Black British Georgian Rebel – William Davidson

In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.

Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.

Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.

This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Black British Rebel – William Davidson

Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.

Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!

suffragette terrorism

The Suffragette use of terrorism

Were you taught in history that the Suffragette campaign on votes for women just involved smashing a few shop windows and being chained to railings? Well, you may have been denied some critical information. Because the Suffragettes deployed tactics we would define today as terrorism. Some of this Suffragette terrorism was quite shocking and has been swept under the carpet.

From 1903 to 1918, an organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) spearheaded the campaign to gain the vote for women. The so-called “Suffragettes” emerged from a more moderate movement as the belief grew that only direction action would get results. Led by the mother and daughter team of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – they eventually adopted a bombing and arson campaign that we would easily define as terrorism.

However, this move to terrorist action has been rather airbrushed out of the Suffragette story. Most people are aware of the shop window smashing and chaining to railings but bombs in churches and railways stations has been pushed out of sight.

Using contemporary newspaper reports, the terrorist campaign of the suffragette movement is brought back to the fore and analysed. Did it work? How was it perceived at the time? Who were the targets? What were the methods used?

And as a fascinating postscript – why did some senior Suffragettes become fascists in the 1930s? Fifteen years after women got the vote in 1918, Suffragettes who had led the movement or been high profile members decided to follow Britain’s answer to Hitler and Mussolini – Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF).

Was there something about the terrorist campaign of the Suffragettes that led some in that political direction?

DISCOVER: Was Jesus Christ a terrorist?

Terrorism – borne out of frustration

The Suffragettes had always emphasised their belief in deeds over words. They upped the ante when attempts to gain votes for women by the parliamentary process failed. If democracy couldn’t deliver, then the bomb just might. That was their thinking, and the result was a wave of very real bomb and arson attacks.

The targets were government ministers, and institutions like the Church of England that Suffragettes felt had dragged their feet on the issue or simply opposed women’s suffrage. It seems incredible now, but parish churches were reduced to ashes and bombs planted in Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral.

On 19 February 1913, a bomb exploded at a large mansion being refurbished for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George – who would later become Prime Minister. Emmeline Pankhurst admitted responsibility personally at a rally in Cardiff. She justified the attack on Lloyd George saying that “we have tried blowing him up to wake his conscience”.

Lloyd George retorted that he did support women’s suffrage but not for a minority of well-heeled women (who would vote Conservative more than likely) and the militancy of the Suffragettes was damaging their cause.

A fellow cabinet minister in the Asquith government was a young Winston Churchill whose views on women’s suffrage were far more hostile. Though his exact words are debated, he did write a few years before that “only the most undesirable class of women are eager for the right” to vote. And that they were “adequately represented by their husbands”.

Churchill would be attacked by a male Suffragette wielding a dog whip in an incident that was notorious at the time.

FIND OUT MORE: Women denying women the vote!

Suffragette use of terrorism

We have been served up a story for a long time that the Suffragettes rather quaintly smashed windows with their umbrellas and chained themselves to railings. In the run up to the First World War, there was a seemingly ceaseless wave of bomb attacks on public places. By the end of the war, and the granting of votes to women, this aspect of the Suffragettes was swept under the carpet.

But it happened. And it undermines the oft stated mantra that the most successful civil rights campaigns eschewed violence. The Suffragettes had no qualms about terrorism. The Pankhursts didn’t hesitate to justify these tactics. And they displayed a haughty indifference to mainstream public opinion on the matter. Even a certain contempt and disregard for ordinary working-class people.

Some of their planned actions – which thankfully never came to fruition – included bombing attacks on cotton mills, timber yards, and docks. Also, postal depots and telephone operating facilities. These could only have harmed working-class people. One also has to wonder at what was going through the mind of the Suffragette concerned who placed a bomb in a third-class train carriage or under a seat in a train station waiting room in Liverpool.

DISCOVER: Gunpowder plot – 17th century terrorism

The Suffragette rationalism for terrorist methods

The attack on a mansion called The Elms, situated just outside London, is very noteworthy. It suggests that targets were not only those denying women the vote but opponents within the broader women’s suffrage movement. Because what we have here is a violent act against a female aristocrat who supported women’s suffrage but was opposed to the Suffragettes and their methods.

Rosalind Howard, Countess of Carlisle, was an elitist opponent of democracy who seems to have found the idea of working-class men having the vote problematic. But she did support votes for women though not using the deeds-based approach of the Pankhursts. In uncompromising terms, she said that the Suffragettes had “wrecked the progress of a great constitutional reform”.

And then her property, The Elms, was subject to an arson attack. The culprits were apprehended and faced their day in court. What followed gave an insight into the mindset of the average Suffragette terrorist.

In court, the judge – Justice Lawrence – was involved in a fascinating exchange with the accused arsonist Rachel Peace (real name Florence Jane Short). He asked the militant Suffragette if she agreed that a crime had been committed. Peace replied that she didn’t deny guilt but added “I suggest I am not guilty of any evil motive. My motive is pure”.

