It’s a Mystery

04 30 kaspar hauserToday might be the birthday of Kasper Hauser. I say ‘might’ because of the great mystery surrounding his sudden appearance in the town of Nuremberg in 1828. The boy carried with him two letters. One addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig. The anonymous author said that the boy was given into his custody as an infant on October 7th 1812 and that he instructed him in reading, writing and the Christian religion, but never let him “take a single step out of my house”. The letter stated that the boy would now like to be a cavalryman “as his father was” and invited the captain either to take him in or to hang him. The second letter seemed to be from his mother to the person who had written the first. It stated that his name was Kaspar, that he was born on 30 April 1812 and that his father, a cavalryman of the 6th regiment, was dead. Both letters were in the same handwriting and it is now generally supposed that Kasper had written both of them.

When spoken to he would only repeat the words “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” and “Horse! Horse!”. He seemed physically healthy but intellectually impaired and he soon became the subject of much curiosity. He would eat no other food but bread and water.

People generally assumed that he had been raised half wild but Kasper proved to be a quick learner and later he was able to tell a different story of his previous life. He said that for as long as he could remember he had been kept in a small darkened cell with a bed of straw and two horses and a dog carved from wood to play with. Each morning he found bread and water next to his bed. Sometimes the water would taste bitter then he would sleep for longer and wake to find his straw had been changed and his hair and nails had been cut. He said that, not long before his release, he had been visited by a man who concealed his face. He had taught Kasper to walk, to write his name and to repeat the words “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was.” but he didn’t know what it meant.

04 30 kasper's drawingKasper was given into the care of a schoolmaster called Georg Friedrich Daumer, who found out that he had a talent for drawing. That’s one of Kasper’s drawings on the left. Daumer also conducted some odd experiments on him, including some sort of magnetic experiments. Some believed, at that time, that the body was full of magnetic humours that could be drawn about to some effect, but more of that next month when it will be Franz Mesmer’s birthday. Kasper claimed that the north pole of the magnet made him feel as though his stomach was being drawn out and that he could feel a current of air coming from him. The effects of the south pole, he felt less keenly, but said that it blew upon him.

Kasper suffered a number of mysterious wounds. The first, he claimed had been inflicted by the man who had visited him in the cellar whilst he was captive. On October 17th 1829, he was found in the cellar of Daumer’s home with a severe wound on his forehead. He claimed he had been attacked whilst sitting on the privy. The trail of blood showed that he had first fled to his room before climbing through a trap-door into the cellar. This has led to speculation that he inflicted the wound on himself with a razor that he afterwards took back to his room before hiding in the cellar. Kasper was taken to another house where he was kept under guard, but later suffered another wound to the side of his head. He claimed he had been standing on a chair, reaching for a book, when he fell, knocking down a pistol on the wall which had gone off. Both of these incidents happened shortly after Kasper had been accused of lying, which was something that he did frequently.

In 1831, an English nobleman took an interest in Kasper Hauser and gained custody of him. His name was Philip Henry Stanhope who was half brother to the adventuring Lady Hester Stanhope, who I wrote about in March. Stanhope had Kasper removed to Ansbach but, although he continued to pay for his upkeep, concluded that Kasper was a fraud. On 14th December 1833, Kasper returned home with a deep stab wound in his chest. He claimed that a stranger had stabbed him then given him a bag. After a search, a violet purse was found which contained a folded note written in mirror writing. This is what it said:

Hauser will be

able to tell you quite precisely how

I look and from where I am.

To save Hauser the effort,

I want to tell you myself from where

I come _ _ .

I come from from _ _ _

the Bavarian border _ _

On the river _ _ _ _ _

I will even

tell you the name: M. L. Ö.

04 30 kasper's noteThe note was folded into a triangular shape, in a way that Kasper always folded his own letters. It also contained one grammatical and one spelling error that were typical of him. Also, although he seemed keen for the purse to be found, he never asked what was in it.

Kasper died from his wound three days later. No one really knows what happened. His death was as mysterious as his sudden appearance. Some accused Stanhope of being complicit in his murder. Others, that he stabbed himself to gain attention. Some have speculated, as they did in his lifetime, that he was the son of the Duke of Baden, who had been switched at birth so that someone else could inherit his title. Recent DNA tests have proved inconclusive but the story is an unlikely one. Probably, we’ll never know Kasper’s back story but he has inspired numerous works in print and on film, including Werner Herzog’s ‘The Enigma of Kasper Hauser’ which is where I first came across him back in the 1980s.

Hostess with the Mostest

04 29 alice keppelBack in October, I wrote about Lillie Langtry who was once the mistress of the Prince of Wales. Today I want to tell you about another of his mistresses, Alice Keppel, who was born Alice Frederica Edmonstone on April 29th 1868 in Strathblane, Scotland. She was the daughter of a Baronet and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal to say about her before she got married at the age of twenty-three to George Keppel, who was the son of the Earl of Albemarle. They were not rich, which would have been fine if they had been happy to live quietly. But they both enjoyed London Society, which was expensive.

The way they chose to manage this, was for Alice to take wealthy lovers who could help boost their income and also provide George with business opportunities. It all sounds a bit cold and calculating but it seems to have worked out pretty well for them. It wasn’t as though she was sneaking around, having affairs behind her husband’s back. He knew all about it and had plenty of affairs himself that she also knew about. Nor did it mean that they didn’t love each other, they stayed married all their lives and died within two months of one another in 1947. They raised two daughters, Violet and Sonia. They later described their parents’ marriage as a ‘companionship of love and laughter.’

