The Anarchist assassination of President McKinley

Everybody knows about the assassination of two US Presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F Kennedy in 1963. But what about President William McKinley on 14 September, 1901? Shot at point-blank range by an anarchist called Leon Czolgosz and dying of his wounds just over a week later. As we move into a stormy political period worldwide, this assassination is the one we should all know about.

The murder of McKinley was part of a global wave of assassinations that claimed top political leaders including McKinley. Other victims of the anarchists included the King of Italy, President of France, Tsar of Russia, King of Greece, and the Empress of Austria. In 1920, an anarchist bomb detonated on Wall Street, the financial heart of New York, killed 38 people. The worst terrorist atrocity in the city until 9/11.

In the 1890s and up until the 1920s, there were secret anarchist cells operating on American soil planning attacks in the United States and around the world. The successful plot to kill the King of Italy, Umberto I, in 1900 was hatched in New Jersey and implemented by an Italian-American called Gaetano Bresci, who travelled to Italy to carry out the murderous deed.

The assassination of President McKinley was carried out by a working-class Polish American, Leon Czolgosz, who was known to some of the leading anarchists in the United States including Emma Goldman – a globally recognised figure at the time. Czolgosz may have carried out the crime as a lone operator to prove his worth to comrades, some of whom thought he was an ‘agent provocateur’ in the pay of the police. Or he may have been directed by other anarchists.

DISCOVER: The eight assassination attempts on Queen Victoria

Ten facts about the anarchist assassination of President William McKinley

Here are ten facts about the McKinley assassination that you might not know:

  1. Newspapers had been warning of an anarchist-inspired attack on the President for weeks before. One senior police officer thought the same anarchist cell behind the killing of King Umberto of Italy was planning to murder McKinley.
  2. President McKinley’s killer – the anarchist Leon Czolgosz – was suspected by his fellow anarchists of being a police spy.
  3. Czolgosz hid his gun in a handkerchief and in a major security breach fire at very close range at McKinley.
  4. An African-American called James Benjamin Parker, born to enslaved parents in 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia stopped Czolgosz firing a third shot into McKinley and his heroism led to public call for a statute to be erected of Parker. Sadly he died in poverty six years later.
  5. Anarchists were rounded up across the United States after the death of President McKinley including the infamous Emma Goldman described as the “queen of anarchism”
  6. President McKinley loved meeting the public and boasted he could shake fifty hands a minute
  7. McKinley removed one of the bullets that Czolgosz had fired himself as he was being stretchered out as that bullet had glanced off his suit buttons while the other had penetrated his abdomen and would kill him
  8. The President urged his security detail to stop beating Czolgosz after the shooting
  9. The assassination happened at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York state, and there was an early X-Ray machine being used as a fun exhibit but it was not deployed by medical staff to find the bullet lodged deep in the President
  10. Czolgosz was condemned to the electric chair but a film widely circulated on YouTube purporting to show his execution is actually a re-enactment with an actor produced by Thomas Edison’s film company. His last words before the volts were fired through his body were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.

This YouTube film below that I presented, directed and produced tells most of the story of the McKinley assassination. Below it, I share even more salacious details – including questions we have to ask about the personal lives of and psychology of these anarchists.

The ceaseless slayings by anarchist assassins had experts scratching their heads. What was motivating these killers? Psychology was in its infancy. Months before McKinley’s death, Professor Cesare Lombroso at the University of Turin published a study that reads today more like a tabloid newspaper rant than a serious analysis. He called the anarchist assassins “moral madmen, half-educated, or not educated at all”.

He took aim specifically at Luigi Luccheni, a fellow Italian who had murdered the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 with a knife while she was taking a stroll in the Swiss city of Geneva. Professor Lombroso pointed to Luccheni’s troubled childhood as “the son of a tippling priest of unsteady mind, and of a servant”. Raised in a foundling asylum, then farmed out to various foster parents, followed by a period of begging. And he was epileptic. Seemingly “gentle natured” and kind to children. Nevertheless a terrible anger was building up inside him.

Luccheni “feels the breath of anarchy” – Lombroso wrote – which he believes can “avenge his many grievances”. This is a recognised pattern in radicalisation today. Grievance creates a cognitive opening for terrorist ideology which legitimises and enables violent action. He stabbed the Empress. After his arrest, Luccheni claimed he would have killed any aristocrat who crossed his path that day “even if she had been a little baby”.

At his trial, Luccheni demanded the death penalty. He wanted to die. Professor Lombroso concluded that “his homicide is nothing except an indirect suicide”. What law enforcement today calls ‘suicide by cop’ when an individual knowingly provokes the police into a deadly response to kill themselves. Lombroso noted this character trait in many of the anarchist assassins of his time.

But then Lombroso took a weirder turn in his analysis. Not only was Luccheni suicidal (he did go on to hang himself in jail), but he was…”in temperament a homosexual”. Worse – a homosexual with epilepsy! This is of course wildly offensive today. Lombroso’s theory is that anarchists like Luccheni swung between criminality and anarchy. He could tell what phase Luccheni was in by his handwriting – going from “small and feminine characters” (presumably in his homosexual/anarchist phase) to criminality, when his handwriting got bigger and more butch!