The judge insisted that the case had to be based on facts and not “the purity of your motive”. He added that had the fire extended from The Elms to other properties nearby then lives would undoubtedly have been lost. Peace retorted that was “very improbable”.

Justice Lawrence then pointed out that the Suffragettes in effect relied on the authorities to ensure that fatalities didn’t result from their bombings and arson:

“I am amused at your theories of probabilities. You seem to think you may break the law and rely on the officers of the law to prevent the consequences of your act in so doing. You rely on the policeman patrolling the streets to find the fire, and the Fire Brigade to prevent it from spreading to houses with people in them.”

Peace was treated appallingly in prison and subjected to forced feeding. This was commonly used with Suffragettes to break hunger strikes. The exchange above shows that in her view, the purity of motive was paramount, and the consequence of a terrorist action was secondary. The struggle was everything.

The inevitable hoax attacks

During the Suffragette terrorist campaign, there were undoubtedly hoax attacks by opportunists and idiots who having started a fire then blamed it on the campaign for the vote.

In the Welsh town of Abergavenny, an eighteen-year-old man, Douglas James, admitted in court to two charges of arson, both at a church rectory. To try and implicate the Suffragettes, he printed the words “Votes for Women” on a large piece of paper that he left at the scene of his crime.

Well, they do say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Gunpowder Plot

Gunpowder plot – 17th century terrorism!

In 1605, there was an audacious attempt to assassinate King James the First of England and his entire parliament. The so-called Gunpowder Plot was exactly that – a plot using gunpowder to send the king sky high. But why was this plot hatched?

It was very much rooted in the religious strife that was gripping England between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics had been forbidden to worship openly and their priests were executed in a very gruesome manner if caught. When James became king, some Catholics thought matters might improve as his late mother and wife were Roman Catholic.

DISCOVER: The Great Plague of London in 1665

But it was not to be. James decided not to rock the boat and accepted the Protestant settlement put in place by King Henry VIII decades earlier. He might have expected his subjects to just accept his decision. But that wasn’t going to be the case.

A man called Robert Catesby and like-minded plotters conspired to end the monarch’s life. One of the conspirators was Guy Fawkes – whose name has survived down the centuries. He was a military man who took charge of placing the explosives under parliament.

The plot was betrayed and those who were caught and taken to prison would later die horrifically in public on the scaffold. Watch the video on this page to get the fully story!

Loch Ness Monster

The enduring legend of the Loch Ness Monster

In the rugged highlands of Scotland there’s a large freshwater lake known as Loch Ness. It stretches for 23 miles flanked by rolling hills. And its depth reaches nearly 800 feet. The reason you’ve probably heard of Loch Ness isn’t because of the dimensions but what allegedly lies beneath its murky surface. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the lake is home to some type of prehistoric animal. Otherwise known as The Loch Ness Monster.

Saint Columba tames the Loch Ness Monster

Nearly all these claimed sightings date from the 20th and 21st centuries. However, there is one alleged account from the sixth century AD. At this time, in what used to be termed the ‘Dark Ages’ after the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, monks from Ireland kept the flame of Christianity burning. One of their number, Columba, journeyed to what is now Scotland determined to bring the gospels to the pagan inhabitants.

His mission was largely successful.  A century after Columba’s death, the abbot of Iona Abbey – a man called Adomnán – wrote a two-part biography of the heroic Irish monk. In the second part, he describes an encounter between Columba and Nessie (as the monster is fondly known today).

“The brute lay asleep in the riverbed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”

Well, of course, confronted by this astonishing sight – the locals deserted their pagan gods and converted to Christianity on the spot. Now, stories of heroes taming or killing beasts and dragons have been a feature of both Christian and pre-Christian mythology going back millennia. Normally as a way of proving that my god is better than your god. Look what he can do!

In Christian scripture, we have Saint Philip described in the Acts of Philip – a gnostic gospel the church chose not to include in the bible – casting a dragon out of a temple dedicated to Apollo. Then there is Saint George who as everybody knows slew a dragon. Saint Theodore of Amasea did a similar deed. And in the Book of Revelation, we see Michael the Archangel sticking it to a devilish reptile.

Was Columba’s beast Nessie? That is a moot point. His biography states the monster was to be found in the River Ness, which flows from the lake. And that’s good enough for Nessie fans.

DISCOVER: So – did aliens from outer space civilise us?

Fast forward to the 1930s

We then have an enormous gap in the Nessie story from the sixth century AD to the 1930s. Had the monster gone into a multi-century hibernation – or swum off elsewhere? Who knows?

But for whatever reason, Nessie takes off in the decade that brought you the Great Depression and the Third Reich. Were people in the 1930s looking for a little escapism? Or were they influenced by Hollywood movies that had begun to master special effects. In the 1933 epic King Kong, we see the gigantic ape kill dinosaurs in the jungle. Could this imagery have been burned into the public consciousness?

