March 31, 2008
"Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless..." — Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, was working on the film set of The Crow when he died. Cast as the star, the scene called for him to enter his apartment to find a gang of baddies raping his girlfriend. One of the thugs was to shoot him.
Unknown to the crew, when the gun had been fired prior to the scene it had malfunctioned, and the cartridge had lodged in the barrel. Normally when firing a blank, nothing comes out of the barrel, but when the other actor fired at Lee the previous cartridge lodged in the barrel was propelled out with enough force to penetrate Lee's spine. He went down immediately and was rushed to hospital, but doctors were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead.
The Crow was finished with the encouragement of Lee's family, and was a huge hit with a loyal following. Had Lee lived, he would have been a very big star.
The quote at the top was recited by Lee in his last interview before his death; it is now on his tombstone.
March 30, 2008
Herod the Great, forever remembered for ordering the massacre of all male children in Bethlehem in order to avoid have to deal with a newborn "King of the Jews", probably didn't. In fact it probably didn't happen. It appears in the Gospel of Matthew and is believed by most modern scholars to be a product of creative mythmaking rather than actual fact.
Not that he wasn't cruel enough to do such a thing. Like most kings, he was looking out for number one and didn't get to where he was in life by being a nice guy. Where he was, was service as King of Judea, through the good offices of Rome, who needed somebody tame and local in there to keep good order. His father was a high-ranking official who was murdered in a power skirmish; Herod managed to get the backing of the Roman army to help him avenge the murder and, eventually, take the throne. Herod was officially a Jew, but most actual Jews didn't take him seriously as such.
He lived to what was a ripe old age for the day: 69. His suffering was intense; the historian Josephus, writing just a few decades later, reports:
His entrails were also ex-ulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree.
The modern diagnosis is that he had chronic kidney disease as well as Fournier's gangrene, which is a type of necrotizing fasciitis that attacks the genitals.
He was buried in a tomb whose location was unknown until 2007, when an Israeli team of archaeologists discovered it (after 35 years of painstaking research) about 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem, on the side of the vast hill he had constructed for his palace.
March 29, 2008
Alkan was a French composer, teacher, and recluse. As a young man he played alongside such celebrated musicians as Liszt, Rubinstein, and Chopin. But in his 30s a couple of professional disappointments and his natural tendencies drew him out of the limelight, preferring to teach and compose in relative seclusion for the latter half of his life.
He also spent a lot of time studying the Bible and the Talmud, and himself translated both the Old and New Testament into French from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.
One story goes that in 1888 he was reaching to get a copy of the Talmud from a high shelf, and the bookcase fell on him, killing him. A catchy story (it caught me!) but untrue. A more believable and no less bizarre version, attested in a personal letter written by one of his students, was that he died when trapped beneath a falling coatrack. Those coats can get heavy, even in late March. Another myth that went around was that his obituary read, "Alkan is dead. He had to die in order to prove his existence." However this is also probably untrue.
If, like me, you've never heard of him before, here is a link to a YouTube of a virtuoso performing one of his compositions: proof that his relative obscurity is a function of his lack of personal promotion and the difficulty of his compositions. Nobody is going to try to play this piece for their Grade 8 exam!
March 28, 2008
Virginia Woolf was an English writer whose novels and essays had a lasting impact on English literary style. She was a member of the very influential Bloomsbury group, a collection of writers, artists, and thinkers who explored and promoted radical ideas about feminism, sexuality, and pacifism.
Woolf suffered her first nervous breakdown as a teenager after her mother and her sister both died within two years of one another. Her father's death when she was just over 20 had the same effect. She was also sexually abused as a child by her half-brother. Throughout her life, her temperament was delicate and she endured regular, debilitating periods of depression.
In March 1941 she was living in the country, trying to avoid having another nervous breakdown. Not that she had much of a choice: her home in London had been destroyed in bombing raids. Feeling another breakdown was inevitable, and not wanting to endure it, she wrote a suicide note to her husband Leonard, weighted her pockets with stones, and walked into a river near her home. Her body wasn't found for nearly three weeks.
"I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."
March 27, 2008
When her father died suddenly in 1477, Mary of Burgundy became the Duchess of a huge and immensely rich slice of Europe. She was his only child.
Louis of France was beside himself with desire to acquire her estates, in particular the free county of Burgundy, which was not subject to direct French rule. He attempted to negotiate a marriage between her and his son, Charles. She declined, but since he was preparing to use an army to back up his wooing, she turned to her Netherlands subjects for help. They in turn extracted from her certain political rights, which she granted.
She decided to marry the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a young man with enough power and money to help her oppose the French king's designs. They had three children, one of whom died the year he was born. The other two were still infants and Mary only 25 when she met her own end: she was falconing with her husband; her horse tripped and landed on top of her, breaking her back. She died several days later.
March 26, 2008
Jim Thompson was an American businessman who was a military intelligence officer during WWII. After the war, he was stationed in Thailand for a year, and there he saw lots of opportunity for development in Thai business. He moved permanently to Bangkok and founded the Thai Silk Company. The company revitalized the home-weaving industry of Thailand, bringing thousands of unemployed Thais back out of poverty and making millionaires of his core worker-shareholders.
During Easter 1967, he went on holiday at a resort in Malaysia. On Sunday afternoon we went for a short walking, leaving his cigarettes behind. He never returned, and despite intense searching by tracking experts, no traces of him were ever found. The most likely explanation is that he was accidentally murdered in a robbery or fell into an animal trap, and was buried by the local indigenous people for fear of reprisal.
Sources: Wikipedia, Cameron Highlands
March 25, 2008
Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California. Even though he spent the last five years of his life in San Francisco, we do not know his name because it was taboo among his people to say one's own name, and nobody else who knew it was alive. Nobody in the world could speak his language, or even say his name.
Most of his people had been killed by settlers and cattlemen. He lived most of his life in hiding with the few remaining Yahi, but when they had all died, he approached a group of butchers at their corral in August 1911. He was kept in jail, not because he was a threat (he very obviously wasn't) but to protect him from curious townspeople, who wouldn't leave him alone. Later he was taken to work and live at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in San Francisco. He helped anthropologists learn about the way of life of his people, and about his language. The name he used, "Ishi", simply means "man" in Yahi.
Unlike the tragic Ota Benga, Ishi was able to find some contentment in his new life. This was probably because Ishi was still in the land where he had grown up. He was close friends with his his doctor, Saxton Pope, with whom he went bow-and-arrow hunting in the mountains of California using bows and arrows Ishi made. In 1916 Ishi caught tuberculosis and died, to the great grief of his friends and all who had met him.
