Archive for the ‘Folklore’ 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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Chupatty movement“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister at home in Britain dated March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.'” [Hibbert p.59]

The “movement” that Dr Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumour gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis – unleavened Indian breads – which were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the Subcontinent. That these chapatis really existed is beyond doubt; what made their distribution truly bizarre and inexplicable was that nobody knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British, who – through the medium of the East India Company – had ruled over large portions of the country for almost exactly a century (and were, according to one well-known prophecy, due to be unseated at that century’s end). The British, who at least knew that they had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed they were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh), or from Indore, in centre of the country. Extensive enquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few firm facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and actually carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” although they took them just the same [Hibbert p.60].

The chupatty movement first came to British attention early in February 1857. One of the first officials to encounter it was Mark Thornhill, who was the magistrate in the little Indian town of Mathura, near Agra. Thornhill came into his office one morning to find four “dirty little cakes of the coarsest flour, about the size and thickness of a biscuit” lying on his desk. These had – he was informed – been brought in by one of his Indian policemen, who had received them from a puzzled village chowkidar (watchman). And where had the chowkidar got them? “A man had come out of the jungle with them, and given them to the watchman with instructions to make four like them and to take these to the watchman in the next village, who was to be told to do the same.” [Thornhill p.2]

Thornhill carefully examined the chapatis in his office. There was nothing at all unusual about them. They bore no message, and were identical to the breads cooked in every home in India, which formed (and still form) a staple part of the locals’ diet. Yet the magistrate’s discreet enquiries soon revealed that many hundreds of chapatis were passing through his district, and through other parts of India as well – everywhere from the Narmada river in the south to the border with Nepal several hundred miles to the north. The breads formed, in short, what amounted to a culinary chain letter, and it was one that was spreading with such spectacular rapidity that Thornhill’s boss George Harvey, in Agra, calculated that a wave of chapatis was advancing across his province at the rate of somewhere between 100 and 200 miles a night. [Wagner p.63]

Location of chupatties 1857This discovery was particularly disconcerting, since the chapatis were moving vastly more swiftly than the fastest British mails could manage, and urgent enquiries were made as to the source and the meaning of the “movement”. This yielded the information that the distribution of breads was far more widespread than anyone in Agra had yet realised [left, in red; download image to see at full size], and that the Indians who received them generally took them as some sort of a sign. Beyond that, however, opinions remained divided.

From the North-West Provinces:

I have the honour to inform you that a signal has passed through numbers of the villages in this district, the purport of which has not yet transpired…

A Chowkeydar, on receiving one of these cakes, has had five or six more prepared, and thus they have passed from village to village… An idea has been industriously circulated that the Government has given the order.

[W. Ford, magistrate, Goorgaon, to Simon Fraser, Commissioner, Delhi, in Kaye p.632]

From Delhi:

I did hear of the circumstance. Some people said that it was a propitiatory observance to avert some impending calamity; others, that they were circulated by the Government to signify that the population throughout the country would be compelled to use the same food as the Christians, and thus be deprived of their religion; while others again said that the chupatties were circulated to make it known that Government was determined to force Christianity on the country by interfering with their food, and intimation of it was thus given that they might be prepared to resist the attempt.

Q. Is the sending of such articles about the country a custom among the Hindoos or Mussulmans; and would the meaning be at once understood without any accompanying explanation?

A. No, it is not by any means a custom; I am 50 years old, and never heard of such a thing before.

[Evidence of Jat Mall, news-writer [summariser of court news] to the Lieutenant Governor of Agra, “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.74]

From Nimach, near Bombay:

At the time they appeared in Nimar, they were everywhere brought from the direction of Indore. That city was at the time afflicted with a severe visitation of cholera, and numbers of the inhabitants died daily. It was at the time understood by the people of Nimar, and is still believed, that the cakes of wheat were dispatched from Indore after the performance over them of incantations that would ensure the pestilence accompanying them. The cakes did not come straight from North to South, for they were received at Bujenggbur, more than half-way between Indore and Gwalior, on the 9th of February, but had been distributed at Mundlaiser on the 12th of January.

[Richard Harte Keatinge, VC, in Kaye pp.572-3]

From Delhi:

It was alluded to [in the native newspapers], and it was supposed to portend some coming disturbance, and was, moreover, understood as implying an invitation to the whole population of the country to unite for some secret objective afterwards to be disclosed.

[Evidence of Chuni Lal, news-writer,  “Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session pp.83-4.]

From Oude:

Some time in February 1857, a curious occurrence took place. A Chowkeydar ran up to another village with two chupatties. He ordered his fellow-official to make ten more, and give two to each of the five nearest village Chowkeydars with the same instructions. In a few hours the whole country was in a stir, from Chowkeydars flying around with these cakes. The  signal spread in all directions with wonderful celerity. The magistrates tried to stop it, but, in spite of all they could do, it passed along to the borders of the Punjab. There is reason to believe that this was originated by some intriguers of the old Court of Lucknow.

[Ireland p.23]

From Delhi:

Nobody can tell what was the object of the distribution of the chupatties. It is not known who first projected the plan. All the people in the palace wondered what it could mean. I had no conversation with the King on the subject; but others talked in his presence about it, wondering what could be the object.

[Statement of Hakin Ahsan Ullah, confidential physician to the King of Delhi, in Kaye p.636]

Numerous explanations were considered. A few suggested that the chapatis might conceal “seditious letters” that “were in this manner forwarded from village to village, read by the village chief, again crusted over with flour, and sent on in the shape of a chupatty, to be broken by the next recipient,” [Kaye p.572]  but examination of the breads revealed no hidden messages. Some of the more knowledgeable British officials linked the spread of the chapatis to outbreaks of cholera in central India – seeing the distribution of breads as a prophylactic – adding that, since incidence of the disease was associated with the movement of the Company’s armies, “there was a widespread belief that the British were in fact responsible for the disease.” [Wagner p.61]  Another official suggested that the chupatty movement had been initiated somewhere in central India by dyers, anxious that their dyes “were not clearing properly,” or were the product of some spellwork aimed at protecting crops against hail. [Davenport p.441]

All in all, the British were extremely spooked by the spread of the chapatis. Vital though their Indian empire was to them, they controlled the Subcontinent with a comparative handful of men – about 100,000 in all, less than half of whom were soldiers, ruling over a population of 250 million – and they were all too aware of just how inadequate these numbers would be in the event of any serious rebellion. That, combined with a definite decline in the number of British officers who properly understood India, spoke Indian languages fluently, or had any real sympathy for the people whom they ruled, meant that the colonial hierarchy remained perpetually jittery with some reason. Tall tales, panic and misapprehension spread readily in such a climate, and plenty of people felt a certain disquiet in the early months of 1857:

“Lotus flowers and bits of goats’ flesh, so it was rumoured, were being passed from hand to hand, as well as chupatties. Symbols of unknown significance were chalked on the walls of towns; protective charms were on sale everywhere; an ominous slogan, Sub lal hogea hai (‘Everything has become red’) was being whispered…”

[Barter p.ix]

It is no surprise that, faced with such a plethora of portents, “the British regarded with deep suspicion, bordering on paranoia, any type of communication in India which they could not understand.” [Wagner p.63]  The colonial administration well understood that rumours, however unfounded, could have serious consequences in an India in which rulers and ruled regarded each other with mutual suspicion, and there were plenty of notably more dangerous urban legends about. One popular story, widely believed, suggested that the British were attempting the mass conversion of their subjects to Christianity by adultering their flour with bone meal from cows and pigs, which was forbidden to Hindus and Moslems respectively. Once defiled, the theory went, men who had consumed the forbidden meal would be shunned by their co-religionists and would be easier to bring into the Christian fold [Kaye p.634], or could then be sent as soldiers overseas (crossing the “black water” being forbidden to Hindus of high caste).  And, historically, much the same thing had happened before in times of trouble. Coconuts had passed at great speed from village to village in central India in 1818, at a time when the mofussil was being ravaged by large bands of merciless looters known as the Pindaris. [Malcolm, II, 217-18; Dodd p.36]  Most worryingly of all, some very similar rumours had once been recorded far to the south, in the Madras Presidency in 1806, at the time of a serious outbreak of mutiny among Indian soldiers stationed at Vellore:

Among other wild fables, which took firm hold of the popular mind, was one to the effect that the Company’s officers had collected all the newly-manufactured salt, had divided it into two great heaps,  and over one had sprinkled the blood of hogs, and over the other the blood of cows; that they had then sent it to be sold throughout the country of the pollution and desecration of the Mahommedans and Hindoos, that all might be brought to one caste and to one religion like the English.

