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The same old bullshit, for 2 hundred years. First it was the Catholics - German, Italian and Irish - and then Asians, and then Jews. Whose next?

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Friday, January 28, 2011

THE MAN NOT IN THE IRON MASK

I have some shocking news for you. The man in the Iron Mask was not Leonardo DiCaprio. And anyway, he didn’t wear an iron mask. I mean, just think this thing through. The first time you drool in your sleep in an iron mask, you would be rusted in shut.

It was a velvet mask. And he was not the twin of King Louis XIV or any other Louie. Who he was seems to have been mixed up in what is called “The Affair of the Poisons” which is a morality tale of a cute little love-sick tramp with the affinity for “inheritance powders”, and her amoral boyfriend.
Throw in the King’s mistress for a little spice, and you have a recipe for what Alexis de Tocqueville called “L’Ancien Regime”, and what in modern terms we would call a soap opera of the rich and infamous. It leaves me wondering why the French waited so long to start chopping off heads.
We begin in 1659, with a little tramp named Marie Madeleine Margherite D’Aubray Brinvillers. We’ll call her Maire for short. I don’t think she’ll mind. Marie was a tiny pixie-doll of a woman with sparkling blue eyes who seems to have committed no major public sins until she was about thirty.
That was when her husband (above) introduced her to a handsome cavalryman named Godin de Sainte-Croix, to whom the husband owed a whole bunch of money. Hubby had to move out of the country to avoid his other creditors, but he left Marie behind,  as a sort of payment on account for Sainte-Croix. Marie didn’t seem to mind the arrangement, and neither did Sainte-Croix. Except, as much fun as Sainte-Croix had with little Marie, she wasn’t making him any richer. Where, oh, where was Sainte-Croix going to find enough money to live in the style to which he wanted to grow accustomed to?
Sainte-Croix developed a multi-step plan. Step one was to encourage Marie to do some charity work. Step two was for Sainte-Croix to make the acquaintance of certain people with a knowledge of chemistry, such as a man known only to history by the name of “Auguer”.
Now, in the days before CSI the only way to prove poisoning - as opposed to just an unhygienic cook - was to catch the suspect pouring poison on the food, or to get him or her to confess.
This is why torture was so popular for so long. It never failed. No matter whom you arrested, ten minutes with the prisoner strapped to a rack and you could get them to admit almost anything.
Of course, if your suspect was too connected to be tortured, the only alternative was to lock him up while you slowly collected evidence. That might take decades. And during that time witnesses could be bought off, killed off, or just die of natural causes. People dropped dead all the time in 17th century France. The staggering death toll made for the convoluted plots of some very popular French novels and plays.
So when poor people started dropping dead at the hospital where Marie had volunteered as a nurse, nobody took notice. They were poor people. In 17th century France the streets were littered with dead poor people. It was the perfect time and place for little Marie to practice her new trade.
When Marie had perfected the formula she had gotten from Sainte-Croix, which she did in 1666, she had no compuction about slipping the poison into her father’s lunch. He died suddenly. And his little darling inherited a little money, which she and Saint-Croix quickly burned through.
Then in 1670 Marie shed more tears when her two brothers suddenly dropped dead. Marie inherited a little more money. By now, all the heirs in the Brinvillers family were getting nervous. But still nobody suspected the little elf, the little pixie, Marie Brinvillers. She was too cute. Cute people can’t be serial murderers.
