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Everything Old Is New Again!


Friday, February 13, 2015


I want to retell a story you've heard since childhood, a romance of brave heroes and young love crushed by cruel fate. It is the legend of the shining city of Troy, Helen and Achilles and the wooden horse. But this time I mean to wring as much of the myth out of the tale as I can. My version begins with the capricious, hot, dry Etesian winds, which for five months every summer for the last five thousand years have roared without warning down the winding narrow straights of the Hellespont – the Sea of Hellen - for days at a time. Faced with such a fickle and relentless foe, crews of the square rigged ships sailing from the Aegean Sea to the Bosporus and the Pontos Axinos (the Dark or Black Sea) beyond, risked their lives if caught in the straits by an Etesian wind.
A safe harbor close to the southern entrance of the dangerous straits, where a ship could safely wait for favorable winds, would surely prosper, and growing wealthy, would become a temptation. For some 1,500 years there was just such a wealthy port on a broad bay at the mouth of the Scamander river, within ten miles of gates to the Dardinelles. And to modern ears the cities' name sounds almost ethereal, as if whispered by the Etesian winds themselves – Wilusa.
Wilusa began as a fishing village, atop a 100 foot high limestone outcrop that jutted into the bay like a ship's prow. Over a thousand years the village became a royal palace and keep, five city blocks wide, with 25 foot high sloping walls. Eventually, as the town prospered, two ditches were dug, eleven feet wide and six feet deep, running out from the land side of the citadel, encircling a city of 6,000 people. A tunnel dug through the bed rock fed Wilusa with fresh water. And outside the walls, dotted with farms, was “The Troad”, the sea of grasses that made Wilusa famous for horse breeding.
The great crises for the city that would come to be called Troy began in the year 1275 B.C.E., when the guarantor of Wilusan royalty, The Hittite King Mursili III, was challenged by the resurgent Egyptians along his Syrian border. Seeking to secure his opposite flank, Mursili III picked the dull but stable, younger son Piya Walmu, for the kingship of Wilusa. And the new King payed the Hittites back by supplying horses and chariots for the Hittite Army under Mursili's uncle, Prince Hattusili. It was the logical decision, but it left out of power the older, ego maniacal son, Piya Aaradu,   meaning “gift of the faithful”. And his gift was a dangerous ambition.
The Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C.E. began when Hattusli's chariots caught a third of the Egyptian army by surprise, and came very close to sweeping it off the field and killing the Pharaoh. But Ramses kept his nerve and held his force together until reinforcements arrived. Nearly 4,000 chariots on both sides, the high tech weapon of the day, swept back and forth across the Syrian plain, until the Hittites were forced to take refuge behind the walls of Kadesh.  Hattusli was saved only because Ramses' army was too weakened to put the city under siege. Both sides' propaganda claimed a bloody victory, and both Ramses and Hattusli were labeled as heroes. But afterward both Hittite and Egyptian empires retreated to lick their wounds.
At the first word of Hittite troubles, Piya Aaradu staged a coup, murdered his bother and declared himself the new King of Wilusa. He immediately offered to renew the cities' friendship treaty with the Hittites  But Mursili knew he would not remain King for long if he was thought to be weak. And he felt his uncle Hattusli, the “hero” of Kadesh, looming over his throne. So Mursili commanded Manapa-Tarhunda, the governor of the Seha River region , just south of Wilusa, to punish the usurper for the Hittites.  In about 1273 B.C.E., the Seha army marched on Wilusa.  But on the plains of The Troad, Piya Aaradu ambushed the punitive force, and Manapa-Tarhunda was defeated. Now, suddenly, the entire Hittite western border was looking vulnerable, as well.