[Kaye p.224]

Seen from this perspective, it is not surprising that one of the many subsidiary rumours that accompanied the chupatty movement was that the breads were being carried and distributed “by the hands of the very lowest caste men that can be found; and the natives say that it is intended by Government to force or bribe the headmen to eat the, and thus loose their caste.” [“Trial of the King of Delhi,” Parliamentary Papers, 1859, 1st Session p.100]  The consumption of food supplied by the British was, it was commonly believed, to be “considered as a token that they should likewise be compelled to embrace one faith, or, as they termed it, ‘One food and one faith.'” [Roy p.232]

By the time of the chupatty movement, no more than a handful of aged India hands could remember such long-ago events as the Vellore Mutiny. But those who did would not have been surprised by what happened next, for some very similar beliefs were spreading in the early months of 1857. According to this rumour, which spread like wildfire among the sepoys (Indian soldiers) stationed at cantonments throughout the north of the country, the British had come up with yet another diabolical contrivance for breaking their caste and defiling their bodies: the greased cartridge.

Greased cartridge from the Indian Mutiny, 1857It was certainly no secret that the Company’s armies had been making preparations for the introduction of a new sort of ammunition for a new model of Enfield rifle. To be loaded, this cartridge [right], had to be torn open so that the powder it contained could be poured down the barrel of the muzzle-loading gun; because the soldier’s hands were full, this was done with the teeth. Then the bullet had to be rammed down the rifled barrel of the muzzle-loading gun [below]. To facilitate its passage, the cartridges were greased with tallow, which, in the UK, was made of beef and pork fat. The greased cartridges thus posed precisely the same threat to observant sepoys as would flour adulterated with the blood of pigs and cows, and though the problem was recognised by the British at an early stage, and not a single greased cartridge was ever actually issued to any Indian troops, fear that the Company was plotting to defile them took hold among the men of many Indian regiments and resulted in the outbreak of rebellion in the cantonment of Meerut in April 1857.

Sepoys load with cartridgesThe revolt of 1857, which the British call the Indian Mutiny but many Indians prefer to think of as the First War of Independence, was the defining event in British imperial history. It came as a greater shock than the loss of the American colonies, and prompted reprisals far more hysterical and vicious than those visited on rebellious subjects elsewhere in the Empire. In one sense, this was not surprising; since India had a large and settled British population, there were more women and children around for the rebels to kill. In another, however, the appalling atrocities visited by the Company’s armies on the people of northern India were far from justified, since the British were themselves proved to be just as prone to rumours and panics as their Indian subjects. Wild stories circulated freely in the panic-stricken atmosphere of 1857, and there were enough real massacres and murders to make almost anything seem possible. Thus it was widely reported, and believed, that Mrs Charlotte Chambers – a heavily-pregnant officer’s wife stationed at Meerut – had had her clothes set on fire by a howling mob of rebels before she was shot, and was stabbed, and had her baby cut out of her belly by a butcher and held up to her “before her dimming eyes,” after which her hands were thrust into her abdomen in place of the murdered foetus. [Ward p.507&n; letter from James Johnston to his mother, 1857] Subsequent investigation eventually suggested that none of this was true, and that the unfortunate Mrs Chambers, though certainly killed, died instantly, and “did not suffer any protracted pain, torture or indignity” [Ward p.675; Women of History], but this revelation was not widely circulated, and in any case came far too late to save the thousands of entirely blameless Indians who found themselves caught up in the hysterical aftermath of the rebellion and who were flogged, or blown from cannon, or forced to clean bloodied paving stones using only their tongues before being summarily hanged.

By the time the British came to examine the causes of the rebellion in 1858 and 1859, therefore, the chupatty movement had assumed a fresh significance. It was generally believed, in retrospect, that the circulation of the breads had been a warning of trouble ahead, and that the wave of chapatis must have been set in motion by a cunning group of determined conspirators who had begun plotting the rising months, if not years, in advance. The rapid spread of disorder in 1857 – when regiment after regiment had mutinied, and revolts against British rule had sprung up throughout most of northern and central India – made it almost impossible to believe that the rebellion could have been spontaneous (as most modern historians concede), and considerable effort was made to chronicle the movement and trace the spread of the anomalous chapatis.

The real irony is that all this effort actually supplied historians with evidence that the chupatty movement had nothing at all to do with the outbreak of disorder some months later – and that the circulation of the breads early in 1857 was nothing more than a strange coincidence. Kim Wagner, who has made the most recent study of the phenomenon, concludes that the movement had its origins in Indore, a princely state still nominally independent of British rule, and that it began as an attempt to ward off the ravages of cholera:

The geographic circulation of the chapattis was not systematic or exponential; their transmission was erratically linear and different ‘currents’ moved at different speeds. Some currents simply ran cold, while others moved in parallel, or paused before continuing. Thus, long after the chapattis reached their northern-most point of Meerut, there was another northwards distribution from Cawnpore to Fattehgarh, which was widely reported in the newspapers… The circulation took place along well-established routes of transmission, which followed the main trade and pilgrimage routes between the bigger cities.

At some point the chapattis passed beyond the limits of their meaningful transmission and simply continued through the country as a “blank” message. This allowed different meanings an interpretations to be attributed to them, and the chapattis became an index of people’s thoughts and worries.

[Wagner pp.65, 67]

Furthermore, the superstitious impulse that still encourages the transmission of chain-letters clearly applied in 1857:

Although the original specific meaning of the chapattis had been lost early in the distribution, the dire consequences of breaking the chain of transmission remained, and thus ensured their successful circulation over an immense area. In the event, the chapattis were not ‘harbingers of a coming storm.’ They were what people made them into, and the significance attributed to them was a symptom of the pervasive distrust and general consternation amongst the Indian population during the early months of 1857.

[Ibid p.69]

Seen from a distance of 150 years, the chupatty movement can appear a quaint anomaly, a strange and colourful rumour of interest mostly to historians and psychologists. To me, however, the bloody results of the mutual incomprehension that existed between the British and ‘native’ communities in India are a potent reminder that mistrust and panic can have very serious consequences. They did in France in 1307, at the time of the destruction of the Templars, and in Salem in 1692, at the time of the witch trials. In South Africa, in 1856, the spread of rumours concerning a series of visions experienced by a Xhosa girl named Nonqawuse resulted in the slaughter of most of the Xhosa’s cattle, and the subsequent death by starvation of around 40,000 people. [J.B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nonqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989)]

These are deep waters that we trawl in, and dangerous ones, too.


Richard Barter. The Siege of Delhi. Mutiny Memoirs of an Old Officer (London: Folio Society, 1984)

John Davenport. The Historical Class Book. Or Readings in Modern History (London: Relfe Brothers, 1861)

George Dodd. The History of the Indian Revolt (London: W&R Chambers, 1859)

Troy Downs. ‘Host of Midian: the chapati circulation and the Indian Revolt of 1857-58.’ Studies in History 16 (2000)

Christopher Hibbert. The Great Mutiny: India 1857 (London: Penguin, 1978)

House of Commons. “Proceedings of the Trial of Badahur Shah.” In Accounts and Papers, East Indies, Session 3 February-19 April 1859, Parliamentary Papers XVIII of 1859

William Wotherspoon Ireland. History of the Siege of Delhi, by an Officer Who Served There (Edinburgh: A&C Black, 1861)

John Kaye. History of the Sepoy War in India, 1857-58 (London, 3 vols.: WH Allen, 1864)

John Malcolm. A Memoir of Central India (London, 2 vos.: Parbury, Allen, 1832

Tapti Roy. The Politics of a Popular Uprising: Bundelkhand in 1857 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Mark Thornhill. The Personal Adventures and Experiences of a Magistrate During the Rise, Progression and Suppression of the Indian Mutiny (London: John Murray, 1884)

Kim A. Wagner. The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010)

Andrew Ward. Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (London: John Murray, 2004)

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Blessed Virgin Mary with blue sashWe’ve seen, in two earlier posts, how the Saarland village of Marpingen experienced a dramatic series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) during the mid-1870s, with associated claims of miraculous cures and healing, and how the leader of the three girls who claimed to have encountered the apparition in woods outside the village eventually confessed that the entire experience had been invented – thanks, in part, to leading questions asked, and pressure placed on the three child-witnesses by, the eager adults of the village. Today I’m going to conclude this series of analyses, drawn from David Blackbourn’s magnificently detailed study of the episode, Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany, by taking a closer look at the reasons why there was so much expectation and religious fervour in Marpingen in the summer of 1876, and why the appearance of the BVM meant so much to the villagers themselves.