In 1933, a newspaper article in the Inverness Courier sparked the Nessie craze. A married couple had seen a whale-like creature in Loch Ness.

“The creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam.”

Something about this story fired people up. A circus offered a £2,000 reward to capture the beast (how very King Kong!!).  While the Daily Mail newspaper sent a big game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell to see if he could bag the monster. A breathless Wetherell reported back that he found gigantic footprints by the lake. Sadly, these turned out to have been created by hoaxers using the stuffed foot of a hippopotamus.

Incredibly, the famous author and member of the Bloomsbury group Virginia Woolf was swept up by Nessie mania. She wrote to her sister:

“We met a charming couple in an inn, who were in touch through friends, with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at intense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”

For the next twenty years, glimpses of the monster would continue to be reported. In 1959, a local firefighter, Peter O’Connor, was condemned for planning to kill Nessie. A year later, the chief constable of Inverness, J. R. Johnstone, called on parliament to pass legislation protecting the monster from “human villainy”.

The 1960s gets a bit silly

The decade that brought us the permissive society also loved to poke fun at pomposity. It took the Loch Ness legend and turned it into a comic British movie with a smutty title: What a Whopper.

The movie’s protagonist Tony Blake – played by real-life early 60s pop heartthrob Adam Faith – is an author whose book on Nessie has just been roundly rejected by publishers. So, to drum up interest he goes up to Loch Ness to fake a sighting. When his plan fails, Blake is forced to flee across the lake from angry locals…at which point the real monster appears.

Is this movie garbage? Oh god yes! As an aside, I worked with Adam Faith on a media venture forty years later at the turn of the 21st century and made sure I never mentioned What a Whopper to him. Some points in your life are best forgotten.

The use and misuse of science

There have been numerous attempts to apply scientific methods to the search for the Loch Ness Monster. In May 1973, a Boston patent attorney called Robert Rines took sonar and underwater photographic equipment to Loch Ness and claimed to prove the existence of “at least two large marine animals”.

Rines had set up an organisation called the Academy of Applied Sciences that despite its name, railed against “official science” because, as Rines told journalists, “organised science doesn’t know how to handle oral evidence”. This is a familiar trope of pseudo-science – arguing that real science should be a blend of peer-reviewed evidence and what a bloke said down the pub.

Over the last fifty years, expeditions to Loch Ness have used sonar probes, a submarine, a gyrocopter, a trained dolphin, a baited cage, an amphibious Volkswagen, and a model monster smeared with salmon oil to try and locate Nessie.

The sightings have come thick and fast with sceptics rolling their eyes and attributing the visual phenomena to otters, ducks, seals, cormorants, mirages, shadows and even rotting vegetation. All of this not helped by the dark gloom of the water, which is caused by the surrounding peat. It gives the lake an impenetrable and mysterious aspect.

The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited

In December 1961, an organisation was set up to investigate claims about Nessie: The Loch Ness Investigation Bureau Limited. The founders were David James MP, Richard Fitter, the author Constance Whyte, and Sir Peter Scott.

Scott was a conservationist and the only son of the famous and fabled Scott of the Antarctic – the doomed explorer. Sir Peter worked with the above mentioned Rines and in 1975, they provided blurry photos of what looked like an underwater prehistoric creature, which was given the Latin name Nessiteras rhombopteryx.

Now I remember as a 12-year-old how exciting this was initially until some people began to analyse that Latin a little more closely. Didn’t it look suspiciously like an anagram? The Daily Telegraph newspaper decoded it as: “Monster Hoax by Sir Peter S”. A furious Rines countered that it could also read as: “Yes, both pix are monsters, R.”

The damage, however, was done – and no more was heard about that photo. In 2008, before his death, Rines announced that he believed Nessie had become extinct due to global warming.

Russian versions of the Loch Ness Monster

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, I remember as a child reading a sneering feature article in a Soviet publication laughing at the west’s obsession with childish fantasies like the Loch Ness Monster. It was symptomatic of our inferior bourgeois, capitalist mentality.

Only, Russia can hardly lecture the west on this subject. Back in 1953, members of a geological expedition claimed they could verify a local folktale about a monster living in a large body of water in Russia’s far east. The Labynkyr Devil was described by local fishermen as a “huge aggressive monster with a big mouth full of sharp teeth”.

What nonsense, the Soviet scientists initially retorted – before apparently running into it. One of the geological team, Viktor Tverdokhlebov, described a dark, grey creature moving at speed. “There was no doubt, we had seen the Devil – the legendary monster of this locale,” Viktor said afterwards.

And then there’s the Brosno Dragon, tales of which go back 800 years. Allegedly when the Mongols swept across Russia in the Middle Ages, the dragon obligingly stopped the Mongol army from seizing the city of Veliky Novgorod. As the Mongols unwisely watered their horses by the dragon’s lake – it leaped out and tore the warriors to pieces.

