JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, May 17, 2017


I find it instructive that the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia (above)  have never obsessed over how the disaster of 6 December, 1917 could have happened to them. They have asked the obvious questions, but have been willing to quickly accept that they would never know the whole truth. In part this was because so many of those responsible were already dead, and in part because it was a time and a place where obsessions could not be tolerated. There was a war on, as the saying goes, and that explained the unexplainable, as you would know if you have ever considered the full implications of that phrase; “There’s a war on.”
Halifax exists because it is one of the largest, best protected ice free harbors in the world, a gift of the Sackville River. The Sackville rises in the center of “New Scotland” near Mt. Unijacke and meanders its way for 25 miles south eastward, spilling from one lake to another until it reaches the head of The Bedford Basin.
Here the Slackville disappears into a drowned river valley, a protected anchorage four miles long by two miles wide. At its southern end is “The Narrows”, which closes to a little less than a mile wide channel. In 1917 the town of Halifax, home to 50,000, rose on the steep hills along the west side of the Narrows, while the suburb of Dartmouth, with a population of 6,500, occupied the east shore.And beyond the bottleneck of The Narrows was Halifax Harbor, which opened directly to the North Atlantic. The salt water here is warmed by the nearby Gulf Stream Current, and the Great Circle commercial route is just one hour sailing time out to sea. That combination, the harbor and the nearby Great Circle Route, made Halifax a convenient place to rest and load coal before challenging the North Atlantic, or to recover after a harrowing voyage to the new world. And during World War One the Bedford Basin was the logical place for allied convoys to form up in safety, far from prying enemy eyes.
Early on the morning of Thursday, 6 December, 1917 there were some fifteen cargo ships crowded into the Basin and several Royal Navy warships in Halifax harbor.
But atypical of all of these ships was the Steam Ship Monte Blanc; 3,121 tons, 320 feet long, and inbound for Bedford Basin. At any other time she would have been a pariah, and expected to unload her cargo outside the port, on the safety of McNab's Island. But there was a war on.
The SS Mont Blanc was just out of New York carrying 2,300 tons of the explosive trinitrophenol (TNP), 200 tons of trintritoluene (TNT), 10 tons of gun cotton and 300 rounds of small arms ammunition. In addition she had 36 tons of the high octane Bezol fuel piled about her decks in 50 gallon drums. In short the ship was a floating bomb. And as the Monte Blanc approached The Narrows she found herself head-on to the outbound 5,043 ton, 430 foot long Norwegian SS IMO, running ballast, outbound for New York to load humanitarian supplies for occupied Belgium.
As the two ships approached they each signaled by ship's horns their intention to maintain course and speed. Then without warning the Mount Blanc turned to the right, as if moving to dock at a pier on the Halifax shore. Seeing this, the Imo (below) desperately reversed her engines, intending to slow and give the Mount Blanc room. But the reverse spin on Imo’s propeller pulled her into the center of The Narrows, and directly into the path of the looming Monte Blanc.
It was 8:45 A.M., local time. The towns of Halifax and Dartmouth were just starting their work days. Large crowds stopped to watch as the two ships sounded their horns in alarm and drew inexorably together. Workers at the new rail yards up the harbor were drawn to the excitement. Everyone in town, it seemed, stopped what they were doing to witness the drama unfolding.
As if in slow motion the two ships struck. The Imo’s prow sliced into the starboard bow of the Monte Blanc. Benzol drums were thrown about Monte Blanc’s deck, spilling the corrosive fuel. Mont Blanc’s cargo hold was penetrated. For a long moment the two ships hung there in the middle of The Narrows. Then, as the Imo backed away, the scrapping of crumpled metal against torn metal, threw sparks. A fire quickly broke out aboard the Monte Blanc, ignited or fed by the Benzol, sending grey smoke skyward. Within 10 minutes the Mont Blanc’s forty man crew had been forced to take to  their life boats. Once there they shouted a warning for the Imo’s crew about their volatile cargo. But none of the Imo's crew spoke French. The drifting burning hulk now brushed past Halifax’s pier six, setting it afire as she passed.
The Canadian Navy tug and mine sweeper "Stella Maris" (above) joined the Imo in attempting to throw water on the fires, and the "Stella Maris" also sent a boat crew to attempt to take the abandoned wreak under tow.
Meanwhile the Box 83 alarm at the Halifax Fire Department sent men and equipment racing toward the harbor and the burning dock. They arrived there just after 9:00 a.m., forcing their way through the growing crowd along the shore, all drawn there by the spectacular show.  Almost no one in the harbor knew what the cargo of  the Monte  Blanc was.
