America’s first highjacking

Earnest Pletch, 'The Flying Lochinvar': early highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder.

Earnest Pletch, ‘The Flying Lochinvar’: pioneer highjacker and committer of a spectacularly pointless murder.

Earnest Pletch was mad on planes and mad on flying. In itself, that was scarcely uncommon in the America of the 1930s, a dozen years after Charles Lindbergh’s solo crossing of the Atlantic turned the United States into the epicentre of everything exciting in the aviation world. Yet Pletch was a pretty unusual case. He came from a well-off family, but had dropped out of school to find work in a travelling show. He was a serial husband and adulterer who was already, at the age of 29, planning to abandon his third wife. And he had actually been taking flying lessons.

Now – late on the afternoon of 27 October 1939 – Pletch was looking forward to going solo. He was not going to take the controls in the usual way, however. He was going to do so after shooting his pilot in the back of the head.

He may be long forgotten now, but Pletch came briefly to America’s attention that autumn after booking tuition in Missouri with a pilot by the name of Carl Bivens. Midway through the third of these sessions, while airborne at 5,000 feet and sitting in the rear seat of a tandem training plane equipped with dual controls, he pulled a revolver from a trouser pocket and, without giving any warning, sent two .32 calibre bullets through Bivens’s skull. Pletch then managed to land the plane, dumped the instructor’s body in a thicket, and took off again, heading north to his home state to… well, what he intended to do was never really clear, and we will come to that. Continue reading

Queen Victoria’s £5: the strange tale of Turkish aid to Ireland during the Great Famine

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

The most striking thing about the ghastly blight that ruined Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 was that the harvest had seemed healthy, even robust, when it was lifted from the ground.

Within a day or two, however, rot set in. Potatoes that had looked firm and edible turned black and then disintegrated into a stinking, liquid mess. No one knew why. John Lindley, the editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, guessed that this “wet putrefaction” was a disease borne in from the Atlantic by torrential gales. Others thought that the blight had somehow risen up from underground, so that the soil itself was now infected.

The one certainty was that every measure tried to save the harvest failed. “All specifics, all nostrums were useless,” the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith observed. “Whether ventilated, desiccated, salted, or gassed, the potatoes melted… and pits, on being opened, were found to be filled with diseased potatoes–‘six months’ provisions a mass of rottenness.’” The blight struck everywhere that year, from North America to Belgium, and the Irish had long been distressingly familiar with disastrous harvests; twenty-four previous crop failures had been recorded between 1728 and 1844. Several of these had caused suffering “horrible beyond description,” and it has been estimated that very nearly half a million people died during Ireland’s “Year of Slaughter” (1740-41), when a freezing winter caused the oat crop to fail. But the catastrophe of 1845 was was remembered as the greatest of them all, and it affected Ireland more profoundly than it did anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Scottish Highlands. Continue reading

The Fayum mummy portraits

Some Fayum portraits, dating collectively to the period AD70-250. The numbers refer to discussions in the text.

Some Fayum portraits, dating collectively to the period AD 70-250. The numbers refer to discussions in the text.

She is very beautiful. Her face is flawless: long and olive skinned, the nose long too, but neat and narrow, the brows crafted, the chin just firm enough to suggest a certain liveliness of character. She has dark hair, and one gets the distinct impression that it has potential for unruliness, but it has been called to order and fashionably styled, cut short over the ears in order to display expensive jewellery. A half-smile plays about her lips, and it does not seem too much to read a hint of amusement into her large brown eyes. It is easy to imagine meeting her at some elegant affair, for she seems alive – yet she is dead, and has been dead for rather more than 1,800 years [1].

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A little bit of background: The crucifixion of Prince Klaas

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel - the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John's, Antigua.

Prince Klaas lashed to the wheel – the image on display at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, Antigua.

The story of Prince Klaas, the rebel slave, is one of the highlights of the charming Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John’s, which I had the chance to wander around in December 2012 while doing some lecturing in the Caribbean. Slave revolts have been an interest of mine for years, and I was familiar with the outlines of Klaas’s remarkable story – which I wrote up for the Smithsonian at the time (causing a certain amount of upset in Antigua itself among people who don’t seem to have actually read the article very closely). But I had never seen a picture that purported to show him, and in fact it’s vanishingly rare for images of slave leaders to survive from so early a period as the first half of the eighteenth century. So when I discovered that the museum displayed a drawing of Klaas, naked, strapped face down to a wheel, and being lashed, I snapped it and later used it as an illustration in the essay that I wrote.