Lombroso characterised anarchists as something akin to werewolves who kill in a trance-like state and then have to sleep it off. As for the epilepsy: “Epilepsy, moreover, is extremely frequent among anarchists, and one might say that it was the basis of action among the bomb-throwing anarchists”. The debate about the relationship between mental illness and radicalisation into terrorism is still very live today but experts are more careful about how they frame the issue.

This is an image of Luccheni under arrest below looking very pleased with himself.

The contemporary debate about the motivations of anarchist killers threw up some crazy ideas. Madame De Thebes, a Paris-based palmist, was sure that the answer lay in examining the shape of anarchists’ hands. She had examined the hands of several anarchist assassins and noted marked similarities.

The hand of a standard murderer is less detailed than an ordinary hand because the lines indicating love, long life, and domestic happiness are not there apparently. Neither are the raised mounts that tell of success and “worthy ambition”. But the politically motivated murderer, Madame De Thebes observed “has a less brutal hand than the ordinary murderer”.

Although the Parisian palmist had nothing good to say about the hand of Italian-born, French resident Sante Geronimo Caserio – an anarchist who successfully stabbed President Marie François Sadi Carnot to death in 1894 and was guillotined for his crime. His hand was “repellent” with four fingers of almost equal length and a thumb that was “strong, heavy, and brutal”. In a diagram reproduced below, De Thebes was most insistent that a murderer’s was invariably “short and thick”.

If you enjoy my video on anarchist assassinations – it is part of a playlist on YouTube about terrorists in history so do watch some of the others that cover everybody from Jesus Christ to Guy Fawkes.

The tabloids cover the death of Princess Diana

I’m an avid collector of old newspapers going right back to the one page news sheets of the late 17th century. Over the years, I’ve held on to contemporary newspapers when their front pages are massively compelling. Such was the case on the 31 August 1997 as I returned in a mini-cab from a night out clubbing in London to hear that Princess Diana had been involved in a serious car crash in Paris. Through the night I got hold of the tabloid papers as they printed updated editions every hour right up to the moment that her death was confirmed.

I’ve not shown these newspapers before because even two decades later – it seemed far too sensitive. But with a quarter of a century now gone by, I’m sharing them here for you to see. However, handling these newspapers and looking at the headlines still sends a chill down my spine.

The death of Al Fayed – but not Princess Diana

At 2am, the News of the World reported sensationally that Princess Diana’s “boyfriend” Dodi Al Fayed had been killed while Diana “suffered serious neck injuries”. The driver of their Mercedes had also been killed. The Prefect of Paris police confirmed that the accident had happened as Diana’s car was chased by press photographers on motorbikes.

The car was in such bad shape that the police thought it was miraculous that anybody survived. At that stage of the night, the ambulance crew attended to the “partly conscious” princess. The French radio station RTL reported that a photographer sat by the roadside nearby “distressed after seeing the serious condition of Princess Diana”. I reproduce that front page below.

By 3am, the Sunday Mirror was still of the view that while Dodi Al Fayed was dead, Princess Diana was “terribly hurt” but still alive. Al Fayed had been given a heart massage next to the car but could not be revived. The newspaper called its update on the situation an “emergency edition” – shown below.

The death of Princess Diana is announced

Then at 6am, the News of the World dropped its usual red-coloured banner and went entirely black on the front page in what it called a “shock issue” of the newspaper to announce that Princess Diana was dead. She had died at around 3am London time.

I was working at the BBC in the late 1990s as a news producer – what they called a ‘Senior Broadcast Journalist’. So, going into work I was confronted by a hive of activity as the BBC went into full rolling news mode. This, by the way, was still the early days of 24 hour news and the coverage was on the main BBC channels as it would only be in November 1997 that the 24-hour news channel was launched – on which I was an early producer.

One newspaper that shall remain nameless decided not to lead with the Diana story on the grounds, I assume, that they thought it was too tacky. Or maybe populist. Anyway, the prize for claiming the moral high ground for that pompous newspaper was unsold copies piled up in the supermarkets and newsagents.

DISCOVER: The awful coronation of King George IV

The death of Princess Diana in August 1997 left the country numbed but few of us anticipated the outpouring of very public grief from a sizeable part of the population. As with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II, it revealed emotions around the monarchy that can bubble up to the surface in the event of such a tragedy.

Worst Royal Funeral ever!

On June 26, 1830 – one of the most unpopular monarchs of England died. King George the Fourth breathed his last. And it seems that nobody particularly cared. This was possibly the worst royal funeral ever!

Goodbye to a hated king!

The Times published an astonishing commentary referring to George as a “pompous and secluded monarch” who had easily identifiable vices while his virtues were not in evidence. “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

It then went on to say: “If George IV ever had a friend – a devoted friend – in any rank of life, we protest that the name of him or her has not yet reached us.” The reason, the commentary continued, was his utter selfishness.

“Selfishness is the true repellent of human sympathy. Selfishness feels no attachment and invites none – it is the charnel-house of the affections.”

The London Medical Gazette pulled no punches on July 17, barely three weeks after the king’s death, detailing the “remarkable degree of obesity in the person of his late majesty”.

“We understand that the quantity of fat enveloping the several viscera in the person of his late Majesty was very great. An immense deposit was found about the kidneys, and the adipose matter seemed even to have pervaded the ‘intersfical’ texture of these glands.” There was so much fat around George’s heart, The Times was sure it had “oppressed its action to a considerable extent”.

