Archive for the ‘Curiosities’ Category

A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also, by a distance, the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the  food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  (more…)

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A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

When the Sect needs a new Invunche, the Council of the Cave orders a Member to steal a boy child from six months to a year old. The Deformer, a permanent resident of the Cave, starts work at once. He disjoints the arms and legs and the hands and feet. Then begins the delicate task of altering the position of the head. Day after day, and for hours at a stretch, he twists the head with a tourniquet until it has rotated through an angle of 180, that is until the child can look straight down the line of its own vertebrae.

There remains one last operation, for which another specialist is needed. At full moon, the child is laid on a work-bench, lashed down with its head covered in a bag. The specialist cuts a deep incision under the right shoulder blade. Into the hole he inserts the right arm and sews up the wound with thread taken from the neck of a ewe. When it has healed the Invunche is complete.

The world’s last great witch trial took place as recently as 1880. It was held on the remote Chilean island of Chiloé, and featured remarkable allegations of mass murder, child mutilation and sorcery, all committed in the name of a strange sort of alternative government known as La Provincia Recta – ‘The Righteous Province’ – a sect of warlocks, based in a hidden cave and given to flying about the island wearing magical waistcoats stitched from the flayed skin of the recently deceased.

The native Chilotes believed these warlocks had real powers. Bruce Chatwin, in In Patagonia, wrote a memorable description of their rites and rituals. (And fans of Swamp Thing era Alan Moore will spot the source of one of his more disturbing plots.) But – truly unusual though the story is, was it ever rooted in reality? This week’s Smithsonian essay explores the evidence. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

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A plan of Baiae’s mysterious “Oracle of the Dead,” showing the complex layout of the tunnels and their depth below ground level.

In 1932, the entrance to a hitherto unknown tunnel was discovered in the ruins of the old Roman resort of Baiae, on the Bay of Naples. Packed with rubble, wreathed in choking gases, and heated to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit by nearby magma chambers, it was difficult and dangerous to excavate. But when, after 10 long years of work, the amateur team exploring it finally broke through to lower levels, they uncovered something truly remarkable: a complex, pre-dating the Romans, built around a boiling underwater stream that seemed to have been designed to ape a visit to the Greeks’ mythical underworld.

Who built the tunnels at Baiae – and for what purpose? When and why were they blocked up? And do the theories proposed by the discoverers really add up? This week’s Smithsonian essay weighs the evidence.

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The Land of Cockaigne, in an engraving after a 1567 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne was a peasant’s vision of paradise that tells us much about life in the medieval and early modern periods. A sure supply of rich food and plenty of rest were the chief aspirations of those who sang the praises of this idyllic land.

Men and women have always dreamed of paradise – and for many, in the years before the world was fully explored, it was somewhere that might have a physical existence in some distant corner of the earth. This week’s Smithsonian essay takes a look at what’s been said about an earthly arcadia, from the medieval Land of Cockaigne (a villein’s playground that offered a mirror image of life as it was led in this period, with plenty of rest, a ban on work, and food that literally threw itself into the mouths of inhabitants) to Russia’s much more spiritual peasant paradise, Belovode, the “Kingdom of White Waters.” More intriguingly, it tracks some of the many very real expeditions that set out over the years to locate these lands of dreams – and focuses on one especially remarkable myth in particular: widespread belief among the first Irish convicts who were transported to Australia that it was possible to walk from the penal colony near Sydney all the way to sanctuary China.

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Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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The Great Pyramid–built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and still arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet.

No structure in the world is more mysterious than the Great Pyramid. But who first broke into its well-guarded interior, and when? And what did they find there?

A reinvestigation of a neglected mystery. Old Arab accounts say that it was the Caliph Ma’mun who first broke into the Great Pyramid in 820 AD – driving a new tunnel into the north face of the monument and, by an astounding coincidence, striking the interior network of passages at precisely the point where the hidden upper network of tunnels leading to the King’s Chamber branches off from the main descending passage.

How credible is this story? Why has every writer on the pyramids since the mid-nineteenth century misdated Ma’mun’s visit to Giza by more than a decade? And what exactly is the lost source for some of the most remarkable of the details given in traditional accounts?

Fresh research in medieval Muslim chronicles provides at least some of the answers… and you can read the full story here.

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

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

Wiertz – the plan went – ‘was to follow [the murderer’s] thoughts and feel any sensations, which he was to express aloud. He was also ‘suggested’ to take special note of mental conditions during decapitation, so that when the head fell in the basket he could penetrate the brain and give an account of its last thoughts.’ [Shepard II, 648]  And, incredible as it may seem to us, his scheme appeared to work – indeed, it worked rather too well. As soon as the tumbrel carrying the condemned men to their deaths appeared, Wiertz began to panic. ‘It seemed to the painter that the guillotine’s blade was cleaving his own flesh. It crushed his spine and tore his spinal cord.’ It was not until killers ascended the scaffold that Wiertz recovered himself sufficiently to ‘ask Monsieur D to put me in rapport with the cut off head, by means of whatever new procedures seemed appropriate to him… He made some preparations and we waited, not without excitement, for the fall of a human head.’

As the large crowed watched for the fatal moment, though, it became clear that the painter was still identifying all too closely with his subject’s extreme predicament. Wiertz ‘became entranced almost immediately and… manifested extreme distress and begged to be demagnetised, as his sense of oppression was insupportable. It was too late, however – the knife fell.’ [Wiertz pp.491-2; Benjamin p.250; Shepherd op.cit.]

The Porte du Hal, Brussels. Once part of the city walls, later a prison, and in 1848 site of Wiertz’s unusual experiment with a severed head. 

We’ll return to Antoine Wiertz and his severed head in a moment. First, though, let’s sketch in a little of the background of this unfortunately macabre tale. Versions of the implement we now know as the guillotine have been around for hundreds of years – since the 1520s at least, and arguably as early as the first years of the fourteenth century. [Laurence p.70]  For much of that time, and certainly since the name of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin became indelibly associated with it at the time of the French Revolution, there has been speculation as to just how painless and how quick death by this invention really is. It’s fair to say that – at least among that small handful who have given the subject proper thought – there has long been a suspicion, amounting in some cases to near certainty, that a head may retain consciousness, however briefly, after its severing. The subject was considered as early as 1796 in a French pamphlet, Anecdotes sur les Décapités, and again, briefly, in English, by John Wilson Croker in his History of the Guillotine (1853). Doctors, for the most part, insisted that the shock of the blade must cause immediate unconsciousness, and that loss of the blood supply to the brain brings on actual death a matter of seconds later – there is a cardiologists’ maxim that when a heart stops, the brain can retain consciousness for no more than four seconds if the person concerned is standing, eight if he is sitting, and 12 if he is lying down. That implies that any movements of a detached noggin’s eyes or lips “are merely convulsive, and that the severed head does not feel.” [Wilson p.115]  But, over the years, a small and frankly dubious body of evidence has accumulated to suggest this view is wrong, and that – in a handful of cases at least – the severed head remains aware of what has happened to it.

There’s no denying that this awful thought is gruesomely compelling, in much the same way as is the idea of being buried alive. It has a “My God, what if that happened to me?” quality about it. And, while it was never Guillotin’s intention to do anything other than supply a humane alternative to the notoriously slow and painful business of executing criminals by rope or axe (and hardly the good doctor’s fault that the fascination of a device designed solely to kill makes the guillotine – like the gas chamber and the electric chair – at least as horrifying as a gallows in its own mechanically ingenious way), the fact remains that the device became a victim of its own success. It was so quick, so clean, so bloodily final that it was hard for an execution-going public accustomed to the protracted struggles of a hanged man to believe that life could be extinguished quite so swiftly.

Murky and unsubstantiated rumours concerning the survival of consciousness in severed heads swirled through France throughout the nineteenth century, and it is not hard to find versions of the same stories today in the less reputable crannies of the internet. For example, tall tales about at least two of the guillotine’s most noted victims abound: Lavoisier, the chemist, is supposed to have agreed with an assistant that he would blink as many times as he could after his execution in 1794 – and the assistant is said to have counted 15 or 20 blinks, at the rate of one a second. Similarly, when the executioner held up the head of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Marat in his bath, and delivered a sharp slap to its cheek, the head is said – on the authority of one Dr Sue – to have blushed and displayed “unequivocal marks of indignation.” [Croker p.70; Gelbart p.201]  Neither story, though, rests on a solid contemporary source.

Despite such early manifestations of interest in the subject, moreover, it remains equally difficult to uncover reputable sources for several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century incidents in which doctors are popularly believed to have conducted some gruesomely suggestive experiments to finally answer the question. Accounts of several such experiments can be found in the secondary literature – see, for example, Richard Zacks’s influential counterculture classic An Underground Education, and most texts mention tests supposedly done on the head of “a necrophile rapist by the name of Prunier,” or the story of an unnamed doctor who took an unknown head and pumped it full of blood from a vivisected dog. The cultural historian Philip Smith, who dissects several such tales, suggests they form little more than “a stubborn counter-discourse of wild speculation and morbid popular inquiry” [Smith p.139] – and he has a valid point, for the most part. Yet some quite extensive digging does eventually reveal that at least three sets of experiments on severed heads really were carried out in France between 1879 and 1905, albeit with less than spectacular results. Since these cases form a useful counterpoint to the experiences of Antoine Wiertz, it seems a good idea to summarise them briefly here.

