Truth, beauty and Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga, in January 1914 – an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras. The still comes from Mutual Film’s exclusive footage.

The first casualty of war is truth, they say, and nowhere was that sage old aphorism more true than in Mexico during the revolutionary period between 1910 and 1920. In all the blood and chaos that followed the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz, who had been dictator of Mexico ever since 1876, what was left of the central government in Mexico City found itself at war with several contending rebel forces – most notably the Liberation Army of the South, commanded by Emiliano Zapata, and the Chihuahua-based División del Norte, led by the even more celebrated bandit-rebel Pancho Villa. The three-cornered civil war that followed was notable for several things: its unrelenting savagery, its unending confusion, and – north of the Rio Grande, at least – its unusual film deals. Specifically, it’s remembered for the bizarre contract Villa was supposed to have signed with a leading American newsreel company in January 1914. Under the terms of this deal, it is said, the rebels undertook to fight their revolution for the benefit of the movie cameras – in exchange for a large advance, payable in gold. More

Erotic secrets of Lord Byron’s tomb

Byron in death, Greece, spring 1824.

It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.

We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”

“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.

“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea. More

Naked as nature intended? Catherine Crowe in Edinburgh, February 1854

You might call it parapsychology’s greatest mystery. Did Catherine Crowe – sixtysomething literary stalwart of the mid-nineteenth century, passionate advocate of the German ghost story, and author of that runaway best-seller The Night Side of Nature (London, 2 vols.: Newby, 1848) – really tear through the streets of Edinburgh at the end of February 1854, naked but for a handkerchief clutched in one plump hand and a visiting card in the other? And, if she did, was it because she had experienced a nervous breakdown, or because the spirits had convinced her that, once her clothes were shed, she would become invisible? More

The Emperor’s electric chair

The death chair in Auburn prison, c.1890

award-2010Many countries have folk-tales that feature foolish kings – monarchs whose vanity causes them to make catastrophic misjudgements or attempt impossible things. Greek mythology offers the tradition of King Midas, who lived to regret wishing for the power to turn everything he touched into gold; for we Brits, the foolish ruler is King Canute, who – at least in the common modern telling of the tale – allowed courtiers to flatter him that even the seas would obey his commands, and consequently got his feet wet in a failed attempt to turn back the tides.1

Most of these legends are hundreds of years old, of course, but the motif is a potent one and it still crops up from time to time. Here, for example, is a story that has stuck firmly in my mind ever since I first read it in The Book of Lists, a best-selling compendium of all sorts of remarkable trivia, first published in 1977:

The Abyssinian electric chair

On August 6, 1890, the first electric chair in history was put into use in the death chamber of Auburn Prison in New York. In distant Abyssinia – now called Ethiopia – Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) heard about it and decided that this new method of execution should become part of his modernisation plan for his country. Immediately, he put in an order for three electric chairs from the American manufacturer. When the chairs arrived and were unpacked, the emperor was mortified to learn that they wouldn’t work – Abyssinia had no electricity. Determined that his investment would not be completely wasted, Emperor Menelik adopted one of the electric chairs for his imperial throne.

David Wallechinsky et al, The Book of Lists (London: Corgi, 1977) p.463.

Pretty amusing, and plainly I’m not the only person who finds this odd tale peculiarly memorable; the editors of The Book of Lists themselves ranked it among their “15 favourite oddities of all time,” and if you type the search string ‘Menelik’s electric chair’ into Google, you come up with several thousand hits from sites such as anecdotage.com, all of which are clearly based on the BoL‘s telling of the story; they contain the same basic information, but nothing different or new. More

Wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines

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Frontispiece for the Wonderful Magazine

I love history and I love research: always have done, to a degree other people find – well, let’s just say ‘unusual’. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back to the summer of 1982, and the last term of my first year at university. Now, first years at most Cambridge colleges sit their Prelims in that term – that’s preliminary exams, the sort that don’t count towards your degree but do count when it comes to ruining one’s summer. By sheer dumb luck, however, I had gone up to Peterhouse, the oldest and most eccentric of colleges, and Peterhouse scorned Prelims. This meant that I spent the eight weeks of that term with a lot of spare time on my hands; most of my friends, the ones at other colleges, were feverishly revising, and there wasn’t a great deal going on. My fellow Petreans took advantage of this freedom to do a lot of drinking, punting, and garden partying, but even aged 19, I have to say, my idea of a good time was more to head to the University Library and read.

I wasn’t quite swot enough, in truth, to spend the time reading stuff that might have helped me academically. What I actually did was to retreat to the dusty pastures of North Front 6, where it was always cool and dark and the smell of ancient books was overpowering. Nobody ever seemed to go North Front 6, which had tiny windows and no natural light, and was, and probably still is, a sort of elephants’ graveyard where old, moribund and essentially useless periodicals went to die. It was paradise for me, though, and it was up there, that term, that I first chanced upon a run of one of the magazines that I want to talk about today.

It was called The Mirror of Literature, Art and Amusement, published in London in the 1820s and the 1830s, and it was filled with an extensive selection of eye-opening stories of the sort that nowadays appear in the “news in brief” columns of national newspapers. More

A Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtanesmere, 685AD

A Pictish carving which possibly depicts the great battle of 685.

Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the “timeslip” case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette.

In the course of their ‘adventure,’ the women remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies’ interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers’ “classic cases”. There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today. More