Archive for the ‘Witnesses’ Category

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary artist’s sketch–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion.

President Fabre Geffrard, whose efforts to reform Haiti ended in disappointment when he was accused of corruption and forced to flee the country by a violent coup.

Call that religion what you will—voodoo, vaudaux, vandaux, vodou (the last of these is generally preferred today)—Haiti’s history had long been intertwined with it. It had arrived in slave ships centuries earlier and flourished in backwoods maroon villages and in plantations that Christian priests never visited. In 1791, it was generally believed, a secret vodou ceremony had provided the spark for the violent uprising that liberated the country from its French masters: the single example of a successful slave rebellion in the history of the New World.

Outside Haiti, though, vodou was perceived as primitive and sanguinary. It was nothing but “West African superstition [and] serpent worship,” wrote the British traveler Hesketh Hesketh-Pritchard, who walked across the Haitian interior in 1899, and believers indulged in “their rites and their orgies with practical impunity.” For visiting Westerners of this sort, vodou’s popularity, in itself, was proof that the “black republic” could not claim to be civilized.

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“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

This celebrated historical mystery seems to be largely forgotten now, but as late as the 1970s it was chilling new generations as a staple of numerous ghost books. Come to think of it, paperback compilations of old ghost stories seem to have gone the way of the dodo as well, but those crumbly Armada books used to frighten me when I was young. Anyway, you can read the unexpurgated story over at Past Imperfect.

[This is a fully revised, expanded and updated account of a mystery first discussed here, featuring the fruits of much subsequent research.]

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

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

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

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

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

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Name: unknown. Cause of death: unknown. Occupation: unknown – but perhaps a former ballet dancer. Possessions: one pack of cigarettes (half filled with a different brand of smoke); one hidden pocket, concealing a scrap of paper with two words in Persian, torn from a rare first edition book; five lines written in an unknown code. Welcome to the world’s most perplexing cold case. Can you help to solve the mystery?

The discovery of a body on an Adelaide beach in December 1948 sparked an investigation that remains active to this day. Was the dead man a lover or a fighter – a new father or a spy? Why might an expert witness at the inquest suggest that he had habitually worn high-heeled shoes? Was Australia’s most eminent pathologist right conclude he had been killed by an ultra-rare muscle relaxant normally used to tip poison arrows in Somalia? And what of the mysterious phrase ‘Tamám Shud’? It’s from Omar Khayyam, but how is it that the two editions of the poet’s famous Rubaiyat that are central to the case seem not to actually exist?

It’s a fifty-one-star, gold-plated puzzler, all right. Confused? I’m afraid you probably still will be even after reading the full article here

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Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott's watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how 'old' Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a 'timeslip' case.

Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.

When Bill Laing and two other new recruits to the Royal Navy were ordered to take part in a routine map-reading exercise one October day in 1957, the aim was to find their way a few miles cross country to the Suffolk village of Kersey – not back in time to the village as it had been sometime between 1349 and 1420. But the strange, frightening and deserted place that the three boys encountered looked nothing like any 20th century hamlet. So where – and when – were they?

A reinvestigation of a little-known ´´timeslip´´ case kicks off the new Smithsonian blog Past Imperfect – and you can read the full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Moving Picture World, 24 January 1914]

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

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

turned the handle and began the greatest picture ever filmed.

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

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

[De Orellana p.84]

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

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

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

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

[Moving Picture World, 18 July 1914]

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

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

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

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

[De Orellana, p.22]

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

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

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

[Brownlow, War p.101 – right]

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

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

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

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

[Bottomore p.13]

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

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

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

[De Orellana p.11]

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

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

[Chapman pp.36-7]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Smith pp.66-8]

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

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

Afterword: lying and the camera

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

Envoi: The last words of Pancho Villa

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Rogers p.134]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Barber p.137]

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

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

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

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

[Rogers p.132]

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

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

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

[Rogers p.134]

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

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


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

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

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

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

Mavis Ellis. ‘The poet, Lord Byron.’ In Claves Regni [St Peter’s, Nottingham online parish magazine] nd [?c.2004]. Accessed 15 October 2010.