Alice became one of the best known society hostesses of the Edwardian era. She was kind, witty, charming and never lost her temper. Her eldest daughter, Violet, described her as having “a gift of happiness but she excelled in making others happy, she resembled a Christmas tree laden with presents for everyone”. Her first lover was Ernest Beckett, who is worth mentioning because he may have been the biological father of Alice’s eldest daughter Violet and also because he was once my local MP. There were several others, but then she met the Prince of Wales.

She met Edward, in 1898 and soon became his favourite mistress. She remained with him through his coronation until his death in 1910. Alice was able, through her position, to secure good employment for both her husband and her brother. Although the King did not support her directly, he found someone to manage her business affairs and gave her shares in a rubber company that were eventually worth £50,000. Edward took Alice in his entourage almost everywhere he went. It seems she was one of the few people able to deal with his strange mood swings. The discretion, social finesse and conversational skills that made her a successful society hostess also made her an excellent buffer between the King and his Prime Minister. If any contentious issues needed to be raised she was able to smooth the way between them. Even the King’s wife, Queen Alexander, approved of her, preferring her to his previous mistress. It was said by another society hostess, the Duchess of Sutherland, that the King was “a much pleasanter child since he changed mistresses”. Which I think tell us as much about him as it does about Alice.

The only time she seems to have lost her composure was when she visited the king on his deathbed in 1910. The moment he lost consciousness, the Queen ordered the doctors to have her removed from the bedchamber. Alice became hysterical and had to be dragged away by guards. Her life was never quite the same after that and she was no longer welcome at court. She and George travelled the Far East for two years and then returned to London where they lived much more quietly. Alice helped run a hospital in Boulogne during the First World War. Then, in 1927, they bought a villa near Florence where, apart from during World War II, they lived for the rest of their lives. When her husband George was asked if he minded about her affairs he said: “ I do not mind what she does as long as she comes back to me in the end.” Which is what she did.

Before I leave Alice today, I want to tell you a little bit about her descendants too. Her eldest daughter Violet is best known for her passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West. Her younger daughter, Sonia married Roland Cubitt in 1920. Their daughter, Rosalind, married Bruce Shand in 1946. In 1947, their daughter Camilla was born. Camilla also fell in love with a Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. The great-great grandson of her great-grandmother’s famous lover. But Charles was married off to Diana, which went really badly for absolutely everyone. Camilla married Andrew Parker-Bowles. Then, all those awful things happened and now Charles and Camilla are married.

I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other about our Royal family. But while I’m researching this blog, almost every day I come across people who were married to someone they hated for financial of political gain. So I’m glad those two got what they wanted.

Hell Fire

04 28 duke of whartonEver since I wrote about the Calves Head Club back in January, I’ve been hoping to find a day when I could squeeze in a post about Hell Fire clubs. Today seems like a pretty good opportunity, as the original one was outlawed by Parliament on April 28th 1721.

The Hell Fire Club and its offspring were really a product of the Enlightenment. It was rather fashionable to mock the Anglican Church and its rituals and that seems to be what the Hell Fire Club was all about. Historically, we are talking about a time when there was a lot of concern that the Catholics might just sweep in and take over the throne. It was also just after the South Sea Bubble happened. A lot of people had lost a great deal of money investing in a company that never did anything or made any money. There were those who saw this as a punishment from God and they thought ridiculing Him in mock ceremonies, that probably involved Devil worship, was only going to make things worse.

Philip Wharton, the first Duke of Wharton had Catholic leanings himself. He had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble. He had lost £120,000. When you consider that a decent wage would have been about £200 a year, you can see what an enormous sum it was. Wharton was not contrite though. He positively celebrated it. He hired musicians and a hearse and he held a public funeral for the South Sea Company. It was Wharton who started the Hell Fire Club.

The Hell Fire Club members probably didn’t really worship the Devil. It was a bit of a joke which was designed to shock the outside world. They met on Sundays, sometimes in taverns and sometimes in private residences, where ladies would also be able to attend. They claimed their president was the Devil. They dressed as biblical characters and feasted on ‘Holy Ghost Pie’ which was a sort of mock sacrament. They also ate ‘Breasts of Venus’, two roast pigeons with a cherry on the top, and ‘Devil’s Loins’, roast beef cut into the shape of buttocks. There was also ‘Hell Fire Punch’, but we don’t really know what that was. If any club member died, they became the club’s ‘Ambassador in Hell’. When their activities came to public attention it caused a sensation. The idea of a secret and blasphemous society, right in the middle of London that involved members of Parliament caused just the right amount of moral outrage and prurient interest to make it fascinating. Of course, here in the UK we know exactly what that is like. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, simple type ‘David Cameron’ and ‘pig’s head’ into a search engine and press go.

It really became a problem when it was rumoured that one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting was a member. This is what the London Gazette had to report:

“His Majesty having received Information, which gives great Reason to suspect that there have lately been and still are, in and about the City of London and Westminster, certain scandalous Clubs or Societies of young Persons who meet together in a most impious and blasphemous Manner, insult the most sacred Principles of our Holy Religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the Minds and Morals of one another…”

The concern was that they would: ‘Increase and draw down the “Vengeance of God upon this Nation”. The society was wound up by order of King George I. Wharton became a Mason instead. By 1723, he was its Grand Master. But crushing one society did not prevent others from springing up. In the 1730s, Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich belonged to a sort of Hell Fire club that met at a tavern called the ‘The George and Vulture’ in the City of London. Dashwood was very fond of themed clubs. He had been a member of the ‘Dilettanti Society’ for people who had been to Rome. They sat about in togas and discussed all things Roman. Then there was the ‘Divan Club’ for people who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Here, they wore turbans and pretended to be Turkish. It was all really just an excuse for lots and lots of drinking though.