•   On 13 November 1879, a father-and-son duo, Drs E. and G. Descaisne, witnessed the execution of Théotime Prunier, who had been found guilty of the rape and subsequent murder of an elderly woman at Beauvais. A report in the British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879, notes that the doctors were given ready access to the killer’s head and “tried certain experiments” on it, concluding: “We have ascertained, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, that the head of the criminal in question had no semblance whatever of the sense of feeling; that the eyes lost the power of vision; and, in fact, the head was perfectly dead to all intents and purposes.” A fuller report, published in the Gazette Médicale de Paris, noted some of the tests the doctors subjected the head to: shouting “Prunier!” in the dead man’s ear, pinching his cheek, inserting a brush soaked with ammonia into his nostrils, pricking the face with needles, and holding a lighted candle to an eyeball. Since secondary sources invariably stress that these experiments were conducted only moments after Prunier’s head was severed, the complete lack of any response might be considered good evidence for the conventional medical view that shock causes instant unconsciousness and death. The key detail in this instance, however, is one reported by the BMJ: the doctors took charge of the killer’s head only “about five minutes after the execution.” This suggests that the experiments must be regarded as inconclusive; even the most optimistic proponent of the idea that a head remains briefly alive after severing rarely suggests that consciousness endures for more than 15 or 20 seconds at best. [Everard & Decaisne pp.629-30; Verplaeste p.372; Gerould p.55]

• A year later, in September 1880 – at least according to the later account of a certain Dr Dassy de Lignères, of whom nothing else seems to be known – some experiments were conducted on the head of a particularly unpleasant murderer named Louis Menesclou. Menesclou, who had lured a little girl into his room with a spray of violets, raped her and killed her, was a man “of limited intelligence… frequently guilty of sexual perversity” – as suggested by the fact that he then dismembered his victim; parts of her body were found in his pockets. [London Evening News, 15 October 1888; Stewart]  In this case, apparently, Dassy de Lignères was provided with his head three hours after the execution, and claimed to have connected the principal veins and arteries to a supply of blood provided by a living dog. A quarter of a century later, when the doctor gave an interview to the French newspaper Le Matin (3 March 1907), he claimed that colour almost immediately returned to the face, the lips swelled and the dead man’s features “sharpened.” Perhaps. What’s really incredible is Dassy de Lignères’ insistence that “as the transfusion proceeded, suddenly, unmistakably, for a period of two seconds, the lips stammered silently, the eyelids twitched and worked, and the whole face wakened into an expression of shocked amazement. I affirm… that for those two seconds, the brain thought.” This reads as either spectacularly shoddy research or, more likely, simple sensationalism on the part of either the doctor or the newspaper.


• Finally, on 30 June 1905, Dr Gabriel Beaurieux obtained permission to attend the guillotining of Henri Languille, a “bandit who had terrorised the Beauce and the Gatinais [in the valley of the Loing, between Paris and Orléans] for several years.” [Morain p.300]  His report concluded that Languille retained some form of consciousness for about half a minute after his execution:

“The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefore have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation which I wished to make.

“Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

“I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.


“Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. “After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

“It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

“I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.” [Anon, ‘Revue des journaux…’]

This is the best – indeed the only apparently credible, medically attested – evidence for the survival of any sort of consciousness in the head of an executed man, so it is important to note that the anonymous author of the Bois De Justice site, which features some excellent research into the history of the guillotine, questions whether the experiment on Languille actually took place as claimed. There are at least two reasons to doubt accounts of this execution: first, a widely circulated photo [above left] showing the condemend man standing by the guillotine is, in fact, a clumsy fake, with the figures painted in – as can be demonstrated by an examination of the original snap [above right]; second, the doctor’s presence is not mentioned in contemporary newspaper coverage, and Beaurieux’s account does not mesh with the actual photos taken on the day, which show no horizontal surface on which the severed head could possibly have fallen before it entered the waiting bucket. To have conducted his experiment, the doctor would have had to pull the head from the bucket by hand.

Bearing those mixed results in mind, then, let’s return to the Porte de Hal in Brussels in February 1848 (and you’ll note that the experiments of Antoine Wiertz predated all three of the French experiments outlined above.) According to Wiertz’s biographer, the subject of his study was a nasty and incompetent burglar by the name of François Rosseel, who had – with his accomplice Guillelme Vandenplas – broken into the apartment of Rosseel’s landlady, Mlle. Evanpoel, the previous September and bludgeoned her and two female servants to death for the sake of a few hundred francs. This crime horrified all Belgium, and Wiertz followed the resulting newspaper coverage intently, suggesting that his choice of the double execution of Mlle. Evanpoel’s murderers for his experiment was a deliberate one. [Anon, Causes Célèbres… I, 109-16; Annales de l’Université de Bruxelles pp.173-5; Van der Haeghen, V, 94; Watteau p.232; Metdepenningen]

As Rosseel’s head rolled into the sack in front of him, anyway, the hypnotised Wiertz was asked to place himself inside the dying brain. The description that follows is drawn from the text that the artist himself wrote to accompany a triptych that he later painted to illustrate his experience, which was, in turn, incorporated into that work in the form of a painted inscription on a trompe-l’oeil frame and printed, later, in the first catalogue of his work. The description is rather long and rather overwrought, and part of it is in the first person, as Wiertz [below left] describes what he identifies as Rosseel’s own final thoughts. It has been somewhat abbreviated here, and several sharply differing versions of the text have been merged as best I am able to reconcile them. [Watteau pp.132-41; Benjamin pp.250-2; Shepard II, 648]:

Monsieur D_____ took me by the hand… led me before the twitching head, and asked: ‘‘What do you feel? What do you see?’ Agitation prevented me from answering him on the spot. But right after that I cried in the utmost horror: “Terrible! The head thinks!” … It was as if an oppressive nightmare held me in its spell. The head of the executed man thought, saw, suffered. And I saw what he saw, understood what he thought, and felt what he suffered. How long did it last? Three minutes, they told me. The executed man must have thought: three hundred years.

What the man killed in this way suffers, no human language can express. I wish to limit myself here to reiterating the answers I gave to all the questions during the time that I felt myself in some measure identical to the severed head.

First minute: On the scaffold

A horrible buzzing noise… It’s the sound of the blade descending. The victim believes that he has been struck by lightning, not the axe.

Astonishingly, the head lies here under the scaffold and yet still believes it is above, still believes itself to be part of the body, and still waits for the blow that will cut it off.

Horrible choking! No way to breathe. The asphyxia is appalling. It comes from an inhuman, supernatural hand, weighing down like a mountain on the head and neck… Oh, even more horrible suffering lies before him.

A cloud of fire passes before his eyes. Everything is red and glitters.

Second minute: Under the scaffold

Now comes the moment when the executed man thinks he is stretching his cramped, trembling hands towards the dying head. It is the same instinct that drives us to press a hand against a gaping wound. And it occurs with the intention, the dreadful intention, of setting the head back on the trunk, to preserve a little blood, a little life.

Delirium redoubles his strength and energy.

In his imagination, it seems that his head is on fire and spins in a dizzying motion, that the universe collapses and turns with it, that a phosphorescent liquid swirls around and merges with his skull… In a moment more, his head is plunging into the depths of eternity.

But is it only the body that writhes and cries out in anguish, which produces the torture suffered by the guillotine? No, because here comes the intellectual and moral agony. The heart, which beats in his chest, is still beating in the brain.

That’s when a crowd of images, each more terrible than the others, crowd into a soul beaten by the fiery breath of nameless pain. The guillotined head sees his coffin, sees his trunk and limbs collapse, ready to be enclosed in the wooden box in which thousands of worms are about to devour his flesh. Physicians explore the tissue of his neck with the tip of a scalpel. Every nick is a bite of fire.

He sees his judges, too…  They sit well served at a table, talking  quietly of business and pleasure…

The exhausted brain sees… the smallest of his children close to him. Oh! he likes that. That’s him: his hair blond and curly, his little cheeks round and pink … And meanwhile, he feels the brain continue to sink and feels sharp stabs of pain…

Third minute: In eternity

It is not yet dead. The head still thinks and suffers.

Suffers fire that burns, suffers the dagger that dismembers, suffers the poison that cramps, suffers in the limbs, as they are sawn through, suffers in his viscera, as they are torn out, suffers in his flesh, as it is hacked and trampled down, suffers in his bones, which are slowly boiled in bubbling oil. All this suffering put together still cannot convey any idea of what the executed man is going through.

And here a thought makes him stiff with terror:

Is he already dead and must he suffer like this from now on? Perhaps for all eternity?…

No, such suffering cannot endure for ever; God is merciful. All that belongs to earth is fading away. He sees in the distance a little light glittering like a diamond. He feels a calm stealing over him. What a good sleep he shall have! What joy!”

Human existence fades way from him. It seems to him slowly to become one with the night. Now just a faint mist – but even that recedes, dissipates, and disappears. Everything goes black… The beheaded man is dead.