I’ve already noted a little of the historical background to this case. The visions took place not long after Germany was unified in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, and at a time when the renewal of hostilities with France seemed likely. Marpingen – located close to the border with Luxembourg and only a few miles north of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, which would almost certainly form a focal point of any future conflict – had every reason to fear such an eventuality; the whole area, Blackbourn notes, was one “into which troops were poured at the first hint of trouble, giving its inhabitants a further sense that they lived on the margin,” and there were rumours (which had some basis in fact) that the Chancellor, Bismarck, was planning to sell the whole district to France. [pp.64-5]  But by 1876 the villagers, and the inhabitants of the Saarland in general, had plenty of other problems on their minds, and it’s a good deal easier to understand why the BVM apparently made her appearance in the village when one sees the events of that July in their full context. Sketching context is, of course, something that history professors such as Blackbourn do for fun. Let’s take a brief look at his findings.

Blackbourn’s history of Marpingen stretches back to the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when the borderlands between France and Germany were regularly overrun and occupied by rival armies. War brought with it enormous change; between 1260 and 1760 Marpingen had been part of the Duchy of Lorraine, but over the succeeding half-century the village passed under the control of a succession of six different rulers – some French, some German – and the village was badly shaken by the constant changes in laws, tax gathering, conscription and land ownership that resulted. There were many broader social changes, too; the advent of the railways and industrialisation significantly reduced the isolation of places such as Marpingen; work, and later emigration, took many villagers away from their home for the first time and introduced them to new places, new experiences and new ideas [pp.43, 51-4].

Marpingen nonetheless remained, as Blackbourn points out, relatively self-contained throughout this period. The village was “not marked on normal maps” [p.42], and emigration dried up during the 1850s, when the first large Saarland coal mines came on stream, providing fresh employment opportunities. The advent of mineworking drew substantial numbers of the local men to work at pits up to 20 miles from the village, and these workers became, in effect, weekly commuters, travelling to the mines on Monday mornings and returning on Saturday evenings. This had a significant social impact on village life. Fathers – who were often at home for no more than 30 hours a week – ceased to be imposers of discipline and became instead “the cherished weekend visitor bearing gifts.” [pp.56-7]  This in turn meant that the role of women changed. Wives became more central than ever to family life – not just as home-makers but as workers, keeping up the family farm, feeding the animals, harvesting crops and generating income. They took over as intermediaries between the family, church and school, and became the principal wielders of discipline. One result of these shifts was that women became much more prominent in the local church, and the Catholic church itself was “feminised” during the nineteenth century, losing some of its old patriarchal overtones and focussing far more than it had done hitherto on the perfect mother-figure: the Virgin Mary. There was a steep rise in Marian devotion, and Blackbourn traces the marked influence that the mothers of the Marpingen visionaries had on their children to these developments [p.57].

Woodland around<br /> MarpingenOther important changes occurred in the village during the same period. The most important, for the local peasants, was that the French wars resulted in the abolition of collective husbandry (Gehöferschaft), a system that had periodically reallocated land to local families. Henceforth land was privatised, and could be bought and sold, and this, together with the virtual impossibility (for peasants at least) of securing cheap credit, led inevitably to occasional foreclosures. A number of local families thus suffered considerable financial stress, and the compulsory sale of their land also opened up Marpingen for the first time to outsiders – who included a scattering of Protestants and Jews – with all the uncertainty and threat that that implies. At the same time, new laws on land ownership closed off what had always hitherto been communal areas of woodland [above]. Aside from providing Marpingers with the fruits of the forest (remember that Gretchen Kunz and her companions had been berrying in the Härtelwald on the day they supposedly saw the BVM), this land had always acted as a sort of social safety valve – it provided free resources in the form of wood, leaf-mould, food and even coal (which could be scavenged from surface deposits long into the nineteenth century) for poor villagers, and so helped them to survive times of famine and want. Denial of access to the woodlands was a significant issue for most Marpingers [pp.47, 50-1].

The advent of new faces in the village was a considerable shock, of the sort barely conceivable today. Even at its largest, Marpingen had remained a remarkably enclosed community. It was not large enough to boast its own doctor, resident merchants or bankers, or a notary; villagers had to travel to nearby St Wendel to obtain such services. Nor did any state official live there. This meant that the place was, by necessity, largely self-sufficient. It also meant that the only educated men in the entire village were the local priest and the schoolmaster – and Blackbourn makes the point that the priest frequently despaired of his congregation, while the unfortunate teachers posted to the village had little or nothing to do with their peasant neighbours, and “clung rather desperately to each other and to teachers in neighbouring villages for companionship.” [pp.46-7]  All this meant that Marpingen was not exposed to rationalism, scientific progress or what passed elsewhere on the continent for the Enlightenment, unlike larger villages and towns; superstition, as we shall see, remained largely unchecked.

A further significant change came in 1834, when the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the then ruler of the district, sold his lands to the King of Prussia in exchange for an annual income of 80,000 thalers a year [pp.44, 59] and Marpingen thus became part of the largest, most successful and most powerful of German states. This sale might, in some respects, have been expected to benefit the Saarland; the purchase ensured the districts around Marpingen joined the Prussian Zollverein, or German customs union (think a very early version of the EC). But the Zollverein wiped out a lucrative and longstanding smuggling trade over the border with Luxembourg [p.59], and, to make matters worse, Prussia itself was also militantly Protestant. The advent of Protestant rule over the Saarland was seen – quite rightly – as a threat to the solidly Catholic village. “Potential social conflicts,” Blackbourn says, “had an added religious dimension where Catholic peasants or miners faced Protestant forestry or mine officials.” [p.60]

It is ironic, then, that – as things turned out – one product of Prussian overlordship was a distinct Catholic revival, datable to the 1860s. Marpingen, and many villages like it, had been the despair of their parish priests during the preceding half a century; there had been a sharp fall in devotion and a corresponding rise in drunkenness, card-playing, dancing, impiety and illegitimacy; some parishoners had to be virtually forced to stay in their pews during interminable Sunday sermons. In Marpingen itself, an “an unusual degree of spite and hostility in relations between the inhabitants of Marpingen and successive parish priests,” who were sometimes abused in the street by members of their flock. Poor relations between the priest and the villagers were blamed in large part on a village oath – first sworn in 1699, at a time of plague, and renewed annually thereafter, “to keep Saturday afternoons holy,” but after 1800 this wording was generally taken to mean that the villagers felt free to lounge about on an afternoon on which they would normally have been working – six-day weeks being the norm at this time, of course. In consequence, Marpingen became noted for the indolence of its inhabitants. [pp.66-9]  It took several decades, some intensive missionary work, and the perceived threat of a resurgent Protestantism, for this to change [p.73], but when it did the Virgin Mary was in the forefront of what became a potent Catholic revival. In 1847, the old oath was replaced, as Blackbourn notes,

with a Brotherhood of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart of Mary which parishoners were encouraged to join… It became the norm for villagers to join the Brotherhood after their first communion. A second, symbolically important step was taken at the same time: the restoration of the Marienbrunnen. This was a well close to the parish church, whose history went back to a medieval legend. During the draining of a swamp a miraculous image had supposedly been found; it was placed in a shrine by the newly dug well and became an object of veneration, attracting pilgrims in considerable numbers…Later writers saw this double renewal as a turning point. The Marienbrunnen now attracted an increased number of visitors again, espeically on Marian festivals, and became a popular meeting place for the women of Marpingen… As the naming of the Brotherhood indicated, the purposive renewal of popular piety in Marpingen was built on the Marian traditions of the village, whose patron saint was the Virgin and whose parish festival was held on the Feast of the Assumption.

Marpingen pp.69-70

It is interesting to delve a little deeper into the reasons why the revival of the 1860s was so much stronger and more successful than earlier attempts to prod the Catholics of Marpingen to greater devotion. According to Blackbourn, the key difference was that, rather than offer “a head-on challenge to the more crypto-materialist, superstitious aspects of common belief” in the years leading up to the apparitions of 1876, the church

tried to stamp these with a more acceptable form, often centred on the Virgin. the encouragement of the devotion to May as ‘Mary’s month’ is a good example, for it was superimposed on popular attachment to the ringing of bells in May to drive out evil spirits. The stories of Our Lady of Lourdes that children heard from their priest and in the Catholic school were similarly overlaid on popular beliefs about the appearance of mysterious ‘women in white’.

Marpingen p.75

One important consequence of this, obviously, was that it became natural to associate old ghost stories and tales of spectral women in the nearby woodlands with the BVM.