Mursili had no choice. In 1272 B.C.E. he dispatched a larger, fully Hittite force under a general known to history only as Gassus. Using a horsehide covered battering ram suspended from a rolling frame (above), the Hittites quickly breached the city walls of Wilusa.  Gassus allowed his warriors to sack the city, but prevented them from burning the entire place to the ground.  Afterward, Wilusa was no longer trusted enough to have its own king, but a local was named the new governor - Alaksandu. The only mistake Gassus  made, and perhaps the reason we do not know his full name, was that he allowed Piya Aaradu to escape.
The pouting prince sailed 300 miles down the coast of Asia Minor to the port of Millawanda, or Miletus in language of its Archean founders, the kings of Mycenea,  100 miles west across the Aegean Sea, in what is today Greece.   Here, Piya Aaradu was sympathetically greeted by his son-in-law Atpa, who was the governor, and was the brother to Akagamunas, the king of Mycenae. 
With this familiar support, Piya Aaradu led a mercenary raid against Hittite merchants on the island of Lesbos. The joint Achean and Wilusian raid captured 700 skilled artisans, who were then sold into slavery.  It seems likely Piya Aaradu split the profits with his son-in-law, and that Akagamunas also “got a taste”, to borrow a Mafia term from the 20th century A.D.  The “had been” and “would be” King of Wilusa, Piya Aaradu was now a pirate, with money to finance future raids
Unfortunately for Piya Aaradu, his military alliance with the Hellenistic King Akagamunas of Mycenae, was the final straw for the Hittites. About 1269 B.C.E. Mursili III was sent into exile by, his uncle, Hatusili.   The new king gathered an army and about 1267 B.C., marched on Miletus. 
Piya Aaradu tried talking his way out of the mess. He offered to swear allegiance to Hatusili if he was returned to power in Wilusa.  Hattusli responded by sending an envoy to Miletus with instructions to bring Piya Aaradu back as his prisoner. Instead the envoy returned with yet another message, this one demanding that Piya Aaradu be reinstated as King of Wilusa, and no promise of loyalty. Hatusili's answer was to march his army right up to the border with Miletus. Teetering on the brink of all out war between Mycenea and the Hittites, Hattusili demanded Akagamunas hand over Piya Aaradu for punishment.
Akagamunas was not eager to start a war. Pulling Hittite beards was fun, and Piya Aaradu's raids had even shown a small profit. But big wars have a tendency to wipe out small profits very quickly. So, as a show of respect, the Governor of Melitus, Atpa, invited Hatusili to visit Melitus , assuring him he would over Piya Aaradu to him. But, once Hatusili was inside the city walls, Atpa informed the Hittite King that Piya Aaradu could not be found anywhere in Melitus. He had skipped town.
Hattusili was not happy. The switch with Piya Aaradu was an obvious insult. But he did not want a war, either. So after stomping around Mellitus for a few days, he headed home. And given the time and distance to think during his journey, and perhaps listen to his advisers, Hattusila decided to try a new approach. The following year he offered to give Piya Aaradu everything he wanted, including the crown of Wiliusa. Swear fidelity to Hattusili and all would be forgiven.
Now, no one in their right mind would have believed such an offer was genuine. But was Piya Aaradu in his right mind? And more importantly, could Akagamunas trust the pirate prince would stay in his right mind? It was one thing to finance Piya Aaradu when the Achaens had plausible denial  It would another if Piya Aaradu could trumpet proof of Mycenaean duplicity from the topless towers of Ilium. No matter how unlikely the offer from Hattusili was, it was a death sentence for Piya Aaradu.
Akagamunas could never give him the chance to tell the truth. It made no difference if the ego maniac was strangled in his bed, or stabbed by a trusted friend while leading another raid. His dead body may have even been handed over to Hattusili as a sign of good will. But it had to happen.
In fact Hattusili followed a similar strategy when his nephew Mursili escaped his exile and arrived in Egypt. First the Hittite King demanded his return. And then offered to welcome him back into the family. Both Mursili and Piya Aaradu simply, suddenly disappeared from history. And they were far from the only ones who disappeared. .
