Soldering On: On ‘Americanisms’ and Pronunciation

September 3, 2015

All too commonly I hear fellow Brits carp about divergent American spelling, grammar, and pronunciation. Thing is, that’s exactly what is it; divergent, not aberrant. Outside their respective borders (and arguably even then), neither British English nor American English is ‘right’. Why divergent? Well, many of the differences are actually examples of former, er, ‘English’ English (we’re talking pre-Act of Union here, so ‘British English’ isn’t appropriate). Significant numbers of English-speaking English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish settlers began to populate North America from the early 17th century, a time when these rules of language had yet to be set. There was no ‘Received Pronunciation’, no ‘Queen’s English’. A great example of this is a fairly obscure word to some of us; ‘solder’, as in soldering iron. In Britain today it’s spelled ‘solder’ and pronounced ‘sowelda’. Yet in the States, it’s ‘sawder’. Ignoring issues of differences in accent, there’s a marked difference there; and on the face of it, the Americans are pronouncing the word ‘wrong’, even by their own standards of spelling. Yet in reality, the American pronunciation is not only legitimate, but arguably more correct than the British. The quote that follows below is from ‘Elements of Orthoepy: Containing a Distinct View of the Whole Analogy of the English Language; So Far as it Relates to Pronunciation, Accent, and Quantity‘, a guide to the English of the day written by Robert Nares and published in 1784. This of course is after the American War of Independence, but there is no reference to America or Canada. It tells us something very interesting about broadly agreed conventions in English/British English;

‘Soder rather than solder : souder, French ; soldare, Italian. I think it is sometimes pronounced as if written soder ; but more frequently like sawder or sauder.’

So not only is this particular writer advocating that the ‘correct’ spelling ought to be ‘soder’, which already supports modern US English pronunciation, but he comments that contemporary pronunciation was either ‘soder’ or ‘sowder/sauder’. Quite how we then both standardised the spelling as ‘solder’ with an ‘L’, I’m not sure. But this is no stranger than British English’s ‘plough’ rather than the more logical American ‘plow’ (which also pre-dates Victorian British English spelling conventions).

Who’s ‘right’? Both of us. But ‘sawder’ is the older form; it’s us Brits that have changed our pronunciation in the meantime. So next time you get all high and mighty about ‘color’ or ‘aluminum’, stop and think; who are the real deviants?!

Not Quite the Whole Nine Yards

August 14, 2015

An interesting mini update on the old ‘Whole Nine Yards’ chestnut, from this post on firearms site ‘Forgotten Weapons’. The question of the possible machine gun origin for the phrase is raised in the embedded video, and then, in the comments, we find this:


“The 350-round belt of 0.50in used in the inboard guns on each side of the M2 .50 gun system of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt (four guns on the six-gun P-51, six guns on the 8-gun P-47), was exactly 27 feet, or 9 yards, in length when fully assembled.

The 240-round belt used on the outboard guns on each side was 18 feet 6 inches long altogether. But “the whole six and a half yards” doesn’t sound nearly as emphatic.


To figure it for yourself, treat each round of ammunition in its link as being .915 inch in width. A calculator helps.”


I had previously said that no such machine gun belt existed, and therefore this origin, despite being the most commonly accepted one, was nonsense. I’m still sort of right on the first point, and entirely right on the second (unfortunately – I’d love this one to be true!).


The first problem is that by this chap’s own calculations, this particular ammunition belt is just shy of nine yards – 8.89583 yards to be precise. This might sound like nitpicking, and frankly, it is. If this really were the origin of the phrase, I doubt anyone would care if it was slightly shorter or longer than the exact nine yards, and linked ammunition being flexible, there would be a fair amount of ‘slack’ that could vary the precise length quite considerably (which is I suspect why this myth refuses to die – you can’t actually disprove it by measurement alone, and most people don’t have a spare full belt of .50 BMG lying around…). But hey, I ran the numbers as he suggested, and it isn’t quite ‘the whole nine yards’ to start with.


There’s a bigger logical problem with the claim, one that has always dogged it in fact. That is, all of the aircraft claimed were fitted with more than one belt of ammunition, and it wasn’t possible to fire only one gun at a time. So you could never ‘give him the whole nine yards’ unless you experienced a malfunction of all of your other guns. Sure, the phrase could have stuck despite this, but it just doesn’t ring true.