04 28 francis dashwoodSome time in the 1750s he founded a club which was known as the ‘Knights of Saint Francis’ or the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ who met at Medmenham Abbey near West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He had the ruined abbey rebuilt and the natural caves underneath it enlarged. There was a sign above the entrance in stained glass which read “Fay ce que voudras” a quote from Rabelais which means ‘do what thou wilt’. There were, apparently, murals drawn by William Hogarth and the caves were decorated with mythological themes and phallic symbols. We don’t particularly know what they did there. They referred to themselves as monks and their mistresses and courtesans that were invited to the celebrations were called nuns. We know they were quite fond of Greek and Roman gods, because there were a lot of statues, particularly to Venus and Bacchus so it was probably mainly about sex and drinking.

Rumours of sacrifice and satanic worship were attached to their activities and those of other clubs founded elsewhere in the British Isles. Particularly in later, more prudent times. Robert Chambers had quite a lot to say about them in his ‘Book of Days’ entry for April 28th. Mostly he talks about those that took place in Ireland. Writing in 1869, he tells us: “Their toasts were blasphemous beyond modern belief.” He had heard that they were so awful that sometimes people would die after drinking them. Not from any supernatural causes, but from the ‘moral strain’. He described a drink called ‘scaltheen’ which was a mixture of whiskey and butter. Very difficult to make but lovely if you got it right, horrible if you didn’t. This is the picture he paint for us:

“…they drank burning scaltheen, standing in impious bravado before blazing fires, till, the marrow melting their wicked bones, they fell down dead upon the floor… there was an unaccountable, but unmistakeable smell  of brim-stone at their wakes;  …the very horses evinced a reluctance to draw the hearses containing their wretched bodies to the grave. “

Robert also tells us about a black cat that belonged to a club in Dublin, probably Montpellier Hill. The cat attended the meetings and was always served first at dinner. Woe betide anyone who said anything rude about the cat. He tells us about a curate who was invited to a meeting. He went along and was jeered at whilst he tried to say grace. Then, when the cat was served first, he asked why. They told him that it was out of respect because the cat was the oldest individual there. The curate replied that he could well believe it, and that it was not a cat but ‘the imp of darkness’. The members wanted to put him to death for this insult but he begged to be allowed to say a prayer first. But instead of a prayer, he recited an exorcism. The cat assumed it’s demon shape and flew away, taking the roof of the club house with it. Everyone was very sorry, they immediately dissolved their club and became Christians. The King was so pleased when he heard about it that he made the curate a bishop.

Robert didn’t really believe this story any more than I do. He mentioned other, wilder stories that he didn’t feel were suitable to print A quick search turned up a tale about a woman who was rolled down a hill in a burning barrel and the body of a dwarf that was found buried under the floor of the kitchen in nearby Killakee House in 1971. Probably, the truth is that, like Cameron and his pig they were just wild young men with far too much money. The bizarre things that eighteenth century politicians did for fun really shouldn’t seem better than things we hear about those in the twenty-first century. But somehow, they are. Even when they are worse.

Things Could Be Better

04 27 mary wollstonecraftToday is the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft who was born on this day in 1759 in Spitalfields, London. She was an English writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights. Her belief that women are not naturally inferior to men was unusual at the time. Mary knew from childhood what it was like to be part of a family that was ruled by a domineering and sometimes violent man. Her father was not a good person. When Mary was in her teens she used sometimes to sleep in front of her mother’s bedroom door, to prevent her father getting in and beating her in a drunken rage.

She sought refuge at the houses of friends, where she began to read and attend philosophical lectures. She definitely didn’t want to end up in the same situation as her mother and she thought the way out would be to educate herself and find work that would allow her to be independent. At nineteen, she found a job as a ladies companion, but didn’t get on very well with her employer. She later set up a school with her sisters and her friend Fanny Blood, but it failed to thrive and collapsed completely after Fanny died of tuberculosis. After that she went to work as a governess for an aristocratic Irish family, but although she got on well with the children, she did not like their mother. Mary found out what the upper class was really like and she didn’t care for what she saw.

Her experiences led her to reflect on the sorts of opportunities open to single women of her social standing, and the sort of education they received. These thoughts would lead her to write her first book: ‘Thoughts on the Education of Daughters’ in 1787. Women of the emerging middle class were generally taught things like how to dance, draw, play cards, look pretty. These were not things that were particularly useful if you found yourself having to make your own way in the world. She didn’t think they were much good for anyone else either. Mary really felt that women should be given the same sort of education as men. That they should be taught to be reasonable and rational human beings instead of being raised to spend all their time thinking about pretty frocks and going to the theatre.

The lot of women in the eighteenth century was generally to become a wife and mother. This meant that they would be largely responsible for caring for and educating the next generation. Mary thought they could probably do this a lot better if they were themselves better educated. For those who did not marry, the sort of employment women such as herself could find: ladies companion, governess, teacher, left you in a sort of limbo between your employer and other servants and disliked by both. It was not a recipe for happiness.