But even now a few sensed the impending disaster. Mr. P. Vince Coleman, a dispatcher for the Inter-Colonial Railway yards (above)  just a few hundred yards inshore from the piers, not only saw the accident, but knew of the Monte Blanc’s deadly cargo as well. He and other workers in the yards ran for their lives. But then Coleman remembered that a train loaded with 300 passengers from Saint John’s was due to arrive in a few moments. He ran back to his post and tapped out the following message on the telegraph key, “Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching pier six. Goodbye.” Every operator up and down the line heard that message. Then, precisely at 9:04:35 the line went dead.
In that instant, in a single white hot flash, the 3,000 ton Mont Blanc was converted into shrapnel - jagged sections of iron weighing from slivers to half a ton. They were ripped from the hull and sent spinning away at supersonic speeds. Part of the Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two and a half miles away.
At the center of the blast the temperature exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, instantly converting the 40 degree sea water in The Narrows to steam. First a high pressure shock wave raced through the air at 500 feet a second, flattening everything within 4 square miles. Then a fireball took just 20 seconds to rise a mile into the air, where an enterprising photographer snapped a picture (above) from thirteen miles away.
Then a tidal wave 36 feet high swept back and forth across The Narrows, sweeping away everything onshore in its path and dragging it into the water. . An entire Innuit village of 22 families on the Dartmourth shore was drowned by the wave. Windows were shattered 10 miles away.  Buildings shook 78 miles distant. And the explosion was heard in Cape Breton, 225 miles to the east. Out of the tug Stella Maris’ crew of 24, only five survived. On board the Imo, the captain, the harbor pilot and five crew members were killed. The 430 foot long Imo was thrown against the Dartmouth shore like a toy in a bathtub (below), her bottom ripped out. Every other ship in Halifax harbor suffered causalities and damage.
Of the ten firemen who had just arrived at the dock, nine were killed, including the Fire Chief and Deputy Chief. The sole survivor, engine driver Billy Wells, wrote, “The first thing I recalled after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine…the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm.”
At least 2,000 people had been killed outright, and 9,000 wounded, not counting the Innuit dead. (Native peoples, quite simply, did not count., in 1917).  More than 1,000 of those who witnessed the explosion were blinded by flying glass and slivers of wood and steel. Nova Scotia lost more of her citizens in that one instant than were killed serving in her army and navy units in all four years of World War One.
Slowly rescuers began to move into the devastated square mile, removing the dead, comforting the wounded and searching for survivors in the rubble of their homes and businesses. Then, as darkness began to fall that night, “…almost as if Fate, unconvinced the exploding chemicals…had struck a death blow to Halifax, was now calling upon nature to administer the coup de grace…”. It began to snow.
The worst blizzard in ten years buried the shocked port in several feet of snow and condemned untold injured to death by freezing.
Every year, the city of Halifax donates a Christmas tree to the city Boston, as thanks for the assistance which was rushed to them in the weeks after the explosion. And every year, on December 6th, from 8:50 a.m. to 9:25 a.m., there is a memorial service held  in Halifax to remember the victims of the largest man made explosion on earth ... which was superseded only by the first atomic bomb test in 1945, when there was another world war going on.
 - 30 -

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I believe the world ended on 5 April, 1761. If you haven't heard of this tragic event, well, your ancestors were just not paying attention. In a world where most people still believed in the literal history of a real Adam and Eve, a certain William Bell, trooper in the Life Guards Horse Cavalry, went about London telling everyone and anyone who would listen that doomsday was nigh. And on the date predicted thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people listened and believed him. And what was amazing was that Corporal Bell was right. The world did end on that Sunday. But  Corporal Bell was right for the wrong reasons. And the reason made all the difference. 
The 8 day of February  1761 dawned cold, as was to be expected in a world still in the grip of “The Little Ice Age”. Most winters the Thames froze over allowing people to cross the ice. And the great city was chocking on her own coal smoke to keep warm. This Sunday The “Picadilly Butchers”, as the members of the Life Guards Household Cavalry were called, were gathering for their parade, set then, as now, for 11:30 A.M.Then, from Greenwich below London on the south bank, to Richmond, on the upstream north shore, the entire Thames valley shuddered. In Hampstead and Highgate houses shook. Among the ship construction ways in Limehouse the chandler’s tools were vibrated off their frames.In the tiny village of Poplar across from the Isle of Dogs in the great bend of the Thames River, chimneys were shaken apart, their bricks crashing to the ground. In ‘The City’ itself pewter keepsakes slipped off mantles and chairs were upended. It was over in a few seconds. The dust settled. Nerves calmed. Normality returned.
