The Villisca Axe Murders 100 years on

Joe and Sarah Moore, c.1905 with their eldest two children, Herman and Katherine. All four, together with two younger children and two of Katherine’s young friends, would die together in June 1912, killed by an unidentified ax-wielding assailant. The unsolved crime remains Iowa’s most infamous murder mystery.

Shortly after midnight on June 10, 1912—one hundred years ago this week—a stranger hefting an ax lifted the latch on the back door of a two-story timber house in the little Iowa town of Villisca. The door was not locked—crime was not the sort of thing you worried about in a modestly prosperous Midwest settlement of no more than 2,000 people, all known to one another by sight—and the visitor was able to slip inside silently and close the door behind him. Then, according to a reconstruction attempted by the town coroner next day, he took an oil lamp from a dresser, removed the chimney and placed it out of the way under a chair, bent the wick in two to minimize the flame, lit the lamp, and turned it down so low it cast only the faintest glimmer in the sleeping house.

Still carrying the ax, the stranger walked past one room in which two girls, ages 12 and 9, lay sleeping, and slipped up the narrow wooden stairs that led to two other bedrooms. He ignored the first, in which four more young children were sleeping, and crept into the room in which 43-year-old Joe Moore lay next to his wife, Sarah. Raising the ax high above his head—so high it gouged the ceiling—the man brought the flat of the blade down on the back of Joe Moore’s head, crushing his skull and probably killing him instantly. Then he struck Sarah a blow before she had time to wake or register his presence.

The Moore house in Villisca, 1912. One of the town’s larger and better-appointed properties, it still stands today and has been turned into Villisca’s premier tourist attraction. For a price, visitors can stay in the house overnight; there is no shortage of interested parties.

Leaving the couple dead or dying, the killer went next door and used the ax—Joe’s own, probably taken from where it had been left in the coal shed—to kill the four Moore children as they slept. Once again, there is no evidence that Herman, 11; Katherine, 10; Boyd, 7; or Paul, 5, woke before they died. Nor did the assailant or any of the four children make sufficient noise to disturb Katherine’s two friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, as they slept downstairs. The killer then descended the stairs and took his ax to the Stillinger girls, the elder of whom may finally have awakened an instant before she, too, was murdered.

What happened next marked the Villisca killings as truly peculiar and still sends shivers down the spine a century after the fact. Continue reading

Hitler and hot jazz

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels makes a point. Still from 1930s German film footage.

Amid the collection of thugs, sycophants, stone-eyed killers and over-promoted incompetents who comprised the wartime leadership of Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels stood out. For one thing, he was genuinely intelligent—he had earned a doctorate in Romantic literature before becoming Hitler’s propaganda chief. For another, he understood that his ministry needed to do more than merely hammer home the messages of Hitler’s ideology.

Goebbels knew he needed to engage—with an increasingly war-weary German public, and with the Allied servicemen whose morale he sought to undermine. This clear-eyed determination to deal with reality, not fantasy, led him to some curious accommodations. None, however, were quite so strange as his attempts to harness the dangerous attractions of dance music to Hitler’s cause. It was an effort that led directly to the creation of that oxymoron in four-bar form: a Nazi-approved, state-sponsored hot jazz band known as Charlie and His Orchestra.

By the late 1930s, swing and jazz were by far the most popular music of the day, for dancing and for listening. But, originating as they did in the United States, with minimal contributions from Aryan musicians, the Nazis loathed them. The official party line was that these forms were entartete musik (“degenerate music”), and that their improvised breaks and pounding rhythms risked undermining German purity and discipline. In public speeches, the Nazis put it more harshly than that. Jazz, Goebbels insisted, was nothing but “jungle music.”

Throughout the war years, it was German policy to suppress the music, or at least tame it. This resulted in some remarkable decrees, among them the clauses of a ban promulgated by a Nazi gauleiter in Bohemia and recalled (faithfully, he assures us—“they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind”) by the Czech dissident Josef Skvorecky in the introduction to his novella The Bass Saxophone. They are worth quoting in full:
Continue reading

Khrushchev in water wings: on Mao, humiliation, and the origins of the Sino-Soviet split

Khrushchev and Mao meet in Beijing, July 1958. Khrushchev would find himself less formally dressed at their swimming-pool talks a week later.