And just when the homicidal little pixie was about to knock off her own mother for another load of cash, Gordin Sainte-Croix, the greedy mastermind of the entire slaughter, unexpectedly fell ill and dropped dead himself. Mon Dieu! Cele semble suspecte?!
The cops were brought in. They uncovered a hand written confession by Sainte-Croix (Why do upper crust muderers always feel the need to become authors?). And it seems Sainte- Croix even left a list of names of his satisfied customers, everyone he had directed to the mysterious chemist, Msr. Auger.
The list included included Madame de Montespan, who was Louis XIV’s mistress – which in pre-revolutionary France was almost a cabinet position - and the Duchesse of Orleans, Louis’s sister-in-law (above), and...Marie Brinviller. Marie panicked. The cops were not going to torture the King’s mistress, but they would have no hesitation about putting a lower level nobility cutie like Marie on the rack. She ran off to seek protection with her husband in exile. But she was now infamous and hubby wanted nothing to do with her. So Marie signed herself into a convent in Liege, Belgium.
This placed the pious nuns running the convent in a moral bind. They were sworn to provide sanctuary to all who asked for it and who sought forgivness for their sins, but...on the other hand, how do you solve a problem like Marie? How do you catch a cloud of suspicion and pin it down? How do you keep your convent running when you are short of money? The good sisters consulted scripture and after due deliberations decided to rat out their guest.
They allowed a cop disguised as a priest to enter the convent and while offering solace to the trouble little lady he escorted Marie right out the front gate, where she was immediately arrested.
It is not a happy ending for our little heroine. Marie was brought back to Paris in chains, tortured for a confession (i.e. waterboarded), tried in secret, and on July 16, 1676 she was forced to drink eight pints of water (more waterboarding)… and then mercifully she was beheaded. And just to be sure, they then burned her corpse. And that is how you solve a problem like Marie.
It looked like all hell was about to break loose in France. The cops had Marie's confession and Sainte-Croix's list, and just before the case broke wide open...Louis XIV (above) ordered all further investigations to cease. And being the King, his orders were obeyed. He shut it down. Nobody ever asked Madame Montespan or the Duchesse of Orleans how their names came to be on a list of people who had bought “inheritance powders”. Or if they had ever used them.
And shutting down the investigation also left unanswered another set of unpleasant questions: who was Msr. Auger, really? And what did he know? And more importantly, did he have any plans to write his biography or maybe a 'how to' book? Was he the man in the Iron Mask? And what does any of this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?
Nothing: like I said, the “Man in the Iron Mask” was really the “Man in the Velvet Mask” and velvet just sounds too fey for a novel plot. And in any case, the Auger was not the guy, I don't think. But if you are of a novel mind set you might ask yourself a few questions.
Why would the King of France keep someone locked up in one prison after another -for decades? Why not just kill him and get it over with? And what secret could be so big that the prisoner was required to wear a mask at all times in front of strangers? What secret could be kept secure by ordering a prisoner to never speak to anyone, not even with his jailers? Could such a convoluted plan even hope to work? James Bond villains have simpler plans than that. If you ask me this story is mostly a fantasy invented by Alexande Dumas. And wasn’t the truth just as entertaining as the myth? Not to Marie's relatives, of course, but it was for me. Was it good for you?
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