The rise and fall of Nessie?

In many ways, Nessie was a creation of mass media. The popular press and radio latched on to this fantastical story and amplified it globally. But one newspaper article in recent years has raised the point that modern media today is a double-edged sword. It can spread fake news and conspiracy theories with remarkable speed and impact. But it also punctures silly stories very quickly. The journalist posed the question whether the internet has now killed off Nessie?

Nazis who fled to Egypt

Leading Nazis either died with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin as the Soviets closed in; got themselves executed by hanging after being tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War; or simply disappeared off the face of the Earth (often to Latin America). Some Nazis though found a new home – in Egypt.

In a bizarre turn, many adopted new Arab names and even converted to Islam. Living in the Egyptian capital Cairo, they enjoyed the protection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These unrepentant Nazis played a massive role in poisoning the discourse between Arabs and Jews continuing the anti-Semitic propaganda they had refined and spread under Hitler’s Third Reich.

Nazis working in Egypt as propagandists against Zionism

President Nasser of Egypt was a charismatic figure on the 1950s world stage. An imposing and proud nationalist attempting to shake off the last vestiges of British Empire rule in Egypt but also embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with neighbouring Israel.

Without going too much into the dynamics and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which is well covered elsewhere – Nasser sanctioned the setting up of the Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1955. This organisation staffed by Nazis who had worked for the Reich used conflict with Israel to stoke hatred of Jews. This was simply a continuation of the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry in a different context.

Two of the Institute’s leading lights were Nazis who had reported directly to the head of propaganda in the Third Reich – Joseph Goebbels. One was the Institute’s Director Alfred Zingler who converted to Islam and adopted the name Mahmoud Saleh.

Some people seem to have even believed he was Egyptian born and bred. He was nothing of the sort. Zingler was a German Nazi who fled his homeland as the war ended.

The other leading light was Johann Jakob von Leers who had also become a Muslim and taken the name Omar Amin. His route out of Germany to Egypt had been via Argentina. While working for Nasser, Von Leers kept up a correspondence with Otto Ernst Remer, the military officer who foiled the Valkyrie plot against Hitler’s life in 1944 leading to the execution of all the main conspirators. An event dramatised in the Hollywood movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Von Leers was no slouch when it came to attacking Jews under the Third Reich. An academic, he had produced papers likening Jews to a plague that needed to be eradicated. He and Zingler brought in other Nazi chums from their time working for Goebbels – who had committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war. Goebbels’ wife Magda notoriously poisoned all six of her children as one last act of loyalty to the now crazed Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry might have been no more – but there was plenty of work for former employees in Cairo.

Dr Werner Witschale and Hans Appler were two former Goebbels operatives who now joined the Institute. Appler had taken the name Saleh Shafar. Louis Heiden had worked for the Reich’s news agency and in Egypt set about producing an Arabic translation of Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf.

Predictably, the Institute also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a book purporting to reveal a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world that was in fact, an early 20th century example of disinformation or fake news. Forged by the Tsarist secret police as part of the Russian state’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet, it has retained the veneer of authenticity in the Middle East to the present day. In no small part due to the activities of Nazis operating under the radar in 1950s Egypt.

Other Nazis who found a new life under Nasser in Egypt – and an opportunity to continue venting their hatred of Jewish people included ex-Gestapo officer Franz Bartel, SS espionage chief Walter Bollmann and SS officer Werner Birgel.

Doctor Death in Cairo

One of the most ghoulish Nazis to end up in Egypt was Aribert Heim – better known as the Butcher of Mauthausen. An SS doctor, Heim enthusiastically took up a medical position at the Mauthausen concentration camp as it exterminated enemies of the Reich using lethal injections, a gas chamber and a combination of starvation and backbreaking work.

Inmates referred to him as Doctor Death. Pseudo-scientific experiments were an exercise in brutal sadism. Heim kept the skull of an 18-year-old patient he murdered while under anaesthetic as a desk ornament. It’s alleged that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of non-terminals patients.

Incredibly, Heim was released from prison by the Allies after the war and worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962 when he fled the country as the West German police closed in on him. He ended up in Cairo where he followed the example of his Nazi comrades and converted to Islam adopting the name Tarek Hussein Farid. Local people came to know him as “Uncle Tarek”.

It was claimed that he died of cancer in Egypt in 1993 but this was disputed for a decade by the Simon Wiesenthal Center which has specialised in hunting down surviving Nazis since World War Two.

Nasser, Israel and the Nazis

It’s ironic that while Nasser protected former Nazis who were used to develop arguments against Zionism, he also characterised Israel as a Nazi state – something that you still hear today. Of course these Nazis – who had overseen the Holocaust of millions of Jews – were only too happy to do their bit to try and sink Israel. A country created largely as a result of what had the Third Reich had done to European Jewry.