His brain was removed, out of anthropological interest, and only recently (in 2000) was finally reunited with the rest of his cremated remains, re-interred together at an unnamed location.
There have been a couple of TV movies about Ishi and, more recently, a documentary, the trailer for which can be viewed here on YouTube. Here is a link to the website about the doc.
Sources: Ishifacts.com, Wikipedia, Jed Riffe Films
March 24, 2008
Alex Mitchell was a bricklayer from King's Lynn. On March 24, 1975, at the age of 50, he died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing while watching a sketch in the episode "Kung Fu Kapers" in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a psychopathic black pudding in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of "Hoots-Toot-ochaye." After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and expired from heart failure.
And guess what! You can watch the very episode that killed Alex Mitchell, right now! It has been uploaded onto YouTube in three parts. Part 2 is the segment that contains the fatal sketch, but if you're a true Goodies fan, you'll want to start with Part 1 and watch all three segments in sequence (Parts 2 and 3 will be linked in the "related videos" column when you watch Part 1). Warning: I take no responsibility whatever for the consequences, fatal or otherwise, of watching it.
Bonus video: The Funniest Joke in the World by Monty Python. Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin went on the make Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen die laughing when he watched them in A Fish Called Wanda.
March 23, 2008
Valentin Bondarenko was a Ukrainian cosmonaut. On March 23, 1961, in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of a training simulator, he removed some biosensors from his body and used a cotton ball moistened with alcohol to wash the sticky stuff off his skin. He tossed the cotton ball aside and it landed on an electric hot plate, where it caught fire. The fire ignited Bondarenko's suit.
Because of the pressure difference between the simulator and outside, it took several minutes for an attending doctor to get in and help him. He suffered third-degree burns over nearly the whole of his body: only the soles of his feet were relatively unharmed, as his flight boots had protected them. He died of shock eight hours after the accident.
Because of the Soviet media style of the time, news of his death was hushed up; however he had already appeared in group photographs and his disappearance from subsequent photos fueled speculation about cosmonauts dying in failed launches. The real story was not released publicly for 20 years.
March 22, 2008
Giovanni Battista di Lulli was the son of a miller in Florence with no education, but a natural musical talent and good looks. One of these attracted the attention of a French duke, who took him to France at the age of 14 to work for a powerful French princess. Here he frenchified his name and cultivated his musical ability under the princess's patronage — until, that is, she discovered an insulting poem he wrote about her. Then he was fired.
He surfaces again at 20, getting a job as a dancer for Louis XIV. He began composing ballet music and that, combined with his looks and wit, secured him royal favour and an appointment as the composer of instrumental music to the king. Thus was launched a great career as courtier-composer that put all his talents to good use. These included a voracious (bi)sexual appetite as well as the canny wits of a former Italian street kid, who understood perfectly the need to defend his own turf against other rival composers, dancers, and musicians. In other words, much of his considerable energy was expended ensuring that other artists never got an even break. That said, his musical abilities were certainly at least as considerable as his sexual and political talents, and his instrumental music, operas, and ballets are still performed and enjoyed today.
In early January, 1687, he was conducting a Te Deum, beating time on the floor with a long staff. He struck his toe. The wound abscessed and eventually turned gangrenous. He refused to have his toe amputated and, with the spread of the gangrene, he died on March 22.
This entry is dedicated to my cousin George Lloyd, a professional classical musician. Like many of his colleagues, he frequently entertains a not-so-secret desire that all conductors should suffer the same fate.
March 21, 2008
Homer and Langley Collyer were well-to-do New Yorkers who grew up in a fashionable brownstone in Harlem with their mother and father. They both had degrees, one in engineering and one in law, but preferred music and inventing, respectively. The family's relatively comfortable finances meant they didn't have to make any serious effort to make a living, and when their parents died in the 1920s they simply stayed on at the family home.
By this time, the neighbourhood had changed. With the explosive growth of the suburbs, Harlem had many vacant homes, which were rapidly filling up with Manhatten's African Americans displaced from other areas of the city. Although the neighbourhood had already been racially mixed, the sudden increase of blacks and decrease of whites left it almost entirely black by the 1920s. The Collyer brothers, now in their 40s, stayed where they were, simply cutting themselves off from the world.
Rumours of their wealth encouraged people to try to burgle the house, and the young people in the neighbourhood spread stories about the inhabitants and enjoyed throwing rocks at the windows. The brothers became more fearful and paranoid, boarding up their windows and creating complex booby traps to discourage intruders. They stopped paying their bills, and when their gas, water, and electricity were turned off they started warming the house with a small kerosene heater. One of the brothers, Langley, would walk about at night, fetching water from a fountain in the park nearby, and in the process dragging home any junk he found along the way.
By 1933 Homer had severe rheumatism, and went blind. Langley prescribed a diet of 100 oranges a week, plus black bread and peanut butter. He began saving newspapers, and when the brothers drew public attention in a kerfuffle over their mortgage, he told newspapers that he was saving the papers so that his brother could catch up on the news when he regained his sight.
The kerfuffle was this: they stopped paying the mortgage, but when the bank began eviction procedures they insulted and threatened the cleanup crew who was sent over. Police were called, but unable to enter the house. They tried to smash down the front door by were foiled by the mountain of junk piled on the other side. Suddenly Langley appeared and made out a check for $6,700, the balance of the mortgage, and ordered everyone off the premises.
On March 21, 1947, police received a tip that there was a dead body in the house. Eventually a team of seven men were able to gain access by slowly taking out the junk in the front hall, piece by piece, to make their way into the interior of the house: a wall of old newspapers, folding beds and chairs, half a sewing machine, boxes, parts of a wine press, and more. The presence of a dead body was made clear by the smell, but where was it? One patrolman broke in through a second-floor window where he found more boxes and newspaper bundles, the frame of a baby carriage, a rake, and old umbrellas tied together. After a two-hour crawl through the junk he found Homer Collyer dead, his head resting on his knees.
The medical examiner confirmed that it was Homer, but indications were he had not been dead more than ten hours. There was no sign of Langley, or rather there were too many signs to be able to figure out where Langley was.
They began searching the house, systematically removing the junk: books, guns and ammunition, an x-ray machine, a horse's jawbone, a piano, and always more newspapers. More than 19 tons of junk was removed from the ground floor alone; there were two other floors above. In the end, the total was more than 100 tons of rubbish.