It is difficult to know how best to handle Wiertz’s bizarre evidence. How much of his remarkable experience was noted down at the time remains uncertain; the painter did not actually produce the strange triptych he entitled Dernières pensées et visions d’une tête coupee (Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head) [right]  until five years later, in 1853, so he had plenty of time to think through the events of 1848 again and again, perhaps so often that his recollections became distorted, romanticised, exaggerated and unreliable – if they ever were reliable in the first place, that is.

Wiertz’s impressions, too, were so vivid, so melodramatic, that it hard to believe that they did not come to him as he penetrated a dying brain, but were actually generated somewhere deep within his own morbid imagination. For this, after all, was a painter whose works scandalised contemporaries, and is nowadays pretty much ignored (the Musée Wiertz, in Brussels, based in the painter’s old studio, currently averages no more than 10 visitors a day, “many of them dragooned in school parties.” [Anon, ‘A Belgian national champion’]). A look at some of his other works certainly reveals an obsession with death; they include Two Young Ladies (which depicts a naked beauty contemplating a skeleton), Premature Burial (in which an anguished figure bursts from a coffin lying in a crypt) and – perhaps the most over-the-top of many over-the-top creations – Ravishing of a Belgian Woman. In this last painting, as one critic remarks, “Wiertz breaks with convention by equipping his heroine with a pistol (although not with any clothes). She duly shoots the soldier molesting her, causing his head to explode, an event Wiertz depicts in gory detail.” [Ibid]

Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head survives, although in a sadly decayed state; it was painted in an experimental style that has not stood up at all well to the passage of the years. A close look at its three panels reveals that they correspond quite closely to the description Wiertz left of his experiences on the Brussels scaffold. The severed head of Rosseel can be seen tumbling down in the bottom right hand corner of the central panel, and, in the third and final portion of the triptych, the murderer’s slide into eternity can still just be discerned.

And if Antoine Wiertz’s pioneering experiment remains little more than an enigmatic anomaly, and he himself is long forgotten, there is at least a delicious irony in the tail end of his career. A few years before his death, while at the height of his fame, Wiertz wrote to the Belgian government, offering to exchange 220 of his largest and most gaudy paintings for a “huge, comfortable and well-lit studio” to be funded by the state. Remarkably, the interior minister of the day agreed to this presumptuous request, though the government baulked at the idea of setting Wiertz up in expensive premises in the centre of the capital.

Instead, the painter was provided with a new studio in a cheap and dismal suburb, albeit one that the artist cheerfully predicted might someday become “the centre of an immense and rich population.” He may have been a rotten painter, wrong about hypnotism, and wildly out of his depth in experimental parapsychology, but Antoine Wiertz was at least right about that. Today, the little-visited Musée Wiertz stands no more than 20 metres from the very centre of Europe, in the shape of the gleaming towers of the European Parliament. And that monolith’s address? The Parliament stands proudly on Rue Wiertz. [Ibid]


Anon. ‘A Belgian national champion.’ The Economist, 9 July 2009.

____. Annales de l’Université de Bruxelles: Faculté de Médecine. Brussels: Université Libre, 1880.

____. Causes Célèlebres de Tous les Peoples. Brussels: Libraries Ethnographique, 1849.

____. La Belgique Judiciaire: Gazettes des Tribunaux Belges et Étrangers. Brussels, np. Volume 9, 1851 .

____. ‘Letters, notes, and answers to correspondents.’ British Medical Journal, January 1880.

____. ‘Revue des journaux et sociétés savantes execution de Languille. Observation prise immédiatement après décapitation. Communiquée à la Société de médecine du Loiret le 19 juillet 1905…’ Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle, de Criminologie et de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique. Volume 20 (1905).

____. ‘Special correspondence. Paris.’ British Medical Journal, 13 December 1879.

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Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 2008.

John Wilson Croker. History of the Guillotine. Revised from the ‘Quarterly Review’. London: John Murray, 1853.

Everard & G. Decaisne. ‘Expériences physiologiques sur un décapité.’ Gazette Médicale de Paris, 1879.

Nina Rattner Gelbart. ‘The blonding of Charlotte Corday.’ Eighteenth Century Studies vol.38 (2004).

Daniel Gerould. Guillotine. Its Legend and Lore. New York: Blast Books, 1993.

Louis Labarre. Antoine Wiertz: Etude Biographique Avec les Lettres de l’Artiste et la Photographie du Patrocle. Brussels: Muequardt, 1867.

John Laurence. A History of Capital Punishment. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Marc Metdepenningen. ‘L’effroyable triple crime de la place Saint-Géry.’ Le Soir (Brussels), 12 July 2006.

Alfred Morain. The Underworld of Paris: Secrets of the Sûreté. London: Jarrolds, 1930.

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Harry E. Stewart. ‘Jean Genet’s favourite murders.’ The French Review vol.60 no.5 (1987)

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Antoine Joseph Wiertz. Oeuvres Littéraires. Brussels: Parent et Fils, 1869.

Louis Watteau. Catalogue Raisoné du Musée Wiertz. Brussels: Musées Royeux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, 1865.

Andrew Wilson. ‘Leaves from the notebook of a naturalist.’ Part X.  The Living Age, vol.31, 1851.

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Pancho Villa pictured shortly after the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1914: an engagement he delayed for the benefit of American newsreel cameras.

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

In one sense, even at this early date, there was nothing especially surprising about Pancho Villa (or anyone else) inking a deal that allowed news cameras access to the areas that they controlled. Newsreels were a coming force. Cinema was growing rapidly in popularity; attendances at nickelodeons had doubled since 1908, and an estimated 49 million tickets were sold each week in the US by 1914. The idea that each entry guaranteed access to a whole programme of films had been born, so the customers flocking to the movies expected to see some news alongside the melodramas and comedy shorts that were the staples of early cinema – the more dramatic the better. And there were obvious advantages in controlling the way in which the newsreel men chose to portray the Revolution, particularly for Villa, whose main bases were close to the US border.

No, what made Villa’s contract so odd was its terms, or at least the terms it was said to have contained. Here’s how the agreement he reached with the Mutual Film Company is usually described:

In 1914, a Hollywood motion picture company signed a contract with Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in which he agreed to fight his revolution according to the studio’s scenario in return for $25,000. The Hollywood crew went down to Mexico and joined Villa’s guerrilla force. The director told Pancho Villa where and how to fight his battles. The cameraman, since he could only shoot in daylight, made Pancho Villa start fighting every day at 9.00am and stop at 4.00pm – sometimes forcing Villa to cease his real warring until the cameras could be moved to a new angle.

As a tale, it sounds a bit outlandish – not to say unworkably impractical. But it quickly became common currency.  Indeed, the story of Pancho Villa’s brief Hollywood career has been retold so often it’s been turned into a movie of its own. [Rocha]  It sometimes includes elaborations; it is said that Villa agreed that no other film companies would be permitted to send representatives to the battlefield, and that, if the cameraman did not secure the shots he needed, the División del Norte would re-enact its battles later. And while the idea that there was a strict ban on fighting outside daylight hours is always mentioned [De Los Reyes p.113], that prohibition is sometimes extended; in another, semi-fictional, re-imagining, Villa tells Raoul Walsh, the early film director who certainly did travel to Mexico to shoot newsreels: “Don’t worry, Don Raúl. If you say the light at four in the morning is not right for your little machine, well, no problem. The executions will take place at six. But no later. Afterward we march and fight. Understand?” [Bethell p.459]  Whatever the variations in the story, though, it ends the same way. There’s always this sting in the tale:

When the completed film was brought back to Hollywood, it was found too unbelievable to be released – and most of it had to be reshot on the studio lot.

This post is an attempt to uncover the truth about a little-known incident – and, as it turns out, it’s a story that is well worth telling. But, researching it, I found that the tale of Pancho Villa and his binding contract informs the broader and altogether more significant question how just how “true” other early newsreels are. So this is also a post about some fundamental issues that affect all historians, whether they’re writing books or shooting documentaries. And it’s about the borderlands where truth meets fiction, too, and the problematic lure of the entertaining story. Finally, it deals in passing with the odd way that fictions can become real, if they are rooted in the truth and enough people believe in them.

So… Understanding the Mexican Revolution means realising that it was an unusually early example of a 20th century “media war”: a conflict in which the opposing generals duked it out not only on the battlefield, but also in the newspapers and in cinema scenarios. At stake, in this particular instance, were the hearts and minds of the government and people of the United States – who could, if they so wished, intervene decisively on behalf of one side or the other. Because of this, the Revolution also saw propaganda evolve from the crude publication of rival “official” claims into more subtle attempts to control the views of the journalists and cameramen who flooded into Mexico seeking news. The result was a rich stew of truth, falsity and fanciful reconstruction as reporters struggled to report. Most, after all, were monoglot Americans; most were inexperienced, and almost all were at least as much interested in making a name for themselves as they were in unpicking the impenetrable tangle of half-baked policies and shifting allegiances that distinguished the Federales from the Villistas from the Zapatistas.