There had been a significant Jewish population in Egypt for over two thousand years if not longer. And Nasser grew up very near a Jewish neighbourhood so it wasn’t like he’d never met a Jewish person. In fact, in his early years as a political figure in Egypt, Nasser wasn’t immediately hostile to Israel.

But as he positioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab movement spanning the whole of the Middle East, the pressure built to adopt an anti-Israel position. Something that would play well on the street and with other Arab countries. He fell into line with the argument that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe for the Arab world that had split Arabs in North Africa from their brothers in the Middle East. Only its disappearance would resolve matters.

Today, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is becoming more complex while the plight of the Palestinian people remains intractable. But whatever one thinks of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today – the role of undercover Nazis in stoking hatred in the region after the Second World War is a story that needs to be told and remembered.

Francis Tumblety – Abraham Lincoln plotter and Jack the Ripper

Who knew there was a link between the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and a slew of brutal murders by the mysterious and still unidentified 19th century serial killer, Jack the Ripper. The link is a single man: Francis Tumblety. Arrested by American police in 1865 as a suspected plotter against the life of Lincoln. And then detained by British police 23 years later because it was believed he might be Jack the Ripper.

Neither charge stuck. But how incredible that in one lifetime, this very odd man and rampant self-publicist managed to be implicated in two of the worst crimes of that century.

FIND OUT MORE: What did Victorians think of Jack the Ripper?

The world of Jack the Ripper

This week, I’m being interviewed for a TV documentary on Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who terrorised Victorian London. His identity has never been revealed since his spate of vicious murders of women in 1888. Notoriously, the Ripper eviscerated these poor souls removing their organs and leaving their bodies in an almost unrecognisable state.

The gruesome story has gripped the public ever since. It happened at a time when the police were still a relatively new institution that hardly commanded widespread respect. Indeed the cops were mercilessly ridiculed for their handling of the case.

And it was also a period when our modern mass media was emerging. Sensationalist newspapers with pictures for a working-class readership that pushed aside stuffy, dense periodicals only browsed by the upper classes. This was the first stirrings of infotainment.

Into this new world – and largely created by it – came Jack the Ripper. The newspapers slavishly followed the police investigation and published all the salacious details of the most recent killing. The butchered women acquired a fame in death that they had never known in life. The police were only too happy to share new clues and show off their questionable detection skills.

Jack the Ripper suspect Francis Tumblety

Given the way in which the Ripper’s victims were seemingly dissected and emptied of their organs, some have wondered whether the killer was a surgeon. Or at least somebody with a little medical training.

Enter the story Irish American fraudster and exhibitionist Francis Tumblety. Already a figure known to American journalists as a charismatic charlatan and fraudster. Incredibly, implicated briefly in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, he was then cleared, until years later he was accused of being Jack the Ripper.

An astonishing thought that England’s most prolific serial killer could have been an American!

Who was Francis Tumblety?

When Tumblety was arrested in 1888 in London suspected of being the Ripper – he was no stranger to the American media. Indeed, American journalists and police may have tipped off their counterparts in London about him.

Tumblety was a ‘quack’ doctor who for decades in the United States and Canada had sold duff cures for pimples and conducted illegal abortions. Known as the ‘Indian Herb Doctor’, he would announce his arrival in a new city with much fanfare brandishing approving commendations from global heads of state and other famous people including the author Charles Dickens.

He seems to gone through periods of making a considerable amount of money selling quack cures. And even conning his way into an American military college to deliver a medical lecture to young recruits. On this occasion, he displayed his disturbing collection of uteruses in jars – which also featured in his shop. It was this rather bizarre assemblage of women’s body parts that would raise suspicions during the Ripper enquiry in London. But that was in the future.

From the 1850s to the 1880s, Tumblety practised his career as a wannabe doctor at a time when desperate people would pay for any kind of cure. Sometimes he would practice ‘medicine’ in Canada and then skip over the border to the United States when he had to move again after being found out.

A newspaper report in May 1865 claims he ‘cleared’ about twenty thousand dollars while presenting himself as a doctor in Toronto. That is an astonishing amount of money for the time and would have made him a wealthy man.

Tumblety moved from city to city in the United States and hopped back and forth across the Atlantic, staying for periods in England, for two reasons. One was that every so often his so-called cures were exposed as garbage and he fled his furious patients. Second was repeat arrests for ‘gross indecency’, which was basically the Victorian way of describing homosexual acts – same-sex encounters. To avoid prison or worse, he would make a quick getaway.

DISCOVER: Lewis Powell – handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

From Abraham Lincoln to Jack the Ripper

And so, Tumblety found himself in the working class East End of London in 1888 just as Jack the Ripper was doing his worst. The tall American in a ‘slouch hat’ seems to have attracted attention. But the evidence against him as a potential candidate for being Jack the Ripper was pretty slim. A letter discovered in 1993 and written by a retired police inspector in 1913 details the case against “Doctor T”.

