Looting Roman Etruscan

Looting Roman and Etruscan treasures

For over a century, Roman and Etruscan treasures have been robbed from world heritage sites and tombs. Entire families have made looting a profession handed down from father to son. A guaranteed road to riches that begins with stealing and ends with art dealers and auction rooms all over the world. And it’s still going on. But the authorities are hitting back.

Looting Etruscan treasures – the activities of the Tombaroli

Thousands of Etruscan tombs have been plundered in recent decades by unscrupulous thieves known as the ‘Tombaroli’. Sounds rather amusing – like a name for a circus troupe. But the Tombaroli have wrecked the remains of countless 2,000 year-old burial sites, stolen the contents, and flogged them on the international arts market. Some of the Tombaroli are so successful that they earn a salary, as opposed to being paid per find.

There is a complex organisational structure within which the Tombaroli operate that includes intermediaries, smugglers, restorers, and dealers. Overlooking much of this activity is the shadowy presence of organised crime. For global art market centres like London, the tendency has been to play down these brazen acts of theft that deliver stunning ancient items for sale – often fetching huge sums.

In 1995, Italian police discovered a written organigram in a raid mapping out the route antiquities took at that time from the tombaroli in certain parts of Italy to named dealers in the United States and Paris. Everybody in the chain knew their role and the origin of what they were handling.

Some dealers, as Italian police reported in 2015, even forge provenance papers to fool museums and private collectors. Though one wonders whether some buyers indulge in a degree of wishful thinking or turn a blind eye to the truth.

DISCOVER MORE: Tudor treasure stolen in England

Looting Roman treasures – Pompeii and Herculaneum

Incredibly, the tombaroli have extended their multi-generational family business of antique theft to sites like Pompeii. Their methodology is to begin digging a tunnel from a home or an abandoned building close to the Roman site. These exploratory tunnels can extend for forty metres and involve smashing through the buried walls of ancient Roman buildings and looting what lies within.

Italy’s Carabinieri (police) has a stolen art squad which in 2020 pounced on 24 illegal digs, arrested 68 thieves, and 17,503 archaeological artefacts. In truth, given the mixed record of the Italian authorities in stopping this kind of activity, one feels these statistics mask a far greater figure for treasures spirited out of the country and into the global art markets.

However, despite the depressing catalogue of Etruscan and Roman items stolen and exported, there have been some success stories when it comes to repatriation. In 2022, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned three life-sized statues from around 350BC titled Orpheus and the Sirens. They had been bought in 1976 from a Swiss bank and since 2006 were on a list of stolen treasures compiled by the Italian government.

In January 2023, an exquisite fresco from Herculaneum, titled Hercules and the Snake, was returned to Italy. It was displayed alongside an array of Etruscan and Roman busts, vases, plates, helmets, and other antiquities.

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Zyklon B – the murderous Nazi chemical

This month, thoughts turn to the Nazi Holocaust. Watching one of many TV documentaries last night was intensely depressing. It still never fails to shock. How a government in Europe set about the mass murder of millions of people. Even more appalling are the experiments conducted by Nazi scientists perfecting the means to kill a huge number of people. It’s the story of how Zyklon B – an insecticide – came to be used in the concentration camp gas chambers to such devastating effect.

What is grimly fascinating is how the Nazis almost stumbled into the idea of the Holocaust. Mass murders by shooting of both Jews and Communists in seized Soviet territory proved to the Nazis that wiping out entire Jewish populations was feasible.

But shooting was too close up and, believe it or not, the Nazis fretted about the psychological impact it would have on the executioners. The fate of the executed was not taken into consideration! So, they set about experimenting with different techniques of murder. Preferably a method that could be out of sight and kill the maximum number of people in a short space of time.

FIND OUT MORE: Five top Nazi mysteries!

British soldiers discover the truth about Zylon B

When British forces reached Hamburg in the closing days of World War Two, they discovered incriminating files at the headquarters of a chemicals firm, Tesch & Stabenow. What they read in those files and the testimonies of employees led to the firm’s founder, Bruno Tesch, and his chief assistant, Karl Weinbacher, being hanged following a trial by a British military court.

It was unusual for industrialists who had supported Hitler to be executed. But in this case, it was beyond any reasonable doubt that Tesch and Weinbacher were completely aware of the planned use of Zyklon B to commit murder on an unheard of scale. They colluded with the Nazi authorities and concentration camps to test the practical application of Zyklon B with pellets dropped into an enclosed space full of victims releasing toxic gas.

DISCOVER: The American Nazis of the 1930s

The corporate machine behind Zylon B – the Nazi death agent

Tesch and others initially developed Zylon B as a fumigating agent creating a process where hydrogen cyanide could be manufactured and deployed in solid form. The patent was assigned to a company called Degesch, which was a subsidiary of the German chemicals giant, I.G. Farben.

Contemporary news reports after the war argued that I.G. Farben took the decision to develop Zyklon B through Degesch to keep its complicity in genocide at arms length. In reality, Farben brains were running the show and Degesch was at least 42% owned by I.G. Farben.

The question for prosecutors after the war was whether Tesch knew that Zyklon B was being manufactured specifically to kill millions of people. In addition, were the directors of I.G. Farben complicit. The testimony from witnesses revealed that Tesch returned from meetings with Nazi leaders in Berlin having been told that the manner in which Jews were being slaughtered in eastern Europe was “unhygienic”.

Tesch believed he had the answer. Zylon B pellets were tested on a group of Russian officers at Auschwitz in 1941 with fatal results. The quantities subsequently delivered to Auschwitz had the potential to kill 19 million people if used economically by the SS guards. Another upside was that these guards wouldn’t have to view the actual deaths. They would just listen outside the locked chamber. When the screams stopped, the job had been done.

The court had heard enough. Tesch was found guilty and hanged.

I.G. Farben was described in press reports as a “man eating spider” or a “state within a state” during the Nazi period. It had clearly expected to have a chemicals monopoly in a Nazi-run Europe. Its own PR messaging regarding Zylon B was that the company thought the pellets were being used to fumigate the living quarters of inmates. To kill lice in other words.

And it came as a complete surprise to discover the SS had extended that to slaughtering the inmates en masse. Few people then and since have bought this argument. Especially as those inmates were working for I.G. Farben within spitting distance of the camps where they were being killed.

I.G. Farben directors escape the noose

Germany had been the global centre of the chemicals industry in the 19th and early 20th century. I.G. Farben was the biggest firm – a vast conglomerate founded in 1925. It made extensive use of concentration camp labour siting factories near to the notorious Auschwitz camp. But again, this was done at arm’s length so that ultimately the camp’s management could be blamed for the forced labour.

In the trials of Nazis following Hitler’s defeat, private sector firms that had supported Hitler portrayed themselves as politically neutral and unable to shape events that occurred during the Third Reich. Not exactly true.