John Galt. Life of Lord Byron. London: Colburn & Bentley, 1830.

Oliver Harvey. ‘Lord Byron’s life of bling, booze and groupie sex.’ The Sun, 15 August 2008.

Elizabeth Longford. Byron. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

Ghislaine McDayter. Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jerome McGann. ‘Byron, George Gordon Noel.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Leslie Marchand. Byron: A Biography. London, 3 vols.: John Murray, 1957.

Byron Rogers. Me: The Authorised Biography. London: Aurum, 2009.

Jane Stabler. Palgrave Advances in Byron Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Irving Wallace et al [eds], The People’s Alamanac 2. New York: William Morrow, 1978.

L.J. Webb. ‘Requiesit in pax: the death of Lord Byron.’ In Crede Byron, a website devoted to Byron’s childhood home at Newstead Abbey. Accessed 15 October 2010.

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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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Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre)Adam Sisman’s sympathetic new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), the brilliant if acerbic historian, contains an unexpectedly fascinating passage on the great controversialist’s declining years that sheds a ray of light on the way in which witnesses perceive ghosts.

In his late 80s, Sisman notes, Trevor-Roper was diagnosed with glaucoma and then developed a cataract. Soon afterwards, he began to suffer some alarming hallucinations: “He would look up from his desk and see the trees in leaf in mid-winter, or the landscape whizzing by as if he were aboard a train… Once, as he went to put out the dustbin, he found himself lost in a cemetery of dead machines, surrounded by rusting combine harvesters, lorries, cranes and derricks. Inside, the house grew an extra staircase.” Other outlandish figments of the historian’s imagination included gigantic trees and even a complete train at a platform at Didcot Station (which Trevor-Roper attempted to board).

All of this eventually led to a diagnosis of Charles Bonnet Syndrome –  a little-known condition, first described well over 200 years ago, in which those suffering from failing vision unconsciously compensate by dredging up memories with which to populate the fading landscape. Typically these vsions are what are known as “Lilliput hallucinations” (in which the hallucinated objects appear on a reduced scale), but as Trevor-Roper’s own case shows, it’s also possible to experience the opposite, and also extremely realistic visions of human figures, even within one’s own home. An experience of the latter sort occurred to Trevor-Roper in 2002. As Sisman records:

He woke at three o’clock in the morning to find a woman beside his bed, statuesque and immobile. He tried to question her, but she did not reply, and slowly dissolved into the air. ‘Now I know all about ghosts,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen one now and solved one of life’s mysteries – and the rational world is restored.’

CBS is, of course, a pretty rare syndrome, and it would be wrong to suggest that, on its own, it can account for more than a tiny fraction of ghost sightings or other Fortean reports. Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper’s encounters, and the equally outlandish experiences of other sufferers from CBS, tell us a good deal about the astonishing power of the human memory and the interplay between mind and senses. Perhaps a very similar mechanism accounts for at least a proportion of strange visual experiences; certainly, the Trevor-Roper case suggests that when such phenomena do occur, even the most intelligent and sceptical of witnesses might readily be taken in.

Lord Dacre himself agreed. “It’s perfectly obvious to me that [ghosts]’re created out of the rubbish of the brain,” he told one interviewer, “in the same way as are the hallucinations of CBS. Ghosts are a sub-Charles Bonnet Syndrome.”

Source: Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Macmillan, 2010) pp.536-8

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Satanic ritualIt’s thirty years now, more or less, since I first began writing for Fortean Times, and in all that time I doubt we covered a more shocking or more important story than the great Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of 1989-1991.

It’s hard, actually, to convey to those who did not live through those years just how widespread – and how widely accepted – allegations of SRA were. Cases actually began well before 1989, and ran past 1991, and they were reported from across the English-speaking world, most often from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. I know of no reliable overview of the entire panic, but it certainly involved, at minimum, well over a hundred individual episodes and must have affected several thousand families in all. What’s most remarkable, looking back, is just how outlandish many of the allegations were. High-profile cases typically included suggestions that large gangs of well-organised, hereditary Satanists were abducting, abusing and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of young children. Sometimes it was alleged that the abusers were using pre-schools to identify and groom their targets; in the UK, most of the cases involved families who were supposedly assaulting their own children. There were numerous allegations that the rituals included sacrifice – that is, murder – as well as abuse.