There was plenty of bias: in general, in the form of prejudice against the despised Mexican “greasers” [right], and in particular as well; several American media owners had extensive commercial interests in Mexico, and William Randolph Hearst, who controlled vast tracts of land in northern Mexico, wasted no time in pressing, through his newspapers, for American intervention when his estates were plundered by Villa and he lost 60,000 head of cattle. [De Orellana pp.17, 80]  There was eagerness to file ticket-selling, circulation-boosting sensation, too; Villa himself was frequently portrayed as “a monster of brutality and cruelty” – particularly later in the war, when he had the temerity to cross the border and raid the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Much was exaggerated. One contemporary magazine noted, with a jaundiced eye:

“Battles” innumerable have been fought, scores of armies have been annihilated, wiped out, blown up, massacred and wholly destroyed according to the glowing reports of commanders on either side, but the supply of cannon fodder does not appear to have diminished appreciably… Never was there a war in which more gunpowder went off with less harm to the opposing forces.”

[Literary Digest, 16 May 1914; Katz p.323]

What is certain is that fierce competition for “news” produced a situation ripe for exploitation on the Mexican side. All three of the principal leaders of the period – Villa [left, centre front], Zapata [to Villa’s left] and the Federal generalissimo Victoriano Huerta – saw advantages in manipulating American opinion, and each sold access, the opportunity for adventure, and eventually themselves to US newsmen. In exchange for granting permission for journalists to accompany their forces, they sought opportunities to cultivate their images – whether portraying themselves as suitably presidential or as socially responsible agrarian revolutionaries – and hence attempted to position themselves as worthy recipients of foreign aid.

It was Huerta who got things off and running, compelling the cameramen who filmed his campaigns to screen their footage for him so that he could censor it. [De Orellana pp.22-4]  But it was Villa who – operating with the great advantage of controlling territory butting up against the US border – did most to maximise his opportunities. The upshot, four years into the war, was the rebel general’s acceptance of the Mutual Film contract.

It was the New York Times (7 January 1914) that broke the news:

Pancho Villa, General in Command of the Constitutionalist Army in Northern Mexico, will in future carry on his warfare against President Huerta as a full partner in a moving-picture venture with [Mutual’s] Harry E. Aitken… The business of Gen. Villa will be to provide moving picture thrillers in any way that is consistent with his plans to depose and drive Huerta out of Mexico, and the business of Mr Aitken, the other partner, will be to distribute the resulting films throughout the peaceable sections of Mexico and to the United States and Canada.

There is nothing in this first report, you’ll notice, to suggest that the contract was anything more than a broad agreement guaranteeing privileged access for Mutual’s cameramen. A few weeks later, though, came word of a major engagement. This was the Battle of Ojinaga, a northern town defended by a force of 5,000 Federales, and for the first time there were hints that the contract did include some special clauses. Several newspapers reported that Villa had only captured Ojinaga after a short delay occasioned by the need to wait until Mutual’s cameramen were in position. [De Orellana pp.47-8]

The rebel leader certainly proved himself willing to accommodate Mutual in lesser ways. The New York Times reported that he had meekly acceded to one of the film company’s more surreal requests, donning a comic opera general’s uniform run up especially for him. Villa had always preferred to dress casually for battle, favouring an ancient jumper worn under a dusty jacket that made him anything but the imposing figure conjured up by newspaper reporting. Mutual solved this problem by creating special outfit which Villa was required to change into when posing for them [left]. As an extra twist, the uniform remained the property of Mutual, and Villa was forbidden to wear in front of any other cameramen. [New York Times, 14 February 1914]  There is also decent evidence that elements of the División del Norte were pressed into service to stage re-enactments for the cameras. Raoul Walsh recalled Villa gamely shooting take after take of a scene “of him coming towards the camera. We’d set up at the head of the street, and he’d hit that horse with a whip and his spurs and go by at ninety miles an hour. I don’t know how many times we said ‘Despacio, despacio,‘ – slow, señor, please!’ [Brownlow, War pp.101-02]

In some respects, Villa’s association with Mutual clearly benefited both parties. Walsh’s colleague Charles Rosher, who was Mutual’s lead cameraman, recalled one typically trying incident: “Villa tried hard to be a director. He told me to film the funeral of a general. Villa’s enemies, the Federal forces, had executed him by tying him to the tracks and driving a train over him. The funeral spread over three days. I didn’t have enough film for half a day. So I cranked the camera without any film in it. It was all I could do. I didn’t want to be shot.” [Brownlow, Parade p.224]  But, that said, there is little evidence that Villa made any attempt to “direct,” or censor, the remainder of Mutual’s output. The mysterious contract between the rebel leader and Mutual Films, likewise, proves to have been a good deal less proscriptive than it’s popularly supposed to have been. The only surviving copy, unearthed in a Mexico City archive by Villa’s biographer Friedrich Katz, turns out to lack all the eye-opening clauses that have made it famous: “There was absolutely no mention of reenactment of battle scenes or of Villa providing good lighting. What the contract did specify was that the Mutual Film Company was granted exclusive rights to film Villa’s troops in battle, and that Villa would receive 20% of all revenues that the films produced.” [Katz p.325]

The notion of a contract that called for war to be fought Hollywood-style, in short, is nothing but a myth, though that need not mean that no sort of more advanced co-operation between the Mexicans and Mutual was considered desirable. The New York Times warned at the time that the agreement added “an extremely incongruent note” to the Mexican war, and hazarded that “if Villa wants to be a good business partner… he will have to make a great effort so that the cameramen can carry out their work successfully. He will have to make sure that the interesting attacks take place when the light is good and the killings are in good focus. This might interfere with military operations that, in theory, have other objectives.” [New York Times, 8 January 1914]  A Spanish-language newspaper, similarly, condemned Villa for “speculating with the blood of Mexicans.” [De Orellana p.46]

That no such compromises seem to have actually occurred in practice, and that the Mutual contract seems to have outlived its usefulness for both parties within a matter of weeks, actually says something very interesting about the early days of war photography, however. As early as the end of February, it seems, Mutual switched its attentions from shooting documentary footage to creating a fictional movie about Villa which would incorporate stock shots obtained by the newsreel men for added authenticity. This movie, The Life of General Villa, was actually completed. It premiered in New York in May 1914, and turned out to be a typical melodrama of the period. Villa was given an “acceptable” background for a hero – in real life he and his family had been sharecroppers, but in the Life they were middle-class farmers – and the drama revolved around his quest for revenge on a pair of Federales who had raped his sister, a story that, again, bore at least some resemblance to the real events of Villa’s life. [De Orellana pp.61-2, 71]  The point was that it also came closer to conforming to what its target audience demanded from a movie: close ups, action and a story.

It’s not actually that difficult, examining contemporary sources, to understand why Mutual had its sudden change of heart. Villa had kept his side of the bargain; the company’s cameramen had secured the promised exclusive footage of the Battle of Ojinaga. But when the results of these initial efforts reached New York on 22 January, they proved disappointing. The footage was no more dramatic than that filmed earlier in the war without the benefit of any contract, and, crucially, real scenes of combat were still lacking:

The pictures do not portray a battle; they show among other things the conditions in and around Ojinaga after the battle which was fought in and about the town… also… the trenches that had been dug by the Federals. There was a good view of the police station of Ojinaga and the little Plaza of the stricken town… Other things shown on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande were the train of captured guns and ammunition wagons, the review of the ‘army’ before General Villa, the captured Federal prisoners, the wretched refugees on their way to the American side.

[Moving Picture World, 24 January 1914]

The original Mutual contract, in short, had proved to be good for little but placing the limitations of the early film-makers into especially sharp focus. Hitherto, newsreel cameramen had fallen back on the excuse that their inability to secure sensational action footage was a product of specific local difficulties, not least the problem of gaining proper access to the battlefield. At Ojinaga, granted the best possible conditions to shoot and the active support of one of the commanders, they had failed again, and the reason why is obvious: the other side failed to co-operate. For all Mutual’s boasts, contemporary movie cameras were heavy, clumsy things that could only be operated by setting them up on a tripod and hand cranking the film. Attempting to use them anywhere near a real battle would be little short of suicidal, and though at least one rival cameraman put out a publicity photograph which showed him “filming in action,” protected by two Indian bodyguards armed with rifles and stripped to their loincloths, his still was as fraudulent as much of the moving footage brought out of Mexico [left]. The only “action” that could safely be obtained consisted of long shots of artillery bombardments and the mass manoeuvring of men on distant horizons.

Newsreel men and their bosses at home in the United States responded to this problem in various ways. Pressure to deliver “hot” footage remained as high as ever, which meant there were really only two possible solutions. Tracy Matthewson, representing Hearst-Vitagraph with an American “punitive expedition” sent to punish Villa’s border raids two years later, returned home to find that publicists had concocted a thrilling tale describing how he had found himself in the middle of a battle, and bravely

turned the handle and began the greatest picture ever filmed.

One of my tripod bearers smiled at my shouting, and as he smiled, he clutched his hands to his abdomen and fell forward, kicking… “Action,” I cried. “This is what I’ve wanted. Give ’em hell boys. Wipe out the blinkety blank dashed greasers!