I.G. Farben financially supported Hitler and the Nazis before they took power. The firm then adapted swiftly to the Nazi takeover in 1933 firing its Jewish employees and militarising production. But worst of all by 1943, half its employees were those working next to concentration camps, despite the firm’s attempts to hide the fact.

It developed poison gas fully expecting it to be used in combat conditions as it had been on the battlefields of Europe during World War One. But the Second World War was fought on different terms and gas came to be used in the civilian area – the concentration camps – on a horrific scale. But I.G. Farben maintained it knew nothing about this Nazi use of Zyklon B.

The trials of 24 I.G. Farben executives at Nuremberg was a very drawn out affair, finally concluding in 1948. They were cleared of planning to help the Nazi war effort, which seems ludicrous in retrospect. But found guilty of seizing private property in countries invaded by the Third Reich.

Astonishingly they were cleared of complicity in the mass murders and medical experiments conducted in the concentration camps. Instead, the managers of I.G. Auschwitz were deemed to have acted alone and not directed from above by I.G. Farben.

Did I.G. Farben know about the Nazi use of Zyklon B?

After the war, I.G. Farben was split up. The main successor companies were Agfa, BASF, Bayer, and Sanofi. Today on the BASF website, there is the following statement:

After the war (1945) and especially during the Nuremberg trials, the question is raised whether the representatives of I.G. Farben knew that Zyklon B was used for the mass murder of people from September 1941. A definitive answer has yet to be found.

It is also denied that Degesch was controlled by I.G. Farben:

Furthermore, new research concludes that even after the participation of other companies (1930), Degesch “[remained] an integral part of the Degussa enterprise and not I.G. Farben, as it was falsely assumed during the trials against the board of directors for war crimes between 1947 and 1948, and is still commonly believed today.”

It’s also stated that, “more and more people were housed in camps so it was to be expected that the demand would rise for pediculicides and other special pesticides. Moreover, the actual sales of Zyklon B were not significantly higher after the mass executions at Auschwitz begin in September 1941 than they were before“.

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Secrets of the Royal Palaces – series 3

Great news – I’m back in a new series of Secrets of the Royal Palaces on Channel 5 that will begin on January 7 2023 at 20:30GMT. If you’re outside of the United Kingdom, you will have to wait sadly or find a way to download it online. But don’t miss out on some great royal scandals!

DISCOVER: The worst royal funeral ever!

And what a fantastic time for Secrets of the Royal Palaces to return. We’ve just had a heart stopping series of The Crown on Netflix and Harry & Meghan of course. Lest we forget on a sadder and more relevant note, 2022 saw the passing of Queen Elizabeth II after the longest reign in history. London, where I lived, ground to a halt as we marked that sad occasion.

Yet, within a month, royal intrigue kicked off again. The new king, Charles III is having to contend with his son Harry taking shots at the royal household and bringing out an explosive printed biography as well as the TV documentary series.

DISCOVER: England’s lost royal palaces

So make sure you watch Secrets of the Royal Palaces and tell me what you think about it!

Secrets of the Royal Palaces on Channel 5 produced by Viacom

One thought on “Secrets of the Royal Palaces – series 3

  1. Hi Tony: Is “Secrets” available in the US? In any form? Any series? Youtube, Netflix, Discovery Channels? I love your stuff and follow what I can, when I can find it. email is fine, also. Thanks.

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conspiracy theories

Five Biggest History Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. We’re more aware of them today thanks to the ceaseless buzz of social media. But back in ancient Rome, Nero was blaming Christians for burning down the city. While in Stuart London after the Great Fire of 1666, a monument was erected pointing an accusing finger at Roman Catholics as devious arsonists.

What’s often not recognised is the extent to which conspiracy theories and fact have blended to the point where accepted facts often don’t have much of an evidential base. So let’s look at five conspiracy theories grounded in what we think is factual history. I’m not going to include the more far out stuff like the Bermuda Triangle here – which I’ll be examining soon.

For today, it’s conspiracy theories about kings, popes, princes, and presidents.

So – here goes!

Hitler survived World War Two

Two years after Germany was defeated in the Second World War, the American public was polled by Gallup and asked: Do you think that Hitler is dead? The year was 1947 and many Americans had fought in the war and even picked their way through the ruins of Hitler’s capital, Berlin. The poll result was astonishing. Nearly half the respondents, 45%, believed Hitler was NOT dead.

War veterans, men, and college educated Americans were more likely to believe that Hitler was no more. While women in particular thought he was still alive. A similar poll in Germany noted that working class people were more likely to believe that the Fuhrer had survived than the middle class.

In the 1970s, when there will still quite a few Nazis knocking around, there was huge interest in claimed sightings proving that leading figures in the Third Reich had fled to Latin America. These stories were undoubtedly fuelled by Soviet disinformation campaigns after the war.

As early as June 9, 1945 – as the war was concluding – the Soviet military commander Marshal Zukhov openly speculated that Hitler hadn’t committed suicide but instead been flown from Berlin to Denmark or Norway and then taken by submarine to Latin America to live among German settlements in Brazil or Argentina.

But why would the Soviet Union invent a myth that Hitler was still alive and kicking? In 1981, Professor Don McKale wrote a debunking book called Hitler: The Survival Myth. He argued that the Soviets needed the bogeyman of a still-alive Hitler to justify seizing control of eastern Europe. Though the Soviet leader Stalin seems to have genuinely hoped that Hitler was alive so that he could be brought to Moscow, interrogated, and put on trial.

And belief in a living and breathing Hitler came from some odd quarters. In the 1970s, the Worldwide Church of God led by end-times preacher Herbert W. Armstrong claimed that Hitler and the Pope were in league to take over the world. As with other predictions made by this organisation, the Nazi-Catholic coup d’etat failed to materialise.

Belief in the non-dead Hitler

The Knights Templar had a secret mission!

Years ago, I spoke at a book festival with a professor of medieval studies who is a recognised expert on the Knights Templar. The night before we went for a meal and I suggested that the next day I’d do the mystery while she could do the history. “Oh,” she retorted, “so I do the boring stuff then?”

I was then treated to a lecture over our curry about the way in which fact and fiction about the Templars have been intertwined from the very beginning. The accounts of medieval chroniclers about the knights are laced with propaganda, falsehood, and just bitching. Their origins, mission, and downfall are shrouded in lies and calumnies.

Much of the so-called history written about the Templars in the centuries since is just a continuation of the half-truths told by these chroniclers. Though of course, it’s drifted considerably from the truth over the last two hundred years. Freemasons, esoteric theorists, and darker political forces have cast the Templars as something I doubt they’d remotely recognise.