DEATH BY ENEMA

I want to relate to you one of the most famous murder cases in English history. But the crime is not famous because of the weapon used. Nor is the case unusual because the victim and the killers were both wealthy and powerful. And there was no great mystery either, since the killers left their fingerprints...well, all over the crime scene. But what did raise this tawdry tale of sin and politics out of the common sewer and dropped it right onto the throne room was that from all indications one of the killers was sleeping with the King - along with one of the most beautiful MILFs in all of 17th century England. And he wasn’t married to either one of them.
You see, when the virgin Queen Elizabeth died the early dark of March 24, 1603, she figured it would be better for England if her crown went to the son of her worst enemy, Mary Queen of Scots. On the very afternoon of Elizabeth’s death, it was officially announced that James VI of Scotland would become James I of England. In fact, under Elizabeth’s orders, officials of the English court had been visiting Edinburgh for years, to smooth the transfer of power. It was probably the most noble thing Elizabeth I did for her people, something no other monarch of her age did. But it turns out, that was where the trouble all began.
Sir Thomas Overbury (above) was one of the court officials sent north to prepare James and his court for their new responsibilities. Now, Thomas was handsome, smart as a whip and as popular as canker sore. One of his competitors described him as “prone to over valuing himself and undervaluing others”, which was the polite Tudor way of calling him arrogant jerk. And in 1601, Thomas was in Edinburgh when he was introduced to a drop-dead handsome 23 year old servant lad named Robert Carr.
Now, Robert (above) was a mimbo – a male bimbo. He was not very a smart, but he was gorgeous, ambitious and he was willing – very willing. Enthralled, Thomas took the boy home with him as a sort of souvenir. And on March 24, 1608, when Robert broke his well turned leg during a jousting tournament held in honor of King James, James noticed that leg. And it was love at first sight.
James (above) began his courtship by giving the convalescing Robert daily lessons in Latin (as opposed to Greek). He made the boy a Knight, then the Viscount of Rochester, and showered him with gifts of money and land, gave him a key to the royal bedchamber, made him the keeper of royal documents and, according the King’s own letters, they spent most nights together. At one point James sent a note, complaining that Robert was “withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary.” By 1610 Robert was one of the King’s closest advisors.
Of course Robert was not smart enough to advise the king about anything, But Thomas was. And he whispered suggestions in Robert’s ear, who passed them along to King James. So the combination of Robert’s good looks and Thomas’s brains made for the perfect intimate for King James. Of course, Thomas not only advised the king what was best for England, but what was best for Thomas was well. But as far as our little circle within the Court of James I, everybody was happy. There were only two things that could have gone wrong, and they both did. Thomas’ ego could not resist boasting to everyone that he was the brains behind Robert’s success. And, as one observer at the time noted, “Some one or other told James that it was commonly reported that, whilst Rochester ruled the King, Overbury ruled Rochester.” That angered the King, who didn’t like Thomas much anyway. Nobody did, really.  And then Robert fell in love – with a woman, of all people.
She was Francis Howard (above), the Countess of Essex. She was smart, gorgeous and treated sex as if she were a man - as a hobby. Robert began a torrid love affair with Francis, and although neither her husband nor the King seemed to mind their dalliance, Thomas did. He warned Robert that she was “a filthy, base woman…noted for her injury and immodesty.” And Thomas may have been right, because even the lady’s husband described Francis as “a stretched glove”, not exactly a compliment. But when Robert and Frances started planning to divorce her husband so they could marry, Thomas went ape. His ego could not abide the insult. He told Robert he would do everything he could to prevent the divorce. And when Robert told Francis about Thomas' threat, it was open war between Francis and Thomas. And here Francis discovered her real talent was not sex, it was revenge.
Her plot was simple and simply devious. She urged Robert to urge the King to offer Thomas the post of ambassador to Russia. She also urged Robert to urge Thomas to turn down the offer. Well, Thomas saw the offer as an attempt to get him out of the way and so, taking Robert’s advice, he turned the offer down. And, just as Francis had planned, the King was enraged by the rejection of his "gift". 
In April of 1613, noted a chronicler, “Sir Thomas Overbury is sent to the Tower for saying he could not and would not accept a foreign employment.”  Once locked away in dank rooms of the Tower prison for five months, by the end of September, Thomas was dead. Just about everybody who knew Thomas figured his death was just a happy accident; but not everybody.