The numbers that were bandied about were frankly astounding – cults were taking 60,000 children a year, some said – and several of the cases were astonishingly complex. The most notorious, the McMartin Pre-School episode, in the US, which ran from 1984 to 1989, turned into the longest and most expensive criminal case in the country’s history up to that point. For all this, though, very little, if any, physical evidence was ever produced that so much as a single person had actually suffered at the hands of any Satanic group. There were no bodies, no traces, and though believers produced various elaborate theories to explain this – there were even outlandish suggestions that women were being kept as “brood mares” to produce babies whose births would never be registered – the police were, in the UK at least, admirably sceptical that anything was actually going on. The panic was, rather, driven almost entirely by social workers, a significant proportion of them evangelical Christians, working from what were clearly (even at the time) wildly dubious lists of “Satanic indicators” produced in the United States, but also circulated in the other territories to which the panic spread.

FT gave the scare extensive coverage, and we listed and did our best to cover the key UK cases: Kent, Rochdale, the Orkneys, Nottingham. It wasn’t easy. Several of these incidents were as poorly handled by the press as they were by the authorities, and thanks to various gagging orders it was hard, then and now, to uncover details, or even to know where a case of SRA ended and one of “ordinary” abuse began – not that any abuse is ordinary, of course. A number of key cases went virtually unreported – the Kent affair, which started the ball rolling here, for one; there were also similar incidents in Congleton and Liverpool that attracted practically no coverage. And there were many more that never got even that – in her book Speak of the Devil, Professor Jean La Fontaine, an anthropologist engaged by the Department of Health to produce the definitive report on the whole episode, lists a total of 84 incidents in England and Wales alone. Not all of these involved specifically Satanic allegations, but there were several that did and yet – generally for legal reasons – remained entirely unknown to the general public.

Byron RogersWhat I want to do now is take a look at one of these lost cases – an episode so lost, in fact, that it does not feature even in La Fontaine’s analysis. It took place in Pembroke, in the far west of Wales, in 1991, and it’s remarkable in at least two ways. Firstly, it resulted in a trial and in actual convictions; so far as I know, the only other UK case to go so far was the Nottingham affair, which was in important respects far from typical. Nottingham is still held up, though, by those who continue to promote belief in SRA, as “proof” – an example of an episode in which there was “real evidence”, and a jury to convince, and a judge passing sentence. In this respect, Pembroke has a very great deal to tell us about the nature and reliability of the sort of evidence that convinces courts – and it’s clear, to me at least, that simply obtaining a conviction in a case of supposed SRA does not mean that Satanic Ritual Abuse is real. Secondly, the Pembroke affair was covered, a few years later, by my favourite British journalist, the intelligent and thoughtful Byron Rogers [above left]. Rogers was not only born just up the road, in Carmarthen – and is thus ideally qualified to get under the skin of a West Wales community – but also possesses the rare ability to write eloquently and with insight about those living at the margins of our society. This is some skill – one seen at its most profoundly developed in the imperishable works of Joseph Mitchell, the American writer widely (and in my opinion correctly) regarded as the greatest colour journalist of them all. From this perspective I highly recommend Rogers’s touching and important article The Last Tramp, or any of his several books of collected essays – The Last Human Cannonball, or An Audience with an Elephant, or The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail, all of which contain a good deal of great interest to Forteans. But first, let’s follow him to Pembroke and to the depressing details of what remains (thanks to the Children’s Act) as “a story without names”. Those familiar with other SRA cases will recognise some features of the story – the broken homes, neglected council estate and families living on the edge of the law. But Pembroke was different, too, and in important ways, not least because, as Rogers astutely observes, it is a “large community”:”To live in a city is to live in a village of your friends and colleagues. To live in a town in west Wales is to know more people, and to know more about them, than you ever will again, because this is the noisiest, and most censorious, society on earth. If you stole a wheelbarrow, the whole town would know.” The whole case turns on this point, because, as Rogers asks, is it really credible “that for four years a conspiracy was in progress to abuse children and to practise Satanic rites in just such a community”?