The most popular conspiracy theory in recent times, featured heavily in Dan Brown’s works, is that the Knights Templar were set up by a secret society called the Priory of Sion dedicated to protecting the bloodline of Jesus. The descendants of Christ. The true meaning of the Holy Grail. This theory originated in France in the 1950s before being popularised in the 1980s bestseller, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

There is a variation on this theory that replaces the Priory of Sion with a network of families descended from the priests of the Temple of Solomon who call themselves Rex Deus. This theory was championed by the late Tim Wallace-Murphy in his books. According to him, many of the top movers and shakers of the Middle Ages were part of Rex Deus and committed to protecting the Jesus bloodline from a murderous Vatican.

JFK assassination involves a cover-up by top American politicians

Let’s distil this one down to the basic proposition: President John F Kennedy was murdered as a result of a conspiracy covered up by the subsequent Warren Commission, set up to investigate the killing. Other figures complicit in Kennedy’s untimely demise were his successor President Lyndon Johnson and at least two other future US presidents.

Here are the three main conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination:

  • He was killed as a result of a Communist plot hatched in the Soviet Union, Cuba, or both
  • He was killed as a result of an extreme Right-wing conspiracy hatched in the United States
  • He was killed as a result of a conspiracy by anti-Castro Cubans

And who actually fired the bullet – or bullets if you prefer – into the President’s car? One supposition is that the mafia was contracted to carry out the assassination.

One characteristic of JFK conspiracy theories is that they take a long time to explain. Oliver Stone’s three-hour conspiracy laden movie JFK released in 1991 being a case in point. Many of the allegations raised in the movie were shaped in the early 1970s, especially during the Watergate scandal – ten years after JFK was shot – when confidence and trust in the US government all but collapsed.

So, how does one prove that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a lone operator in the assassination? A favourite angle is the single bullet argument. Theorists refer to it sarcastically as the “super bullet” because it would have had to inflict seven fatal and non-fatal wounds on JFK and Texas Governor John Connolly who was in the same vehicle. This single bullet’s trajectory, it’s argued, is impossible.

In fairness to the conspiracy theories, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby has never sat right with me. Ruby was a sleazy night club operator known to the FBI and police. We are asked to believe that in a fit of high-mindedness, he single-handedly took it upon himself to terminate Oswald. If there is a gap into which conspiracy theorists can enter my mind – then that is it.

In 1998, The History Channel – as it then was – polled Americans and found that three-quarters believed a conspiracy lay behind the JFK assassination. Only 18% thought not. In 2022, the Biden administration released a slew of documents on what happened back in November 1963 but at the time of writing, nothing sensational has emerged.

Teenage views from 1964 of how Jack Ruby should be punished

FIND OUT MORE: Movies that promote conspiracy theories

Pope John Paul I murdered – or was it suicide?

From October 1978 to April 2005, the Roman Catholic church was under the control of Pope John Paul II – the first non-Italian pope in centuries. Because of his charisma, it’s now largely forgotten that John Paul II’s predecessor was the man who adopted this rather unusual name as Pope John Paul I. A modest pope who refused to be crowned, carried around in a chair, and referring to himself as “we”. All measures no subsequent pope has dared to reverse.

His papacy lasted only 34 days. Because 1978 was the year of three popes. And the one in the middle – John Paul I – died relatively young and in circumstances that aroused almost immediate suspicion.

Pope Paul I was the last Italian-born pope after an unbroken run of popes from Italy going back five-hundred years. He succeeded Paul VI and before him, John XXIII. An admirer of both men, who had very different approaches and policies, he adopted their names – hence, John Paul. Unlike the rather other worldly Paul VI, the new pope – real name Albino Luciani – was a handsome, permanently smiling individual. Genuinely liked by millions after being chosen.

But not by everybody. On September 29, 1978, the Vatican issued a statement that stunned the world. The Pope was dead. Official cause of death – a heart attack. Within days the Vatican was having to correct its own account of how his body was found in his room. Allegations that he was murdered soon surfaced. As did one implausible claim – that may even have originated within the Vatican – that he had committed suicide.

In 1984, author David Yallop wrote a blockbuster book titled In God’s Name: An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I. He alleged that John Paul I was poisoned by members of a Masonic lodge as he prepared to launch a full-scale investigation into the Vatican’s murky finances and planned the removal of several leading church officials. Those out to kill the smiling pontiff included the mafia and Freemasons embedded within the Holy See.

Yallop even has one cardinal who shall remain nameless (you’ll have to read the book) taking out a contract on the pope while another senior cleric in Rome does the dirty deed to stop John Paul changing church policy on birth control. The Vatican denied the book as “absurd fantasies”.

However, Yallop’s book delved into very real financial scandals swirling round the Vatican in the 1970s and 1980s culminating in the gruesome discovery in 1982 of the Vatican banker Roberto Calvi’s body hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London.

And the Masonic claims were not so far fetched as one might have thought. Italian police investigating the ultra-secretive P2 Masonic lodge in Italy during 1981 and 1982 uncovered a network of Freemasonry extending through the Italian government, military, and secret services with a mission to destroy communism and even entertaining the idea of an authoritarian regime of some description.

Little wonder that Godfather III, released in 1990, had a plot heavily influenced by both the death of Pope John I and the alleged Masonic conspiracies.

In recent years, views on Pope John Paul I have coalesced around three positions. The Yallop view that this pope was a determined reformer intent on rooting out corruption and was killed. A rebuttal from author John Cornwell who penned a Vatican approved book arguing that John Paul I was an incompetent pope overwhelmed by his election and bedevilled by ill health. A more recent account argues that he was on track to be a great pope but died through natural causes.

DISCOVER: Pius XII – the Pope who exploded!

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln – by his own government!

Four presidents of the United States have been assassinated – the two most famous being JFK and Abraham Lincoln. So what do we know about the shooting of Lincoln? The man who wielded the pistol was actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser who entered the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre and fired the fatal bullet.

Did he act alone? Well, in contrast to the JFK slaying – we know the answer was no. He was beyond doubt part of a conspiracy. In the immediate aftermath of the slaying, the US government went into overdrive rounding up and imprisoning suspects. Booth was killed in a shoot out while four of the convicted plotters were hanged. But how widespread was this plot and how many people were involved?

Possibly one of the most extraordinary conspiracy theories is that Lincoln’s death was planned by his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The proponent of this theory was Austrian-born American industrial chemist and author, Otto Eisenschiml. He argued that Stanton not only facilitated the assassination but helped Booth escape Washington DC.

However, Booth was falling into a trap. Having used him to get rid of Lincoln for political reasons, Stanton couldn’t afford to have Booth still alive. So he was essentially ambushed and gunned down by Union troops. Eisenschiml also alleges that Stanton tore incriminating pages out of Booth’s diary. The reason Stanton wanted Lincoln dead was that he feared the president was going soft on the defeated southern states.

Eisenschiml was born in 1880 and died in 1963. He was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit and newspaper coverage of him in the United States from the 1930s to his death is broadly positive. For example, in February 1937 he was getting an honorary degree from the Lincoln Memorial University – described as an “author and lecturer of national repute”. And I found one classified ad where the veteran Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg calls Eisenschiml’s book Why Was Lincoln Murdered? a “masterpiece of inquiry, research, discussion, and statement”.