Mary decided that what she really wanted, was to be a writer. At that time, very few women could support themselves by writing. But Mary learned French and German and found work translating texts. She also wrote book reviews for a magazine run by a liberal publisher called Joseph Johnson. Through him she met intellectuals like radical pamphleteer, Thomas Paine and philosopher, William Godwin. Her writing career spanned the years of the French Revolution when there was much debate on both sides of the channel about the future of the monarchy. A lot was written about it by both the pro-aristocracy and the pro-republican camps and there was a huge pamphlet war. Mary became heavily engaged in the political debate.

In 1790 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’, in response to a pamphlet published by a man named Edmund Burke, who defended the aristocracy, government, paternalism and chivalry. His argument was; a government was a result of political consensus and that citizens did not have the right to overthrow it. Traditions should not be challenged or the result would be anarchy. Mary countered that everyone should be judged on their merit and not on their birthright. That rights should be conferred because they are just and reasonable, not because they are traditional. She criticised the political elite for their opulence, corruption, and inhumane treatment of the poor. Also she accused the liberals of hypocrisy because they talked about equality but bowed and scraped before the old hierarchy.

In 1792 she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which is regarded as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. It was written in response to a treatise read out in the French parliament which suggested that “The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life.” She was further infuriated by the comments of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said that women should be educated for the pleasure of men. And who wouldn’t be?

The idea that women were weak, frivolous and unable to think clearly was a common one. Mary argued that women only seemed that way because they were not taught to reason clearly and were encouraged by men to be frivolous. This is what she has to say:

Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

She also pointed out a massive double standard men had as regards morality. They expected women to be virtuous but did not apply the same standards to themselves. She believed that the sanctity of marriage should be respected by both partners.

Mary didn’t have a great time with relationships herself. She was extremely fond of the painter Henry Fuseli and tried to move in with him and his wife. When that didn’t work out, she went to France in 1792, just when it was all turning very nasty. She arrived just a month before Louis XVI was guillotined. There, she met and fell in love with American ambassador Gilbert Imlay. She got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, who she named Fanny after her friend. Things never worked out with Gilbert and she wound up abandoned with a baby in the middle of the French Revolution. She returned to London, made a couple of attempts to win him back and her failure led to two suicide attempts. But gradually she returned to her literary life and she and William Godwin fell in love. When she became pregnant for a second time, they decided to marry, simply so their children would be legitimate.

Six months later, their daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born. You may her know better as Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Sadly, Mary died eleven days after her daughter was born. William was devastated . A few months later, he published a book about her life: ‘Memoirs of the Author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women’. He thought it was a sincere and compassionate portrait of the woman he had grown to love. Those who read it were shocked to learn of her love affairs, her illegitimate child, her suicide attempts. The book blackened her reputation for almost a century.

Mary Wollstonecraft wouldn’t have called herself a feminist, there was no such thing at the end of the eighteenth century. But she did believe that things could be better for women. Some of her ideas about the way women are expected to be, and the effect that it has on society are very relevant today. If she could see the way that childrens’ toys and clothes are marketed specifically to boys or girls. If she could see the way girls get called ‘little princesses’ and positively encouraged to be frivolous and superficial. If she could see the way that women are forced to judge themselves against the impossible standards of some photo shopped ideal. Well, I think she’d probably cry.

You Don’t Know Me

04 26 william shakespeareWilliam Shakespeare was baptised on this day in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. We don’t know what day he was born. Although tradition says he was born on April 23rd, there is no evidence. It’s just that he died on April 23rd and it gives his life a pleasing symmetry. In truth we don’t know very much about him at all. We don’t know what he was doing before he was twenty-eight, apart from the fact that he got married and had three children. He never commissioned a portrait so we don’t really know what he looked like, though the portrait on the right might be him. We don’t even know how he spelled his name. There are six surviving examples of his signature and they are all spelled differently. None of them are ‘William Shakespeare’. But spelling was really not quite the rigid thing it is today, and probably if I had to use a quill, I might be tempted to leave off halfway through and just write ‘Willm Shaksp’ too.

So, he married Anne Hathaway in 1582, who gave birth to their daughter, Susannah, six months later. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet. Then we know nothing of him until 1592, when he was in London, having left his family behind in Stratford. As a married man, he wouldn’t have been allowed to go to university or to take up an apprenticeship in a trade that had an established guild. But acting companies had looser entry requirements, so maybe that is how he came to take up the theatre. In 1592, several of his plays were being performed in London and he was well known enough to be attacked in print as an ‘upstart crow’ and a ‘Johannes Factotum’ – a jack of all trades by a man named Robert Greene. So, we don’t know how he started his career. If his rise was meteoric, or if he’d been writing for ages. We do know that he also acted and probably played the ghost in ‘Hamlet’.

Two years later, he was part owner of an acting company called the ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’. It was they who built the Globe Theatre, but more of that in June. They became the King’s Men after James I came to the throne. We know that he didn’t abandon his family, because in 1597 he bought the second biggest house in Stratford and settled them there. The house was called ‘New Place’, even though it was actually built in 1483, and has a bit of an interesting history. Shakespeare bought it from a man named William Underhill for £60. Underhill died two months later, before the sale had been properly confirmed, and it eventually turned out he had been poisoned by his eldest son. The son, whose name was Fulke, either died or was hanged for murdering his father, so all his inherited property, including New Place was forfeit to the crown. But his younger brother, who had the splendid name of Hercules Underhill, confirmed the sale in 1603.

04 26 new placeAfter Shakespeare died in 1616, it passed to his daughter, Susannah, and then his granddaughter, Elizabeth. After that there were no more heirs. By 1756, it was owned by Reverend Francis Gastrell. He got very tired of people coming to visit Shakespeare’s home and he destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden that was said to have been planted by him. The people of the town were so upset that they broke all his windows. In retaliation, he had the whole place knocked down in 1759. That made everyone so angry that he had to leave town.

