May 20, 1845 The Lost Franklin Expedition

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice.

Since the fall of Constantinople when the Ottoman Empire blocked overland trade routes to the east, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.  

The idea of a northern sea route has been around at least since the second century world maps of the Greco-Roman geographer, Ptolemy. Five years after Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”, John Cabot became the first European to explore the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Cabot made landfall in the Canadian Maritime sometime in June 1497 and, like Columbus, mistakenly believed he had reached the Asian shore.

A year later, King James VII authorized a much larger expedition of five ships and 200 men. Cabot’s expedition is believed to have been caught in a severe storm in the North Atlantic. None were ever heard from, again.

Jacques Cartier departed France in 1534 in search of a faster route to Asia. Three such expeditions failed to discover the great river to the west.

In 1539, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa departed the Pacific coast of Mexico for what the Spanish called, the Strait of Anián. Ulloa is credited with proving that Baja California is a peninsula and not an island but he too came back, empty handed.

Henry Hudson’s explorations paved the way to Dutch settlement in New York but the river that bears his name, proved to be a dead end. Another attempt in 1610 saw Hudson’s expedition stuck in the ice, in Hudson Bay. The ice melted with the Spring of 1611 when the crew mutinied, setting Cabot and a few loyalists adrift in a small boat. The mutineers returned to England. Cabot and the others, vanished.

The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

By the 19th century, European explorers looked to the north. To the Arctic. On this day in 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England with a crew of 134 men aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage.

HMS Terror. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice. Inside, a steam heating system kept sailors insulated from the arctic cold.

Two months later, the vessels were spotted at the entrance of Baffin Bay. They were never seen again.

Three years later, a rescue expedition set out at the urging of lady Franklin and others, in search of the lost expedition. Three expeditions really, one overland and one each approaching from the north Atlantic, and Pacific. Some tantalizing clues emerged over the following decade. Three graves discovered on Beechy Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago . A note and then another, discovered under stone cairns. The weathered bones bearing knife marks raising questions, about cannibalism.

American vessels joined with those of British searchers. The search became all but a crusade for a time but nothing turned up, beyond the occasional clue. No member of the Franklin expedition was ever seen again. Not at least, by European eyes.

Anthropologists believe the Thule people split from related groups called Aleuts and from Siberian migrants some 4,000 years ago, displacing the paleo-eskimo culture called the Tuniit. The “Inuit” people further split around the year 1000 and moved east, across the Arctic.

The techniques by which a human being survives and even thrives in such an inhospitable place, the histories, these are the Qaujimajatuqangit, the knowledge of the Inuit, told and retold in stories going back thousands of years.

Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, explains:

“Inuit had no written system of language… History was passed down through oral history, which meant telling and retelling stories. During the long winter days and nights it was usually the elders who would tell stories.”

Hat Tip Louis Kamookak

169 years after HMS Erebus and Terror disappeared the Qaujimajatuqangit of the Netsilik Inuit of King William Island led to their discovery.

In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus, in an area identified in Inuit oral history. She lay in a mere 36-feet of water, a good sixty miles from where she was believed to be. Two years later, Inuit knowledge led to the wreck of HMS Terror.

Afterward

In 1852, searchers aboard HMS Resolute discovered the long suffering crew of HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice while searching for the lost Franklin expedition, three years earlier.

HMS Investigator is shown on the north coast of Baring Island in the Arctic in this 1851 drawing. The ships commanded by Sir John Franklin in his doomed 19th-century search for the Northwest Passage will have to overwinter wherever they are at least one more time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Public Archives of Canada

Resolute herself became trapped in the ice, the following year. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of rescue. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechy Island over the Spring and summer of 1854.

In 1855, the American whale ship George Henry discovered the Resolute drifting in pack ice, some 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen sailed Resolute back to Groton Connecticut, arriving on Christmas eve.

The late 1850s was a difficult time for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1859. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until 1879 when she was retired, and broken up. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. In 1880, the British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes. A token of appreciation for HMS Resolute’s return, a quarter-century earlier.

The Resolute Desk has remained in the White House from that day to this, excepting the Truman renovations and 11 years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when it was moved to the Smithsonian. President George H.W. Bush moved it into the residence office, in the White House. Aside from that, the Resolute desk has remained in the oval office from the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, to that of Joe Biden.

May 16, 1771 First Blood

At a place called Alamance, North Carolina Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later the two sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.

The English Civil War of 1642 – 1651 is often referred to as a single event, a war fought over religious freedom and issues of governance, over the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. The conflict pitting Royalists (“Cavaliers”) against Parliamentarians (“Roundheads) may be looked at as two or even three separate events, culminating in 1649 with the death by decapitation, of English King Charles I. There appeared for a time an interregnum, governed first by “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell and later by his son, Richard.

Cromwell died unexpectedly in 1658 most likely, from complications of a urinary infection. Richard Cromwell succeeded his father but, with no base of political support, the younger Cromwell was out within a year. By 1660 the dead King’s son Charles II was invited to return from exile, to rule over a restored monarchy.

Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey on January 30, 1661 and “executed”, his head fixed to a pike and body thrown in a pit. Some will tell you Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Others attribute the idea to Niccolò Machiavelli. Whoever it was, the man got that right.

Three years later, Charles II rewarded a group of 8 political allies for their support, in restoring him to the crown. A colony of their own in the New World, the lands between Virginia and Spanish Florida. The Province of Carolina, the name a Latin tribute to Charles (Carolus).

The land proved unwieldy to govern. So it was that deputy governors were appointed in 1691, to govern the separate provinces of north and south Carolina.

The region was no stranger to English settlement. Ananias and Eleanor Dare welcomed a daughter into the fledgling colony on Roanoke island on August 18, 1587, Virginia, the first English child born in the New World.

Virginia Dare would disappear along with the entire settlement, leaving only the cryptic words “Croatan” carved into a post and “Cro”, carved into a tree.

The child’s grandfather John White and others would search for the settlers, in vain. What became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains a mystery, to this day.

Other efforts failed to establish permanent settlements in North Carolina until 1648, when Virginians Henry Plumpton and Thomas Tuke purchased tracts of land from indigenous tribes. Other Virginians moved in over the next ten years either buying land from native Americans, or obtaining grants.

By 1729, the 8 “Lord Proprietors” had sold their interests. The colonies of North and South Carolina, reverted to the crown.

Following the union of England and Scotland to form the “United Kingdom” in 1707, waves of Scottish immigrants arrived in the colonies. Some 145,000 Lowland Scots, Highland Scots and Ulster “Scots-Irish” arrived over the next seven decades.

Early arrivals among the latter encountered intolerance and violence in the New England colonies. Philadelphia became for a time the preferred destination, but the Pennsylvania frontier was already suffering the early raids from what would become the French and Indian War. By the 1740s, the vast majority of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants were headed for North Carolina.

Poorer than their English counterparts, these Scots and Scots-Irish newcomers turned west to farm the familiar, rolling hills of the Piedmont and Sand Hills. In the 1760s, great waves of internal migrants left the eastern cities in search of better opportunities in the rural west. The merchants, businessmen and lawyers of this second wave upset the social order and long-established political customs of the region,

Class differences were exacerbated by a long period of drought. Poor “Dirt Farmers” increasingly went into debt to these new arrivals. Between 1755 and 1765, court records reflect a sixteen-fold increase in collection actions. Such suits often lead to planters losing homes and property. Newly arriving lawyers used superior knowledge of the law, many times to unfair advantage. To their victims, this “Courthouse Ring” was seen as grabbing political power for themselves. Grasping clerks and sheriffs in pursuit of taxes from cash-strapped farmers did little to lessen the sense that newcomers, were using the system for their own enrichment.

As Sons of Liberty groups from Wilmington to Boston protested the Stamp Act of 1765, a schoolteacher named Sims delivered the “Nutbush Address”, railing about abuses of county clerks, lawyers and sheriffs and demanding the preservation, of equality under the law. The poor farmer he argued, was often subjected to fees in excess of the debt in question.

Resentments grew and deepened with the arrival of royal Governor William Tryon, in 1765. A system depending on the integrity of extortionate and self-dealing officials could not stand. Governor Tryon’s support of these people formed the tipping point.

Tryon Palace, built 1770

Tryon went directly to work on a residence, befitting a man of his exalted stature. Additional taxes were levied on already strained farmers and, in 177o, Tryon moved in with his English heiress wife, Margaret.

Groups of self-styled “Regulators” had already risen up by this time, to demand honest government and fair taxation. The Tryon Palace was the final straw. In Orange County alone some 6,000 to 7,000 of the 8,000 residents at this time, supported the Regulators. No matter. To the wealthy businessmen, politicians and lawyers of the new social order, theirs was nothing but a peasant uprising, and would not be tolerated.

In 1768, a group of Regulators assaulted the courthouse, at Hillsborough. Lawyers were beaten and the shops of local businessmen, ransacked. With cases pending against several of their leaders, Regulators demanded that they themselves, be appointed jurors. Judge Richard Henderson adjourned the court with a promise to return in the morning but instead left town, in the dark of night.

Regulators deposited human waste on the judges seat. A long-dead slave was laid out on the lawyer’s bar. The mob looted and burned the judges home, stables and barn, but not before drinking all his alcohol.

Acts of violence became a regular of the western counties. On May 9, 1771, Governor Tryon showed up in Hillsborough at the head of 1,000 troops and 150 officers, to put an end to it. Not far away some 2,000 Regulators, some say as many as 6,000, were spoiling for a fight. More a leaderless mob than a disciplined force, the two sides first clashed on May 15, when Regulators captured two of the Governor’s militia.

As far as Tryon was concerned, these people were in open rebellion. The Regulators appear not to have understood the seriousness, of the situation. At 8:00 the following morning, the column approached the Regulator camp.