Beginning abound 1206 B.C.E., according to historian Robert Drews, “Within a period of forty to fifty years...almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again”  One of the first to be burned for the last time around 1200 B.C.E., seems to have been Wilusa. Almost the last to go was the Hittite capital of Hattusa, which was burned to the ground one night in 1180 B.C.E.  By then, every major city, from Greece to the Egyptian frontier, was violently destroyed, and often left unoccupied for generations.
Maybe the villeins were  invaders, or diseases, or volcanoes or climate change or perhaps even the replacement with bronze by iron tools and weapons. But whoever or whatever the cause, to a child growing up in Greece a thousand years before the current era, the past was a time of greatness and plenty, unlike their hungry today.  And leaders like Piya Aaradu (aka Priam), Akagamunas (or Agamemnon), Alaksandu (Alexander, aka Paris) were so famous for so long, they became myths. And Helen herself, the most beautiful woman in history, the face that launched a thousand ships and toppled the topless towers of Ilium (Troy) was Greece herself, and the new Hellenistic culture she would export to the entire world.
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Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I want to talk about the human propensity for greed, by first discussing a small family of viruses which ignore humans completely -  the Potyviridae. These five related parasites, 100th the size of a bacteria, do not infect humans, but they do infect and quickly kill lilies – after all,  the word virus is Latin for poison. In response, lilies evolved the tulip,  resistant enough to the Potyviridae that they could reproduce for perhaps a dozen generations before succumbing to these miniature succubus. And that's when humans come into the picture, because long before humans knew there was such thing as a virus, they found a way to ruin their own lives, and the lives of thousands of their fellows, by using Potyviridae.
See, tulips evolved from lilies where Europe blends into Asia, in the Ferghana Basin, north of Afghanistan, east of the Caspian Sea and west of Lake Balkhash. The basin is surrounded by mountains, and in this isolated test tube 36 different varieties of wild tulips developed over a few thousand years. Some had multiple stalks and blooms, some only one. The blooms could be white, red, yellow or orange. And when infected with Potyviridae the blooms would be wildly stained as if a child had asymmetrically dripped paint over them. Then, the unexpected happened. In the 8th century, humans living in the Ferghana Basin converted to Islam, and tulip seeds and bulbs were transported westward to Islamic centers, as a beautiful curiosity, the more so because of the fanciful patterns they displayed when infected by Potyviridea, which traveled with its host. And because the bulbs could be be transported thousands of miles, because they were purely ornamental, and because they had to be replaced every few years, to own and grow them became a display of extreme wealth, conspicuous consumption, restricted to the caliphs in Baghdad and later Istanbul.
A century after Christopher Columbus – in 1593 - tulip bulbs were first planted in the Netherlands, by the botanist Carolus Clusius. His wealthy patrons were for the first time in history, not blue-blood royalty but the local burgomasters of the the town of Leiden. Recently freed from paying protection money to Spanish royalty, these Dutch Protestant capitalists were interested in just two things, making money, and showing everybody how much money they were making. The “Nouveau riche” adopted all the accouterments of their noble predecessors, including fine clothes, large homes, fancy carriages, portraits, and within ten years, ownership of the exotic tulip, so named because its bloom resembled a Turkish turban. And it was now that human greed enters our story, when tulips pass from being a de rigueur symbol of wealth, to the means for measuring and achieving wealth.
The Lord, it seemed, had designed the tulip to make humans rich, and a few Calvinist ministers pointed this out. The plant blooms for only a week or two in the spring. And having proven its colors, after the leaves have died back, the bulb may be dug up, marketed and sold, before being returned to the soil for the winter. So the primary tulip market was set by the plant itself, every fall. The rest of the year traders would buy and sell future contracts on the bulbs in the ground, gambling on their future vitality, which, considering they variations of color patterns being determined by a virus that were slowly killing the plant, was never a sure thing. . The futures market in tulips began to drive the price of tulips upward, until, within twenty years of Clusius' experiment - in 1610 - the burgomasters felt required to make it illegal to sell tulip futures “short”, meaning to gamble that the price for bulbs in the ground would drop before spring.