Shakespeare produced such a huge body of work, it’s not surprising he didn’t do very much with his personal life. Thirty-eight plays are attributed to him and a hundred and fifty-four sonnets as well as two long narrative poems. Some find it hard to believe that he could actually have written all of them. There are those who think that he couldn’t possibly have had such a large vocabulary without a university education. In fact Shakespeare’s vocabulary was not as massive as people like to make out. It was somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 words, which was quite large for the time, but he did write a great deal about a lot of different subjects. When compared play for play with his contemporaries, he’s actually about average. Also a university education, it turns out, had very little to do with how large a persons vocabulary was. Top of the list is the Jacobean playwright, John Webster who was the son of a coach-maker. He didn’t go to university either. So Shakespeare’s skill doesn’t really lie in his vocabulary. It’s his talent for arranging them. I give you:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;”


“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Lovely. There’s nothing odd or clever about any of those words, it’s the way he puts them together.

Another thing you might hear about Shakespeare, is from people who think he might have been bisexual. Of the one hundred and fifty-four sonnets that he wrote, one hundred and twenty-six of them are addressed to a young man, the ‘Fair Youth’. Twenty-eight are addressed to a woman, the ‘Dark Lady’. We don’t know who either of them were, but people certainly enjoy speculating. Nor do we know if they are in any way autobiographical. Shakespeare devoted a great deal of time to devising characters for his plays and giving them things to say. So how likely is it that he wrote a hundred and fifty-four poems about himself? So we can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare was bisexual or not. And it doesn’t really matter does it? I think maybe because he wrote such a lot and we know so little about what he was really like, people project on to him what they want to see. And that’s probably okay too, because we’ll never know the truth.


image credit: art jarka. licensed under creative commons

Even though it is almost May, here it seems to be suddenly Winter again, so it seems like a good time for another ghost story. Today is the feast day of Saint Mark, and if you had been sitting outside your church since eleven o’clock last night until around one o’clock this morning, you might have been treated to a pretty ghoulish spectacle. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, many believed that if you sat in the porch of your church during the night before Saint Mark’s Day you would see a ghostly procession of all the people that would die in your parish during the following year. The ghost of a living person is called a doppelgänger, which means double walker, and it’s rarely a good thing to see one.

There is an account from Lincolnshire in the parish of Burton which dates from 1631. It is given by a Gervase Hollis, a colonel in the service of Charles I. He was later made Mayor of Grimsby and also an MP, so presumably he was not given to flights of fancy. He had the story from a Mr Rampaine, who was minister to Great Grimsby, but had once been household chaplain to Sir Thomas Monson in Burton. Two men had decided to carry out the St. Mark’s Eve vigil. It was a bright moonlit night and by around midnight they had seen nothing and were thinking of giving up.

But suddenly, all light vanished and they found they could not move. Then, they saw the approaching light of a torch. Then the minister appeared, followed by a figure in a winding sheet moving towards them. They recognised the figure as one of their neighbours. As they drew closer, the church doors flew open, the two figures went inside and the doors slammed shut behind them. The two men, who were still rooted to the spot, heard the muffled sounds of a funeral service, followed by the rattling of bones and a noise like earth being shovelled into a grave. Then all was silent. But suddenly, the figure of the minister came again, with another of their neighbours and the whole scene played over exactly as before. This happened five times. When it was all over, the moon reappeared and they found they were free to move again, which they did, quite quickly.

The next day they were both quite ill and stayed at home, but when they met up again, they compared notes. Both agreed on the identity of the first three figures, but neither recognised the infant and neither had ever seen the old man before. Their three neighbours died that year in the order that they had predicted. Then, soon after, a woman in the town gave birth to a child who died. That just left the old man. That Winter, Sir John Monson was sent a message from his friends in Cheshire. The old man who carried the message had travelled on foot over the Pennines. The weather had been terrible and he was in a bad way when he arrived. The two men immediately recognised him as the stranger they had seen at the church. After two days, he was dead.

Of course, this is a terrible superstition to have. If you had a grudge against someone, it would be really easy to just pretend you’d seen them in a Saint Mark’s Eve procession. But there is one thing that might stop you ever trying it in the first place. Once you’ve taken part in the vigil, you have to carry on doing it. Every year. For the rest of your life. If you ever fall asleep while you’re keeping watch, that will be the year that you die.

The photo above, if you’re curious, is from an installation by an art student in the Czech Republic called Jakub Hadrava. Ghosts made from plaster sitting in the pews of an abandoned church. The church was closed up in 1968, after part of the roof collapsed during a funeral service. The installation has created worldwide interest and raised enough money to have the medieval church restored to its former glory. If you want to see more, there are some lovely ones here and also a video.

Your Kingdom for a Horse

04 24 burning of troyA couple of days ago, I talked about Rome and mentioned briefly that one of its supposed founders, Aeneas, had fled from Troy following the Trojan War. Well, today is the traditional date given for the fall of that city, in the year 1184 BC. The Trojan War is a massively important event in the mythology of the ancient Greeks. It involves so many gods from the Greek pantheon and so many beings that are half human and half divine that for hundreds years nobody really believed that it had happened in the first place. Now, we think that it does contain at least a grain of truth. I’m not going to tell you any events of the war in great detail, because there are too many names, too many different versions and it would get confusing.