This book was so persuasive that it was a well-regarded and recommended work for history graduates studying the Civil War into the 1970s. Today, however, it has been roundly attacked. But could there be any truth to its central thesis?

Eisenschiml held in high regard

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Pius XII – the Pope who exploded!

One of the most botched examples of embalming in history with catastrophic results was that of Pope Pius XII when he died in October 1958. Dead popes are put on display and processed before an elaborate burial. Therefore they need to look presentable. Unfortunately for Pius XII, his doctor was clueless when it came to embalming and made it up as he went along. The result of this? Pope Pius XII exploded!

The worst embalming in modern times

Pope Pius XII died at the papal summer palace of Castel Gandolfo. The pope’s doctor since 1939 was Dr. Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, a Vatican functionary who was keen to experiment with an embalming technique he thought would smooth the late pope’s path to sainthood.

For centuries, the incorruptibility of a holy person’s body had been taken to be a sign of God’s favour. Put another way, if you dug up a long dead priest, nun, or pope and they still looked fresh faced – then that was a miracle. And they should be canonised.

Churches in Italy and other Catholic countries still display bodies that are claimed to have shown no signs of rot because of their holiness. So, Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi undoubtedly hoped that his approach to embalming would ensure that at some point in the future Pope Pius XII would become Saint Pius.

However – there was a problem. The doctor had no idea what he was doing. In fact, by all accounts he wasn’t proficient at any branch of medical activity. But embalming was certainly not his forte. So – how did his crazy approach to corpse preservation lead to a situation where the pope exploded?

How the Pope exploded

A very informative post on The Anatomy Lab blog gives us a thorough scientific perspective. But I can distil the facts down as follows:

  • Dr. Galeazzi-Lisi soaked the body of Pope Pius XII in oils then wrapped it tightly in cellophane creating a sealed envelope and therefore a build up of gases as he had not employed the usual approaches to arrest decay after death
  • This failed to preserve the pope’s internal organs which as they broke down built up a large amount of gas in the dead body
  • Two processes were now underway and unchecked – putrefaction and autolysis
  • Add to this – the body of Pope Pius XII was not refrigerated and it was a hot summer in Rome
  • During the four day lying in state – having been unwrapped from his cellophane envelope – the chest cavity exploded
  • Swiss Guards standing around the body as pilgrims filed past fainted because of the overwhelming stench and had to be rotated every 15 minutes
  • Eventually, the skin of Pius XII turned a greenish colour and the final blow to his dignity in death was when his nose and fingers fell off

Without proper embalming, the pope had released not only significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the surrounding air but also hydrogen sulphide. If you’ve ever smelt a stink bomb sold by a joke shop – then that is the pungent odour Swiss Guards were forced to inhale.

Pilgrims who queued several times to see Pope Pius XII lying in state in an open casket noted that his skin was a different colour at each viewing. His face was bloating. The mouth was opening. Bit by bit, he was coming to resemble a zombie pope!

It should be noted that when Pope Paul VI passed away in August 1978, similar horror was reported by pilgrims who could see the late pontiff rotting before their eyes. The humid summer heat, absence of air conditioning, and camera lights were cooking the Holy Father. To avoid the scandal of 1958 repeating, a decision was made to close his coffin ahead of the appointed time.

Pictured above – Dr Galeazzi-Lisi

DISCOVER: The Pope alleged to be a woman!

The papal doctor responsible for the pope who exploded

For two decades, the man in charge of the pope’s health was Dr Galeazzi-Lisi. Proximity to the pope brought temptation. In 1958, as the pope suffered his final heart problems and a cerebral stroke, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi took photos of the dying pontiff and leaked stories to the press. While at the same giving solemn media updates on his patient’s condition.

He kept a detailed diary and ten days after the death of Pope Pius, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi sold the contents to several Italian newspapers. As criticism of his conduct began to mount and the fact that his patient had exploded – the newspapers in question decided not to print. Except for one newspaper, my research has shown, that then back-pedalled furiously as the scandal grew.

To create some distance between the media and the doctor – and not alienate their Catholic readership – the National Association of the Italian Press unanimously condemned the doctor for “disgusting comportment” in selling his diary – while neglecting to mention that members of the association had bought the offending material.

A fortnight after Pius XII died, the dubious doctor was fired as Director of Vatican City Health Services. The church was so appalled by his conduct that the College of Cardinals gave instructions to the Swiss Guards – the bodyguards of the pope – to exclude him from both the Vatican City and any Vatican owned properties.

Even his own professional bodies banned him from practising. In December 1958, the Rome Medical Association stripped him of the right to practice medicine. But all the while, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi protested his innocence: “I feel completely at rest with my conscience. I have not betrayed any professional secrets. The medical profession secret ends with the death of the patient.”

Yet it’s clear this was a bald-faced lie.

Pope Pius before he exploded – a sickly man

Four years before his death, Pope Pius was expected to die after coronary failure accompanied by acute depression and constant hiccups. A surgeon friend of mine assures me that hiccups are often a sure sign of damage to the heart. And Pius was notorious for his constant hiccuping.

One could argue that to his credit, Dr Galeazzi-Lisi kept the pope alive for a few years and seems to have been genuinely committed to his patient. Newspaper reports in 1954, when Pope Pius experienced a serious collapse in his health, claimed the doctor emerged from the papal apartments visibly weary from long vigils at the pope’s bedside. But questions remain over whether this man was utterly incompetent.

And of course he went on to create a situation where the pope exploded!

DISCOVER: Does the Vatican have the long lost Golden Menorah of Solomon’s Temple?

What happens when a Pope dies

There are some bizarre rituals around the death of a Pope. For example, when the Holy Father is thought to have passed away, the Papal Chamberlain takes a silver hammer and taps his head firmly three times shouting out his baptismal name. The same hammer is then used to break the Fisherman’s Ring, which the pope wears as a sign of his position.

From the 16th century up until the death of Pope Leo XIII in 1903, the hearts and lungs of dead popes were sent to the church of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio near the Trevi Fountain to be embalmed, becoming objections of veneration for the faithful.

Many of you may have gained your knowledge of rituals around a papal death from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. It’s basically correct but I hope the details above have filled in any missing knowledge.

Mercifully not a single pope has exploded since 1958.

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Vatican Menorah

Did the Vatican steal the ancient Menorah?

One of the strangest conspiracy theories circulating today is that the Vatican is in possession of the ancient Menorah fashioned by the prophet Moses at the direct command of God. This is the seven-branched candelabrum that the Israelites carried with them during the Exodus from Egypt and later installed in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Like all the temple treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant, it was looted by different invaders over the centuries. But why is it widely believed that it ended up deep inside the Vatican?