Captain Philemon Hawkins II came forward with a message:

Alamance Camp, Thursday, May 16, 1771

“To Those Who Style Themselves “Regulators”: In reply to your petition of yesterday, I am to acquaint you that I have ever been attentive to the interests of your County and to every individual residing therein. I lament the fatal necessity to which you have now reduced me by withdrawing yourselves from the mercy of the crown and from the laws of your country”…

William Tryon

Reverend David Caldwell departed the Regulator camp with one Robert Thompson, to negotiate. Caldwell was warned away but Tryon took Thompson, as hostage. History fails to record what was said but, in a moment of anger, the governor grabbed a musket from his militia and shot Robert Thompson, dead. Tryon’s flag bearer was fired upon and responded, “Fire and be Damned!. When the shooting stopped, both sides counted nine dead. Dozens to as many as 200 regulators, were wounded.

With 13 Prisoners, the royal Governor executed one of them, a man named James Pugh, right there in camp. Tryon hanged six of the remaining twelve in the following days. The other six were pardoned, in exchange for oath of fealty.

Was the Battle of Alamance the first action of the Revolution? Historians differ but, this is certain. A year later and a day’s drive on modern highways, Rhode Island Sons of Liberty burned the customs schooner HMS Gaspée to the water’s edge. The King’s “Tea Act” lead to the Boston Tea Party, a year later.  A blizzard of regulations came down in 1774, called the “Intolerable Acts”. The “Liberty and Union” flag, the first distinctly American flag in history flew that October, above the Massachusetts town of Taunton. Something had begun, not to be denied.

At Alamance, Regulators sought justice under prevailing law. Four years later later the sides met once again, at  Lexington & Concord. This time, the choices came down to Liberty, or death.

May 14, 1915 Canary Girls

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls’ gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.

Monument to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey

Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.

This experimental three-shot cannon belonging to Henry VIII burst, with predictable results for anyone standing nearby.

By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.

At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.

Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.

Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.

By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.

This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.

While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.

The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.

A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

British 18-pounder

The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.

First drum fire in the war, in the Champagne, Lasted 75 hours, from Sept. 22 to 25. Was directed against 20 Miles of the German Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.

Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.

The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.

War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.

“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.

The Times, May 14, 1915

For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.

Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.

Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.

By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.

Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.

At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.

The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.

The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.

The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet, in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun that was the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of 57th Foot soldiers at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel”, and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor of the tropical paradise, of his invention.

May 2, 1536 Anne of a Thousand Days

Henry VIII went on to have four more wives after Anne Boleyn, none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem.

Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, heir to the British throne and eldest son of Henry VII. The future King died the following year leaving his younger brother to take the throne and ask for the hand of his brother’s widow, in 1509.

The Spanish princess-turned Queen Consort of England was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Catherine had borne six children by this time including one surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, but there was no male heir. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, it was God’s punishment for marrying his brother’s wife.

Henry VIII

The King carried on for a time with a succession of mistresses. Elizabeth Blount bore Henry the coveted male heir in the person of Henry Fitzroy, the only child born out of wedlock his father, acknowledged. Next came Margaret (Madge) Shelton and later her 1st cousin Mary Boleyn, who is reputed to have borne the King two children though Henry acknowledged, neither.

By late winter 1526, Henry had cast his eye on the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Anne. Henry in a pickle. Catherine considered her marriage to the King to be legitimate, and indissoluble. Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress, as her sister had. She was going to be the King’s wife, or remain a Lady in Waiting.

Anne Boleyn

Henry had written a book back in 1521, allegedly with the assistance of Sir Thomas More, a future saint of the Catholic church. The Book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, attacked Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, then going on in Europe. The book earned Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, bestowed by Pope Leo X.

Half a decade later Pope Clement VII refused to grant, Henry’s annulment. Henry retaliated closing monasteries and nunneries, in England.

Henry and Anne were secretly wed in November 1532 and formally married on January, 25. The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void to which the Pope responded, with excommunication. The break with the church of Rome was now complete as Henry VIII became head, of the Church of England.

Later writers would label Anne Boleyn “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had” but, the label would do her little good. In three short years of marriage, Anne bore King Henry a daughter who would live to adulthood to become Queen Elizabeth I, and three miscarriages.

Left: 20th century painting depicting Anne Boleyn deer hunting, with Henry VIII

Henry lost interest by 1534 following the birth of a stillborn male child. He began having affairs with other women. By April 1836 Henry had his sights on Jane Seymour while having Anne “investigated” for adultery, incest and plotting to kill the King.

Anne Boleyn was arrested on this day in 1536 and brought, to the tower of London.

In Tudor courts the accused were required to prove their own innocence, 180° opposite what we now regard as a system of “justice”.  With no defense council nor even a clear idea of the charges laid against them, the defendant was made to provide their own defense in a spectacle before a crowd, numbering in the thousands.

Scene from the British period drama, Anne of a Thousand Days

Four supposed co-conspirators were tried before a special court of oyer and terminer.  As members of the aristocracy Anne herself and her brother George were tried separately.  

Even her detractors spoke well of Anne’s appearance in court.  George’s openly speculating about Henry’s virility and questioning paternity of the baby Elizabeth, did little to help the defense.  