When it came to reporting the king’s funeral a month later, The Times said it was required to cover the event “though at the sacrifice of more important matter”. “Our hearts sicken at the insincerity of the closed and darkened house, the dismal knell, and ‘all the forms, modes, and shows of grief’ wherewith the court sycophant bemoans departed majesty, and with obsequious bow, and smirking smiling face, rejoices in the event”.

DISCOVER: Why King Henry VIII had no friends

Royal Funeral with little respect for the King

The Morning Chronicle reported that on the day of the funeral ‘common-place jokes’ were being told by courtiers.

The whole lying in state and funeral was conducted at Windsor Castle which George IV had spent a vast amount of money refurbishing at a time when the country was in economic turmoil. We’re used to the idea of British royal occasions being perfectly stage managed but before Queen Victoria – this was not the case.

Both the funerals of George IV and his father George III were chaotic. At this funeral, both women and what were described as “effeminate” men complained loudly about the crush of the crowd. Once mourners found themselves by the coffin of the king, The Times noted that there was far less interest than there had been for king George III.

And on the streets of Windsor, “the only sign of mourning” was in what people were wearing. “There is no affectation of grief”, the Times reported, “no sound of lamentation in the street”. The procession to the king’s tomb was described as “more tumultuous than magnificent – more pretending than interesting”.

And quite shockingly to us after seeing the respect shown to Queen Elizabeth the Second – The Times noted that when the “Royal Body appeared, not a single mark of sympathy was exhibited”. The VIP guests found themselves seated without a view because royal servants and their friends who lived locally including carpenters and upholsterers had taken the best seats and refused to give them up.

London shut down as the funeral was a public holiday and people thronged the streets – especially Fleet Street and The Strand. But there were rowdy scenes. St James’s Church in Piccadilly held a special service for the king but only six people turned up. At St James’s Clerkenwell, the preacher condemned the king railing against the “voluptuousness of his companions” and his “habits of reckless expenditure”. He continued: “In no portion of his life was he fortunate in his choice of friends”.

As for George’s stormy relationship with his wife, “it would be well for the memory of his late Majesty if the alienation from the Queen formed no part of his history”.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

Before the Royal Funeral – His Majesty’s grim death

Details of George’s final hours of life were given. Contrast that with the scant details provided about the last day of Queen Elizabeth II. King George IV was moved from his bed into a chair as death clearly approached with his fixed and his lips quivering. Attempts were made to revive him splashing Eau de Cologne on the royal face “and such stimulants as were at hand”.

The king tried to raise his hand to his chest and whispered: “Oh God, I am dying!”. Then after a few seconds: “This is death!”. The king’s doctors were not present but once they got to what was now a corpse, they noted his chest was “much swollen as well as the abdomen and legs” while the upper part of his body “exhibited all the appearances of extreme emaciation”.

Aside from heart disease, the king also had cancer and The Times described the lead up to his death with obvious relish: “The torture which the King must have suffered during the paroxysms of this disorder, must have been excruciating. His moans were at times even heard by the sentinels on duty in the Quadrangle”. So disturbed were the soldiers on guard by the noise that they moved away from the king’s apartments to avoid hearing it.

In short, despite some people’s best efforts, George IV was ushered out of this world with little dignity or respect.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth – a lifelong presence

For those of us in our 50s and 60s – Queen Elizabeth the Second has been a constant presence throughout our lives. I’m no great monarchist but this familiar figure bowing out is a very unsettling moment. It reminds us of losing those close to us in recent years – including both my parents. We’ve essentially watched the Queen going through the same health travails as she relinquishes her grasp on life.

As a pupil at an infants and then junior school in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Queen was omnipresent. She’d already been on the throne for two decades by the start of the 70s. And her status as the head of state sitting at the pinnacle of the social order was beyond question.

The coins and notes we got as pocket money bore her young head with a laureate crown and after 1971 – when our currency went decimal – an updated image appeared as she advanced into her 40s. There were still coins with the heads of her father and grandfather – George VI and George V – in circulation, but they seemed very remote figures.

In the school assembly hall, we faced the 1955 portrait of the Queen painted by Pietro Annigoni with the monarch draped in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter and a strangely desolate landscape behind her. While the Queen gazed serenely down, we sung our morning hymns and intoned the Our Father to the head of the Church of England. Deference was still a big thing in the 1970s.

Queen Elizabeth meets punk rock

The late 1970s saw both a surge in monarchism and the first outburst of counter-cultural opposition. In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the nation was enjoined to organise street parties and other events. Whereas subsequent jubilees – Golden, Diamond, and Platinum – seemed to be over in a fortnight, the 1977 jubilee went on for months. And it was very much a Commonwealth wide affair with the Queen touring Australia and New Zealand while Prince Charles visited Canada.

But a year before, punk rock had exploded into our lives. It’s hard to explain now what an impact The Sex Pistols and that whole musical genre had on our generation in a country that was sagging under the weight of economic crisis, post-Empire malaise, and rising unemployment. The Pistols released the raucous and irreverent single God Save The Queen which looking back now was less an attack on the Queen as a person and more a rejection of deference and suffocating paternalism.

