The bodies in the bogs


Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack.

Bog pool beneath Errigal Mountain, County Donegal, Ireland. Photo by Gareth McCormack, reproduced with permission – clicking the image takes you to Gareth’s site and more evocative landscape photography.

In an ancient bog at the foot of a fairy-haunted hill, peat-cutting work lays bare the body of a giant. Carbon dating suggests that the man died at the height of the Iron Age, around 275 B.C.; forensic examination shows that he died hard, stabbed through a lung and then decapitated with an axe. After killing him, his executioners chopped his body in half at the diaphragm, and at some point, perhaps while he was still alive, they also inflicted two pairs of unusual wounds on him. Deep cuts almost severed both his nipples, and his arms were vigorously pierced so that twisted lengths of hazel withy could be threaded through from side to side, presumably to pinion him. After that, his mutilated torso was sunk in a pool where, over the years, bog moss grew up to cradle and cover him, until he became part of the mire itself.

As the dead man’s assailants were most likely perfectly aware, the unusual properties of the bog and the moss combined to preserve his remains. The sour waters of high bogs are as acidic as vinegar, and they support practically no life, yet they contain bog oak – which deeply tans organic matter – and sphagnum moss, which uniquely binds both nitrogen and oxygen, inhibiting bacteria. Trapped in this nutrient poor, anaerobic environment, human remains are preserved almost intact; bones may be leeched and gradually demineralise, but flesh and wood, horn, fur, hair and textiles can and do survive for millennia. So when ditching work uncovered the torn remains that archaeologists now call “Old Croghan Man” outside the little village of Croghan, in County Offaly in the heart of Ireland, investigators could still make out the pores on his skin and inspect the well-manicured fingernails that showed that he had done no manual work and hinted at high status. They could calculate that he had once stood 6 feet 5 inches [1.95m] tall: a great height now, freakish for his day.  And they could feel reasonably certain that that height had been made possible by an unexpectedly rich diet, predominantly comprised of meat. Continue reading

King, magician, general … slave: Eunus and the First Servile War against Rome

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

The omens had been terrible that year. In Rome, a slave girl gave birth to a monster: “a boy with four feet, four hands, four eyes, double the usual number of ears, and two sets of sexual organs,” most likely a case of Siamese twins. In Sicily, Mount Etna erupted “in flashes of fire,” spewing gouts of molten rock and scorching ash that torched rich landowners’ property for miles around.

It all pointed to trouble – to trouble in Sicily, and most of all to trouble with the slaves. And when that trouble came, it made sense of the portents, for it was the work of a slave who was in Roman eyes a monster. He was a magician who belched flames like the volcano, an adept who foretold futures, and a messianic priest-king who served a grotesque foreign goddess, and led his people in a revolt that lasted half a decade, and took five large Roman armies to put down.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of a citadel in Enna, the formidable hill-top fortress that was his ancient capital.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of the citadel at Enna, in the interior of Sicily. The formidable hill-top fortress was once his ancient capital.

His name was Eunus – which may be translated, roughly, as “the kindly one” – and although he is practically forgotten now, he was a leader fit to rank alongside Spartacus – or, in truth, above him, for while both men were slaves who masterminded wars against Rome (Spartacus six decades later), Eunus’s rebellion was four or five times as large, and it lasted something like three times as long. He built a state, which Spartacus never tried to do, and all the evidence suggests that he inspired fierce loyalty in ways the Thracian gladiator could not – after all, Spartacus (to the surprise of those who know him from romantic film and television portrayals) was undone as much by dissension within the ranks of his own army as he was by the might of the legions that were sent against him. And when the end came for Eunus, it did so in a götterdämmerung reminiscent of nothing so much as the fall of Masada, the Jewish mountain-top fortress taken by Rome around 74 A.D. At Masada, the 960 surviving defenders committed suicide en masse rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. In Sicily, the thousand picked men of the slave-king’s bodyguard hacked their way out of encirclement, only to kill one another in an identical pact when their position became hopeless – leaving their leader and his last four followers to be hunted down in the furthest reaches of the mountains that had protected them for years. Continue reading

Sorcerers and soulstealers: hair-cutting panics in old China

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Painting from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also by a distance the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  Continue reading

The Breton Bluebeard

Cassia Lupo Widower Bluebeard and the Red Key

“Widower Bluebeard and the Red Key” – a painting from Cassia Lupo’s wonderful series “Fables and myths.” Reproduced with permission and grateful thanks.