On Twitter and other social media, the Vatican stands accused of having grabbed the treasures of the Temple of Solomon at some point in history – and then hid them out of sight. The Holy see insists that it doesn’t have the golden Menorah or the Ark of the Covenant or the manna that fell from heaven nourishing the Jews during the Exodus. But the Vatican has a problem.

Because in the past – it claimed that it did have all these things. And even put them on display.

Below, I’ll look at how we arrived at a situation where in the 1990s, Israeli officials ended up demanding the right to inspect the secret archives of the Vatican to finally put to rest centuries old rumours that the Popes long ago stole the treasures of the Temple of Solomon.

God gives Moses the Menorah

Where does this intriguing story start? Well, a lot longer ago than you might imagine. First, we have to return to the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as told in the Old Testament and Jewish scripture. Yahweh, the God of these people escaping Pharaoh’s bondage, has made the Jews his chosen people. And Moses is their prophet and leader. He must take them through the desert to the Promised Land.

On the way, God communes with Moses. He gives the prophet the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone – rules by which the people will live. These are housed in a gilded box called the Ark of the Covenant, which has the power to slay thousands of people merely by being looked at or touched. And then the Menorah – an ornate, golden, seven-branched candelabrum.

Like the Ark of the Covenant, it was made to specifications laid out by God to Moses. Formed by one piece of pure beaten gold weighing one hundred pounds. This impressive candelabrum had seven branches topped with lamps and was just over five feet high. Moses struggled to follow God’s very detail instructions and so a block of gold was thrown into the fire and in a flash of light, God made the sacred object himself.

The lamps of the Menorah were lit daily using olive oil though the central lamp never ran out of oil for many centuries. According to Christian tradition, the miracle of the Menorah stopped when Christ died and was resurrected as his light now shone in the world. Throughout the Exodus of the Jewish people, the Menorah was kept in the Tabernacle and then once the Temple of Solomon was built in Jerusalem – it was housed there with the Ark of the Covenant.

But disaster would strike the Temple in Jerusalem twice. In 587BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and sacked the temple. This was when the Ark of the Covenant disappeared. Either hidden by the prophet Jeremiah or melted down by the invaders – nobody really knows. As for the Menorah, it turns up again but there’s uncertainty over whether it was the original or a copy.

Five hundred years later, King Herod rebuilt the Temple of Jerusalem on the grandest scale ever. This hated, murderous monarch was trying to prove his religious credentials to a sceptical Jewish population. He was essentially a puppet of the Roman Empire – despised for his collaboration with an occupying force. Major building projects like the temple were intended to bolster his legitimacy as a Jewish ruler.

His new temple reportedly included the Menorah but the Ark of the Covenant remained lost. However, this new home for the Menorah would not last a century. In a few decades it would be consumed in flames.

The Menorah ends up in Rome

In 70CE, the Romans finally put down what had been a significant revolt by the Jewish population in its unruly province of Judaea. If there was something the Romans couldn’t tolerate, it was sedition. To punish the Jewish people, they utterly wrecked the temple built by Herod leaving only the platform on which it was built – which is the Temple Mount you see today.

All the temple treasures were looted and brought to Rome. The triumph was celebrated by the Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus, who had commanded the legions that had crushed the Jewish revolt. Titus became emperor after his father but died after a short reign. An arch was erected to his memory in 81CE. This arch tells us what happened to the Menorah.

Because on it, we see carved a group of Roman soldiers carrying what is unmistakably the Menorah.

Jewish scholars like Shimon bar Yochai wrote in the second century AD that the temple treasures were used to fund public works including the Coliseum. They claimed that the Menorah along with the golden headband worn by the High Priest and the temple curtain were all kept at the Temple of Peace, a pagan ceremonial site built by the Roman emperor. That burned down in 191CE and accounts vary as to what happened to the Menorah next. Maybe it was destroyed. Or it was transferred to the imperial palace on the Palatine hill.

But another theory emerged in 1900 when a stone with an inscription was unearthed in the Jewish ghetto in Rome that related how three Jewish subjects had been beheaded by imperial order after attempting to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah from the river Tiber. This seemed to confirm an old story that Jews living in Rome had seized the Menorah during the 191CE fire at the Temple of Peace and hid it in the river.

Barbarians making off with the Menorah?

Having never seen an invading army for eight hundred years, the city of Rome would endure a rapid reversal of its fortunes from the year 410CE onwards. In that year, a disgruntled Visigoth leader, Alaric, who had been in the service of the Roman state, went on the rampage with his barbarian army through the city. Forty five years later, the Vandals led by Gaiseric trashed the eternal city again with even more devastating impact.

Take your pick on barbarian Menorah theories. One has Alaric stealing the Menorah along with wagon loads of treasure from Rome, bound for southern Italy. But then the Visigoth general falls fatally ill near the town of Cosenza. The nearby river Busento was temporarily diverted to bury Alaric along with some of his ill-gotten loot, which was then covered once more with water. So, did the Menorah end up under the Busento alongside the body of Alaric?

Alternatively, the Vandals under Gaiseric took the Menorah from Rome to their capital Carthage in modern Tunisia in 455CE. The Vandals had seized Carthage from the Romans half a century earlier, but in 533CE the Byzantine empire, which regarded itself as the continuation of the Roman empire, took the city back.

The Menorah then travelled eastwards across the Mediterranean to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople – modern Istanbul. But once there, the story runs that the Byzantine emperor Justinian was warned by a Jewish scholar that the Menorah was cursed. God was furious that it had been taken from his temple in Jerusalem. Look at what had happened of late to Rome and Carthage! Surely this was proof of divine wrath?

So, Justinian sent it back to Jerusalem. He was a devout Christian emperor who had no wish to see his capital laid waste because of the Menorah.

Well, so that story goes. But there is another view.

The Pope and the Menorah

Maybe it never left Rome. Benjamin of Tudela was a Jewish traveller from what is now Spain. He visited Rome in the 12th century and wrote in his journal that the Menorah was being kept at the basilica of St John Lateran. Built on the site of a Roman military fort, the Lateran palace was home to the popes up until the 14th century. It was in effect the global headquarters of the Roman Catholic church.

In the 13th century, an inscription that can still be seen catalogued the precious items that had been placed under the high altar of Saint John Lateran. These included all the main treasures from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem: the Ark of the Covenant; the staff of Moses and Aaron; a golden urn containing manna, the bread that fell from heaven during the Exodus; and crucially the golden Menorah.

There can be little doubt that the Popes understood the religious significance of being in possession of those temple treasures that had been given to Moses by God. The inscription makes the point that they had been brought to Rome by the Roman emperors Vespasian and his son Titus. And now, they were enshrined in a place from where the Popes ruled the Roman Catholic church.

The Lateran was the new temple. Judaism, in the Catholic view of the time, had to make way for the church established by the Son of God governed by his vicar on earth, the Pope. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed but this was the new temple for the one true faith.