But there was no wave of Republicanism crashing through the land. As a political activist in the 1980s, I was opposed to the monarchy but the main target of my socialist ire was capitalism. The Queen was simply the ceremonial icing on a cake of class oppression. I moved on from radical activism but just in time for the Queen to experience what she termed an “annus horribilis” in her Ruby Jubilee year of 1992.

Queen Elizabeth and her terrible year

That jubilee was noticeably low-profile. We were in the throes of endless scandal and rumour surrounding Sarah, Duchess of York – better known as “Fergie” – and of course Diana, Princess of Wales. Divorce, separation, racy photos, and compromising recording of secret conversations gave the tabloids a field day with the Royal Family. And then a big chunk of Windsor Castle burned down.

Compared to the 1970s, the monarchy in the 1980s and 1990s slid from revered institution to soap opera. Culminating in the death of Princess Diana in Paris. This event was an eye opener for me as somebody who wasn’t an arch-monarchist, along with most of my friends. It revealed a large and hyper-emotional constituency of royal admirers whose grief went far beyond anything most people I knew were experiencing. And the target of their anger over Diana’s demise was the Queen.

Shrill and shouty demands came for Her Majesty to show her feelings more publicly. I’ll admit that for the first time in my life, I actually felt genuine sympathy for the Queen. She was essentially being harangued into displaying the correct feelings by a tranche of the population in thrall to therapists. And she buckled, giving a televised address to mollify the population.

DISCOVER: Why did Queen Elizabeth the First never marry?

A kinder century for Queen Elizabeth

The 21st century has seen the Queen’s stature rise as the public view of democratically elected politicians and other professions has nosedived. But as ever, there’s a contradictory trend. Younger people – if social attitudes surveys are to be believed – just don’t feel the affinity to the monarchy that’s still widespread in my generation.

In addition, the discourse about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and empire has fuelled a growing hostility in the Commonwealth. The last anachronistic ties binding former colonies to Britain are unwinding rapidly. It’s become the conventional wisdom to state that after Queen Elizabeth – the remnants of empire will evaporate. She is, after all, the last link to the Empire.

So, it’s been a journey that millions feel they’ve been on. Queen Elizabeth evolved into the nation’s collective mother figure – even though she has remained throughout a remote and even slightly ethereal figure. This constant in our lives is now disappearing. How our view of the monarchy will change is a big question.

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!

Queen Victoria assassination attempt

Queen Victoria – the eight assassination attempts

At the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, there was a wave of anarchist inspired political assassinations. The Empress of Austria, King of Italy, Prime Minister of France, King of Greece and President of the United States (William McKinley) were all killed by assassins. But one ruler blithely survived an astonishing eight assassination attempts during the 19th century: step forward indestructible Queen Victoria.

DISCOVER: Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

While other heads of state breathed their last – the Queen of Britain and Empress of India seemed to almost bat away the bullets. So let’s list all those attempts on Her Majesty’s life:

  1. Edward Oxford was the first would-be queen killer taking a shot at Victoria in 1840. She was still a young woman and had barely been on the throne for three years. Her assailant was a mild-manner unemployed man called Edward Oxford. Victoria’s security was unbelievably lax. Shooting her as she drove past in her carriage was beyond easy. Oxford just stepped forward, took aim and fired. At his trial, claims to be part of a conspiratorial group called Young England proved to be a fantasy and it soon become clear he was insane. The jury certainly thought so and off he went to an asylum for the next 24 years. After which he was sent off to Australia where he assumed a new identity and married a woman who apparently never knew who he actually was. Oxford – now called John Freeman – was an upstanding member of the local community and nobody was any the wiser.
  2. Two years later and a man called John Francis, described by Prince Albert, Victoria’s husband, as a “little, swarthy, ill-looking rascal”, pulled out a pistol and fired on the queen as she drove down Constitution Hill. But the pistol mercifully jammed and Francis ran away.
  3. Well, if you don’t succeed the first time – come back and have another go. Incredibly, the following day – 30 May 1842 – Francis did exactly that. This time he was arrested, sent to Newgate Prison and sentenced to death. Strictly speaking, the punishment for treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. I’ll spare you the details. This horrific medieval punishment was only removed from the statute books in 1870. Francis, it turned out, was the son of an employee at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Before taking aim at the queen, he’d been seen walking round the nearby park yelling obscenities about Victoria – so not exactly keeping a low profile.
  4. 1842 was going to be quite memorable for Queen Victoria. Because she’d barely got over two assassination attempts in May when along came another one on 3 July. This time the pistol wielder was John William Bean. His gun was a ramshackle affair that failed to fire. Bean was only four feet high and severely disabled. He was clearly a very unhappy chap and the subsequent story was that his assassination attempt was more or less a cry for help. But Victorian England wasn’t such a kind place. The order went out – I kid you not – to round up every ‘hunchback’ in the vicinity. Bean was captured but shown some leniency – by which I mean he wasn’t hanged publicly but sent to a pretty dreadful prison. In fact, he was imprisoned at the Millbank Penitentiary – which is now the site of Tate Britain in south London. Eventually released, he got married, had a son but happiness proved elusive. He lived not far from my house here in the Camberwell district of London and in 1882, killed himself with poison.
  5. Bean claimed to have been inspired by Edward Oxford – as did the perpetrator of the next assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Like Oxford, William Hamilton was unemployed. His gun was only loaded with powder and there doesn’t seem to have been a serious desire to murder the queen. Hamilton was Irish and had left his homeland during the appalling famine of the 1840s. By 1849, when he took aim at Her Majesty, he was broke and like many at the bottom of society, thought prison might be a better option than life on the streets. However, Hamilton instead was transported to Gibraltar and from there to Australia.
  6. Hard to know whether to regard this one as an assassination attempt – but Robert Pate certainly meant the queen considerable harm. A former army lieutenant in the Tenth Hussars, life on civvy street hadn’t been kind to this gentleman. Many Londoners saw this strange man marching frantically around Hyde Park as if he was still on military service. Frankly, he became a bit of a joke. Even, it’s said, Queen Victoria was aware of him. But the joke turned sour when he ran at her coach and whacked the sovereign on the head with a cane. She was left with severe bruising and I think it’s safe to say that despite her famous stiff upper lip – this was a deeply unpleasant incident. This was in 1850 and it’s simply mind-boggling that Victoria’s protection was not up to scratch.
  7. Queen Victoria now had a two decade respite in her long reign until 1872 when Arthur O’Connor raised his gun. Like Hamilton, O’Connor was an Irishman. But whereas Hamilton seemed to have no political motivation, O’Connor claimed his act was intended to goad the British state into releasing Irish Republican prisoners. This was a time when the movement for Irish independence from the British Empire was gathering pace. And Irish nationalists were the first to bring what we would now call terrorism to the British mainland to make their point. Well, another Celt – the queen’s Scottish servant (and very, very close friend) John Brown – wrestled O’Connor to the ground. As with previous assassins, he was spared the rope and instead got prison, a spell in an asylum and transportation to Australia.
  8. Ten years later in 1882 came the final assassination attempt by Roderick Maclean. Now this was at a time when anarchist killings were picking up. But Maclean’s shooting at Victoria outside Windsor Station was a clumsy affair. Schoolboys from Eton College beat him to the ground with their umbrellas – which can hardly have been the heroic image he was striving for. He spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

