secret, away from England, where they grew to be men and eventually returned to reassert their birthright in abortive attempts at overthrowing Henry VII.

Perkin Warbeck in the Pillory, by H. M. Paget, 1884, via  Wikimedia Commons

Perkin Warbeck in the Pillory, by H. M. Paget, 1884, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, there is also the possibility that the princes did indeed die in the Tower. Even so, would that necessarily mean they were murdered? There are reports of young Prince Edward expressing fears for his life to his personal physician, but there are also reports that the young prince may have been gravely ill, which would seem to reframe that exchange as the prince expressing his fear of a natural death rather than his fear of being murdered. It’s widely accepted that Prince Edward suffered from osteomyelitis, a chronic condition common in the Middle Ages that involved bone infections. Moreover, Sir Thomas More himself quotes Elizabeth Woodville as saying that the younger Prince Richard was also “sore diseased with sicknes.” So it stands to reason that the poor children, sequestered in their tower apartments, simply passed away from separate illnesses, and Richard did not make this known for a number of reasons. First, with the princes gone, it may have encouraged other claimants to press their causes, as the further impediments to usurpation that the princes may have seemed to be were now gone. Second, the simple truth was that, even if Richard declared how the children had died and produced their bodies for examination, the bare fact of their deaths would only further strengthen the rumors that he had murdered them.

There may be no evidence that the princes survived, but there does appear to be evidence that they died, for in 1674, as workers excavated beneath a staircase in the Tower of London, they uncovered a chest containing two small skeletons. These were presumed to be the remains of the Princes in the Tower and were ceremoniously placed in an urn at Westminster Abbey. In 1933, some scientists were permitted to examine the remains, and their findings would seem to confirm this conclusion. Based on the size of the bones, it was estimated that they were the remains of children of the right age to have been the princes, and the older of the two showed signs of his jawbone having deteriorated due to disease, which would correspond with Edward’s osteomyelitis. Furthermore, both skulls appeared to display hypodontia, or congenitally missing teeth, which would indicate the two were related.

Disposal of the princes in the Tower, via  Wikimedia Commons

Disposal of the princes in the Tower, via Wikimedia Commons

Case closed, then? If these were the princes, then the very fact that their remains were buried in a chest beneath a staircase not only indicates they were murdered but also seems to confirm Sir Thomas More’s version of the events. However, that’s not exactly true, for according to More’s version, the children’s remains were dug up and reburied elsewhere. Also, the evidence may not be as concrete as it seems. For example, one might argue that the existence of children’s bones in the Tower at all proves it was them, but in fact, 27 years earlier, two other children’s skeletons were discovered laid out on a table in a walled up room. In fact, these had been presumed to be the princes until the second set of skeletons was discovered. Moreover, it has been pointed out that hypodontia may prove the two skeletons were related, but if the remains discovered in a parking lot in 2012 really are that of Richard III, as I mentioned in the last installment, then those remains, which show no signs of hypodontia, may indicate that the skeletons under the stairs were of no relation to him and couldn’t be those of his nephews. Furthermore, Bertram Fields points out that judging age from bone size, as those who studied the bones in the 30s did, is an imperfect proposition at best, considering variation in bone size and the fact that people generally tended to be much smaller in the Middle Ages than the average sizes the scientists relied on. Therefore, we can’t be certain of how old these children were at the time of their deaths, and in this case, that is of the utmost importance.

If these are the remains of the princes, and if they were proven to have died any time after the Battle of Bosworth Field, then the clear suspect is no longer Richard but Henry Tudor, who would have taken control of the boys when he took control of the Tower of London, and as reversing the Titulus Regius and re-legitimizing the offspring of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was crucial to his plan to marry the princes’ sister and strengthen his own right to rule, they would have been rivals to the throne. If however, the bones were able to prove that the princes were killed before Bosworth, that does not necessarily prove Richard’s guilt either, for there is always the possibility that someone murdered the princes without his approval, perhaps thinking he would approve and reward them. There is a cryptic letter from late July 1483 referring to “certain persons” being held for engaging in an unnamed “enterprise” and awaiting “due execucion of our lawes.” Could this carefully worded letter of Richard’s be referring to the difficult matter of punishing some murderers for a crime that many would likely blame on Richard himself? This is total speculation, of course, but possible, and there are other likely suspects as well. Another candidate Fields puts forth is the Duke of Buckingham. We know that in his rebellion and support of Henry Tudor, he was likely scheming to put himself on the throne, and the princes could have been perceived as standing in the way for him as well. He was lord high constable of England and could have easily entered the Tower and done the deed when Richard was away on his progress. Then he could have spread the rumor that Richard murdered them to undermine Richard’s rule and stir up support for supplanting him with someone else, which of course Buckingham believed should be himself, even if it meant ensuring Henry Tudor died in battle. It’s a solid theory, for it further explains Buckingham’s falling out with Richard and gives a good reason why Richard might have kept the princes’ deaths a secret, since few would believe he was not party to their murder. But it’s just guesswork and not more or less credible than the traditionalist view that Richard had the princes killed himself. Perhaps one day soon the bones will be released again for more modern scientific analysis, and through DNA and modern dating techniques we might determine whether the bones beneath the stairs did indeed belong to the Princes in the Tower and perhaps discover when exactly they were killed, but that still will not prove that Richard III was responsible. Therefore, it seems safe to assert that this will forever remain one of the most intriguing historical mysteries of all time.

Stairs in the White Tower beneath which the bones are said to have been discovered, via  Atlas Obscura

Stairs in the White Tower beneath which the bones are said to have been discovered, via Atlas Obscura

The Bastard Princes in the Bloody Tower; Part One: Pretenders to the Throne

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The story of Richard III’s rise to kingship and the fate of his nephews, one of whom he had supplanted on the throne, is mysterious for many reasons. There are the questions of what actually befell the princes, whether or not they were actually murdered, and if not, what may have become of them. Then there is the further question of who was responsible for their fate, whether Richard was indeed the villain he is often characterized to be. And it’s this question that reveals our recurring theme: the unreliability of historiography. As we shall see in this two-part series on the topic, the record we have received may be grossly inaccurate, a reflection of contemporary historians’ political associations and the pressure placed on later historians to propagandize for the current dynasty. Modern historians tend to fall into a couple of camps: traditionalists, who favor the received version of history as written by Sir Thomas More and immortalized in Shakespeare’s tragedy, which took it even further by portraying Richard as a scheming dissembler and murderous hunchback, and revisionist Ricardians, who espouse the other extreme, that Richard was innocent of all the charges heaped on him and has been wronged by a history written by the victors of a war he lost. The mystery, as always, is where the truth might lie.

It is easy to accept the version of this story that says Richard was a ruthless schemer for the simple fact that he did indeed make moves to seize the throne after his nephew had already been proclaimed King Edward V, but one must consider Richard’s actions in the context of his era and its numerous civil wars over the monarchy, struggles into which he was born, all of which were family affairs. When the Plantagenet King Edward III died in 1377, a year after his eldest son had died, the throne passed not to his next eldest but to the 10-year-old heir of his recently deceased son, crowned Richard II. Meanwhile, two of Edward III’s surviving sons—John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, and Edmund, the Duke of York, both uncles of King Richard II—established long-lasting branches of the Plantagenet family. The boy-king ended up reigning 22 years before Henry of Bolingbroke, a son of the Lancastrian branch of the family and therefore the king’s own cousin, seized the throne from him, thereby establishing a Lancastrian dynasty that would pass from Henry IV, to the renowned Henry V, to the less-than-legendary Henry VI, who inherited the throne at 9 months old and grew into a man of unsound mind and a feeble ruler with no viable heir. It was during the reign of Henry VI, with outrage at the loss of English territories in France and the rather open liaisons of the conniving Queen Margaret, that many turned to yet another Richard Plantagenet, the grandson of Edmund, Duke of York, urging him to take the throne for himself. Thus the conflicts between the Lancastrian and the Yorkist branches of the family began. When Henry VI’s mental illness worsened, the Duke of York became protector of the realm by parliamentary decree and ruled England, curtailing Queen Margaret’s power, but when the king’s senses improved slightly, the Queen pushed to have the Duke of York’s position revoked and to consolidate the nobility against the Yorkists, claiming that they conspired against the king and his rightful heir, a child whom many believed to have been fathered by one of Margaret’s lovers rather than by Henry. So the War of the Roses commenced, so called because of the heraldic devices of the two houses, the Lancastrian branch of the family having the symbol of the red rose and the Yorkist branch the white rose. Although a civil war waged by noble knights, it saw a number of battles. At the First Battle of St. Albans, Yorkists succeeded and regained the protectorship. Later, after another Yorkist victory at Blore Heath, the Lancastrians took back power at the Battle of Ludford Bridge and branded the Yorkists traitors, causing the Duke of York to flee to Ireland. This was followed by a Yorkist victory at Northampton, where the king was taken captive, prompting Queen Margaret to flee to Wales. With the Duke of York now set to inherit the throne from the feeble-minded Henry VI, things did not look good for the Lancastrians, but with a newly raised army, Lancastrians returned in force and dealt the Yorkists a decisive blow at Wakefield, where Richard, the Duke of York, leaving the safety of a castle to meet a small force, fell in battle after a larger Lancastrian force that had been hiding in the forest surprised and overwhelmed him. It’s said that after he was taken, the duke was made to wear a garland of bulrushes as a mock crown, told to sit on an anthill as though it were his throne, and was taunted as a “king without heritage…and prince without people” before the Lancastrians finally decapitated him and brought his head to Queen Margaret on a pike. And in a final loss, the duke’s 17-year-old son, Edmund, the Earl of Rutland, after being captured, was stabbed in the heart by a Lancastrian lord as he knelt in terror, raising both hands in a silent plea for mercy.

The Murder of Rutland by Lord Clifford, via Wikimedia Commons

The Murder of Rutland by Lord Clifford, via Wikimedia Commons

Now we come to the more principal characters of our story, the Duke of York’s other sons: Edward, 19; George, 11; and young Richard, 8 years old. Edward took up his slain father’s campaign and led Yorkist forces to victory at Mortimer’s Cross. The Lancastrians countered with a victory at the Second Battle of St. Albans, but it didn’t matter, for Edward had entered London with much fanfare and was acclaimed by the council there as King Edward IV, the first true Yorkist king of England. Thereafter leading his army to an absolute triumph over Lancastrians at Towton and driving Queen Margaret northward to Scotland with the deranged former king and her likely bastard son in tow, King Edward IV went about putting the affairs of state in order. He made his brother George the Duke of Clarence, and his little brother Richard he named the Duke of Gloucester. Now during Edward’s rule, Queen Margaret continued to make abortive attempts to restore her poor, mad husband to the throne, but the bigger conflict that Edward faced came from one who had been his staunchest ally, the Earl of Warwick, called the “kingmaker” for his tireless efforts in getting Edward crowned. To further illustrate Warwick’s loyalty to Edward, it was he who continued to lead Yorkist forces against the Lancastrian forays from Scotland, eventually driving Margaret to flee to France with her son, leaving behind the non compos mentis Henry VI, who was eventually taken and immured in the Tower of London. So what could drive a wedge between the stalwart Warwick and his young king? As was common in a dashing young king, Edward enjoyed bedding women, which was fine with Warwick, but a schism appears to have arisen between them when Warwick was making arrangements for Edward’s marriage to the French king Louis XI’s niece, and Edward went and secretly married a commoner named Elizabeth Woodville, probably because she wouldn’t sleep with him unless he wed her. The entire thing was an embarrassment to the kingmaker, and add to that his resentment over the consolidation of power by the lowborn Woodville family, who had various advantageous weddings arranged for them, and the offense he took when Edward chose not to take his advice in matters of foreign relations, especially with the French, and you had a recipe for betrayal. And eight years into Edward’s reign, Warwick did indeed betray him, and what’s more, he tempted one of Edward’s own brothers to his cause.

Now because of the image we have received of Richard, you might assume it was this Plantagenet, this grasping hunchback, driven by his avarice and unchecked ambition, who betrayed his brother, the king. In that assumption, though, you would be wrong. Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, was ever an unflagging ally and loyal subject to Edward IV, as his personal motto, loyalté me lie, or “loyalty binds me,” would indicate. Regardless of his image as the little goblin-like creature that Richard is often portrayed to have been, he had grown into a strong young man and would prove himself a hero at arms in the struggles Edward IV would soon face. Rather, it was the middle child, George, Duke of Clarence, whom Warwick convinced to join his rebellion. George also resented the power wealth being amassed by the queen’s common-born family, the Woodvilles, thinking that they were reaching far beyond their rightful station. As an example of this perceived overreach, the queen’s brother, John, had entered into “diabolical marriage” with the elderly Duchess of Norfolk, Warwick’s own aunt, a marriage in name only that was very clearly just a scheme to bring money and lands into the Woodville family. George himself, meanwhile, sought to marry the kingmaker’s daughter, but his brother, the king, forbade it, believing the match would result in too dangerous an alliance. And indeed, it did, for George married her anyway, and then he and Warwick led an army against king Edward IV in 1469, succeeding in capturing the king and executing members of the queen’s family, including the offending brother, John, who had dared to marry Warwick’s dowager aunt. But these gains could not be held, and eventually Richard confronted their forces with a force of his own and simply took back his brother, the king, without so much as a battle. And in a stroke of generosity, the king did not even bother to punish the rebels.

Warwick the Kingmaker, proving his loyalty to Edward IV before the Battle of Towton, via  Wikimedia Commons

Warwick the Kingmaker, proving his loyalty to Edward IV before the Battle of Towton, via Wikimedia Commons

This would prove to be a mistake, however, for Warwick the Kingmaker and George, Duke of Clarence, saw they had lost favor and could never improve their positions under the auspices of Edward IV, surrounded by his Woodville in-laws. They rebelled again the next year and were again defeated; then they fled to France, where they threw their lot in with the Lancastrian Queen Margaret. With Lancastrian forces at their back, they promised to rescue her husband, the former king Henry VI from the Tower and restore him to the throne, which they accomplished, driving Edward and his every-faithful brother Richard out of the country. But this Lancastrian restoration was not popular, especially since Warwick, who essentially ruled in the name of the still weak-minded Henry, had made arrangements for an alliance with the French against Burgundy. In a fortuitous turn for the Yorkists, the Duke of Burgundy, beset on all sides, had no choice but put its strength behind Edward and Richard. As they marched toward recovering the throne for Edward, they encountered their disloyal brother George, who true to character, switched sides yet again, threw himself at his brother’s mercy, and added his army to theirs. The three brothers entered London, and Edward was reunited with his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, who in his absence had borne him a male heir and named the boy after his father. Thereafter, Edward the IV routed the Lancastrian forces in two decisive battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury. At both, Richard fought valiantly beside his brother to settle the War of the Roses. And afterward, in a dark foreshadowing of what was to come, the poor, mad Lancastrian monarch, Henry VI, died in the Tower of London, likely murdered in an effort to end the line of the Lancastrian pretenders once and for all.

From then until his passing in 1483, Edward IV ruled as the undisputed king of England. During his reign, the loyal Richard did well for himself, as significant lands came into his possession, many of which had belonged to traitors. Of course, the acquisitive Woodville clan also continued to grow their influence and means. In contrast, the other Plantagenet brother, George, Duke of Clarence, despite all his treachery, still smoldered with bitterness over the favor that Richard had earned and that the low-born Woodvilles had received. He became envious and erratic. More than once during his adventures he had been promised the throne by his co-conspirators, and this notion seemed to haunt him. After his wife died, he sought to increase his influence through marriage, but Edward again forbade his chosen marriage for various reasons, and to add insult to injury proposed a Woodville, another brother of the queen, for the same marriage, sending his brother George into a downward spiral of animosity and unpredictable behavior. He refused to dine with the king, citing fears that they would poison him, and he began to flaunt his disobedience for the rule of law, accusing a servant of poisoning his late wife, robbing her and having her hanged without due process. When Edward spoke against his actions, George had the gall to denounce the king, going so far as to raise an old libel that Edward was illegitimate, essentially claiming that his own mother had engaged in adultery with a French archer while living abroad, Edward being the issue of this clandestine dalliance, making him a bastard unworthy of sitting the throne. Obviously Edward could no longer tolerate his brother’s behavior, for these latest outbursts seemed designed to undermine his very rule and strengthen his brother’s claim to the throne. Therefore, in January of 1478, George, Duke of Clarence, brother and erstwhile betrayer of the king, was executed, according to some reports, by being drowned in a cask of wine, as were his final wishes.

