Archive for the ‘Conspiracy Theories’ Category

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 with lethal velocity.

Yours,

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.
  3. A bullet fired in this way retains more than enough velocity to fully penetrate a 10% ordnance gelatin block approximately 12″ deep.

 

Thus either version of the story, or some other variation of it, could have resulted in the death of Brandon Lee. No conspiracy theory is required, nor is there any evidence to support one.

 

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 alert. 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.

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Ripping Yarns

December 26, 2010

Few are aware of Spike Milligan’s status as a serious Ripperologist

The notorious Whitechapel murders are a rich seam of BS history, simply because they were never solved – and almost certainly never will be. The human brain just can’t cope without answers, and there have been no shortage of loons offering to fill the void with half-baked theories and fiction masquerading as fact.

In one case, we are asked literally to believe that a hollywood film based upon a graphic novel with no claims to historical accuracy, closely resembles real events and reveals a Freemasonic and royal conspiracy. The basic idea is that the victims had banded together to blackmail the royal family, and so had to be taken out. You can read it for yourself here. Or just read/watch “From Hell” – either version is more entertaining than this nonsense.

This is rather like using Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to prove that a humble farmer killed a Roman emperor in the arena. Further, there’s not a shred of evidence in favour of this, a version of one of the more perennial Ripper “theories”.

As the website points out, the core conspiracy theory here comes from Stephen Knight’s “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution“. The writer of the article asserts several times that the Whitechapel murders followed  Masonic ritual practice, but offers no evidence. However, Knight’s book and an associated documentary go into detail. He attempts to equate the ritual murder of Hiram Abiff with the Ripper killings. Part of the ritual involves evisceration and the throwing of the “heart and vitals” over the left shoulder. Two of the Ripper victims had their viscera thrown over *their* shoulders. Coincidence? Well, yes, since the Masonic version specifies the RIGHT shoulder, and only one victim had her heart removed. If it was placed at the shoulder, this is not recorded anywhere; in fact it seems that the killer took it with him.

And what are we to make of those victims who didn’t have intestines/major organs on their shoulders?

The other main “similarity”, from the same ritual, is in the cutting of the throat from left to right. Unfortunately throat-cutting is a pretty effective way of killing someone regardless of one’s intentions or secret society sympathies – and if you do it from behind and are right-handed, you’re going to look a bit…Rippery. Some Ripper victims had TWO throat wounds, not the one stroke specified in the Masonic ritual. Some were genitally mutilated, some had organs removed, some were facially disfigured, and one victim (Eddowes) even had most of the flesh removed from one thigh. Yet there is no suggestion that any of these acts reflect Masonic ritual (and no, there are no cuts to any of the victim’s foreheads). You can’t just pick and choose which acts vaguely resemble others in the sphere you’ve decided the killer comes from. Not if you want to be taken seriously.

For me the biggest problem with this idea is that though there is somewhat of a them to the Ripper’s mutilations, if he were following any prescribed ritual, they ought surely to be near-identical. They aren’t. They much better resemble the pattern of an addled killer – repeating some acts, leaving out others.

Not only are Knight’s claims “debunkable”, but his primary source is highly dubious. Knight had spoken with the son of artist Walter Sickert, himself supposedly in on the conspiracy. Unfortunately, the story he told Knight was bollocks. Firstly, contrary to the article, the man in question called himself *Joseph* Sickert, not Walter. Secondly, his surname wasn’t “Sickert” but Gorman – he claimed to be Sickert’s *illegitimate* son, something that the article doesn’t mention. This is important because anyone can claim to be the illegitimate offspring of a famous person. Without a DNA test or at least some third-party corroboration, there is no reason to believe such claims. In fact we have good reason to believe the contrary, as Gorman’s ostensibly biological father is known. But if you want to believe a conspiracy, I suppose he would simply be a stepfather to “Sickert”.

However, even Gorman himself admitted in the Sunday Times in 1978 that his story had been “…a hoax … a whopping fib…” and that he had “…made it all up”.
Even if Knight’s retort – that “Sickert” recanted due his “father”’s complicity – were valid, the lynchpin of Knight’s claims is nonetheless yanked out.

Then we have the claims that appear later in the article and relate to the supposed “silencing” of critics or traitors.

Ernest Parke was indeed imprisoned for libel, but this was of his own doing. If he had been close to the “truth” of the Ripper murders, why would he have recklessly involved himself in a sex scandal as he did?

Mozart “allegedly poisoned for his ‘betrayal’.” Well, yes, but who’s alleging and what is their evidence? The only reason for believing this is that Mozart fell ill soon after “The Magic Flute” was staged, and died the same year. The play contained Masonic overtones, but little in the way of actual ritual, but I suppose that’s enough for the conspiratorial mind. But if Mozart was poisoned, why did the co-creator of the play, also a Mason, survive until 1812?

The William Morgan case is well disposed of as a Masonic conspiracy here. Anti-Masons, please note that the site in question is pro-Mason, but the information on that page comes from a wholly unbiased published account of the incident.

Next on the roster is Stanley Kubrick, whose death post-”Eyes Wide Shut” was hardly “mysterious”. He was seventy years old, for goodness’ sake. No history of heart trouble is necessary for one to khark it at that age, conspira-loons.

