JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Friday, June 13, 2014


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. Wearing an iron mask, the first time you drool in your sleep,  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 a man with a knowledge of chemistry, 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's testicles caught in a vice, and you could get them to admit 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. Politicians could retire. Investigators could get promoted, or fired, or die of old age. Or be poisoned. 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 a serial killer, such as cut little Marie.
When Marie had perfected the formula she had gotten from Sainte-Croix, which she had by 1666, she had no compunction 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 burned through in four short years.
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 yet 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 murderers always seem to 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 of lucky orphans 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 Brinville.  Marie panicked. The cops were not going to torture the King’s mistress, or his sister-in-law, 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 decided it was better if he had 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 forgiveness by confessing their sins, but...on the other hand, once you know what a homicidal lunatic little Marie was, how do you solve a problem like Marie? How do you catch a serial killer and pin her down? How do you keep your convent running when you are short of money? The good sisters consulted scripture and their account books and after due deliberations decided to rat out their diminutive guest.
The nuns allowed a cop disguised as a priest to enter the convent, and while offering solace to the trouble little lady, he escorted Marie on a walk, right out the front gate and off church property, 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 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 now had Marie's confession and Sainte-Croix's list, both naming lots and lots of well known and well connected nobility. But just before the case broke wide open...Louis XIV (above) ordered all further investigations to be closed.  And being the King, his orders were obeyed. He shut it all 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 in the mask - I don't think. But if you are of a novel mind set you might ask yourself a few additional questions.
Like, 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 for world domination. If you ask me this story is mostly a fantasy invented by Alexande Dumas. And was not 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, June 11, 2014


I can't prove who the two fishermen pulled out of the high tide off tiny Pilsey Island (above)on June 9, 1957. The corpse was probably the earthly remains of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb.  But the body had been in the water for so long,  that when they hefted the corpse into the boat, the head fell off and was lost in the mud flats. The hands were already gone, whether by accident or design. Margaret Player, Lionel’s ex-wife, could not identity what was left,  and neither could his current girlfriend, Patricia Rose. At the inquest a diving partner, William McLanachan, identified a scar on the left knee as Lionel’s, but later recanted.
DNA technology was still a half century in the future, but still...The diving suit matched the two piece type Lionel had been wearing. The stature of the corpse matched his. The body hair matched. The clothing Lionel had been wearing under the suit, matched the clothes on the corpse. Even the “hammer toes” of the corpse matched photographs of Lionel Crabb’s feet. The coroner ruled that it was Lionel Crabb and that he had been dead for several days.  And the mystery should have ended right there, in the tidal flats of Chichester Harbor, 17 miles to the east of Plymouth Harbor. But what if the body was claimed to be that of Commander James Bond, would you meekly accept the evidence, or suspect the super spy had pulled off yet another misdirection and double cross, all in the name of queen and country?.  Lionel Crabb didn’t look like the movie version of James Bond, but he was a dead ringer for the Bond from the books. He hated to exercise. He was a chain smoker, and an aficionado of “boilermakers” (whisky with a beer chaser). He distrusted academics and experts (he would have shot Q long ago). And Lionel couldn’t swim three lengths of a swimming pool without collapsing from exhaustion. Still, a friend described him as having, “…a singular ability to endure discomfort…His lack of fear was unquestioned….(a) curmudgeonly but kindly bantam cock,…a most pleasant and lively individual. (However) His penchant for alcohol remained undiminished.”Lionel Crabb started his adventures as a Merchant seaman. And when World War Two began he was already thirty years old, and thanks to his consumption of alcohol. already past his physical prime. He joined the Royal Navy in 1940 and eventually ended up as a bomb safety officer based on Gibraltar, a job requiring calm dedication and not for a dare devil. But that is where the legend of Commander “Buster” Crabb really begins.
Across the straights from Gibraltar, in Algeria, was a force of Italian divers who were skillfully planting limpet mines on British transports and warships in the anchorage of Gibraltar Harbor (above). Lionel became part of the team assigned to protect those ships.
He learned to dive in the war zone, wearing the bulky “Sladen Suits” (above), often referred to as “Clammy Death.".  On his missions, Lionel was using the ancestor of the aqualung, "re-breathers" invented by the American, Dr. Lambersten. The British team didn’t even have swim fins, until two Italian divers where machine gunned by a sentry one night and Lionel retrieved the fins and used them,  out of curiosity.Working often in the black of night,  Lionel slipped beneath the oily water of Gilbrater's harbor, to inspect a warship's hull for any sign of explosives, and if discovered to carefully remove them, bringing them to the surface and disarming them, which was the only part of the job he had actually been trained for.
