Don’t Lose Your Head

“When your head is chopped off, your brain can think for about 2 to 3 minutes.” -‘Severance’ (2006)

 

I’ve been meaning to write this one up for years. Do severed heads retain any conscious awareness prior to brain-death? After more research, on and off over years, than I’ve done for any other article, I still can’t be truly definitive. The balance of the evidence suggests some level of consciousness for a few seconds, which inevitably raises for many the horrifying possibility that for a couple of seconds at least, you would be fully aware of the traumatic amputation of your entire body, and perhaps even be able to see it. Nice.

 

Consciousness is one thing, but whether you would be fully cognizant of what was happening to you is harder to prove. Anyone that’s experienced a faint or other sudden loss of blood pressure knows that things get pretty unreal (especially when almost inevitably coupled with your head tumbling to the floor and hitting things on the way down). You’ll be instantly dizzy, your vision will quickly narrow and get fuzzy as you black out, likely much quicker than the typical faint. I am as certain as I can be that despite technically retaining the capacity for conscious thought, actual decapitation is VERY likely to take the shape of a few seconds of dim, dizzy awareness that something is wrong (especially if you knew the killing blow was coming), but almost certainly not long enough to actually process what’s happened to you. One major issue is that the historical ‘evidence’ is mostly anecdotal and almost entirely unreliable. What we read about in old experiments with criminals, or even watch in modern ‘gore’ video clips is just brain death – nerves activating and the brain stem continuing autonomous function, trying to get oxygen where none is available. As one Reddit commenter below points out, you’d need to have someone on an EEG and cut their head off to be sure of what’s really going on. I have decided not to reprise the various historical (hysterical?) accounts of ‘living’ heads – not very scientific ‘experiments’ by Galvani, Aldini, Wendt, Seguret, Laborde, Lignieres, Lelut and Beaurieux (the celebrated 1905 case of the criminal Languille). For these, see chapter 8 of Frances Larson’s great book ‘Severed’. As Larson says, these efforts (many of which were inspired by arguments that the French guillotine was not as humane as it appeared) proved nothing either way and today can be readily explained as involuntary action. The same applies to the present-day ‘gore’ videos that can be found online. For those so inclined, and with an appropriately huge GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING, here are three showing clear movement of eyes, mouth, and/or other facial muscles. We need to separate the technical persistence of consciousness from the observable effects. A head may be experiencing terrible pain and existential horror (although I doubt this, see below), but its face may or may not be moving at the time – there may well be no connection and chances are that the movement is involuntary as Davey suggested.

Interestingly, scepticism about the phenomenon of ‘lucid decapitation’ is as old as the claims themselves. As this article by James Elwick relates, Edward Rigby’s 1836 paper on the subject was;

 

‘“…immediately mocked in a rival medical journal’s editorial entitled “The Philosophy of Decapitation.”’

 

It proved so persistent however that in 1858, James George Davey actively sought to debunk these purely observational efforts with experiments of his own, published in his book ‘The Ganglionic Nervous System’. Depressingly, Davey carried out these tests on kittens, reaching the conclusion that;

 

‘…when the head is cut off, its irritability remains, as appears by the motion of the ears when pricked or touched with a hot wire ; and, as the extremities are also irritable, it will not be said that consciousness and sensation exist in two separated portions of the same body. Nor can it be admitted that sensibility and consciousness may remain in the head after separation ; for, if mere compression of the carotid arteries abolishes sensation and thought by interrupting the circulation in the brain, how much more must the superior violence of decapitation have this effect?’

 

This should have been an end of it, but the gothic horror of the living severed head was just too titillating. Despite other criticisms (notable French doctor and philosopher Cabanis, who was convinced that loss of consciousness was instant), for nearly 200 years now the popular media has recycled these claims as a way to send a shiver up the consumer’s collective spine (while they still have one). As ever, the internet has both promulgated these tales and offered the best means to debunk them. The main problem is separating the basic facts from the context. Davey understood the importance of this, but modern popular science outlets seem not to, reporting the facts on how long the brain is technically ‘conscious’ without qualification of just how aware one might be during the experience. Damninteresting.com has a good writeup that concludes that we don’t really know, but emphasises the horrific possibilities;

 

‘…there is much evidence to indicate that for some, death is not instantaneous, which probably offers a truly surreal experience for those few, brief moments.’

 

In fairness they only say ‘surreal’, which is certainly likely. But could one really be meaningfully aware of what’s happening? How Stuff Works (quoting a figure from New Scientist) also admits the paucity of the evidence but is slightly contradictory;

 

‘…most modern physicians believe that the reactions described above are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement. Cut off from the heart (and therefore, from oxygen), the brain immediately goes into a coma and begins to die. According to Dr. Harold Hillman, consciousness is “probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood.”’