There clearly wasn’t the appetite in 19th century England to impose draconian punishments on these assassins. Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy with radical movements like the Chartists and the emerging trade unions as well as other pressure groups campaigning for a more humane and just society.

For her part, Queen Victoria seems to have been bitterly disappointed at the relatively lenient punishments. She wanted consequences that were way more severe. A noose around the neck and a long drop. It left the queen with the distinct impression that parliament viewed these incidents as either irrelevant or maybe worse – amusing.

She, though, was not amused.

torture museums

The world’s museums of torture!

Chicago has just seen the opening of the first dedicated museum of medieval torture in the United States. Eight interactive learning spaces with truly gruesome displays. This is the latest addition to a global network of torture museums that shows no signs of losing steam. People just can’t get information on Spanish racks and thumbscrews!

Whether these reflect the truth of life – and death – in the Middle Ages is open to question. But experiencing (at a safe distance) the painful fate of heretics who rejected the teachings of the church or traitors caught conspiring against the king or queen is clearly irresistible. Otherwise these torture museums wouldn’t keep opening.

So let’s take a look at the new Chicago torture museum and see how it compares to other such delightful venues around the world. The owners are sure they’re on to a surefire winner. The website boasts: “You’ll discover the world’s most detailed collection of confinement and torture devices, instruments of slow death and execution.” The waxworks are certainly lifelike and you’ll probably have bad dreams after glimpsing one poor fellow getting impaled.

Here is a short promo video from our grim buddies in Chicago!

But as I say – there are many of these museums in Europe.

The quaint historic town of Rothenberg in Germany has an Iron Maiden. It’s also got a cage where a baker would be put if caught cheating with the ingredients. There’s also a pillory for grabbing selfies. And a collection of “shame masks”. All contained in the town’s Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

Back in the 1970s, I went with a schoolmate to The London Dungeon not long after it had opened. Back then it was Madame Tussauds with more bloodshed and gore. Since, it’s evolved into an ‘experience’ where, for example, you are condemned to death and metaphorically hanged.

TALKING POINT: Should the dead be on display in museums?

Other torture museums vary from the London and Chicago approach with a theme park interactive feel to some which frankly border on the deathly dull. The sort of places that need to keep telling how informative and evocative the exhibits are as you suppress another yawn.

Medieval cities like Prague, Toledo, Bruges and Vienna boast torture museums – just in case the castles and palaces haven’t entertained you enough. And it came as something of a surprise to discover that the tiny country of San Marino – surrounded by Italy – also has a torture museum. Indeed Italy is blessed – if that is the right word – with torture museums in Rome, Siena, Luca, Volterra and San Gimignano.

Must confess – but not under torture – that I’ve visited most of these Italian cities and NEVER thought of going to the local torture museum! But presumably for many tourists they offer a frisson of excitement after a day spent wandering through baroque churches and ancient ruins. They don’t feel that history has been truly experienced until confronted by a wax figure contorted in agony being forced to sit firmly on a chair covered in sharp studs. Each to their own!