By our standards, it’s incredibly homophobic and circumstantial. The argument – if it can be called that – runs along the lines that – oh well, Tumblety was a known homosexual. They can often be sadistic in their sexual practices – with an example given in the letter. Tumblety hates women. And he has a collection of uteruses. Ergo – he is Jack the Ripper.

This interest in female body parts and his alleged outspoken hatred of women was enough to convince the London police to arrest Tumblety. There was also a long string of convictions going back to his youth. He was, in the eyes of law enforcement, a serial criminal. So why not a serial killer?

From Lincoln’s killer to Jack the Ripper

During the course of their investigations, London police would have been made aware by American cops that Tumblety had been arrested back in 1865 in relation to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This followed the testimony of a male teenager who had worked as an errand boy for Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

He alleged that Tumblety, known at this time as the “Indian Herb Doctor”, had a very intimate relationship with Booth. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – everybody knew what that meant!

Yes…yes…even in 19th century America.

A newspaper report I include below from the time also implicated Tumblety in an “intimate” relationship with David Herold – also a Lincoln plot conspirator who, like Booth, would be executed by hanging.

The notorious Tumblety

What I find very noteworthy about the report is its description of Tumblety as a “notorious” figure already well known across the United States. He certainly wasn’t publicity shy. But this high profile would land him in very hot water twice in his life with the prospect of hanging from a noose as a plotter against Lincoln and the slayer of women in London.

The nature of his business meant that he was part doctor and part showman. Whenever Tumblety set up in a new city with his quack cures, he would ride down the street attired in a strange military uniform including a spiked helmet on a white steed with a hound running at his die. Sometimes with a boy dressed as a native American handing out leaflets. He must have been quite a sight!

But Tumblety aroused hostility and news of his sexuality can’t have helped. Even though he was cleared of any involvement in Lincoln’s assassination, it’s hard to ignore the smear that he and Booth were “intimate”. And the heavily hinted amorous link to one of the other conspirators.

Taking things an audacious step further forward – it has also made others ponder whether Lincoln himself was gay. This was first mooted a hundred years ago.

The fact Lincoln shared his bed as a young man with a friend called Joshua Speed divides opinion with some saying – yep, gay – and others retorting – no, that’s just what chaps did back then. In 2004, a new claim surfaced that Lincoln had a same sex relationship with his bodyguard David V. Derickson.

Back in the 1920s, an early biography of Lincoln by Carl Sandburg found “streaks of lavender” in the president’s life story. The thought that crossed my mind was whether Lincoln could conceivably have ever made contact with any of the plotters on the theatrical ‘scene’ prior to his assassination.

Tell me what you think!

Jack the Ripper AND Lincoln assassin?

It is incredible to consider that Tumblety could be arrested in his lifetime for two of the most notorious crimes in history: the assassination of President Lincoln and the killings of Jack the Ripper. But he was able to avoid prosecution on both occasions.

Was he a victim of prejudice or misunderstanding?

Well, yes in part. But Tumblety was also an inveterate conman. An utterly untrustworthy individual. He sold hokum to the gullible making considerable amounts of money according to contemporary reports. But always being rumbled at some point.

Tumblety had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Consorting with Booth as this man decided to kill Lincoln. And hanging out in Whitechapel as a murderer stalked its streets.

Coincidence? You decide.

medieval easter monks

Medieval monks clash over Easter

Easter should be a time for Christians when they celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in the Medieval period – it was just as likely a time for bitter quarrels about the timing of Easter. Calculating the right date depended on the movements of the moon and the sun. The faithful needed to know the right date for Easter in order to conduct the fast over Lent. But the monks often let them down.

In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, monks in Britain, Ireland and Europe were at total loggerheads over the timing of Easter. They attacked each other’s calculations as completely wrong. The bible wasn’t very helpful in resolving anything because it simply pointed out that the crucifixion happened during the Jewish passover. What would have helped more was an exact time and date.

The Jewish calendar was lunar whereas the Christian church calendar was solar. It’s no accident that key Christian events were timed to coincide with the solstices, which had previously been linked to pagan festivities. So, the winter solstice became Christmas and the summer solstice celebrated the birth of John the Baptist. But what to do about Easter?

Some early Christians just followed their Jewish neighbours and working on the assumption that the crucifixion happened at the Passover, celebrated Easter at the same time regardless of the day. Others aimed for the full moon in the first spring month. The church disliked this localised approach to choosing a date for Easter. It was time to impose one Easter Day on all Christians.

Monks, maths and Easter

At the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, it was decided that Easter would always fall on a Sunday and that day would be determined well in advance with a series of complex calculations expressed in a table. Prepare for lots of confusion and arguments! Because monks in different abbeys fell out with each other in some style over these calculations and the rows led to excommunications and the ostracising of rebellious monastic communities.