On Sunday, March 8, 1761, between five and six on in the morning, the Thames valley shuddered again. This time the shaking was stronger and lasted longer, roiling from north to south and back again.
In St. James Park a section of an abandoned canal in the private gardens behind Buckingham House (above) collapsed. In the churches of London, words of reassurance offered after the first quake, now fell on deaf ears.Reason and logic were forgotten. All that people could think of was their fear. Panicked, the richest and poorest citizens of central London both ran from their beds at the slightest suggestion of another quake, convinced their homes were about to collapse around their heads, as some already had.But the most well known collapse caused by the twin London earthquakes of 1761 was the collapse of sanity in the person of William Bell. He was one of the “Tinned Fruit”, aka a “Picadilly Butcher", a corporal in the Household Cavalry. And he became convinced that the shaking of 8 February (the second Sunday in the month) and 8 March (the second Sunday in that month), would be followed by a truly catastrophic shaker on the second Sunday in April - the twelfth.
Bell, in his mind,  saw the earth split open. The mighty Thames River boiled and roiled. The bridges cracked and fell. The fires of damnation burst forth from the bowels of the earth. Sinners and Saints were cowed before the angels of the Lord. Spirits of the dead rose up. And the earth was laid bare, swept clean of the sins and works of man. Corporal Bell's visions became so intense and detailed, that he began to share them with any and all who would listen. He related them with such passion that Bell's visions took hold of the entire city like a fever.
Charles Mackay’s excellent book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (Harmony Books – 1843) records that, “…all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles …(were) crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places, remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields…...and hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant-vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul’s totter, and the towers of Westminster Abby rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.”One enterprising chemist even advertised pills which he claimed to be “good against earthquakes”, although exactly how the pills proposed to save the swallower, was never fully explained.Needless to say, the world did not end on Sunday 12 April, 1761, at least not in the way Corporal Bell had anticipated. As Mackay recorded, “The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week to elapse before they trusted their dear limbs in London.”Corporal Bell became a man scorned, a repository for all those angry with themselves for having believed his prediction. And although he tried his hand at other doomsday prognostications, Corporal Bell was confined for some months in an insane asylum, probably, in part, for his own protection. Edward W. Brayley recorded in his book “Londoninania” (Hurst, Chance and Company – 1829) that Bell “…afterward kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn Hill during many years, and …retired to the neighborhood of Edgeware where he died a few years ago”.Some things did change because of the twin quakes. His royal highness King George II picked up the damaged Buckingham House at a bargain price.He kept the gardens but filled in the collapsed canal behind the structure and turned it into the Parade for the Household Cavalry. He renamed the residence “The Queen’s House”, but over the years, as additional wings were added, the old name returned and it became known as “Buckingham Palace”.The channel between the Isle of Dogs and the hamlet of Poplar was bridged at two points and eventually the inside of the bend in the Themes became the East End of London (above). But something more fundamental had changed with the Earthquakes of 1761, and while the superstitions of William Bell were largely forgotten, another man was inspired to a vision which indeed gave birth to a new world.His name was James Hutton. He was an ugly little man with a great big brain who was trained as a lawyer, a chemist, a doctor of Medicine, a businessman, and late in his life, a farmer. But the earthquakes of 1761 had awakened his curiosity as to what had caused them.He had already come to the observation that the forces of erosion he saw on his farm, (streams and rivers, wind and rain) must be have been working in the time of Adam and Eve. But how long ago was that? Hutton did not know - nobody did -  but Hutton was curious and sure enough of his God given brain to believe that he could understand the process. He allowed the idea to percolate in his mind until 1788, when he went sightseeing with the mathematician John Playfair. And while walking at the cliff edge at Siccar Point in Scotland, Hutton saw a single formation of rock that utterly lifted the veil of superstition from his eyes.There, in front of Hutton (above), was a bed of schistus, (to the right) thrusting up vertically from below. And sitting directly on top of this was a bed of sandstone, (left side of picture) lying in opposition to the schist. The junction point between the two kinds of rocks came to be called an “Angular Unconformity.” They were different kinds of rock and they could not have been formed in the same place or the same time, or even close to each other in time or place. Something between them must be missing; that something was the unconformity.Sandstone is produced by compressing desert or beach sand under tons of more dessert sand or other rocks. Any water present will chemically alter the rock, so we know this particular sandstone had to be formed when England was at the same latitude as the Sierra Desert is today, and looked very similar.The schist was created by lava cooling deep under water, then reheating the rock almost to the melting point and letting it to cool, still under pressure but without the presence of liquid water. Each of these processes takes millions of years by themselves. But the schist rock must form in the presence of water, and the sandstone in the absence of water. So the missing layers at the angular junction of the two beds were  like the missing pages in a book, missing pages that must tell a story of mountains perhaps rising and wearing down to nothing, of seas and river valleys  filling in and closing. Those millions of years whose record had been destroyed were between the crystals of the schist and the grains of the sandstone.The Angular Unconformity that Hutton stood over that day demanded an untold millions of years, and hinted at why earthquakes happen in England -  not because God is seeking to destroy a sinful humanity, but because that is how God made the world, with earthquakes, one after another, millions of them over four billion years. 