…Then somewhere out of that tangle of guns a bullet cuts its way. “Za-zing!” I heard it whistle. The splinters cut my face as it hit the camera. It ripped the side open and smashed the little wooden magazine. I sprang crazily to stop it with my hands. But out of the box coiled the precious film. Stretching and glistening in the sun, it fell and died.

[De Orellana p.84]

This “the dog ate my homework” excuse, as it might be termed, could only be used once, however, so for the most part newsmen supplied an altogether neater solution of their own, and for most a trip to Mexico meant contenting themselves with creating their own dramatic footage to meet the insatiable demand of audiences at home. Which is to say that they carefully “reconstructed” action scenes that they or someone else had witnessed – if they were moderately scrupulous – or simply made scenarios up from scratch, if they were not.

The real point to make here is that no distinction was made between “real” and “reconstructed” footage, and, so far as the movie audiences of the day were concerned, the two were one and the same. Thus, while the practice of deliberately faking of footage was widespread throughout the Mexican war, more for reasons of practicality than anything else, and many of the pioneer film-makers who travelled to Mexico to capture the conflict were remarkably open about it in their memoirs, comparatively little mention was made of it at the time. Indeed, those who flocked to the cinema to see newsreels of the Mexican war (which all the evidence suggests were among the most popular films of the period) were actively encouraged to believe that what they were seeing on screen was very much the “real thing”. This benefitted the film companies, which engaged in vigorous competition to advertise their latest reels as unprecedentedly realistic. To take only one example, Frank Jones’s early War with Huerta was billed as “positively the greatest MEXICAN WAR PICTURE ever made… Do you realize that it is not a Posed Picture, but taken on the FIELD OF ACTION?” [Moving Picture World, 30 May 1914]

The reality of the situation was exposed a few months later by Jones’s rival, Fritz Arno Wagner, who travelled to Mexico for Pathé and later enjoyed a distinguished Hollywood career:

I have seen four big battles. On each occasion I was threatened with arrest from the Federal general if I took any pictures. He also threatened on one occasion when he saw me turning the crank to smash the camera. He would have done so, too, but for the fact that the rebels came pretty close just then and he had to take it on the run to save his hide.

[Moving Picture World, 18 July 1914]

A tiny handful of cameramen were luckier, and, given precisely the right circumstance, it was actually possible to obtain useful action footage. Another newsreel man who filmed the early stages of the revolution later told the film historian Robert Wagner that

street fighting is the easiest to film, for if you can get to a good location on a side street, you have the protection of all the intervening buildings from artillery and rifle fire, while you occasionally get the chance to shoot a few feet of swell film. I got some great stuff in Mexico City, a few days before [Diaz’s immediate successor as President, Francisco] Madero was killed. One fellow, not twenty feet from my camera, had his head shot off.

Even then, however, the resultant footage – although suitably dramatic – never made it to the screen:

But, do you know what – the darn censors would never let us show the picture in the United States. What do you suppose they sent us to war for?

[De Orellana, p.22]

The best solution, as more than one film unit discovered, was thus to wait for the fighting to die down, and then enlist any nearby soldiers to produce a lively but sanitised “reconstruction.” There were sometimes hidden dangers in this, too – one newsreel man, who persuaded a group of Mexicans to “fight” some invading American soldiers, only narrowly escaped with his life when the Mexicans realised they were being portrayed as cowards being soundly thrashed by the upstanding Yankees. Feeling “that the honour of their nation was being besmirched, [they] decided to change the story and defend themselves, firing off a volley of bullets. A real fight then ensued.” [De Orellana p.69]

There were other, safer, ways of completing an assignment, though. Victor Milner, a cameraman attached to the US Marine force sent to occupy the Mexican port of Vera Cruz early in the war for reasons too petty and too complicated to recount in detail here, made it ashore to discover that the troops had already secured their objectives and that any opportunity to film real fighting had been missed. Soon afterwards, however, he had the luck to run into an army friend who, in civilian life, had been “in the public relations business and was anxious to get some good publicity for the Navy and Marines.

He got together with the local commanders and they staged the greatest replay of the storming of the Post Office that you can imagine. I am sure it was far better than the real thing… The pictures were a newsreel sensation and were shown as a scoop in all the theatres before any of us got back to the States. To this day, I don’t think anyone in the States was aware that they were a replay, and the shots were staged.

[Brownlow, War p.101 – right]

That, far more than the efforts of the Mutual film teams, actually sums up the experiences of most newsreel men in Mexico. What strikes me as especially interesting about all this is that Milner, and other film-makers sent south after him, were responding entirely on their own initiative to the insurmountable pressure to produce “real” footage in circumstances that simply did not permit any such thing. They were neither experienced enough, nor thoughtful enough, to know much about how other cameramen had dealt with the same problems in other theatres of war. Yet the early history of newsreel cinema is replete with examples of cameramen responding in precisely the same way to the same set of challenges. Pretty much the very earliest “war” footage ever shot, in fact, was faked in circumstances that precisely mirror those prevailing during the Mexican Revolution.

The few historians to take an interest in the prehistory of war photography seem agreed that the earliest footage secured in a war zone dates to the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, and was shot by a veteran British war correspondent by the name of Frederic Villiers [above]. It’s difficult to be too certain about this because the war is an obscure one, and though Villiers – a notoriously self-aggrandising poseur – wrote about his experiences in sometimes hard-to-believe detail, none of the footage he claimed to have shot appears to survive. What we can say is that Villiers (who for all his faults did at least walk the walk nearly as conscientiously as he talked the talk) was an experienced reporter who had covered nearly a dozen conflicts during his two decades as a correspondent, and certainly was in Greece for part of the 30-day conflict. He was a prolific, if limited, war artist as well, so the idea of taking one of the new ciné cameras to war probably came naturally to him.

If that’s so, the notion wasn’t too obvious to anyone else in 1897; when the Englishman arrived at his base at Volos, in Thessaly, trailing his cinematograph and a bicycle on which to get about, he discovered he was the only cameraman covering the war. According to his own accounts, at least, he was able to get some real long-distance shots of the fighting, but yearned to obtain something more visceral, and  obtained what he required in typically resourceful fashion, passing through the Turkish lines to secure a private interview with the Ottoman governor, Enver Bay, who granted him a safe passage to Athens:

Not content with this, Villiers asked the governor for confidential information: “I want to know when and where the next fight will take place. You Turks will take the initiative, for the Greeks can now only be on the defensive.” Not surprisingly, Enver Bey was staggered by his request. Looking at Villiers steadily, he said at last: “You are an Englishman and I can trust you. I will tell you this: Take this steamer… to the port of Domokos, and don’t fail to be at the latter place by Monday noon.”

[Bottomore p.13]

Armed with this exclusive information, Villiers’s record of the war continues, he arrived at Domokos “on the exact day and hour to hear the first gun fired by the Greeks at the Moslem infantry advancing across the Pharsala plains.” [Ibid]  Some battle scenes were shot. Since the photographer remained uncharacteristically modest about the precise results of all his labours, however, we may reasonably conclude that whatever footage he was able to obtain showed little if any of the action. That seems to be implicit in one revealing fragment that does survive: Villiers’s own outraged account of how he found himself scooped by an enterprising rival who had apparently ventured no closer to the front than Dover.

The images were accurate, but they lacked cinematic appeal. When he got back to England, he realised that his footage was worth very little in the film market. One day a friend told him that he had seen some wonderful pictures of the Greek war the previous evening. Villiers was surprised since he knew for certain that he had been the only cameraman filming the war. He soon realised from his friend’s account that these were not his pictures.

‘Three Albanians [then part of the Ottoman army] came along a very white dusty road toward a cottage on the right of the screen. As they neared it they opened fire; you could see the bullets strike the stucco of he building. then one of the Turks with the butt end of his rifle smashed in the door of the cottage, entered and brought out a lovely Athenian maid in his arms… Presently an old man, evidently the girl’s father, rushed out of the house to her rescue, when the second Albanian whipped out his yataghan from his belt and cut the old gentleman’s head off! Here my friend grew enthusiastic. ‘There was the head,’ said he, ‘rolling in the foreground of the picture. Nothing could be more positive than that.’

[De Orellana p.11]

Much the same sort of results – “real,” long distance battle footage trumped in the cinemas by more action-packed and visceral fake footage – were obtained a few years later during the Boer War, setting a pattern that later war photography would follow for decades (and which was famously repeated in the first feature-length war documentary, the celebrated British production of The Battle of the Somme (1916), which mixed genuine footage of the trenches with fake battle scenes shot in the altogether safe environs of a trench mortar school behind the lines, and which played to packed and uncritically enthusiastic houses for months.) Some of these deceptions were acknowledged; R.W. Paul, who produced a series of shorts depicting the South African conflict, made no claim to have secured his footage in the war zone, merely stating that they had been “arranged under the supervision of an experienced military officer from the front.” Others were not.  William Dickson, of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, did travel to the Veldt and did produce

footage that can legitimately be described as actuality – scenes of troops in camp and on the move – though even so many shots were evidently staged for the camera. British soldiers were dressed in Boer uniforms to reconstruct skirmishes, and it was reported that the British commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts, ‘consented to be biographed with all his Staff, actually having his table taken out into the sun for the convenience of Mr Dickson.’