I felt a little bit uneasy about this. There was something not quite right about the sketch. Klaas, after all, had been bound in order to suffer the appalling punishment of breaking on the wheel – a form of execution that involved the systematic pulverisation of the victim’s bones that is, in effect, a form of crucifixion. Yet the drawing showed Klaas being whipped, not shattered. The wheel that he was strapped to seemed to be lying on the ground, when in reality it would have been mounted on an axle, the better to rotate the victim to face the executioner’s blows. The man administering the punishment was black, implying that he was the overseer on a plantation, not an executioner employed by the Antiguan government. And the artist had depicted only a handful of spectators, not the substantial crowd that watched Klaas die.

Eventually I decided to take a closer look at the problem, and spent a little while researching images of slavery. I soon discovered that my misgivings were correct. Continue reading

The last secret of the H.L. Hunley

Submarine inventor James R. McClintock as he looked in the later 1870s, from a carte de visite photographed in New Albany. McClintock was living in the Illinois town when he journeyed to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there. Image: Naval Historical Center.

At a quarter to nine on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was on active duty, blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by a wintry moon that barely illuminated the dark ocean, was a sight so strange that he was not at first quite certain what it was. “Something on the water,” he recalled it to a court of enquiry a week later, “which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby told the Housatonic‘s quartermaster of the object, but it had already disappeared–and when, a moment later, he saw it again, it was too close to the sloop for there to be time to slip the anchor. The Housatonic‘s crew scrambled to their action stations just in time to witness a substantial explosion on their starboard side. Fatally holed, their ship sank in a few minutes, taking five members of her crew with her.

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship–all 1,240 tons of her–had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley‘s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about how the submarine came to be built – of her funding by a patriotic Southerner named Horace Hunley, the construction of two prototypes, and how the Hunley herself was riveted together at Mobile – not to mention the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We also know a little of the men who did the actual work: James McClintock and Baxter Watson, two talented mechanics who were running a steam gauge business in New Orleans when the war broke out. We even have a shrewd idea of the division of labor between the two men, for Watson’s son once confided that while his father had built the Hunley, it was McClintock who designed her. Of the three men responsible for the Hunley, then, it was probably James McClintock who played the most important role–and, as thing turn out, it is McClintock who also has by far the strangest tale to tell. Continue reading

A little bit of background: Envoi

Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

Jorge Luis Borges and the infinite library

My parting shot, in the sidebar to this blog, is a quote from a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer and librarian: “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.” This, to me, is a rather beautiful sentiment, and even hopeful. However, while it’s how Borges’s words are usually presented in compilations of quotations, and it turns them into something that can stand alone, it’s loosely translated. In fairness to the poet’s memory, here is the whole of his ‘Poem of the Gifts’ (1958), with the original words in their proper context. The translation is by Alastair Reid, and the poem is one that every bibliophile should know. It addresses the progressive blindness that began to afflict Borges shortly after his appointment as director of the National Library of Argentina in succession to Paul Groussac – who, strangely, was also blind. Continue reading

Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard

George Fabian Lawrence, better known as

George Fabian Lawrence, better known as “Stoney Jack,” parlayed his friendships with London navvies into a stunning series of archaeological discoveries between 1895 and 1939.

It was only a small shop in an unfashionable part of London, but it had a most peculiar clientele. From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, and its only visitors were schoolboys who came to gaze through the windows at the marvels crammed inside. But on Saturday afternoons the shop was opened by its owner—a “genial frog” of a man, as one acquaintance called him, small, pouched, wheezy, permanently smiling and with the habit of puffing out his cheeks when he talked. Settling himself behind the counter, the shopkeeper would light a cheap cigar and then wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. He waited at the counter many years—from roughly 1895 until his death in 1939—and in that time accumulated such a hoard of valuables that he supplied the museums of London with more than 15,000 ancient artifacts and still had plenty left to stock his premises at 7 West Hill, Wandsworth.