 

The figures on loss of consciousness are supported by (indeed, may even derive from) data from testing on rodents. Anna Gosline’s “Death special: How does it feel to die?” (New Scientist again, 13 October 2007) and Livescience reported respectively:

 

‘Quick it may be, but consciousness is nevertheless believed to continue after the spinal chord is severed. A study in rats in 1991 found that it takes 2.7 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head; the equivalent figure for humans has been calculated at 7 seconds.’ (New Scientist)

 

‘In 2011, Dutch scientists hooked an EEG (electroencephalography) machine to the brains of mice fated to decapitation. The results showed continued electrical activity in the severed brains, remaining at frequencies indicating conscious activity for nearly four seconds. Studies in other small mammals suggest even longer periods.’ (Livescience)

Digging down to the actual research level, this study by Rijn & Coenen showed that consciousness fades within 3/4s and may last up to 17s. Brain death comes around 1m. On the face of it, these figures are pretty terrifying. Even two seconds of full awareness would be truly horrifying – 17 doesn’t bear thinking about it. However, the human brain’s oxygen requirements for anything like full function are far greater than any rodent. Again, I suspect it’s very unlikely that you’d be genuinely ‘with it’ during those seconds. To summarise, we have lots of anecdotal evidence for facial movement after decapitation that doesn’t really help answer the question, and a lot of scientific evidence for ‘consciousness’ (tending toward 2-4 seconds) that doesn’t usefully convey what the real-life experience would be like. Short of an EEG and a willing victim, the provisional conclusion has to be that, if you were unfortunate enough to lose your head, yes you might technically still be conscious, but you’re really not going to know anything about it before (to paraphrase Ghostbusters II) your ‘head dies’.

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The Winchester House

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

The gun that goes ‘PING’ didn’t get soldiers killed. But they thought it might…

 

The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph.
The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph (my title is a Monty Python reference…)

 

One of the most persistent firearm myths out there is that American soldiers fighting in the Second World War (or in Korea for that matter) were at risk of getting shot by the enemy because of the distinctive ‘ping’ sound made by their rifles. The M-1 ‘Garand’ was ahead of its time as a military self-loading rifle, but unlike modern rifles it did not feature detachable box magazines. Instead it was loaded with eight round metal ‘en bloc’ clips. These were inserted into the open action from the top and retained inside until the last round was fired, at which point the clip would eject (along with the empty case of the last shot) with a distinctive ‘ping’ sound (you can clearly hear this in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, for example, and see it in slow motion in this Forgotten Weapons video). Now, this idea of the ‘ping’ being a fatal flaw really is a myth, in that there’s no evidence that it ever happened. However, there’s a bit more to it than that…

A lot of ink and pixels have been expended arguing the ‘M-1 ping’ myth back and forth, and some have even tried to practically demonstrate why it’s a silly idea. Tactical trainer Larry Vickers recreated a scenario for his ‘TAC TV’ series, and more recently YouTuber ‘Bloke on the Range’ has tackled the myth. The Bloke shows just how difficult it would be to even hear the ‘ping’, without the various other loud noises associated with battle. Soldiers have only recently begun to wear any kind of hearing protection after all. Not to mention the very obvious fact that soldiers rarely fight alone. If a German or Japanese soldier did manage to take advantage of the ‘ping’ window of opportunity, he’s likely to get shot by another GI. More importantly, the Bloke shows how easy and quickly one could reload following the ‘ping’. At all but the closest ranges, this really is a myth and a total non-issue. As Bloke points out, there is no actual historical evidence for this ever having happened, and for every claim that a veteran experienced it, there is an ‘equal and opposite veteran’ saying the opposite. This is typified by an exchange in ‘American Rifleman’ magazine in 2011/12 (reproduced here). I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read a first-hand account either; it’s always a relative, a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, and therefore being told and retold decades after the fact. Hardly ideal. At this point, I would normally call ‘case closed’ as Garand expert Bruce N. Canfield has done online, in no uncertain terms.

 

 

However, it’s more complicated than just the bare facts. Sometimes, myths intrude into reality by being thoroughly embedded in thought and practice. There is no doubt whatever that whether this ever happened or not, quite a lot of soldiers in the ‘40s and ‘50s clearly DID believe that this was a real threat. This is proven by a fascinating document scanned and uploaded by the Garand Collector’s Association. This 1952 ‘Technical Memorandum’ (ORO-T-18 (FEC)) is entitled ‘Use of Infantry Weapons and Equipment in Korea’, and was written by G.N. Donovan of ‘Project Doughboy’. This was an effort by the Operations Research Office of the John Hopkins University to gather feedback on the practical usage of US military weapons in the then-current Korean War.