The Catholic revival, Blackbourn continues, was aided by the appearance of a new parish priest, Father Neureuter, in 1864. Neureuter was young and vigorous – he had been ordained only in 1860 – and he and his sister “shared a fierce devotion ot the Virgin Mary… There is evidence that he was generous with references to Our Lady of Lourdes during his sermons.” The pompous detective sent, undercover, from Berlin to the village in 1876 observed with distaste that it was “teeming with images of the Virgin.” Nor was this growth in Catholic devotion restricted to the village; popular piety grew throughout the Saarland in general in these years, most notably in connection with displays of the so-called “Holy Coat” in the cathedral in nearby Trier. This celebrated relic – supposedly the seamless garment worn by Christ for his crucifixion – was exhibited in 1844 for the first time in more than three decades, and drew vast crowds to the city [p.70]. All in all, it is possible to conclude that, in the district around Marpingen, “the ‘superstitions’ of which the church disapproved had not been driven out, merely driven underground. They were to emerge again in the circumstances of the 1870s.” [p.75]

One reason for this surge in popular piety was unconnected to the activities of the Catholic Church, for the Saarland was badly hit by economic crisis in the middle 1870s. An investment boom, sparked by the unification of Germany in 1870-1, led by 1873 to a badly over-heating economy and then to a depression so severe that it dragged down markets across the world and caused what some economists consider to be the world’s first global slump. The Saarland – a vulnerable border area which had never diversified and remained heavily dependent on a single industry, coal – was particularly badly hit; in one local ironworks, examined by Blackbourn, profits fell by 83%, and the workforce was cut by half. Mine wages were cut by about 16%, and the number of miners employed by around 10%. At much the same time, cheap imports of grain and meat, both from other parts of Europe and from overseas, forced local farmers to dramatically cut their prices. The chief effect of this, for the villagers of Marpingen, was a significant rise in local unemployment, accompanied by an equally drastic fall in agricultural profits. Even “those who remained in employment faced insecurity, declining real wages, and worsening conditions.” There was a wave of repossessions. The crash, hence, impacted on virtually every family in the district, and Blackbourn shows that economic prospects in Marpingen reached their nadir in 1875-6, at precisely the time of the visions. [pp.77-85].

These economic problems were further exacerbated by the onset of a peculiarly German crisis known as the Kulturkampf [“Culture War”]. This, Blackbourn explains, was “the struggle between church and state initiated by Bismarck as a campaign against the alleged Catholic ‘enemy within’,” and it proved to be a significant threat to the Catholics of the Saarland, state persecution manifesting itself even at village level. Nationally, the Kulturkampf meant a ban on preaching politics from the pulpit, the seizure of considerable church property, the removal of state subsidies from any priest who refused to toe the government line, and the establishment of state control over the appointments of teachers and clergymen. Across the country, 1,800 priests were jailed and 16 million marks’ worth of church property appropriated. In the Marpingen district, the diocesan seminary was shut down, the local bishop imprisoned, and 350 clergymen were hauled before the courts. Some 150,000 Catholics (though not those of Marpingen) were left without a priest. When the Bishop of Trier died, furthermore, he was not replaced – a vacancy that, among other things, made it impossible for there to be any formal church investigation of the apparitions at Marpingen [pp.85-6].

Bishop Eberhard of TrierNow, I’m sure that some critics and believers will advance the reasonable point that, in setting out to explain the visions at Marpingen, Blackbourn is seizing on and conflating every bit of “evidence” he can lay his hands on, and so constructing a picture of stress and disaster when in fact little was really changing at a village level. There seems little doubt, however, that the years 1873-76 really were something of a Perfect Storm for Marpingen – the worst crisis for three-quarters of a century, and one that inevitably provoked a response from the Catholics of the district. There was a sharp rise in the number of Catholic associations and the number of Catholic petitions, accompanied by “a highly charged emotional undertow to popular sentiment.” Matters came to a head in 1874, with the arrest of Bishop Eberhard of Trier [right] – and when the bishop turned to give his last blessing to the Catholic crowd before his imprisonment, one contemporary observed, “the agitation of the masses at this final moment was so great, their wailing and moaning so heart-rending, and the emotion that seized even sturdy men so powerful, so overwhelming, that the whole scene is indescribable.” [p.95]

All this had a profound effect on the villagers of Marpingen. Blackbourn identifies a “part-mystical, part-militant” longing in the district, and points out that “the craving for deliverance could take pathological form… when a new mental hospital opened in Merzig in the summer of 1876, the first two male patients were a man who believed he was the Pope and another who claimed to be a papal legate.” [p.95]  The evidence shows there was a steep rise in the importance attached to prophecies and omens, and a “yearning for the supposed signs of supernatural divine intervention.” Miracles began to occur in the district; we noted some of them in the first post in this series, but there were others, too – cases of stigmata and, in nearby Eppelborn, a similar manifestation in the form of a woman named Elizabeth Flesch who sweated blood. Visions of the Virgin were seen, as well, and it’s fascinating to note that these generally took the rather casual, unholy and inconsequential form that so bothered some of the more thoughtful critics of events at Marpingen itself. Reviewing cases from Alsace and Lorraine, Blackbourn concludes that

in none of these cases did the report of events suggest much grace or dignity: one of the boys in Medelsheim [in the Palatinate] apparently tried to shake the Virgin down from the tree in which she was perched, while another girl claimed that the Virgin had hopped onto her hand and stayed there a while before disappearing. The Virgin of Rohrbach supposedly appeared in a plum tree.

Marpingen p.97

Bishop Eberhard, on his release from gaol in 1875, made “direct reference to the protection of the Virgin,” travelled to visit a Marian shrine, and “talked with feeling about [a] ‘simple countryman’ to whom a miraculous image of the Virgin had been revealed at ‘a time of sorrow when widespread confusion reigned.'” He concluded, in a famous pronouncement, that his diocese (and hence Marpingen) must be directly “under the protection” of the BVM [p.96].

It’s hard to imagine such pronouncements did not have an effect on the pious inhabitants of Marpingen, who responded to adversity by resisting, however passively, persecution by the state, and by hoping ever more desperately for salvation in the form of some sort of divine intervention. It was this potent cocktail of fear, resentment and expectation, Blackbourn suggests, that underpinned the events of July 1876:

There was, on the one hand, a discirnible pattern of dumb insolence towards civil authority, which occasionally tipped over into physical resistance to the implementation of the Kulturkampf. There was, on the other, a heightening of religious fervour and apocalyptic sentiment. It is against this background that Marpingen should be seen.

Marpingen p.79

There’s more – much more – that could be said about events in the Saarland. Blackbourn’s book contains an instructive chapter on “Pilgrims, cures and commercialization” which uses some of the points sketched out above to explain why claiming a cure, or profiting from pilgrimage to the village, could be seen as an act of resistance to the state, and a detailed study of the ambivalent reaction of the Catholic clergy. He also considers why the Marpingen visions attracted considerable hostility, while contemporary claims of BVM apparitions in Bavaria and along the border with Russia were far better received, before concluding by taking the whole story forward into the 1960s and chronicling the gradual collapse of the Marpingen pilgrimage industry. Sadly, his book was written before claims of fresh visions emerged from Marpingen in 1999. But I don’t doubt that, given time, David Blackbourn could write just as revealingly on these as well.

All in all, I rate Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany among the most important of all books on Fortean phenomena, and anyone with serious interest in the subject should read it. Failure to take account of such academic findings, I’d suggest, renders much other work done on Marian apparitions more or less entirely pointless – and much the same can be said of research in a number of related fields.


As noted in my first post on this subject, much good scholarly work has been done, over the past 30 years or so, on the social and cultural background to Marian apparitions, and very little of it is ever cited outside purely academic publications. Anyone with an interest in this subject would benefit from reading some, or all, of the following books and articles, which admirably supplement and elaborate on David Blackbourn’s conclusions.

Carroll, Michael. Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1983. Carroll seeks to explain why Mary, rather than any other religious figure, is so associated with apparitions, and why she is reported in certain places and times, but not in others. Densely-written, and how you regard it rather depends on your tolerance for Freudian theory; at root, Carroll suggests, the cult of Mary is a product of the “father-ineffective family” created by excessive working hours and the lack of a social safety-net – a toxic family structure in which, he posits, “Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters are intensified.”

Christian, William. Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1981.  Christian, a professor of religious history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is also the author of several important related studies, including Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ – a detailed study of Marian apparitions in Ezkioga, Spain, in the run-up to the Civil War – and Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain, which examines religious phenomena in three Spanish towns in the first half of the century – the titular miracles are clear precursors of the celebrated ‘Moving statue of Ballinspittle‘ case of the 1980s – and considers the knotty problem of why, among tens of thousands of miraculous claims, a few are popularly accepted at certain places and in certain times. Christian’s extensively-referenced work extends up to the early 1960s and makes some important Spanish cases easily accessible to an English-speaking audience: see e.g. ‘Religious apparitions and the Cold War in Southern Europe’ in Eric Wolfe (ed.), Religion, Power and Protest in Local Communities: the Northern Shore of the Mediterranean (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), available as a free pdf download here.

Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1987. Explores the threat posed by the “unknown” – in the form of impenetrable forests and dangerous roads – in the lives of the French peasantry, and the ways in which appeal to the BVM and various intercessory saints could be used to temper and control such fears.

Harris, Ruth. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. London: Allen Lane, 1999. A complex study, directly comparable to Blackbourn’s, of the visions at Lourdes, and their aftermath. The author, an Oxford academic, is a specialist in the history of medicine in nineteenth century France, and she writes illuminatingly on claims of miraculous healings at the shrine.

Kselman, Thomas. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth Century France. New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Includes an important look at miracle claims from Lourdes; combines historical and sociological approaches into a sceptical whole. Kselman is also the author of Death and the Afterlife in Early Modern France.

Lachapelle, Sofie. ‘Between Miracle and Sickness: Louise Lateau and the Experience of Stigmata and Ecstasy.’ Configurations v12n1 (Winter 2004). Study of a prominent Belgian stigmatic (whose life and claims were covered in some detail by Herbert Thurston in his Physical Phenomena of Mysticism) by a Canadian professor of the history of science who has also written well on Charles Richet and French psychical research. Lachapelle focuses on the ways in which contemporary medicine investigated and understood Lateau and her claims. Her paper deals principally with the struggle of scientists and their physiological and pathological hypotheses to establish themselves with authority in a society in which religious belief was still the norm; it focuses particularly on the conflicts experienced by Christian scientists (small ‘s’) confronted with such cases.

Pope, Barbara Corrado. ‘Immaculate and powerful: the Marian Revival in the nineteenth century’. In Clarissa Atkinson et al (eds), Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1985. A feminist take on the subject which suggests that the increased frequency of Marian visions in the nineteenth century was a product of the feminisation of the Catholic church during that period as much as it was of the century-long ‘Marian age’ between about 1850 and 1950 set in motion by the pronouncement of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Pope is a history professor turned novelist from the University of Oregon.

Taylor, Thérèse. Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions. London: Burnes and Oates, 2003. A scholarly and not overtly partial biography which treats its subject as a historical figure rather than as a saint. Taylor is an odd and engaging combination of nun and lecturer in gender and sexuality at Charles Sturt University.

Weber, Eugen. ‘Religion and superstition in nineteenth century France’. In Historical Journal v31 (1988). Author of the highly influential Peasants into Frenchmen, which looked at French rural nationalism in the late nineteenth century, Weber reviews the historiography of this subject and makes the point that the triumph of Catholicism over the folklore-laced popular religion prevalent in the provinces was by no means pre-ordained. This paper is available online, in a slightly revised form, as chapter 6 in Weber’s book My France.

Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra. Encountering Mary: Visions of Mary from La Salette to Medjugorje. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1991. A general survey that is well on the way to becoming the accepted academic overview of this subject. The author, a University of Kansas professor whose background is in the history of popular piety in the medieval period, notes the links between BVM apparitions and other phenomena, such as UFOs, but is thoroughly scornful of non-academic takes on the subject.

Update 25 June 2014. Harvard’s new digital scholarship initiative DASH (great name!) has made Blackbourn’s 1992 journal article ‘The Madonna of Marpingen: A likely story’ (Common Knowledge 7) available free here.

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1890s electric chairMany countries have folk-tales that feature foolish kings – monarchs whose vanity causes them to make catastrophic misjudgements or attempt impossible things. Greek mythology offers the tradition of King Midas, who lived to regret wishing for the power to turn everything he touched into gold; for we Brits, the foolish ruler is King Canute, who – at least in the common modern telling of the tale – allowed courtiers to flatter him that even the seas would obey his commands, and consequently got his feet wet in a failed attempt to turn back the tides.1

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

The Abyssinian electric chair

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

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

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

Of course, you don’t have to think too hard about the Abyssinian electric chair to realise that the story’s racist: the joke is always on Menelik and those funny Africans, so backward that they’ve never heard of electricity, and so stupid that it doesn’t actually occur to them that they might need some in order to operate an invention called an electric chair. And that interests me, because the thing is that – pace Lloyd Bentsen – I know Abyssinian history. Abyssinian history is an interest of mine. And – for several reasons – the story of Emperor Menelik and his electric chair does not strike me as good or reasonable history.

Part I. The King of Kings

Menelik IILet’s look briefly, to begin with, at the remarkable man at the heart of this story. Menelik II [left], who reigned in Abyssinia for the best part of a quarter of a century, is generally acknowledged as one of the most able of all Ethiopian emperors – indeed, of all African rulers. Coming to the throne at a time when the country had suffered a large setback – his predecessor, Yohannes IV, had just been killed in battle with the same Sudanese Islamic zealots who famously did for General Gordon at Khartoum – Menelik not only saved Abyssinia from colonisation (his victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896 has been described, with pardonable exaggeration, as the first by an African army over a European one since Cannae), but also played a leading role in bringing his empire into the twentieth century. For the Emperor was – most pertinently for our enquiry – a man with a pronounced love of engineering. He founded Addis Ababa, and enjoyed sketching designs and building wooden models of the innovations that he planned. Menelik was also progressive and a moderniser, responsible for introducing or encouraging a wide variety of high-tech innovations, including the telephone (1890), the railway (1896), the electric telegraph (1897), the Bank of Abyssinia (1905), the wheelbarrow and the automobile (1907), a state printing press (1911), hydro-electricity (1911-12), and of course the croissant (c.1901).2 It would not be out of character for such a man to take an interest in the electric chair. It would, however, be surprising to find that Menelik had such an incomplete grasp of electricity that he did not understand, even in the 1890s, that an electric chair could not be made to work without it.

It wouldn’t do to get too carried away at this point, however.  Technological progress was slow in Abyssinia – a combination of harsh terrain, lack of infrastructure and investment, virtually no trained engineers and a wildly superstitious priesthood saw to that. It took 20 years for the railway to make its way from Harar to Addis Ababa, and 21 for it to reach the coast. Priests declared the first telephones in Addis “inhabited by demons” and had them destroyed; the proprietor of the city’s earliest cinema very cannily avoided a repetition of this incident by ensuring that his opening night offering was a miracle film showing Christ walking on water, so that even the clergy could not find an excuse to burn the projector, although they wanted to. Nonetheless, Menelik himself showed that he was far from superstitious. He called the priests who destroyed his telephones “cretins”, stressing: “The machine functions without diabolical interference of any kind,” and when a British emissary arrived in the capital with a phonograph and a wax cylinder recording of a greeting made by Queen Victoria, the Emperor and his Empress happily recorded a reply; their voices can still be heard on the cylinder in the British Library’s Sound Archive. [Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie University Press, 1968) pp.19-20, 25, 702, 706, 710; Ray Prather, King of Kings of Ethiopia: Menelik II, Defeater of Italy (Nairobi: Kenya Literary Bureau, 1981) p.84; Chris Prouty, Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883-1910 (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1986) pp.44, 237-9; Peter Garretson, ‘Ethiopia’s telephone and telegraph system, 1897-1933’, North-East African Studies 2:1 (1980) pp.59-69; Garretson, A History of Addis Ababa, from the Foundation in 1886 to 1910 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000) pp.107, 145]

Of course, all of this still leaves open the question of when electricity itself first arrived in Abyssinia, but the answer seems to be that it was known quite a bit earlier than one might reasonably expect. Battery-powered telegraph equipment was brought into the country by a British expeditionary force as early as 1868, and the website of the Ethiopian Electricity Agency states that the first generator in the country was a dynamo gifted by the German government in 1890 for the purpose of powering electric lights; the same source also suggests that coins were being minted by electricity by 1896. Neither contemporary accounts nor modern histories mention either of these marvels, and it’s worth noting that the sort of dynamos in existence in 1890 could not provide more than a dim current to a handful of appliances. According to EA Wallis Budge, however, the first electric lights in the country were switched on in Addis in 1903, while Prouty and Rosenfeld state that Menelik’s palace was provided with electrical power from 1905 on the initiative of the Emperor’s chief engineering advisor, a Swiss by the name of Alfred Ilg. Little was done elsewhere, however, and as late as the 1930s Addis was the only place in the country provided with electric light – “an outpost of modernity in an otherwise conservative, highly formalized, Ethiopian state.” [Harry Gailey, History of Africa (Malabar, FL: Robert E, Krieger, 1989) II, 112]  All sources, in short, agree that Abyssinia lacked the generating capacity to power something as greedy as an electric chair before some time in the 1930s. [EA Wallis Budge, A History of Ethiopia (London, 2 vols: Methuen, 1928), II, 538; Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, Historical Directory of Ethiopia and Eritrea (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1994) pp.104-05] That, of course, is scarcely a fatal problem in this instance, and it need not mean that The Book of List‘s account is not correct. Determining the Book‘s reliability, however, means knowing more about its sources – and it is to this perplexing topic that we turn.