Much more importantly than either of these minor gripes is that we already know that the phrase pre-dates the existence of aircraft machine guns by several years. The first machine gun was fired from an aircraft in 1912, whereas the first known incarnation of our phrase (in the form ‘full nine yards’) dates back to 1907.


So I’m afraid that, as much as I like the idea, this nine yard long machine gun belt is just a coincidence. It’s possible that Second World War air and ground-crew might have used it to refer to these belts, but there’s no actual written evidence for this, and above all, it cannot be the actual origin of the phrase.
As far as I’m concerned, we have a provisional origin for this phrase, and it’s baseball. If we’re to confirm or refine this conclusion further, we need to look back in time from 1907, not forward.

Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever…

July 11, 2015
Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 - 1993

Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 – 1993

Dear Conspiracy Theorists,

Brandon Lee was killed by a bullet accidentally lodged in the barrel of a revolver that was subsequently propelled from the barrel by a blank cartridge.

Informal testing by a UK forensic provider (supporting the original professional and exhaustive efforts by the Wilmington Police Department) shows that, more often than not;

  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successfully propel that bullet from the barrel.


BS Historian


OK, that’s the short version for the casually interested and the hard-of-thinking. Here’s the full story. A few months ago I took part, along with a forensic scientist colleague, in tests and interviews for a documentary series on the subject of conspiracy theories. This aired last night in the UK as part of episode 5 of Channel 5’s series ‘Conspiracy’.

The subject was the tragic death of Brandon Lee, killed by a shot from a Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum revolver* on 31 March, 1993. I was, and remain, a very big fan of The Crow, and by extension of Lee, who made the role his own with tremendous presence, emotion, aggression, and physical ability. I have as much reason as anyone therefore to cry ‘coverup’. If I felt that the star of perhaps my favourite film had been murdered or negligently killed, I would be, as they say ‘all over it’. But in reality, I am convinced, as a firearms specialist, and knowing the impact that this incident had on best practice in the movie industry, that Lee’s death was a somewhat improbable accident that seems less improbable the more you learn about it.

I took part on the understanding that the programme would not be endorsing the conspiracy theories themselves. Channel 5 did us proud. The format of the series does allow the theorists roughly equal airtime, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions. As ever, that means conspiracy fans can come away with their ideas intact, or even enhanced by new nonsense, and sceptics will spot the BS right away. Whether members of the casual audience might end up falling for a given conspiracy theory, I can’t say, and it’s the risk of taking part in this sort of television. I felt, however, that it was important to get the ‘official story’ out there, as the subject I’d been asked about is one for which the ‘signal to noise ratio’ is pretty skewed in favour of at least a cover-up, if not outright conspiracy. And in the case of the Brandon Lee segment, I think it would be hard for any rational viewer to come away believing the Triad conspiracy.

Unlike most of the other participants, we were up against some conspiracist who chose to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisals by the Triads that he believes killed both Bruce and Brandon Lee. No evidence was offered for this at all, save that Bruce Lee was Chinese and allegedly refused to pay protection (or whatever) to the Triads – and that Brandon was his son. That was it. Quite who this shadowy figure was, I have no idea.

The actual conspiracy claims vary (as these things usually do). The most lurid involve either a supernatural curse (!) or planned murder by organised crime. The more plausible accuse the production crew of having accidentally used a weapon loaded with real, live ammunition, which would imply very direct negligence traceable to an individual crewmember (which is not what the investigations into the incident found). The official story also varies, but the core ingredients are always a sequence of mistakes by which a bullet is lodged in the revolver’s barrel, and a blank then fires it into Lee’s body. I would like to establish the definitive version of the story, but first, here’s the ‘received’ version, from Wikipedia;


‘In the scene in which Lee was accidentally shot, Lee’s character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped by thugs. Actor Michael Massee’s character fires a .44 Magnum revolver at Lee as he walks into the room. A previous scene using the same gun had called for inert dummy cartridges fitted with bullets (but no powder or percussion primer) to be loaded in the revolver for a close-up scene; for film scenes which utilize a revolver (where the bullets are visible from the front) and do not require the gun to actually be fired, dummy cartridges provide the realistic appearance of actual rounds. Instead of purchasing commercial dummy cartridges, the film’s prop crew created their own by pulling the bullets from live rounds, dumping the powder charge then reinserting the bullets. However, they unknowingly or unintentionally left the live percussion primer in place at the rear of the cartridge. At some point during filming the revolver was apparently discharged with one of these improperly-deactivated cartridges in the chamber, setting off the primer with enough force to drive the bullet partway into the barrel, where it became stuck (a condition known as a squib load). The prop crew either failed to notice this or failed to recognize the significance of this issue.