Finally, on April 8, a workman came across Langley's dead body, just ten feet from where Homer had died. His body was partially decomposed and was being consumed by rats. He had been crawling through a tunnel of newspapers to bring food to Homer when one of his own booby traps had fallen down and crushed him. Homer, blind and paralyzed, died several days later of malnutrition, dehydration, and cardiac arrest.
More items from the house, as posted on Wikipedia:
Items removed from the house included rope, baby carriages, a doll carriage, rakes, umbrellas, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a checkerboard, a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands of books about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, a beaded lampshade, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, one British and six American flags, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and, of course, countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old. Near the spot where Homer died, police also found 34 bank account passbooks with a total of $3,007.18.
I trust you are appropriate inspired to commence spring cleaning.
March 20, 2008
During the late nineteenth century, the Congo was viewed by Europeans as the private property of King Léopold II of Belgium. He "managed" his property through a force of Belgian soldiers and white mercenaries, who in turn commanded an ethnically-mixed army. The official role of this army, known as the "Force Publique", was to defend the area from Arab slavers, but their real role was to ensure that rubber quotas were met. This meant managing and supplying a large force of slaves.
In the course of this, a detachment of the Force Publique raided and massacred the village of Ota Benga, a pygmy of the Batwa people living in the forest. His wife and two children were killed, but Benga was captured and sold to an American businessman Samuel Verner, along with eight others. Verner was working under contract from the St. Louis World's Fair, with the mandate to bring back pygmies for the exhibition.
Of course, slavery had been illegal in all US states for about 40 years, so theoretically Benga was free to do what he liked once he was there. After several months of travel in the US, Verner took Benga to the Bronx Zoo in New York to live, at the suggestion of the then-Director of the American Museum of Natural History. At the zoo, Benga was encouraged to hang his hammock in the Monkey House exhibit and to shoot arrows at the target. A sign on the exhibit read:
The African Pigmy, 'Ota Benga'. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.
The zoo director and other scientifically-minded men saw the exhibit as a valuable demonstration of how man evolved from the apes. This incurred controversy, most notably drawing protests from African-Americans and clergymen, who pointed out that the exhibit was racist and anti-Christian in that it promoted Darwinism. From a New York Times article of September 1906:
The person responsible for this exhibition degrades himself as much as he does the African," said Rev. Dr. R. MacArthur of Calvary Baptist Church. "Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, he should be put in school for the development of such powers as God gave to him. It is too bad that there is not some society like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We send our missionaries to Africa to Christianize the people, and then we bring one here to brutalize him.
In response to the outcry, the zoo management allowed Benga to roam the zoo grounds as a sort of interactive exhibit. Zoo visitors, however, tended to administer verbal and physical prods to try to get Benga to "do something". His behaviour began to show signs of frustration.
By the end of September 1906 Benga came under the protection of Rev. James Gordon, and African-American pastor, who placed him in a "coloured" orphan asylum. Later he was relocated to Virginia, where his teeth, which had been filed to points in the Congo, were capped, and he dressed in American-style clothes. He learned about reading and writing from a tutor and attended classes at a Theological Seminary, however he seemed to find more happiness discarding his clothes and roaming the nearby woods with his bow and arrow. Later he quit school and got a job at a nearby tobacco factory. He was popular, telling stories to his fellow employees in exchange for sandwiches and root beer, and he could climb up the poles to get the dried tobacco leaves without a ladder. They called him "Bingo".
On March 20, 1916, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped the caps off his teeth, performed final tribal dance, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the coloured section of the cemetery.
March 19, 2008
Alaxandair mac Alaxandair was the only son of King Alexander II (by his wife, and thus the only one that counted). He became king at the age of 8 and, typically, his early years as king were dominated by power struggles between factions struggling for control of the regency, which included at one point Alexander being kidnapped by one of the factions.
When he turned 21 he took charge decisively, and proved to have a good understanding of power. He married the daughter of the King of England but managed to rebuff Henry III's attempts to extract homage from him. He played the King of Norway for a fool, laying claim to the Western Isles and then stringing out negotiations until the Norwegian king lost patience and attempted an invasion during the storm season...in sea-to-land battles, storms fight on the side of the defender. The fleet was defeated and the king died on the way home. Later Alexander married his daughter to the new King of Norway.
Alexander was unlucky in one important matter, though: all three of his children predeceased him, leaving him with one three-year-old granddaughter as sole heir. In the 1200s that meant, to many, no heir at all. He was on his way to visit his new, pregnant wife when he fell from his horse in the dark while riding to visit his new queen. He had become separated from his companions, so nobody actually saw it happen, but he was found dead on the shore below a steep rocky embankment the following morning.
His wife later delivered a stillborn son, and a group of Earls took over governance of the realm until a husband could be found for Alexander's granddaughter, who lived in Norway. Four years later, she was on her way back to Scotland when she herself died. By this time the kingdom was seething with rebellions by opportunistic nobles, and Edward I of England turned a covetous eye northward. His designs on Scotland resulted in a 300-year struggle in which the Scots, though overmatched, fought back ferociously. It ended in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne as heir to the childless Elizabeth.
March 18, 2008
In the immortal words of Malcolm Forbes, "Ivan the Terrible was as bad as he sounds." But that, of course is not the whole story.
Ivan was the first Russian monarch to rule as Tsar. He expanded and united the Russian kingdom and made many essential reformations, including the creation of sea ports and initiation of a trading relationship with England. This while fighting scheming aristocrats within his own kingdom who had no notion of a "Russia" that extended beyond the needs of their own immediate enrichment.
Ivan was called "Grozny", which means "terrible" in the sense of "terrifying" or "fearsome", because he had all the qualities necessary for the job: he was ruthless, suspicious, stubborn, and cruel. The first half of his reign went pretty well, but nearly dying in 1553 and the death of his wife his personality became more and more extreme. Some examples:
- When he had St. Basil's Cathedral constructed in Moscow, he was so moved by its beauty that he had the architects blinded so that they could never design anything as beautiful again
- He formed a secret police, the Oprichniks, who owed allegiance only to him and became a bunch of murderous thugs
- He ordered the Oprichniks to murder all the inhabitants of Novgorod; the exact death toll is unknown but estimates are they succeeded in killing about 30% of the population
- He beat his daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, causing a miscarriage
- In a fit of rage at his son he clubbed him with a staff, accidentally killing him
In 1584, a comet was spotted, and Ivan called together 60 astrologers to interpret the vision. They agreed that it was a sign he would die soon. Soon, Ivan's body became swollen from unknown causes. He seemed to recover, then on March 18, while playing chess with the statesman Bogdan Belsky, he suddenly collapsed and died.