George, Duke of Clarence, drowned in a barrel of wine, via  Modern Medievalism

George, Duke of Clarence, drowned in a barrel of wine, via Modern Medievalism

Readers of the first book of the Song of Ice and Fire series or its television adaptation, Game of Thrones, will find parallels in this passage of English history, as indeed it would seem the author George R. R. Martin took at least some inspiration from it. Richard, who had already been made constable of England, established himself as Lord of the North, governing the northern country for his king and shielding the realm from threats out of Scotland. He had helped the king take the kingdom, but he did not necessarily agree with the way he governed it, specifically disagreeing with a treaty the king had made with France and with the execution of his brother, George. Meanwhile, the king’s scheming wife and her power-hungry family consolidated their power at the seat of the realm’s government, and the king gave himself over to profligacy, philandering and drinking until he grew fat and unhealthy. Then one day, the king went out for a bit of sport, fishing to exact, and grew ill upon his return, prompting rumors that he had been poisoned. In April of 1483, Edward died, leaving his 12-year-old son the heir apparent to the crown, but the similarities with Game of Thrones don’t cease there, for before the boy could be crowned Edward V, accusations of his illegitimacy would be raised. But of course, things would play out far differently in this tale than they did in Martin’s.

According to a deathbed revision of Edward IV’s will, Richard was to be the protector of the young king, and having the boy in his charge would mean that Richard would essentially rule. This may have been an attempt on Edward’s part to avoid civil war, for he knew that many would fear the minority rule of his son and would resent the Woodvilles’ unchecked ascendance if the queen remained the boy’s protector, as had originally been planned. But the Woodvilles were not about to accept this limitation on their power and immediately set about scheming how they might avoid sharing power with Richard. First they delayed news of Edward’s death being sent to Richard in the North. Then they seized all the treasure and arms stored in the Tower of London and took control of the English fleet. Finally, taking the dubious position that Richard’s protectorship would cease as soon as the king was crowned, they made all haste to gather an army and escort young Edward to London, where he would be crowned Edward V without delay and, in forming his own council, cement forever the power of the Woodville family. But Richard was aware of their machinations and set out himself with a far smaller force to meet and accompany them. The queen’s brother Anthony, Lord Rivers, led an army of some 2,000 accompanying the boy, and he made efforts to avoid Richard’s party, leading Richard to believe they’d be stopping in one village when indeed they had moved on, and intending to march the young prince through the night while Richard slept, but Richard outsmarted Rivers, requesting that the queen’s brother come and dine with him and then taking the opportunity to arrest him. Then, in a dramatic gambit, Richard rode into encampment of the Woodville army, knelt before his nephew and declared that, as the boy’s father had wished, he would serve as the young king’s protector.

Gloucester conducting Edward V into London, via  TudorsDynasty.com

Gloucester conducting Edward V into London, via TudorsDynasty.com

And the maneuver worked. The troops fell in line. Richard accompanied his nephew to London, where the Woodvilles, including Elizabeth, her other son Richard, and her five daughters, having heard that Richard had control of the boy, had taken their treasure and sought sanctuary at Westminster. So it seemed that Richard had won out and would serve as Edward V’s protector. And seeming to take his role with his customary gravity, he swore fealty to his nephew and compelled the convened parliament to take the oath as well. Young Edward was installed in the well-appointed royal apartments in the Tower of London, the traditional residence of recently acclaimed monarchs. Then Richard set about dealing with matters of state, such as reclaiming the fleet stolen by the Woodvilles and preparing for the coronation. But everything changed in early June, 1483, when one Bishop Stillington testified before Richard and his council that prior to Edward IV’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had entered a so-called precontract of marriage with one Lady Eleanor Butler. This arrangement, witnessed by Stillington, had likely been made in order to bed Lady Butler, as the rakish King Edward IV had been known to make all kinds of promises in order to wear down the resolve of his sexual conquests, but according to canon law, a precontract such as this was essentially the same as an actual marriage, thereby invalidating Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and making of Richard’s young nephew a bastard with no claim to the throne. As his council prepared to take this case to parliament, Elizabeth Woodville made arrangements to release her other son from their sanctuary in Westminster so that he could join his brother in London, thereby placing both princes in the Tower and under Richard’s control by the time he disclosed the scandal that illegitimated both of them. And on June 25th, Parliament convened and, after considering the evidence that the princes were technically bastards, they acclaimed the princes’ uncle King Richard III.

We see here some stirrings of the power-hungry character of Richard III that has been traditionally transmitted to posterity. The simple timing of Stillington’s revelation makes it dubious to many historians who see in it a very convenient means by which Richard could seize the throne. But what we must scrutinize is whether Richard has been misrepresented, whether his reputation as a villain is accurate or earned or whether he has been wronged by propagandists distorting the past. Bertram Fields, the author of my principal source for this series, Royal Blood: Richard III and the Mystery of the Princes, offers a balanced and most unbiased look at the many historians who have helped in creating the image of Richard III that persists today. He points out the dubious assumptions of traditionalists and revisionists alike, he lays out which ancient chroniclers wrote their histories at or near the time of the events in question and whether their political ties may have colored their depictions, and he takes note of who wrote about Richard after he had been deposed, during the reign of Henry Tudor, the pretender who successfully took the throne from him and went on to malign his name unceasingly—and press historians to do the same—in an effort to further legitimize his own reign. Under Henry VII’s auspices we get some of the most ludicrous myths about Richard, such as that he gestated in his mother’s womb a full two years before emerging with a full head of hair and complete set of teeth. Perhaps the most influential work on Richard III, an unfinished history by Sir Thomas More that he had abandoned but which saw publication after his death, is also one of the principal sources for the nefarious image of Richard, inspiring as it did Shakespeare’s play. But is there any accuracy to the image of Richard that More left us and that Shakespeare popularized—of a monster out of legend, a hunchback with a withered arm and legs of different lengths, lurching about scheming against family and children? As far as the deformities are concerned, likely not. Richard was a renowned warrior known to wield swords, lances and even a battle-ax with expertise, often as not while also riding a horse! None of that would have been possible with a withered arm. As for the hunchback, there is no evidence of his having had armor specially forged to accommodate any deformity such as this. In fact, there are many accounts that describe Richard, commenting on his likeness with his father or remarking on how well-formed a figure he cut. Even in illustrations made after his death, when there would be no pressure to flatter him and indeed when there probably would have been encouragement to make him look bad, Richard is depicted as a healthy and even handsome man. While there do exist some portraits that show one of his shoulders being higher than the other, these have been shown through x-ray to have been altered after the fact, clearly in order to corroborate the legend of Richard’s deformities. What’s more, they couldn’t even agree on which shoulder they should put a hump on! Then in a modern twist, in 2012, a skeleton was found in car park, and it is believed by many historians to have been confirmed through radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis to be the remains of Richard III, although some still have doubts. Interestingly, this skeleton does show signs of scoliosis that may have caused one shoulder to be higher than the other but would not have caused a hunchback or even precluded an active lifestyle, and there is certainly no indication of a withered arm.

Comparison showing alterations to Richard’s portrait, via  richard3rd

Comparison showing alterations to Richard’s portrait, via richard3rd

So the campaign of propaganda seems to have been genuine, a fact which casts doubt on many stories about Richard. It has been claimed that, when Richard was gathering property during his brother’s reign, he actually coerced an elderly widow into signing over her lands to him under threat, an allegation that, if true, would certainly seem to cast him as the greedy and ruthless villain. But the facts of the matter are not so clear. In truth, the old woman was to be deprived of all property by order of the king because her son had organized a treasonous invasion of England, and it was common for lands belonging to traitors and their families to be seized. And it would seem the supposed threat was actually a choice. The lady might remain at the nunnery where she had been forced to reside or take up residence in Richard’s own house in the North and receive a yearly stipend in exchange for the transfer of ownership to Richard of lands that were of no use to her anyway since the king had made his decision against her family. When considered closely, Richard comes off as rather kind in this exchange. And this is true of many affairs in his life. He frequently erred on the side of mercy when dealing with the nobility, even when they engaged in open rebellion. And during his brief reign, rather than ruling as an iron-fisted despot, he is known to have been a beneficent king, undoing injustices that had long been in place, such as the practice of “benevolences,” when the king simply seized wealth and called it a gift. He also strengthened due process and the rights of the common man to petition for change. In all, his rule seems to have been well loved, even if he were not.  And it’s not even certain that he wasn’t well-loved. Some historians see his final defeat at Bosworth Field to be the result of the noble families turning against him, but as we shall see, many noble houses turned out to fight for their king, and his defeat seems more due to a couple of unfortunate betrayals by nobles known for their duplicity and by some reckless decisions on his own part.

Nevertheless, the fact that the revelation of a precontract of marriage preceding Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was disclosed just before Edward the V’s coronation does seem suspect. But was that the timing of its revelation? As Bertram Fields indicates in his book, there is good reason to believe that Bishop Stillington had come forward with this bombshell years earlier. During the time that Richard and Edward’s brother, George, was making treasonous claims and was on his way to getting himself executed, Bishop Stillington was himself arrested and jailed for a time for making statements against the king. We may not know what those statements were, but common sense would dictate that they were the same statements he would later make, based on the special knowledge he had of the precontract. Thus, among the claims that got George executed may have been that, not only was his brother a bastard, but his children, the princes, also were bastards. Stillington does not appear to have been regarded as a dishonest man who would make up such accusations without grounds, and he also doesn’t seem to have had any real motivation for doing so. Edward IV had taken good care of him, making him a bishop just after his marriage to Woodville—perhaps in exchange for his silence over the precontract with another woman? And he stood nothing to gain from lying on Richard’s behalf either, as Richard appears to have offered him no elevated position after his testimony. Indeed, if he were lying, this elderly cleric would have only been putting his own life at risk. And even what we know about the life of Eleanor Butler, the nobleman’s daughter with whom Edward supposedly entered into a precontract, seems to corroborate the story, for she is said to have entered a nunnery in heartbreak.

So, after all, perhaps this was a genuine revelation that the bishop brought to Richard, having waited until after Edward’s death for fear of being jailed again. Think of Richard, confident in his own ability to rule England and troubled at the thought of England under the minority rule of a boy controlled by the Woodville upstarts, now being confronted with evidence that the boys were not technically legitimate and therefore would not serve as the king’s heirs. Was he not right to take the throne to which he had as much a claim as his brother before him? Parliament certainly seems to have believed he was right to do so. And on the throne he could do what was right, staying to true to his motto and remaining loyal to his family, like his nephews, the newly bastardized princes, who despite the circumstances of their birth would remain honored guests at Richard’s court. He moved the boys, who had been residing at the Tower of London during all this, into interior apartments in the Garden Tower, which would later come to be known as the Bloody Tower. And perhaps it would be easier to dismiss the many misrepresentations of Richard as artifacts of a history composed by his conquerors were it not for the fact that the princes seem to have disappeared after that and a rumor began to circulate in the kingdom that some terrible fate had befallen them.

The Princes in the Tower, via  Wikimedia Common s

The Princes in the Tower, via Wikimedia Commons

Be on the lookout for part two of the Bastard Princes in the Bloody Tower, in which we’ll further explore the fate of little Edward and Richard, the vanished Plantagenet princes.

Blind Spot: Babes in the Wailing Wood

Babes_in_the_Wood.jpg

In this installment, we remain in England for another tale of unfortunate youth that may or may not be pure fiction. If you recall, in my last entry, on the Green Children of Woolpit, I mentioned that a theory has arisen locally in Suffolk that the lost youth of St. Martin’s Land were actually one and the same with the well-known Babes in the Wood, a pair of children who, according to tradition, had been betrayed to their deaths by their ruthless uncle. Now, we made short work of this theory, as the tradition tells us the Babes in the Wood died, and did so far northward of Woolpit, in the woods of Norfolk. And the suggestion that they had been turned green by arsenic poisoning, which was never a part of the traditional tale of the Babes in the Wood, also seems to have confused the symptoms of arsenic poisoning generally with the medium by which arsenic poisoning often occurred in the 19th century: green dye in clothing. Yet as we look further at the story of the Babes in the Wood, we see that there remains some mystery there to untangle. Indeed, the tradition is very much like that of the Green Children, only without the fantastical elements implying otherworldly visitation. The story originated as a ballad, or a poem kept alive through transmission as a popular song, and this one in particular became a popular nursery rhyme as well. Indeed it has been claimed that for many years, every child in England knew the poem by heart. The mystery arises from the fact that ballads frequently tell the stories of real, although perhaps embellished, people and events. So the question then becomes, were the Babes in the Wood real? Or is the story merely a fiction that has passed into folklore? If you ask villagers in Watton and Griston, which can be found on either side Wayland Wood, where the children are supposed to have died, many will tell you it’s a true story and point to their village signs, which offer depictions of the children at the sword point of their abductor and lost and dying in the forest, respectively. If real, then who were these children whose heinous murder has been immortalized in storybooks, and who immortalized them in verse?

*

The ballad known as The Babes in the Wood tells the tale of a famous and wealthy gentleman of Norfolk who, along with his wife, became gravely ill. On their deathbeds, they promised a hefty inheritance to the beautiful son and daughter they were leaving behind, to be awarded once they had reached a certain age. In the meantime, they charged the children’s uncle to keep them. “You are the man must bring my babes / To wealth or misery,” quoth the mother, with a warning: “If you do keep them carefully, / Then God you will reward; / If otherwise you seem to deal, / God will your deeds regard.” And in answer, the uncle swore, “God never prosper me nor mine, / Nor ought else that I have, / If I do wrong your children dear, / When you are laid in grave.” Despite these promises, after a year and a day, he schemed to take the children’s inheritance, which would be his if anything were to befall the children before they came of age. To this end, he engaged two ruffians to take the children into the woods and slay them. The children went willingly, for their uncle had told them and all the world that he was sending them to be brought up by a friend in London. So off into the woods the children rode on horseback, laughing and making merry, accompanied by their would-be murderers. Listening to their innocent merriment along the way, one of the ruffians relented, finding that he could not do the dark deed. The other, however, was determined to carry out his foul task, and the two criminals fought there in the woods over whether or not to fulfill their evil commission. The ruffian whose heart had softened toward the children triumphed in the struggle, and he killed the other there in the woods in front of the children. This repentant killer then led the frightened children on, assuring them he meant them no harm, and they travelled farther into the woods for miles, until the children grew hungry. The ruffian told the children to wait there for him, and that he would bring them back bread, but the children wandered, eating berries and becoming lost. As night came on, they held each other and wept… and died of exposure.

Illustration from Caldecott's picture book, via  Wikimedia Commons

Illustration from Caldecott's picture book, via Wikimedia Commons

The Babes in the Wood received no burial, the ballad tells us, except for that of some red-breasted robins that kindly covered them with leaves. And true to the warning given by the children’s mother, God did indeed seem to regard the deeds of the uncle and dealt with him accordingly. Huanted by fiends and his guilty conscience, he lost everything—his cattle, his lands, his own children—and he died in prison for debt. The truth of his wicked dealings eventually came out when the surviving ruffian, standing accused of a robbery, ended up confessing the entire affair. The uncle, therefore, got what he deserved, and one might be tempted to say the ballad is nothing more than a moral tale, an instructive nursery rhyme, perhaps one of Mother Goose’s, were it not for the insistence among many in Norfolk that the story is true. It is supposed by many that Griston Hall, a grand Tudor farmhouse, was the home of the story’s wicked uncle. And between Griston and Watton lies Wayland Wood, where locals say the abandoned children died. Local superstition says to avoid those woods at dusk, for even today, as the night falls, you can hear the cries of children there. For this reason, they call it Wailing Wood.