So, the Trojan war supposedly happened because Zeus thought there were far too many people in the world. Particularly, far too many of his demi-god children. Zeus had become king of the gods by overthrowing his father Cronus, who had become king by overthrowing his father Uranus. He did not want the same thing to happen to him. There was also a prophecy that one of his lovers, a sea-nymph called Thetis, would give birth to a divine child that would overthrow him. To stop this from happening he had her married off to a human, a king called Peleus. It was at their wedding that the trouble really started.

04 24 wedding of peleus and thetis

All the gods and goddesses had been invited except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Keeping discord out of a wedding is, of course, desirable but not always possible. She turned up and was stopped at the door, but she still managed to throw in her wedding gift, the Apple of Discord. It carried an inscription which said it was a gift ‘to the fairest’. Of course, then there was a huge row about which of them was the most beautiful. Having narrowed it down to Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, they asked a human too choose. They chose Paris, who was visiting from Troy. Athena offered him wisdom, Hera offered him power and Aphrodite offered him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. He chose Aphrodite and she offered him Helen. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Helen was already married to King Menelaus. But Aphrodite was angry with Menelaus because he had promised, when he married Helen, to sacrifice a hundred oxen to the goddess, but then forgotten about it.

Of course the gods get what they want, so Helen fell in love with Paris and, after some adventures, he took her back to Troy. Loads of men in Greece loved Helen, many had wanted to marry her, but when Menelaus was chosen, they swore to protect her. So that was when 1,200 Greek ships set sail for Troy to get her back. Some tried to break their promise. The king of Cyprus had promise fifty ships, but sent only one real ship and forty-nine made out of clay. Odysseus, who had just got married himself, tried to convince everyone, unsuccessfully, that he was mad by sowing his fields with salt. Then there was Achilles, he was the son of Thetis and Pelius. His mother disguised him as a girl so he wouldn’t have to go. But Achilles was quite the warrior. He wasn’t very good at being the sort of girl that was expected of him and soon gave himself away.

04 24 achilles

Achilles’ mother knew about the prophecy that had bothered Zeus and she tried very hard to make him divine. In one story, she smeared him with ambrosia and held him over a fire to try and burn away the parts of him that were human. Her husband caught her and stopped her. Apparently she had already killed several of her sons this way. In another, she dipped him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, but he still had one weak point where she held him by the heel. His Achilles Heel.

The Greeks besieged the city of Troy for ten years. Loads of Heroes died, sometimes they were killed by their own side. Everyone got very fed up and then Odysseus had his idea about the horse. The horse was the symbol of Troy so they quite liked them. The Greeks built a giant horse, then they burned their camps and pretended to go home, leaving the horse and a single soldier called Sinon to explain that was a gift for Athena. A couple of people were quite suspicious of the horse. There was a man called Laocoön who said that he didn’t trust any Greeks, even if they did bring presents. He tried to stab the horse with a spear but the god Poseidon sent a sea serpent to strangle him. Then there was Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy. She had been blessed with the gift of prophecy and tried to tell everyone that the horse would bring about the downfall of the city. Unfortunately she was also cursed. Her curse was that no one would ever believe her. Both these things were very unfortunate for the Trojans, as there were actually thirty soldiers, incuding Odysseus hiding inside the horse.

04 24 trojan horse

They dragged the horse into the city, gave it a big party and then went to bed. That was when Odysseus and his soldiers climbed out and let the rest of the Greek Army, who hadn’t gone home at all, into the city and they completely destroyed it. They captured Helen and took her home. She and Menelaus didn’t really live happily ever after. In fact, he was pretty sorry about the whole thing. During the attack on Troy, the Greeks had behaved appalingly, they burned loads of temples and the Gods were very upset. They wreaked their revenge and hardly any of the Greeks involved in the Trojan War ever made it home. Or if they did, it took them a really, really long time. Some were killed, some founded other colonies elsewhere. Many european rulers have claimed descent from the survivors of the Trojan War. Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, the Habsburgs, even our own Royal Family.

But, by the 1870s, pretty much everyone thought that the whole thing was complete made up nonsense and there was never even any such place. But then, a man called Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of a Bronze age city exactly where Troy was supposed to be. Since then, several cities have been identified on the same site. Troy has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. But at some point, possibly in the thirteenth century BC, it certainly looks as though it was destroyed by a war.

Dragons and Dungeons

04 23 gustave moreau st george and the dragonToday I should probably tell you about our national patron saint, as it’s Saint George’s Day. Probably everyone who knows anything about Saint George knows about how he killed a dragon and rescued a princess. Even if you don’t know it about Saint George, you’ve probably heard some version of the story involving someone else, because there are loads of them. As well as dragon slaying saints, you will find them in Greek myths, in Norse legend, pretty much everywhere.

The story of Saint George and the Dragon was brought back from the Middle East by twelfth century crusaders. According to the Golden Legend, which is a sort of encyclopaedia of saints that was a medieval bestseller, George killed his dragon in Libya. The dragon, or possibly crocodile, was a plague-bearing creature that had made its nest at a spring that provided water for the city of Silene (possibly Cyrene). The people of the city were trying to placate the dragon by feeding it sheep, but when they ran out of livestock, they began to send it their children. The victims were chosen by lottery, and this seems to have become a problem only when the King’s daughter’s name was picked out. In this version, George only wounded the dragon and then asked the princess for her girdle. He put it around the neck of the dragon, it was immediately tamed and they led it back to the city. Everyone was terrified, but George said he would only kill the beast if they all became Christians. Which, of course, they did. To me, this sounds a bit like George forcing people to change their religion by threatening them with a plague-ridden dragon.