Personally, I don’t find the instruments of torture that compelling. Especially as many of them are reproductions. What really puts me in the zone of the afflicted is the very genuine graffiti left by prisoners that I saw this year at Carlisle Castle and the Tower of London. Often incredibly moving pleas or religious symbols to show their faith was unshakable. Getting inside the mind of a prisoner being tortured is way more jarring than gawping at some bone breaking implements.

In 2019, I went to the prison in Palermo, Sicily where the Spanish Inquisition tortured many people for a variety of reasons before executing them in public (Spain ruled Sicily from 1409 to 1713). There were no thumbscrews on display. Instead, the walls were covered in drawings by the inmates using a mix of dirt and their own urine. I filmed what I saw and take a look below. This really brought home to me what people endured at the hands of sadistic torturers.

power crazed ruler

Most power crazed rulers in history!

History is full of megalomaniac despots and insane monarchs – so, let me select my top five most power crazed rulers in history!

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER ONE: Peter the Great

Think of crazed Russian rulers and Ivan the Terrible or Stalin would come to mind immediately. But don’t neglect Peter the Great. The tsar who both modernised and terrorised Mother Russia simultaneously. Peter was seriously impressed by the 17th century naval technology of Britain and the sophisticated architecture of western Europe. But his interest in all things modern didn’t extend to democracy and the rule of law.

It also didn’t prevent him imprisoning and more than likely torturing to death his own son.

He assumed full power after an orgy of executions to cement his position. Not surprising given he’d witnessed more than his fair share of family intrigue and murder throughout his childhood – so he was simply dishing out what he’d witnessed all his life.

I appeared on an episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs to talk about Peter the Great and was especially amused by the story of him and his mates trashing the London home of the diarist Johny Evelyn during their stay in 1698. This involved using paintings as dart boards and priceless furniture broken up to keep fires going. There was also some game involving wheelbarrows that led to Evelyn’s well tended garden being churned up.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER TWO: Caligula

There were several Roman emperors whose sanity one would have to question. But Caligula has come down to us as a byword for imperial madness. He was only the third emperor of Rome, since the end of the Republic, and was truly an object lesson in the perils of one-man dynastic rule.

He seems to have been aware of the absurdity of his position – being able to wield vast power over millions of people. But instead of coping with that situation and turning to good advisers, he revelled in the madness of it.

At one point, Caligula declared that a horse was to be made a senator. Apologists for Caligula explain that he was mocking the powerlessness of the Roman Senate. But what did he expect them to do? Offer up their real opinions? Because the consequence under Caligula was certain death.

In my opinion, the late John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the 1970s BBC series I Claudius has yet to be equalled.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER THREE: Henry VIII

If you want to get a child obsessed with history – I’d always recommend two periods to put in front of them: the Romans and the Tudors. The latter furnishes us with two of the most charismatic and rather frightening individuals to have ever sat on the English throne. They are Henry VIII and his strong-headed daughter, Elizabeth I.

I’ve discussed Henry VIII on several programmes including Private Lives of the Monarchs and Forbidden History. Plus I impersonated Henry VIII in full costume on ITV’s The Big Audition. And he’s a great figure to dress up as with his mighty frame, dressed to kill style and slightly psychopathic demeanour.

DISCOVER: Me as Henry VIII on ITV

No monarch before or since – correct me if I’m wrong – got through six spouses in one reign. And to have two of his wives executed on trumped up charges doesn’t suggest a balanced mind. It’s a royal soap opera without equal and so Henry is definitely one of the power crazed rulers.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FOUR: Hitler

Unlike Peter the Great, Caligula and Henry VIII – Adolf Hitler didn’t grow up in a murderous dynastic family. He wasn’t groomed for the top job and never saw family members murdered all around him. His family background was very unremarkable. Hitler was a petit-bourgeois, chip-on-the-shoulder small town operator who clawed his way up the greasy pole.

FIND OUT MORE: Maddest rulers in history

Talking about him on Discovery and UKTV’s Forbidden History, I mentioned the absence of a descended testicle – which seems to be true – but also his worrying penchant for very young girls. These are aspects of his character often ignored as trivial but I think Hitler was a deeply troubled and unpleasant man.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FIVE: Emperor Bokassa

Gone for somebody quite unusual who you may not have heard of for my fifth power crazed ruler. Born in 1921, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was an ambitious military officer in the former French colony, the Central African Republic. He’s been compared to another African ruler of the same era, Uganda’s Idi Amin. Both had a complex relationship with their respective country’s colonial and imperial heritage.

On the one hand, they wanted independence and respect for their countries. But on the other hand, they weren’t able to break free in their own minds from the colonial past. Both Bokassa and Amin revelled in wearing their medals from youthful military service with the French and British armed forces respectively. And they felt a strange affinity to the history and culture of their former colonial ruler.

In 1965, Bokassa seized power in coup d’etat and initially his rule had some progressive aspects. For example, he banned the appalling practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, like his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa would begin as a revolutionary and end as a gilded dictator.

Bokassa hankered for the trappings of French imperial power. After a brief flirtation with Islam, he converted back to Catholicism in the 1970s and in 1976, announced his intention to be crowned emperor. The Central African Republic would now be transformed into the Central African Empire. In a US$20 million ceremony (a third of the country’s budget that year), he was proclaimed emperor on a huge golden eagle throne and with laurels on his head.