A disaster in the tulip trade was predictable as far back as the summer of 1623, when a bulb of the rarest variety (only 10 existed), Semper Augusttus, was sold for a thousand guilders. The most skilled carpenters earned only 250 guilders a year, and Carolus Clusius, the man responsible for all of this, earned a mere 750 guilders a year. But when the bulb of the Semper Augusttus (above)  was pulled from the ground, it was found to have two “daughter” bulbs, meaning the value of each Semper Augusttus bulb had just been reduced by 15%. The buyer was the fabulously rich Adriaan Pauw, and he was not happy, even though he now owned all 12 of the rare tulip.
The law against selling tulips short had been reaffirmed in 1621, and again in 1630, and yet again in 1636. Now you don't make a law unless you have to, and you don't keep making that law unless  short selling was going on. And many burgomasters saw the practise of betting on a catastrophe as dangerous. At the same time it seems safe to assume there was resistance to enforcing such laws, since no penalties were ever attached to a violation. It reminds me of the current toothless regulation of the banking industry in America. The general feeling seems to have been (and is in America today) that everybody could continue making money as long as everybody stayed greedy but smart. And that has never happened in all of human history, and it did not happen in the Netherlands in the 17th century, first because the traders were not trading in what they thought they were trading in - tulips -  but in a virus which infected tulips, and second I remind you again of a central theme in many of my essays; greed makes you stupid.
Adriaan Pauw was smart. He was rich enough he did not need to be greedy with his tulips. He kept the value of his Semper Augusttus high by the simple expedient of not selling his bulbs, which prevented anybody from noticing that they got weaker with each generation. But he did go to the expense of constructing a gazebo in his garden, covered in mirrors, to reflect his blooms during their brief existence. It also more than doubled the impression of his wealth. In 1624 Pauw's Augusttus were valued at 1,200 guilders each, then 2,000, and in 1626 at 3,000 guilders for a single bulb. By 1633 each bulb of Augusttus, which had continued to produce “daughters”, was valued at 5,500 guilders. And finally Pauw could resist temptation no more. He only sold one at that price, and with the stipulation that it could be re- sold only with his approval.  But inflation had spread like a virus to all varieties of tulips. During one two year period the price for “General of Generals” bulbs increased from 100 guilders to 750 guilders. On February 5, 1637 at an auction held in the lake side fortress village of Alkmarr, an Admiral van Enkhuizen bulb, was sold for 5, 200 guilders, several million American dollars today. Who could resist such temptation?
That single auction, saw 70 rare bulbs sold for 53,000 guilders, an all time high. But just two days earlier and 20 miles to the south in the village of Harrlem a tulip investor and grower club – called a college – had become so worried about these rising prices that they decided to test the market. They held an auction of a huge quantity of common bulbs. They meant to see how deep the demand really was. The experiment blew up in their faces. Only one buyer showed up. Realizing he was the market, he demanded a 35 % discount. And he got it. And when word of this disaster reached Alkmarr and beyond, a stunned silence settled over tulip colleges all over the Netherlands. Prices of tulips collapsed like the price of baseball trading cards or comic books after  2007. Many varieties of tulips would quickly lose 95% of their value.
Families went bankrupt -  how many has become a subject for much debate in economic circles. But many victims sought a new start in the New World. Said one Calvinist, it was “ God’s Just Plague-Punishment, for the attention of the well-to-do Netherlanders in this bold, rotten Century.”  It was the usual, "Heads, God wins; tails human lose" philosophy. There were lawsuits, and everybody wanted out of their futures contracts. The government tried to help, but any new law saving buyers was opposed by sellers, and any new law favoring sellers was opposed by buyers. So the politicians did nothing.   The very wealthy Adriaan Pauw's fortune survived, although he did take a hit. And most futures contracts were quietly closed out for 10-15% of their paper value.