In the fatal scene, which called for the revolver to be actually fired at Lee from a distance of 3.6 – 4.5 meters (12–15 feet), the dummy cartridges were exchanged with blank rounds, which feature a live powder charge and primer, but no bullet, thus allowing the gun to be fired without the risk of an actual projectile. But since the bullet from the dummy round was already trapped in the barrel, this caused the .44 Magnum bullet to be fired out of the barrel with virtually the same force as if the gun had been loaded with a live round, and it struck Lee in the abdomen, mortally wounding him.’


To summarise, we have;


  1. Dummy cartridges made from live by second unit, one round left with primer unfired.
  2. This round fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  3. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  4. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  5. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.


In fact, the only book to be published on the making of the movie, written by journalist Bridget Baiss, tells a slightly different story, one that is supported by the only other TV treatment of the case, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ (series eight, episode 1, broadcast 20 Oct 1995 – see YouTube). This short segment features interviews with the Wilmington Police Department detectives who actually investigated the shooting. Note that the narration implies that only a primer remained, but if you pay attention only to what the detectives say, it matches Baiss’s account exactly. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Baiss also interviewed both men. All other versions are hearsay.


This account actually complicates the sequence of events slightly, and in that respect might be something of a gift to those predisposed to CT. But it’s the actual official story, so I present it here. It follows essentially the same sequence, the crucial difference being in the (re)manufacture of the live, blank and ‘dummy’ cartridges that caused the fatal shot. Bear with me on this;


  1. BLANK cartridges (¼ load) made from live by second unit (by pulling bullet, emptying propellant, and adding black powder and some form of wadding).
  2. DUMMY cartridges later made from the same blanks (by firing them & inserting a bullet into the now-empty case). One cartridge accidentally left unfired, but a bullet was inserted bullet anyway, creating a low-powered, live round.
  3. Flawed dummy cartridge fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  4. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  5. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  6. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.


Note that although this version of events may seem even less plausible on the face of it, it does have the advantage of negating the main point of contention regarding the official story. That being the possibility of a primer alone being sufficient to propel the bullet far enough into a revolver barrel for it to a) not block the cylinder from revolving and b) not be noticed by crewmembers. In this version, this factor becomes irrelevant.


This was the version that we chose to replicate in our testing. Note that the type of blank cartridge is irrelevant. We made our own, but factory-made blanks may have been used. Provided the case is properly wadded, and a propellant charge equivalent to (or frankly, even less than) a ‘full charge’ movie blank is used, the bullet will be driven from the barrel.


However, as already stated, it IS perfectly possible for a primer (especially a magnum primer) to do this, making even the popular version of the story still plausible. I know, because I’ve tried it, multiple times. There is enough variance in the manufacture of primers and bullets, for a bullet to lodge partway out of the chamber, or all the way out of it. Our first attempt lodged the bullet clear of the cylinder, but only a centimetre or so down the barrel, making it visible to anyone observing normal safety precautions. However, it is clear that not everyone on set was observing them, so this sequence of events remains at least plausible.


Here’s the thing – as interesting as it is to have the (likely) details, they aren’t actually that relevant to the CT. Once again, and this bears repeating, our tests showed that, more often than not;


  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successful propel that bullet from the barrel.


Thus either version of the story, or some other variation of it, could have resulted in the death of Brandon Lee.