For very nearly all its course, the Blavet is a placid river. It winds its way through central Brittany: broad, unhurried, gentle and unthreatening, a favourite among fishermen, and – for the century or so since it was dammed at Guerlédan, creating a substantial lake – a magnet for holidaymakers, too. Yet even there, at the heart of an ancient county that knows its history as well as anywhere in France, not one person in a thousand could tell the awful history of the river. Few realise that there were times when it was not so tame, or can point to where the outlines of an ancient fortress can yet be traced, up on the heights above the dam. And almost nobody recalls the lord of that forgotten castle, or could tell you why, until about 150 years ago, Breton peasants crossed themselves at the mere mention of his name.

His name was Conomor the Cursed, and he lived in the darkest of the Dark Ages – in the first half of the 6th century, 150 years or more after the fall of Rome, when much of Brittany was still dotted with dolmens and covered by primeval forest, when warlords squabbled with one another other over patrimonies that were generally less than 40 miles across, and the local peoples were as likely to be pagan as they were Christian. We know almost nothing about him, save that he was probably a Briton, very probably a tyrant, and that his deeds were remembered long enough to give rise to a folkloric tradition of great strength – one that endured for almost 1,500 years. But the folk-tales hint at someone quite extraordinary. In local lore, Conomor not only continued to roam the vast forest of Quénécan,  south of his castle, as a bisclaveret – a werewolf – and served as a spectral ferryman on another Breton river, making off with Christian souls; he was also the model for Bluebeard, the monstrous villain of Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tales. Continue reading

The longest prison sentences ever served: redux

Prison walls

Who served out the longest prison sentence known to history? My extensive investigation – begun in 2010 but now comprehensively updated – answers that question [it’s Charles Fossard, of Australia, with an all-but-incomprehensible 70 years, 303 days]. It also takes a look at some of Fossard’s unwitting and unwilling rivals, and tries to go inside the cells, to hear from the prisoners themselves. Their stories are often brutal, occasionally pathetic, but always surprisingly compelling.

The full story – which includes numerous case studies, a state-by-state listing of the longest sentences served everywhere from Alabama to Wisconsin, a look at record stretches from elsewhere, some notes on extraordinary cases of protracted solitary confinement, and a listing of all 16 known cases of men who spent in excess of 60 years behind bars – can be read here.


Final straggler: the Japanese soldier who outlasted Hiroo Onoda

Nakamura Teruo lead

Teruo Nakamura, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, survived deep in the jungles of Morotai for 29 years after the end of World War II – becoming the last of more than 120 stragglers to be rounded up on various islands in Indonesia and the Pacific between 1947 and 1974.

Japan’s present met its past met its present, four decades ago, by a river in a rainforest on the island of Lubang. The encounter took place late in the tropical dusk of 20 February 1974, as the breeze died and the air grew thick with flying insects. Representing the present was a college drop-out by the name of Norio Suzuki, 24 years old and clad in a T-shirt, dark blue trousers, socks, a pair of rubber sandals. He was stooping, making up a fire from a pile of twigs and branches, quite unaware that he was watched. The past, meanwhile, peered out from the cover of the jungle, wondering if the young man was some sort of trap. The man gazing from the forest fringe wore the remnants of an army uniform, and he carried a rifle. At the time of the encounter, he had been hiding in the interior of Lubang for almost 30 years, steadfastly continuing to wage a war that had ended with Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

The past’s name was Hiroo Onoda. He was an intelligence officer in the Imperial Japanese Army, he was then just shy of his fifty-second birthday, and he was about to become famous. Continue reading

Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

Detail from

Detail from “The love potion”, by the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite Evelyn De Morgan. The tangled tale of Aqua Tofana is intimately connected to the “criminal magical underworlds” of the 17th century, which supplied love philtres, potions, medicines and poisons to a mostly female clientele.

Early in the autumn of 1791, while he was still hard at work on the great requiem mass that would form such a large part of his legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill. Convinced that there was no chance of recovery, he

began to speak of death, and asserted that he was setting the Requiem for himself… “I feel definitely,” he continued, “that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea… Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.

Scholars have wrangled now for two full centuries over the circumstances of the great composer’s passing. A handful have concluded that he really was murdered. Most support rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops. Whatever the truth, though, and however he died, Mozart was certainly convinced that there existed a rare poison, one that was colourless, tasteless, odourless, beyond detection – and also so flexibly murderous that a carefully-calculated dose could guarantee a victim’s death a week, a month or even a year after it had been administered.

Nor was the composer alone in this belief. Forgotten though it is today, the mysterious liquid that he feared so much was one of the great whispered secrets of early modern Europe. Aqua Tofana was credited with what amounted to supernatural powers, and blamed for hundreds of agonising deaths. Which is odd, since it is very far from clear that it ever existed – and, if it did, what it was, where it was invented, where first used, and when and how it got its name. Continue reading