This point was made with gusto by a 12th century writer called John the Deacon of the Lateran in a work called the Descriptio Lateranensis ecclesiae. In this book, he boasted about the Lateran’s ownership of the sacred temple goods because by now, rival deacons at St Peter’s in Rome – what would later become the Vatican residence of the popes – were seeking to undermine the supreme status of the Lateran church. One Vatican based cleric even referred to the Lateran sneeringly as a “synagogue” on account of the number of Jewish relics it housed.

Another medieval eye witness account of the Menorah being in Rome came from an Icelandic source. A 12th century pilgrim from this far off place on the edge of Europe journeying to the Holy Land who passed through Rome and noted many of its holy relics including the Menorah. The account is called the Leiöarvisir.

So – can one assume then that the Menorah and indeed the Ark of the Covenant were indeed in the hands of the Pope?

But hang on – what about the Crusades?

We have the medieval papal HQ where the popes lived and reigned making the strident claim that they owned all the treasures of the Temple of Solomon including the Ark of the Covenant and the Menorah – and had housed them under the high altar. Great. So, why were the Knights Templar and other crusaders claiming that these relics were to be found under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem?

At exactly the same time that John the Deacon was telling us that the Menorah was in his church – crusaders were in charge of Jerusalem having conquered the city with much bloodshed in the year 1099. The Templars had based themselves in the Al Aqsa mosque renaming it the Temple of Solomon. The Dome of the Rock was rebranded the Templum Domini. Key to the crusader mission was the idea that Jerusalem and its holy relics had to be in Catholic hands.

Well, Saladin sorted out that conundrum by retaking Jerusalem for Islam in the year 1187. After that, the Lateran resumed its claim to own the Menorah and Ark without any pesky crusader counter-claims.

DISCOVER: Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

The Menorah and Ark disappear from the Lateran – into the Vatican?

So convinced were the Popes that they had the Menorah and the Ark in the Lateran that every year on Maundy Thursday, the Pope would conduct a ritual close by the Ark that was believed to imitate what the Jewish High Priest would have done in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon a thousand years before.

The Pope performed this rite on his own as it was written in scripture that only the High Priest could enter the room housing the Ark and lit by the Menorah. Death would come to anybody else entering the Holy of Holies. But once the papacy relocated from the Lateran to the Vatican – the theological love affair with the Menorah and the Ark diminished to nothing.

Fast forward to the year 1745 and Pope Benedict XIV paid a pastoral visit to Saint John Lateran. Like every pope since the 14th century, he lived in the Vatican as the popes do today. After a fire at the Lateran in 1308, the temple items that had been kept out of view under the high altar were put on display for the faithful. Some scholars believe that Benedict, ruling the church during the period of history dubbed the Enlightenment, found these garish relics embarrassing and not in tune with the ‘rationalist’ spirit of the time.

The Ark of the Covenant and other temple treasures including the Menorah had to be removed. Nevertheless, Benedict was happy with the table from the Last Supper retaining a very visible position at the high altar. So where did the temple artefacts go? Well, it’s a mystery. And into this gap in our knowledge has crept the conspiracy theories.

A mystery that still has the power to cause diplomatic rows in our time.

DISCOVER: The Pope alleged to be a woman!

Israel demands the Vatican return the Menorah

In 1996, Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet was negotiating a papal visit by John Paul II to Israel planned for 1997. The papacy at the time was keen to repair relations with Jewish people. During the discussions with senior Vatican officials, Shetreet demanded to know if the Holy See possessed the Menorah. Handing it over, he declared, would be an act “of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic church”.

One report claims that the Israeli Antiquities Authority successfully got access to the Vatican archives but after a rummage around the basement of St Peter’s came away with no Menorah.

John Paul II’s papal successor Pope Benedict XVI visited Israel resulting in a bizarre court case to consider a demand that the leader of the Roman Catholic church should be seized and detained until the Menorah was returned. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the Pope enjoyed immunity as a head of state.

Still, despite the ongoing social media suspicion, the Vatican decided in 2017 to organise the first ever exhibition in collaboration with a Jewish museum. And the subject? The Menorah: Worship, History and Legend. You can either view this as a case of papal chutzpah or a desire by the Pope to finally kill off this persistent story.

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Abusing the Mummies of Ancient Egypt

There was nothing that a gentleman of some learning enjoyed doing more of an evening in the 1820s than joining men of similar rank and learning to tear the linen wrapping off a three thousand year old corpse. Preferably over a glass of agreeable claret and maybe a chamber orchestra playing nearby. Unwrapping the mummies of ancient Egypt became a gruesome 19th century craze evidenced by a slew of newspaper reports and classified ads that I’ve unearthed in my voluminous archives!

It was one of several tasteless ways in which the mummies of Ancient Egypt were treated. They weren’t only unwrapped but featured in theatre productions and Victorian freak shows. Read on!

Spicing up a Cabinet of Curiosities

The Cranium Club in Connecticut announced in the local newspaper in 1817 that its very own Cabinet of Curiosities was now brimming with new additions “lately brought from the East” by a gentleman traveller. This included a ram’s horn sounded at the siege of Jericho as described in the Old Testament. A brick from the Tower of Babel. One tree stump from the Garden of Eden. And “a piece of petrified corset” once worn by Delilah, another biblical character.

But the pride and joy was an Egyptian mummy. And not just any old Egyptian mummy. This was the best one in the United States by a mile. Another American state boasted about its ancient artefact but this one “beats the Kentucky mummy all to rags”. Well, that was the Kentuckians told!

This cabinet of curiosities was one of many at the time. At the Museum of South Carolina, a mummified ancient Egyptian child was shown off next to the “head of a New-Zealand chief, tattoo’d”. Your ticket priced 25 cents would also let you gawp at a stuffed white bear from Greenland; a duck-billed platypus (also stuffed); and four-inch long shoes belonging to women of imperial China whose feet had been bound since birth.

Another reported cabinet in London in 1802 claimed to include the mummy of one of Cleopatra’s children – but didn’t specify which one. As well as the mummy of an ibis and an ancient bust of the aforementioned Cleopatra. Along with other treasure and two living Egyptian goats! All presented by the son of Murad Bey, a Mamluk ruler of Egypt, to a certain Mr. King of King Street (sic), Covent Garden who exhibited them at his gallery.

Mummies of ancient Egypt go to the ballet!

If you’d assumed that all mummies brought to Europe or America where treated respectfully and examined only for scientific advancement, then let me disabuse you of that idea. In the late 1700s, London opera and ballet was dominated by the charismatic Sir John Gallini. Born Giovanni Andrea Battista Gallini in Florence, he’d made his mark in London becoming the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

Gallini took control of the King’s Theatre London’s Haymarket despite a barrage of racist abuse. The next task was to stage a production that would bring a suitably hefty return on his investment. The Times newspaper in 1789 reported that Gallini, “meaning to give every species of entertainment to the public” spirited a well-preserved mummy out of Egypt.