It was an emotional experience taking part in this filming. When our ‘dummy’ bullet popped into the barrel, I began to feel a little odd. When, shortly afterward, the blank blasted the bullet from the barrel and through the ballistic gel in front of me as though it wasn’t there, I had to suppress a tear at the thought of what happened that day. I had wondered what we’d do if, as many have claimed, this wasn’t actually possible. There would be no question of faking anything. Nor could I really have withdrawn from filming by that point. We would have been obliged to state that we thought it was possible, but no, we couldn’t recreate it for the cameras. As it was, Channel 5 got multiple successful shots. Was it flawless? No. Out of six attempts, two failed as a result of the small propellant charge lodging the bullet too far into the barrel. When trying just the primer, out of several attempts, one did block the cylinder. To me, this doesn’t make the official story any less plausible; but it does make it all the more a tragic roll of the dice. The proverbial ‘golden BB’. You could follow the same series of mistakes, and still narrowly avoid killing Lee (especially when the revolver being pointed at him, against best practice, is factored in).


There’s one silver lining to Brandon’s death. It’s used as a cautionary tale across the fields of cinema and of firearms. It’s impossible to quantify, but in death, he will have saved countless lives.


*Gun nerdery alery. I believe the revolver used was not, as is usually claimed, a Model 629 (stainless steel), but a Model 29 in nickel plated finish with 6” ‘pinned’ barrel and recessed chambers. This is what we used in the documentary. However, movie lighting and the level of polish on the screen-used prop make the two impossible to distinguish for certain. Note that, in yet another layer of misfortune, the original movie script called for an AMT Automag – a semi-automatic pistol for which there would have been no need to make dummy rounds (they would not be visible unlike in a revolver’s open cylinder) and therefore, no accident.

[edited to add – note that the documentary got the details of Lee’s death right in terms of it occurring during the scene where Eric returns to the apartment to find the gang members there – but the reconstruction shows him in full Crow regalia. In fact this was a pre-Crow scene with Lee in ‘civvies’. Note also that for this scene he was carrying a prop bag of groceries in which an explosive squib had been fitted to simulate the bullet impact. This later led to confusion over a pyrotechnic ‘squib’ (which did not contribute to his wound) and the ‘squib load’ of the lodged bullet in the gun barrel.]

Further Reading

This is Baiss’s book, originally published in 2000. Recommended reading for any Crow or Lee fan. You may be able to read the section on Lee’s death as part of the Google Books preview here.

Like a (Nazi) Boss

July 5, 2015
These would have required less fabric...

These would have required less fabric… From the fantastic ‘The Producers’

With due apologies for the title… I was at a World War 2 event this weekend and within a few minutes had spotted my first Waffen SS re-enactor. Just as inevitably, conversation turned to the allure of playing the ‘dark side’ (as one re-enactor put it), and I myself repeated the claim that noted fashion designer Hugo Boss had designed the (in)famous black SS uniform. Later I remembered that I’d read something disputing that claim, so I thought I’d post to help set the facts straight. This is all on Wikipedia, so this is hardly earth-shattering, but worth repeating I think.

Hugo Boss did NOT design any Nazi uniforms. His company, along with others, did receive contracts in the 1930s to produce quantities of unspecified Nazi party uniforms, which they appear to have fulfilled.

This doesn’t really change much in terms of the political arguments. Whether he designed or only produced uniforms is pretty moot in that respect, and it’s well documented that Boss was an ‘early adopter’ of the Nazi party (he joined in 1931) and made use of slave labour. But it’s an important historical nuance that somewhat lessens his/the company’s intimate involvement with the Nazi party, but at the same time undermines a common justification (e.g. here) for those who seek to dress in Nazi uniform (as if fashionable outfits were a good reason in the first place). Note that I’m not opposed to Axis re-enactment, even of overtly Nazi units – but if you’re going to do it, you should have a well thought-through justification (as the author of the above-linked piece actually does) for the controversy you are courting and the dark history you’re representing.

Proper mullered

March 16, 2015



Back from the dead once again, with a brief and obscure but interesting bit of etymology. Having read a few suspicious origins for the British English word ‘mullered’ (usually used today to mean ‘drunk’, ‘destroyed’ or ‘defeated’), I came up with some useful confirmation of the explanation tentatively given at ‘World Wide Words’ (right at the end of the piece). They don’t seem certain, but as far as I can tell it’s actually very clearly derived from a Romani gypsy word for ‘murdered’. I turned up these two sources;


‘…mush had been mullered’ (the man had been murdered)

-‘The English Gipsies and their Language’ by Charles Godfrey Leland, 1873, p.179
‘Geoffrey growed up long, long ago, and he has been mullered a long time since.” “Mullered,” Gwilym knew, meant dead.’
-’Whistler’s Van’ by Idwal Jones, 1936, p.45

So, nothing to do with ‘mull’ to crush or pulverise, or anything involving Islamic ‘mullahs’. It’s actually one of many Romani slang terms to not only make it into English speech, but to actually ‘go viral’ since the early 1990s. It’s even pretty close to its original meaning if you think about it.