First, the details of the case. Then, a rare opportunity to hear the voices of some of the accused commenting on the evidence against them.

It all began in May 1991. A local boy of nine, already in care for a year, suddenly accused his father of sexually abusing him. The boy, subsequently the main accuser in the case, was a disturbed child from a broken home, and had been put into voluntary care by his mother, who felt unable to cope with him. Nobody had ever paid the child much heed. But then, after prolonged counselling by social workers, he was the centre of attention. The social workers were to set up a Child Sexual Abuse Therapy Group, which, to one defence solicitor, was ‘a combine harvester awaiting its first harvest.’

The boy described orgies in barns, in which men in gowns fired shotguns into the roof to ensure the silence of children who were being abused.  Goats were ritually slaughtered in the local cemetery. The boy went on to accuse his mother, then other local adults, and how many he named is not known, for the judge was to tell the jury, ‘If everyone had been charged, the case would have gone on for ever.’

The first arrest came in August 1991, when the Pembroke police detained the boy’s father, “a well known local man who drove around town in a tractor and trailer.” His three remaining children, meanwhile, were taken into care. The man was a well-known and successful womaniser, which led some to wonder why he would have needed to prey on children, though of course there are plenty of examples of similar men who had similar success, but became criminals nonetheless – Ted Bundy springs immediately to mind. Whatever the truth, the charges did not stick on this occasion; the man was freed after a month on remand, and none of the several other adults the child had accused were even arrested. Of course, social services were not bound by any of this; the man’s children remained in care.

It was not until the summer of 1992 that there were any further developments. Then a 14-year-old girl, who had run away from home, accused her father of rape. He admitted the offence and received a seven-year sentence – a significant escalation, as it happened, because the girl was a member of one of the other families, living on the same council estate, who had been accused but not charged in 1991. The fact that there were real offences happening, Rogers points out, “would have a considerable effect on the [SRA] trial, because, brought out of gaol, [the rapist] was placed in the middle of the dock among defendants some of whom said they had never seen him before. He pleaded his innocence of being part of any paedophile ring, but the jury saw every day in court a self-confessed child abuser and the prosecution made much of his being there.” But some of the girl’s other allegations struck many locals as less credible than the admitted charge of rape. “Interviewed for the second case by social workers, she now began to talk about orgies, and named adults; but her orgies – unlike those described by the boy – had a marine setting. She mentioned beaches and caves, even on a February night… The one defendant credited with practical experience of al fresco sexual activity would later say, ‘February in west Wales? Don’t they know that would freeze the…'”

Things began to move relatively quickly after that. Other children from the same group of families were questioned, and began to make their own allegations; a total of 18, from nine families, were taken into care. There were 13 more arrests, two of them of women. They included a couple of farmers, one of them 80 years old and so decrepit that “he had to buy a new hearing aid just to hear the charges against him,” another an Englishman who had only recently moved to the area – something of a high risk recruit to a gang of Satanic abusers, one would think. In the end, 12 people stood trial, in January 1994, but the proceedings were held in camera and hence went unreported.

The trial, Rogers writes, did not go smoothly, despite some fairly typical pressure applied on the part of the social workers involved in the case to keep their witnesses onside:

Within four months, the twelve in the dock had dwindled to seven, as the judge directed the jury that some defendants had no case to answer. The two adults expected to be prosecution witnesses, the former wife and the girlfriend of the man first accused, also recanted statements in which they had named people. The girlfriend said she had only named them because social workers had said she would otherwise never see her children again. ‘I knew what they wanted me to say – I just added on and on, but none of it was true.’

A teenage boy also recanted, claiming he, too, had been pressured into giving a version of events by social workers. The prosecution case thus rested on the evidence of six children speaking over a video-link, and it was hard for the defendants to establish an alibi, for no dates or times were given. There was much medical evidence, bitterly contested, but there was no corroborative evidence, no forensic testimony.

Week after week, month after month, the jury (one of them with a T-shirt inscribed “We’re Only Here For The Beer”) heard all of this.