In order to ascertain whether there is any truth to the story, first we must trace it to its origins. We know that Thomas Percy, a clergyman of humble origins, was the first to popularize a version of the ballad in his 1764 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Much of the source material for this volume, according to Percy, had been rescued from an old manuscript full of ballads that he had taken off the hands of a housemaid just as she had been about to start a fire with it! Percy’s version of the ballad bore the much clunkier but informative title, “The Children in the Wood, Being a true relation of the inhuman murder of two children, of a deceased gentleman of Norfolk, (Eng) whom he left to the care of his brother; but this wicked uncle, in order to get the children’s estate, contrived to have them destroyed by two ruffians whom he hired for that purpose; with an heavy account of the judgments of God which befell him for this inhuman deed, & of the untimely end of the two bloody ruffians: to which is added a word of advice to executors.” With a title like that, why read the poem? The ballad became immortalized when the famous R. Caldecott illustrated it as a picture book in 1879 under the far more memorable title, The Babes in the Wood. But who was the actual author of the ballad? Percy traced the ballad to a 1601 play by Robert Yarrington, suggesting that the balladeer adopted Yarrington’s story for the poem. Joseph Ritson thereafter discovered a 1595 entry in the ledgers of a stationer named Thomas Millington indicating the earlier publication of a ballad with a title that sounds strikingly familiar: “The Norfolk Gent, his Will and Testament and howe he commytted the keepinge of his children to his owne brother whoe delte most wickedly with them and howe God plagued him for it.” Thereafter, H.B. Wheatley further argued Yarrington’s play may not have been printed until years after it had first been written and/or performed, which would mean the ballad printed by Millington still may have been an adaptation of it… but regardless, we are no closer to the name of the balladeer, whether he or she was inspired by a play or the other way around. And to muddy the waters further, there is the distinct possibility that the ballad had descended from a much earlier date via oral tradition.

Cover of Caldecott's picture book, via  Wikimedia Commons

Cover of Caldecott's picture book, via Wikimedia Commons

One theory is that the ballad was a thinly-veiled version of the rumor that Richard III had murdered his nephews in the Tower of London after seizing power in order to ensure his claim to the throne. This, of course, is a historical mystery of great scope and depth that deserves its own treatment at length, but in outline, the story of the Princes in the Tower is as follows. After King Edward IV’s death in 1483, his 12-year-old son was proclaimed King Edward V, but the boy king’s uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester, intercepted the boy on his way to London, claiming there was a conspiracy to control the young king. In London, Richard put the boy king in the royal apartments in the Tower, along with his 9-year-old brother, insisting they stay isolated for their own safety. Less than two weeks later, Richard declared them both illegitimate and had himself crowned King Richard III. The princes were seen that summer playing in the Tower garden but were never seen again, and it is popularly held that Richard had them murdered.

Some have argued that Richard was slandered, that Tudor propaganda, spread after Henry VII seized power from Richard, is responsible for these appalling rumors and the villainous image of Richard we have inherited. And there is much to support this notion, since another ballad that appears to be of the same era as the Babes in the Wood is a blatant piece of Tudor propaganda about the Battle of Bosworth Field at which Henry defeated Richard. However, where the Battle of Bosworth Field is specific in naming its characters, The Babes in the Wood is not. And where it is specific, the details fail to match. Richard III was not a man of Norfolk, and his nephews were two boys who did not die of exposure in the woods, as far as we know, more likely in a locked room. The differences, when listed, are many: the children’s ages, whether their mothers had died before their uncle’s betrayal, where they had been kept before their murder, whether their murderers had confessed, et cetera. If The Babes in the Wood were meant to correspond with the Princes in the Tower and to further besmirch the reputation of the deposed Richard, why change the story so dramatically that it is unrecognizable? Indeed, as propaganda, it would seem to be ineffective.

"The Princes in the Tower" by John Everett Millais, 1878, via  Wikimedia Commons

"The Princes in the Tower" by John Everett Millais, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons

Some have suggested that the rumor of the princes’ murder by Richard may have itself evolved to conform with the folktale that can be discerned in the Babes in the Wood ballad. Likewise, The Babes in the Wood may have evolved from a far older folk tradition. Indeed, folklorist Alfred Nutt, in 1891, argued that the Babes in the Wood theme appears to have been commonplace. In Wales, in the 12th century, a tale told of a King Caradoc, slain by his brother, who then dispatches his niece and nephew into the woods to be murdered by a huntsman who ends up taking pity on them and hiding them (Nutt 88). And even earlier, in the 10th century, an Irish tradition told of a king of Ulster who wed the High King’s daughter, but as she only gave him a daughter, he remarried to a woman from the fairy realm named Etain. A true wicked step-mother, Etain wished the girl to be killed. Servants were tasked with abandoning the girl in a pit, but as they put her there, the girl laughed lovingly at them, as though it were a game, and they found themselves unable to do the deed. So they gave her to cowherds to be raised, and she grew to be a girl of famous beauty who drew the eye of the king (Nutt 87). One can see elements of Snow White in these stories, and the mention of a child abandoned in a pit even calls up the Green Children again. The similarities with the Babes in the Wood are prominent.  In the older Irish tradition, we have a child taken by servants of a family member to be left exposed to the elements, but those tasked with the murder relent because of the child’s sweet innocence. Then the Welsh tale, hundreds of years later, is nearly identical to the Babes in the Wood, with the evil uncle conspiring to murder a nephew and a niece. If this does represent the transmission of the same folk tradition through the ages, one can clearly see the evolution of this folktale.

But there remains the stubborn insistence of locals at Watton and Griston that this all really happened. If this were nothing but a fairytale passed through the ages, how did it become associated with a “gentleman of Norfolk,” and why are people even today certain that the evil uncle used to live at Griston Hall? The answer may lie in good old-fashioned historical documentation. Some sources claim that the family from the ballad was the de Greys of Merton, who once owned Griston Hall, among many other properties. As the story goes, their Tudor farmhouse even used to have a mantelpiece carved with a depiction of scenes from the ballad. Records exist showing that the de Greys did indeed hold Griston Hall, and their story begins to look a lot like the Babes in the Wood when the family’s lands pass into the ownership of the young Thomas de Grey, orphaned at seven years old. Thereafter, when in 1566 at 11 years old he died at his step-mother’s house, the manor and all other properties passed to his uncle, Robert. Perhaps, as some say, there were rumors that Robert, maybe colluding with the step-mother, had Thomas killed to take the land. Certainly Robert thereafter struggled with debt and imprisonment like the uncle of the ballad, although his troubles were due to various claims on his estate and because he was an unrepentant Roman Catholic. And he died in 1601, just when Yarrington’s play was being published. So the broad strokes of the story are there, but again, there are many differences: there is only one child here, and he did not die in the woods so far as can be surmised. Also, we have here the possibility of an evil-stepmother as well as a wicked uncle, but perhaps the balladeer found this too complicated to set down in verse.  

So what, after all, is true? Doesn’t that always seem to be our question at the end of things? And as we have found before, stories we have received from the benighted past are frequently a snarl of true facts intertwined with folklore and falsehoods. Such may be the case here as well. Perhaps the saga of the de Grey family, circulated by rumormongering, began to take on aspects of an ancient oral tradition about a child betrayed and left exposed in the wilderness. And perhaps when the unknown balladeer composed the song, he saw in it material to rival the ever popular story of the Princes in the Tower and their evil uncle, Richard III, which Shakespeare had recently immortalized in his tragedy. One certainty is that the folktale continues to evolve. In 1879, it’s said lightning struck a large oak in Wayland Wood, and thereafter, this became recognized as the spot where the children (or child) had died. And on the Watton village sign, you see the babes reclining beneath just such an iconic oak. But was this part of the folklore before the lightning struck or just a dramatic addition to the tradition. Thus we see that old stories like these can be based in truth but then corrupted through oral tradition to incorporate folklore. This makes our history a tangle of different threads, exceedingly hard to pull apart, and the more we tug at one piece of it, the more it tightens into an impossible knot.

" Watton town sign " by  sleepymyf  is licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Works Cited

Nutt, Alfred. “An Early Irish Version of the Jealous Stepmother and Exposed Child.” Folklore, vol. 2, no. 1, 1891, pp. 87–89. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1252949.

The Lost Youth of St. Martin's Land, or Woolpit's Green Children

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In this installment, we finally retire from France and from ancient Palestine to the cold and misty environs of England in the Middle Ages. This is a ubiquitous story in some senses. One cannot seem to search the Internet for historical mysteries or strange occurrences in the past without turning up a "listicle" that features this tale in a prominent position. It has been touted as proof of alien contact by many who see in the tale a rather cinematic account of literal little green men, and held up by others as evidence of a mysterious subterranean race. But first and foremost, it has been considered an exemplary account of otherworldly visitation, in the sense of fairytales about a “Otherworld”…hence its evaluation in most historical circles as nothing more than colorful folklore.

The story did not actually reach a wide audience until 1850, when Thomas Keightley compiled a translation of it in his second edition of Fairy Mythology. Previous to Keightley, the story had mostly been read in its original Latin, through its two original 12th century sources: Historia rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicanum. But after Keightley brought the story to the attention of the 19th century English-speaking world, it spread through reprinting and inclusion in many compendiums of British folk tales and fairy lore and even made its way into regional guidebooks. It is perhaps not surprising then that the story ranged so widely in the Age of Information, as it seems to have managed a respectable level of virality long before it even became common to think of stories as spreading like infections.  Of course, if we are to give such a popular tale serious consideration, we cannot take it as it has come down to us through centuries of the telephone game… rather, we must seek out the original sources, which surprisingly, treat the story as a true though mysterious incident, not a fanciful account of imaginary happenings. 

The first published work mentioning this strange incident is Historia Rerum Anglicarum, or The History of English Affairs by an Augustinian canon named William at Yorkshire’s Newburgh Priory, a work produced around 1198. Next it appeared sometime in the 1220s in Chronicon Anglicanum, or the English Chronicle of Ralph of Coggeshall, the abbot of little north Essex Cistercian monastery, but Ralph’s account had been compiled over the course of decades, including information from first-hand sources that could only have been gathered prior to 1188, so it can actually be surmised that Ralph’s account is at least cotemporaneous with William’s and perhaps predates it. Both tell the story of a small village in County Suffolk, East Anglia, by the name of Woolpit. This was an exceedingly fertile region in the Middle Ages, and thus well-populated, with a market town, Bury St. Edmunds, not far from the village in question, and connected by a network of trails and roads to other towns, such as Wyke and Lynn, so it was not such an isolated hamlet that any visitors would have been gawped at as alien. The village appears to have taken its name from a certain geographical feature, ancient ditches referred to as wolf-pits, which many assume to have been actual baited traps for the catching of wolves, and which some have suggested may have been engineered by Romans. It is in one of these pits, that our story begins, on a day during the harvest season, which judging from the mention in the story of beans being brought in from the fields we can presume was a summer day, that crop being gathered typically in July. The year itself may be unknown, but William of Newburgh tells us it happened during the reign of King Stephen, placing it between 1135 and 1154. 

William of Newburgh, via  Wikimedia Commons

William of Newburgh, via Wikimedia Commons

On this summer’s day, harvesters at work in the fields noticed two strange children emerging from the pit, a boy and a girl. This in itself may not have drawn their eyes as being out of the ordinary, but even a brief glance at them was enough to bewilder the villagers, for these children did not look exactly human. They had heads and arms and legs, all right, everything in proportion and faces with typical features… but their skin was of a verdant green color, and their clothing was of an unrecognizable style, in colors so strange they defied description. When the harvesters approached them, they seemed afraid, acting skittish. They spoke, but it was in no language the villagers of Woolpit recognized. Concerned for the children’s welfare, the villagers conducted them to the nearby manor of a knight, Sir Richard of Calne, in Wyke. There they were given food, but they refused everything, despite appearing famished, as though every dish offered them was unpalatable, or even inedible. By chance, some fresh-cut beanstalks were brought in, and the Green Children sprang at them ravenously, seeming to recognize something they could eat, although clearly they were unfamiliar with them, for they tore open the stalks at first, not realizing the beans would be found in the pods. These broad beans were the only thing they would eat for some time, but one daring taste at a time during the long weeks and months after their discovery, they tried other food and eventually acclimated to a normal English diet. As time went on, their skin slowly lost its greenish color, and they were baptized. After this, the girl, at least, grew healthier, but the boy became ill and died.

Not only did the girl learn to eat a variety of foods, but she also learned to understand English and express herself to her benefactors.  So, years after appearing in the wolves’ pits with her brother, it is said she explained to the knight, Sir Richard, where they had come from. It was a land where everyone and everything was of a lush green color, where the sun never fully shone, being lit by a perpetual misty twilight. She and her brother, out tending their family’s cattle, followed the herd into some caverns, where they had become lost. Hearing the peal of bells, they followed the sound and emerged from the caves into the bright sun of our world.

Ralph and William’s stories differ in some regards. For example, William of Newburgh says that she called her home country St. Martin’s Land, claiming that everyone there venerated that saint, a major figure in Western monasticism whose November feast day, a harvest festival, has been compared with Halloween. Though this was a misty and twilit realm, across a great river, William reported, inhabitants could see a bright land. William’s version of the story also omitted the cavern, having the children simply appear in our world after hearing the clamor of bells. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, she had become a servant in the knight’s household when she told her story, and she had turned into something of a “wanton and impudent” young woman, whereas William reported that she went on to marry a man from the nearby town of Lynn, where she was known to be living just before he had written his account.

Ralph of Coggeshall's  Chronicon Anglicanum , via the  British Library

Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum, via the British Library

The disagreements in these accounts serve to support the historical consensus that the story of the Green Children of Woolpit is nothing more than a folktale, passed from person to person and evolving during the course of its transmission. One folklorist even asserts that it must have been a traditional tale long before Ralph and William set it down in writing, though evidence of its previous existence is lacking (Clark, “Small, Vulnerable ETs”). Nevertheless, some of the earliest appraisals of the story reached a similar conclusion. In his 1586 work Brittania, William Camden called it a “prety…tale,” suggesting the children were “of Satyrs kinde” who had come “from the Antipodes.” Today we might take the term satyr as meaning a mythological creature, but to Camden it surely meant something more along the lines of a wild man. And if we take the Green children as wild foundlings, there certainly are parallels here to other, more recent stories of feral children. Think, for example, back to my episodes on Kaspar Hauser, the Child of Europe. When he slouched into Nuremberg with his note, he refused all food except bread and water, displaying a seemingly genuine physical aversion to it, as though his system could not process it, but eventually, as his mind learned to communicate, his body learned to accept meat and other foods. But of course, Kaspar Hauser did not speak an unknown language or wear clothing of an unrecognizable manufacture or have an unusual skin color. There is, however, a common depiction in ancient art of a wild man that is sometimes thought to be green and has even come to be known as the Green Man. This figure, known as a foliate head for the consistent detail of leaves worn in his hair, is quite common in medieval church carvings (Centerwall). Although some have argued that the Green Man may not be green, as most depictions of him lack color, he appears to be variously shown as either entirely hirsute, with hair all over his body, or as being covered, almost clothed, in foliage, and thus green. Could it be possible that the story of the Green Children is just a garbled folktale about two young foliate heads being integrated into the civilized world?