Finally, we are told that Stephen Knight himself “mysteriously died after his best-selling expose’ “The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons” was published in 1984.”

“After” being the operative word – Knight wasn’t “silenced” until 18 months after the book was published, by which time of course all of the supposedly revelatory material was out there in the public domain and had been promoted and rehashed all over the media. In fact Knight had been diagnosed with brain cancer some five years previously. Those fiendish Masons must have been playing the “long game”.

If you want to learn more about the Whitechapel murders, either the surprisingly few facts that we can be sure of, or the wealth of speculation that outweighs them, I recommend casebook.org. It’s my main source for any Ripper-related queries for a number of reasons, but especially the healthy dose of scepticism evident in its pages, and even on its forum. I have little doubt that I’ll be covering the Ripper again in future, but that should be your first stop for a reality-check when you hear of some “new” breakthrough in the case. There’s very little new under that blood-red sun.

[Edited to reflect new (to me) evidence re the case of William Morgan]

Did Churchill allow Coventry to be bombed in 1940?

March 13, 2008

coventry-h5600.jpg

©Imperial War Museum

churchill.jpg

(via spartacus.school.net)

This week saw the resurfacing of an old conspiracy theory regarding Winston Churchill’s alleged abandonment of Coventry to Nazi bombs in 1940. It’s come to the fore in the internet age through a much older medium – a play entitled One Night in November is being put on in the city that takes this hypothesis as its premise. You can read reports, employing varying levels of critical thought, at various news sites – The Times, the BBC, and the Guardian (who buy it hook, line, sinker, rod, and copy of Angling Times).

Before I reinvent the wheel – this comprehensive rebuttal by the Churchill Centre, and this response to Christopher Hitchens’ even more spurious claims of 2002, surpass anything I could turn out. Nothing brought up by the play However, I will sum up the main claims by the play’s author as they appear in the media, and the counters to these as offered by those more knowledgeable than myself:

Claim – A captured German airman named Coventry as an upcoming target.
Reality – This appears to be true. However, decisions on an appropriate response had to wait on corroboration for this anecdotal evidence. When that did arrive on the 12th of November, the time-frame was verified but the likely targets were not.

Claim – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and/or Coventry were implicated as German targets by decrypted messages intercepted by Bletchley Park (and conveyed in secret to Churchill).
Reality – Records at the UK National Archives (file AIR2/5238) show that the Air Ministry was now aware of a large raid code-named “Moonlight Sonata”, but the primary targets were not successfully determined. When Churchill received the message himself, he interpreted it as a raid on London, and proceeded there to arrange a defence. A separate piece of intelligence naming three cities in the Midlands was not connected with the main raid of concern, though after the fact it would become clear that this was an oversight (which is why it is mentioned in the same documents).

Claim – Churchill was reluctant to order the RAF defence of Coventry lest the Germans realise that the Enigma decoding system had been cracked.
Reality – In fact the Germans never realised that the Allies had been routinely breaking their codes, despite many decisions in those four years being made in light of intercepted intelligence. As another conspiracy theorist astutely (if ironically) points out (p20), squadrons in the Battle of Britain had been directed freely in accordance with such intel just prior to the Coventry raid. To suggest that Churchill would make an exception in acting upon Enigma-derived intelligence because the target was “only” an industrial northern town, is to assume an unbelievable level of disdain for the lives of one’s own citizens. All to briefly extend the life of a cipher that would as a matter of routine be changed and require equally routine re-breaking by Bletchley Park. Shades of 9/11 Conspiracy there, I fear.

Also implied is that the RAF was even capable of successfully defending a given target in 1940, with its overstretched squadrons of obsolescent and misconceived night-fighters. Fighter Command was able only to play catch-up in 1940 – unable to effectively intercept (especially at night with no or limited radar sets), they often resorted to shooting down bombers on their way back from the target in an effort to reduce Luftwaffe materiel and manpower. Orders and doctrine along these lines were in place well before this incident.

As usual, facts are not on the side of the conspiracy theorist. To me it seems that these claims (like others) are kept alive by emotion, suspicion of authority, their relative plausibility, and a political agenda. NOT a body of evidence. The significant wartime and post-war suffering of Coventry and the Midlands seem to colour the playwright’s perception of history. He says that his “strong feeling” is that with foreknowledge of Coventry’s fate, Churchill made a “spur-of-the-minute decision” to let it happen. Unfortunately, the evidence to support this notion is thin on the ground, and the use of another unproven and refuted Churchill myth – that he deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be sunk, shows that the goal here is to turn “elite” history into social history. I commend that sentiment, but misrepresentation of the past is not the way to go about it. It can be argued that vital hints on the correct target were missed. Or even that they were ignored for fear that London would suffer instead. Arguably the establishment (including Churchill) would favour the defence of the capital over the industrial North. This is understandable, if unequal in retrospect. But to suggest conscious and deliberate action in letting Coventry be bombed, is unsupportable and seems to me to be political agenda, not an historical one. For example, did the majority of the city of Coventry really not see WW2 as “their war“? This is a bold claim to make on behalf of so many who are now voiceless, even if some did (and do) feel this way.

As ever, if anyone reading this has some evidence in favour, or any corrections, please let me know and I will update this entry accordingly.