“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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
One of Dahomeys’ amazons, with a musket, club, dagger—and her enemy’s severed head. From Forbes, Dahomy and the Dahomans (1851).
It is noon on a humid Saturday in the fall of 1861, and a missionary by the name of Francesco Borghero has been summoned to a parade ground in Abomey, the capital of the small West African state of Dahomey. He is seated on one side of a huge, open square right in the center of the town–Dahomey is renowned as a “Black Sparta,” a fiercely militaristic society bent on conquest, whose soldiers strike fear into their enemies all along what is still known as the Slave Coast. The maneuvers begin in the face of a looming downpour, but King Glele is eager to show off the finest unit in his army to his European guest.
As Father Borghero fans himself, 3,000 heavily armed soldiers march into the square and begin a mock assault on a series of defenses designed to represent an enemy capital. The Dahomean troops are a fearsome sight, barefoot and bristling with clubs and knives. A few, known as Reapers, are armed with gleaming three-foot-long straight razors, each wielded two-handed and capable, the priest is told, of slicing a man clean in two. Continue reading
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