 

On page five we read the conclusion that:

 

‘The noise caused by ejection of the empty clip from the M-1, despite the fact that at close range it could be heard by the enemy, was considered valuable by the rifleman as a signal to reload.’

 

And on page eighteen;

‘One other complaint about the M-1 was the noise made by the safety. Half the men had a nagging fear that some day the noise made in releasing the safety would reveal their positions to the enemy, yet only one-fourth objected to the distinctive noise the empty clip made when ejected. They were quite willing to retain the noise of the clip even though the enemy might be able to use it to advantage, because they found it a very useful signal to reload.’

 

Now, the question that prompted this response was rather a leading one (page 51):

 

‘Interviews Conducted on Noise of the Rifle

  1. Is the sound of the clip being ejected of possible help to the enemy or is it helpful to you as an indication of when to reload, or is it of no importance?

[Question Men Reporting, No.]

Helpful to the enemy 85

Helpful to know when to reload, therefore retain 187

Of no importance 43

—-

315

 

But, the answers speak for themselves. Twice as many soldiers surveyed thought that the noise was helpful to the enemy, as thought it unimportant. Many more again thought it was actually a useful audible indication of an empty weapon, bearing out the Bloke’s results that yes, you can hear the ping if you’re close enough, but no, you probably can’t successfully rush a chap before he can get another clip into his rifle.

 

In defence of their findings, the researchers commented thusly;

 

‘Results of these interviews show that there is great uniformity in responses to questions asked, and all numerical estimates of such items as range of firing, load carried, etcetera, have been found to cluster around a central point with comparatively little scattering. Thus it is felt that the results are reliable and can be fairly said to represent what the infantryman believed he did. The fact that these were group interviews further increased the reliability of the results, since any apparent exaggeration by one man was quickly picked up and questioned by others. In this way the men themselves provided a check on the accuracy of their answers.’
In other words, if other soldiers thought it impossible for the enemy to take advantage of the ‘ping’, they would have said so. This is probably true, although interviewees are likely to behave differently under observation and questioning, so one can’t rely on this 100%. There was also no recommendation made with respect to this perceived ‘flaw’ with the weapon, and no comment from officers on the issue (interestingly they did point out that the noisy safety could be carefully operated not to make noise). However, again, the numbers here speak for themselves, along with the later anecdotal evidence. Once again, some soldiers really did believe that it was possible for the enemy to hear your ‘ping’, rush your position, and kill you. And there’s no reason to believe that such a thing is impossible. For example, in an incident that occurred in Afghanistan in 2008, a skirmish between a British patrol and a small number of Taliban came down to just such a one-on-one situation, with a British officer and Taliban fighter positioned just feet from each other with only a river bank in the way. Realising his weapon was empty, the attacking officer opted to use his bayonet (and the element of surprise) rather than take time to reload, and killed the (admittedly already wounded) enemy. If we imagine a similar engagement where one party is armed with a Garand, it would be eminently possible to hear the final shot and the clip go ‘ping’, close the distance, and kill the unfortunate soldier. There are many other scenarios in which this could happen, but all would involve a lull in firing, being isolated from one’s squadmates (or at least in their firing line, preventing them from shooting past you), running out of ammunition at just the wrong moment, and a certain amount of bravery and/or luck on the part of the defender. It may have happened, it may never have happened; on that question the balance of the evidence suggests that it did not. However, and this is an important caveat, I think it’s important not to insist that this claim is a total myth as Canfield has done, stating that it is ‘…so silly as to not be worthy of serious discussion’ (this is not intended as a slight, I have done the same many times). The implication is that no-one with any knowledge of the subject would make them claim, but we now know that many of the actual guys who fought with this rifle DID believe it. They just thought that the noise was more likely to ensure that they had ammunition in their weapon than it was to result in them being caught without. Of course, there is also the fact that soldiers are people, and people believe all sorts of weird things…

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

I’ve been following Indy Neidell’s brilliant video series ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, and a recent post on that channel prompted me to write this. In the video, one of Indy’s viewers asks about firing squads and how the shooters were selected, how they coped with taking part in such a traumatic event etc. In his answer, Indy quotes from Victor Silvester’s autobiography, ‘Dancing Is My Life’ (1958):

 

‘The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.’

 

Grim stuff. My own interest was piqued by the oblique reference to the practice of having one rifle loaded with blank (a cartridge with a powder charge but no bullet, or a bullet that will break up on firing – used for military training). This has understandably been condemned as a myth, on the basis that it just doesn’t seem plausible. Guns recoil, and (then) modern military rifles recoil very stoutly. A blank cartridge, having no bullet and therefore building up no pressure on firing, gives no recoil at all. As such, any firing squad member who was issued a blank would know immediately upon firing that he had been the ‘lucky’ one and need face no moral qualms about taking aim at a fellow soldier and human being. Additionally, every other firer would immediately know that they had fired a live round, and so unless they had deliberately ‘aimed off’ so as not to strike the victim, would know that they had caused or at least contributed directly to his death.