The list of things that Nikita Khrushchev would never be and could not do was long; some of them would change history. It has been seriously suggested, for example, that the reason Khrushchev survived the murderous Soviet-era purges of the paranoid 1930s and early 1950s—when tens of thousands of other apparatchiks were rewarded for their loyalty with a bullet in the back of the neck—is that, standing just 5 feet 3 inches tall, he was the one member of the politburo who did not tower over the man he would replace, the 5-foot-6 Stalin. It is also possible that, had he been a better swimmer, the disastrous break between the Communist parties of Russia and China—the Sino-Soviet Split, which would help guarantee the west victory in the Cold War—might have been averted.

Explaining why Khrushchev’s prowess in the pool mattered means explaining Khrushchev. The Soviet premier came from peasant stock and was working in a mine when revolution came to Russia in 1917. For years afterward he was a minor player on the Soviet stage and a figure of fun to many senior Communists; the perception that he posed no threat, indeed, became a major asset. Barely educated—he had only four years of formal schooling—and hailing from a rural backwater in the Ukraine, Khrushchev was sometimes coarse, often foul-mouthed and all too easily intimidated by an effortless patrician such as the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who stood 6 feet tall and was a former Oxford classics scholar, Guards officer and war hero). An enthusiast for hopeless scientific “breakthroughs,” such as a death ray for rats, Khrushchev had a variable attention span and a sketchy grasp of technical detail. He was also so ungainly that Stalin once amused himself by forcing his protégé to dance a gopakthe famous squatting, spinning, kicking Cossack dance that demands precisely the sort of athleticism and agility that Khrushchev conspicuously lacked.
Continue reading

Closing the pigeon gap

Cher Ami, an American veteran of the First World War, was credited with carrying the message that saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion” during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918–despite losing a leg and an eye to shell splinters in the maelstrom of battle. Decorated with the French Croix de Guerre, he was preserved after death and can still be seen on display in the American Museum of Natural History.

At midnight on November 12, 1870, two French balloons, inflated with highly flammable coal gas and manned by desperate volunteers, took off from a site in Monmartre, the highest point in Paris. The balloons rose from a city besieged—the Franco-Prussian War had left Paris isolated, and the city had been hastily encircled by the Prussian Army—and they did so on an unlikely mission. They carried with them several dozen pigeons, gathered from lofts across the city, that were part of a last-ditch attempt to establish two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government in Tours, 130 miles southwest.

Paris had been encircled since mid-September. By early autumn, with the prospects of relief as distant as ever, and the population looking hungrily at the animals in the zoo, the besieged French had scoured the city and located seven balloons, one of which, the Neptune, was patched up sufficiently to make it out of the city over the heads of the astounded Prussians. It landed safely behind French lines with 275 pounds of official messages and mail, and before long there were other flights, and the capital’s balloon manufacturers were working flat out on new airships.

The work was dangerous and the flights no less so—2.5 million letters made it out of Paris during the siege, incalculably raising morale, but six balloons were lost to enemy fire and the ones that survived that gauntlet, historian Alastair Horne observes, “were capable of unpredictable motion in all three dimensions, none of which was controllable.”

The French prepare a balloon for launch during the Siege of Paris, 1870. Pigeons carried out by balloon helped establish two-way communication with the city.

Of the two balloons in the pigeon flight, one, the Daugerre, was shot down by ground fire as it drifted south of Paris in the dawn, but the other, the Niepce, survived by hastily jettisoning ballast and soaring out of range. Its precious pigeon cargo would return to the city bearing messages by the thousand, all photographed using the brand-new technique of microfilming and printed on slivers of collodium, each weighing just a hundredth of an ounce. These letters were limited to a maximum of 20 words and they were carried into Paris at a cost of 5 francs each. In this way, Horne notes, a single pigeon could fly in 40,000 dispatches, equivalent to the contents of a substantial book. The messages were then projected by magic lantern onto a wall, transcribed by clerks, and delivered by regular post.

