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

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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.”

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History heroes: Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch: Historian. French Resistance leader. Hero.

At eight on the evening of June 16, 1944—not long before dusk on the tenth day after the Allied invasion of France–the Gestapo dragged 28 French resistance fighters from the cells where they had been incarcerated, tortured and interrogated at Montluc prison, Lyon. Handcuffed in pairs, the men were thrust onto an open truck and driven to an empty field outside a little village known as Saint-Didier-de-Formans. Along the way, a German officer bragged to them that the war would still be won, and that London was about to be destroyed by V1 flying bombs.

London would, of course, survive, and the war would not be won by Nazi Germany, but that was scant consolation to the resistance men as they were taken four by four into the field for execution. The accounts of two men among the prisoners who miraculously survived being shot in the back at close range allow us to know something of their final moments. There were no pleas for mercy. Some of the men shouted out last words as they were led into the field—”Adieu ma femme!” one of them called—but most remarkable was the brief scene that played out between the oldest and the youngest of the prisoners.

The younger man was really a boy, 16 years old and terrified of what was about to happen. The older was small, balding but distinguished-looking, and, at 58, he wore round glasses and the haggard look of a prisoner who had survived repeated torture. As the execution party cocked its guns, the boy groaned, “This is going to hurt.” “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” the older man assured him. He reached out to enclose the child’s hands in his own and held them, shouting “Vive la France!” as the first volley of machine-gun fire rang out.
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An ice cream war

The Turkish flag flown, and rifles used, by Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mohammed in their two-man war against the British empire launched at Broken Hill, New South Wales, on 1 January 1915

The Turkish flag flown, and rifles used, by Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mohammed in their two-man war against the British empire launched at Broken Hill, New South Wales, on 1 January 1915

The war seemed a very long way away to the citizens of Broken Hill that January 1.

It was the height of the southern summer, and the Australian silver-mining town baked in the outback desert heat, 720 miles from Sydney and half a world away from the mud and blood of the Western Front. The First World War was less than five months old, and only a fool would have accused the hardened miners of Broken Hill of lacking patriotism, but on that first day of 1915 they wanted nothing more than to enjoy a rare holiday with their families and forget about their troubles—not just the war, which Australia had joined alongside Britain on the day it was declared, but also the grim economic times that were closing mines and putting miners out of work.

More than 1,200 men, women and children clambered aboard the makeshift train that would take them a few miles up the line to Silverton for the annual town picnic. But for Broken Hill that New Year’s Day, war was not 12,000 miles away; it was just over a ridge a mile or two along the track, where a couple of Afghans had raised the Turkish flag over an ice cream cart and were preparing to launch a two-man war. Continue reading

Gavrilo Princip’s sandwich

Gavrilo Princip is arrested for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife–Sarajevo, June 28, 1914.
Gavrilo Princip is arrested for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife–Sarajevo, June 28, 1914.

It was the great flash point of the 20th century, an act that set off a chain reaction of calamity: two World Wars, 80 million deaths, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the atomic bomb. Yet it might never have happened–we’re now told– had Gavrilo Princip not got hungry for a sandwich.

We’re talking the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of course—the murder that set the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire on a collision course with Serbia, and Europe down the slippery slope that led to the outbreak of the First World War a month after Princip pulled the trigger on June 28, 1914. More specifically, though, we’re talking the version of events that’s being taught in many schools today. It’s an account that, while respectful of the significance of Franz Ferdinand’s death, hooks pupils’ attention by stressing a tiny, awe-inspiring detail: that if Princip had not stopped to eat a sandwich where he did, he would never have been in the right place to spot his target. No sandwich, no shooting. No shooting, no war.

It’s a compelling story, and one that is told in serious books and on multiple websites. For the most part, it goes something like this:

It is the summer of 1914, and Bosnia has just become part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A handful of young Bosnian-born Serbs decide to strike a blow for the integration of their people into a homeland for southern Slavs by assassinating the heir to the Austrian throne. Their opportunity comes when it is announced that Franz Ferdinand will be making a state visit to the provincial capital, Sarajevo.

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One man against tyranny: Georg Elser’s lone attempt to blow up Hitler

Georg Elser, whose attempt to kill Hitler came within moments of succeeding, commemorated on a stamp. The German phrase means “I wanted to prevent war.”

Maria Strobel could not believe it of her Führer. Adolf Hitler and his party—a group of senior Nazis that included Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich—had spent more than an hour in her Munich bierkeller. Hitler had delivered a trademark speech, and, while they listened, Himmler and the others had run up a large beer bill. But the whole group had left in a hurry—leaving the tab unpaid and Strobel untippped.

Much annoyed, the Bavarian waitress set about clearing up the mess. She had made only a small dent in the pile of steins when, at 9:20 p.m. precisely, there was a huge explosion only a few feet behind her. A stone pillar disintegrated in the blast, bringing part of the ceiling crashing down in a rain of wood and masonry. The explosion hurled Strobel the length of the hall and out through the bierkeller’s doors. Though stunned, she survived—the person closest to the blast to do so. Eight others were not so fortunate, and a further 63 were so badly injured that they had to be helped out into the open air. As they staggered toward safety, the dais where Hitler had been standing eight minutes earlier lay crushed beneath six feet of heavy timber, bricks and rubble.

