Monday 22 September 2014

The Long Count

On 22 September 1927, before a record crowd of 104,000 at Soldiers Field in Chicago, Jack Dempsey attempted to regain the Heavyweight Title he had lost to Gene Tunney the previous year. It was to become one of the most controversial fights of all time.

Though they came from not dissimilar backgrounds the two men could not have been more different.

Dempsey had won the title seven years earlier when he destroyed the 6'7" 'Pottawattomie Giant' Jess Willard, knocking him down seven times in the first round, breaking his jaw, three ribs, and leaving him deaf in one ear. It was one of the most savage beatings ever witnessed in a boxing ring and made Dempsey the most feared boxer of his or any previous generation, and it was said the cast of his eye alone was enough to chill his opponents to the bone.

But for Gene Tunney boxing was a science not a brawl, and the means to make a living not a life to lead. He preferred books to prize fighting and counted such literary luminaries as F Scott Fitzgerald and George Bernard Shaw among his friends. The public however hated his intellectual pretensions and at their first fight the previous year the crowd had been firmly behind their hero, Dempsey. But Tunney, who studied his opponents on film before a fight, had produced a boxing masterclass winning every round to take the title.

By the time of their second fight public opinion had changed following the accusation that Dempsey had dodged the draft in World War One and he was jeered as he entered the ring, the crowds allegiance now being with the ex-Marine Tunney.

The re-match appeared to be going very much the way of the first fight with Tunney keeping his distance, avoiding Dempsey's increasingly desperate lunges, and jabbing his way to a large points lead when in the 7th Round two right-crosses staggered him before beneath a flurry of follow-up punches he slumped to the canvass.

Tunney was clearly dazed as he held onto the ropes with his left glove. Dempsey stood over him glowering, waiting for him to rise, and ignored the referees instruction to return to his corner before the count could begin.

It remains uncertain exactly how much time was lost and some suggest it could have been as much as eight seconds but Tunney took every moment, staring directly at the referee and not rising to the count of nine. He then skilfully swerved and dodged Dempsey's wild and uncoordinated attacks.

Normal service was resumed in the following round with Tunney flooring Dempsey and going onto dominate the remainder of the fight.

The notorious 'Long Count' still remains one of the most controversial events in boxing history, however.

When asked in the aftermath of the fight why he had ignored the referees instructions Dempsey replied: "I wanted to kill the son-of-a-bitch." Talking to his wife he also coined the famous phrase - "Honey, I forgot to duck."

But his good grace in defeat, raising the Champions arm in triumph, earned him the applause of the crowd and he later restored his reputation as a patriotic American by serving in the Pacific during World War Two.

But he never fought in the ring again.

Gene Tunney was to retire the undefeated Champion the following year.

The unschooled Dempsey and the intellectual Tunney were to become lifelong friends following retirement even if they never could quite agree on the outcome of the fight had it gone to the count of ten.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti, translated as "the beautiful one has come", was the wife of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten who tried to force polytheistic Egypt to worship just the one God - Aten, the sun disc:

"Aten, Glorious Aten on the horizon of Heaven, O Living Aten, Creator of Life."

So certain was he that all life derived from the sun that he had even changed his name from Ahemotep IV in its honour.

Nefertiti bore Akhenaten six daughters but not his son, Tutankhamun, whom he sired with his sister Kiya, which should have made her his Great Queen, but he instead retained her as his secondary wife.

Akhenaten was obsessed with Nefertiti and it was rumoured that he dressed like her and had his makeup applied to look like her. They were also depicted in art together, often with their children or worshiping Aten, providing her with unprecedented status for a woman, even a Queen, in Egyptian society.

In the final year of Akhenaten's reign Nefertiti mysteriously disappeared and another woman named Smekhare appeared at his side whom he soon after appointed his co-Regent.

It is believed he always intended Nefertiti to succeed him as the reward for her beauty and loyalty and to continue his religious reforms but that she was so unpopular with the people that to do so she had to reinvent herself and re-emerge as someone different.
In 1336 BC, Akhenaten died and not long after the mysterious Smekhare also disappears from history, probably murdered.