In the 1960s his tomb was opened during renovations, and an examination of his remains revealed very high amounts of mercury. He was probably poisoned; the presence of mercury would explain his symptoms and, to some extent, his madness. Three days before his death he tried to rape his daughter-in-law, who was the sister of Boris Godunov, future tsar and star of Pushkin's play and Mussorgsky's opera. Modern suspicion falls on Godunov as his probably assassin.
We do, luckily, have Sergei Eisenstein's vision of him. During WWII, with morale in Russia low, Stalin (who admired Ivan) ordered the filmmaker to create a film of Ivan's life. The result is one of the greatest films of the era: It was filmed in three parts. The first part was released in 1944. The second part offended Stalin, as its depictions of Ivan's paranoia were a little too close to the mark. It was not released until after Stalin's death. The third part was seized and mostly destroyed.
Ivan Grozny himself is played brilliantly by Nikolai Cherkasov, marvellously creepy and impressive. But it is impossible to communicate anything about the film by talking about one performance, or one part. The whole structure, the costumes, all the performances, the sets, everything works together as a whole to create an unforgettable experience.
Here is an excerpt that dramatizes his struggle with Philip, a church patriarch who openly opposed him. The scene imagines the moment where he decided to become "the Terrible" as he was known by his enemies. This excerpt has French subtitles, but even if you can't read French (or understand Russian) the power of the film is palpable.
Sources: Wikipedia; Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.
March 17, 2008
Lulach was unfortunate in his mother: she was Gruoch of Scotland, also known as Mrs. Macbeth. Gruoch was more than just a stereotype of feminine ambition: she was also the granddaughter of Kenneth III of Scotland. Macbeth, Lulach's stepfather, was also the grandchild of a king, in his case his mother was a daughter of Malcolm II.
It's good to be the king, unless of course you are a king of Scotland, in which case your life expectancy is historically rather short. Macbeth, surprisingly, ruled a full 17 years before being killed by Malcolm, the eldest son of that same Duncan who Macbeth murdered to get the throne. Malcolm had been sent out of Scotland for safety on the death of his father in 1040; he was only 9 at the time.
In 1057 he returned, a grown man, to take back the throne. Even when he killed Macbeth he was not yet successful, as Macbeth's followers hurriedly crowned his stepson Lulach. Lulach (also known as "Lulach the Fool") ruled only a few months being killed "by treachery". Macbeth was out of stepchildren, and Malcolm ascended the throne as Malcolm III.
March 16, 2008
If you can hear music in your head when you read the title, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", the female side of the duet is Tammi Terrell. She was a soul singer, and her big break was singing an album's worth of duets with Marvin Gaye. (Since the song is probably already playing in your head, here it is on YouTube.)
In October 1967 she was doing a concert with Gaye when she collapsed on stage. When she was taken to hospital, it was discovered she had a brain tumour. It was malignant, and her health deteriorated from that point on until she died in March 1970. Rumours were that her condition was caused, or worsened, by domestic abuse on the part of both her current boyfriend and her previous one. There were also rumours that she was having an affair with Gaye, but she was not. They were, however, very close friends, and Terrell's death threw Gaye into a two-year depression during which he didn't perform in concert. During that period, he produced the album "What's Going On", a significant step forward in maturity and depth from his previous work. Check it out here, it's a nine-minute version and worth every beautiful second.
March 15, 2008
Which death is preferable to every other? "The unexpected".
On his way to study rhetoric in Rhodes, at the age of 24, Gaius Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. When the pirates asked his family for a ransom of 20 talents of gold, Caesar was insulted and insisted that they demand 50. He had good reason for this.
His patrician family had been humiliated in the recent civil war between his uncle Marius and Sulla, who won. Caesar himself had escaped death during the purges of Sulla's enemies only through the intervention of his mother's family, who included a number of Sulla's supporters. Instead Caesar was stripped of all offices, relieved of all his money and possessions, and forced to go into hiding. On his return to Rome after Sulla's death, he had to borrow money to buy a cheap house in a poor part of Rome and practice as a lawyer for his living. His oratory was famous, and it was in an effort to build his talent and thus rebuild his family's political fortunes that he was on his way to Rhodes. In the matter of his ransom, he knew that a bigger ransom would be better for the family's reputation.
During his captivity, he maintained a superior attitude toward the pirates, informing them that once he was released he would crucify them all. They treated it as a joke but, as we all know, Caesar was no ordinary man. Upon payment of the ransom and his release, he raised a fleet, captured the pirates, and turned them over to the government of Asia for execution. When the governor refused to kill them, preferring to sell them as slaves, he recaptured them and crucified them himself.
Few readers will be ignorant of the subsequent trajectory of his career. Oratory was not the only skill needed to succeed in politics: one needed a great deal of cunning, flexible morals, spotless personal reputation, good family connections, charisma, military prowess, and luck. Caesar had all those qualities in abundance. He rose to become the most powerful man in Rome. He appealed to the ordinary electorate and the armies for his support: this made him the enemy of those who favoured aristocratic rule.
Eventually his enemies mustered enough organization and secrecy to hatch a successful assassination plot. A group of them called him him to the Senate to hear a petition. As he began to read it, one man pulled down Caesar's tunic. Then a man named Casca produced a knife from his toga and stabbed at Caesar's neck. Caesar caught his arm before the blow could fall, saying "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?" Casca shouted "Help, brother", and the entire group, including Brutus, started stabbing at Caesar. Caesar tried to get away but tripped and fell. According to one source around 60 men participated in the assassination; when his body was examined it was revealed he had been stabbed 23 times. Only one of the blows, one near his heart, was fatal.
Did he say "Et tu, Brute?", Shakespeare's famous line? Undoubtedly not, however Suetonius reports he said "Kai su, teknon?" which means "You too, my child". Plutarch, however, states that he said nothing, simply pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.
After the assassination, Brutus stepped forward as if to say something to his fellow senators, but they all ran from the building. The conspirators then marched through the streets, crying out "People of Rome, we are once again free!" People of Rome, for their part, locked themselves in their houses and waited to see what would happen.