In a later version of the story, George is able to shelter, at intervals, during his battle with the dragon, beneath the branches of an enchanted orange tree. It seems enchanted orange trees are very effective against dragon poison. I’d love to have found a picture to show you of Saint George hiding under an orange tree, but it seems there isn’t one.

What I did find though, was the story of his martyrdom. Christians were horribly persecuted in the early days and many died for their beliefs. This was all supposed to be fine though, as it meant they would go straight to heaven. So they loved a good martyrdom story. What happened to George is a particularly spectacular example.

04 23 matyrdom of saint georgeHe was challenged in his Christian beliefs by a king of Persia named Dacian who thought that Apollo was a better god. I haven’t been able to find any king of Persia named Dacian, probably they mean the Emperor Diocletian, who looms large in a lot of tales of early Christian martyrdoms. First, George was stretched on a rack and torn with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that pulled him apart, beaten and had salt rubbed into his wounds with a hair cloth. Then they pressed him into a box that they had hammered nails into, stuck stakes into him, plunged him into boiling water and crushed his head with a hammer. None of that was enough to kill him though. After that he was thrown in a dungeon where God comforted him and told him that he would die three deaths before entering Paradise. Though quite how this was supposed to be comforting, I’m not sure. Next, Dacian had his magician prepare a poison. George drank two cups of it and was fine. The magician was so impressed that he instantly converted to Christianity and was executed for it.

The next day George was lacerated on a wheel of swords, cut into ten pieces and thrown into a well, that then had a stone rolled over the top. But that was still not the end for poor Saint George. God turned up with the Archangel Michael and resurrected him. This caused the officer in charge of the situation to convert to Christianity along with around 1,100 soldiers and one woman. They were all immediately executed.

Now Dacian was really mad. George was tied up and had molten lead poured in his eyes and mouth, sixty nails driven into his skull, hung upside down over a fire with a stone tied around his neck, and then shut into the revolving belly of a metal ox which was filled with swords and nails. Then he was sawn in two and boiled to bits. But God resurrected him a second time.

After having red hot helmet put on his head, and a bit more tearing and burning, George pretended to give up. The king was so pleased that he invited George to stay in the palace. But sneaky old George used the opportunity to convert Dacian’s wife. So, of course, he had to kill her too. During this diversion, he visited the temple of Apollo, whose statue then walked out admitting its fraudulence. George stamped his foot and the ground opened to swallow the false god. At last, after a martyrdom that, we are told, lasted for seven years, the saint was beheaded for the last time and ascended to Heaven.

Poor George. Luckily, he’s been rewarded with more than just the title of Patron Saint of England. He’s the saint of loads of things. Everything form saddle makers to syphilis. He is also Patron Saint of Syria. There are too many others for me to list here, but you can find out about them from this man.


04 22 florence cookToday, I want to tell you about Florence Cook. She was born in the East End of London in about 1856. I’m not sure of the date, but she died on this day in 1904. Florence was a celebrated medium who made her name contacting the dead, so today seems like an appropriate day to remember her. She was most well known for contacting a spirit guide called Katie King who had a remarkably physical presence for a spirit form beyond the grave.

As a child, Florence claimed that angels spoke to her. Then, when she was fifteen, she attended a séance held by her parents where she became the focus of ‘activity’. At first she performed at private séances and according to her own account, loud knockings were heard, objects flew around the room, a table was flung against a wall and Florence herself was lifted to the ceiling and carried over the sitters. She began to develop her abilities under the guidance of two other mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Frank had a spirit guide called John King and Florence claimed to contact his daughter Katie King.

Now I need to go back a bit and tell you more about John and Katie King. Because Frank and Florence were not the first people to contact them. Back in the 1850s, an American Spiritualist called Jonathan Koons claimed to be in touch with John King. But John King was not the name he had in life. He was actually the spirit of Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh buccaneer who had died in 1688. He was very sorry for all the terrible things he’d done when he was alive and had returned to our earthly realm to prove the existence of the spirit world as a sort of penance. I’ve no idea why he changed his name. Anyway, John King also introduced Jonathan’s audience to his daughter Katie, the spirit of Annie Owen Morgan.

As another aside, and because I like it when I find links between my posts, Jonathan Koons was the originator of the ‘Spirit Cabinet’ that was later used to great effect by the Davenport Brothers. Their act fired the imagination of John Nevil Maskelyne who was, in turn, a big influence on Georges Méliès. The Davenport Brothers also claimed to have manifested Katie.

04 22 katie kingIn the hands of Florence, Katie did actually physically manifest herself. She walked around the room, she spoke to people, she touched them. She even allowed herself to be photographed. Katie Cook is the most photographed spirit ever. There are more photographs of Katie King than there are of Florence Cook. The two look remarkably similar. In early manifestations, only Katie’s face appeared. Florence had a home made ‘spirit cabinet’ which was made from a cupboard that was large enough for her to sit inside. She would be bound to a chair and shut inside the cupboard. There was a hole cut in the door near the top and that was where the face would appear, covered with linen. Afterwards, the door would be opened and Katie would be still tied to the chair.

Eventually, Katie appeared as a whole being, clad in white flowing robes. She could walk around the room and talk with people whilst Florence was apparently in a trance, concealed behind a curtain. On at least one occasion, Katie had allowed one of the sitters to look behind the curtain and see Florence sitting in her chair in a trance. When Florence awoke, it seems that Katie disappeared. Of course, she may have had an accomplice.