‘I kept waiting for someone to say, “Hang on…”, but nobody did,’ said one defendant. “I think I’d have found myself guilty in I’d heard all that stuff.”

What’s most significant, certainly, is that mention of rituals, and devil-worship, were consistently played down. The authorities recognised that such details were likely to encourage scepticism in the jury. Instead, the case was tried as one involving a relatively straightforward paedophile ring – something very different, but very likely indeed to persuade the jurors that things were serious, and that there were hideous risks in finding the accused not guilty if there were, in fact, abusing children. To make matters worse, the prosecution had amassed such a vast body of testimony – more than was typically seen in a major fraud trial, according to the defence – that, in the words of one solicitor involved in the case,  the jurors “were lost by day three. In the end they didn’t know what was going on. They heard months of evidence so complicated that, as far as they were concerned, they might have been asked to decide on whether there were black holes in space.” Seen from that perspective, it is not very surprising that there were six convictions. One man, the first accused, received a sentence of 15 years. The other sentences were less severe, but still considerable. All in all the judge ordered terms of confinement totalling 53 years, or an average of nearly nine years for each convicted prisoner. In jail, none of the men confessed. In fact, they not only maintained their innocence, but refused to submit to court-mandated counselling. That meant no open prison, no home leave, no parole.

Far from everybody was satisfied by the evidence in the case, however. One woman, whose husband had been found guilty and sent down for seven years, fought a court order obtained by social services which allowed them to take her children permanently into care. She won, the judge in the Family Division of the High Court throwing out the case against her husband. The civil verdict was admitted, after much legal manoeuvring, when the criminal one came to appeal, and the husband saw his verdict overturned. It was OJ Simpson in reverse.

Not even this case, though, turned out to have a happy ending. The marriage broke down, and two of the three children in the case went to live with the wife. The third and youngest stayed with the husband, his (or her) supposed abuser. This man had had his house searched for “gowns, wigs, cloaks and guns”. The police took away a clown mask that he had purchased at a street market for his daughter. He later gave Rogers a tour of the barns and sheds involved in the case, which were said to have been the headquarters of the Pembroke Satanists. These spots, incidentally, had not been shown to the jury, on the judge’s orders.

‘Right, this is the first one.’ It is 50 yards from his house and is a small, corrugated-iron shed in the grounds of a small-holding. The shed is full of rusting machinery and old clothes, a mess that had built up over many years. ‘They said there were 30 people in there shouting and squealing and letting off guns. Can you see any holes in the roof? It was supposed to be like a colander, the boy said, but they crawled all over it and didn’t find a single hole. Now look at that house on the corner. How far away would you say that is? Ten yards? And there’s a window at the side. Didn’t they hear what was going on?’

He drove me through a town to a council estate. There was a graveyard on our left. ‘That’s where they were pouring goats’ blood on the gravestones, but they never found any.’ We turned into the council estate. ‘ That’s the garage where they were supposed to be spinning a bottle to see who would go with who. See the size of it? If you dropped a hammer, the neighbours would hear.’

We were driving through the lanes. ‘See those mud flats? They were doing something down there… Ah, here we are.’ It was another shed that, like most of those I was shown, looked as though it was about to fall down. ‘They’re supposed to have brought a Land Rover full of kids to that. But see how close that house is? Did nobody hear anything? And these lanes were supposed to have 30 or 40 people walking along them. Nobody saw them. If you or I saw 40 people in a lane, we’d never forget it.’

We drove out of Pembroke to the farm that was mentioned in some scenarios. ‘There were 40 children screaming in a trailer pulled by a tractor. Now wait.’ He had slowed, for on the Cleddau Bridge there is a tollbooth where you pay to cross. ‘Odd nobody in that noticed 40 screaming children.’

In jail, on remand, the man encountered another prisoner. “This chap asked me what I was in for. I said I’d been charged with being part of a paedophile ring. ‘Whereabouts?’ he asked. ‘Pembroke,’ I said. ‘Good God,’ he said. ‘And me.’ I’d never met him before.”