Ironically the assassination itself, an attempt to save the Republic from the tyranny of dictatorship, actually ended the Republic. The lower and middle classes were enraged at the murder, as Caesar was extremely popular, and the conspirators were forced into exile. Octavian, Caesar's grand-nephew, emerged after 13 years of political confusion as the sole master of Rome, eventually becoming the Emperor Augustus and ending the Republic forever.
March 14, 2008
Louisa May Alcott used her younger sister Elizabeth as the model for the character of Beth in Little Women. A quiet and gentle girl, she contracted scarlet fever while helping a poor German family, but recovered. Her health, however, was permanently impaired, and she died of a "wasting illness" two years later. Louisa wrote about it in her journal:
"My dear Beth died at three in the morning after two years of patient pain. Last week she put her work away, saying the needle was too heavy ... Saturday she slept, and at midnight became unconscious, quietly breathing her life away till three; then, with one last look of her beautiful eyes, she was gone."
March 13, 2008
Kitty Genovese's mother was worried about safety. She and her family lived in Brooklyn but, in 1954, after she witnessed a murder, she decided to move the family to Connecticut.
Kitty, 19 at the time, decided to stay. For nine years she lived and worked in the New York area, eventually getting a job as a bar manager in Queens, where she shared an apartment with a friend.
In the early morning of March 13, 1964 she drove home from work at about 3:15am, parking 30 metres (100 feet) from her apartment door. A man ran toward her and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed, but it was a cold night and people had their windows shut. Several neighbours heard, but only one responded, shouting out the window, "Let that girl alone!", and the man ran away. Genovese made her way toward her apartment, seriously injured, but now out of view of the upstairs windows around her.
Some people called the police but the matter was not given high priority. One man reported that a woman was "beat up, but got up and was staggering around." The attacker got in his car and drove away, but returned ten minutes later and began to search the area, eventually finding Genovese lying in a hallway at the back of the building. He stabbed her several more times, raped her, stole her money, and left her dying in the hallway. The time from the initial attack to the end of the second attack was about half an hour.
A few minutes later another witness called police. Police finally arrived and Genovese was put in an ambulance. She died on the way to the hospital. Her attacker was later arrested on unrelated charges, and confessed to her murder. He told the authorities that he had gotten up at about 2am with an impulse "to kill a woman". He left his wife sleeping at home and drove around looking for a victim.
He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced to 20 to life. He was not a model prisoner. In 1968 he shoved a soup can up his rectum in order to be transported for surgery; during the transport he overpowered the guard and took five hostages, raping one of them before he was recaptured. He also participated in the Attica Prison riots in 1971. He has been denied parole 12 times, and will be eligible again this month.
The police investigation after the attach revealed that approximately a dozen people had heard or observed portions of the attack, although none were aware of the entire incident. Only one was aware she had been stabbed in the first attack, and only one was aware of the second attack. Many weren't aware at all, thinking they had heard or seen a lover's tiff or drunken brawl. One man turned up his radio so he wouldn't have to hear her screams. Another, an immigrant, said she didn't call because her English wasn't good enough. One said, "I didn't want to get involved" — a phrase that was reported in the New York Times and became synonymous with New York's crime problems.
A great deal of psychological literature has subsequently appeared referring to the "Genovese syndrome", also known as the bystander effect: a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency when other people are present and able to help, than when he or she is alone. In other words, solitary individuals will typically intervene, but the more people present, the less likely help will be given. Psychologists advise that, when help is needed with a crowd present, you look someone directly in the eye and give them a direct request ("You, call the police!") rather than making a general plea ("Someone please call the police!").
Sources: Wikipedia, Crime Library
March 12, 2008
On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he made them bring their ensigns with them, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. Roman battle standards were considered idolatrous by the Jews. The ensigns were brought in secretly by night, but their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews rushed to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. He ignored them for five days, but the next day he admitted the Jews to hear their complaint. He had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews then threw themselves to the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to kill so many, succumbed and removed the ensigns.
There was no physical evidence of Pilate's existence until 1961, when an excavation of an amphitheatre uncovered a block of limestone with a carved inscription dedicted by Pilate to the Emperor Tiberias. (The painting above was created by Giotto in the early 14th century.)
But there are stories, of course; many stories. It is certain that he was prefect when Christ died. There is no particular reason to disbelieve the gospels which, although written long after Jesus died, present a credible story. Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Jewish judiciary, who don't seem to have quite known what to do with him. Jesus was saying things that they considered blasphemous. The accused him of sedition in front of Pilate, saying he opposed paying taxes and called himself a king. Pilate's question to Jesus was, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus' reply is recorded in Greek as being «σὺ λέγεις» which is generally translated as "It is as you say" (King James version) but literally means "you say". There is lots of debate about what he meant by that, assuming it's an actual quote. Our earliest written source is the Gospel of Mark, which (so far as we know) was first written more than 30 years after the fact.
John, characteristically, provides more colour. According to his gospel Jesus said, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." Pilate's response is one that resonates strongly with the postmodern sensibility: "What is truth?"
The gospels report that Jewish tradition provided for the release of one prisoner at the time of Passover. He put it to the mob (who seem to have been conveniently waiting outside his window), presenting Jesus to them ("Ecce homo") and giving them a choice between Jesus and a guy named Barrabas. Coached by Jesus' enemies, they demanded the release of Barabbas. Pilate is presented as being reluctant to condemn Jesus, because he couldn't see what all the fuss was about. The final, famous moment arrives when, in the gospel of Matthew, Pilate "took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, 'I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.'"
Naturally the question of what Pilate was actually like, what he himself thought of the situation, how he might regard his posthumous reputation, all these are fertile ground for the imagination. And many imaginations have worked on it. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, he did everything he could to release Jesus and thus should not be blamed. The Ethiopian Church even recognized him as a saint in the 6th century.
Traditional tales relate that Pilate suffered dramatic career setbacks under Caligula and retired to Vienne in France (Gaul), where he committed suicide. There is not a shred of real evidence of this. Folklore continues the story, however; it is said when he died his body was thrown into the Tiber (nowhere near France) but the river was disturbed by evil spirits and rejected him. So they (who?) took his body to Vienne where they threw it in the Rhone, which also wouldn't have him. Finally it was sunk in the lake at Lausanne or, some say, "a deep and lonely mountain tarn" overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday the body re-emerges from the waters and washes it hands.