And how she is remaking it every day, out of the remains of the day before, a single grain of sand and a single crystal of schist at a time - the same way our minds were formed, and out of the same stuff. It is a world without end, because everything in it is reused, time and time again, Even us. Even time.
- 30 -

Monday, May 15, 2017

BLOODY JACK Chapter Twenty - Six

I suppose the greatest problem with the real Jack the Ripper story is that the ending is so unsatisfying.
A poet of the age predicted, "They've captured Leather Apron now, if guilty you'll agree; he'll have to meet a murderer's doom, and hang upon a tree" But the murderer was never identified, never tried, never publicly punished, never danced at the end of a rope. But then, that is the horror of real murder.  The victim cannot be recovered, nor can the victim's loved-ones be made whole. The horror of a real murder usually dies only when the killer, and those who loved the victim, die.
Not so with Jack the Ripper. His horror has so far survived 130 years after his last victim bled out in a dark and dirty corner of the dark and dirty Whitechapel.  Part of the reason for the longevity of his horror is the photo (above) taken in the tiny sad room at 13 Miller's Court, Dorset Street. 
Part of the reason is that the newspapers sold 1 million additional papers a day during the “Autumn of Terror”: - August, September, October and November of 1888. 
And part of the reason is that the historical-fictional Jack the Ripper has proved too profitable to let him die. But the police in 1888 were dealing with a real killer.
Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (above, front center), one the smartest officers in Whitechapel,  reminded readers of his memoir what the police knew by middle of September. “The perpetrator,” he wrote, “...was in the habit of using a certain public-house, and of remaining there until closing time...all of the victims were all of the same class... and living within a quarter of a mile of each other; all were murdered within half a mile area; all were killed in the same manner...he (the killer) lived in the district.” So the police - well at least those below the management level - were not fools. They knew who they were looking for. But finding him was not their top priority.
After the Hanbury Street murder of Annie Chapman on 8 September, Whitechapel and Spitafield were flooded with uniformed Constables and plain clothes Detectives, even employing the Whitechapel Vigilantes. As Commissioner Sir Charles Warren had said in his petulant self defense written in September and published in the November Murray’s Magazine, “...the primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime...” And that was what the police concentrated on – preventing the killer from killing again. And they did.
For 14 days – Friday, 15 September, to Friday, 28 September – Kosminski found the police foiling his searches for another victim, until he was forced outside his hunting grounds to Aldegate, where the public/police net was thinner. 
There, in the early hours of Sunday, 30 September,  he murdered Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. But even then Warren's plan worked. 
The police were able to focus oAaron Kosminski, living with his brother just down the block on Goulston Street (above) from where the Eddowes bloody apron was found.  Then, during all of October, the “tails” which Chief Inspector Donald Swanson pinned on Kosminski kept him from claiming another victim - 
...at least until 8 November when Kosminski was able to isolate Mary Kelly in her room – earlier in the evening, before the pubs had closed. And even then he did not kill until closer to dawn, when Kelly's singing, as reported by a neighbor, finally stopped.
The police never had solid evidence to arrest Aaron Kosminski. But Aaron Kosminski was still alive and no longer killing. Why? First there was Abraham, Aaron's older brother. Living with the first paternal role model Aaron had known since his father's death in 1874 would have been a stabilizing influence. 
And second, whoever the Ripper was, he was insane but he wasn't nuts. He did not want to get caught. He had always retained enough control to avoid witnesses and the police, to delay his gratification until the he was certain of his own safety. And by January or February of 1889, with no further killings, the police tails of Aaron Kosminski must have been superseded by more pressing matters.
And third, accepting Special Agent Douglas' profile, the Ripper was extremely passive until the assault. He needed the prostitute to initiate contact. He needed alcohol to lower his own inhibitions. And he needed the victim to be unconscious or dead before he could show the knife and penetrate her with it. This speaks of a man so repressed he might stand in the rain rather than asking to come inside. He was a paranoid schizophrenic but a high functioning one, as was proven by his arrest on a Saturday in December of 1889 for walking an unmuzzled dog in Cheapside.