Polish vampires

November 29, 2014
One of the Drawsko 'vampires', aka 'Individual 49/2012' a 30–39 year old female with a sickle placed across the neck (PLOS ONE)

One of the Drawsko ‘vampires’, aka ‘Individual 49/2012’ a 30–39 year old female with a sickle placed across the neck (PLOS ONE)

I don’t normally do ‘heads up’ posts, but this is too cool not to point out;

It’s a superbly researched scientific paper on some deviant burials from Drawsko in Poland that have been in the news lately, including some spectacular photos that alone constitute some great confirmatory evidence for the folklore regarding the ‘killing’ of ‘vampires’ in eastern Europe. Anyone that’s read Paul Barber’s seminal ‘Vampires, Burial and Death’ will be smiling as they read it. We’ve had plenty of prior finds, but these are so clear and well-preserved that there’s no room for doubt; people were trying to stop these dead people from coming back to hurt them.

I must admit that I had not come across the suggestion that simply being an outsider to a community might mark you as a potential vampire, but as the paper points out, this has been claimed in the Polish language literature. These findings came as no surprise to me; we pretty well *knew* from the folkloric record that suspected vampires were typically members of a given local community. As logical as it would seem for many to be outsiders, I can recall few cases where vampires are incomers. The paper does an excellent job of confirming what many of us already suspected, in the context of the vampire as (to borrow from George A. Romero) a ‘blue collar’ monster; both vampire and victim were working class Slavs, not middle-class English real estate agents!

By properly assessing a group of roughly contemporary burials from the same settlement, the authors have built a representative picture of vampirism that shows it didn’t matter how old or what sex you were; vampirism was apparently a more democratic stigma than witchcraft (as well as being a less harmful one; at least ‘vampires’ were dead when they were scapegoated and ‘killed’). They also put the cemetery in context, including a really nice table comparing/contrasting with other investigations in the region.

The authors do somewhat conflate ‘vampires’ with revenants in general, which I’m usually wary of, but it’s hard to argue with in this context. These burials are in the Slavic heartlands, and date to the heyday of the ‘true’ vampire. So these remains have more right than many to be called ‘vampires’. Needless to say, I’m a lot more excited about these burials than the more famous ‘vampire of Venice’.

Congratulations to Lesley A. Gregoricka, Tracy K. Betsinger, Amy B. Scott, Marek Polcyn on an outstanding piece of work; so good to see serious academics taking on such a populist subject.


November 11, 2014


Not *that* Necronomicon…


I happened to read the other day that author Anthony Horowitz (of ‘Alex Rider’ fame) claims to have read the Necronomicon. Seriously. Yes, the clearly fictional book conceived by H.P. Lovecraft for his horror stories. He’s read it. How, you might ask? Well, it turns out that there are books out there purporting to be the real Necronomicon. Not just one person, but several, have attempted to reconstruct Lovecraft’s imaginary tome. Though these can certainly be seen purely as hoaxes intended to deceive the reader, I’m not actually against the idea of such things. My fondness for the almost-certainly-made-up vampire killing kits is well documented on this blog. I believe that at least some of those were created as ‘honest’ deceptions, like the lies told and the illusions made by a magician or mentalist, and the same is possible here. The use of hoax as a promotional tool is an old trick. As I learned only recently in the British Library’s wonderful ‘Terror and Wonder’ exhibition, Horace Walpole originally claimed that his novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) was a translation of an original that he had found, dated 1529. Partly because he had been called on his deception, and partly because once success had been found, he wanted to claim full ownership of the text, his second edition gave him as the true author.


There is an added element in this case, which is that the main focus of at least one of these Necronomicon attempts (the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon) is actually attempting to lay down systems of ritual magical practice based upon Lovecraft’s fiction. This required that they be written as though genuine, even if the practitioner does not believe in their objective reality (as Satanists generally don’t) outside of their ‘ritual chamber’. Whatever their intent, people who create hoax literature must be surprised but pleased when others actually fall for them rather than enjoying them as a form of fiction. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, such things do need to be debunked, so that anyone who might encounter them are aware of their true origins.