For his work Lionel was awarded the St. George Medal in 1944. By that time he was commanding the entire unit. Lionel was a pioneer in the field, even teaching himself to disarm the new German magnetic mines. In August of 1945 he was assigned to disarm mines placed by Zionists terrorists on shipping in the port of Haifa. He received another medal for his role in disarming mines and explosives in Europe left over from World War II.
And in 1949 Lionel managed to produce underwater photographs of a British cruiser’s spinning propellers while the big ship plowed through the sea within feet of him. He explored a British submarine lost in the Thames estuary (above), and helped build the outflow system for a top secret nuclear weapons factory. Lionel had become the “go-to guy” on anything involving underwater espionage, and was famous for it, not because he was a genius at it but because he was the only person doing it. Lionel was retired from active service in 1953,  but remained in the reserves. And in October of 1955, when the new Soviet cruiser Sverdlov paid a “good will” visited to Portsmouth, Lionel and a friend, Sydney Knowles, made nighttime dives, examining and measuring the hull, in an attempt to explain the ship’s powerful maneuvering abilities. So both men seemed obvious picks to repeat that dive in April of 1956 when the Soviet Cruiser Ordzhonikidze (above) paid call to Portsmouth, while carrying, Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party Leader, Nikita Khrushchev on a state visit.Their dive might never have become public knowledge except,  after the visit of the  Ordzhonikidze  the Soviets filed an official protest, claiming a British diver was seen close to the Soviet cruiser on April 19th. Lionel’s war record had made him the most famous diver in Britain, and the day after the Soviet protest was filed, a reporter spotted Lionel's name in the register of the Sally Port hotel in Old Portsmouth (above). for the date of 18 April  The day after his name was spotted, other reporters returned to find that page had been ripped out of the book,  and was now missing. . The British navy eventually claimed that Lionel had been testing new diving equipment in the Solent,  to the West of Portsmouth, when he had disappeared and was presumed to have drowned. But that story seemed so absurd it produced even more speculation.
It is speculated that the new British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden (above),  had hopes of reaching a rapprochement with the Soviet leadership, and had forbidden Lionel from making this second dive inside Portsmouth harbor. But, it was alleged by the press,  the CIA had encouraged Lionel to make the attempt even without official British endorsement. What we do know as fact, is that after press speculation about Lionel's death,  Eden issued a public statement on 14 May saying   “It would not be in the public interest to disclose the circumstances in which Commander Crabb is presumed to have met his death. I think it necessary, in the special circumstances of this case, to make it clear that what was done,  was done without the authority or the knowledge of Her Majesty’s Ministers. Appropriate disciplinary steps are being taken.” Shortly thereafter the head of MI6, Britain's intelligence agency, was relieved.
But from this point the stories and myths only multiply. In 2007 Eduard Koltsov claimed he had been a diver aboard the Cruiser Ordzhonikidze when, while on underwater patrol under the Soviet Ship in Portsmouth harbor, he spotted Lionel fixing a mine,  and had cut the spy's throat. Lionel’s fiance claimed in 1974 that he had defected and was still alive, training Soviet frogmen in the Black Sea. Another version says Lionel suffered a heart attack while inspecting the Ordzhonikidze, had been rescued by Soviet divers,  but had later died from his injuries, perhaps under torture, and that the Soviets had dumped his body overboard after leaving English port.What we now know for certain is that on 17 April, 1956, as the cold war was still heating up,  Lionel and another unknown man checked into the Sally Port Hotel, in Portsmouth. On the evening of the 18th, Lionel entered the water from The King’s Stairs Jetty (above), about 80 yards from where the Soviet warship was berthed. Lionel returned to the surface just 20 minutes later, having gotten confused in the dark among the pier’s pilings. The decision was made to try again in daylight.
Lionel returned to the jetty just after 7 a.m on April 18th, in full daylight this time, and re-entered the waters of Portsmouth harbor (above). He came back up just 20 minutes later complaining of problem with his re-breathing equipment. Repairs were made, and within a few minutes Lionel went down again for another try.
But this time he did not resurface, at least not until fourteen months later when his body was supposedly pulled from the shallow tidal inlet some seventeen miles further west down the coast. But was that really the body of Commander Lionel Crabb, or the other unknown man? We still don’t know for certain, and won’t until at least 2057, when the British government has promised to tell all they know.
Of course they had originally promised to do that in 1987, but then they changed their minds. They could do that again, too.  As they say, You Only Live Twice. 
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Sunday, June 08, 2014


“You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.” - The Tin Woodsman. 