A total of 302 largely untrained pigeons left Paris in the course of the siege, and 57 returned to the city. The remainder fell prey to Prussian rifles, cold, hunger, or the falcons that the besieging Germans hastily introduced to intercept France’s feathered messengers. Still, the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870, and by 1899, Spain, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Romania had established their own pigeon services. The British viewed these developments with some alarm. A call to arms published in the influential journal The Nineteenth Century expressed concern at the development of a worrying divergence in military capability. The Empire, it was suggested, was being rapidly outpaced by foreign military technology.

Continue reading

On heroic self-sacrifice

G.F. Watts’s memorial to Sarah Smith, one of several dozen Londoners whose extraordinary Victorian-era deaths are commemorated at Postman’s Park.

No nation is short of monuments to its heroes. From the Lincoln Memorial and Nelson’s Column to the infamous gold-plated statue of Turkmenbashi—which until its recent demolition sat atop a 250-foot-high rotisserie in Turkmenistan and rotated throughout the day to face the sun—statesmen and military leaders can generally depend upon their grateful nations to immortalize them in stone.

Rarer by far are commemorations of everyday heroes, ordinary men and women who one day do something extraordinary, risk all and sometimes lose their lives to save the lives of others. A handful of neglected monuments of this sort exist; of these, few are more modest but more moving than a mostly forgotten little row of ceramic tiles erected in a tiny shard of British greenery known as Postman’s Park.

The park—so named because it once stood in the shadow of London’s long-gone General Post Office building—displays a total of 54 such plaques. They recall acts of individual bravery that date from the early 1860s and are grouped under a plain wooden awning in what is rather grandly known as the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. Each commemorates the demise of a would-be rescuer who died in the act of saving someone else’s life.

Continue reading

Colonel Parker: murderer?

Colonel Tom Parker—the title was awarded to him by Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis in 1948 for political services rendered—claimed until 1982 to have been born in West Virginia. In fact he was a Dutchman, and the circumstances under which he left the Netherlands in 1929 remain a puzzle to this day.

The Colonel always was a mystery. But that was very much the way he liked it.

It was, of course, a tough trick to pull off, because the Colonel’s name was Tom Parker, and Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley. Since Elvis was the biggest name in the entertainment industry, his manager could hardly help appearing in the spotlight, too. For the most part that was not a problem, because Parker had a showman’s instincts and he enjoyed publicity. But, even so, he was always anxious to ensure that attention never settled for very long on two vexed questions: exactly who he was and precisely where he came from.

So far as the wider world knew, the Colonel was Thomas Andrew Parker, born in Huntingdon, West Virginia, some time shortly after 1900. He had toured with carnivals, worked with elephants and managed a palm-reading booth before finding his feet in the early 1950s as a music promoter. Had anyone taken the trouble to inquire, however, they would have discovered that there was no record of the birth of any Thomas Parker in Huntingdon. They might also have discovered that Tom Parker had never held a U.S. passport—and that while he had served in the U.S. Army, he had done so as a private. Indeed, Parker’s brief military career had ended in ignominy. In 1932, he had gone absent without leave and served several months in military prison for desertion. He was released only after he had suffered what his biographer Alanna Nash terms a “psychotic breakdown.” Diagnosed as a psychopath, he was discharged from the Army. A few years later, when the draft was introduced during the World War II, Parker ate until he weighed more than 300 pounds in a successful bid to have himself declared unfit for further service.

For the most part, these details did not emerge until the 1980s, years after Presley’s death and well into the Colonel’s semi-retirement (he eventually died in 1997). But when they did they seemed to explain why, throughout his life, Parker had taken such enormous care to keep his past hidden—why he had settled a lawsuit with Elvis’ record company when it became clear that he would have to face cross-examination under oath, and why, far from resorting to the sort of tax-avoidance schemes that managers typically offered to their clients, he had always let the IRS calculate his taxes. The lack of a passport might even explain the single greatest mystery of Presley’s career: why the Colonel had turned down dozens of offers, totaling millions of dollars, to have his famous client tour the world. Elvis was just as famous in London, Berlin and Tokyo–yet in a career of almost 30 years, he played a total of only three concerts on foreign soil, in Canada in 1957. Although border-crossing formalities were minimal then, the Colonel did not accompany him.