Along with two dancing bears and a dromedary, it became the centrepiece of a new ballet. How the audience reacted, I don’t know. But the theatre burned down in an arson attack later that year. Curse of the mummy?

FIND OUT MORE: Should the dead be on display in museums?

Public unwrapping of the mummies of ancient Egypt

New York in 1824 was humming with anticipation as a mummy arrived after a long voyage with “the body entirely covered by the cloth and bandages of embalming”. Well, that wouldn’t last for long. In front of “respectable witnesses at the College of Physicians”, it was “opened”.

One of the gentleman present certainly felt he got his money’s worth: “My attending friends, and myself, were highly gratified by the fair opportunity we enjoyed of inspecting such a curious piece of antiquity”. A human body to you and me. He went on to recommend that his “fellow citizens” should “view this rare and real production without delay”. Which begs the question in my mind whether this poor mummy was wrapped and unwrapped repeatedly in regular performances.

The following year, 1825, in the northern English city of Leeds and The Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser newspaper announced the arrival of several mummies at the Museum of the Philosophical Literary Society. One was the body of a man determined to be a soldier – called Pethor, meaning the Votary of Horus – “a god held in high esteem among the Egyptian soldiers”.

And then he was unwrapped. This mummy failed to provide maximum entertainment – sorry, education. “It presented no very remarkable appearance when opened”. “The linen with which it was abundantly enveloped was of a uniform texture”. In other words, too much unwrapping for not enough wow factor.

“From the powerful odour of asphaltum or mineral pitch” it had been embalmed according to the “third method” mentioned by Herodotus. The skin and flesh had been “almost entirely consumed by a small brown beetle, of which numbers were found in a perfect state among the folds of the linen”.

A larger mummy proved to be much more rewarding. He was called Tesamon – guided by Amon, the newspaper translated. A more richly decorated sarcophagus thrilled those present. Under the lid was another coffin made of cedar wood with a well preserved mask. The hieroglyphs indicated this man was a priest of Osiris.

The body was wrapped in linen of two types – which was compared to linen for sale in the English high street at the time. “The coarser quality is about equal to that which would be bought in the shops at 12d and the finer at 2s. 2d.” The linen formed part of the dress of the deceased, it was reported, and had been repaired through darning.

About fourteen folds of linen were taken off uncovering a wreath of natural flowers and berries on the breast. A little more unwrapping revealed a lotus flower on the head and face. The whole body was covered with pounded spices as well as the cavities of the thorax and abdomen. Into the head were introduced “precious and odoriferous gums”.

As with most of these unwrapping performances – what happened to the bodies, linen, jewels, and even desiccated flowers is left unsaid though one can assume the worst in many cases.

DISCOVER: Ancient Egyptian spoons – cutlery of the pharaohs!

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Werewolves explained – from ancient legends to Hollywood!

What are the origins of the Werewolf myth? This strange story of cursed people unable to resist transforming into a wolf at the Full Moon – with the consequent murderous rampage. Why is this monster so enduring and if anything, more popular than ever? It came as a surprise to me to discover a literary genre termed ‘werewolf erotica’ and all that teen-focussed TV content featuring our lupine friends. Werewolves need to be explained so here goes!

Before I continue – do watch this video I’ve just made on the topic with lots of clips from movies and information about the development of the werewolf story in literature. Especially why so many werewolves have been women.

FIND OUT MORE: More examples of werewolves in history

The first recorded werewolf story I could find – and reassured to include as a werewolf tale – was that of King Lycaon of Arcadia (also spelt Lykson of Arkadia if somebody could clarify the spelling) who served up a dish of human flesh to Zeus when the king of the Gods paid him a visit. Zeus was unamused. So unhappy in fact that he unleashed a flood that destroyed human civilisation and also condemned Lycaon to become a wolf doomed to eat any flesh that crossed his path. Including human of course.

This story is disturbing on many levels. It not only involves lycanthropy – believing you’re a wolf – but human sacrifice and a possible vindication of the global flood story in the Bronze Age that pops up in many myths and the Bible. The tale of Lycaon and his ill-advised hubris is told by the racy Roman poet, Ovid. He delighted in the details of the monarch’s downfall and being reduced to scrabbling around on all fours for meat.

Lycaon had clearly sacrificed a human being – possibly one of his own many sons – in order to provide Zeus with a meal. According to Plato and a later Greek writer, Pausanias, a curious ritual was held annually in the kingdom forever after involving a young noble transforming into a wolf by a lake. There was also the suggestion that human sacrifice was still being practised in this area as late as the 2nd century AD.

Werewolves Explained – Viking Beserkers and Ulfhednar

Not surprising that if imitating wild animals while shrieking and slaying was the order of the day – then the Vikings were almost bound to be involved. Beserkers wore bear skins and Ulfhednar opted for wolf skin. Both groups of warriors had such an insatiable appetite for bloodshed that before a battle they were said to bite their shields furiously, attack trees, and even kill a few people on their own side while warming up for the fighting ahead.

The famous Lewis chess set – dating back to the Viking period – has a knight who is biting his shield Beserker style – so this may be an accurate claim!

Werewolves Explained – lycanthropy in the bible?

As I mention in the film here, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is said to have turned into a wild animal and was sent away from his people during these phases of madness. Whether he actually transformed or believed he was a different creature is not exactly satisfactorily explained in the Book of Daniel. He appears to have suffered from either lycanthropy or ‘boanthropy’, because he’s described as an ox as opposed to a wolf in one verse of scripture.

This is the relevant passage in the bible:

While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”

That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.

The brilliant illustrator William Blake depicted Nebuchadnezzar in his bestial state.

Werewolves Explained – the boy wolves of India

The wolf boy (and girl) phenomenon has been reported for millennia. Right back to the myth of Romulus and Remus, babies suckled by a she-wolf who went on to found the city of Rome. Over the last 150 years, India has become a focal point for these stories. In 1867, a feral boy named Dina Sanichar was found living with wolves in the state of Uttar Pradesh at a time when India was under British colonial rule. His story is often cited as a major influence on the author Rudyard Kipling and his bestselling novel, The Jungle Book – later animated by Walt Disney.

In 1954 and 1976, two other wolf boys were discovered in India – exciting global media interest. The latter child was a baby when found and ended up in an orphanage run by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Shockingly to my view, he died at the age of ten in 1985.

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Rembrandt The Night Watch – being restored!

In September, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the latest stage in the restoration of the Rembrandt masterpiece known as The Night Watch. The huge and imposing canvas is out of its frame and being stretched between metal clamps and protected behind a thick glass screen. It’s a sight to behold!

Layers of varnish are being removed that darkened the painting for centuries – leading it to be falsely called The Night Watch. It’s actually not a dark, nocturnal setting at all. But removing the varnish has been a very worrying process. In taking this gunk off – will the paint strokes of Rembrandt come away as well?