In searching England’s murky past for other examples of green people, some have looked to the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, penned by an unknown poet sometime in the 14th century. In this tale, Sir Gawain, a young knight of the Round Table, accepts the challenge of a knight who appears all in green, riding a green horse. While later in the poem, the knight’s identity is revealed, some have suggested the Green Knight is meant to seem a wild man or foliate head, a Green Man combatant, as some might designate him, but in the poem, all take him to be a “aluisch mon” or elvish man (Puhvel 225). The challenge this Green Knight poses is to strike him now upon the understanding and acceptance that he would return the stroke in a year’s time. Gawain nearly severs the Green Knight’s head, but the knight merely picks it up and rides away, reminding Gawain to meet him in a year at the Green Chapel. This Gawain sets out to do, and on his way to his appointment with the elvish knight, he encounters a mist that readers of the poem might take to represent a passage to the Otherworld, for this is a recognizable motif in medieval Celtic tales of men passing into the realm of the fairy (Puhvel 226; Patch 627). In the poem, the Green Knight ends up being a mortal in disguise, teaching Gawain a lesson, but the elements present suggest that there was a tradition connecting elvish kind with the color green, if not with the foliate heads, and their realm lay obscured by magical mists. Thus could not the Green Children tale be a part of that tradition, being foliate-head elves or fairies from a land of twilit mists? A further element of their story that aligns with this interpretation has to do with their aversion to human food, for indeed, it is motif in fairy mythology that fairies hold the eating of mortal food as a taboo (Clark, “Martin and the Green Children” 211)

Original image from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, artist unknown, via  Wikimedia Commons

Original image from the manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

If we then return to Camden’s Brittania, we see that he seems unsure whether the Green Children should be considered wild foundlings or visitors from the Antipodes, which would appear to be two very different things. We must then consider what “the Antipodes” might mean, what kind of place it is and how one would reach a little Suffolk village from there. Originally, the idea of the Antipodes was the notion of the other side of the earth, a kind of anti-earth, an upside down world, and a notion that evolved with our changing understanding of the shape of our world. Therefore when children dig a hole in their backyards and expect to emerge in China, they are in effect attempting to tunnel to the Antipodes. The Antipodes had long been thought to be inhabited, but as our conception of the earth changed, so did our ideas of the Antipodes and those who called it home. Whereas previously it was a kind of polar opposite zone, it became caught up with ideas of the Underworld and the Land of the Dead. And in the Middle Ages, it became a place of monsters and inhuman creatures. Thus it took no stretch of the imagination to conflate this Underworld with the Otherworld of fairy mythology. Specifically in Celtic lore, the Otherworld is often seen as being below ground, inside a hill or mountain (Patch 612). For a further example, consider the Irish Gaelic tradition of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the fair folk, or fairies, who dwelt beneath cairns and barrows. Thus we see that Camden’s assessment of the Green Children being of the satyr kind and being visitors from the Antipodes both can be interpreted as suggestions that they should be viewed as fairies, and the account of their appearance little more than a pretty fairytale.

However, not everyone who considered it thought that the idea of an inhabited underworld was purely the stuff of fantasy. Some even made of this notion a credible—or seemingly credible—scientific theory. In the late 1600s, an English natural philosopher and polymath named Edmund Halley proposed a radical new conception of the earth’s structure: that it was hollow. Halley is remembered today mostly for the comet that bears his name, but in his time, he was an authority on astronomy and gravitation second only perhaps to Isaac Newton. In fact, his theory of a hollow earth derived from Newton’s own calculations of the density of both the earth and the moon, a calculation that it turns out was incorrect. But it helped Halley to explain a scientific mystery that he had been struggling with for years:  magnetic compass variations, or the gradual shifting of magnetic lines of declination that were of great importance in navigation. Halley had hypothesized that the earth must have four magnetic poles, but he could not explain them or their slow movement. In fact, he would spend a great deal of his life tracking this anomaly, even captaining a little single-deck, fifty foot ship that was frequently mistaken for a pirate vessel and sailing all over the world in his efforts to document these variations in compass readings. The idea of a hollow earth and within it another earth with its own, slower rotation accounted for the extra set of poles he had envisioned as well as their unusual movement. He even allowed that this inner earth may be populated, saying, “I have adventured to make these Subterranean orbs capable of being inhabited” and suggesting that some luminous material in the mineral roof over the region might provide the inhabitants some kind of half-light. It did not take long before contemporary writers drew a connection to the Green Children, and indeed, in 1691, before Halley had even published his major paper on the theory, one John Aubrey made the suggestion that the foundlings of Woolpit had merely been travelers from Halley’s inner Earth.

Halley's hollow earth schema, via  BRANCH

Halley's hollow earth schema, via BRANCH

The theory of the inhabited hollow earth became common fodder for writers of fantasy and science-fiction. And the story of the Green Children of Woolpit itself, even before Halley’s hollow earth ideas, had also become their fodder, with some speculative writers even suggesting, despite the details of the original accounts, that the children had arrived in the pit not from below, but rather from above. In 1621, a brief aside by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy suggesting that the planets and the moon were inhabited and that the Green Children may have come from one of them seems to have inspired a contemporary by the name of Francis Godwin, who wrote about a Spaniard’s voyage to the moon (Clark, “Small, Vulnerable ETs”). Once there, the Spaniard encountered Lunar people with strange clothing and skin of an unrecognizable color. There he learned that when the moon men were unhappy with their children, perhaps because of some predisposition toward character faults, they sent them to earth, where they would eventually lose their strange color. Here again, we see the story evolving and spreading like folklore. Indeed, in this case it has taken on the elements of fairy stories regarding changelings, or fairy children sent to the world of man, although without the kidnapping and substitution of human children. Nor would this tendency toward an extra-terrestrial hypothesis fade away. Rather, it seems only to have grown as the tale entered the modern era. Duncan Lunan, for example, paints the picture of a human colony established by aliens on a planet whose hemispheres remain either in scorching direct sunlight or in darkness, such that only a narrow band of inhabitable land remains in perpetual twilight, where these human colonists sustain themselves on foods genetically modified by aliens, giving their skin an unusual color. To this explanation, Lunan adds interplanetary travel via matter-transmitting stargates, and a secret agreement between the Knights Templar and extra-terrestrials that resulted in “Templars using windpower, waterpower and methane digesters running on horse-dung, to charge up devices which let them walk between worlds,” and somewhere in the midst of all this, the Green Children getting lost and showing up in Woolpit. In short, a perfectly rational theory… at least for where it first appeared: the sci-fi magazine Analog.

All of this to progress the assertion that the Green Children of Woolpit was nothing more than a folktale set down by Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. Indeed, the folktale appears to have never ceased spreading. For example, in 1965, John Macklin, in his book Strange Destinies, shares a remarkably similar story that clearly seems to just be a corruption of the original. According to Macklin, in 1887, field workers in a place called Banjos in Spain (a nonexistent place, as it turns out) discovered two green children in strange metallic clothing near a cave. Taken to the home of one Ricardo de Calno, a ridiculously obvious adaptation of Richard de Calne, the children refused to eat. The boy died but the girl ate beans and lived, her skin color changing, and the tale she told matches that of the Woolpit girl’s pretty well. This blatant retelling of the original tale spread widely itself, adapted into a song by 10,000 Maniacs and copied and pasted onto many a paranormal website until it seemed like a separate story from the original. This seems a perfect illustration of how folklore is transmitted, spreading and evolving orally at first, then put into print and spreading thereafter which each new slightly altered inclusion in a text, until finally in the Age of Information we see tales of the fantastical gone viral. Indeed, most studies of the story consider how it has spread and transformed and dismiss any possible veracity in the tale because of the mere fact that it has been so often reworked and retold.

There is an argument to be made, however, that there may actually be some truth to the original accounts. As I previously noted, there is no evidence of this tale existing before the 12th century, and both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh include a variety of concrete details in their accounts, including names of people involved and real places with verifiable geographical landmarks, all of which are hallmarks of medieval history and not usually present in medieval fiction. William even goes out of his way to defend his inclusion of the story as a true account, saying, “Certainly I long hesitated about this matter, although it is spoken of by many people. It seemed to me ridiculous to take on trust a story that had either no rational basis or a very obscure one. At last I was overcome by the evidence of so many witnesses of such weight; so that I was forced to believe it, and to marvel at what, for all my strength of mind, I cannot grasp or fathom.” Therefore, out of deference to William of Newburgh, let us endeavor to consider some possible rational explanations for such an incident really occurring.

The sign of Woolpit village, where many believe the story has some basis in truth, via  Wikimedia Commons

The sign of Woolpit village, where many believe the story has some basis in truth, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it seems that among those who live in the region, the story of the Green Children has been conflated with the traditional tale of the “Babes in the Wood,” a children’s story that first appeared as a ballad in the 16th century, telling of two children who after their father’s death were commended into the care of an uncle who conspired to have them murdered in the woods so he could take their inheritance (Clark, “Small, Vulnerable ETs”). As with the Green Children, there are some who claim this folktale is based on a real incident, but it seems difficult to get its details to conform with those of the Green Children story. Firstly, the “Babes in the Wood” story seems to have originated in Watton, Norfolk County, about 30 miles north of Woolpit, and according to the tale, the children both died there in Wayland Wood of exposure, rather than surviving to stumble into a wolf pit in Suffolk. Moreover, this explanation tries to suggest that their green discoloration was the result of being poisoned with arsenic by their uncle, but this doesn’t really pass scrutiny. Long term exposure to arsenic is known to cause a darkening of the skin, but not a green color, unless one is confusing its symptoms with the results of Victorian incidences of arsenic poisoning caused by green dye in clothing, but that is a different thing entirely and would be anachronistic in the 12th century. Moreover, nothing in this version accounts for their strange clothing and language or the girl’s eventual claim that she and her brother came from an extraordinary dusky land.

In the late 1990s, Paul Harris argued for a commonsensical explanation, suggesting that the children were actually members of a Flemish settler family that had lost their parents, perhaps having been displaced due to anti-Flemish laws passed in 1154 or having been the victim of violence by Flemish mercenary supporters of Robert, Earl of Leicester’s 1173 rebellion. Flemish dyeing and weaving practices were known to produce unusual clothing, Harris asserts, and their unrecognizable language, obviously, would have been Flemish. As for their green skin, he suggests they were suffering from chlorosis, or green sickness. And the tales of St. Martin’s Land? Well, in Belgium, St. Martin was venerated as the patron of children, so it would be natural for them to mention the saint… but here Harris waffles. Perhaps, he allows, the children were only referring to the nearby village of Fornham St. Martin, just north of Bury St. Edmunds. Or perhaps, he hedges, they meant St. Martin’s Hundred, more than a hundred miles south of Woolpit in County Kent’s Romney Marsh. Already we see his uncertainty begin to weaken his theory. Firstly, a long and arduous northward march from Kent would likely have been mentioned by the girl, and if they meant Fornham St. Martin, which was only ten miles from Woolpit, wouldn’t the villagers or their host Richard de Calne, a well-travelled knight, have realized where they meant? Likewise, would not de Calne or someone have likely realized they they were Flemings? Woolpit was not so isolated as to not be aware of immigrant populations. And even if one took Harris’s third possibility, that she referred to her home country by identifying it with St. Martin, why would she talk of there being no sun there? And as for the idea that chlorosis explained their skin color, anyone familiar with that supposed illness would consider the suggestion ridiculous, since it is widely accepted that there was never any such disease as green sickness. Chlorosis, also called morbus virgineus or the “disease of virgins,” was a common 19th-century diagnosis for symptoms that today might be attributed to anorexia nervosa or simple anemia. It was said to be a hysterical condition, relating to the womb, that could be entirely cured in young women by marriage, as through intercourse, semen would settle the womb. Even if one were to take this for a misdiagnosis of a genuine condition, however, despite the name “green sickness,” it usually presented as an ashen pallor, perhaps tinged yellow, rather than the overt green described in the Green Children. But, again, Paul Harris provides a further alternative for his scattered theory: that these Flemish kids dyed themselves green for camouflage… a suggestion I find hard to consider seriously.

Portrait of a young lady looking green behind the gills, so to speak, by Pietro Antonio Rotari, via  The Artchive

Portrait of a young lady looking green behind the gills, so to speak, by Pietro Antonio Rotari, via The Artchive

Still… some dietary explanation for their greenness seems the most likely, since the girl is said to have improved upon changing her diet. And perhaps the pallor of anemia is a likely candidate, although, as pointed out by John Clark, whose work on this topic I have relied on heavily in this episode, anemia was quite common in the Middle Ages, and the villagers of Woolpit surely would have recognized it as such, so perhaps something more was at work. Clark puts forth the idea, based on their insistence on eating beans, that they clearly had been subsisting on this food and that their bodies may have been suffering for it. There is, he notes, a certain condition, called favism, an allergy to not only ingesting but even coming into contact with bean plants. It is most common in children, and as it attacks the kidneys, it results in extreme pallor and jaundice, the combination of which may have appeared greenish. It also results in death, as we see with the green boy. Nevertheless, while this is a strong working explanation, it doesn’t account for the stories the girl later told, which suggested that everyone in St. Martin’s Land was green.

For an explanation of her revelations, we will have to rely on Occam’s Razor, that philosophical principle that tells us the simpler of explanations is to be favored. Therefore, might we not simple consider that the girl lied? Perhaps a couple of similar stories will help to illustrate how a simple lie could mushroom into a long-lived folktale. 

The first of our stories was compiled by a well-known collector of folktales, Gervase of Tilbury (Oman 10). He tells of a swineherd who served a rich master. One day, the swineherd realized that a sow who had been ready to farrow a litter of piglets was missing from the herd. Fearing the wrath of his master, he searched for the sow near the mouth of Peak cavern, around which an extraordinary wind was known to howl. Determining that she must have wandered into the cave, and finding the wind mild at the time, he ventured in after her and wandered in the darkness for a long time before seeing a light and heading toward it. Reaching the source of the light, he found himself in a great cultivated plain where harvesters were hard at work. Beneath a tree, he found his master’s sow with her litter suckling. So he managed to return with the object of his search through the caves, where on the other side he found that night had fallen.

A good representation of how it may have looked, emerging from a cave into a lush and vibrant land, from a painting by William Guy Wall, via  Wikimedia Commons

A good representation of how it may have looked, emerging from a cave into a lush and vibrant land, from a painting by William Guy Wall, via Wikimedia Commons

The second of our tales is shared by Giraldus Cambrensis, who writes of a little boy of Swansea named Eliodorus (Oman 11). Preferring not to apply himself to his schoolwork and fearing his master’s discipline, he fled to a little valley to hide. There, two small men, pigmies, discovered him and took him through a passage underground, from which they emerged in a fertile land with rivers and fields that, much like St. Martin’s Land, did not enjoy full sunlight. Rather, days there, while bright, were always overcast, similar to the misty environs the green girl described, and nights were inky black, with no luminous heavenly bodies to light the sky. All of the inhabitants of this land were pigmies, and their animals were likewise diminutive. Eliodorus met and befriended the little prince of this land, and thereafter, he used to go back and forth from his world to theirs until one day he stole the prince’s toy ball. Two pigmies promptly came to his house to retrieve the ball, and after that, the boy never found his way back to that underground wonderland. In his elder years, he became a priest, and it’s said that Eliodorus never spoke of that land of pigmies and his friend, their prince, without crying.

Interestingly, these tales appear to place the story of the Green Children in a clear wider folk tradition, but they also, when analyzed, offer an explanation for why the stories may have been fabricated to begin with. The swineherd, gone until late at night searching for the sow, may have felt a more fanciful explanation than that he had merely been an incompetent herdsman would blunt the wrath of his master. And the lad Eliodorus may have only needed some explanation for why he had not been studying, a lie that perhaps was charming enough that he used it more than once to explain his absence, and maybe even to explain where he had acquired ill-gotten toys. Likewise, when the time came to share her story, the girl—who perhaps, owing to her language and garb, had been a Flemish refugee, something that the knight Richard de Calne and other villagers even realized and kept to themselves to shelter her from persecution, who had recovered from the greenish pallor induced by her allergy to the beans she and her brother had been foraging for, an allergy that in the end had killed her brother—perhaps she, like the swineherd and Eliodorus, simply told a fanciful lie. Maybe this was in an effort to obscure her true background, or maybe it was a lark, a hoax played on the credulous. After all, she was known to have grown into a “wanton and impudent” girl, or in an alternate translation, “saucy and petulant.” Certainly she doesn’t sound like a reliable source.

But in the end, one can look at this story in more than one way and raise evidence to support a variety of interpretations and explanations. Indeed, William of Newburgh sums it up best: “Every person can say what he wishes, and can rationalize these events as best he can; but I am not ashamed to have described this unnatural and remarkable event.”

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Works Cited

Clark, John. "The Green Children of Woolpit." Academia, 28 June 2017, http://www.academia.edu/10089626/The_Green_Children_of_Woolpit.

---. “Martin and the Green Children.” Folklore, vol. 117, no. 2, 2006, pp. 207–214. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30035487.

---. “‘Small, Vulnerable ETs’: The Green Children of Woolpit.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2006, pp. 209–229. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4241432.