Part II. John Hoy of Ethiopia

It’s not easy to establish how The Book of Lists got hold of its outlandish and (given the above) apparently implausible account. The writer of the section listing “15 favourite oddities” was Irving Wallace, the Book‘s co-editor, who was well-known in the 1970s as the successful writer of slightly sleazy airport fiction, but was also the author of assorted works of non-fiction – among them The Nympho and Other Maniacs. Wallace, an avid collector of data, gave no sources for any of his information, but one thing we can say with some certainty is that he didn’t heavily research his list. Most of the other items featured alongside the tale of the Abyssinian electric chair have some sort of basis in fact, but remain a little questionable; for example, Wallace includes a note about Pancho Villa and the contract he signed in 1914 to fight his Mexican revolution for the benefit of Hollywood movie cameras (an outrageous-but-true story that I really ought to tell you sometime), but also prints without comment the frankly perplexing tale of Frank Samuelson and George Harvo – who in 1897 were fêted as the first men to row the Atlantic, yet claimed that they had done it in a faster time than any other crew has managed since.

Is there any way of knowing, then, where Wallace read of Menelik?  Well, the answer to that question, almost certainly, is yes, for it seems more than likely that the BoL picked the story up from another oddity hunter by the name of L.M. Boyd. Boyd was a veteran American newspaperman who ran a syndicated trivia column, entitled The Grab Bag, which appeared in around 400 newspapers across the U.S., and he liked the Abyssinian story so much that he ran it twice – for the first time in the autumn of 1970, and again in the summer of 1974, at about the time that The Book of Lists was being compiled. That, and the fact that The Grab Bag was so widely syndicated, make it entirely possible that Wallace may have read Boyd’s words; more to the point, there is nothing in Wallace’s paragraph that did not appear in The Grab Bag’s versions of the story.

Here are the two takes on the story as told by Boyd:

History – exactly 71 years ago, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia bought three electric chairs. To dispose of capital criminals. Unfortunately, Ethiopia at the time had no electricity, so the chairs did not work. This saddened the emperor, but he made do, converting a couple into garden furniture and turning the third into his own personal throne. Somebody someday is going to write an operetta about it, I expect.

Modesto Bee [CA], 15 October 1970

Electric Chair

Emperor Menelik II ruled Ethiopia from 1889 until 1913. It was in 1890 that he was visited by missionaries who talked him into buying three electric chairs from the United States on the theory that this new electrocution was the most humane method of inflicting capital punishment. When the chairs got there, however, Menelik II was deeply disappointed to learn he had to have electricity to run the things. Ethiopia didn’t have any electricity then. So the emperor gave two of the chairs to friends. And he set up the third in his palace. Historical records reveal no other instance where an electric chair has been used as a royal throne.

Sun-News (Las Cruces, NM), 7 June 1974

So, some useful information there. But if we were, say, confronted by those two passages in an A-level history source analysis paper, there’d be plenty to say about the thorny question of reliability. To begin with, two different dates are given for the acquisition of the chairs – 1899 in Boyd’s earlier para, and 1890 in the second. The Grab Bag gives two competing versions of where the death chairs ended up, as well – “garden furniture” in the earlier version, presents for friends in the later clipping. And what a bloodthirsty bunch of missionaries Menelik apparently attracted – a group of holy men happy to act as salesmen for an instrument of death.3

Of course, though tracing the details back to L.M. Boyd probably explains where Irving Wallace got the story, it doesn’t take us closer to a proper source. There is one, though, and the clue here lies in Boyd’s longevity: he began work as a journalist in the 1940s, and started his trivia column in the early 1960s. And, if we think about the story from a journalist’s perspective, and wonder just when Abyssinia was in the papers on a daily basis – hence when the story of Menelik and his useless purchase might have been considered newsworthy – the answer hits us right between the eyes. Mightn’t it have emerged somehow from the extensive coverage of the country published after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, during the war of 1935-36?

Pierre Van Paassen

Well, the answer to that question is yes, and this is where the Canadian journalist Pierre van Paassen [left] comes firmly into focus. Regular readers will remember my mentioning Van Paassen about a month ago, in a post that recounted an adventure he supposedly had with a phantom black dog in France during the 1920s. A few years later, sent to Africa by his employer, the Toronto Star, Van P. pitched up in Addis Ababa, arriving in time to cover the latter stages of the conflict from Haile Selassie’s point of view. I’ve gone through all the dispatches that he wrote for the Star at the time without finding any reference to Menelik’s electric chairs. But the late Emperor’s acquisitions do feature in the memoirs that Van Paassen composed a few years later, and that book – Days of Our Years, the writer called it – was the best-selling non-fiction title in the United States in 1939. Seen from that perspective, it’s easy to believe that L.M. Boyd could well have read it, and – once again – the information Van Paassen gives ties in well with Boyd’s accounts; even the moralising missionaries are present and correct. Judge for yourself: here’s the electric chair story as recounted by Van Paassen in a passage about an expedition that sets out to head south from Addis:

We did stumble on another curiosity: the local Dedjaz, or chief of the village, at the foot of the St Abo mountain was the proud possessor of an electric chair. This deadly instrument, quite harmless in that rural Ethiopian environment, was one of the famous trio imported by the Emperor Menelik from America. Another specimen stands in the old Guebi [palace] in Addis Ababa, and a third lies somewhere in the desert near Aouash, where it is said to be venerated with superstitious awe by the Danakil tribesmen. Menelik ordered three metal chairs from America when he heard that his own method of executing criminals (he had them ripped apart by letting two saplings to which their legs were attached suddenly spring back in opposite directions) was decried as un-Christian by his missionary friends. It was found impossible to make the chairs do the work for which they were intended without an electric current, and as this was not available in Menelik’s days, the great Negus [Emperor] used one of them as a throne, the second he gave away, and the third never reached him, for the vehicle in which it was conveyed across the Danakil desert was wrecked two hundred miles from home.

Pierre Van Paassen, Days of Our Years (London: Heinemann, 1939) p.315

Now that’s a pretty interesting story. Aside from anything else, Van Paassen implies that he personally saw at least one, probably two, of the mysterious electric chairs, and the details that he supplies as to their origin and fate are very precise – which is to say that they certainly don’t sound as though they came to him at fourth or fifth hand. The only thing missing from the passage is a date – and it’s not, as we will see, all that hard to work out how Boyd and Wallace arrived at theirs.

All that said, however, there are still strange details in Van Paassen’s story that require elucidation. For one thing, Van P. didn’t see his discovery as a scoop – the existence of the three electric chairs was common knowledge at the time, apparently, and not just to journalists in Addis, since there’d be no point in the author talking of the “famous trio” imported by Menelik if he didn’t think his readers would have heard of them. If you really put the passage under the microscope, in fact, you might reasonably deduce that the story most probably antedated the Italian invasion; after all, Van Paassen says, the location of the chairs is news, so there must have been an earlier version of the tale which just involved the arrival of the consignment.

What, though, can we extract from the detail in the Canadian’s account? It’s certainly possible to identify the places that he mentions: “St Abo mountain” is Meta Abo, a hill outside Sebetta, about 12 miles (20km) south of Addis Ababa, while Aouash is better known today as Awash, 100 miles (160km) to the east of the capital. That does place it on the road to the coast, where presumably any American imports would have been put ashore, and the area is inhabited by the Danakil – or Afar – people. Note, however, that Van Paassen has the distance from the lost chair to Addis all wrong; it’s only half as far to the capital as he suggests. This implies not only that Van P.’s knowledge of Ethiopian geography was far from complete, but also that he either recorded what his informant told him incorrectly (there must have been an informant – at least, there’s no indication that Van Paassen ever saw this third artefact at all), or that his informant, in turn, was not a first-hand witness.

All in all, then, there are already some reasons to doubt Van Paassen’s accuracy, and the mystery of where and when the story first emerged remains; despite some pretty extensive searching, I have yet to find any detailed account that antedates Days of Our Years, either in book form or in a major newspaper. By detailed, I mean a version that includes the story in all its essential elements – the placing of an order, the recognition that the consignment is useless, and the disposal of the electric chairs within Abyssinia. What certainly does exist, however, is a much vaguer and less detailed version of what could perhaps be the same strange tale – and this emerged in print three years before Van Paassen published.