A lot of people have tried to claim the Tulip Mania  was not a “market bubble”, like all the other market bubbles since. But the best description of what went wrong that I have found was by A Maurits van der Veen, from the College of William and Mary. (http://www.maurits.net/Research/TulipMania.pdf ) He wrote in 2009, “When novice traders entered the market...it became increasingly difficult to distinguish those with solid private knowledge from those who were simply following the crowd... these constituted a new kind of trade, no longer linked to individual bulbs.” In other words, greed driven investors were betting not on tulips, but tulip investors - call it tulip derevitives. And that had blown the market up. Sounds like a market bubble to me. And when Tulip mania died, so did some of the most valuable strains of tulips. There has not been a Semper Augusttus bloom seen since the middle of the 17th century.
There are many who still insist the Semper Augusttus was the most beautiful tulip that ever existed, as there are many who insist an unregulated “free market” is superior to a regulated stock market. But with its asymmetrical and varied patterns the Semper Augusttus was actually the product of Potyviridae devouring the tulip from the inside, breaking its genetic code, and slowly killing its host. It was not a true species. It lived no longer than the rich man who had the fortune to maintain its artificial existence.  Modern tulips are far stronger,  their colors symmetrical, and more resistant than the frail infected flowers  that so entranced the “Nouveau riche” of 1637. And because of that, billions of people today enjoy tulips  And some day, perhaps, the nouveau rich of our age will come to admit that like the Potyviridea infected tulip, an unregulated  “free market”, which produced the tulip mania and a thousand other manias and bubbles in the 400 years since, is merely a splash of color which distracts your attention from the parasite devouring capitalism  right before your eyes.
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Sunday, February 08, 2015


I do not believe the Reverend Kelly. But I am not sure if I don’t believe him when he said he did not murder those eight people, or when he said he did.  What I do know is that five years later, passengers on board the westbound number 5 train,  which had pulled out of little station at Villisca, Iowa (above)  at 5:19 A.M. that Monday morning, remembered the twitchy, diminutive preacher telling his fellow bleary eyed travelers that he had left eight butchered bodies back in Villisca. The bodies would not be discovered until almost eight that morning. So if the sleepy witnesses correctly remembered the words spoken to them five years earlier by a strange little preacher they had never seen before, then he was guilty of an unspeakable horror. If they were wrong, he was innocent. Of course, either way, he was crazy as a loon. And don't get me started on why none of the travelers told anybody at the time, about the odd little preacher and his tale of horror.
Villisca is a self proclaimed “community of pride where the rivers divide”,  the rivers being the West and Middle branches of the Nordaway River. It lies  80 miles southwest of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Montgomery County was settled in the mid 19th century,  mostly by people from the old Midwest, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, people with names like Bates and Bowman, Kennedy and Hoover, Powers and Preston and Wymore. 
They arrived on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, called by her customers just “The Q”.  At the time no community in Iowa was more than a few miles from an active passenger rail line. Most of the residents of Villisca either sold services or equipment to the local farmers or worked for the railroad. And in 1912 the little town contained about 2,000 souls..
On the morning of June 10th, 1912,  inside a  sad looking two story house (now at 323 East 4th.Street) were found the bodies of Mr. Josiah Moore, his wife Sara, their daughter Katherine and their sons Herman, Boyd and Paul (below) , as well as the bodies of their overnight child guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger. The children were aged 5 through age 12. 
All the victims were found in their beds, with their heads covered with bedclothes. All had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an ax, which was found wiped clean in the downstairs sewing room/bedroom,  along with the bodies of the Stillinger girls.
The ceilings in the parent's bedroom and the children's room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the ax blade
Downstairs little Lena Stillinger’s nightgown was pushed up, leaving her genitalia exposed. But the doctors said there was no evidence of molestation. There was an odd bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm.  A two pound slab of bacon was found, wrapped in a dishtowel, on the bedroom floor.  