The Church of Satan link above does a good job of summarising and debunking these hoax/invented Necronomicon books. Suffice to say that there is simply no evidence for a grimoire of this nature, and certainly not one that uses obvious variants of Lovecraft’s names and references. Just in case Horowitz was referring to some otherwise unknown tome, I thought I’d try to work out whether he might be referring to one of these well-known hoaxes, or something else (in which case I wouldn’t be able to do any debunking).


Horowitz stated in the interview that he’d used a line from the mysterious tome in his own prologue. The line is this;


Ia sakkath. Iak sakkakh. Ia sha xul.


I had a bit of trouble pinning this down, because the spelling has been changed. But guess where this comes from? That’s right, one of the hoax Necronomicon publications. Specifically, it’s from ‘The Text of Urilia’, which appears on page 127 of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon referred to in the Church of Satan link (you can find this in pdf form, though I suspect it’s in breach of copyright so won’t link it here);



I AM before ABSU.


I AM before ANU.

I AM before KIA.

I AM before all things.









There you have it.

I’m pretty sure that Horowitz wasn’t telling porkies to sell what was then his latest book (if you happen to read this Mr Horowitz, please do comment or drop me a line). I suspect that he’s read one of them at some point in the past and been taken in by it. Or possibly, he is stretching the truth and using the existence of the ‘Simon’ Necronomicon to link his book back to the Lovecraftian tradition. This would be rather naughty, but again, somewhat akin to Walpole’s marketing approach. Whether conscious or not, tying his book into the Necronomicon would fire the imagination of his young readers just as the marketing for films like ‘Paranormal Activity’ does by implying or claiming a basis in ‘true life’. In case there might be any doubt, I thought I’d track down the version he’s likely to have read.

Reclaiming Halloween

October 31, 2014

Firstly, apologies to commenters – I have been on something of a hiatus and have yet to plough through the backlog.

Now, I get quite annoyed with the anti-Halloween brigade, and have done my own informal research into its origins. Sure, it’s very commercial and OTT these days, but just about everything we do has older historical roots than many seem to think; and not just in the USA. The American form of Halloween traces back to (mainly) Irish settlers, so it’s a slightly different flavour of festival than was being observed in much of England, where some practices lapsed, and others moved sideways into the more politicised Guy Fawkes’ Night. So in a way, I like to think the the US has helped us to reclaim the occasion (though bonfires will I suspect always remain associated with the 5th November rather than the 31st October. Anyway, enough of me – here is the superb Ronald Hutton explaining things far better than I ever could, followed by some wonderful *British* vintage Halloween photos from UsvsThem.

Happy Halloween!

Tomb of Dracula?

June 14, 2014



Well, no, it isn’t.

UPDATE – Not long after I posted this, another sceptic weighed in and managed to spot that the tomb in question is indeed well-known – unsurprisingly given the context, it’s one of the Ferrillo family, Matteo Ferrillo, Count of Muro. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and anyone from the church in question, or any Italian medieval scholar, could have told the ‘researchers’ this. Unbelievable nonsense that once again, the press fail to fact-check in any way.

It’s been a while, but this one’s brought me out of First World War-related work to comment. The Daily Mail (sigh) is reporting that the grave of Vlad III – the historical Dracula – may have been found. There’s little to go on, though a full view of the tomb in question can be seen here. The tomb was noted by a university student, but the connection is being made by one Raffaello Glinni. He’s the claimant here, and you’ve not heard the last of him…

There are basic errors with the piece – Vlad was not a ‘Count’ like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince). The ‘Carpathians’ were not a Transylvanian family as the 4th image in the Mail gallery implies, they are a mountain range! I can’t wait to see the reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Carpathians’. Dracula did not ‘disappear’ in battle, but was likely decapitated and buried at Snagov monastery (though there is some question over this). But these are incidental. The claim itself is built on a premise that is by no means certain, namely that Vlad III had a daughter who supposedly decamped to Italy as a child, at some point ransomed Vlad (by all accounts quite dead by this point) back, and had him buried in a church in Naples. This in itself is an extraordinary claim, as it’s far from clear that Vlad even had a daughter – see this tree of the House of Basarab, of which the Draculesti were a subset. No Maria, no daughter. The historical status quo is that Vlad had only sons.