A jury hand selected by the prosecution, each of whom had reason to favor conviction, delivered the verdict.  Guilty on all charges.  The sentence, death at the time, place and manner, of the King’s choosing.

In this case decapitation by sword, the sentence carried out on May 19. The following day, Henry VIII was engaged to Jane Seymour.

Henry would go on to have four more wives none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem. Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, referring to the Kell antigen on the red blood cell of approximately 9% of all Europeans.

The presence of the Kell antigen would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the blood of the baby inside of her. First pregnancies are unlikely to be affected but the mother’s antibodies would attack second and subsequent Kell-positive pregnancies, as foreign objects.

The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter. Anyone attempting to bring such news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.

April 30, 1943 The Man who Never Was

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. In poetic prose so Tolkienish it could only be welsh, a plaque is inscribed with this phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.


The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, to make the enemy believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943, rather than the real targets of North Africa and Sicily. British Military Intelligence codenamed the ruse “Operation Mincemeat”.

The London coroner obtained the body of a 34-year-old homeless man by the name of Glyndwr Michael, on condition that his real identity never be revealed. The Welshman had died of rat poison though it’s uncertain whether the death was accidental, or suicide.  This particular poison came in a paste, and was spread on bread crusts to attract rats.  Michael may have died, merely because he was hungry.

glyndwr-martin

Be that as it may, the cause of death was difficult to detect, the condition of the corpse close to that of someone who had died at sea, of hypothermia and drowning. The dead man’s parents were both deceased, there were no known relatives and the man died friendless.  So it was that Glyndwr Michael became the Man who Never Was.

The next step was to create a “past” for the dead man. Michael became “(Acting) Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, “Martin” could wear battle dress rather than a naval uniform. This was important, because Naval uniforms at the time were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Saville Row.  Authorities could hardly ask Gieves’ tailors to measure a corpse, without raising eyebrows.

The Operation Mincemeat team who helped to change the course of World War 2. H/T UK Guardian

The rank of acting major made Martin senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank, already serving in the Royal Marines.

A “fiancé” was furnished for Major Martin in the form of an MI5 clerk named “Pam”. “Major Martin” carried her snapshot, along with two love letters and a jeweler’s bill, for a diamond engagement ring.

In keeping with his rank, Martin was given good quality underwear to increase his authenticity. Extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing, the underwear was purloined from the Master of the New College Oxford, who’d been run over and killed, by a truck.

The Man Who Never Was Year 1956 Director Ronald Neame
Scene from “The Man Who Never Was”, 1956, Directed by Ronald Neame

Made to look like the victim of a plane crash, the plan was to drop the body at sea at a place where the tide would bring it ashore and into German Hands.

On April 30, 1943 Lieutenant Norman Jewell, commander of the submarine Seraph, read the 39th Psalm.  The body of the man who never was, complete with briefcase padlocked to his wrist containing “secret” documents, slid into the ocean off the Spanish coast.

Glyndwr-Michael-memorial

The hoax worked, nicely.  A Spanish fisherman recovered the body and a Nazi agent intercepted the papers, as intended.  Mussolini insisted correctly that the allied attack would come through Sicily, but Hitler wasn’t buying it.  Der Führer swallowed the Mincemeat ruse whole insisting that the Sicilian attack was nothing but a diversion, from the real objective.

When the Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th of July, the Germans were so convinced it was a feint that they kept forces out of action for two full weeks.  After that, it was too late to affect the outcome.

The non-existent Major William Martin was buried with military honors in the Huelva cemetery of Nuestra Señora under a headstone which reads:

“William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.”  The Latin phrase means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Inscription

In 1998, the British Government revealed Martin’s true identity, and “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”, was added to the gravestone.

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. In poetic prose so Tolkienish it could only be welsh, a plaque is inscribed with this phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun compared with the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of the 57th Foot Regiment at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor and Maria moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel” and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor the tropical paradise, he invented.

March 14, 1805 A Candle in the Wind

Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!

Accomplished as he was with the violin, cello, piano and guitar, Adam Liszt was a natural musician, a personal friend of Joseph Haydn and Ludwig von Beethoven. It was natural that Adam’s young son Franz would take to music, like a duck to water. That he did, beginning at the age of seven. Franz Liszt would come to be known as one of the greatest pianists of all time, but there was more. In an age of staid reserve not known for mass hysteria, the man’s mere appearance was capable of exciting paroxysms of adulation among his fans, heretofore rarely seen outside the realm of religious rapture.

Fans wore the man’s likeness in brooches and pendants. At concerts, women would literally fight to get at his gloves or his hat or even a broken piano string from which to fashion a bracelet. Female admirers would carry glass vials, in which to hold the dregs of his coffee. One infatuated lady-in-waiting once saw him toss a cigar butt, to the curb. Heedless of the stink of that malodorous object she picked the thing up and wore it in a locket bearing the diamond encrusted initials, F.L.

Franz Liszt in 1858

The German poet Heinrich Heine coined the phrase “Lisztomania” but this wasn’t the hysterical adulation directed at four lads from Liverpool, of a later age. Heine referred to a literal medical condition communicable to the public and requiring immunization measures, to control.