Oman, C. C. “The English Folklore of Gervase of Tilbury.” Folklore, vol. 55, no. 1, 1944, pp. 2–15. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1257623.

Patch, Howard Rollin. “Some Elements in Mediæval Descriptions of the Otherworld.” PMLA, vol. 33, no. 4, 1918, pp. 601–643. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456983.

Puhvel, Martin. “Snow and Mist in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Portents of the Otherworld?” Folklore, vol. 89, no. 2, 1978, pp. 224–228. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1260130.

Blind Spot: The Beloved Disciple and the Authorship of John

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This Blind Spot will indeed be a companion piece of sorts with the last piece on the Man in the Iron Mask, for again we will be examining a historically unidentified person, someone whose identity has been much debated, with assorted likely suspects having been put forward by scholars. But additionally it will serve as a clarification of sorts to a statement I made more than once in my series on the Priory of Sion and Rennes-le-Château. In that series, I suggested that Mary Magdalene was considered a “beloved disciple.” In truth, there is a figure who only appears in the Gospel of John who is known by that moniker and is described in every appearance as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” but is never overtly identified by name. The notion that Mary Magdalene was the beloved disciple is a common and an intriguing one, but it is by no means widely accepted. For one thing, a key passage in the Gospel of John featuring the Beloved Disciple appears to indicate that they are two different people: Mary Magdalene sees the stone has been rolled away from Christ’s tomb and goes to tell Simon Peter and the Beloved disciple, who then race to the tomb and enter. But those in the Magdelene camp feel the text itself cannot be relied upon, pointing out there appears to have been a campaign to besmirch the reputation of the Magdalene, portraying her as a prostitute when there is no evidence for this present in the Gospels. They suggest that her name may have been redacted, calling her instead “the disciple whom Jesus loved” so as not to admit Jesus’s relationship with her. You may recall this theory in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which makes much of the fact that apocryphal texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, mention how much Jesus loved her. Now some believe this text actually refers to his mother Mary, but there are further mentions in the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi, for example the Gospel of Phillip, that indicate Christ’s love for Mary Magdalene more specifically, and how he loved her more than the other disciples and would “kiss her often on her mouth.” But contrary to what Brown claims in his novel, these texts are not the oldest known sources of information on the subject; rather they have been shown to be far less reliable as they are centuries older than the canonical gospels, being composed hundreds of years later even than John, which at around 120 CE was written at the greatest historical distance from the events it describes. So let us consider further the evidence in the Gospel of John as well as the most widely held theories on the Beloved Disciple’s identity in order to reach a fuller understanding.

Holy Women at Christ's Tomb by Annibale Carracci c. 1590s, via  Wikimedia Commons

Holy Women at Christ's Tomb by Annibale Carracci c. 1590s, via Wikimedia Commons

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There are actually a number of places in the Gospel of John in which an unnamed disciple appears. Although not explicitly identified as the disciple whom Jesus loved, many still take these as further appearances of the Beloved Disciple. The first is in Chapter 1, verse 35, which mentions two disciples of John the Baptist who become the disciples of Jesus. If this is indeed the first mention of the Beloved Disciple, then it makes him (or her) one of the first to follow Jesus. Then much later in the book, Chapter 18, verse 15, after Jesus is arrested, the narrator relates that Simon Peter and “another disciple” followed. This other, unnamed disciple knows the high priest and gains admittance to his court, and afterwards is able to get Simon Peter in as well. Speculation that this also is the Beloved Disciple, mainly because of this conspicuous anonymity, has led to much theorizing regarding his or her identity and connection to the high priest. Those on Team Magdelene might suggest that, rather than a poor prostitute, she was actually a woman of wealth, for as it indicates in Luke 8, she appeared to be funding Christ’s ministry with her own money. Therefore, as a woman of means, perhaps high-born, the high priest may have recognized her. Others have taken this passage to suggest that the Beloved Disciple was himself a priest, but more on that later.

The first time the Gospel of John refers to the Beloved Disciple overtly is in Chapter 13, verse 23, when during the Last Supper, he or she is laying his or her head lovingly upon his chest. Clearly this sounds affectionate, almost approaching intimacy, so many have looked at it as further proof for Mary Magdalene’s candidacy, while others have even suggested that there is some homoeroticism present in Christ’s relationship with this disciple. Without endorsing either theory, for the sake of clarity and brevity, I will be using male pronouns when referring to the unknown disciple from here on, as most scholarship and theories hold the character to be a man. In this scene, we again find Simon Peter present. Jesus has announced that one of his followers will betray him, and Simon Peter, seemingly in deference to the intimacy of the Beloved Disciple’s position with Jesus, suggests with a beckoning motion that he ask Christ who this betrayer will be, whereupon Jesus identifies Judas Iscariot. After this encounter, and Simon Peter’s following Jesus to the court of the high priest, where a disciple who may be the same man manages to gain them entrance, we find the Beloved Disciple present at the crucifixion, in Chapter 19, verse 26, when Jesus commends his mother into the Beloved Disciple’s care. And finally, after the problematic detail of the Magdalene seeing the tomb had been opened and fetching the Beloved Disciple, indicating they were different people, we have the moment with this Disciple whom Jesus loved, in the company of Simon Peter yet again, runs to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple outruns Peter, arriving first to see the discarded linens, but does not enter, leaving Simon Peter to investigate further.

The Beloved Disciple arrives at the Sepulchre before Peter; by James Tissot ca. 1886–94, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Beloved Disciple arrives at the Sepulchre before Peter; by James Tissot ca. 1886–94, via Wikimedia Commons

Now there is one final mention of the Beloved Disciple, and it is a doozy. In the final chapter of the book as we have received it, a further encounter with Christ is described. Out on Peter’s boat, fishing, the Beloved Disciple sees and recognizes Christ on shore. In this scene, on shore, Christ tasks Simon Peter with caring for his flock, essentially raising him up as the chief disciple. Peter asks about the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus asks what it would matter to him if he had the Beloved Disciple live until the Second Coming. This causes the disciples to suspect that Jesus has granted the Beloved Disciple immortality, but the narrator of the Gospel dispels this notion, indicating that it had been more of a rhetorical question. Then, in the very next verse, he identifies himself, saying it is this Beloved Disciple who testifies to these things…essentially saying “That’s me! I’m the Disciple whom Jesus loved!” So the question of the identity of the Beloved Disciple has long been tied up with questions of the authorship of the Gospel of John.

Although the gospels don’t name their authors, they received their names through tradition, as their original audiences were familiar with their origin. Therefore, it has always been assumed that John’s gospel was written by someone named John. The traditional view is that the author of the Gospel of John is John the Apostle, sometimes referred to with his brother as a son of Zebedee. In truth, however, the name translated first in Greek and eventually into English as John was an extremely common Palestinian name, such that the authorship of this gospel is a matter of debate. And it has been pointed out that the Sons of Zebedee were present in the boat on the Sea of Tiberius in Chapter 21 and appear to be separate people from the unnamed Beloved Disciple, whose anonymity had been so carefully cultivated throughout the book. This would therefore rule out John the Apostle. But there is no shortage of Johns to choose from. There is John Mark, but he is usually credited with writing the Gospel of Mark. There is John the Baptist, but he is referred to explicitly by the narrator rather than coyly, as the Beloved Disciple always is. Other candidates include John of Patmos and the more obscure John the Presbyter, all of whom vie for credit not only for the composition of the this gospel, but also the Epistles of John and the Book of Revelation—the so-called Johannine works. Then there is the notion, as previously stated, that this John was some unknown priest, for if he is the same unnamed disciple who entered the high priest’s court, he appears to have had connections, and this background would jibe well with the literary quality of the gospel, which does not seem to have been composed by an uneducated common man. But there is another theory that casts a wrench into the workings of any theory identifying these men with the Beloved Disciple. This being that Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John was a later addition to the book, and that its identification of the author with the Beloved Disciple is inaccurate. Many scholars point to the end of the previous chapter as evidence that this was the true original end of the book, for it concludes with a literary embellishment indicating that Jesus had performed many other works that the book had not mentioned, a flourish that is repeated again at the end of the next chapter which it is argued was appended to clarify certain doctrinal points—such as that Peter was the true head of the church, or perhaps that the Beloved Disciple certainly wasn’t a woman with whom Jesus was romantically involved.

Saint John the Evangelist, by Domenichino c. 1624-29, via  Wikimedia Commons

Saint John the Evangelist, by Domenichino c. 1624-29, via Wikimedia Commons

So the search for the Beloved Disciple continues. If his identity is not tied up with the John who wrote the book, then who was he? There have been manifold further theories. It has been pointed out that we have names for all Twelve Apostles, and even from the Book of Acts for disciples who were recommended to replace Judas, Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias, because they had followed Jesus from the beginning. Indeed, beyond the Twelve, there were at least 72 other followers during Jesus’s lifetime who might have been referred to as disciples, according to Luke 10:1. There was Nicodemus, who had asked Pilate for Christ’s body, and Joseph of Arimathea, who had donated his own tomb for his burial. Either of these figures might easily be considered candidates.

Then there is the intriguing idea supported by James Tabor that the Beloved Disciple was loved by Jesus as a brother. Some traditions, supported by scriptural passages suggest that Mary had multiple sons after Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Jude. These would in effect be Jesus’s half-brothers, and of them, James is the most well-known. Again, we have some confusion among characters with similar names, as James the brother of Christ is often identified with another character, James the Less (as in the younger brother?) and confused with two Apostles named James, one a son of Zebedee like John, the other a son of Alphaeus. Tabor’s theory looks at the crucifixion scene, when Jesus tells his mother to look at the Beloved Disciple and says “behold your son,” telling the Beloved Disciple likewise, “behold your mother,” and he see a literal statement that the Beloved Disciple is another son of Mary.

Another candidate with a strong case is a follower of Christ not traditionally considered a disciple: Lazarus. Scholars in the 20th century have developed his candidacy quite convincingly. Floyd Filson, in a 1949 paper for the Journal of Biblical Literature, outlines this theory with powerful clarity. Earlier in the Gospel of John, the narrator makes it abundantly clear that Jesus loved Lazarus, including no less than three indications of his love for him (Filson 85). This adds weight and pathos to Jesus’s grief and the subsequent miracle he performs. Then, when the Beloved Disciple sees the discarded linens at the tomb, he is the first to believe Christ is resurrected, which is a far less dramatic assumption coming from one who has himself been resurrected (Filson 86). And finally, this theory does not shrink from the last chapter that identifies the author as the Beloved Disciple, suggesting that the events of the gospel all take place near Bethany, where Lazarus lived, making him a natural candidate for authorship as well (Filson 86-87). And the principal scene in the final chapter, in which the other disciples believe that Jesus is suggesting the Beloved Disciple might live forever, is further illuminated by the idea that the Beloved Disciple had already been raised from the dead (Filson 86).

Christ Raises Lazarus from his Tomb (etching) via  Wellcome Collection

Christ Raises Lazarus from his Tomb (etching) via Wellcome Collection

Among all of these competing theories is yet another, that the Beloved Disciple is not a real person whose identity can be uncovered, but rather a literary trope, a figure in more than one sense. Perhaps, some scholars have suggested, the Beloved Disciple is not named because he is not a man as much as he is an idea. By this reading, he is almost always presented as a contrast to Simon Peter, a character famous for his ambivalence and failings. At the Last Supper, The Beloved Disciple asks Christ directly what Simon Peter is too timid to ask. While they both follow Christ after his arrest, the Beloved Disciple resourcefully enters the high priest’s court while Simon Peter waits at the gate and later denies his devotion to Christ. While Peter is too afraid to witness Christ’s death, the Beloved Disciple bravely attends the crucifixion. In the race to the tomb, the Beloved Disciple arrives first and is first to believe in the resurrection. And at the Sea of Tiberius, the Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the risen Christ. If one were to read this character as symbolic, then he might represent a model for devotion and faith, juxtaposed by Simon Peter’s weaknesses. But several of the ideas we have discussed—that the gospels have been redacted, that a new ending may have been tacked onto John to rewrite the origins of the book, and that major passages may be rather more symbolic than literal—lead to some big questions. If this gospel might be doctored, and if we are meant to read it as allegorical, with fictional characters representing ideals and abstractions, what does this mean for scriptural literalists? What does this say about the literal interpretation of other books in the bible? Perhaps the lesson here is that we should not be analyzing them as primary historical sources, searching for verifiable facts in them. Perhaps, as has been suggested of other portions of scripture, it is more useful to think of them as mythology and folklore.

Jesus and John at the Last Supper, by Valentin de Boulogne c. 17th century, via  Wikimedia Commons

Jesus and John at the Last Supper, by Valentin de Boulogne c. 17th century, via Wikimedia Commons

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Works Cited

Filson, Floyd V. “Who Was the Beloved Disciple?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 68, no. 2, 1949, pp. 83–88. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3261994.

 

Eustache Dauger, the Secret Prisoner in the Velveteen Mask (aka The Man in the Iron Mask)

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It began as a rumor bandied about in the court of King Louis XIV. In 1711, the Duchess of Lorraine, Elizabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans, a busybody sister-in-law of the king, wrote to her aunt, Sophia of the Palatinate, former Electress of Hanover, sharing a juicy bit of gossip concerning a secret prisoner of state that had been incarcerated at the Bastille for years. What made the story so titillating was the detail that the prisoner had been masked and was guarded at all times by musketeers who had been ordered to immediately kill the man if he ever attempted to unmask himself. Elizabeth-Charlotte speculated that the prisoner was an English nobleman who had been arrested as part of a plot against William III, but as the rumor passed on and the legend began to build, that part of it fell by the wayside. Among those to take up the rumor and add to it was Voltaire, who in 1738 began to claim that he had some knowledge of the prisoner, and that during visits to the Bastille had spoken at length with his captors. In Voltaire’s version, the prisoner had been made to wear a mask forged of iron for the intriguing reason that he looked so astonishingly similar to the king. Eventually, the myth grew to include some kinship beyond mere resemblance, suggesting that the iron-masked prisoner was indeed the identical twin of the king and thus a threat to his rule, a tale immortalized by the great novelist Alexandre Dumas. But long before Dumas made popular fiction of this legend, contemporary documents had begun to surface and efforts were made to uncover the truth behind this legend. These investigations would eventually reveal that the prisoner’s mask was not made of iron at all, and indeed, we would eventually be able to match a name to this figure… but surprisingly, this would not clear up the mystery surrounding him.

The first clues as to the identity of the man behind the mask came in 1769, when a Jesuit who had formerly served as the chaplain at the Bastille turned up the journal of the former second-in-command at the Bastille. An entry in said journal for September 18, 1698, spoke of the arrival of Bénigne d'Auvergne de Saint-Mars, the new governor of the Bastille, and of an old, masked prisoner he brought with him. Then in another entry five years later, the same officer recorded the death of that mystery prisoner, noting that during his imprisonment there he had been “always masked with…black velvet” and that he had been buried under the name “Marchiel.” Thus the detail of the iron mask was among the first fictions dispelled by primary source material, and the first clue to his identity revealed! The name Marchiel led to the first theory of the prisoner’s identity: Count Ercole Antonio Matthioli, an Italian minister to the Duke of Mantua. According to a 1687 Dutch article of uncertain authenticity that just happened to appear after the revelation of the name Marchiel, Matthioli had been kidnapped in 1679 by French authorities for some intrigue having to do with King Louis XIV’s acquisition of the city of Casale, and had been imprisoned under Saint-Mars’s care first at Pignerol and afterward at the island of Sainte-Marguerite. Proponents of the theory that Matthioli was the masked prisoner tracked down the parish death records of the masked man and discovered that the journal entry had misspelled the name as Marchiel, that it was actually “Marchioly,” which was indeed very close to Matthioli.