Operation Night Watch – as the museum calls it – has been examining the effect of vibrations on the Rembrandt painting as well as removing the varnish. The work has been undertaken deliberately in public behind the glass screen so that visitors can share the experience. The operation is a collaboration with the Dutch chemicals company AkzoNobel which decades ago merged with the Swedish weapons manufacturer Nobel and its main business today is paint – for consumers and industries.

DISCOVER: How the tabloids covered the death of Princess Diana

Rembrandt The Night Watch – subjected to repeated attacks

As we know in Europe and the United States – attacking art works has unfortunately come back into fashion as a form of protest. It’s nothing new by the way. Though why art and sculpture held in a public institution paid for by taxpayers should be vandalised is beyond me.

Two protestors who threw paint recently at a Van Gogh in the National Gallery in London claimed to be doing so for “the poor”. Without realising that the poor can only ever see these works in such a museum – as opposed to the private collection of a Saudi prince or Russian oligarch. These days, public galleries couldn’t afford to buy a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt. But enough of my ranting on that subject!

The Night Watch was attacked with a knife in 1911 but the thick varnish stopped much damage being done. However, in the 1940s some of that varnish was removed. So when the painting was knifed again in 1975 – in a frenzy this time – it was much harder to restore and evidence of the slashing is still visible if you look closely. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an escaped psychiatric patient sprayed The Night Watch with acid in 1990. Yet somehow the Rembrandt masterpiece has endured!

DISCOVER: A day out in Georgian London!

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Werewolves explained – a terrifying history!

From Ancient Greek and Hindu mythology to the Vikings and medieval France and down to modern times – werewolves have enjoyed a long history. The idea of these half-human/half-wolf creatures that are capable of tearing innocent people to pieces. Transforming themselves, shape shifting from an ordinary person to a lupine monster.

So what is a werewolf? Well, somebody transformed into a werewolf still has the intelligence of a human being but combined lethally with the ferocity of a wolf and the strength of a demon. In other words, a werewolf isn’t just any old wolf. But something especially dangerous.

There’s a long standing fear in European culture of wolves attacking humans, which we can see in the cautionary fairy story: Little Red Riding Hood. Yet the evidence suggests that attacks on humans by wolves are exceedingly rare. Some argue, almost non-existent unless the wolf has contracted rabies.

What has most likely happened throughout history is that wolves have been found scavenging the corpse of somebody who has died of other causes – heart attack, murder, etc. And the sight of a wolf or wolves ripping apart a dead body has excited all the wrong conclusions.

Yet the stories of werewolf attacks have been surprisingly persistent.

DISCOVER: A real-life werewolf in England

Sabine Baring-Gould and the history of werewolves

In 1865, the Anglican cleric and author Sabine Baring-Gould published a very comprehensive history of these horrific creatures: The Book of Werewolves. Baring-Gould was a prolific writer whose output went from mainstream Christianity to the occult. Aside from his book about werewolves, he also penned the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Herodotus and the Neurians

In his acclaimed work on werewolves, the unassuming vicar gathered a ghoulish collection of werewolf stories from across history. He referenced an account by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who claimed that the Neuri people – believed to have lived in north-eastern Europe 2,500 years ago – were said to become wolves once a year.

Baring-Gold also mentioned the Rākṣasa – a kind of lupine demon in Hindu mythology that shape shifts between human, wolf and other forms. These demi-gods could be a force for good or evil – though evil seems to have been their forte. Duplicity was also a typical characteristic of the Rākṣasa.

The Saxon Wolfhead

In Saxon England, somebody declared to be an outlaw became a ‘wolfhead’: “He shall be driven away as a wolf, and chased so far as men chase wolves farthest”. An outlaw was placed outside of society and it was the duty of all law-abiding subjects of the kingdom to catch or kill that person. They had forfeited all the rights of an ordinary human being. If you want, they were reduced legally to the status of a wild animal.

Baring-Gould described the way in which warriors would wear animals skins in order to absorb the strength of a bear or a wolf. The Vikings in particular warmed to this idea. But in the medieval period, while the idea of wearing a skin to become an animal persisted, so did the curious notion that some people had what I can only describe as inside-out skins. Put another way, they were growing hair internally while presenting a smooth skin surface most of the time.

But at a whim, their skin turned inside out and suddenly you were presented with a werewolf!

The Werewolf of Chalons – and other French werewolves

If any country has been prone to werewolf manias, then it has to be France. Between the years 1520 and 1630, there is a French Werewolf Epidemic. For example, the so-called Werewolf of Châlons. He was a local tailor accused of murdering fifty children. He strenuously denied the charges though barrels full of small human bones were found at his workplace along with shallow graves in the backyard.

While in custody he experienced episodes of foaming at the mouth, which of course was interpreted as lycanthropy. It seems possible that the man was a deranged serial killer of children and the evidence – if true – would be very compelling today. But this being the year 1598, his ability to become a wolf had to also be proven. Fortunately for the authorities, at least one witness came forward to state they’d definitely seen the tailor transform into a wolf. He was then burned to death as a witch.

As late as the mid-18th century, France experienced The Beast of Gévaudan – a werewolf that accounted for several fatalities and serious injuries. King Louis XV sent one of his best hunters to go and kill the wolf. He brought back an impressive carcass of some wild animals which was stuffed and put on show at the royal palace at Versailles. Sadly the killings started once more, so that exhibit was discreetly thrown away. Eventually, a large wolf-like animal was killed and when cut open, was found to have human remains in its stomach.

Nazi Werewolves at the end of World War Two

At the end of World War Two as the Third Reich was crumbling and the Nazis faced defeat – an order was issued to support pro-Hitler units in parts of Germany that had fallen to Allied forces. These guerrilla units were referred to as ‘werewolves’. In April 1945, the Nazi-controlled Trans-Ocean news agency described werewolves as “wild beings who hide in the forest and pounce on all God’s creatures”.

The analogy to these informal Nazi units was obvious. But just in case anybody didn’t get the point, Trans-Ocean’s press release to global media continued: “Werewolves are the standard bearers of a fanatical struggle which must be waged with fanatical resolution. The werewolves must become the symbol of the struggle for liberation from the foreign invaders.” The “childish rules of so-called decent bourgeois warfare” were to be jettisoned by the werewolves.

Well – the werewolves failed. The Third Reich was toppled. And Hitler blew his brains out.

Do wolves attack humans?

The simple is that yes they do. But very rarely. And in the majority of cases, the reasons can be divided up into: Rabies – where diseased wolves have gone on the rampage. Habituation – where wolves have lost their fear of humans and even regarded them as a food source. Provocation – where a wolf has felt cornered or under threat.

Shortage of food can possibly lead wolves to attack humans – such as children working on the land. Wolves also have been known to attack and kill domestic dogs and a human might be savaged defending his beloved pet.

One thought on “Werewolves explained – a terrifying history!

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