[Chapman pp.36-7]

Modern cinema historians, it seems, generally distinguish fake footage from the real thing by examining the perspective. Reconstructions are typically betrayed because “action occurs towards and away from the camera in common with certain ‘actuality’ films of the period such as street scenes where pedestrians and traffic approach or recede along the axis of the lens and not across the field of vision like actors on a stage.” This, John Barnes notes in his study Filming the Boer War, suggest a deliberate attempt at deception on the part of the film-makers. [Barnes p.73]

In closing, it may be noted that careful study of the sort pioneered by Barnes is scarcely necessary in the final example of war footage I want to look at, clips purporting to show victorious American naval actions off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Here, too, the “reconstructed” footage that appeared was not a deliberate, malicious fake; it was, once again, produced as a response to the frustration of being unable to secure genuine film of real battles. The scale and complexity of naval warfare, however, put realism still further beyond the reach of the poor and ill-equipped, if imaginative, film-makers forced to confront the problem.

The crudest but most charming of the two known solutions was produced by a New York film man by the name of Albert Smith, who, according to his own account, did make it to Cuba, only to find his clumsy cameras were not up to the task of securing usable footage at long distance. He returned to the US with little more than background shots to mull over the problem. Soon afterwards came news of a great American naval victory over the motley Spanish fleet. It was the first time an American squadron had fought a significant battle since the Civil War, and Smith and his partner, J. Stuart Blackton, realised that there would be huge demand for footage showing the Spaniards’ destruction. Their solution was low-tech but ingenious:

At this time, vendors were selling large sturdy photographs of ships of the American and Spanish fleets. We bought a sheet of each and cut out the battleships. On a table, topside down, we placed one of Blackton’s large canvas-covered frames and filled it with water an inch deep. In order to stand the cutouts of the ships in the water, we nailed them to lengths of wood about an inch square. In this way a little ‘shelf’ was provided behind each ship, and on this ship we placed pinches of gunpowder – three pinches for each ship – not too many, we felt, for a major sea engagement of this sort…

For a background, Blackton daubed a few white clouds on a blue-tinted cardboard. To each of the ships, now sitting placidly in our shallow ‘bay,’ we attached a fine thread to enable us to pull the ships past the camera at the proper moment and in the correct order.

We needed someone to blow smoke into the scene, but we couldn’t go too far outside our circle if the secret was to be kept. Mrs Blackton was called in and she volunteered, in this day of non-smoking womanhood, to smoke a cigarette. A friendly office boy said he would try a cigar. This was fine, as we needed the volume.

A piece of cotton was dipped in alcohol and attached to a wire slender enough to escape the eye of the camera. Blackton, concealed behind the side of the table farthermost from the camera, touched off the mounds of gunpowder with his wire taper – and the battle was on. Mrs Blackton, smoking and coughing, delivered a fine haze. Jim had worked out a timing arrangement with her so that she blew the smoke into the scene at approximately the moment of the explosion…

The film lenses of that day were imperfect enough to conceal the crudities of our miniature, and as the picture ran only two minutes there was no time for anyone to study it critically… Pastor’s and both proctor houses played to capacity audiences for several weeks. Jim and I felt less remorse of conscience when we saw how much excitement and enthusiasm was aroused by The Battle of Santiago Bay.

[Smith pp.66-8]

Perhaps surprisingly, Smith’s film (which has apparently been lost) does seem to have fooled the not-terribly-experienced early cinemagoers who viewed it – or perhaps they were simply too polite to mention its obvious shortcomings. Some rather more convincing scenes of the same battle, however, were faked by a rival film-maker, Edward Hill Ahmet of Waukegan, Illinois, who – denied permission to actually travel to Cuba – built a set of detailed, 1:70 scale metal models of the combatants and floated them on a 24-foot-long outdoor tank in his yard in Lake County. [Kekatos pp.405-17]   Unlike Smith’s hurried effort, Ahmet’s shoot was meticulously planned and his models were vastly more realistic; they were carefully based on photographs and plans of the real ships, and each was equipped with working smokestacks and guns containing remotely ignited blasting caps, all controlled from an electrical switchboard. The resulting film, which looks unquestionably amateurish to modern eyes, was nonetheless realistic by the standards of the day, and “according to film-history books, the Spanish government bought a copy of Ahmet’s film for the military archives in Madrid, apparently convinced of its authenticity.”  [De Orellana p.13]

Looking back across a hundred years or more to the early efforts of Edward Ahmet, Frederic Villiers and Charles Rosher, what seems most striking is not Ahmet’s ability to fool the Spanish government with his 1:70 models but the way in which so much of what was done in Greece, Africa and Mexico continues to be echoed in news footage shot in the last decade, the last year, last month. War was large and dangerous then, and it is larger and more dangerous today. While it remains so, cameramen will always be tempted, often for the best of reasons, to indulge in reconstructions – and the shade of Pancho Villa will ride again.

Afterword: lying and the camera

“The camera was not supposed to lie,” I write, in reference to the early years of cinema. But, of course, the camera had lied ever since it was invented. “Reconstruction” of battle scenes was born with battlefield photography. Matthew Brady did it during the Civil War. And, even earlier, in 1858, during the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, or war of independence, the pioneer photographer Felice Beato had notoriously scattered the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground of his photograph of the Sikander Bagh in order to enhance the image [left]. The real question is how readily those who viewed such pictures accepted them. For the most part, historians have been very ready to assume that the audiences for “faked” photographs and reconstructed movies were notably naive and accepting. A classic instance, still debated, is the reception of the Lumiere Brothers’ pioneering film short Arrival of the Train at the Station, which showed a railway engine pulling into a French terminus, shot by a camera placed on the platform directly in front of it. In the popular retelling of this story, early cinema audiences were so panicked by the fast-approaching train that – unable to distinguish between image and reality – they imagined it would at any second burst through the screen and crash into the cinema. Recent research has, however, more or less comprehensively debunked this story (it has even been suggested that the reception accorded to the original 1896 short has been conflated with panic caused by viewing, in the 1930s, of early 3D movie images) – though, given the lack of sources, it remains highly doubtful precisely what the real reception of the Brothers’ movie was. [Gunning p.114; Loiperdinger]  All in all, it seems safer to assume that early movie audiences were not significantly more naive than we are; certainly contemporary film magazines frequently acknowledged the re-enacting of footage from the Mexican Revolution.

Envoi: The last words of Pancho Villa

I asked my daughter if she’d heard of Pancho Villa. She replied: “Wasn’t he the guy who came up with those really cool last words?”

If 14-year-old schoolgirls in London have picked up the commonly-told account of the rebel’s final moments, it’s plainly vastly more pervasive than the tale of Villa’s entanglement with the film industry. For those who aren’t familiar with it, though, the story goes that after a former Villista, Alvaro Obregón, became President of Mexico in 1920,

Villa retired to his hacienda in Canutillo, began farming and ranching… Villa kept a low profile and was seemingly friendly with Obregón, but soon the new president decided the time had come to get rid of Villa once and for all. On July 20, 1923, Villa was gunned down as he drove a car in the town of Parral. Although he was never directly implicated in the killing, it is clear that Obregón gave the order, perhaps because he feared Villa’s interference (or possible candidacy) in the 1924 elections.

The assassination was carefully planned, and Villa was cut down by a group of several assassins. Fatally wounded, he is nonetheless supposed to have “died imploring a journalist: ‘Don’t let it end this way. Tell them I said something.'” [Guthke p.10]

Sadly for posterity, there is no contemporary evidence that Villa said anything of the sort. His vehicle was hit by 40 bullets; he himself was struck by nine explosive (dum-dum) rounds, and – scarcely surprisingly – was “killed instantly.” [Katz p.766]  The famous last words, then, are another myth, but, like the legend of the Mutual film contract, they do say something about Villa the legend if not about Villa the man.


John Barnes. Filming the Boer War. Tonbridge: Bishopsgate Press, 1992.

Leslie Bethell (ed.). The Cambridge History of Latin America, vol. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Stephen Bottomore. “Frederic Villiers: war correspondent.” In Wheeler W. Dixon (ed), Re-viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Kevin Brownlow. The Parade’s Gone By… Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

___________. The War, the West and the Wilderness. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979.

James Chapman. War and Film. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

Aurelio De Los Reyes. With Villa in Mexico on Location. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1986.

Margarita De Orellana. Filming Pancho: How Hollywood Shaped the Mexican Revolution. London: Verso, 2009.

Tom Gunning. “An aesthetic of astonishment: early film and the (in)credulous spectator.” In Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Karl Siegfried Guthke.  Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Friedrich Katz. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Kirk Kekatos. “Edward H. Ahmet and the Spanish-American War film.” Film History 14 (2002).

Martin Loiperdinger. “Lumière’s Arrival of the Train: cinema’s founding myth.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists v4n1 (Spring 2004).

Zuzana Pick. Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Gregorio Rocha. “And starring Pancho Villa as himself.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists v6n1 (Spring 2006).