The new Pharaoh would be his 9 year old son Tutankhamun during whose reign, and dominated by the brutal General Heromheb, all his father's religious reforms would be reversed. 

Friday 19 September 2014

Scotland Decides

For many centuries Scotland fought hard to maintain its independence against the interference of its more powerful English neighbour; from the heroics of William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, to the triumph of Robert the Bruce over the army of Edward II on the banks of the Bannockburn, and the issue in April 1320, of the stirring and defiant Declaration of Arbroath:

" . . . for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honour that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with his life."

On 24 March 1603, Scotland became part of a Dual Monarchy when its King, James VI, was also crowned James I of England.

It was his ambition to make the Island of Britain one but this would not materialise for another hundred years when following in the wake of the disastrous Darien Expedition to Panama that had taken up a full-third of Scotland's liquid capital and had been an economic catastrophe for the country the English Parliament, sensing its vulnerability, sought to incorporate into a political union.

On the pledge that those who had lost money in the Darien Expedition would be recompensed and that in future Scotland's national debt would be shared on 1 May 1707, against the will of its people (there were riots in many towns and cities) representatives of the Scottish Parliament signed the Act of Union with England.

It was a deed that led the poet Robert Burns to bitterly remark:

"We were bought and sold for English gold."

Over the next two centuries Scotland, along with the rest of Britain, would stand at the forefront of the Enlightenment, drive forward the Industrial Revolution, create an Empire of conquest and free-trade of unparalleled breadth and scope, and prosper as never before.

But was it a success bought at too higher price?

On September 18, in a Referendum the people of Scotland decided - No.

Extracts from Prisoners of Eternity Newsletter No 1 10-9-14:

Thursday 18 September 2014

Their Finest Hour

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

In preparation for Operation Sealion, the invasion of the British mainland, on 1 August 1940, Adolf Hitler issued the following orders:

"The German Air Force is to overcome the British Air Force with all the means at its disposal, and as soon as possible".

The Battle of Britain had begun.

On 15 September 1940, in an attempt to break the back of the Royal Air Force once and for all the Luftwaffe launched a massive aerial assault on Britain in two waves. The fighting was ferocious and continued all day but by the end of the day the Germans had failed in their objective and had sustained heavy losses.

It proves the turning point.

On 17 September, Hitler postpones Operation Sealion for the foreseeable future from now on the civilian population would be targeted and Britain would be bombed into submission.

After weeks of ferocious combat over its skies Britain ceased to be in imminent danger of invasion but the cost had been high for both sides:

Britain had lost 537 of its 1,200 pilots killed, 422  wounded, and 1,012 planes destroyed.

But German losses had been even higher with 2,662 men killed, 967 captured, and 638  missing with 1,918 aircraft destroyed.

Earlier Winston Churchill had addressed the nation:

"The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen, who undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

The Battle of Britain was over the Blitz had begun.

15 September, Battle of Britain Day - defeating fascism

Sunday 14 September 2014

Burke and Hare: The Bodysnatchers

In the grim, dank, and dark streets of nineteenth century Edinburgh an illicit trade was flourishing, it was a trade in murder and dead bodies.

Grave-robbing around this time was hardly unknown particularly as the custom was to bury the recently deceased wearing their jewellery, their expensive pocket-watch or similar, and in their finest clothes.

They provided rich-pickings for those willing to defile the bodies of the dead but the stealing of corpses for reasons of forensic science was a relatively new phenomenon, and the fresher the cadaver the better the price.

This grim trade was to spawn two of the most notorious killers in history - William Burke and William Hare.

Both of whom, though they operated in Scotland were in fact Irish.

William Burke was born in the town of Urney in County Tyrone around 1792, and is believed to have been a relatively well-educated man who had served in the British Army.

He was also a married man with two children who seemed to enjoy a modicum of respectability, but for some reason in 1817 he simply abandoned his family and fled to Scotland.

Moving to Edinburgh he struggled to make a living doing various menial jobs before finding regular work on the Union Canal, and not long after moving to the city he went to live with Helen MacDougall, a prostitute.

William Hare was born in Newry around 1800 and it seems unlikely that two men knew each other in Ireland but they both worked on the Union Canal and it is likely that it was here that the two men met.