This site repeats the claim and expands upon it, suggesting that the mysterious daughter was adopted by the widow of Vlad’s contemporary and fellow resistor of Ottoman rule, George Skanderbeg, and given refuge at the court of King Ferdinand I of Naples, where she changed her name to sort-of-but-not-quite conceal her heritage. ‘Maria Balsa’ supposedly means ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ in ‘Old Romanian’. As far as I can tell, whilst balaur is Romanian for ‘dragon’, ‘Bal’ certainly isn’t. Why this supposed daughter would need to conceal her identity, and if she did, why she’d choose a Romanian-derived name, are anyone’s guesses. It’s claimed that both men were members of the Order of the Dragon, but I can’t confirm that either, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Elsewhere Alfonso D’Aragona is instead claimed as Maria Balsa’s Dragon Order benefactor. He really was part of the Order, but so what? Lots of European nobility joined the order – it’s a bit like the Freemasonry trope of later on; just because a politician was a Freemason doesn’t mean he’s neck-deep in whatever paranoid historical conspiracy one might dream up.

The Maria Balsa story is several years old, dating to 2012. It was featured in season 6, episode 9 of Italian TV series ‘Mistero’ in 2012, entitled ‘La Figlia Segreta di Dracula’ i.e. ‘The Secret Daughter of Dracula’. From what I’ve seen of the series online, it’s very much ‘Ancient Aliens’ territory; ghosts, alien abduction, and so on. The original claim relates not to the church mentioned in the Mail article (Santa Maria La Nova), but to a different structure; Acerenza cathedral. Guess who made it, and also appears in the ‘documentary’? Yep, Raffaello Glinni. At the time, he claimed that Vlad was buried under the cathedral; clearly he’s revised his hypothesis since then. There’s another madcap suggestion regarding Acerenza, which is that a statue of a monster biting the neck of a woman is also relevant, and supposedly relates to the story of Lilith and the pop-culture suggestions that she might be a progenitor of vampires. The historical Vlad III has absolutely no connection to vampires, folkloric or fictional, beyond the limited connection made by Bram Stoker, so this is a total red herring. The statue itself doesn’t even appear to be that of a dragon, but rather a lion. Glinni also claims that a carved head in Acerenza cathedral with a beard and pointy teeth must also be Vlad, despite no resemblance and the fact that pointy teeth are a feature of the 19th century literary vampire. Bram Stoker took only Dracula’s name and status as a medieval antagonist of the Turks from real history. We would not expect an historical depiction of Vlad III to have vampire teeth!


Note also the entirely co-incidental saint with serpent/dragon – nothing to do with Dracula or the Dragon Order

Billed as a ‘medieval history scholar’ in the new article, Glinni is actually a lawyer by profession. His name took me to his site, which is sparse but getting there in terms of BS History Bingo. Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good. In fact it’s looking like the use of ‘secret history’ to support speculative archaeology. There is an historical document from 1531 indirectly referenced here, which is apparently cited in a 1958 book by D’Elia and Gelao. There’s even a page reference of p.289/290. The only D’Elia/Gelao book I can find is this from 1999, where Maria Balsa is indeed referenced. There’s no doubt that an historical figure of that name existed (wife of Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, Count of Muro and Acerenza), and she was apparently Slavic. But if this 1531 chronicle that supports not just this claim but the new tomb suggestion exists, I can find no reference to it. If any Italian speakers can unearth it, please comment below.

So the underpinnings of this story are pretty questionable. What of the new evidence? Do we have anything else to go on? Well, like the Acerenza carving, the effigy on the Santa Maria La Nova tomb also looks absolutely nothing like the surviving depictions of Vlad;


Which leaves…what? Well, supposedly, the big revelation is in the carved stone dragon on this tomb:

‘Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said the 16th century tomb is covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian “Carpathians,” and not the tomb of an Italian nobleman. “When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Glinni told reporters.’