Easter it was decided should be on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Vernal equinox. But that full moon was not the actual astronomical phenomenon. No – it was a mathematically arrived at ecclesiastical full moon. So, medieval monks got out their quills and exercised both their mathematical and astronomical skills. Especially monks in Ireland and the north of England – who frequently clashed.

Celtic monks v Roman monks – battling over Easter

The Irish monks were particularly intransigent. Their tables for calculating Easter were based on an 84-year lunar cycle compared to the rest of Europe which worked out the date of Easter each year on a 19-year cycle. An exasperated Pope Honorius the First wrote to Irish monks in the year 629 AD telling them “not to think that their small number, at the furthest ends of the earth, were wiser than all the ancient and modern churches of Christ thoughout the world”.

In other words, stop thinking you’re smarter than everybody else and fall into line!

DISCOVER: The last hours of the life of Jesus Christ

Nobles followed either the monks loyal to the Pope or the rebel Celts. In the seventh century this led to a situation where the pro-Celtic King of Northumbria, Oswy, was celebrating Easter while his pro-Roman queen was still on Palm Sunday. This was so absurd that the Venerable Bede, a leading monastic chronicler of the time, spat blood at the Celtic monks accusing them of heresy against the church.

Well, it was all resolved after a fashion. Though the eastern Orthodox church still calculates Easter differently to the Roman Catholic church. Nevertheless, this weekend, we will all be celebrating Easter in our own way. A far cry from the medieval battles over dating Easter.

Was Jesus Christ a terrorist?

I’m launching a new YouTube series linked to this blog called History’s Terrorists. Over several episodes, I’ll look at groups and individuals we previously might have regarded as heroic or charismatic and ask – if we’d been there at the time, would we have sided with the authorities and branded them as terrorists? And my first question in episode one is whether Jesus and the zealot cult known as the Sicarii could be classified as terrorist or not?

The intention isn’t to cause offence but to re-appraise historical events. Think about it. You are a merchant in biblical Judaea in the first century AD. You attend the Temple every week, pay your taxes and keep out of trouble. The Romans maintain order though you may not like them particularly but Judaea has nearly always been under foreign control. The Temple priests are a well-heeled bunch who clearly do well out of their position but they are the leaders of your religion, which you adhere to out of deep faith.

Jesus the Terrorist from Galilee

Then along comes some loudmouthed peasant from Galilee and a rabble of disciples. They go into the Temple and overturn the tables of the money exchangers during the sacred festival of Passover. Their leader, in his rustic accent, loudly claims to be the son of God. That he will one day rule over Judaea with his father in heaven. You snort derisively and are shocked, maybe even angered by his blasphemy.

DISCOVER: Jesus Christ – man or myth?

Hopefully, the Roman procurator or the Temple priests will deal with these troublemakers. Well, sure enough – they do. And it’s not an end for Jesus that especially troubles you. Those guilty of treason and sedition are routinely crucified. It’s a deliberately demeaning form of death meant to discourage others. You don’t go along to watch. It’s all rather tawdry. Instead, you heave a sigh of relief and get on with your business.

Imagine if somebody like Jesus entered your town today. Would you hail him as the Messiah or just see another cult leader taking advantage of the gullible and vulnerable? It’s more than likely he’d be viewed by you and your neighbours as a madman or a terrorist. You’d expect the local police to act quickly and restore peace and order.

Well, in the episode of History’s Terrorists below – I argue that not only Jesus but a cult of dagger-wielding zealots that operated around the same time in Judaea called the Sicarii would all have been viewed as a dangerous terrorist phenomenon. Watch and tell me if you agree!

Alaska Russia Putin

What if Russia invaded Alaska?

On the wall of my study is an 1829 map that I bought in a book store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back showing north America. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, still ruled Texas and California. But what a modern viewer might find shocking is that Alaska is part of Russia. And not just the Alaska you know today. But a territory ruled by the Russian tsar that extended right down to Oregon.

You may be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase that saw the United States buy a huge chunk of territory from Montana to Louisiana from the French government in 1803 that doubled the size of the U.S. But less well known is the Alaska Purchase of 1867. That saw what we now call Alaska bought from the Russian Empire.

DISCOVER: The history of Russia and fake news goes back a long way!

In the previous decade, Russia had lost the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire (ruled from what is now Istanbul). That had been a war provoked by Russian imperial aggression. But having been defeated, Tsar Alexander II decided he couldn’t commit resources to defending this far off province. At the same time, he didn’t want Britain to grab it – as they already ruled Canada. So – he sold Alaska to the United States. Hence that strange part of the U.S. detached from the rest of the nation.

The price was crazily cheap at way less than a dollar a mile. Thirty years later the Russians would kick themselves as the Klondike Gold Rush overwhelmed the state in the 1890s. Over a hundred thousand prospectors would descend to get rich quick. Russia had to watch helplessly wondering why it had let that mineral-rich land go at a rock bottom price.