“It is,” the journalist H.V. Morton assured his readers in 1928,

perhaps the strangest shop in London. The shop sign over the door is a weather-worn Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins… There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… [and] all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.

H.V. Morton, one of the best-known British journalists of the 1920s and 1930s, often visited Lawrence’s shop as a young man, and wrote a revealing and influential pen-portrait of him.

This higgledy-piggledy collection was the property of George Fabian Lawrence, an antiquary born in the Barbican area of London in 1861—though to say that Lawrence owned it is to stretch a point, for much of his stock was acquired by shadowy means, and on more than one occasion an embarrassed museum had to surrender an item it had bought from him. For the better part of half a century, however, august institutions from the British Museum down winked at his hazy provenances and his suspect business methods, for the shop on West Hill supplied items that could not be found elsewhere.

Among the major museum pieces that Lawrence obtained and sold were the head of an ancient ocean god, which remains a cornerstone of the Roman collection at the Museum of London; a spectacular curse tablet in the British Museum; and the magnificent Cheapside Hoard: a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar shortly before the First World War. It was the chief triumph of Lawrence’s career that he could salvage the Hoard, which still comprises the greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed. Continue reading

Friedrich Engels’ Irish muse

Portrait of a young revolutionary: Friedrich Engels at age 21, in 1842, the year he moved to Manchester–and the year before he met Mary Burns.

Friedrich Engels lived a life replete with contradiction. He was a Prussian communist, a keen fox-hunter who despised the landed gentry, and a mill owner whose greatest ambition was to lead the revolution of the working class. As a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie, he provided, for nearly 40 years, the financial support that kept his collaborator Karl Marx at work on world-changing books such as Das Kapital. Yet at least one biographer has argued that, while they were eager enough to take Engels’s money, Marx and his aristocratic wife, Jenny von Westphalen, never really accepted him as their social equal.

Amid these oddities lurks another—a puzzle whose solution offers fresh insights into the life and thinking of the midwife of Marxism. The mystery is this: Why did Engels, sent in 1842 to work in the English industrial city of Manchester, choose to lead a double life, maintaining gentleman’s lodgings in one part of the city while renting a series of rooms in workers’ districts? How did this well-groomed scion of privilege contrive to travel safely through Manchester’s noisome slums, collecting information about their inhabitants’ grim lives for his first great work, The Condition of the Working Class in England? Strangest of all, why—when asked many years later about his favorite meal—would a native German like Engels answer: “Irish stew”? Continue reading

Islam’s medieval underworld

Arab city

Arab city

An Arab city of the early medieval period. Urban centers in the Middle East were of a size and wealth all but unknown in the Christian west during this period, encouraging the development of a large and diverse fraternity of criminals. From a contemporary manuscript.

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Guessing that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.

We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods. Continue reading

The octogenarian who took on the shoguns

Shakushain, the leader of Ainu resistance to Japan, is shown in this modern memorial on Hokkaido. Thanks to a postwar revival of Ainu nationalism, celebrations of indigenous culture are held each year at this spot. Photo: Wikicommons.

There has always been something otherworldly about Hokkaido. It is the most northerly of the four great land masses that make up Japan, and although separated from the mainland, Honshu, by a strait only a few miles wide, the island remains geologically and geographically distinct. Spiked with mountains, thick with forests, and never more than sparsely populated, it has a stark and wintry beauty that sets it apart from the more temperate landscapes to the south.

Hokkaido is such a familiar feature on maps of Japan that it is easy to forget what a recent addition it is to both the nation and the state. It does not appear in Japanese chronicles until around 1450, and was not formally incorporated into greater Japan until 1869. As late as 1650, the island was known as “Ezo,” and was a distant frontier zone, only tenuously controlled from Edo (modern Tokyo). Even in the 1740s, Tessa Morris-Suzuki notes, maps of the region still showed it “disappearing over the horizon and petering out in a splash of unconvincing islands.” And while it seems always to have possessed a small population of Japanese hunters and merchants, Hokkaido was home to, and for the most part run by, a significantly larger group of indigenous tribes known collectively as the Ainu.
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