What makes this earlier account particularly interesting is that it, too, appears in a book written by a Canadian journalist. This time the author was one Robinson Maclean, who went to Abyssinia to report for the Toronto Telegram, arriving in the country some time before Van Paassen did. Maclean lacked his compatriot’s experience – the New Yorker, 2 May 1936, refers to him as “an enthusiastic boy reporter.” Even so, the close-knit world of correspondents in Addis Ababa, and the fact that both Maclean and Van Paassen wrote for Toronto papers, makes it practically certain that they met. My own suspicion is that the electric chair story may first have appeared in a dispatch Maclean had published, prominently, in the Telegram – which would certainly explain why Van Paassen, writing for the same Toronto audience, thought his readers would have heard of it. Sadly copies of the Telegram have not been digitised and aren’t available anywhere in the UK, so I can’t prove at present that’s what happened. Even if it’s not, however, it’s certainly no great stretch to suppose that Van Paassen would have shown some interest in Maclean’s book and what he wrote.

What exactly, then, does Robinson Maclean have to say about electric chairs? The subject gets only a glancing mention in his John Hoy of Ethiopia4 (Toronto: SB Gundy, 1936), but it’s the earliest such account that I have ever traced, and as such it is deserving of attention. What Maclean reports is that Menelik [d.1913, remember] did build an electric chair “to execute high-born evil doers,” and that his chair could still be seen in the royal palace at Addis. What he doesn’t say is that any chairs were ordered from the United States, that there were three of them, or that they were turned into thrones or otherwise disposed of. Nor – just as pertinently, as we will see – does the Toronto Telegram‘s man in Abyssinia make any mention at all about what the chair in the palace looked like. [Maclean op.cit. pp.116, 122]  If Maclean really was the source for Days of Our Years, in other words, some pretty extensive elaboration of the story has gone on somewhere behind the scenes. All of which brings us back with rather a bump to Pierre Van Paassen and his dubious reliability.

Part III. A Canadian conspiracy theorist in Abyssinia

Imperial palace, Addis Ababa, c.1890Time, then, to take an even closer look at Pierre Van P. and his account. We’ve already seen that the writer implied, however obliquely, that he had actually viewed two of Menelik’s electric chairs – one at Meta Abo and the other at the imperial palace in Addis Ababa. We’ve seen that there are reasons to wonder just how much of his paragraph is accurate. What we haven’t done is looked in detail at his antecedents. Just how trustworthy was Pierre Van Paassen?

Well, there’s no doubt that Van P. enjoyed a heady reputation in the 30s and 40s. He was a storied war reporter, and apparently much-respected by his boss; in later years his reputation would be burnished by his determined opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany. During a posting to pre-war Berlin, indeed, Van Paassen got himself thrown into Dachau, the concentration camp, for his pull-no-punches criticism of the Führer, whom he attacked in many angry dispatches. [Pierre Van Paassen (ed.), Nazism: An Assault on Civilization (New York: Jewish Labor Committee, 1934 p.22]  This courageous and praiseworthy activity has largely rendered him immune from criticism ever since. Yet, as we’ve seen, there are indications that – like many journalists before and since – Van Paassen was at best the sort of writer who stuck scrupulously to the facts when reporting hard news, but felt less inclined to keep to the straight and narrow when handling colour pieces. I’ve already noted that the French village in which Van P. alleged that he encountered a ghostly black dog does not, apparently, exist. Leafing through the remainder of Days of Our Years, moreover, reveals some further passages that don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny, the most disturbing of which concern Van Paassen’s fervent belief that the Great War had been deliberately organised and run by a cartel of major arms manufacturers. Their representatives, the writer wrote, had even dared to meet in Vienna while the war raged on, so as to plot how to further extend the conflict and hence maximise their profits. [Van Paassen, Days of Our Years p.76]  Now, conspiracy theories centred on the military-industrial complex were pretty common between the wars, and plenty of Van Paassen’s contemporaries believed that Sir Basil Zaharoff, not Aleister Crowley, most deserved the title of Wickedest Man in the World. Still, it’s disturbing to find the author making allegations of this sort in the same book that deals with the Emperor’s electric chair – and without the slightest shred of evidence to back them up.

Looked at rather more critically, moreover, Van Paassen’s passage contains one further, enormous, clue as to its likely reliability – and that’s scarcely encouraging, for Van P., it is clear, envisaged Menelik’s electric chairs as monstrous constructions. That’s implicit in the idea that the Abyssinian would consider one of his three specimens impressive enough to turn it into an imperial throne, but the Canadian makes his thought explicit, too, by describing the three chairs as “metal”. Apparently he thought of the electric chair as some sort of shiny death machine, perhaps with much internal wiring, and of a size much greater than an ordinary chair. And that is absolutely fascinating, because Van Paassen could not have been more wrong.5

The idea of the electric chair as a large, elaborate contraption is a common one. I know – I used to think the same myself. A few years ago, however, I wrote a book about a crooked New York cop, and since that cop met his own violent end in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, I had to research the process of electrocution. I was rather startled to discover that the chair installed at Sing Sing was actually a flimsy affair, and that the same applied to its predecessor, the chair at Auburn prison pictured at the top of this post. In fact, there was nothing special about the chair portion of the contraption whatsoever. It was simply an ordinary straight backed chair, with arms, which had been customised by the addition of numerous leather straps in order to restrain the prisoner. The only metal fittings were the wires that carried electricity, and these were small and thin enough to be run along the wood. The one other modification was a large goose-neck type fitting that was screwed to the back of the chair and extended forward, over the condemned man’s head, to make it easy to attach an electrode to the killer’s scalp.

There are two huge points to make here. Firstly, these chairs were not manufactured and offered for sale by some sort of specialist company. The earliest examples were fashioned by hand by the electricians employed at Auburn and Sing Sing, then hooked up to a generator that had been purchased separately. It was the Auburn chair that carried out the execution of William Kemmler, who was the first man executed by electricity, and Kemmler’s death deserves some note here, because he checked out in August 1890, and it was news of his execution that (at least according to Irving Wallace) reached Abyssinia to inspire Menelik to order his electric chairs. In one sense Wallace could well have been right – there’s no doubt that the execution was a major news event, nor that newspaper accounts reached most parts of the globe eventually. Equally, though, Kemmler’s death was not made the occasion for a large expenditure on this new type of death machine. Contemporary reports clearly state that the Auburn chair was built by Edwin Davis, who was the state executioner, and pretty clearly any competent carpenter and electrician could have knocked together something similar. There would simply have been no market, in short, for a “design” for which there was very little demand, and which was in any case both simple and obvious. The only really complicated part of Auburn prison’s killing machine was its high-voltage electrical generator, and that was not instrinsically lethal.6

This discovery has profound implications for our story, for if Menelik did hear of the execution of Kemmler in 1890, or even made enquiries after an electric chair as late as 1899, there is simply no way he could have “ordered” three devices even if he had wanted to. Yes, it might just have been possible for the Abyssinians to obtain blueprints, or simply some idea of how the chair was made, but it’s hard to imagine that any such exchange would not have dealt extensively with the really vital portion of the design itself: the need to obtain a generator, a machine that was so uncommon anywhere in 1890 that the need for one would surely have been mentioned. It’s clearly a fallacy, to my mind, that anyone, in Menelik’s day, could have simply “written off” to the U.S. for three death chairs; what they would have needed was three generators, and I doubt that this point could really have escaped them.

Next, consider the design of the chair itself. It’s just not at all impressive. Yes, a large, gleaming metallic chair of the sort imagined by Van Paassen might conceivably have suggested itself as a throne to a monarch as forward-thinking as Menelik, but what about a real-life contraption of the sort used during the 1890s? Certainly the straps on the device would have had to be removed – no Emperor could sit with dignity on a throne so clearly designed to restrain him. But consider, also, the problem of the Imperial head. Thrones, after all, are sat on by monarchs wearing crowns, but the goose-neck portion of the Auburn chair clearly sits too low to allow any sort of headgear to be worn – much less the elaborate Abyssinian crowns pictured below (the one on the far right is Menelik’s own). That fitting, too, would have had to go – but when it’s gone you’re left with nothing but a common-or-garden upright chair. And that would scarcely have communicated grandeur – nor any association with futuristic technology. The average supplicant to Menelik’s court would not have had the least idea what he was actually looking at. So why turn an electric chair into a throne? From this perspective, too, the story simply makes no sense.