I remember seeing this on TV as a teenager. His attempt to get Pope Paul VI to come and crown him came to nothing. Wisely, the Pope found he had a diary clash that day! Bokassa’s imperial rule didn’t last very long and by 1979 he had been swept off his throne and the country was once more a republic.

Lisbon earthquake

Catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The city of Lisbon was for centuries the gateway to the Americas, Africa and Europe. A cosmopolitan city of palaces, opulent churches and people from all corners of the globe. In front of the royal residence, was the river Tagus clogged with ships bearing spices, precious metals and….slaves. But this picture of unbridled wealth came to a sudden end in November 1755 when the city was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and fire.

The day when hell rained down on Lisbon was the 1st November. This was All Saints Day when the city’s mainly Catholic population was in church. By all accounts it was a sunny and very pleasant morning when at 9am, citizens heard an ominous subterranean thunder. Lisbon shook for about three minutes with buildings collapsing everywhere and people crushed beneath the rubble.

Then the sea retreated far from the harbour. It returned with an immense wave of about fifty to sixty feet in height. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had rushed to the harbour to escape toppling structures in the downtown area. But sadly, they’d dashed headlong into the tsunami.

DISCOVER: Aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris

The scene in churches across the city was utter carnage. At the Igreja do Carmo, a massive convent, overlooking the city, hundreds of worshippers died during mass when the church roof collapsed on their heads. The ruins have been kept to the present day as a grim reminder of what happened.

Because so many churches had candles burning that day, fires spread very quickly. It was also claimed that robbers and other criminals engaged in widespread arson to distract from acts of theft. Whether deliberately caused or not, the inferno raged in the city for six days. In every corner of Lisbon there were half-burnt bodies lying around for long afterwards.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

The Lisbon earthquake literally rocked 18th century opinion. On one side, it bolstered the arguments of those who saw a divine hand in natural events. Lisbon was being punished for its hubris. On the other side were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire who penned a sarcastic satire titled Candide where he mocked the idea that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – as the horror in Lisbon only too clearly evidenced.

On the plus side, the Lisbon earthquake gave a big boost to the study of earthquakes leading to our modern day understanding of these deadly phenomena.

Peter Anthony McMahon

My father dies of Covid – a reflection

Little did I expect at the beginning of the Covid pandemic that my own father would succumb to this virus. But just over a week ago, he died in hospital of Covid-19 related pneumonia.

This was given on the death certificate as the primary cause of death. Being an 83 year-old, there were other underlying conditions including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), gradual onset of dementia and E.coli, which he’d more than likely contracted in the care home – leading to his collapse.

My father had been a heavy smoker up until ten years ago but giving up had given him a new lease of life. However, his lungs were impaired and in 2012, he’d punctured one of them falling off a ladder.

Two weeks before his death, he collapsed at the care home where he’d been resident for nearly two years. Those of you with elderly parents or other relatives know only too well that the final years are punctuated with repeat falls and trips to hospital. But this time, I sensed it was a lot more serious. Though I didn’t know he had Covid.

Covid at the care home

The virus had ripped through the care home with 32 staff and residents being infected in a four month period from October 2020 to January 2021. I was eventually rung in January to be informed of this by the care home manager.

It also emerged that the GP (family doctor) was unwilling to give vaccinations on site for at least four weeks. However, the GP then relented and my father received his first Covid jab a week before collapsing.

What amazes and frankly distresses me about the care home situation generally is the refusal of about 20% of care home staff nationally to be vaccinated for ‘cultural’ and – yes, believe it or not – ‘medical’ reasons. Think about this – staff refusing to be vaccinated and then looking after your loved ones. I call that negligence.

At the hospital, he displayed all the signs of Covid infection but there was some uncertainty at the outset. However, a swab test came out positive after he’d been there for a week.

In the days that followed, he seemed to be resisting the worst of the virus. So much so that medical staff thought he could be transferred to an intermediate facility and then sent back to the care home. The E.Coli was presenting the great challenge and the difficulty he was experiencing with swallowing food. But my father seemed to be defeating the Covid virus.

This turned out to be very wrong.

DISCOVER: Covid today and TB yesterday – diseases in history

That turnaround moment

A week to ten days after being in hospital, the information given from the ward led us, as a family, to believe that he’d displayed once more what we called his ‘bounceability’. Time and again, the old man had looked ashen-faced and positively deathly only to claw his back to the land of the living.

So, we seemed set for another bounce.

The only thing I’d noticed was his dementia getting a little worse. This manifested itself in various vaguely paranoid ideas involving shadowy conspiracies against him. All pretty standard stuff I’m afraid to say. But it was still possible to engage him in rational conversation once you got through some initial nonsense.

What started to overturn the optimism were the daily reports to me by the doctors that indicated the antibiotics weren’t working and that he was becoming more delirious. I was assured, though, that the objective was still to get him back to the level he’d been in when he was admitted to hospital. Not perfect – but stable.

However, on the Sunday evening before his death a new doctor came on the line and asked me whether I fully appreciated the seriousness of my father’s condition. I was flabbergasted. I knew the antibiotics hadn’t been working and that he’d ingested material into his lungs.