I cannot resist the opportunity for a reference to Monty Python. YouTube has a segment from Life of Brian, where Pilate asks the mob which prisoner to release, but Pilate, as conceived by Michael Palin, has a speech impediment. Hilarity ensues.
Sources: Wikipedia, King James Bible
March 11, 2008
Julia Soaemias Bassiana ruled the Roman Empire for four years through her son Elagabalus, who was 15 when he ascended the throne. She was born and raised in Syria, and was related to the Emperor Septimus Severus by marriage, as well as being a cousin of the Emperor Caracalla. When Caracalla was killed and replaced by Macrinus, she shrewdly began spreading rumours that her son Elagabalus was actually the illegitimate son of Caracalla. Macrinus' enemies were happy to use the news as an excuse to kill Macrinus, and the teenaged Elagabalus was put in his place.
Julia ruled Rome while Elagabalus occupied himself with mysticism and sexual explorations (what better occupation for a 15-year-old?). Bearing in mind that they were unpopular and thus historians were not kind to them, it has come down that he used to wear makeup and wigs pretend to be a prostitue, standing nude at the door of a particular room in the palace, shaking a curtain that hung from gold rings, soliciting sex with dirty comments. He is said to have offered vast sums of money to the doctor who could equip him with a vagina.
The powers behind the throne realized that the army were not going to tolerate this for long. When the Praetorian Guard rioted, Elagabalus tried to hide but was caught. Julia was with him and they were both killed, Julia embracing her son tightly. Their heads were cut off and their bodies stripped and dragged through the streets.
March 10, 2008
Zelda Sayre was a writer who grew up in Alabama in a prominent southern family. She was a wild kid; she danced, messed up her studies at school, drank, smoked, and hung out with boys -- not the sweet accommodating southern belle ideal of the time. Her meeting at age 18 with Scott Fitzgerald sparked one of the century's most famous romances.
Their relationship was one of like-meets-like: they were both romantic, passionate, egotistical. They fought often, but loved one another deeply; unfortunately they both drank a lot and tended to become physically violent with one another when drunk. Their daughter, Scottie, was brought up by nannies. When a magazine asked Zelda to contribute a recipe to their "Favorite Recipes of Famous Women" section, she wrote:
"See if there is any bacon, and if there is ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs, and if so try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily. Also, in the case of bacon do not turn the fire too high, or you will have to get out of the house for a week. Serve preferably on china plates, though gold or wood will do if handy."
My kinda gal. She was Scott's kinda gal too, and many of his heroines were thinly disguised versions of her, even copying portions of her diary entries into his books.
"It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."
At the age of 30 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, although it seems more likely she had bipolar disorder -- schizophrenia was a kind of catch-all diagnosis in the early days of psychiatry. While being treated in a residential clinic, she wrote a novel, Save Me the Waltz. When her husband read it, he was furious, as it was an autobiographical account of their marriage and, worse, contained material he planned to use in Tender Is the Night. His contempt (he called her a plagiarist and a third-rate writer) and its failure to sell well was humiliating, and it was the only novel she ever wrote.
Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, by which time Zelda was living full-time in a sanatorium. In March 1948, the hospital caught fire, and she died, along with eight other inmates.
Here's a fragment of a documentary about their meeting, including interviews with people who knew her personally as a girl.
March 9, 2008
The first Kaiser Wilhelm lived to be 90; if he had died sooner, the history of Europe and, indeed, the world, might have been very different.
Wilhelm began life as a prince, the younger son of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. His brother inherited the crown in 1840 but was incapacitated by a stroke in 1857 dying a few years later. Thus Wilhelm found himself King of Prussia and, in 1862, appointed Otto von Bismarck prime minister, with a mandate to implement the conservative politics he favoured.
Bismarck was a genius whose life's ambition was to unify the German states into a world superpower, and in less than a decade he had succeeded completely, using fear of socialism and hatred for the French as goads to consolidate Wilhelm's power. Wilhelm became the first German Emperor in 1870.
Wilhelm was extremely conservative, and the German state was effectively a military regime in which the acquisition and maintenance of superior armies was paraamount. His son, Crown Prince Friedrich, dreamed of modernizing the German state, creating a (relatively) liberal society modeled on the British Empire. He was greatly influenced by his wife, the daughter of Queen Victoria, an intelligent and passionate liberal. He opposed Bismarck's politics of fear, but since Bismarck ruled through his father, it seemed it was only a matter of time before Friedrich would ascend the throne and begin to realize his dream.
Wilhelm, however, lived on. And on. He became confused and weak in his old age, giving Bismarck complete liberty to aggressively pursue his reactionary policies. Moreover Bismarck, with a keen eye to the future, was actively cultivating the esteem of Friedrich's son, the future Wilhelm II. He played on tensions between father and son in both generations, wisely making no attempt to appease Friedrich while manipulating the elder Wilhelm and seducing the younger one.
Bismarck's bet paid off: by the time Wilhelm finally died at age 90, Friedrich was already dying of cancer. He ruled for just 99 days, and was succeeded by a young, brash, aggressive Wilhelm II.
Bismarck anticipated that his influence over the throne could thus continue unabated, but in the end Wilhelm's megalomania pushed him beyond even Bismarck's reach. Although the causes of World War I are complex, there is no doubt that the aggressive and often foolish policies of Wilhelm II were a very big factor in pushing Europe into a state of total war.
March 8, 2008
Sherwood Anderson was an American writer who started out as a copywriter in the publishing and advertising business. He is best known for a collection of interrelated short stories called Winesburg, Ohio, the first of which ("Hands") he described as the first real story he ever wrote. That was in 1919. And guess what: you can read it here. His writing voice was very modern and William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Scott Fitzgerald were among his admirers.
In 1941 his wife retired from her job so that they could take a long trip together, beginning with a trip by ocean liner from New York to Valparaiso, Chile. During a cocktail party on the ship Anderson bit off the end of a toothpick; some sources say it was embedded in a martini olive, and others that it was in an hors d'oeuvre. Whatever the case, it ended up embedded in Anderson, and by their second day at sea he was very ill. They disembarked at Colon in Panama and he was taken to hospital: he died there of peritonitis on March 8.
Sources: Wikipedia, Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson Biography
March 7, 2008
One day while banqueting with the King of France, Thomas Aquinas came out of a long reverie by banging on the table and shouting, "That settles the Manichees!" He was the Mozart of theological argument, and he knew it, not as a point of vanity or pride but simply as a fact: God had put him on earth to write, and that was his life's work.