Hitler always said he had “the luck of the devil,” Continue reading

“Tamám Shud”

Mortuary photo of the unknown man found dead on Somerton Beach, south of Adelaide, Australia, in December 1948. Sixty-three years later, the man’s identity remains a mystery, and it’s still not clear how – or even if – he was murdered.

Most murders aren’t that difficult to solve. The husband did it. The wife did it. The boyfriend did it, or the ex-boyfriend did. The crimes fit a pattern, the motives are generally clear.

Of course, there are always a handful of cases that don’t fit the template, where the killer is a stranger or the reason for the killing is bizarre. It’s fair to say, however, that nowadays the authorities usually have something to go on. Thanks in part to advances such as DNA technology, the police are seldom baffled anymore.

They certainly were baffled, though, in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, in December 1948. And the only thing that seems to have changed since then is that a story that began simply—with the discovery of a body on the beach on the first day of that southern summer—has become ever more mysterious. In fact, this case (which remains, theoretically at least, an active investigation) is so opaque that we still do not know the victim’s identity, have no real idea what killed him, and cannot even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide.

What we can say is that the clues in the Somerton Beach mystery (or the enigma of the “Unknown Man,” as it is known Down Under) add up to one of the world’s most perplexing cold cases. It may be the most mysterious of them all. Continue reading

“They don’t like it up ’em…” Revisiting the sordid deaths of Edmund Ironside, Edward II, Kenneth II and James I of Scotland

Edward II – still the only English monarch to be subject of his own ‘anal rape narrative’

To be a king and to be murdered – one might say – is no more than a hazard of the job. To be a king and to be murdered in one’s privy, however, is to suffer a considerable indignity. Yet precisely this fate was visited on at least two British royals, if certain sources are believed – and to that number we might add the awful fate of a third king, Edward II, popularly thought to have been done in by means of a red-hot poker forced into his rectum, not to mention the fortunate if malodorous escape of a royal consort, Gerald of Windsor, whose ravishing Welsh wife, Princess Nest, lived an adventurous life early in the twelfth century. More

Some experiments with severed heads

Antoine Joseph Wiertz: Guillotined Head (1855). Musée Antoine Wiertz, Brussels.

Antoine Joseph Wiertz: Guillotined Head (1855). Musée Antoine Wiertz, Brussels.

Early on the morning of 18 February 1848, two men and a woman walked into the square in front of the Porte de Hal, in Brussels, where a public execution was due to take place shortly after dawn. They were there to conduct a ground-breaking scientific study, and, by prior arrangement with the Belgian penal authorities, were permitted to climb onto the scaffold and wait next to the guillotine at the spot where the severed heads of two condemned criminals were scheduled to drop into a blood red sack.

One of the men was Antoine Joseph Wiertz, a well known Belgian painter and also a fine hypnotic subject. With him were his friend, Monsieur D_____, a noted hypnotist, and a witness. Wiertz’s purpose on that winter’s day was to carry out a unique and extraordinary experiment. Long haunted by the desire to know whether a severed head remained conscious after a guillotining, the painter had agreed to be hypnotised and instructed to identify himself with a man who was about to be executed for murder. More

The longest prison sentences ever served

Now expanded, revised and updated to April 2017

Richard Honeck on his 23,420th – and final – day in jail.

Record-setting old lag Richard Honeck on his 23,420th – and final – day in jail.

Richard Honeck (1879-1976), an American murderer, served what was, at the time, the longest prison sentence ever to end in a prisoner’s release. Jailed in November 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.

Honeck, a telegraph operator and the son of a wealthy dealer in farm equipment, was 21 years old when he was arrested in Chicago in September 1899 for the killing of Walter F. Koeller. He and another man, Herman Hundhausen, had gone to Koeller’s room armed with an eight-inch bowie knife, a sixteen-inch bowie knife, a silver-plated case knife, a .44 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber revolver, a .22 caliber revolver, a club, and two belts of cartridges. They also carried a getaway kit: two satchels filled with dime novels, obscene etchings, and clothes from which the names had been cut (New York Times, 4+5 September 1899). More

The horrible history of the Ostrich Inn

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The Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook

An old friend, Alan Murdie, has written an interesting  essay which discusses, among several gory stories, the supposedly spook-infested Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire – where ‘a past landlord named Jarman is supposed to have murdered up to 60 guests on the premises, in either the 16th or 18th century’. The pub’s unusual name rang a bell, and after a short hunt I turned up a story about the same place that I clipped from the Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1989:

In the shadow of one of London’s ghastliest locations, one of England’s oldest pubs is on the market – together with a ghastly history.

The Ostrich Inn, a Grade II listed freehouse near Heathrow Airport, is said to date back to 1106 and was the scene of 60 grisly murders committed by 12th century landlord John Jarman and his wife.

After inviting wealthy travellers to sleep on a specially-made hinged bed, Jarman would say to his wife, “There is now a fat pig to be had if you want one.” She would answer: “I pray you put him in the hogsty till tomorrow.” The victim would then fall through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling water. More