Charles Dickens called Cheapside (above)  “...the busiest thoroughfare in the world...Here the two great arteries of Oxford Street...the Strand and Fleet Street from the west...Bishopsgate and Leadenhall from the east....Moorgate on the north and King William Street on the south, are all united...” The Cheapside Street market had been in existence for hundreds of years, but during Victorian times, says Dickens, it was “...almost monopolized by men's shops: hosiers and shirt makers, tailors and tobacconists, and above all by jewelers.” 
In fact, says Dickens, “The stranger will be particularly struck with the absence of women...in Cheapside (above)...there is scarcely a woman to be seen to every hundred men.” It would appear an odd place for a homicidal maniac with a particular hatred for women to be walking his dog, muzzled or unmuzzled.
Having been arrested, the 23 year old Aaron Kosminski made a competent presentation in court. He argued that since he did not own the dog he was not responsible for muzzling it. Like arguing a parking ticket in court, logic was of course no help  But when the magistrate found him guilty and assessed a 10 shilling fine, Aaron was quick enough to argue that it was the Jewish sabbath, and his faith forbid him from handling money. He presented a normal enough image that he was allowed to go free, returning on Monday to pay the fine. As Scientific American pointed out in September 2014, “...very few serial killers suffer from any mental illness to such a debilitating extent that they are considered to be insane by the criminal justice system.”
So this was the man who convinced Mary Jane Kelly to open her door to him, convinced Annie Chapman to go to the back yard with him, and convinced Martha Tabram to lead him off the already dark George Yard, through the narrow passage to the courtyard behind the buildings, and then up the unlighted stairs. Her trip to her own death may have been the longest of all the victims, requiring the greatest confidence that the man who was about to murder her, posed no threat whatsoever.
Seven months later, on Saturday, 12 July, 1890, this same man was meekly led by his brother-in-law to the Mile End Workhouse (above), where he was described as having been “insane for the last two years.”  It must have been hard for a Jew to turn their own blood relative over to the charity of Christians, but Arron was hearing voices, had stopped washing and refused food from any person's hand because he feared being poisoned, preferring to eat discards from the gutter. Aaron was granted admission. However 3 days later, either because the doctors suspected he was malingering, or because he fooled them, his brother Abraham took him home again.
It was not to last. On 4 February of 1891 the police brought him back to the Workhouse. The same issues were mentioned – not working, not washing and eating from the gutter – but this time the police said he had threatened his sister Martha with a knife. His family did not challenge his admission, and 3 days later, on 7 February, 1891 he was transferred to the Jewish wing of the infamous long corridors of the Colony Hatch Asylum for the “pauper insane” in Barnet, North London (above). The paperwork justification for transfer has not survived the century, but we do know Aaron Kosminski arrived with both hands tied behind his back.
Colony Hatch adhered to the Victorian belief that all problems are better with organization – from morning calisthenics to regimented meals. The 2,000 patients were also expected to work, in the tailor shop, the garden or just washing floors. Since most of the patients came from the East End the asylum had a kosher kitchen and a Yiddish interpreter. The records at Coolny Hatch have survived and they detail Aaron's 3 year transgression from “apathetic” to "Incoherent, at times excited and violent." The staff noted, “He declares that he is guided and...controlled by an instinct that informs his mind, he says that he knows the movements of all mankind, he refuses food from others because he is told to do so, and he eats out of the gutter for the same reason”
Eventually the violence became predominant, and Aaron's last stop was the complex of buildings at the Levesden Asylum For Imbeciles in Abbots Langley, 20 miles northwest of London (above). 
Aaron survived here for a quarter of a century, having spent most of his life institutionalized. The staff noted, "Patient does not know his age or how long he has been here." 
Aaron Kosminski died of a gangrene infection at the age of 54 years, on Monday, 24 March, 1919. At the time of his death he weighed just 96 pounds. But he lived longer than any of  his victims.
Kosminski even out-lived his would-be nemesis, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (above). After retiring from the Metropolitan Police in 1896, with over 50 awards and commendations, including being named a Druid of Distinction, Reid moved to Hampton-on-Sea, atop the chalk cliffs of England's east coast. Here he became an English eccentric.
He renamed his home “Reid's Ranch”, and painted the outside walls with castle battlements and cannon aimed at the ocean. He opened a stand in his garden shed (above), from which he sold postcards – mostly featuring himself - and lemon-aide and wrote crank letters to the local newspaper. He died at the age of 61, on 5 December, 1917, the same year he finally married.
Thus I end my version of the story of Jack the Ripper – just another human being,  more unhappy and violent than most, but just another human being.
- 30 -

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