In 1826 he married the widow of his landlord, Margaret Laird.

It was the custom for the dead to be buried in their finest clothes and with their most valued possession often a ring or pocket watch.

It made the recently laid to rest a magnet for the so-called Resurrectionists in search of easy pickings and graveyards at night were not places of silent repose.  

Indeed, so common had grave-robbing become by the 1820’s that it was not unknown for families to stand guard at the graveside of their deceased relative until they were sure that the bodies had decomposed when they would dig down open up the coffin and remove any valuables that may have been buried with them.

It is likely that Burke and Hare were already experienced grave-robbers when in late 1827 a tenant at Margaret Laird's Lodging House unexpectedly died still owing rent.

Burke and Hare packed his body in a box and took it to the residence of the ambitious Edinburgh surgeon and anatomist Dr Robert Knox.

Fresh cadavers were at a premium in Edinburgh and Dr Knox was happy to pay them £7'10s for the corpse.
Neither Burke nor Hare felt morally compromised by what they had done, they were after all merely retrieving the money he owed.

It soon dawned on them however that this was a much easier way of making money than going out in the dead of night to dig up the recently departed from the frozen ground. Or indeed the back-breaking work they were required to do for a pittance on the Union Canal.

This was also the most they had ever been paid for a corpse and they realised that the sooner they got the corpse to a surgeon the more they were likely to be paid.

Their minds turned to murder.

Working from Margaret Laird's Lodging House in Tanner's Corner, West Point, they first murdered a sick tenant, Joseph Miller whom they got drunk with whisky before suffocating him.

This soon became their preferred modus operandi.

In February 1828, they lured an elderly woman, Abigail Simpson, to the house when again she was made to drink whisky and then suffocated.

It was important that the bodies remained unmarked to avoid suspicion.

Burke and Hare were soon making more money than they had ever made in their lives, and there was an endless supply of victims.

They told Dr Knox that they could provide him with a regular supply of fresh cadavers but that it must be done on a no questions asked basis.

Dr Knox agreed.

Both Margaret Laird and Helen MacDougall were willing participants in their respective partners work. They would invite women into the house where they would provide them with copious amounts of alcohol before calling in one of the men to finish them off.

Most of their victims were prostitutes.

Burke would also prowl the streets of Edinburgh Old Town in the dead of night looking for potential victims often lurking outside Police Stations waiting for intoxicated women to be taken for a night in the cells.

He would then get them released into his custody on the guarantee of their future good behaviour.

Two hours later they would be delivered up dead to Dr Knox.

Burke and Hare's victims were beginning to mount up.

They included an entire family of grandmother, daughter, granddaughter and grandson.

The people they murdered rarely seemed to be missed and Dr Knox who always paid up on delivery was eager for more.

It was all too easy, they were becoming complacent, and their luck was about to run out.

During one of Burke's nocturnal prowls he came across two well-known local prostitutes Janet Brown and Mary Patterson whom he invited back to the Lodging House.

Janet Brown left when she became concerned by Burke's increasingly aggressive behaviour. Mary Patterson remained, however.

A few hours later her body turned up on Dr Knox's operating table.

Amongst his students were some of her former clients who were surprised to say the least and their suspicions were further aroused when a little later Burke murdered a popular local retard known as Daft Jamie.

This was the second time in a few days that a well-known local character had turned up on Dr Knox's operating table and some of his students now questioned him as to where exactly he was getting these bodies from.

Knox refused to answer and denied that the body on the slab was that of Daft Jamie but merely of someone who looked similar.

In December 1828, almost a year into his murder spree, Burke invited a woman he had befriended, Marjory Docherty, to stay in the Lodging House.

But first she would have to wait for the current lodgers James and Ann Gray to move out for the night.

When they returned the following day Burke told them not to go near the bed which was a foolish thing to say for the first thing she did was to check underneath where to her horror she found the body of Marjory Docherty.

She fled the house and with her husband made for the nearest Police Station.

Realising what was happening Helen MacDougall pursued them down the street begging them to stop, even offering them £10 not to tell of what they had seen but they refused.