1900. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” L. Frank Baum
I must begin by pointing out that all good jokes have no prologue. “Two men” may indeed walk into a bar, and before they did, they had to be somewhere else, doing something else. But if you knew what they had been doing, it would, in all likelihood, deflate the punch line. Prologues all define drama's, not comedies.The reality is that everything comes from something else, and every beginning is actually the coda for yet another story.
As an example, Jacob Sechler Coxey came from Massillon, Ohio, a village founded by 150 Utopians, inspired by a similar effort at New Harmony, Indiana. But where the Hoosier experiment in perfection stagnated, Massillon was energized because the Erie Canal ran right through town. That infrastructure attracted industry, which brought in more infrastructure, specifically railroads. It was not much of a utopia, but it was a successful town. So much money was being made there, that the optimistic little town became known locally as the Port of Massillon. However the port was closed by the Panic of 1893. And that did not arrive from nowhere, either.
The 1849 California Gold rush proved so rich that by 1873 the U.S. government stopped issuing silver coins. Silver mining was still profitable, but corporate interests convinced Washington that silver needed price supports. So the politicians passed the Sherman Silver Act of 1890, which committed the nation to buy and stockpile silver. Silver shot up from 84 cents an ounce to $1.50. But the attendant inflation caused banks to cut back lending. That hurt troubled railroads. Over the next four years, failing railroads (156 of them) led to failed banks (almost 400 of them), which produced failed small businesses (almost 5,000 of them). And then incoming President Grover Cleveland made things even worse. He repealed the Sherman Act.
In just four days silver lost a quarter of its value. And the attendant deflation destroyed what little credit remained. Unemployment rose from an estimated 3% in 1892, to 11% in 1893, and, after repeal of the Sherman Act, to 18% in 1894. In Pennsylvania the level was 25%. In Michigan it was 44%. In Chicago 100,000 homeless men were sleeping in the streets. Editor John Swinton wrote, “…we have seen the growth of a horde of paupers, beggars and tramps.” Minister George Herron, noted that the richest nation in the world now “finds a vast population face to face with famine”.
The captains of industry, who had created this mess, expected the government to aid them with tax cuts and tariffs to restrict competition. But they were opposed to similar aid to workers, to the very idea of a safety net or by government investing in infrastructure which would benefit the common man. However that solution seemed obvious to those who had worked with their hands, men raised to believe that a better world could and ought to be built; specifically, men like Jacob Coxey.
At thirty-six years of age, this wing-collared revolutionary could have been the physical twin to Japanese Emperor Hirohito, with a round face framed by rimless spectacles and accented by a thin mustache. Jacob Coxey did not smoke. He did not drink to excess. He was the most successful businessman in Massillon, a millionaire. But he was working on his second marriage and rumor had it that his gambling had ended his first. To finance his addiction, Jacob owned a sandstone quarry outside of Massillon, which, by the way, carried two mortgages, the second held by his first wife, Carrie Coxey.
Jacob Coxey was a visionary, and like most, sometimes he was also a bit myopic. For while his “Good Roads Association” sought to mitigate the endless capitalist cycle of boom followed by bust, his belief in reincarnation sought to minimize the trauma of life itself. And then in the summer of 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair, Jacob found a kindred spirit for both of his visions, in a lunatic named Carl Browne. 
Carrie Coxey called Browne “a deep-dyed villian” and it is easy to see what she saw. He was a natural born huckster, a salesman in the extreme. He stood over six feet tall. His hair hung down his back and clustered about his face like a heavy snowfall. Carl dressed like Buffalo Bill, in a fringed buskin coat, buttoned with Mexican silver dollars and set off with thigh high cowboy boots. He rarely if ever bathed. His voice has been described as a foghorn. He had worked as house painter, a cartoonist and a snake oil salesman, and now he was a labor organizer. And five minutes of talking with Jacob Coxey convinced Carl Browne that while he personally was the partial re-incarnation of Jesus Christ, Coxey was the re-incarnation of Andrew Jackson. And Jackson just happened to be one of Jacob Coxey’s heroes. What a lucky coincidence, their meeting 
It was the meeting of these two personalities, the shy, confident thinker and the bombastic and profane huckster, which gave birth to the idea of a “petition with boots on”, a march on Washington to petition the government for a response to the staggering unemployment. It came to Jacob in a New Year Eve’s dream that the march should begin on Easter Sunday, March 25th, 1894. Jacob wrote a treatise on the subject, and Carl drew impressions of the glorious out come to come. And it was extremely unlikely that anyone would have paid any attention to the march whatever had not the editor of the Massillon Independent posted notice of Jacob Coxey’s grand plan on the national wire services. And just about every editor in America agreed, it would make a really good story . 
“The north and south winds met where the house stood, and made it the exact center of the cyclone. In the middle of a cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather.”
1900. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” L. Frank Baum
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