Frenzied adulation amounting to mass hysteria was unusual in the time of Franz Liszt, but not unheard of. The delirium of an earlier age would so thoroughly sweep through Great Britain that not even the Royal family, was exempt.

William Betty, the ‘Boy Wonder”

It all began in 1802 when William Henry West Betty attended a theater with his father in Belfast, at age 11. The boy was enthralled by what he had seen declaring to his father “I shall certainly die if I may not be a player.”

Anyone who’s raised a pre-teen can well imagine the badgering, that followed. At last relenting the father brought young “Master Betty” to the theater manager who must have seen some natural talent. There followed several weeks of training and that first performance, met with rave reviews.

Shakespearian acting is famously difficult in the world of thespians but Betty was a natural, even memorizing the famously wordy role of Hamlet, in three hours.

Hamlet. Romeo. Macbeth. The Boy Wonder trod the boards from Dublin to Glasgow to Edinburgh becoming a sensation across all Ireland, and Scotland.

Paintings were made in his likeness. One cartoon depicted the young artist bestriding the bodies of older players, of the age. A medal was struck with the lad’s image and the inscription, “Not yet mature but matchless”.

The kid was earning a hundred pounds a night at a time when the average working man was lucky to receive one, in a week.

All across England, the kid was a sensation. He was “the Young Roscius”, a reference to the slave-turned-actor of Roman antiquity who inspired Quintus Lutatius Catulus to proclaim, “I stood by chance to greet the uprising Aurora, when suddenly, on the left, Roscius rose up. Please, o heavenly gods, give me leave to say that a mortal seemed to me more handsome than a god“.

At last, Master Betty was ready for London. Hopeful theater goers stood in line for hours just to get tickets in December, 1804. The Covent Garden theater hired policemen to control the crowd waiting outside to catch a glimpse, of the Boy Wonder. One reporter wrote: “Shrieks and screams of choking, trampled people were terrible. Fights for places grew; constables were beaten back, the boxes were invaded. The heat was so fearful that men, all but lifeless, were lifted and dragged through the boxes into the lobbies which had windows.”

Betty was celebrated by London society, invited to dine with none other than King George III and his wife, the Queen Consort Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The House of Commons was adjourned on March 14, 1805 so MPs could trek across London to see Betty play Hamlet.

In his short but meteoric career, Master Betty inspired a rash of child prodigies. For the Boy Wonder, the flame was destined to burn out. The novelty was gone, he couldn’t draw large enough crowds, to pay for the venue.

In 1806, a failed performance of Richard III caused him to be hissed, off the stage. Critics panned an attempted comeback in 1812 and another in 1819. There was a failed suicide attempt at the age of 30.

On September 6, 1997, Elton John performed “A Candle in the Wind” at the funeral for Princess Diana, a song about the meteoric rise and the tragic death, of Marilyn Monroe. For William Betty the candle blew out in 1824. Like so many child prodigies, this one retired to a life of lonely obscurity where he devoted his time and still-considerable fortune, to charitable causes. He died with barely a notice on August 24, 1874, at the age of 83.

February 12, 1554 No Sadder Spot on Earth

The “Nine Day Queen” ​experienced the swiftest rise and fall of any Monarch, in the history of the English crown. She never wanted any of it, but it didn’t matter. The ambitions of others would cost the teenage Lady Jane, her head.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing a challenge to Church authority to the Wittenberg Palace Church, in 1517. In all probability, it never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the One Church at this time. This was an academic work, mailed to Archbishop Albrecht and offered for scholarly disputation.

Luther’s “95 theses” rocked the Christian world and may be counted among the most important documents in world history, alongside the Cylinder of the Persian King Cyrus, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of independence.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages.

The European “Wars of Religion” spawned by the Protestant Reformation raged across Europe for a hundred years. Other issues were involved as well – territorial ambitions, revolution, Great Power conflicts, but fault lines pulling at the Christian world, were never far from the surface. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the French Revolution, in 1789. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-’48 laid waste to Germany and killed a third of its population, a death rate twice that of World War I.

The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe reaching its greatest geographic extent in the latter half of the 16th century. In England, the schism began with Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII, of England. Desperate for a male heir, Henry sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused an annulment. Before it was over King Henry VIII had established the church of England with himself, at its head.

Henry died in 1547 leaving his son by Jane Seymour, the nine year old Edward Tudor, King. Next in order of succession came Edward’s half-sister by Catherine of Aragon Mary Tudor, followed by his half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Despite breaking with the church in Rome, Henry never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine, or ceremony. Henry, the first English monarch raised as a Protestant, dispensed with clerical celibacy and the Mass, and required services to be conducted, in English.

Despite her title, Henry’s cousin Jane had little use for the goings on at the royal court. “Lady” Jane Grey would rather read a book. Pretty, smart and well educated, she was the daughter of Henry’s younger sister and as such, in line for the crown.

At nine Jane was sent to live with Henry’s widow, Katherine Parr.