Historical reconstruction of the Bastille in 1420, via  Wikimedia Commons

Historical reconstruction of the Bastille in 1420, via Wikimedia Commons

Historians pushing the Matthioli thesis eventually got hold of a wealth of primary source material in the form of correspondence between the masked prisoner’s custodian, Saint-Mars, and the marquee de Louvois, the war secretary, letters that discussed in detail how the prisoner was to be treated. Those in the Matthioli camp published much of this material, as it appeared to prove their claims that Matthioli had been imprisoned at Pignerol; however, it also proved to be the undoing of their thesis, as these letters showed that the man who would eventually be explicitly identified as the masked prisoner had been arrested and sent to Saint-Mars’s garrison at Pignerol in 1669, a decade before Matthioli’s supposed kidnapping. Furthermore, they showed that Matthioli had not been taken by Saint-Mars to his subsequent stations at Sainte-Marguerite island and the Bastille, as had the masked prisoner, and that Matthioli had actually died in 1694, almost a decade before the man in the velveteen mask had expired at the Bastille. And finally, this correspondence clearly provided a name that was far different from that under which the prisoner had been buried. The masked man had been called Eustache Dauger.

This name thereafter led historical detectives down another path. Eustache Dauger de Cavoye had been born into a prominent family, his father a captain of a musketeer company and his mother a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of France, Anne of Austria. Seeming to have disappeared from history after his military service, some 20th century historians came to the conclusion that the young man had settled into a depraved lifestyle and began trafficking in aphrodisiacs and so-called “inheritance powders,” a euphemism for poison, suggesting that he eventually found himself embroiled in the Affair of the Poisons, or the Chambre Ardent Affair. This was a massive scandal involving not only the widespread sale of poisons but also apparent devil worship ceremonies and infant sacrifice that involved King Louis XIV’s own mistress, an embarrassment that caused him to draw a veil of secrecy over the testimony and prosecution of those involved. Some historians went out on a limb suggesting the masked prisoner Eustache Dauger had been arrested for his part in this madness. To prove it, they pored over the surviving proceedings of the Chambre Ardent and indeed discovered a mention of a surgeon named d’Auger. However, this too, like the Matthioli thesis, failed to hold up under scrutiny, for other records showed that, though indeed this young man Eustache Dauger de Cavoye ended up in prison, he had not been secreted away at Pignerol but rather openly imprisoned at Saint-Lazare in 1668, where he would die in the 1680s.

What these theories failed to consider were the strange conditions of the masked man’s imprisonment, which the letters of war secretary Louvois and the jailer Saint-Mars make exceedingly clear. Why would there have to be so much secrecy surrounding the imprisonment of the Italian count Matthioli or the corrupt youth de Cavoye? That is the question that must be answered for any theory to hold water. Eustache Dauger appeared to be deemed a dangerous man for the secrets he held. And what’s more than that, he appears to have been not a nobleman or a well-bred bourgeoisie, but rather a lowly valet, a manservant.

Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Pignerol prison, via  Wikimedia Commons

Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Pignerol prison, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1669, then Captain de Saint-Mars served as commander of the prison within the French outpost of Pignerol in the Italian Alps, or as the Italians call it, Pinerolo in Piedmont. His only prisoner there was a man also deemed to be dangerous for the secrets he held: Nicolas Fouquet, former Superintendent of Finance who had been very publicly tried for corruption and sentenced to perpetual exile. Therefore, it seems that Pignerol was the place where Louis XIV customarily sent prisoners he felt must at all costs be sequestered from any contact with the outside world. Thus it was likely no surprise when the war secretary Louvois wrote to Saint Mars about the imminent arrival of a prisoner who must be kept completely isolated, in a special cell that commanded no view of any area where people might pass, behind a number of locked doors so that no guards could hear him speak. Saint-Mars was to personally attend to Dauger’s physical needs and to advise the prisoner that if he were to ever speak of anything other than his basic necessities, he would be immediately killed. Another dangerous political prisoner, Saint-Mars might have assumed, but perhaps he was surprised then when Louvois informed him that Dauger was just a valet and therefore required few creature comforts in his accommodations.

The precautions taken against the revelation of whatever secrets this valet held were truly extraordinary. He appears to have been arrested on secret orders and transported in hugger-mugger to the prison. He was only allowed to hear the mass said on Sundays for the other prisoner, Fouquet, if he were kept hidden away and precautions were taken to prevent him from speaking to anyone. A year after Louvois sent Dauger to Pignerol, he replaced the entire garrison, except for Saint-Mars and his staff, who remained the custodians of Fouquet and Dauger. In 1671, another political prisoner arrived, the count de Lauzun. Now with two noblemen in his charge, he had the unpleasant task of finding them valets, since apparently the nobility always required servants, even when in prison. Fouquet already had two valets, but when Lauzun required one, Saint-Mars asked the war secretary’s permission to simply have Eustache Dauger serve him, since Dauger had been a valet previous to his incarceration. Louvois forbade it, for fear that Dauger would by some indiscretion share the mysterious secret to which he was privy. Strangely, though, when one of Fouquet’s manservants died in 1674, the war secretary finally relented and said that Dauger could serve as a valet to the former Superintendent of Finance. Perhaps this seemed more acceptable, since Fouquet himself was feared to hold dangerous secrets and as he had been exiled for life, would never be able to share with anyone whatever further secrets he might learn from Dauger. Oddly, however, in 1679, the king relented in his strictness with Nicolas Fouquet and allowed him to have visits from his fellow prisoner, the count de Lauzun, and even to receive visits from his family. Before this, however, the war secretary wrote directly to Fouquet to receive assurances that Fouquet had learned nothing from Dauger of “what he knew” and “what he had seen…in his past life.” Whether or not Fouquet had admitted to learning Dauger’s secrets, he was permitted his visitations, provided that Dauger would never be present when anyone visited.

Pignerol, 1661, via  Wikimedia Commons

Pignerol, 1661, via Wikimedia Commons

When Nicolas Fouquet died in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered something problematic. The former Superintendent of Finance and the count de Lauzun had somehow managed to open up a passage between their separate chambers, which meant that not only Fouquet’s other valet but also the count had likely been in private with Eustache Dauger and may have been told whatever secrets he held. In order to somehow mitigate this breach, Saint-Mars locked the two valets up in the lower tower and lied to Lauzun, telling the count that the valets had been freed. Eventually, the count de Lauzun himself would be freed and restored to his former position, but the “men of the lower tower” remained in Saint-Mars’s charge and would until their deaths, kept in the utmost secrecy and not allowed to speak with anyone, even each other. Saint-Mars took them along with him when he received command of another frontier fortress to the northwest, where Fouquet’s other valet—an innocent man whose only crime was to have been in the presence of men with secrets—eventually died in 1687. Thereafter, Saint-Mars took his last remaining charge, the mysterious Eustache Dauger, with him to Sainte-Marguerite when he was promoted to governor of the island. Yet his orders still stood that no one was to speak to or even see the face of this Eustache Dauger, so he had the prisoner transported in a covered sedan chair carried by eight porters, a sight that inspired many rumors in Sainte-Marguerite. Once installed in his cell, however, which adjoined Saint-Mars’s own chambers so that no one else would have access to the poor, aging valet, he was not seen again until Saint-Mars’s further promotion to the governorship of the Bastille, the famous fortress in Paris. This time, however, instead of drawing more attention to his prisoner with the sedan, he simply elected to cover his face with a mask of black velvet, and thus the legend was born.

So who was this Eustache Dauger? Was “Dauger” a false name? Or was the name under which he was buried, “Marchiel” or “Marchioly,” the false name? Was he indeed a mere valet? Whom, then, had he formerly served? And what possible secrets could this poor manservant have been privy to that might have warranted such extraordinary precautions? The Matthioli theory further collapses when one considers that Matthioli’s imprisonment by the French had been no real secret. And even if it had been, there would have been no clear reason to mask him, since he would not have been a recognizable figure. Furthermore, had it been necessary to treat his incarceration so secretively, why bury him under so similar a name? Then there is the detail that the war secretary, Louvois, had left the name of the prisoner blank until after his secretaries had transcribed his dictation, only writing the name Eustache Dauger onto the missives before sending them to Saint-Mars. This would indicate that Dauger was the prisoner’s true name, held as a privileged secret, while the name under which he had been buried was the pseudonym. And this Eustache Dauger would seem to have genuinely been a valet in his former life, since even Vouloi’s earliest letters referred to him as such. Otherwise, it would have been foolishness to have him serve Fouquet in the same capacity.

So we are left with the final questions of whose valet this Dauger actually was, and what secrets he might have harbored. Andrew Lang, writing in 1903, suggested based on the timing of his arrest that Dauger may have been the notorious valet of Roux de Marcilly, a theory that proves to be one of the only explanations with some legs. Therefore let us examine it. This version starts with the negotiations of a secret treaty. For years, Charles the II, King of England, and Louis XIV, who were closely related as first cousins, had sought a closer alliance between the respective countries. Eventually this turned into earnest negotiations for the so-called Secret Treaty of Dover, which would see English ships and soldiers furnished for France’s planned conquest of the Dutch Republic in exchange for Charles receiving a substantial secret pension, provided he publicly convert to Roman Catholicism and restore the church’s power in England. It was during these lofty dealings that a suspected plot came to light, masterminded by a French Huguenot, and therefore a Protestant naturally predisposed against such a consolidation of papist power. Little is actually known about this Huguenot, Roux de Marcilly. Through a series of letters, he appears to have plotted with Charles II himself to form a league of Protestant nations against France and Louis XIV, thereby stemming the spread of Roman Catholicism. There is some doubt about Charles II’s genuine involvement in this plot, whether he really was tempted to turn against his cousin, perhaps because he was loathe to convert as Louis’s secret treaty required him to do, or whether he was humoring Marcilly while informing on him to Louis. Either way, Louis had the plotter kidnapped in Switzerland and tortured in the Bastille. He was accused of plotting the assassination of Louis XIV, but no evidence for such a plot existed, so they trotted out an old rape charge that may have been trumped up and sentenced him to death by the Catherine wheel for that. So awful and painful a death was execution by the breaking wheel, which involved having one’s bones smashed one by one and being slowly bludgeoned to death, that in his cell, Marcilly attempted to end his own life by cutting himself with a piece of broken glass. However, his guards caught him and cauterized his self-inflicted wounds with hot pokers so that he would survive to be shattered on the wheel.

A depiction of torture victims being broken on the wheel, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of torture victims being broken on the wheel, via Wikimedia Commons

As Lang outlines in his essays “The Valet’s Tragedy” and “The Valet’s Master,” during his torture, Roux de Marcilly gave up his own valet, a man named Martin, as a co-conspirator. On the surface of it, this may seem absurd. When being tortured, one is compelled to give a name, and what better name than your lowly manservant, about whose life you may care little? And besides, whatever part Marcilly’s valet may have had in these matters was likely only performed in service to Marcilly, so he could hardly be considered a real player. Nevertheless, French authorities do appear to have been concerned about what the valet knew. After tracking him down in England, they questioned him, and Martin insisted he knew nothing, expressing reticence about accompanying them back to France for fear that “he would be kept in prison to make him divulge what he did not know.” Thereafter, however, the valet appears to have coyly intimated that he knew very much, perhaps because he enjoyed the attention, or perhaps in order to mock the French authorities because he felt himself safe in England. Unfortunately, the French thereafter asked Charles to surrender the man to their custody, and if we accept Lang’s thesis, which works well chronologically with Eustache Dauger’s arrest in Dunkirk in 1669, Charles gave up the valet, who was somehow—and here things turn vague—taken to Dunkirk (perhaps by a kidnapping similar to his master’s?) where he was arrested and given the prison pseudonym Eustache Dauger. In this scenario, which I find the most compelling, Dauger’s secret had to do with the existence of the Secret Treaty, about which his master clearly had information, or perhaps had something to do with Charles II’s intrigues. Nevertheless, there remain problems. If these were his secrets, then after a few short years, they would have been valueless and posed no further danger. And why keep him under lock and key for so long when they might easily have had him killed as they had his master? And why the great pains taken to conceal his identity and face? And if Dauger was a pseudonym for Martin, then why bury him under a third name?

Some of these questions can be answered with the sad assertion that this valet was merely a victim of bureaucracy and paranoia. There may have been reason to lock him away at the time, and thereafter it was only the perpetual, dogged enforcement of old and obsolete orders that kept him in captivity. However, the consistent inquiries about the prisoner in letters between Louvois and Saint-Mars indicate that even many years after Dauger’s incarceration, the king, or at least his ministers, remained concerned about what secrets the man harbored. Another explanation may be that, after allowing Dauger to serve as Nicolas Fouquet’s valet while at Pignerol, there was the further concern that Dauger, as well as the other valet, knew Fouquet’s secrets. As the Superintendent of Finance, Fouquet had once been among the most powerful men in France. Many, including Fouquet himself, believed that Louis XIV would eventually grow bored with the affairs of state and appoint Fouquet Prime Minister to rule France while Louis devoted himself to pleasure. Indeed, during his frequent meetings to go over ledgers with Louis, Fouquet appears to have exaggerated certain difficulties in the financial management of the state, perhaps in an effort to further persuade the monarch that he would not want to deal with these matters himself. However, Louis had other ideas about his kingship, and he had others whispering in his ears about Fouquet’s use of crown monies, suggesting that the Superintendent of Finance lived far too lavish a lifestyle for his own fortune to allow and that he must have been making personal use of royal funds. Indeed, Fouquet had built himself an ostentatious estate, and one day, after throwing the king a grand party, Louis, angry at the grandiose display of wealth, decided on moving against Fouquet. After arranging his arrest, Louis had him charged with various complicated crimes amounting essentially to financial chicanery, or more precisely, malversation, or corruption of office. It was a sensational trial, and with Fouquet’s many connections and allies, he managed to avoid a death sentence. Evidence turned up papers that came to the king’s attention, revealing letters from great ladies that Fouquet had seduced and accounts of the many men who were indebted to Fouquet’s generosity. The fact of the matter was that so long as Fouquet was alive, he posed a threat to the crown, so Louis had him shunted off to perpetual exile and received regular reports about anything his jailer might discover of his secrets.

Portrait of Nicolas Fouquet, via  Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Nicolas Fouquet, via Wikimedia Commons

Clearly then, the valet Eustache Dauger may have been a supremely unlucky commoner. Having served one master that had dangerous secrets, he was then, while in prison, made to serve another master who held great secrets. And therefore he could never be allowed to leave. But this is strange logic, when one breaks it down, for the count de Lauzun surely also had opportunity to learn both the secrets of Fouquet as well as whatever secrets Dauger held, having excavated a passage between his cell and Fouquet’s and essentially had a shared chamber with them for years. Yet he was allowed to return to society. And even accepting this narrative, we still have no good explanation for why his face had to be obscured, unless it be a non-explanation, such as Louvois was being overly cautious by ordering that precautions should be taken to ensure that no one lay eyes on him, or that, in saying none should see him, Louvois actually had only meant that he should not be permitted to signal to others or have visitors and Saint-Mars had merely misconstrued the instructions to mean his face could not be seen. This is the crux of the mystery, I think: the mask and its true purpose. And this is what has led to the wildest speculation and the most outlandish theories. For example, novelist Marcel Pagnol, in the 1960s, combined the old myth about Louis XIV’s twin brother with Andrew Lang’s thesis to claim that the valet Martin involved in the plot against Louis was actually James de la Cloche, and rather than being an illegitimate son of Charles the II as many believed, he was Louis’s twin. Thus the fiction lived on.

And in a remarkable connection to our last two episodes, there is the titillating theory that Fouquet’s secret was the same as Bérenger Saunière’s secret. After all, there is an argument to be made that Fouquet’s life had been saved by the Catholic agents of a secret society, the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, or Company of the Blessed Sacrament, with which he had been involved. Perhaps they, like the supposed Priory of Sion, served as custodians of the Rennes-le-Château secret. And how would Fouquet have become an initiate? Well, he once received a letter from his brother, who had spoken to the painter Nicolas Poussin. An odd passage of the letter cryptically states:

He and I discussed certain things, which I shall with ease be able to explain to you in detail — things which will give you, through Monsieur Poussin, advantages which even kings would have great pains to draw from him, and which, according to him, it is possible that nobody else will ever discover in the centuries to come. And what is more, these are things so difficult to discover that nothing now on this earth can prove of better fortune nor be their equal.