Sir Walter (above) fumed while Francis Howard’s marriage was annulled just a week after Thomas had died. And Sir Walter steamed, when in November, the King made Robert Carr the Earl of Somerset, as a wedding present. And when Robert and Francis took their vows the day after Christmas 1613, Sir Walter Raleigh was already hard at work, tracking down an obscure man we know only as William.
What made this William stand out was that although he was a lowly apprentice to an apothecary, he had suddenly left England for Holland. Where would a lowly commoner get money for such a trip? And why would such a man suddenly want to travel to a country where he could not speak the language? Sir Walter eventually tracked down William in Holland and had him followed closely for over two years. And when William fell ill in the summer of 1615, Sir Walter’s agents were on hand to obtain his deathbed confession of his part in killing Sir Thomas Overbury.
The apothecary, read William's confession, was nervous. He had advised William that Sir Thomas was weak, and might be near death already. But, he added, their patron was growing impatient after trying to kill Sir Thomas for months. The apothecary offered William  £20, literally a small fortune in 1613, to administer a massive dose of arsenic directly into Sir Thomas' bloodstream, in the only way it could be administered without cutting the skin and leaving a mark. William swore on his deathbed that a guard, who seemed to be in on the plot, had first drugged Sir Thomas' wine and then helped William roll the defenseless  man over, while William had inserted the tube into the terminal junction of his digestive canal and released the clamp. By six the next morning Sir Thomas was dead.
That confession produced an investigation led by Sir Francis Bacon (above), part time playwright and the Royal Attorney General. The first victim to be tortured, er, I mean the first suspect to be questioned was the apothecary, James Franklin, who admitted to preparing seven concoctions to be used against Thomas Overbury; sulfuric and nitric acids, copper vitriol, mercury powder, arsenic powder (lapis cotitus), “great spiders and cantharides, otherwise known as Spanish Fly.
According to Franklin the list had been prepared by Mrs. Anne Turner (above), the widow of a London doctor, who made a living selling love potions and the like to wealthy patrons. Mrs. Turner admitted under “questioning” that she had been directed prepare the list and to deliver the finished poisons, one after the other, to Richard Weston, Thomas Overbury’s jailer. In his turn under enhanced interrogation, Richard Weston admitted he had slipped the poisons, one after the other, into Thomas’ food and drink. However none of them had been effective. Evidently Thomas was unfortunate enough to possess an iron constitution. Everything he ate made him sick, but he refused to die. So, in the end, said Mrs. Turner, it was decided to speed him along with a coupe de grace, right up the coupe de shute, via the steady hand of William the late apothecary assistant. And the villain who requested this barrage of food born punishment, was the lady Francis (Howard) Carr.
Francis (above, another impression) was smart enough to confess her crime under the mere threat of torture. Her husband, the mimbo, Robert Carr, remained convinced he had nothing to worry about. He was certain his “friend” King James would never allow him to be questioned, because he knew too much. But James had moved on to a new young friend, George Villiers, and was no longer interested in Robert. And just in case Robert decided to blurt out some embarrassing truth at his trial, two men stood at either side of Robert while he testified, just in case it was necessary to muffle the mimbo.
The result of the trial was a far gone conclusion. Richard Weston was hanged. Mrs. Turner was hanged. Mr. Franklin was hanged. Even the Lieutenant of the Tower, Grevase Helwys, was hanged, although his only crime seems to have been he suspected what was going on but couldn't figure out which bunch of his betters were going to come out on top, so he did nothing.
The only two people who did not hang for the murder of Sir Thomas were the two who had conceived of and financed the whole thing; Robert and Francis. They were both sentenced to death, but instead the King ordered him sent to the Tower for life, while Francis was confined in her home, which is where she would have been anyway because she was “with child”. In January of 1622, Richard’s was finally released on the condition that he and she leave London for ever. The rumor is that alone at last on their country estates the pair learned to loath each other. She died of uterine cancer in 1632, and he died in 1645 of old age and probably, terminal stupidity.
And thus ended one of the most amazing murder cases in England history, in which at least four people hanged, and two reputations were destroyed, because they helped to murder a man no body even liked. Oh, and because they were stupid enough to get caught at it.
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

COXEY'S ARMY - PART THREE

I said earlier that I would not enjoyed being there at the first day of the march of Coxey’s Army because it was cold and raining. But the second day, Monday, March 25th, was worse. It actually snowed. Marching to the northwest, the Army only reached Louisville, Ohio, a distance of barely six miles. The New York Times noted, “When the sun rose…this morning (March 26th) not a soldier….was visible… Fifty-eight of them went to the police station, where they were given lodgings on the cold stone floor.”
"Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. "How can I help being a humbug," he said, "when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done? It was easy to make the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Woodman happy, because they imagined I could do anything."