But now I was told that if I wanted to come on to the ward and see him, Covid restrictions would be lifted. That could only mean one thing. I asked for some candour. And I got it. The doctor told me that the problem with swallowing was linked to the dementia – he was forgetting how to do this basic human task.

He’d now developed ‘aspiration pneumonia’ and was not conscious. In combination with his underlying conditions, it was doubtful he’d make the night.

But then he did.

All through Monday my father clung on. His breathing now becoming the classic ‘death rattle’. And even though he wasn’t particularly religious, I agreed to a chaplain giving last rites. I’m an atheist myself but the thought of him being entirely alone in his final hours overrode that consideration. A bit of ritual and company seemed right.

There are many awful decisions to make as the clock ticks to the end of a life. The doctor posed the question to me – do we try and cure or do we manage the situation? I opted to manage the situation knowing full well that there was no cure. A Rubicon had been crossed in health terms.

He died at 01:20am on Tuesday morning. As agreed, I was phoned. Amazingly, I’d fallen asleep. But then found myself at my desk emailing family, writing death notices for the newspapers and even, I kid you not, amending the Ancestry.com website. The things you do to stay sane in that moment!

Within 48 hours, I had the death certificate in my hand with Covid-19 related pneumonia as the primary cause of death and COPD as the secondary.

Already, I’d had to deal with funeral arrangements. We’d decided, because of Covid, for my father to go directly from the care home to a crematorium and the ashes to be delivered to my home. Then later in the year, we’d have a service when the pandemic had lifted.

Now, I had to redirect the undertakers to the hospital. And then discovered that because of a Covid backlog, my father wouldn’t be cremated for nearly a month. So, suddenly, I was having to find out where his body would be kept. Whose fridge? The hospital to begin with – and then the crematorium – it turned out.

Disconnects in the health service

I’m a huge supporter of the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. But those of you who’ve had to process your ageing loved ones through the system – will have lost your rose-tinted spectacles on the way. I should mention that both my parents worked in the NHS – my mother in a psychiatric hospital for thirty years. So we were an NHS family!

The plus sides of the NHS include having access to top medical care from paramedics, nurses and doctors free of charge. I was having lunch with my father when he had a stroke in 2018. The ambulance arrived promptly and the London hospital brought him back from the brink.

The staff were amazing and selfless. And I would say the same of the doctors in my father’s last few days. Always keen to update and keep me informed. Plus a pleasant and understanding manner.

So what about the downsides?

Well, the inability to share data in the NHS is mind boggling. With my mother, she would turn up from the care home (with advanced dementia) for a hospital appointment, after developing cervical cancer, and another hospital or the GP wouldn’t have sent her file in advance.

This wasn’t a one off. And it begs the question – can’t all this data be shared on these curious modern devices called computers?

I was also asked on two occasions – in an ambulance after my father had suffered a stroke and a week before my father died when he was in hospital – whether my father was allergic to penicillin. Now, I knew he was. But I bet a lot of people might not be able to answer that question.

Why on earth don’t we have a central database with this information accessible via our NHS numbers? Answer: because some people think it would infringe our civil liberties. So the next time you’re given an antibiotic that takes you to death’s door – thank your local libertarians.

Care homes

If we’d got my father into sheltered accommodation earlier, it would have been a godsend. But he’d experienced several falls at the home he’d lived in for fifty years, most of them with my mother. The GP’s records showed these falls and no sheltered accommodation provider would accept him. So – he had to go straight into a residential care home with nursing care.

The cost – about £1500 a week. Goodbye savings! I can only liken it to pulling a plug on his bank account. And for a man who saved diligently and was terrified of going overdrawn, he protested furiously at paying out this money. But we prevailed on him as a family that he should have the best even though it was our inheritances going up in flames.

From Spanish flu to Covid

After my mother died in 2016, I’d got my father involved with Ancestry.com. We opened an account and I began to plunder his grey cells for details on the family. And what a mine of information he turned out to be! In fact, he’d been doing a whole load of research for years as well as being able to churn out names and stories from memory.

At the time, he was at the very early stages of dementia. I’d certainly recommend something like family tree research as a great way to engage those whose brains are at risk of degenerating. Apart from anything else, I became totally addicted to Ancestry.com as we made some amazing discoveries together. So, keeping him mentally active wasn’t a chore – but good fun.

One of the things we uncovered were relatives who died of diseases like tuberculosis and the dreaded Spanish flu. The latter was the Covid equivalent of the years immediately following the First World War. My grandfather’s sister was one of those who sadly died of Spanish flu aged 29.

Final thoughts

This Covid pandemic has taken us all on quite a journey. Not a physical one but into our own minds and our closest relationships. I had no expectation that it would claim my father. And I’ve seen friends and acquaintances contract Covid but mercifully pull through. But it’s changed all of us.

How we emerge from this horror is anybody’s guess. I used to worry that every day would be like the next until the grave. Now, I’m craving normality and routine stuff like going for a walk, shopping and popping down the pub.

In recent years, digital strategists blathered about the virtue of ‘disruption’. You don’t hear so much of that anymore. But the virus has disrupted us. In our families, Covid has robbed us of loved ones. In our communities, it’s blighted the prospects of the young. And in our wider societies, it’s devastated entire sectors like retail and hospitality.

Covid came to visit me this month – and now I’m mourning a much loved father.