And so we return to the spiraling conspiracy theory of Rennes-le-Château, which has led some addle-pated mystics to conclude that, directed by Poussin’s painting, the secret Bérenger Saunière really found there was alchemical in nature, the Philosopher’s Stone, which of course could make one rich but could also make one immortal. Then Fouquet’s secret was rather more a mystical one as well, and perhaps, after all, he did not die when the records state he did, but rather lived on, eternally young, a fact that had to be hidden by a velvet mask, for Fouquet would indeed have been recognizable and the fact that he hadn’t aged would certainly cause a sensation…. But such musings should be taken for what they are: fantasy. Remember that the masked prisoner was described as old when he arrived at the Bastille, and he died within a few years. So all we are left with, after all, are some possible suspects based on circumstantial evidence… sometimes less than that: mere coincidence! In truth, it appears that only a handful of men in 17th century France knew the identity and story of the masked prisoner, and they appear to have taken the knowledge with them to their graves. Therefore, that flimsy mask of velvet may as well have been an iron lockbox, concealing forever the answer to a riddle that has enthralled the world ever since.

An anonymous 1789 print depicting The Man in the Iron Mask, via  Wikimedia Commons

An anonymous 1789 print depicting The Man in the Iron Mask, via Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited

Martin, Ronald. “On the Trail of the Iron Mask: The State of the Question.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History, vol. 19, 1992, pp. 89-98. Hathi Trust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015054071587;view=1up;seq=107.

Blind Spot: The Secret of Rennes-le-Château and Abbé Saunière’s Riches

francois-berenger-sauniere-pilar-inverso.jpg

François-Bérenger Saunière a staunch anti-Republican from a family of monarchists, received his appointment to the parish at Rennes-le-Château on June 1st, 1885, and within a couple years, he had begun to work on renovating the old tumbledown church, starting with its altar, which is said to have rested on Visigothic stone pillars, one of which was hollow and contained the notorious cipher parchments, according to Plantard’s hoax. But it does appear that Saunière had taken to exploring the grounds of his church and that he had indeed discovered at least some artifacts of interest, such as the ancient carved stone depicting a soldier and child on horseback that some have taken as proof for the survival of the Merovingian line, another thread exploited by Plantard in his masterful hoax. By 1897, we begin to see signs of Saunière’s penury having unaccountably abated, as he began to spend money on decorating his church, with statuary and other artwork that many would eventually puzzle over. In 1899, his mysterious influx of money could not be denied, for he bought land surrounding the church—all in his housekeeper’s name, Marie Dénarnaud—and began to build an ostentatious estate, a grand tower, a fine promenade, and even greenhouses for the growing of oranges. He died of a heart attack in 1917, and today, thanks to the bestsellers of Henry Lincoln and Dan Brown, the mystery of his sudden wealth endures, drawing far more visitors to his parish today than it ever received during his own life. But is there a genuine mystery here? Is this a story of hidden treasure or conspiratorial intrigue or revelatory discoveries?

Many in the past and even today scrutinize the chapel’s decorations for clues as to the nature of Saunière’s secret, believing them unusual and therefore suspecting that the parish priest had been sending coded messages through them. Henry Lincoln and those who persist in giving weight to his theories see much in them. The church’s dedication to Mary Magdalene, for example, is seen as evidence of Lincoln’s grail theories, but really the Magdelene is an important figure from the Gospels, a beloved disciple, so is there any real difference here than if the church had been dedicated to any other disciple? As I’ve already talked about extensively, people tend to see what they want to see: with little effort, statues of Joseph and Mary cradling the Christ Child become, in the eye of the credulous beholder, statues of Jesus and the Magdalene holding their child; and the landscape in the back of a painting of Mary Magdalene can be construed, with some imagination, as corresponding to imagery in a painting by Teniers, taking one down that old hoax path once again; and statues of different saints in the church’s nave can be viewed as being placed in such a way that the first letters of their names spell out the word graal, or grail, though you have to go looking for the L elsewhere in the church, among the bas-reliefs rather than statues in niches. And not only do some read into the artworks too deeply, looking for what they want to see, but also they misread them. Many consider the inscription over the chapel’s entrance to be unusual, Terribilis Est Locus, translated as “This place is terrible,” but a better translation may be “This place is awesome,” for it appears to be taken from Genesis, chapter 28, when Jacob, realizing God was in a certain place, declared, “How dreadful is this place!” Therefore, taken in this way, it’s actually quite a natural inscription for a church, where the awe-inspiring presence of God is mean to be felt and feared. One statue in particular at Rennes-le-Château especially troubles and mystifies: a devilish depiction of the demon Asmodeus kneeling beneath a baptismal font greets you as you enter. Some take this as a confirmation of the secrets of the church, for Asmodeus is a guardian of secrets and, more specifically, of the treasure of Solomon’s Temple. But a simpler explanation is that Saunière saw it as representing the Republicanism he detested. In an anti-Republican sermon he gave, his sentiments are clear: “The Republicans, now there’s the devil to be conquered and who needs to bend its knee under the weight of Religion and baptisms.”

The statue of Asmodeus at Rennes-le-Château, via Blogodisea

The statue of Asmodeus at Rennes-le-Château, via Blogodisea

If the church and its decorations are not the cryptic clues that many take them for—and why would they be? If Saunière had a secret, why would he be coyly broadcasting it with such hints?—then we must turn to logic and reason out how he may have found himself so suddenly in money. The implication of Henry Lincoln’s theories, in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, is that, rather than stumbling across a genuine treasure, Saunière discovered a secret that earned him money. By Lincoln’s reckoning, it was a secret about Christ that would shake the church to its foundations, and therefore Saunière must have blackmailed the Vatican for the money he came into. But if one looks at Saunière’s life, there are problems with this theory even above and beyond all the issues I reviewed in the last episode. In 1908, Bishop de Beauséjour, a bureaucrat, took an interest in Saunière and his unaccountable wealth and began to investigate him. By 1915, he had stripped Saunière of his title under accusations of trafficking in masses. This certainly doesn’t sound like a church that had been brought to heel by the dangerous secrets Saunière held.

So if the money did not come from a mysterious secret with which Saunière blackmailed the church… must it have come from treasure? Henry Lincoln and others have been led to believe that it was a Templar treasure. The Templars, of course, had amassed great fortune and perhaps many priceless relics, whether it be during their mysterious years excavating the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount, throughout their many conquests during the Crusades, or simply as the guardians of the wealth of others. This was, after all, the likeliest reason for their suppression: the seizure and redistribution of their wealth. The connection to Rennes-le-Château appeared to be through the family of Bertrand de Blanchefort, onetime Grandmaster of the order. There is a Château de Blanchefort in the area, and there had been some nobility with the title of Blanchefort that featured in the region’s history: for example, the tombstone of a Marchioness of Blanchefort took center stage in the Plantard hoax, a forged etching of it being used as the key to solve the apocryphal Saunière ciphers. And this with the fact that some of the names on the list of Priory of Sion leaders had been associated with the Templars and the notion that nearby Château de Bezu had been a Templar stronghold after their suppression led Henry Lincoln to believe Saunière had found a Templar treasure. However, more legitimate scholarship tells us that Lincoln yet again made an unsupported leap in linking Bertrand de Blanchefort to Château de Blanchefort and the Marchioness of Blanchefort supposedly buried at Rennes-le-Château, as it appears the only genuine connection between them is the name. And furthermore, his assertion that Château de Bezu was a Templar stronghold appears to be just as unfounded.  

But even dismissing the Templar connection, there are still likely narratives supporting the presence of a treasure. When Catholic Crusaders came through the region in the 13th century to stamp out the gnostic Cathar heretics, it was said that some escaped with the so-called “treasures of their faith,” whatever those were. Of course, that theory resembles the Templar theory in its reliance on speculation, so let us turn to a theory that requires fewer suppositions. We know that Saunière explored the grounds of his church extensively, digging beneath and even disturbing some of the tombs in the cemetery. Could he have found gold, as the legend so often says? Or if not gold, perhaps some precious relic that he sold to the church through some intermediary? In excavating beneath his church, he lifted a flagstone that was in reality a valuable artifact—the carving of the soldier with the child on horseback that Lincoln and others have made much of, which some historians suggest is only a depiction of a Carolingian boar hunt—and it is frequently said that beneath this, he found some old coins and a chalice that he gave to his friend, another priest in a nearby parish, Amélie-les-Bains. The chalice remains there today… but it appears to be a 19th century item that merely mimics the medieval style, so perhaps it was just something Saunière picked up for him in a gift shop. Still, could it be that this was the moment of his discovery? He is said to have told the workers helping him that the coins were medallions of little value and to have sent them home. Perhaps seeing this small bit of treasure, he immediately dispatched them so he could investigate himself, and perhaps he went on to discover more than one cache of coins. As previously discussed, the region had been a stronghold of the Visigoths, who had sacked Rome. Whether or not they carried off the treasures of King Solomon that Romans had earlier taken from the Holy Land, surely they carried off some treasure. This remains, at least it seems to me, a distinct possibility.

The Knights Stone artifact, via  Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

The Knights Stone artifact, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

But there is one last treasure theory that we should consider, and this one may indeed lead us to a better understanding of the entire legend. This was the original treasure legend, offered when in 1956 one Noël Corbu first shared the mystery of Abbé Saunière’s wealth to a wider audience in an interview with the newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi (Putnam and Wood 19). Corbu had heard the story of Saunière’s mysterious wealth from Marie Dénarnaud, Saunière’s housekeeper and sole heir. According to Corbu, Dénarnaud had confided to him that Saunière had discovered the treasure of Louis VIII’s wife, Blanche de Castile, an amount of about 18 million francs that was still hidden away somewhere in Rennes-le-Château. The problem is that there is no evidence that any such treasure ever belonged to this this historical figure, let alone that it would have been secreted away in this little mountain village. In truth, Noël Corbu, a businessman, had purchased the lavish estate that Saunière had left behind, Villa Bethania, and sought to make of it a hotel. But Rennes-le-Château was such an isolated place, he didn’t know how he could drum up enough guests to turn a profit. To him, then, the local legend about the priest and his mysterious wealth was a godsend. He cooked up a completely fabricated hidden treasure story, disseminated it through the newspapers, and watched with satisfaction as reservations began to pour in.

Thus even at its very beginnings, the legend of treasure at Rennes-le-Château is steeped in hoax and false history. While the notion that Saunière found some Visigothic artifacts of value beneath his church is certainly plausible, the absolute swamp of fabrication and fantasy that surrounds every part of this mystery makes it difficult to give any theory much credence. So perhaps, then, we should apply the rule of Occam’s Razor to cut through the baloney. What is the simplest and least complicated explanation for his wealth? Well, Saunière was a charming man and does appear to have accepted gifts from wealthy women. Moreover, during the last decade of his life, as Bishop de Beauséjour investigated him, charges of trafficking in masses led to the loss of his title. It appears that Saunière was collecting payment for prayers on a large scale. Bishop de Beauséjour found advertisements that Saunière had placed in Catholic magazines all over France and concluded that he could not possibly have said all the masses for which he had accepted payment. So there you have it; evidence of the source of his wealth, and ill-gotten at that. But could he have possibly amassed great riches this way? In truth, Saunière might not have been so rich as he seemed. Judging from the money he spent does not necessarily give an accurate representation of the money he had, for at the time of his death, as his ecclesiastical trial continued, Saunière was deeply in debt (Putnam and Wood 18).

In the end, like many true historical mysteries, it really depends on what you want to believe. If you have the heart of an adventurer, you may ignore the evidence that suggests the priest was just a charlatan in favor of the idea that there is gold in those hills. And if you’re of a skeptical mind, you dismiss it as fanciful garbage. As we have seen so many times, it is in these intersections of fact and myth, in these areas where faith conflicts with reason, that historical blind spots endure.

francois-berenger-sauniere.jpg

Works Cited

Putnam, Bill and John Edwin Wood. "Unravelling the Da Vinci Code." History Today, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 18-20. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=15581603&site=ehost-live.

The Priory of Sion and the Quest for the Holy Grail, or Lincoln's Links and Plantard's Plans

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's  The Damsel of the Sanct Grael , via  Wikimedia Commons

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, while on holiday in rural France, Henry Lincoln, an actor and writer for British television who had recently penned some scripts for Doctor Who, happened to read a fascinating little memoir in French, half travel guide and half buried treasure mystery, called in translation The Gold of Rennes, or The Cursed Treasure of  Rennes-le-Château, by Gérard de Sède. Thus was he initiated into a mystery that had long fascinated many in France, though few knew of it beyond that country’s borders.

The mystery of Rennes-le-Château, a sleepy little hilltop town in the Languedoc region of southern France between the Cevennes and Pyrenees Mountains, revolves around a priest named Bérenger Saunière, who began in 1885 to serve as the priest of the church at Rennes-le-Château, which was dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Saunière was poor, as was his church, which was in need of repair, but somehow, within twenty years, he managed to come into great wealth and rebuilt the church as well as his own estate in a lavish manner. The mystery, then, was and still remains the source of Bérenger Saunière’s fortune, which has never been satisfactorily explained and thus has spawned many a legend. According to Gérard de Sède’s book, Saunière discovered four parchments in a hollow pillar while restoring his church. Two of these were genealogies, and the other two were ciphers. Saunière took the parchments to Paris, where he had them deciphered and then promptly bought some reproductions of certain paintings from the Louvre, paintings that were somehow important to the secret he possessed: among them The Shepherds of Arcadia by Nicholas Poussin as well as a painting by David Teniers, the Younger, featuring St. Anthony. These elements of the mystery would be much dwelt upon by Henry Lincoln, but what he found truly tantalizing about Gérard de Sède’s book was that the author claimed to have somehow come into possession of Saunière’s parchment ciphers and even reproduced them, and Lincoln managed quite easily to crack the simplest of them, which after its decipherment reads: “To King Dagobert II and to Sion belongs this treasure, and he is dead there.” This corresponded well with the coy intimations de Sède makes throughout his work, involving the Merovingian kings of ancient France, a rather mysterious dynasty claiming descent from ancient Troy, priest-kings with long hair said to be divinely chosen to rule the Franks. Establishing a holy empire in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church, the Merovingian King Clovis on the church’s behalf suppressed the heretical Visigoths who had previously sacked Rome and perhaps carried off the treasure of the Temple of Jerusalem, driving them back to their strongholds in the Razés, the region where today stands Rennes-le-Château. According to the narrative de Sède pushed somewhat coquettishly, when the Merovingian King Dagobert II was assassinated, his son Sigisbert IV survived, smuggled to the Languedoc where he would assume a false identity as the Count of Rhedae, called Plantard, a part of the story supposedly supported by a relief sculpture at Rennes-le-Château of a soldier carrying a child on horseback. Thus the decoded cipher—a treasure, the Visigoth booty from Rome, belonging to King Dagobert II—and the further suggestions of dynastic intrigue and the survival of the Merovingian line, along with the unanswered questions—what was the significance of this “Sion” to whom the treasure also belonged? and what could it mean that “he is dead there” when Dagobert II was known to be buried elsewhere?—were enough to draw Henry Lincoln headlong into the rabbit hole.

The small parchment easily decoded by Lincoln, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

The small parchment easily decoded by Lincoln, via Rennes-le-Château Research and Resource

Lincoln managed to convince the BBC to produce a series of documentaries on the mystery for the television program Chronicle. As he began to write the first of these programs, The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem (1972), he contacted Gérard de Sède hoping to examine his research materials, including photographs of the parchments to which he had claimed to have access. De Sède obliged, and Lincoln began to suspect the author of harboring some secret knowledge about which he was less than forthcoming. When Lincoln asked why he had not published the solution to the simple cipher in his book, de Sède answered, “We thought it might interest someone like you to find it for yourself.” Just who the other half of this “we” was remained a mystery, although Lincoln had his first clue when he noticed the name Plantard stamped on the back of certain items among de Sède’s materials. Subsequently, as Lincoln and his team sought further documentation from de Sède and presumably from his secret collaborators, they were directed to the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, where catalogued in a specific place they found a treasure trove of historical documents pertinent to the mystery, collected under the melodramatic title, the Secret Dossier. In the dossier was one work called The Merovingian Treasure at Rennes-le-Château by one Antoine the Hermit, detailing much of the legend of Bérenger Saunière as Gérard de Sède had it. Then there was Engraved Stones of the Languedoc by Joseph Cortauly, which included drawings of tombstones from the Rennes-le-Château churchyard, a work that would prove necessary to decode the larger of the two parchments said to have been found in the pillar by Saunière. And finally, there were the works of Henri Lobineau, one a Merovingian genealogy that traced the royal line all the way to an extant family by the familiar name of Plantard, and specifically to one Pierre Plantard. The other was Lobineau’s “Secret Files,” newspaper cuttings hinting at people being murdered over the secret at Rennes-le-Château, further genealogies and coats of arms, and official looking documents. On the first page of this work appeared a dedication, “To Monsignor the Count of Rhedae, Duke of Razès, the legitimate descendant of Clovis I, King of France, most serene child of the ‘King and Saint’ Dagobert II.”