The plan laid out by Coxey and Browne to get their hoped for 100,000 man army over the 800 miles of bad roads between Massillon, Ohio and Washington, D.C. was to cover an average of 15 miles each day. But it took three days, until Wednesday, March 27th, for the Army to cover the twenty-seven miles through Alliance, to the Quaker settlement of Salem, Ohio.
But with their arrival here things began improving – a little. The townspeople opened their homes and the weather turned warmer. However this last proved to be a two edged sword as on Friday, the 29th the army managed just ten miles through thick mud to Columbiana, where they were provided with 1,000 loaves of bread, or about ten for every man in Coxey’s Army.
The goal was to establish a basic routine. Each morning the Army would leave camp at 10:30 A.M., and sought to achieve about 15 miles per day. This plan of attack had been taken from the voluminous books detailing the Sherman’s march through Georgia, the Civil War dominating the culture of the 1890’s the way the history of World War Two dominates American culture today.
The “Army Of Peace” as Browne called it in his pamphlets, was organized following guidelines from the same sources. Each five men formed a "group", each designated by cloth badges. Twenty groups formed a "commune", five communes a "community", two communities a "canton" and two cantons formed a "division", commanded by a marshal. It must have looked extraordinarily impressive on paper, but when the paper army was replaced with eighty hungry and desperate men, the privates must have been tripping over their officers. The press corps had not failed to notice this touch of farce,  and played it to the hilt. A half century later my mother would describe some unorganized ineffective endevour by saying, "They were spread out like Coxey's Army."
After camping overnight in East Palestine and then in Waterford, Ohio, on April first, the Army crossed into Pennsylvania and was warmly received in New Beaver. Their numbers had now increased to 137, and one more day’s march brought them to the outskirts of Pittsburg. The Pittsburg Commercial Gazette headlined on April 4th that “enthusiastic crowds greet the pilgrims of poverty”. That night the Army camped on a baseball field in the suburb of Allegheny. Carl Browne announced a parade to be held right through the center of town, but the city fathers said no. Browne complained to the press, “They have not treated us decently and have penned our men up like a lot of cattle.”
The police locked the gates of the ballpark trapping the army inside. But Coxey and Browne still made speeches standing on wagons in the center of the field, and the Gazette estimated that “15,000 to 20,000 people” stood outside the fence to hear. When the divisions formed in a steady drizzle the next morning, Browne announced that a local manufacturer had donated 500 pairs of shoes to the marchers. Noted the Gazette, “The army could hardly work its way through the crowd around the baseball grounds…” An impromptu parade was formed as the Army marched out of town. “All business had been suspended and everybody was out to see the army. ... “. By now the Army had grown to over 400 men.
For the first time national leaders began to take notice of the march. Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton described the marchers he had never seen, thusly; “If a life history of each individual in Coxey’s Army could be truthfully written, it would show, no doubt, that each of them has paid out, from birth to death, more money for tobacco, whiskey and beer, than for clothing, education, taxes and food all put together.” The press dutifully reported the Secretary’s opinion, but never asked the marchers themselves, as the Professor from Chicago had done, and they never bothered to report his findings, either.
At the same time the press had begun to hound family for dirt. Jacob Coxey’s father refused to talk to them anymore. But before he had reached that point they quoted him as describing his eldest son as “stiff necked” and “pig headed”, and one Jacob’s sisters described the warrior for the unemployed as “an embarrassment”. To listen to his family you might not know that Jacob Coxey was one of the wealthiest men in Ohio, not from inheritance but by the sweat of his own brow and brain.
                              
Snow now delayed the army’s progress over the mountains. Noted the New York Times on April 11th, Coxey's Commonweal Army is still encamped in a grove…and is likely to remain there some time unless the severe mountain storm prevailing subsides by noon to-morrow. The furious storm of last (night) continued though out the day.” Coxey himself had moved ahead into Maryland, to make arraignments for the future encampments, leaving Carl Browne in charge. And it quickly became evident that there was trouble brewing in the army.
The greatest threat to Coxey’s Army, it turned out, would be internal.
"Don't you dare to bite Toto! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a big beast like you, to bite a poor little dog!"
"I didn't bite him," said the Lion, as he rubbed his nose with his paw where Dorothy had hit it.
"No, but you tried to," she retorted. "You are nothing but a big coward."
"I know it," said the Lion, hanging his head in shame. "I've always known it. But how can I help it?"
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