In 1873, she was exposed as a fraud by William Volkman. He grabbed hold of Katie during a séance and there was a bit of an altercation. Attempting to touch a spirit being was absolutely not done. Some of the other sitters, and perhaps the spirit herself attacked Volkman and he was left with a bloody nose and had part of his beard was torn off. Afterwards, Florence was found to be in a state of distress, but still tied to her chair. There was no sign of Katie or the clothes she had been wearing. Volkman’s accusation of fraud didn’t really stick, especially after it was discovered that he was very close friends with another medium called Mrs Guppy, who really hated Florence.

In 1874, Florence was investigated again by chemist and physicist William Crookes. She stayed at his house and was willing to be subjected to any test Crookes could devise for her. He had her wired into an electrical circuit to find out whether or not she moved from her chair. The spirit Katie allowed herself to be weighed, measured and even have her pulse taken – Yes, I was surprised she had one too. It was discovered that Katie varied in weight and height but was always taller than Florence. Crookes also took forty-four photographs of Katie. Unfortunately for us, his family destroyed most of the pictures along with the glass plate negatives after he died. Crookes had co-discovered the chemical element thallium and become rather famous, they didn’t want his reputation blackened by spiritual nonsense.

04 22 william crookes and katie kingHe did send copies to friends, but we don’t know what they are meant to show. He did sometimes have Florence dress up like Katie so he could photograph her and compare the two. All his surviving photographs certainly do bear a striking resemblance to Florence, but he was convinced that he was not being duped. Her Supporters claimed that Katie was bound to look like Florence as she was borrowing some of her energy to manifest herself. Personally, I don’t believe in spirit mediums and I don’t know what it was that convinced William Crookes that she was genuine. It may have been that he was complicit with her for reasons we don’t understand, some claim they were having an affair. It could be that Florence was just really, really good.

Katie left Florence in 1874. Florence did appear again, in 1880, with another spirit guide, but she was caught out. Katie, however had a longer career. In 1875, she was apparently manifested and photographed by Jennie and Nelson Holmes at a séance in New York. But a woman called Eliza White later claimed that she had posed for the photos. She also appeared in Winnipeg, Canada in 1930. Her most recent manifestation was in Rome in 1974.


04 21 capitoline wolfThis day in 753 BC is the traditional date for the founding of Rome… or it might have been a different year but everyone seems pretty sure that it was definitely 21st April. It was a day sacred to the Roman deity Pales, who looked after shepherds and livestock. No one is certain whether Pales was male or female, or even a pair of deities. At the festival in honour of Pales, Parilia, a shepherd would drive his flock through a bonfire to purify the animals and offer prayers to protect them from evil during the coming year. Over time, as the population became more urban, it turned into a celebration of the birth of Rome.

So Rome began with twin brothers called Romulus and Remus… or just Romulus… or maybe someone completely different, a Trojan named Aeneas. The Romans had two completely different foundation myths; the one about Romulus and Remus is from Italy, the one about Aeneas, clearly Greek in origin. Aeneus is a mythological figure who was half human and half divine. His mother was Venus, if you’re and ancient Roman, or Aphrodite, if you’re an ancient Greek. Aeneus and a band of followers fled Troy after it was attacked by some Greeks who had been hiding out inside a giant horse. After much wandering and adventures, they wound up in Italy. Aeneus married the daughter of the king of that country, whose name was Lavinia, and their son Ascanius founded a city called Alba Longa, about twelve miles south east of Rome.

The Romans liked the idea of the founder of their people being part god and, in order to reconcile the two myths, they recorded a long line of legendary kings which show Romulus and Remus to be direct descendants of Aeneus. The Emperor Augustus would enjoy claiming kinship to the gods through Romulus. Incidentally, this is not just a Roman thing. Our English mythological King Arthur was also supposed to be descended from Aeneus.

04 21 romulus and remusRomulus and Remus, as you know, were abandoned at birth, in the way that heroes often are. This was either because their uncle was a king who had been told they would overthrow him when they grew up, or because their mother, niece to the king, was a Vestal Virgin who was impregnated by the god Mars… or Hercules… or her uncle…They were either exposed as infants… or thrown in the Tiber to drown… or left on the river bank in a basket and carried away by a flood. They were found by a she wolf who suckled them… or by a wolf goddess named Luperca. They were also fed by a woodpecker. The woodpecker usually gets left out of tthe story, but you can see him in this painting. The twins were found and raised by a shepherd and his wife, Acca Larentia.

Now let me tell you some things about Acca Larentia. She might have a shepherd’s wife. She might have been a beautiful woman with a notorious reputation who was won by Hercules in a game of dice. She may, after that, have married someone rich, inherited all his property when he died and bequeathed it to the Roman people. Or maybe she was neither of those, but a prostitute who bequeathed all her earnings to Rome. It is interesting to note that Romans called their prostitutes ‘Lupa’, which means she-wolf. So maybe there was no real wolf at all.

Anyway, when Romulus and Remus grew up they decided to build a city. Romulus thought the Palatine Hill would be a good place to start but Remus thought the Aventine Hill would be better. They fell out about who was right, who had seen the most auspicious birds and who had seen them first. Then Remus told Romulus that the wall he was building was rubbish and jumped over it. That was when Remus somehow died… or was hit in the head with a spade.

So Romulus won and the city was named after him. He ruled for thirty-seven years and no one really agreed on what happened to him after that. He disappeared, or died in a mysterious way, or ascended to heaven or something…