The cover page of  Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau , via  Just Some Info

The cover page of Dossiers Secrets d'Henri Lobineau, via Just Some Info

One drawing of a tombstone in Engraved Stones of the Languedoc in particular caught Lincoln’s eye as being unusual in that it seemed composed of both Latin and Greek letters, which upon closer examination appeared to say “Et In Arcadia Ego,” or “Even in Arcadia, I Am There,” a phrase or theme treated by numerous artists having to do with the idea that even in a paradise, death is present—a natural enough inscription for a tombstone. But Lincoln saw a link to Nicolas Poussin, whose painting Et In Arcadia Ego, sometimes called The Shepherds of Arcadia, was already part of the Bérenger Saunière legend, being one of the paintings he bought reproductions of after having the parchments decoded. And further adding to the mystique of the drawing was the fact that the tombstone the drawing depicted had supposedly been chiseled away by Saunière, as though he were trying to destroy an important clue. Luckily for Lincoln and his partners, the inscription had been rendered, along with the inscription of a headstone that was now entirely missing, and preserved for them in the Secret Dossier. The importance of these tombstones was confirmed when, during the filming of his first documentary, Gérard de Sède contacted him and gave him the solution to the  more complex cipher of the two parchments said to have been discovered by Saunière in the pillar. It turned out that the text of the headstone had been the key. The parchment code itself, embedded in the Latin text of a passage from the Gospel of John, was far more complicated than the first code, which even Lincoln described as being as simple as something a schoolboy might have created. This greater parchment code’s decipherment was therefore surpassingly, almost comically complicated. I’ll spare you the tedious details of this convoluted process. Decoded, it read: shepherdess no temptation poussin teniers hold the key peace 681 by the cross and this horse of God I destroy this demon guardian at midday blue apples.

The alleged tombstones said to be the key to the greater parchment cipher, via  Rhedesium .

The alleged tombstones said to be the key to the greater parchment cipher, via Rhedesium.

One can only imagine the exhilaration felt by Lincoln, with all signs pointing to him being on the trail of a genuine solution to the mystery. Most of the decoded message seemed meaningless, and even today its meaning remains much debated, but further mention of Poussin and Teniers, the two painters whose works it was said Saunière bought reproductions of after solving the cipher himself, sent Lincoln on a quest to find the hidden meaning in their works. He determined that the phrase “shepherdess no temptation” referred to Teniers’s one painting of St. Anthony that was NOT focused on his temptation, St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Desert, in which can be seen a shepherdess in the background. Frustrated at the lack of significant seeming clues in this painting, though, he instead focused on Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia, which did feature a shepherdess, but more importantly featured the phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” that had been on the tombstone that served as the key to the parchment code. The painting features a group of shepherds pointing at a tomb where the phrase is inscribed, and according to most art historians, beyond the significance of the phrase as symbolic of death’s ubiquity, the work depicts the legendary invention of painting as one of the shepherds can either be seen as tracing the words or tracing his own shadow with his finger, the act that led to the conception of painting. Lincoln, however, believed there was far more to the painting, and yet again, he was led to believe by Gérard de Sède, who sent him a photograph of and directions to an actual stone landmark in the Languedoc that resembled the tomb in the painting. After tracking down this landmark, Lincoln came to believe that the landscape featured in the painting behind the tomb was in reality a depiction of the view behind this stone box in the neighborhood of Rennes-le-Château, despite historians’ assertions that Poussin had never visited the region. Was the resemblance convincing, or was Lincoln seeing what he wanted to see? Well, Lincoln certainly seems to suffer from confirmation bias. In a textbook example of apophenia, the perception of connections between unrelated things and meaning in the meaningless—another perfect example of which we just explored in our look at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe—he began to assert there were unusual and symbolically significant geometrical patterns in the painting. While it is true that Poussin’s work is often governed by the artistic and geometrical principle of the golden ratio, as are the works of many painters of his period, Lincoln believed that geometrical patterns matching others that he perceived in the coded parchments were present, eventually leading him to believe that, when extended beyond the borders of the painting, they represented a pentacle, or pentagram, and that this perfect geometrical design could be drawn on a map of the Languedoc region simply by connecting various landmarks. None of this brought him tangibly closer to any solution to the riddles he had begun seeing everywhere, but it did send him in new directions, searching for occult and religious angles on the mystery.

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia, with a photo of the stone tomb near Arques that Lincoln believed was depicted in it and a diagram of the geometric patterns he believes are present in the painting. 

Poussin's The Shepherds of Arcadia, with a photo of the stone tomb near Arques that Lincoln believed was depicted in it and a diagram of the geometric patterns he believes are present in the painting. 

Among the secret files of Henri Lobineau in the Bibliotèque Nationale was a table purporting to be a list of the leaders of an organization and the years during which they served. The organization was called the Priory of Sion, or the Order of the True Rose-Cross, and it served as the explanation of many cryptic mentions of the word Sion and the initials P and S in the documents Lincoln had been studying. The names of its grand masters or “helmsmen” included a veritable who’s who of storied alchemists and famous artists: Nicolas Flamel, Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau. Lincoln himself admits this Dramatis Personae is too fanciful to be believed, but instead of doubting it, he insists on keeping an open mind and investigating the Priory’s existence further. And indeed, he did find a document from the 12th century showing the existence of an organization with a similar name, the Order of Sion. Then he made something of a precipitous leap in reasoning. This sounded like a secret society, and many secret societies were rumored to have been associated with the Knights Templar, and some of the names on the list were said to have been Templars. Therefore, the Priory of Sion was the secret society that originated the Templars, and the lost treasure of the Templars may actually be the treasure secreted somewhere around Rennes-le-Château, as twelve Templars were said to have escaped their order’s destruction and taken refuge in nearby Château de Bézu. Now the unsupported connections he makes here are typical of Lincoln and his work; he makes an interesting and seemingly feasible speculation, but then without seeking confirmation or evidence, he then takes the premise as a given and uses it as a stepping stone to reach his next conclusion. For example, at one point in his documentaries, he makes reference to a memorial cross at Rennes-le-Château and its  inscription of “Christus A.O.M.P.S. Defendit,” stating categorically that it can only mean “Christus Antiquus Ordo Mysticusque Prioratus Sionis Defendit, or “Christ defends the ancient mystical order of the Priory of Sion.” In point of fact, however, this inscription is actually a relatively common one, meaning “Christus Ab Omni Malo Plebem Suam Defendat” or “Christ defends his people against every evil.” This pretty much sums up the historical rigor of Henry Lincoln’s work, so it’s no surprise that he ended up tapping into the common conspiracy view of history, in which there is a long tradition of belief that the Templars persisted after their suppression, hiding among other secret societies like the Freemasons. It all makes for a wild and sprawling tale, to be certain, and it expands the lore of Rennes-le-Château to epic proportions… but it’s not historical research so much as it is unfettered conjecture.

By the third documentary in his series, Shadow of the Templars (1979), after exhausting nearly all the avenues of inquiry he had taken from the Secret Dossier and concluding that the Priory of Sion existed even to present day and was dedicated to preserving the Merovingian dynasty and restoring it to power, Lincoln interviewed the mysterious man behind some of Gérard de Sède’s sources, Pierre Plantard, who appeared to be a member of the Priory and the true descendant of the Merovingian line. Plantard was coy but revealing in his interview, indicating that the Priory of Sion did exist, and confirming that it existed to protect and promote the Merovingian bloodline as the true rulers of France. Moreover, he hinted playfully that the true treasure of Rennes-le-Château may not have been gold but rather this powerful secret, knowledge of which earned Saunière a fortune in hush money: that pure-blooded Merovingians still survived, prepared to revive their claim to a throne that no longer existed. The notion of the real treasure being a secret jibed well with Lincoln’s idea that the surviving Templars had carried the treasure to the Languedoc after their escape, for a few men could not possibly have carried vast stores of gold but could easily carry a secret. So Lincoln took this notion and ran with it. The problem was that he rightly didn’t believe the secret Plantard offered was really that explosive. So what if the Merovingians had survived? They were one dynasty among many, none of which would be granted any power in modern-day democratic France regardless of how dramatically they revealed themselves. Therefore, there had to be some deeper secret to the bloodline of the Merovingians, he reasoned, something warranting their continuous preservation through the centuries by a powerful secret society. What he settled on would serve as the basis of his 1982 bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's  Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena , a depiction of Christ telling the Magdalene not to touch him after his resurrection, via  Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena, a depiction of Christ telling the Magdalene not to touch him after his resurrection, via Wikimedia Commons

The theory advanced by Henry Lincoln and his co-authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh completely turned the story of the life of Jesus Christ and the Easter story on its head. They hypothesized that the appellation “Christ” actually indicated that Jesus was a literal king of the house of David, making the sign King of the Jews atop the cross rather more a literal designation than a mockery of him. And they further suggested that Mary Magdalene, his “beloved disciple,” who tradition tells us was a reformed prostitute, was actually his wife and mother of his children. Their theory goes on to propose that his crucifixion was a sham, and thus his resurrection was just a matter of him revealing himself after his death had been faked. As they reimagined things, Mary Magdalene, either alone or with Jesus, took the offspring of Christ to ancient Gaul, before it became France, where she might find refuge with the Jews already in exile there. This accorded well with Mary Magadelene’s place in the Grail Romances as the figure who brought the Holy Grail to Europe, and indeed rewrote the whole idea of what the Holy Grail, the cup that caught the blood of Christ, actually was, suggesting that the original word in the earliest iterations of the tale, “sangraal,” had been erroneously divided into “san graal,” or holy grail, when it should have been divided as “sang raal,” or blood royal. Thus Mary Magdalene had smuggled the bloodline of Jesus into ancient France, where his descendants established themselves as the holy long-haired priest-kings of the Merovingian dynasty, a paradigm shifting secret guarded ever since the Middle Ages by the Priory of Sion and the Templars and discovered by Bérenger Saunière at Rennes-le-Château, where the church had been dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

Now even disregarding the fact that no concrete evidence is offered to support this alternative reading of biblical and European history, there are both logical and historical objections to the wild assertions it relies on. For example, there is no historical consensus on the identity of Mary Magdalene. Lincoln et al. would have you believe that she was the victim of a smear campaign to rewrite her character as a fallen woman when actually she was Jesus’s longsuffering wife, again an assertion with little support. Meanwhile other historians, namely Robert Sheaffer, have suggested that there never was a Mary Magdalene. Citing Roman philosopher Celsus’s accusations that Jesus had propagated the myth of his immaculate conception to cover for the fact that his mother, Mary, had been impregnated by a Roman soldier and thus driven away by her carpenter husband as an adulteress to bear her child in shame, he raises the possibility that the name Mary Magdalene was a corruption of Miriam m’qadella, referring to Mary by her occupation as a dresser of women’s hair, making the accusations of Mary Magdalene’s harlotry rather more a condemnation of Mother Mary’s sexual dalliances. And true historians could go on refuting almost every element of Lincoln’s mammoth pseudo-history, pointing out such simple omissions as the fact that no signs of the activities of the Priory of Sion or their grand masters’ involvement in it has ever been turned up, even though many of them were remarkably famous figures, their lives studied and written about extensively. Or the facts that Bérenger Saunière likely never found any mysterious parchments, as the recess in the hollow pillar preserved at Rennes-le-Château was not large enough to hold them, and that he could not have bought reproductions of a Poussin or any other paintings from the Louvre, which didn’t sell such things at the time. The thing is, historians don’t need to do this, because even before Henry Lincoln ever read about the mystery and began his decades long freefall down its rabbit hole, it had been revealed to be a hoax.

A cheeky-looking Pierre Plantard, via  La Roche Aux Loups

A cheeky-looking Pierre Plantard, via La Roche Aux Loups

As it turns out, Gérard de Sède hadn’t written his influential book so much as edited and punched up a manuscript by the supposedly Merovingian pretender Pierre Plantard. And in 1967, during a dispute over the royalties for de Sède’s book, Plantard revealed that the parchments he’d provided had been forgeries, their ciphers designed by his partner Philippe de Chérisey. The two of them had become intrigued by the mystery of Bérenger Saunière and Rennes-le-Château and had dreamed up a scheme that today might be called an alternate reality game. Indeed, Plantard had forged all of the documents in the so-called Secret Dossier and planted them in the Bibliotèque Nationale, where there is no official record of the documents’ registration. Why de Sède continued to play along with Plantard’s game while feeding the clues to Lincoln, I don’t really understand, unless at some point, once Plantard had learned of this new potential promulgator of his lies, he had begun writing directly to Lincoln as Gérard de Sède. It would not be a stretch considering his history of composing forgeries under pseudonyms.

The dubious character of Pierre Plantard is plain to see. At 17 years old, in 1937, Plantard became involved in right-wing politics, attempting to form an anti-Masonic and anti-Semitic organization whose goal was to purify France in response to the rise of a socialist and Jewish prime minister, Léon Blum. His endeavors resulted in the formation of the group Alpha Galates, some of the publications of which indicate his interest in the occult, especially in the ideas of Paul Le Cour, who promoted a spiritual tradition supposedly originating in Atlantis, which looked forward to a coming Age of Aquarius. Some symbols from Le Cour’s work, notably the octopus, would later appear in some drawings among Plantard’s forgeries. Demonstrating his anti-Semitism, in 1940, Plantard wrote to the head of the Nazi puppet regime at Vichy to warn of Jewish-Masonic conspiracies, and in the 1950s, he served a couple of prison terms totaling 18 months for misappropriation of property and corrupting minors. After the longer of his prison terms, in 1956, again still much influenced by the writings of Le Cour, he registered a new organization called the Priory of Sion with statutes very similar to those of Alpha Galates. It was sometime after this that he and his friend the artist Philippe de Chérisey became enamored with the mystery of  Bérenger Saunière and Rennes-le-Château, visited the village and eventually forged and planted false documents in the Bibliotèque Nationale intended to document and therefore legitimize Pierre Plantard’s little right-wing society, the Priory of Sion, as well as his descent from the Merovingian kings and claim as the rightful ruler of France, all of which has been proven to be meticulously orchestrated hogwash. It appears to be nothing but an ironic twist that Henry Lincoln veered off the trail Plantard had prepared for him and asserted that Plantard was actually of the bloodline of Christ, suggesting this anti-Semite was actually a Jew.

So the matter appeared to have been settled. It was all a hoax. Perhaps the greatest modern hoax since Leo Taxil’s publications about devil-worshipping Palladian Freemasons, but a hoax nonetheless. Yet as we have seen before, in the anti-Semitic myths of the blood libel and the Protocols of Zion, as well as in such articles of religious faith as the Shroud of Turin, even when historical and scientific evidence demonstrate the falseness of something, that won’t necessarily dissuade true believers. And just so, there remain today many treasure hunters skulking about Rennes-le-Château as well as pseudo-historians who believe Christ himself might be buried somewhere near Bérenger Saunière’s church. And most still rely on Lincoln’s geometry in Poussin’s paintings and other clues originating from Plantard’s forged documents, rationalizing that though he may have faked them all, perhaps he was an initiate with access to secret truth after all. But one can doubt or believe anything based on such logic. As Umberto Eco puts it in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which many believe was inspired at least in part by Henry Lincoln’s conspiracy addled views of history, “…the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.”