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 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.

 

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 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

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

The child murder that gave voodoo its bad name

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly.

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion. Continue reading

The secret plot to rescue Napoleon by submarine

Tom Johnson, the famous smuggler, adventurer, and inventor of submarines, sketched in 1834 for the publication of Scenes and Stories by a Clergyman in Debt.

Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions to the enemy’s coast.

But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.

The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day. In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was imprisoned on the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, at Waterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him. Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
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In the cave of the witches

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.

South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”

Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
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White gold: how salt made and unmade the Turks and Caicos Islands

The remains of a windmill, once used to pump brine into the salt pans of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Photo credit: www.amphibioustravel.com.

Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.

Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.

Raking salt on the Turks and Caicos Islands in about 1900.

All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.

The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. Continue reading