On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water. The medical estimate was that all of the murders had occurred shortly after midnight, the morning of 10 June, 1912.
On 11 June, 1912,  Mr. Sam Moyer was arrested for the murders.  He was released on the 15th. On 20 June, 1912  Mr. John Bohland was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later.  
On 5 July, 1912, Mr. Frank Roberts (“a negro”) was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later. On 28 December, farmer and the ex-brother-in-law to victim Sara Moore,  Mr. Lew Van Alstine,   was arrested for the murders. He was released a few weeks later. On 15 July, 1916,  Mr. William Mansfield was arrested for the murders. On 21 July,  he was released. 
On 19 March, 1917, five years after the murders, the Reverend J.J. Burris told a Grand Jury sitting in the county seat of Red Oak, that a mystery man had confessed on his death bed to having committed the murders.  And finally, on 30 April, 1917,  a warrant for the arrest of the Reverend George Kelly was issued. He arrived to surrender himself two weeks later, oddly enough on the Number 5 train.
The authorities first became interested in the Reverend (above, on the right) a few weeks after the murders, alerted by local recipients of his rambling letters. He had arrived in Villisca for the first time the Sunday morning before the murders, and had attended a Sunday school performance by the Stillinger girls. He had left Villisca the following day, Monday morning on that Number 5 train..
Two weeks later he had returned posing as a detective, and had even joined a tour of the murder house with a group of real investigators (above).  There was virtually no control of the crime scene. The only thing stopping police from arresting George Kelly immediately was that it was abundantly clear the Reverend was absolutely crazy.
Lyn George Jacklin Kelly (above left, again with his wife) was the son and the grandson of English ministers, who, as an adolescent, had suffered a “mental breakdown”.  He had immigrated to America with his wife in 1904 and preached at a dozen Methodist churches across North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa. Preaching from the pulpit he was “...a confident, well-versed, and articulate speaker”. But in personal interactions the 5 foot, 119 pound minister displayed “...a nervous demeanor, shifty eyes, and often spoke so quickly that saliva would dribble down his chin”.He had been assigned as a visiting minister to several small communities north of Villisca, where  he developed a reputation for odd behavior; late night walks, rumors that he was a peeping tom and unconfirmed stories that he had tried to convince young girls to undress for him.  In 1914, while preaching in South Dakota,  he had advertised for a private secretary. One young woman who responded was informed by return post that Kelly wanted her to type in the nude (above) . He was convicted of sending obscene material through the mail, and spent time in a mental hospital.  While there he wrote to the Montgomery County D.A. that he expected at any moment to be arrested for the Villisca murders.Finally, after investigating just about every other possibility, the Grand Jury indicted Kelly for the murder of Lena Stillinger.  All through the summer of 1917, while in jail awaiting trial, Kelly was interrogated.
The last interview was on 30 August,  a marathon session that lasted all night (above) .  At 7AM on the morning of the 31 August,  Kelly signed a confession to the murder, saying God had whispered to him to “suffer the children to come unto me.”
At trial the Reverend Kelly recanted his confession, and on Wednesday, 26 September the case went to the jury, which deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal.
A second jury was immediately empanelled, and in November the Reverend Kelly was acquitted by all 12 jurors. No one else was ever tried for the murders. And the crime remains one of the most horrific, unsolved mass murders in American history, known simply as the Villisca Axe Murders.Did he do it?  I don't know. The passengers on the number 5 train that Monday morning were pretty sure he had confessed to them, three hours before the bodies were discovered. But did they really remember the confession, five years later? And why had they not reported the confession at the time? Was it really the morning of of the murders? Or had it happened two weeks after the murders, when Reverend Kelly had impersonated a detective? It is enough to shake your faith in any certainty in this world. ( http://www.villiscaiowa.com/)
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