A dragon was certainly the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III’s father belonged. We don’t actually know what Vlad III’s personal coat of arms was, but he may have used the same emblem. But this was a dragon curled around on itself with its own tail wrapped around its neck. The badge varied, but none of the extant Order dragon depictions resemble this Italian carving. The Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious; I can find nothing on it. The sphinxes are simply artistic convention in European art. Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish Romanian (thanks Michael!) word for ‘impaler’. Where’s the connection? And why would anyone bother to ‘encode’ a vague reference to a member of the Dracul family. Either they wanted people to know he was buried there, in which case make it clear, or they wanted him forgotten, in which case don’t slap a dragon on his tomb. For that matter, it would be pretty tricky to build a huge monumental tomb, complete with effigy, for someone you’re keeping anonymous. But if Vlad’s daughter was amongst friends in Naples, with the Dragon Order connection, why would they use a generic dragon and not their proper symbol? Is the tomb even anonymous? I find it hard to believe that a splendid monumental tomb like that isn’t recorded as being that of a known Italian noble.

I’m afraid the whole thing is ‘Da Vinci Code’ level conspiracy, not real history. No-one would be more excited than me to discover that Vlad’s final resting place had been discovered, but this ‘news’ is a long way from that. Glinni and co have requested permission to open the tomb, which is something we’ve seen in other outlandish claims about the dead. It’s rare that permission is ever granted, which means the claimants get to a) keep making their claims and b) blame the authorities for suppressing secret knowledge. It’s win-win for this kind of nonsense.

Angles on Mons

February 23, 2014

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘The Angel of Mons’ by R. Crowhurst (UK National Army Museum)

I’ve been catching up on the BBC’s latest First World War documentary series, as the centenary approaches (that fact is not coincidental to my sporadic posting – day job and all). It’s actually pretty good, though I did catch a dodgy claim in the first episode. The redoubtable Mr Paxman, explaining the ‘defeat’ of the Battle of Mons and the famous story of angelic salvation, told us that;

“There was one simple explanation for the Angels of Mons: exhaustion”.

This is indeed a simple and plausible explanation for a bizarre story of angelic apparitions rushing to the aid of British Tommies. But it’s wholly unnecessary. The origins of the story as a piece of fiction turned folklore are well documented. Arthur Machen’s ‘The Bowmen’, written in faux documentary style, was modified to be more Protestant Christian (angels not unquiet dead), and embraced as genuine by Spiritualists, who then went hunting for/fabricated ‘evidence’. The rest is history.

If you’d like the real story, I recommend this article by the excellent David Clarke in the equally great Fortean Times, and, if you can access it, another of his from the journal Folklore. He went on to write a book on the subject. You can also check out this Skeptoid podcast. Another article by Steve MacGregor supports Clarke’s thesis, and focuses on the propaganda and recruitment value to the British government of this kind of story.

It does surprise me in the Age of Google, that no-one researching this series bothered to even read the Wikipedia page on the subject. I suspect, given the description of Mons as a ‘defeat’, that they chose to twist the tale to suit the narrative of exhausted, beaten troops. I don’t think they’ve entirely shed the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme. In fact, as dire as casualties appeared at the time to a naive public, Mons was actually a very successful fighting retreat.

It’s a shame in another way too, because Clarke’s interpretations of the story are far more interesting. He casts the construction of the story as myth-making for the industrial era, and as a psychological coping mechanism for people on the home front to deal with the horror of modern war and mass casualties amongst their loved ones. To this I can perhaps add something to bring things full circle to the many soldiers who survived Mons. There actually is a direct relevance here that doesn’t rely on hallucination. Whether or not there were/are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, as the war progressed and the remaining soldiers of the professional army were joined by civilians, it appears that the number of believers in the supernatural also increased. Every soldier was issued a set of identity disks (later nicknamed ‘dog tags’), to be recovered in the event of their death. On these tags, alongside abbreviations like ‘CE’ for Church of England’ and ‘JEW’ for Jewish, was also stamped ‘SPIRI’, for ‘Spiritualist’. This reflects a booming recruitment period for that faith as people struggled to deal with the loss of sons, fathers, and partners. These soldiers and perhaps non-Spiritualists also, must have brought this civilian tale of an incident that never happened with them to the front, and carried that belief with them into battle. I may not believe it myself, sitting in the comfort of home, surrounded by my loved ones; but I cannot help hoping that it provided them some comfort.


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