When, as the teenaged son of a wealthy Italian nobles, he began to show an affinity for monastic life, his family were horrified. They kidnapped him to try to force him to exercise more judgment in his career choices. They even put a beautiful young woman in his room to tempt him, but God sent down a couple of angels who "girded his loins with chastity". One wonders what that was like.
In December 1273, after three decades of writing the most potent theological expositions the Catholic Church has known before or since, he simply stopped. "All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me." He wrote no more, and seemed to be in a bit of a daze after that. He said, "The only thing I want now is that as God has put an end to my writing, He may quickly end my life also."
This prayer was granted. On his way to Lyons to meet with the Pope, he was hit on the head by a tree branch and fell off his donkey. Dazed, he was taken to the castle of his niece, who lived nearby. After spending some days there, he felt near death, and asked to be taken to an abbey. "If the Lord is coming for me, I had better be found in a religious house than in a castle." He was carried on a donkey to an abbey six miles away, where he died a week later.
Source: Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Shuster, New York, 1988.
March 6, 2008
Victoria Kawekiu Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kaʻiulani Cleghorn was the niece of Liliʻuokalani, the last Queen of Hawaiʻi, and thus the heir to the Hawaiʻian throne. Her mother was a member of Hawaiʻian royalty, and her father a Scottish financier and the last Royal Governor of Oʻahu.
When she was just 11 years old her mother died mysteriously; she simply took to her bed and refused all food, dying at the age of 36, and leaving Kaʻiulani second in line to the throne. At 13 she was sent to Britain to be educated, where she studied for four years, excelling in all her subjects including art: she painted "Poppies", shown below, at 15.
While she was in Britain her uncle, King Kalakaua, died, leaving the throne to his sister Liliʻuokalani, who, being childless, officially made the 15-year-old Princess her heir. A few years before his death the king had been forced to accept a constitution that disenfranchised all Asians and poor Hawai‘ians while giving a lot of power to its wealthy American, European and rich Hawai‘ian citizens. The constitution was essentially dictated by the foreign corporations with a strong interest in controlling the islands' trade and enforced with the threat of armed force.
When the Queen took power, she tried to give the islands a new Constitution, one that disenfranchised foreign residents and re-enfranchised all Hawai‘ians. She was overthrown in a coup e'état supported by local American and European residents.
Their objective was immediate annexation to the United States, but this was prevented thanks to swift action by the Princess. She broke off her education and rushed to the USA, where she lobbied passionately for restoration of the monarchy. She made a great impression on many powerful people, including President Grover Cleveland, who was able to prevent the annexation (the islands were to be a Republic until annexation became official in 1898 under President William McKinley). However when Cleveland took her case to Congress, they refused to do anything to help.
Ka'iulani returned to Europe but the situation in Hawai‘i did not improve. Her health began to deteriorate and, when she returned to Hawai‘i in 1897, it was hoped the tropical climate would help. In 1898 she got caught in a storm while riding in the mountains and came down with a fever. She never really recovered. On March 6, 1899 she died at the age of 23. Hawai‘ians believe she died of a broken heart.
She loved peacocks, and kept many of them on her estate. When she died, peacocks on her estate all screamed so loudly that they had to be shot to silence them.
March 5, 2008
Lena Baker grew up in Georgia, where her family worked for a farmer chopping cotton. At 20 she discovered she could make money as a sex worker, but when the county sheriff discovered that some of her clientèle were white, she was arrested and sent to a workhouse for several months. When released, she found herself shut out by the black community.
By the time she was hired by Ernest Knight she was an alcoholic. He needed someone to take care of him after he had broken his leg in a fall. Eventually, however, the relationship included her trading sexual favours in return for alcohol.
The community was scandalized, and Knight's son tried to break them up. "She was going in and out there and drinking and some of the neighbors complained about it," he said. "I went to Lena and said, 'Lena, this has got to stop. I don't want to hurt you, don't want to have any trouble with you and you stay away from my Daddy. Don't come back to this house never no more'... Two days later, I drove by, and she was there. I took her and beat her until I just did leave life in her," he said.
Another one of Knight's sons persuaded his him to move to Florida, but Baker came with him. When confronted by the son and asked to leave, she did, but this time Knight followed her, and they both ended up back in small-town Georgia.
In April 1944 Knight showed up at her house, drunk, and demanded she come with him to his mill. She tried to evade the issue by asking for money for whiskey and then hiding from him, but he found her and forced him to come with him. She escaped and hid again, finding herself some whiskey and sleeping at a convict camp. The next morning she went to the mill, thinking that would be the last place he would be, but he was there. He confined her there for several hours, telling her that if she ever left him again he would kill her. They struggled, she managed to get hold of his pistol, and she killed him.
When tried for murder she pleaded self-defence, but given the public outrage at a black woman killing a white man it is not surprising that the all-white male jury convicted her in less than a day. She was sentenced to death in the electric chair. On entering the execution chamber, she sat calmly in the chair and said, "I have nothing against anyone. I'm ready to meet my God."
In 2005, at the request of her family, she was pardoned by the George Board of Pardons and Paroles, who commented that a verdict of manslaughter would have been more appropriate.
Source: Wikipedia, Crime Library
March 4, 2008
Upon hearing one particular baritone voice during the Metropolitan Opera auditions of 1938, conductor Wilfrid Pelletier rushed into the auditorium to check that someone was not substituting a recording of an established singer. Instead, he discovered Leonard Warren: a young man in his 20s who had seen just one opera before, whose repertoire was only five areas, and whose stage experience to that point consisted of a high school play. His natural voice must have been amazing, because he was hired on the spot, and sent to Italy for a crash course in opera singing. His voice was perfectly suited to Verdi's baritone roles, and thus he became a great opera star and a mainstay at the Met.
According to Peter Davis in The American Opera Singer, he had a "deluxe, quintessentially Metropolitan Opera sound". He also had a quintessentially dramatic death:
"Indeed, the most dramatic moment of Warren’s life came on the very last night of it, during a performance of La Forza del Destino... The baritone was about to launch the rousing cabaletta to Don Carlo’s aria, which begins 'Morir, tremenda cosa' (to die, a momentous thing), when he pitched face-forward to the floor. A few minutes later he was pronounced dead of a massive cerebral vascular hemorrhage, and the rest of the performance was canceled. Warren was only forty-eight."
There are several clips of Warren on YouTube; I've selected the Toreador song from Carmen to link to here, as it is performed in concert and you see Warren as himself, without makeup. Enjoy!