Rogers spoke to one of the defence lawyers. He had been concerned at first at the seriousness of the charges against his client, but after reviewing the evidence came to the conclusion that it was worthless – worse, ludicrous. Of course, the jury had not been convinced of that, but still…

‘I read about a barn at harvest time in which 20 to 30 people, in capes and balaclavas, were having an orgy, with children in a pit being made to eat excrement and a fire blazing on the floor. I was brought up on a farm, they were terrified of fires in barns. Where was the smoke going? And how could a barn be empty in the middle of harvest?

‘I was being asked to take seriously the idea that convoys of cars had rushed through the countryside and that all those children had just gone to school on Monday morning. Had nobody noticed anything, no teachers, no GPs? At the end of the first file I thought the prosecution were insane. As for the social workers, I thought they needed help.

‘There was also one thing nobody mentioned. They talked about orgies on beaches in summer. In Pembroke in summer every bed and breakfast is full. For God’s sake, where were all the tourists when all this was going on? When the trial judge refused to let the jury see the locations, one of the defence solicitors made a video of them. Do you know the greatest problem he faced? It was that wherever he filmed, people kept straying into shot.’

The judge, in the solicitor’s view, was too inexperienced to run the case successfully – “Mr Justice Kay… he took everything so seriously. It was probably his first case of this nature, and he lacked the experience a Family Court judge could bring.”  The defendants, this man believed, paid the price for this.

‘Some of the children had genuinely  come to believe that they had been abused. I don’t know. What I do know is that vulnerable children suddenly found all this interest being taken in them. As for the nine-year-old boy [the original accuser], he was out on his own, a highly manipulative boy, capable of telling a QC to ‘F— off’ when he did not like a line of questioning.

‘But I also remember a 12-year-old insisting that nothing at all had happened. The prosecuting counsel, Gerard Elias QC, grilled him for two hours, to the point where the boy could not remember his own age, but he could not be shaken. Elias kept asking him about naughty videos and in the end he said yes, he had seen one. It had the comedian Chubby Brown in it… It was like attending a Beckett play, except that when the curtain came down, people were ruined.’

For Byron Rogers, the most revealing evidence of all never featured in the case – it came in the form of the reaction of the neighbours of the convicted men. Convicted paedophiles, as the reporter observes, are not generally welcomed back into their communities, but these men were.

“All I’ve got to say is that he’s back in the darts team,” said a man who had worked with the convicted paedophile who had shown Rogers around the estate.

‘Now, I don’t know if you or your readers realise the significance of that. Pub darts teams are made up of big, hairy-arsed drinkers. Something like this would be guaranteed to rile them up, especially after a shed-full of beer. And nobody has ever said anything to him... It’s just “How’s it going, then?” Something stinks about this case, mate, and people know it… Around here everyone believes that it’s a load of bollocks.’

Not everyone. To members of the county’s Social Services department the accused were ‘formidable and frightening, even in the dock.’ To the chief constable of the investigating police force the inquiry was ‘a model of perfection’. But the local MP has ‘serious reservations’ about the case and wants to see it referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

For odd things keep surfacing. In gaol with [one of the defendants, a seaman] was a man, also convicted of being part of the ring, whose son, then 11, initially testified against him but then in court denied there had been any abuse. He said he had been pressurised into giving evidence by social workers. Nevertheless, a condition of the subsequent care order was that he should not see his father. This year [1999] the boy went to court to get the condition overturned, and now visits his father, who is still serving an 11-year sentence. ‘That was an eye-opener,’ said the seaman.

The seaman, who had been absent at sea for most the time and claimed not to know any of the other defendants,  now doesn’t see either of the two sons who persisted in accusing him. “Nor do I want to ever again.”

‘I go to see my parole officer every Friday and I used to be asked about my offending behaviour. They’ve stopped doing that now. I just get asked, “Everything all right, any problems, how do you feel?” How do I feel? I’ve no job, I’m skint, and I have a record.’

And every Friday night, said a man who has all the time in the world on his hands, he played darts.

Source: Byron Rogers, ‘The child snatchers’. In The Bank Manager and the Holy Grail: Travels to the Wilder Reaches of Wales (London: Aurum Press, 2003) pp.227-242.

Afterword: There’s now an update on the case and its aftermath available here.

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