They’re still sore today. And there have been concerns voiced in recent years about growing Russian encroachment. As the ice cap melts and new waterways are created, Arctic and Native American communities have noted an increasing Russian naval presence. If you spin the globe northwards and look down at the balance of power in the Arctic as a region, it is massively tilted towards Putin and Russia. That’s in terms of deep water ports, airfields and ice breakers.

Maybe Putin has the same 1829 map on his study wall and every so often glances at it with a malevolent leer. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem improbable!

The cheque that bought Alaska!

Fear of nuclear war in the 1980s

In February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated the possible use of nuclear weapons as he pushed ahead with the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. This sent a shudder of familiarity down the spines of anybody aged 50 and over. Those of us who grew up in the last phases of the Cold War when fear of nuclear conflict reached a terrifying height in the early 1980s. For young people – this unfamiliar territory so let’s shine a light on the past.

Protect and Survive – advice on living through a nuclear war

It’s been a long time since nuclear war gave me butterflies in my stomach. But back in the early 1980s, many young people surveyed genuinely believed they would die in a nuclear conflict. From the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom government issued public information guidance on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. This culminated in 1980 with the issue of a notorious pamphlet: Protect and Survive.

This guidance was intended to be distributed to families once the nuclear threat was very real. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy back then and I share some images below. Very much in the DIY spirit of the time, people were instructed on how to radiation-proof their homes. This involved moving furniture in front of windows, blocking up fireplaces and creating a lean-to shelter by propping up doors against a wall.

A lot of this reflected Second World War approaches to surviving Nazi airborne bombing raids in major cities. You dug a shelter in the garden. Went underground. Avoided the blast as best you could. But given what we knew after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions in Japan that ended World War Two in a blaze of catastrophic radiation – we were a bit sceptical about this pamphlet!

DISCOVER: Fear in history – what scared us in the past?

Protest and Survive – pamphlet reflecting widespread fear of nuclear war

In fact, Protect and Survive was ridiculed in an alternative pamphlet titled Protest and Survive. Authored by veteran Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, it included quotes from government documents that made sobering reading. For example, in 1976, the Home Office had issued guidance to the chief executives of local authorities on what to do after a nuclear attack:

“When radiological conditions permitted movement, district and borough London controllers should assume that one of the priority tasks for their staff, in areas where survivors where to continue residing, would be to collect and cremate or inter human remains in mass graves.”

And this from the Home Office advising healthcare managers:

“Trained health service staff would be vital to the future and should not be wasted by allowing them to enter areas of high contamination where casualties would, in any case, have small chance of long-term recovery.”

FIND OUT MORE: AIDS and Soviet disinformation in the 1980s

Fear about nuclear war returns as never before

The end of the 1970s saw a dramatic change in the global political dynamic. Ronald Reagan was elected president in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The rhetoric towards the Soviet Union was dialled up and on both sides, new nuclear weapons were deployed. To be blunt – this freaked young people out. And suddenly, protest about nuclear weapons was back in vogue!

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) saw a huge surge in membership and monster demonstrations through the middle of London. About 300,000 marched in 1983. I attended the 1981 demos where an estimated quarter of a million marched.

This was a revival for CND from its previous heyday in the 1950s when earnest students and intellectuals in duffel coats had rallied in Westminster or marched on the atomic weapons research establishment at Aldermaston. But after the 1963 Test Ban Treaty and a calming in tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, fear of nuclear war and protest activity receded.

In fact, in the 1970s – a decade brimming with protest movements – anti-nuclear barely got a look in. Driving through Europe as a kid in the 70s with my parents, the most notable anti-nuclear presence were German hippies in VW camper vans covered in smiley anti-nuclear stickers saying: Atomkraft? Nein Danke.

Otherwise, we switched on our TVs to see the US President of the day (Richard Nixon then later Jimmy Carter) engaged in long and tedious negotiations with the Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to limit their respective nuclear arsenals. Even as a politics-obsessed child, I struggled to be interested in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT for short. Things on the nuclear front seemed to be broadly under control with the certainty of mutually assured destruction (appropriately MAD for short) ruling out the use of these bombs.

And then everything changed. Thatcher and Reagan were demonised as the architects of an upcoming Armageddon. Women protestors set up a Peace Camp outside the Greenham Common armed forces base over the proposed siting of cruise missiles there. Pop groups began singing about nuclear conflict – the list of songs on the topic is endless from this period. I try and avoid linking to Wikipedia but on this occasion – there is a comprehensive list of 80s nuclear pop hits HERE.

Fear of nuclear war recedes again

With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, the fear moved to nuclear material finding its way into the wrong hands – especially terrorists. But the idea of nation states using nuclear weapons in a war that could wipe us all out faded away. Well, history is cruel. And here we are again. Let’s see if Vladimir Putin would really do what Leonid Brezhnev was not prepared to countenance.