By the time the Police arrived at the Lodging House a few hours later the body had been removed and upon being questioned regarding the whereabouts of Marjory Docherty Burke told them that she had left the Lodging House at 7 am that morning.

When Helen MacDougall contradicted him by saying that she had in fact left the previous evening they were both promptly arrested.

The Police soon made the connection between Burke and Dr Knox.

When they visited the surgeon later in the day they found the body of Marjory Docherty already lain out on his slab.

The Police now also arrested William Hare and Margaret Laird who were known to be associates of Burke and MacDougall, and also to have worked for Dr Knox.

When she heard of the arrests Janet Brown went to the Police and confirmed that some of the clothing found at the scene had belonged to her missing friend, Mary Patterson.

The Police considered the evidence against Burke, Hare, and the others too flimsy to guarantee a conviction for murder.

Having identified the shy and nervous Hare as the weaker of the two men and the one least likely to have committed the murders (though he was certainly guilty of at least one) the Lord Advocate Sir William Rae offered him immunity from prosecution if he would turn King's Evidence and testify against Burke.

He needed little persuading.

William Burke was to be convicted on 16 counts of murder but at his trial he testified that Dr Robert Knox had known nothing of the origin of the cadavers he was provided with and so despite having already been convicted in the court of public opinion he was never charged.

Believing that justice had been served in the conviction of Burke neither Margaret Laird nor Helen MacDougall ever faced prosecution though they were forced to flee Edinburgh to avoid the angry mobs that were set upon lynching them.

They both died in obscurity.

William Burke was hanged on 29 January 1829.

In the days immediately prior to his execution he publicly forgave Hare for his betrayal.

Always a garrulous man he talked a great deal to the Catholic Priests he insisted attend him throughout his ordeal and he was said to have wept a great deal and to have been truly remorseful for what he had done and he faced his execution with fortitude.

His corpse, like that of his victims was dissected for the benefit of the students at Edinburgh's College of Surgeons.

His death mask, skeleton, and a wallet made from his tanned skin remain as exhibits in the College Museum.

William Hare was released from custody in January 1829 and left Edinburgh after being attacked in the street and seriously injured.

He was last heard of living in Carlisle, blind, penurious and in poor health.          

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Empress Elisabeth: Another Hapsburg Tragedy

In the early afternoon of 10 September 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria Hungary, was strolling along the shores of Lake Geneva unaccompanied except for her Lady-in-Waiting Countess Irma Szatory, when a man suddenly appeared, pushed her parasol aside and appeared to grab her.

 He soon ran off and the Empress though a little shaken seemed none the worse for the experience and expressed her desire to continue. As they proceeded however see began to lose her balance a little and the Countess was forced to take her arm to steady her. 

The Empress had been holidaying incognito under an assumed name and so had ordered her entourage to depart before her.

Her status as Empress of Europe's oldest ruling dynasty, and long considered one of the most beautiful and desirable women in the World of whom it was said despite being sixty years old and a little gaunt, her beauty and grace had not diminished, enjoyed the freedom that anonymity permitted her.

Unknown to her, however, her true identity had been revealed in the newspapers the previous day.

The couple continued towards their destination, the boat that was to take them across the lake, when the Empress's breathing became increasingly heavy and intermittent. As they boarded she collapsed but the Captain refused to take her condition seriously, so much so, that the Countess felt obliged to reveal that her mistress was Empress of Austria. 

Doctors were now called and unlacing the Empress's corsets to allow her to breathe easier a small wound gently oozing blood was discovered beneath her left breast.

 She was carried with some urgency to a private cabin but before treatment could begin she took two last deep breaths and died. 

The wife of the Emperor Franz Joseph had been killed with a 4 inch nail file by the anarchist Luigi Luccheni in an act of propaganda by deed. 

She was to be just one of a number of high-profile victims, including an American and French President, two Spanish Prime Ministers, and the King of France, and of Greece, who were to fall victim to the anarchist reign of terror.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Death of the Princess Alice: Disaster on the Thames

It was 3 September 1878, a pleasant, warm late summer evening as the paddle steamer SS Princess Alice commanded by Captain Robert Hartridge Grinsted returned up the River Thames having earlier disembarked 900 passengers, mostly families, for a day out at Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend.