Parker serving in the U.S. Army, c.1929. Photographer unknown.

Although it took years for the story to leak out, the mystery of the Colonel’s origins had actually been solved as early as the spring of 1960, in the unlikely surrounds of a hairdressers’ salon in the Dutch town of Eindhoven. There a woman by the name of Nel Dankers van Kuijk flicked through a copy of Rosita, a Belgian women’s magazine. It carried a story about Presley’s recent discharge from the U.S. Army, illustrated by a photo of the singer standing in the doorway of a train and waving to his fans. The large figure of Elvis’s manager, standing grinning just behind his charge, made Dankers-van Kuijk jump.

The man had aged and grown grotesquely fat. But she still knew him as her long-lost brother.

Continue reading

The mysterious Mr. Zedzed, the wickedest man in the world

basil zaharoff

Zaharoff promenade.jpg

Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, better known as Sir Basil Zaharoff: arsonist, bigamist and pimp, arms dealer, honorary knight of the British Empire, confidant of kings, and all-round international man of mystery.

Late in November 1927, an elderly Greek man sat in his mansion in Paris and tended a fire. Every time it flickered and threatened to die, he reached to one side and tossed another bundle of papers or a leather-bound book into the grate. For two days the old man fed the flames, at one point creating such a violent conflagration that his servants worried he would burn the whole house down. By the time he had finished, a vast pile of confidential papers, including 58 years’ worth of diaries that recorded every detail of a most scandalous career, had been turned to ash. Thus the shadowy figure whom the press dubbed “the Mystery Man of Europe” ensured that his long life would remain, for the most part, an impenetrable enigma.

Few men have acquired so evil a reputation as did Basil Zaharoff, alias Count Zacharoff, alias Prince Zacharias Basileus Zacharoff, known to his intimates as “Zedzed.” Born in Anatolia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, perhaps in 1849, Zaharoff was a brothel tout, bigamist and arsonist, a benefactor of great universities and an intimate of royalty who reached his peak of infamy as an international arms dealer—a “merchant of death,” as his many enemies preferred it.

In his prime, Zaharoff was more than a match for the notorious Aleister Crowley in any contest to be dubbed the Wickedest Man in the World. Still remembered as the inventor of the Systeme Zaharoff—a morally bankrupt sales technique that involved a single unscrupulous arms dealer selling to both parties in a conflict he has helped to provoke—he made a fortune working as a super-salesman for Vickers, the greatest of all British private arms firms, whom he served for 30 years as “our General Representative abroad.” He expressed no objection to, and indeed seemed rather to enjoy, being referred to as “the Armaments King.”

Men of the Constantinople Fire Brigade, an Ottoman army unit well-known in the 19th century for its corruption. In the 1860s Zaharoff was employed there as an arsonist, setting fires that could be extinguished for profit.

Zaharoff’s youth remains shrouded in mystery and rumor, much of it put about by Zedzed himself. He was born in the Turkish town of Mughla, the son of a Greek importer of attar of roses, and soon proved to be an astonishing linguist—he would later be described as the master of 10 languages. At some point, it is supposed, the family moved briefly to Odessa, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where they Russified their name. But remarkably little proper documentation survives from this or any other period of Zaharoff’s career. As one early biographer, the Austrian Robert Neumann, put it:

You ask for his birth certificate. Alas! a fire destroyed the church registers. You search for a document concerning him in the archives of the Vienna War Office. The folder is there, but it is empty; the document has vanished…. He buys a château in France and—how does the story of the editor of the Documents politiques go?—”Sir Basil Zaharoff at once buys up all the picture postcards… which show the château, and strictly prohibits any more photographs being taken.”

Continue reading