There exists among us a type of person, with an insatiable need to control the lives of others. People who desire power, above all things. Call it a personality defect or a psychological condition, that’s up to you, but one thing is certain. History is replete with such individuals at all times and in all political stations. All too often, these are the people who Become, history.

Books have been written about the scheming, the grasping for power behind the scenes, of the royal throne. Such machinations are beyond the scope of this essay but this story is chock full of such individuals, not the least of whom were John Dudley, duke of Northumberland and Jane’s own father, Henry.

In 1551, Henry Grey was created 1st duke of Suffolk. With pre-teen Henry on the throne Dudley, duke of Northumberland, exercised enormous power behind the scenes. In May 1553, Suffolk and Dudley arrange of their two children: Lady Jane to Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

Edward ruled until the ripe old age of fifteen and fell ill from some lung condition, possibly tuberculosis. Knowing he was dying, Edward and his council drew up a “Devise for the Succession” to prevent the return of Catholic rule.

Lady Jane was devoutly Protestant. Edward bypassed his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth to name Jane Grey, his rightful heir. At fifteen, this quiet teenage girl who’d rather read a book became the Great Hope of Protestant England.

King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 his death kept quiet, for four days. Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland on July 10, her husband Guildford, the Duke of Clarence. Jane fainted on learning she was Queen. She later said she accepted the crown, only with reluctance.

Lady Jane being asked to take the throne as imagined by artist, Robert Smirke

To the devoutly Catholic Mary Tudor, the future “Bloody Mary”, the line of succession was clear. She herself was named in the Parliamentary act of 1544. She was next according to Henry’s private papers. Mary Tudor was not about to be denied what was rightfully hers.

It is said that success has many fathers but failure, is an orphan. Dudley set out with a body of troops, to capture the would be Queen as the privy council, personal advisors to the crown, now declared support for Mary. With the rug pulled out from under him Dudley’s support, evaporated. Even Henry Grey, Jane’s father, switched his support to Mary.

Queen for only nine days, Jane was deposed on July, 19, 1553. The only English monarch in 500 years without so much, as a portrait. Now simply “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, she was imprisoned in the Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) apartments at the Tower of London, Guildford in the Beauchamp Tower.

Mary rode triumphantly into London on August 3, accompanied by her half sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 dignitaries.

Jane was charged with high treason as was Guildford and several associates. The trial began on November 3 with no doubt, as to how it would end. Just turned 17 in October the “nine days’ Queen” was convicted of high treason and sentenced to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases”.

Even yet, there was reason to believe that Jane might be spared. What happened next sealed the teenager’s fate.

Once crowned, Mary I wasn’t about to be succeeded by her younger (Protestant) half sister, Elizabeth. She turned her attention to finding a mate. Mary needed to produce an heir. The House of commons petitioned that the new Queen select an English mate, but she chose Prince Philip of Spain.

The marriage was controversial. English patriots opposed the match, not wanting Britain relegated to a mere dependency, of the Habsburgs. English Protestants feared Catholic rule.

Mary I, Queen of England

There followed a series of uprisings in opposition to the marriage, called after the rebel politician Thomas Wyatt. The so-called Wyatt’s Rebellion explicitly opposed the marriage but carried with it the implication, of an intent to overthrow the Queen. There were even dark rumors, of assassination.

Jane’s father joined in the rebellion as did two of his brothers. For the government, this was the last straw. The Bishop of Winchester persuaded the Queen that Jane was a risk and would continue to be so, due to her influence over Protestant rebels. Her execution and that of her husband were scheduled for February 9.

Three days were allowed for the former Queen to save her life, and convert to Catholicism. Mary even sent her chaplain John Feckenham to “save her soul”.

Jane politely declined to convert but she soon made friends, with Feckenham. She even invited him to her own execution.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Jane watched out the window as her husband, was wheeled off in a cart. With the words “Oh Guildford” she watched the return of his body and his head, each wrapped in separate white sheets.

Then came the sound of footsteps. At her door.

Brought to the scaffold, Jane began to speak. “Good people, I am come hither to die” concluding, “I do wash my hands thereof in innocence“. The law made her a traitor but all she had done, was accept the positi0n.

She recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. As was customary the executioner asked for forgiveness. That she gave, adding “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” She then asked “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” She was referring to her head. “No Madame”, came the reply. Lady Jane applied her own mask and reached out groping, for the block. In that she received help. Outstretching her arms, she spoke. Jesus’ last words, as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The slender neck was parted, with a stroke.

There was no funeral. No stone to mark the grave. Lady Jane was simply buried, along with her husband in the parish church of the Tower of London. Saint Peter ad Vincula. (“St. Peter in chains”). She is the last of five beheaded females buried in the chancel area, along with Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Three hundred years later the essayist Thomas Babington wrote in memoriam, of those who rest, at St. Peter ad Vincula:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s, with genius and virtue…but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame…”.

Church graveyard at St. Peter ad Vincula

February 8, 1587 Mary, Queen of Scots

To her detractors, Mary Queen of Scots was an adulteress if not a murderess. To her supporters she was a romantic figure not given to evil but the tragic victim, of evil times.