After a thoroughly enjoyable day out there was a party atmosphere on board. Standing upon the foredeck a group of women were singing prayers but most of the passengers were below decks listening to the ships band and enjoying the copious food, beer and wine on offer.

By 7.40 pm darkness had begun to descend, a low mist lay upon the river and visibility was poor. The Princess Alice had just reached a particularly difficult bend in the river to navigate known as Gallions Reach but it was close to Woolwich and her destination and the end of a long and tiring day for Captain Grinsted and his crew.

About the same time the 890 ton Bywell Castle, a collier on its way from Millwall Docks to pick up a delivery of coal from Newcastle was travelling at half-speed down the centre of the river. Its Captain, Thomas Harrison, had taken the traditional route ignoring the 1872 guidelines that were yet to come into law that all oncoming vessels should be passed on the port side.

Seeing the Princess Alice in the distance he ascertained that the course she was taking would bring her across the Bywell Castle's bow and as such he ordered his pilot Christopher Dix, a man of many years experience navigating the River Thames to turn towards the south shore allowing for the Bywell Castle to pass by the Princess Alice's stern.

Dix concurred that it was the correct manoeuvre but at the very same moment that he turned to port Captain Grinsted aboard the Princess Alice did the same putting her directly into the Bywell Castle's path.

Captain Harrison immediately ordered the Bywell Castle's engines put into reverse but it was too late and she ploughed straight into the side of the Princess Alice.

The Bywell Castle which was four times the size of the pleasure steamer cut her in two and both ends of the Princess Alice were standing high out of the water. As Captain Harrison desperately tried to extricate his ship from the wreckage the stern of the Princess Alice sank almost immediately and the bow followed just four minutes later. There had barely been enough time to panic.

Captain Harrison weighed anchor, ordered boats to be lowered and had ropes slung over the side of the ship but in reality there was little he could do. The tide was going out and hundreds of those struggling in the water were swept out to sea. The Princess Alice had also sunk in an area of the Thames that was heavily polluted with sewage and industrial waste and many of those who did not drown were subsequently poisoned.

There was nothing on the Princess Alice to help keep people afloat in the event of an emergency and only two lifeboats aboard with no time to launch them in any case.

Also with swimming not at the time considered a leisure pursuit few people could do so and the many women aboard weighed down by their velvet dresses and heavy petticoats sank quickly under the water often clutching their children in their arms.

News of the disaster took time to spread and the few emergency services that existed were to prove inadequate to the task. Indeed for some time there were more onlookers present than those undertaking any kind of rescue operation.

It was also dark and with few lights available it was almost impossible to locate the screams that could be heard coming from the water.

It soon began to dawn on people that there would be few survivors and most of those who did had managed to cling onto the ropes lowered by the Bywell Castle. Only six people managed to swim to the shoreline of their own volition.

Some 723 people died aboard the Princess Alice though only 600 bodies were ever recovered and the disaster had a traumatic effect on complacent Victorian Britain and a great deal of hand-wringing went on over the failure to implement even the most basic safety measures.

The Official Inquiry that began just a few days after the tragedy brought in a verdict of Death by Misadventure though many blamed Captain Harrison. They could not after all blame Captain Grinsted who had nobly, it was said, gone down with his ship.

When the wreck of the Princess Alice was salvaged from the bottom of the Thames some weeks later the trauma began all over again.

Hundreds of bodies were found piled up against the salon bar doors where they had desperately been trying to escape the ship before it sank. A great many of these were children gaily dressed in party hats and bonnets. The fact that the bodies were mangled, had their flesh eaten away by the effects of the pollution and were mostly unrecognisable only made matters worse.

Captain Thomas Harrison was later cleared of any blame in the Princess Alice disaster and had his licence that had been temporarily suspended returned to him but he never again took a ship to sea.

The Bywell Castle was lost with all hands during a storm in the Bay of Biscay just five years later.

The sinking of the Princess Alice was the greatest ever loss of life on England’s inland waterways and passenger travel on the River Thames which had once been such a popular pastime, has never fully recovered.