Albert Smith. Two Reels and a Crank. New York: Doubleday, 1952.

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The Topkapi seen from across the Golden Horn

Ottoman executioners were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death, “by compression of the testicles,” at the hands of a wrestler-cum-assassin by the name of Pehlivan. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Turkish empire flourished thanks, at least in part, to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.

Osman II: death by crushed testicles

Seen from this perspective, it might actually be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point at which they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering vast swathes of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the dangerously decadent western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before that time, the Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the fifteenth century, and under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the Ottoman dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law certainly resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III – some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.

For all its deficiencies, the law of fratricide at least had the effect of ensuring that the most ruthless of the available princes generally ascended to the throne, and this was more than could be said of its replacement, the policy of locking up unwanted siblings in the kafes (literally “the cage”), a suite of rooms located deep within the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. There imprisoned members of the Ottoman royal family were kept until they were needed, sometimes several decades later, consoled in the meantime by barren concubines and permitted only a strictly limited range of recreations, the chief among which was macramé. This, subsequent history amply demonstrated, was far from ideal preparation for the pressures of ruling one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known. [Alderson pp.30-1; Lybyer p.94; Tezcan p.42]

For many years, the Topkapi itself paid mute testimony to the grand extent of Ottoman ruthlessness. In order to enter the palace, visitors had first to pass through the Imperial Gate, on either side of which were two niches where the heads of recently executed criminals were always on display. Inside the gate stood the First Court, through which all visitors to the inner portions of the palace had to pass. This court was open to all the Sultan’s subjects, and it seethed with an indescribable mass of humanity. Any Turkish subject had the right to petition for redress of his grievances, and several hundred agitated citizens usually surrounded the kiosks at which harassed scribes took down their complaints. Elsewhere within the same court stood numerous armouries and magazines, the buildings of the imperial mint, and stables for 3,000 horses. The focal point, however, was a pair of “example stones” positioned directly outside the Central Gate that led through to the Second Court. These “stones” were actually marble pillars on which were placed the severed heads of notables who had somehow offended the Sultan, stuffed with cotton if they had once been viziers, or with straw if they had been lesser men. Reminders of the sporadic mass executions ordered by the Sultan were occasionally piled up by the Central Gate as additional warnings: severed noses, ears, and tongues. [Miller p.163]

Selim the Grim

Capital punishment, then, was a common occurrence in the Ottoman Empire, so much so that there was a Fountain of Execution in the First Court where the chief executioner and his assistant went to wash their hands after decapitating their victims – ritual strangulation being reserved for members of the royal family and their most senior officials. This fountain “was the most feared symbol of the arbitrary power of life and death of the sultans over their subjects, and was hated and feared accordingly,” and it was used with particular frequency during the reign of Sultan Selim I – “Selim the Grim” (1512-20) – who, in a reign of eight short years, got through seven Grand Viziers and ordered 30,000 lesser executions. So perilous was the position of Vizier in those dark days that the holders of that office were said not to leave their homes in the morning without first tucking their wills inside their robes; for centuries afterwards, one of the most common curses uttered in the Ottoman Empire was “Mays’t thou be Vizier to Sultan Selim!” [Miller pp.162-3]

A bostsanci - Turkish gardener-cum-executioner

Given the considerable demands of the executioner’s job, it seems remarkable that the Turks employed no specialist headsman to tackle the endless round of loppings, but they did not. The job of executioner, rather unusually, was held instead by the Sultan’s bostancı basha, or head gardener, the Ottoman corps of gardeners being a sort of 5,000 strong bodyguard who, aside from cultivating the Sultan’s paradise gardens, doubled up as customs inspectors and policemen. It was the royal gardeners who sewed condemned women into weighted sacks and dropped them into the Bosphorus – another Sultan, Ibrahim the Mad (1640-48), once had all 280 of the women in his harem executed in this way simply so he could have the pleasure of selecting their successors – and the tread of an approaching group of red-skull-capped bostancıs, wearing their traditional uniform of muslin breeches and shirts cut low to expose muscular chests and arms, heralded death by decapitation for many thousands of Ottoman subjects down the years.

When very senior officials were sentenced to death, they would be dealt with by the bostancı basha in person, but – at least towards the end of the sultans’ rule – execution was not the inevitable result of a death sentence. Instead, the condemned man and the bostancı basha took part together in what was surely one of the most peculiar customs known to history: a race held between the head gardener and his anticipated victim, the result of which was, quite literally, a matter of life or death for the trembling Grand Vizier or Chief Eunuch required to undertake it.

How this custom came about remains unknown. From the end of the eighteenth century, however, accounts of the bizarre race began to emerge from the seraglio, and these seem reasonably consistent in their details. Death sentences passed within the walls of the Topkapi were generally delivered to the head gardener at the Central Gate [Miller p.163], and Godfrey Goodwin describes the next part of the Ottomans’ remarkable ritual thus:

It was the bostancibaşi‘s duty to summon any notable… When the vezir or other unfortunate miscreant arrived, he well knew why he had been summoned, but he had to bite his lip through the courtesies of hospitality before, at long last, being handed a cup of sherbet. If it were white, he sighed with relief, but if it were red he was in despair, because red was the colour of death.

[Goodwin p.197]

Plan of the Topkapi and outer palace

For most of the bostancıs’ victims, sentence was carried out immediately after the serving of the fatal sherbet by a group of five muscular young janisseries – members of the Sultan’s elite infantry. For a Grand Vizier, however, there was still a chance, for as soon as sentence of death had been passed, it was the practice to allow the condemned man to run as fast as he was able the 300 metres or so from the palace, through the gardens, and down to the Fish Market Gate on the southern side of the palace complex, overlooking the Bosphorus, which was the appointed place of execution. [On the plan above – which you can view in higher resolution by double clicking on it – the Central Gate is number 109 and the Fish Market Gate number 115.]

If the deposed Vizier reached the Fish Market Gate before the head gardener, his sentence was commuted to mere banishment. If, on the other hand, the condemned man found the bostanci basha waiting for him at the gate, he was summarily executed and his body hurled into the sea. The last man to save his neck by winning this life-or-death race was the Grand Vizier Hacı Salih Pasha in November 1822. [D’Ohsson III, 357ff; Von Hammer II, 33-4, 415-16; Miller pp.140, 145]   Hacı – whose predecessor had lasted a mere nine days in office before his own execution – not only survived his death sentence, but was so widely esteemed for winning his race that he went on to be appointed Governor General of the province of Damascus. [Gershoni et al. p.195]


Anthony Alderson. The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Joseph, Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall. Des Osmanischen Reichs: Staatsverfassung und Staatsverwaltung. Vienna, 2 vols.: Zwenter Theil, 1815.

I. Gershoni et al, Histories of the Modern Middle East: New Directions. Boulder [CO]: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Geoffrey Goodwin. Topkapi Palace: an Illustrated Guide to its Life and Personalities. London: Saqi Books, 1999.

Albert Lybyer. The Government of the Ottoman Empire in the Time of Suleiman the Magnificent. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1913.

Barnette Miller. Beyond the Sublime Porte: the Grand Seraglio of Stambul. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1928.

Ignatius Mouradgea D’Ohsson. Tableau Général de l’Empire Ottoman. Paris, 3 vols., 1787-1820.

Baki Tezcan. The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

[Rogers p.134]

We need to rewind a little at this point in order to explain not only why Mr Houldsworth and his friends were taking a spade to the coffin of one of Britain’s greatest lyric poets, but also how Lord Byron himself came to be entombed in a church in the little Nottinghamshire town of Hucknall Torkard (nowadays known simply as Hucknall). To do that, we have to go back to the early nineteenth century and to the tumultuous personal life of the sixth Baron Byron, of whom the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says simply: “No English writer except Shakespeare acquired greater fame or exercised more world influence.”

George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824) was born in London, the grandson of a legendary admiral popularly known as ‘Foulweather Jack’, and the son of a Royal Navy captain (and chronic debtor) known even more evocatively as ‘Mad Jack’ Byron. His distant ancestors had been gifted possession of Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, for services rendered to Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries – which, at least in part, explains the poet’s posthumous residence in Hucknall – and despite the disadvantage of being born with a club foot, and the death of his feckless father when he was aged just four, the future poet enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was schooled at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge (where, famously, he kept a tame bear as a pet). After going down he became renowned, in almost equal measure, for his extraordinary poetry – Childe Harold made his name, and Don Juan practically ruined it – his scandalous affairs with a succession of unsuitable women, and his ever-mounting debts. So notorious did these excesses make him that it has been suggested that Byron was the world’s first celebrity, in the modern meaning of the term – an 1820s bad boy with all the dangerous charisma and the smouldering sexuality of the louchest modern rock star.

The affairs and the debts, anyway, forced Byron to flee to the continent in 1816, where he became a member of the celebrated houseparty at the Villa Diodati, in Geneva, that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein during the infamous “year without a summer.” After a lengthy residence in Italy, the poet was drawn, in 1823, to Greece, where that nation’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Turks was getting underway, and it was there he died of fever – probably malaria – in April 1824, still aged only 36.