In 1509, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon (yeah, That Ferdinand and Isabella), married the newly ascended King of England, Henry VIII. Six times over the next nine years, Catherine of Aragon became pregnant. Three boys, three girls.

Only one lived through the second month, Mary Tudor, destined to become Mary I, Queen of England and hated by her Protestant opponents as “Bloody Mary”.

With no surviving male heir, Henry began an affair with the daughter of the 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Mary Boleyn. Mary bore two children around this time but Henry acknowledged paternity, of neither. Instead, the King became obsessed with Mary’s sister, Anne.

Henry wanted this woman but he was caught in a pickle, between a Pope who refused to grant an annulment and a love interest who refused to become a mistress, as her sister had done. Anne Boleyn was going to be the King’s wife, or nothing.

Thus began a series of events which would culminate in schism with the Catholic church with Henry ascending to the head, of the Church of England. This was no small thing. What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict in history, prior to the French Revolution.

While court and public alike adored Catherine, Anne was reviled. “The King’s concubine”. The woman who had bewitched a Monarch and usurped a beloved Queen consort was held personally responsible, for Henry’s break with the Church. The union produced one surviving child, Elizabeth Tudor, derided by many as the “bastard child of a whore.”

Whip smart even at the age of three, Elizabeth noticed her own change of station following the death of her mother. Anne was executed by decapitation in 1536 and replaced by Jane Seymour, 11 days later. “How haps it Governor,” she asked a year later, “yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?”

Seymour gave birth to the long awaited male heir who took the throne at age 9, following the death of his father. He was Edward VI, the first English monarch brought up, as a Protestant. Jane herself died shortly after giving birth.

Wife #4, a German princess called Anne of Cleaves, was displeasing to the King. The pair was divorced, in 6 months.

Elizabeth, now nine, was given the best of education while her father remained cold. Distant. The girl would occasionally appear in court and impressed all with her intelligence but it was her teenage stepmother, Catherine Howard, with whom Elizabeth developed any kind of relationship. That all changed when the headsman’s axe came down yet again on February 13, 1542. Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII, was dead. Then and there the future Queen is said to have vowed, not to marry.

That same year a ginger-haired princess was born in Scotland, Mary Stuart, the only surviving child of King James V of Scotland and his imposing second wife the French noblewoman, Mary of Guise.

The childhood of those two girls, cousins who would never meet, could not have been more different. Mary became Queen of Scots as an infant, following the death of her father. Her mother ruled as Regent for the rest of her life, trying in vain to keep the Protestant reformation, out of Scotland.

The brilliant Elizabeth must have feared at times, for her own survival. With her future anything but certain, her very legitimacy an open question, Elizabeth learned to hold her cards close and to hold others, in suspicion.

Even with her title of “Princess” restored Elizabeth was still mostly alone, outside of court life with her books, her thoughts and the occasional visitor. Mary’s life “…from the age of six was lived at the very center of the most glamorous court in Christendom”, surrounded by pets, tutors, and adoring cousins and occupied by singing lessons, dancing and horseback riding.

Biographer Jane Dunn writes in Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rival, Queens: “Mary’s sense of herself as queen had been with her from the dawning of her consciousness. It was never disputed or tested, as was Elizabeth’s. This awareness of her pre-eminence was her companion through life, something taken for granted, the responsibilities to which she did not apply much profound thought nor, in the end, much value.

Henry died in 1547 leaving Katherine Parr a widow, and the “Child King” Edward VI King of England, at the age of nine.

Henry’s long-awaited heir died at the age of fifteen to be replaced by his half sister, Mary Tudor.

Best remembered for her attempts to reassert Catholicism in England, “Bloody Mary” ruled for not-quite three years, her “Marian persecutions” responsible for hundreds of Protestant martyrs and “heretics” being burned, at the stake.

At first moved about to avoid the danger of warring clans, Mary was sent to her mother’s native France at age 5 where she was worshipped by the royal family. “The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child that I have ever seen” gushed the French King Henry II.

As a child Queen, Mary literally walked before the King’s on children.

Royal marriages were often arranged at this time, to cement political alliances. Mary, age 5, was betrothed to Henry’s son and heir Francis, the Dauphin of France. The two could not have been more different: She, pretty and vivacious, dedicated to her studies and exceptionally tall as an adult reaching 5’11”. He was short and sickly, prone to stutter and more interested in falconry, than studying.

The couple was wed, in 1559. Francis II became the teenage King of France and after his father was killed in a joust, but the marriage didn’t last long. An ear infection turned into a brain abscess the following year.

Mary Tudor detested her half sister and, in 1554, threw her in the Tower of London where her mother Anne Boleyn, had died. “Oh Lorde!” she said. “I never thought to have come in here as prisoner!” There followed a year in exile and then a Royal Pardon. Mary I, suffering from abdominal pain which may have been uterine cancer, recognized Elizabeth on November 6, 1555. Mary Tudor, the first Queen to rule over Britain in her own right, died on November 17. Elizabeth I became Queen the same day.