Sources: Wikipedia, The American Opera Singer
March 3, 2008
Parry-Thomas was a Welsh engineer who designed cars for Leyland Motors, but gave up his job in the late 1910s to pursue professional racing. He was killed in 1927 trying to break the land speed record. His car had an exposed chain connecting the engine to the right hand drive wheel, and the height of the engine meant he had to drive with his head tilted out to the right side in order to see. On his final run, at a speed of 170mph, the drive chain broke, nearly decapitating him. The car skidded and rolled and then began to burn. Two of his crew were able to get his corpse out of the car before the fire reached it, but had to break its legs to do so.
Parry-Thomas was buried in the conventional manner, but his beloved car, Babs, was rather unconventionally buried in a big hole on the beach on which he was racing. Forty years later the car was excavated and restored, and here is a picture of it.
Sources: Wikipedia, John Godfrey Parry Thomas
March 2, 2008
Marjorie Bruce was the eldest daughter of Robert Bruce, who was crowned Robert I of Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against Edward I of England.
Just a few months after her father was crowned, Marjorie was taken prisoner by an enemy of her father, along with her stepmother, two aunts, and another lady. She was nine years old. The prisoners were delivered to Edward I, who sent her and one aunt to a convent. Her stepmother was confined to a manor house in Yorkshire and the other two ladies were actually put in a cage and displayed to the public. Edward considered confining the nine-year-old Marjorie to a cage as well, but was persuaded not to.
Edward I died a year later but his son, Edward II, continued Marjorie's confinement for about 8 years (the ladies in the cage were moved to a convent after 4 years). She was released in 1314 in a prisoner exchange. Of course back in Scotland, as the daughter of a king, she was still virtually a prisoner, and was given to Walter Stewart as wife in reward for his valour in battle. The picture above is of the imagined meeting with new husband, drawn centuries after the fact. There is no known portrait of her in existence.
Two years later, while pregnant, Marjorie's horse startled while she was out riding and she fell to the ground. She went into labour and delivered a son prematurely, dying a few hours after the birth. The child, however, survived, and eventually ascended to the throne as Robert II. She is, in fact, the direct ancestor of the subsequent monarchs of both Scotland and England, including our own Queen Elizabeth.
March 1, 2008
Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow were world famous aviators; Charles in particular for making the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic. Together they were the first to fly from Africa to South America, and explored and charted many other air routes as well.
In March 1932 they had one child, Charles Junior. Anne put him to bed on March 1 at about 8pm, and looked in on him at 9pm, when she found him sleeping quietly.
The family's nanny checked the child at 10pm and found he was not in his bed. At first the two women suspected the baby's father was playing a joke, but it was not so. All three returned to the baby's bedroom and found a note on the nursery window sill. They called police, then searched the house and grounds, and found a homemade wooden ladder on the ground below the window of the baby's bedroom. They did not touch the note, however, until police arrived and processed the room and the note for fingerprints. When they did, it read:
Dear Sir! Have $50,000 ready $25,000 in $20 bills $15,000 in $10 bills and $10,000 in $5 bills. After 2-4 days we will inform you where to deliver the money. We warn you for making anything public or for notifying the Police. The child is in good care. Indication for all letters are singnature amL [and?] 3 holes.
There were two red and blue circles below the message with one hole punched through the red one, and two punched outside the circles.
Word of the kidnapping spread very quickly, and the press went into a frenzy. Useless offers of help poured in from all over the country. The state of New Jersey offered a $25,000 reward for the safe return of the child, and the Lindberghs offered an additional $50,000: combined, the equivalent of more than $1 million of today's dollars.
A new ransom note was delivered to the house a few days later, bearing the signature perforations and circles. Unfortunately Lindbergh gave the note to a man known to have mob connections, thinking the underworld might be able to do more than the police. Rosner promptly gave the letter to the press, and within days you could buy a printed copy of the note on the street for $5.
Things got strange. A 72-year-old schoolteacher from the Bronx named John Condon was one of the many who announced his willingness to help in any way, but unlike others he received a letter from the kidnappers nominating him as their intermediary. Lindbergh accepted the letter as genuine, apparently unaware that the value of the perforations and circles for identifying the actual kidnappers was now zero.
The kidnappers arranged to meet with Condon, and at the meeting a man named "John" told him the baby ws unharmed but they were not ready to return him yet. A few days later Condon received a baby's sleeping suit in the mail, confirmed by Lindbergh as belonging to his son.
As instructed, Condon took out an ad in the paper saying "Money is ready. No cops. No secret service. I come alone, like last time." A series of convoluted instructions were transmitted to Condon, at the end of which he handed over $50,000 in cash and a further $20,000 in gold certificates. He got in return a note claiming that the child was on a boat called The Nelly in Martha's Vineyard, but when Lindberg rushed there and searched the piers there was no boat of that name. He had been duped.
On May 12, 1932, a truck driver stopped to pee by the road near the Lindbergh home and discovered the body of a toddler. It was badly decomposed: the skull was fractured and the left leg and both hands were missing. They could not even determine the sex. However Lindbergh was able to identify the body as his son based on the overlapping toes of the baby's right foot, and the shirt he was wearing. The child had probably been killed by a blow to the head.
By July, police had begun to suspect that someone from the household was involved. One of the servants, when questioned, was nervous and suspicious and after repeated questioning she committed suicide by taking cyanide contained in silver polishing compound.
The case now depended on the money, for of course all the bills were recorded and the list of serial numbers widely circulated. In April 1933 someone brought in nearly $3,000 worth of them to be exchanged. The bank was busy so the certificates were not identified until the man had left, but he was traced to a German family named Gerhardt. When Condon was asked to listen to the men from the family, he declared that Gerhardt's son-in-law, the gardener, had a voice similar to the man he had met. When the police tried to question this individual, he killed himself.
Police continued to concentrate on the money, circulating the serial numbers to gas stations and businesses in the area of New York in which previous bills had turned up. Finally, in September 1934, a gas station attendant pencilled a licence plate number on a $10 bill that matched the numbers listed and turned it in. The car was traced to Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant with a criminal record back home. Police found more than $15,000 of the ransom money stashed around his place. When questioned, Hauptmann insisted that the money had belonged to a friend who had returned to Germany and died there. The evidence against him, however, was considerable, and he was found guilty and electrocuted on April 3, 1936, still proclaiming his innocence.