The Greeks (for whom Byron was and remains a major national hero) would have been more than happy to have buried him where he fell – perhaps on the Acropolis, they hinted – but the British authorities insisted on the repatriation of the body. [Webb]  This, at a time when news of Byron’s death took several weeks to reach Britain (where it caused so profound a shock its effects have been likened to the hysterical mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana), and when word of the family’s decision on repatriation took weeks more to be sent to Greece, inevitably caused significant problems for those charged with preserving the body. The poet’s cadaver was autopsied, and despite Byron’s reported plea, before death, “let not my body be hacked,” five doctors crawled over it, removing heart, brains, lungs and intestines, pumping everything chock full of embalming fluid, and despatching the mangled remains to London in a tin coffin and a collection of spirit-filled vases reminiscent of Egyptian canopic jars.

The body did not reach London, on the ship Florida, until the beginning of July, more than two months after Byron’s death [Galt pp.305-06; Marchant III, 1234], and when it did there were unseemly wrangles over where to bury it. Both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey flatly declined to inter so scandalous a character within their walls, and it is for this reason that the poet was eventually put to rest in the family vault at Hucknell, some two miles from his former estate at Newstead Abbey. There he remained, in a crypt beneath the church, for more than a hundred years – not entirely undisturbed, for the tomb was opened again in 1852 for the burial of his daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace – but home and apparently at peace.

Enter the Reverend Canon T. G. Barber. Barber – who was born in Nottingham in 1876 and returned to the district as a curate in 1904 – was both a passionate admirer of Byron and a determined controversialist: a dangerous combination, it transpired, in a man placed in charge of the church where the poet had been buried. Over the years, Barber became increasingly exercised by the desire to enter Byron’s tomb – or, as he put it, to lay the rumour, which he claimed was put to him by numerous visitors, that the poet was not in fact interred in the vault. After some years – it was by now the summer of 1938 – Barber was able to obtain permission from both Byron’s family and the Home Office to have the vault opened. He appears to have obtained the necessary permits on the back of the promise that he would merely examine the church crypt to ascertain that the poet’s coffin was still there; there was no mention, it seems clear, of anything so controversial as an actual exhumation. [Barber pp.132-7]  All of which leads us to a warm evening in the middle of June, the excavations of churchwarden Houldsworth and the Bettridge brothers, and Canon Barber’s eventual return to the freshly opened tomb.

Barber, it seems safe to say, remained blissfully unaware of Houldsworth’s unauthorised exhumation. For one thing, the Byron vault had turned out to be far smaller than expected, “not being able to hold more than three coffins abreast on the floor,” [Nottingham Journal, 24 May 1824; Barber pp.132-3, 136] and far more disordered, too; as well as containing nine coffins, in various stages of decay, and the poet’s canopic jars, there was so much debris and detritus littered about that, in hacking the coffin open, the churchwarden and his men had done little but add slightly to the mess [see photo right. Byron’s coffin lies with a baron’s coronet on it to the left of the crowded image. Directly beneath it, in the bottom left corner, is the case containing the jars of his brains and entrails. In the centre of the image is the coffin of his daughter, Ada Lovelace]. For another, Barber – who for some reason seems to have felt that he had “a personal appointment with Byron” – deliberately delayed his return to the tomb until midnight, and, in order to access the vault without attracting the attention of his parishoners, he entered with only a small lantern to light his way. What Barber originally intended to do when he got into the vault we don’t know; he never properly explained himself. Nominally his commission was to do nothing but tidy around and confirm that the poet’s coffin really was present. But, given the extraordinary circumstances under which the clergyman returned, it may very well be that he secretly planned exactly what Houldsworth had already done: to open Byron’s coffin and examine his remains.

What we can say with some certainty is that Barber clambered down a ladder into the crypt and soon discovered that the poet’s coffin had been prised open. Fortunately for Arnold Houldsworth, both the Canon and almost all those experts in Byronic poetry who have written on the exhumation subsequently have been content to attribute the desecration to an unknown tomb-robber of the nineteenth century. [Barber p.132; Longford p.218n; Books and Bookmen v.21 (1975) p.21]  It further seems that the rector’s outrage was tempered with relief that the dirty work had been done for him, for he did not agonise over the state of the coffin for very long.

Barber’s published description of what happened next inevitably lacks the pungency of Arnold Houldsworth’s.

Dare I look within? Yes, the world should know the truth – that the body of the great poet was there – or that the coffin was empty. Reverently, very reverently, I raised the lid, and before my eyes lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it had been placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago. His features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar. The serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression on me… But enough – I gently lowered the lid of his coffin – and as I did so, breathed a prayer for the peace of his soul.”

[Barber p.137]

The Canon, like Houldsworth, did note some damage to the body: most obviously, he wrote, Byron’s right foot, his lame one, had become detached from the remainder of the body and lay in the bottom of the coffin. [Longford pp.207, 218]  But Barber made no explicit comment on the state of the remainder of the poet’s body, although the decomposition of the arms and legs mentioned by his churchwarden was actually a typical effect of over-hasty and inadequate embalming. No mention was made – naturally, given the date and Barber’s calling – of either the poet’s nakedness or the abnormal genital development that had so awed Mr Houldsworth. And we have no photographs; a Mr Bullock, who had been brought along as a sort of official photographer to record the condition of the tomb, “refused on moral grounds” to take any pictures. [Ellis]  Thus when the rector published an account of his investigations, entitled Byron And Where He Is Buried, in book form in 1939, it contained a pretty sanitised version of events.

All this is understandable enough, because even Barber’s bowdlerised memoir caused outrage. The mere fact that Byron’s tomb had been desecrated – albeit with the sort-of permission of the poet’s family and the British government – was enough to spark a scandal, and the awkward fact that the exhumation had occurred at all went on to be studiously ignored by a succession of Byron’s biographers, including Leslie Marchand, author of the standard door-stopping three volume authorised study (1957), and his successor Doris Langley Moore, whose biography (1961) references Barber’s book in its bibliography but fails to mention its contents even obliquely in the text. [Barton]

Indeed it was not until much later, in the middle 1960s, that churchwarden Houldsworth’s recollections were finally sought and the peculiar tale of Byron’s curiously well-preserved body at last entered limited circulation. The man who put it into print was Byron Rogers, now a renowned colour journalist, who was then just beginning his career as a feature writer on the Sheffield Star – where his exotic West Wales accent caused him to be mistaken for a Hungarian. In his autobiography, Rogers explains how the interview and his scoop came to pass:

I was sitting in the Star‘s offices one morning, reading the papers, when I came upon a story about a Russian scientist who had dug up Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and, working from the skull, had reassembled his face. Staring at those grim features, I remembered that I had read somewhere that in the late 1930s someone had opened Lord Byron’s coffin in his family vault in Hucknall, just down the road from Sheffield. I rang the vicar, who confirmed that this had indeed happened, and that one man among his parishoners had been there at the time.”

[Rogers p.132]

Pausing only to collect a friendly University of Sheffield academic to add a little respectability to his coverage, Rogers hurried down to Hucknall, located the local library’s copy of Canon Barber’s memoir, and interviewed Arnold Houldsworth. Published in the mass-circulation Star, the former churchwarden’s confession – and hence the strange story of Byron’s “quite abnormal development” – began making the rounds, worming its way gradually into the public consciousness in the course of the next decade. [Dean; Wallace p.1215; Longford p.217; Stabler p.132; Harvey; Dawes]  By the first years of the new century, it was no longer quite so scandalous, and was well enough known to be used to open The Kindness of Sisters, David Crane’s 2003 study of Byron’s wife and half-sister.

In all those years (it may be added in conclusion), Houldsworth’s tale has become a curiosity, a prurient bit of literary gossip, and, finally, the subject of some fairly heavyweight feminist analysis. [McDayter pp.183-4]  Yet its fundamental truth remains unquestioned; no one, it seems, has ever critically analysed the churchwarden’s account. From this perspective, it should be left to Byron Rogers to deliver a coda to the story he first put into print. Writing nearly 50 years later, the Welshman concluded his account of his 1960s feature with a telling observation.

And there the story would have rested, sinking into myth, except… One night at Sheffield University for a poetry reading, I was desperately trying to find a lavatory, having stopped in the pub on my way, when I opened a door into a pitch-black room, and, groping for a light switch, touched what felt like a big glass jar. The light came on, and I saw at eye level, about a foot from me, penises cut from corpses. My hand had clearly disturbed them, for they were dancing in a stately sort of way, and each, having been injected with embalming fluid, was the size of a rolling pin.”

[Rogers p.134]

Vertical elevation and plan of the Byron family vault, Hucknall, Notts., as it was in 1938

Side view and location plan of the Byron family vault, Hucknall, Notts., as it was in 1938


Thomas Gerrard Barber. Byron And Where He Is Buried. Hucknall: Henry Morley & Sons, 1939.

Anne Barton. ‘Byron: the poetry of it all.’ New York Review of Books, 19 December 2002.

Martin Dawes. ‘Poet’s privates and an odd cock and bull story.’ Sheffield Star, 16 July 2009.

Paul Dean. ‘Hail, Muse! etc.’ The New Criterion, June 2003.

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