Historian’s debate the new Elizabeth’s religious convictions but doubts about her own legitimacy left little doubt, she would rule as a Protestant. One day, Protestant England would go to war with itself over issues of Religious expression but, for now, Protestant England agreed. Current arrangements were better than “Popery”.

To English Catholics, the Scottish queen was the rightful heir to English throne. The 3rd succession act of 1543 said otherwise and Henry VIII’s own last will & testament precluded a Stuart from becoming sovereign, but still. Mary was the senior surviving legitimate descendant of Henry VII through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor and therefore, according to English Catholics, the rightful Queen of England.

Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. Having grown up in France she was ill prepared for the political situation in Scotland, or the Protestant reformation her mother had failed to hold off, as regent.

There followed a series of bad decisions, on Mary’s part. First her own political isolation resulting from the appointment of mostly Protestant ministers. Perhaps she had an eye toward the English throne. Next came a catastrophic error in judgement in the six-foot + form of her English-born half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary fell hard for the man.

The marriage hardened differences in internal Scottish politics and infuriated Elizabeth. How could she marry an English subject without Her permission? Darnley became arrogant, demanding. King consort wasn’t good enough. He wanted the Crown Matrimonial, the full right of co-rule. Mary became pregnant at this time, a fact Darnley blamed on Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio.

Months later, Mary would present her newborn baby boy, the future King of Scotland, to her husband. “My Lord, here I protest to God”, she said, “and as I shall answer to Him at the great day of judgment, this is your son, and no other man’s son…

It didn’t matter. Darnley and a group of Protestant Lords stabbed Rizzio to death in front of Mary, that March. Darnley himself was murdered in 1567 and Mary married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, believed by many to be responsible for her husband’s murder.

Pushback was immediate, and vehement. 26 Scottish peers known as the confederate lords raised an army. Mary and Bothwell raised their own and met the lords at Carberry Hill, that June. No fighting took place but Mary’s forces dwindled through desertion, as negotiations dragged on. Bothwell himself was granted safe passage from the field while Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, denounced as an adulteress, and murderer.

Mary escaped and this time there Was a battle. Her side lost and the Queen, now deposed, fled south to England. Mary seems to have thought Elizabeth would help regain her crown but instead, she ordered an inquiry.

Unsigned letters purported to be written by Mary were “found” in a small silver casket, seeming to establish Mary’s guilt. Three biographers later declared these “casket letters” to be outright forgeries but, no matter. The majority of commissioners accepted the letters, as valid.

Biographer Antonia Fraser describes the proceeding as one of the strangest “trials” in legal history. In the end there was no finding of guilt or innocence of either side. Perhaps that’s what Elizabeth wanted, all along. Moray was allowed to return home to Scotland. Mary remained in custody. For nineteen years.

Hers was a gilded cage to be sure with with servants, bedlinens changed daily and chefs to prepare her meals but a cage it was.

Lack of exercise and close confinement led to a host of medical problems including porphyria, and rheumatism so severe as to render her lame.

Elizabeth attempted at one point to mediate her cousin’s return to the throne but an uprising of Catholic earls convinced the Queen that Mary was where she belonged.

In 1586 there was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary, on the English throne. Mary, betrayed by her own son in favor of Elizabeth, appears to have corresponded with the plotters. The names of so-called “Babington plot” co-conspirators were extracted by torture, participants convicted of treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. Mary herself was tried without benefit of legal counsel, evidence or witnesses, on her behalf. The Queen of Scotland was convicted of treason. Her cousin Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

100 years later, executioner James Ketch would so butcher the execution of Lord Russell (pun unintended), the axeman wrote a public letter of apology. James Scott, on ascending the scaffold for his own execution “bid the fellow to do his office better than to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces“.

You’d have to be some kind of screwup, to so incense a crowd come to gawk at a 17th century execution. On this day in 1587 Mary’s killer, wasn’t much better.

The slender neck was placed on the chopping block as Mary prayed. Seven words, over and over. “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit)…A man who comes down to us only by the name of “Bull”, hacked down with the axe.

He missed, the blade glancing off the back of her skull as Mary, continued to pray. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. A second swing came down and hit the mark, sort of, but the headsman’s axe yet had work to do. Now as a meat cleaver, to separate thee last bits of flesh and sinew. As Bull lifted the severed head with the words “God save the Queen”, the auburn locks by which he grasped it turned out to be a wig. The head tumbled to the floor revealing close cropped gray hair and rolled off the stage, “like a football”.

To make matters worse, Mary’s small dog, a terrier who had sneaked onto the scaffold and hidden in her petticoats now came forth, running about and wailing pitifully until lying down in the spreading pool of blood, where her head used to be.

In the end, there there is no proof of Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s murder nor of any conspiracy, involving Bothwell. Such accusations rest on nothing more than assumptions. To her detractors, Mary Queen of Scots was an adulteress if not a murderess. To her supporters she was a romantic figure not given to evil but the tragic victim, of evil times. To her rival, the cousin she would never meet, the Queen who signed her death warrant she was simply, “The daughter of debate”.