Crowns of Ethiopia

Emperor Menelik II's crown

I have just one more point to make before I’m done, and that concerns one of Irving Wallace’s specifics: that, if Menelik did acquire, or build, an electric chair circa 1890, he had it installed in his palace (where, remember, it could still apparently be seen in Van Paassen’s day). Here, once again, there’s evidence of a journalist’s imagination working overtime. Yes, I can see that, straining to turn Boyd’s handful of lines into a paragraph, Wallace may have assumed that any emperor would have a palace, and that such a stout, brick-built construction might well have guarded an electric chair for a few decades. The truth is, though, that no such structure existed in the Abyssinia of 1890. Addis Ababa, Menelik’s capital, was founded only in 1886, and four years later – when, the Kemmler version of the story suggests, the emperor’s chairs set out on their long journey to Africa – the town still consisted of nothing but a scattering of isolated huts separated by a series of ravines. The royal ‘palace’ – shown above in a contemporary illustration – was made of sticks and thatch, and looks scarcely big enough for Menelik, much less for an electric chair. This structure, moreover, burned to the ground by accident in 1892, along with its contents.

Menelik's<br /> throneYes, the palace was rebuilt, and by 1900 it was an altogether grander affair, filling much of a compound with a perimeter of nearly 4.5 miles (7km). [Pankhurst, op.cit. pp.701-05]  By then, however, it possessed another throne – one that was large, serviceable, traditional, and altogether more impressive than any wooden electric chair could have been. It’s a symbol of imperial magnificence, moreover, that survives today in the Ethiopian National Museum [left] – and, looking at Menelik’s real throne, it’s doubly hard to believe that the Emperor would have had much interest in any import – at least not one lacking the sort of deadly magnificence imagined by Van Paassen. The whole story, to put it mildly, stinks.

I don’t pretend that I’ve solved every aspect of this minor mystery. I still don’t know where Robinson Maclean got hold of the idea that Menelik built his own electric chair – we’ve seen that even by the time of the Emperor’s death (1913 – and he was pretty much incapacitated after 1909, in fact) there was no source of electricity in Abyssinia capable of powering such a machine. But consider the facts as we know them. One, Maclean is the first writer that we know made any reference to the Emperor’s electric chair. Two, he was very inexperienced. Three, he certainly would not have spoken Amharic, and must have relied entirely on interpreters to get his stories – so the potential for simple error was enormous. And, four, Pierre Van Paassen (who plainly was the man responsible for getting the whole tale into wide circulation circa 1940) was neither entirely reliable, nor averse to embroidering his material. What, if anything, Van P. encountered at the foot of Meta Abo back in 1936 I doubt we’ll ever know for sure, but the one thing that I’m reasonably sure of is that it wasn’t what he said he saw: a metal “electric chair” imported to Abyssinia by the Emperor Menelik.


[1.] Properly known as Cnut the Great (r.1016-35). The story of Cnut’s encounter with the waves comes from the chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, a monk writing about a century later, making it at best apocryphal and more likely deliberately placed to make a point about God’s glory and human fallibility. Henry, however, has Cnut more than aware of his own weakness, and writes that the king wished to make the same point to arrogant courtiers. The distorted version, in which the king himself become vainglorious, emerged from tellings in 19th century school text books. Oddly enough, I’ve always been aware of the ‘true’ version of the story because it featured, correctly slanted, in the first volume of L. Du Garde Peach’s vividly memorable Ladybird book Kings and Queens of England, which also featured illustrations by Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson and which played a disturbingly prominent part in my own childhood.

[2.] The introduction of the croissant to Ethiopia can be attributed to the work of a French jack-of-all-trades, M. Stévenin, who not only got the first Abyssinian telephone line working, but also ran a mill in the capital around 1900. In 1901 the enterprising Stévenin brought a baker over from France and sent the first batch of French bread over to the palace. Menelik was so delighted with the taste that he placed an immediate order for 40 thalers’ worth of bread per day, enough to make the venture instantly profitable. Stévenin followed up this triumph by sending to Paris for a second pâtissier and baking Abyssinia’s first croissant a year or so later. Prouty, Empress Taytu pp.238-9.

[3.] Actually, I rather get the feeling that Boyd just guessed that late nineteenth century Abyssinia would have been in need of missionaries – after all, the continent was full of Muslims and pagans in those days, wasn’t it? Well, not in Abyssinia it wasn’t – the country was Coptic Christian, and had been ever since the fourth century. So though Menelik did occasionally receive missionaries at his court, both Catholic and Lutheran, they were pretty few and far between throughout his reign. In fact there had been considerable trouble with missionaries only a few years previously, during the reign of Tewodros II, and Menelik himself had expelled the members of a Catholic mission from his home district, the province of Shoa. [Harold Marcus, The Life and Times of Menelik II (New Jersey: Red Sea Press, 1995) pp.22, 43, 57-8]

[4.] “John Hoy,” Maclean explains, is a crude Anglicisation of an Amharic word that roughly transliterates as janhoy, and means “Your Majesty”.

[5.]  Much the same objection be raised regarding Van Paassen’s unique and pretty much outrageous account of execution in Abyssinia. I’ve never seen it suggested elsewhere that trees were used to carry out capital sentences in Menelik’s day. Anatomy is against the whole idea, for one thing; I remember reading one gory account of an attempt to tear a man apart with horses, which failed – despite vigorous whipping of the animals – until some of the unfortunate victim’s ligaments were snipped in two. And there are other accounts suggesting other fates for those who earned imperial disfavour. Maclean, for one [op.cit. p.123], writes that in Menelik’s day prisoners were chained in a sort of oubliette – a circular pit-dungeon, made to hold 200, which had no sanitation, light, or “hope for anything but a merciful death.” Some time later, according to another contemporary, the writer Paul Hartlmaier, a surer form of execution was brought in:

The “House of the Dead,” that is, of execution, consists of two rooms. In the wall between them, a rifle is fixed into a tube. Opposite the rifle is a kind of platform which can be raised or lowered. The condemned man stands on this platform, pinioned to a pole, so that the rifle points at his heart. His relatives are gathered in the other room. One of them is allowed to carry out the sentence.

Hartlmaier, Golden Lion: A Journey Through Ethiopia (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1936) p.173

[6.] It is interesting to note, in this context, that Thomas Edison’s assistant, Harold Brown, attempted to obtain a patent on his version of an electric chair, but never managed to get the design registered. Tom McNichol, AC/DC: the Savage Tale of the First Standards War (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) p.88.


I cannot close without pointing out that the story of Emperor Menelik and his electric chair is not found solely in English-language histories. It also features in Amharic, and the well-known Ethiopian journalist Paulos Gnogno mentions it in his Atse Minilik [Emperor Minilik] (Addis Ababa: Bolie Printing Press, 1992), p.270. This passage, loosely translated, yields several new details, though without knowing anything of Gnogno’s research and methods it’s simply impossible to know whether he tapped independent Ethiopian traditions or simply elaborated on the western sources published earlier. Those who have staggered through thus far will not be surprised to know that I suspect the latter – not least because Gnogno supplies a date before Addis was really a city and the execution of William Kemmler brought electrocution to the attention of a grimly fascinated world.

One day, when Emperor Minilik was showing the city of Addis Ababa to some foreign visitors, they reached a place where criminals were hanged from a tree. The Emperor tried hard to divert the foreigners’ attention. However, the foreigners noticed the bodies and asked the Emperor: “Why do you carry out the death penalty in this way?” Emperor Minilik replied” “These are criminals who kill innocent people; don’t you execute these kinds of people according to the law of the land in your own country?” The foreigners said, “Yes, but our criminals are executed using the electric chair, not in public like this.” Minilik replied: “How does this electric chair perform its task?” The reply was: “You make the criminal sit in the chair and turn on the switch. Automatically, the criminal dies.”

Minilik was so impressed that he ordered three electric chairs, and these were delivered from the United States. Upon their arrival, criminals who had been condemned to death were brought in and one was forced to sit on a chair while Minilik stood by to watch how it was done. At this moment, the Emperor’s engineering advisors said: “Your Highness, the chair does not kill by itself.”

The Emperor replied: “Why not?”

The advisors: “It needs electricity.”

The Emperor: “What is electricity?”

The advisors: “Electricity is useful to generate light and energy.”

The Emperor: “I need to import an electric power system. In the meantime, give me one of the electric chairs to be used in the throne-room, and give the other to Lique Mequas Abate [governor of the province of Tigray; a close ally].”

In this way, electricity was introduced to the imperial palace in Ethiopia in 1889 (Ethiopian calendar).

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