 

However, this is not reason enough to dismiss the practice as a myth. Why? Quite simply because regardless of the practicalities, we know that blanks were used in firing squads. There are many examples, but I have a note of a very relevant one from a First World War veteran whose testimony appeared on the BBC’s own ‘The Great War’ documentary. This man, tasked with shooting deserters with his SMLE rifle, reported that:

 

‘…some were loaded with ball, others with blank…one knew by the recoil if it had been loaded with ball or not.’

 

Rifleman Henry Williamson, London Rifle Brigade, published in “Voices of the Great War” (p.89, another reference reported on Arrse) tell us that:

 

“We didn’t know what the rifles were loaded with, some were loaded with ball others with blank. Then we had the order to fire and pulled the triggers, we knew by the recoil if it was loaded with ball or not.”

 

Not all sources report blanks, and as we’ve seen some state otherwise. However, later in the 20th century it had become formal doctrine for both UK and US forces. Both of the references below were found by posters at the arrse.co.uk forum:

 

US:
13. The officer charged with execution will…(g) Cause eight rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than three and nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.
US Army procedure for executions, 1947.

 

UK:

(c iii) Mean-while the DAPM will change the places of the rifles, unload two of them and reload them with live rounds which have had the bullets removed from them or with blank ammunition. The DAPM will carry the rounds in question.

-Military Provost Manual 1963, Chapter XXVIII, Section 4, 704

 

This source also makes clear that the firers were not to handle or inspect the rifles allocated to them. Clearly the intent was that they should not discover, nor should other shooters be able to determine (without confabulation) which of them had been given the blank.

So we have plenty of evidence that blank rounds were used by different militaries and in different periods, despite the obvious fact that any soldier would realise he’d fired a blank. What gives? The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the psychology of killing. Consider why up to twelve men were used to execute a prisoner. Only one shooter is needed to kill a man, in fact an officer was always on hand to deliver the coup de grace, as Silvester himself reports. So why so many firers? Plausible deniability for the men. Even without a blank, each man could tell himself that his shot had not been the fatal one, or that even if he had not been there, the prisoner would still have died. In fact, it’s an incentive to fire precisely on the order given, so as not to shoot early or late, and consequently become aware of the effect of your individual shot on the unfortunate target.

 

I’m not saying that this worked exactly; clearly Silvester suffered greatly from his involvement in these squads. But it allowed something of a coping mechanism for the horrible task at hand. If we then at least claim that one rifle was loaded with blank, that gives each shooter an additional way to rationalise their participation, and may even function as an incentive to willingly take part. If there is a 1 in 12 chance that your shot definitely won’t kill anyone, you’re more likely not to desert yourself, foment further mutiny, or to fire in a disorderly and therefore unseemly fashion.

 

This is not mere supposition on my part. In a 1943 (22 Nov, p.6) issue of LIFE magazine, Captain William Hastings of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote on the ‘myth’ of the firing squad blank. However, he makes clear that the only myth here is that the shooter might not know whether he had fired a live round or not. He confirms the issue of blank cartridges:

 

‘The story on the German spy execution (LIFE, Nov.1) by a French firing squad gave credence to a popular myth that members of a firing squad do not know whether they fire a blank or live cartridge. A man firing a blank knows full well that it is a blank since there is no recoil. He can, however, later claim that he fired a blank regardless of whether his rifle was loaded with ball or blank ammunition, as long as it is generally known that some of the rifles contained blank cartridges’.

 

As Wikipedia puts it;

 

‘This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot–for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “conscience round”.’

 

A version of this practice dates back to the American Civil War, when the single weapon might be charged with powder only, or up to half might be so loaded:

 

‘Only half of the guns were loaded, but no man among the executioners knew whether or not his was a blank charge’.

-‘The life of Johnny Reb, the common soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley, 1943, p.228.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 2010, in the U.S. state of Utah, whose standing practice is as follows:

 

‘On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member has a blank charge in his weapon but no member knows which member is designated to receive this blank charge.’

 

Again we see the reasoning behind the issue of a blank cartridge, as well as emphasis on the importance of firing simultaneously. This is meant to be a group effort in which no one individual is wholly responsible.

 

In the UK, capital punishment was finally fully abolished in 1998 (for the remaining capital crimes of treason and piracy at sea), and the last execution by firing squad was that of German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see the chair in which Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower, and the last to be executed in this way by British authorities (two U.S. servicemen were executed at a British site under U.S. jurisdiction the following year). There is no evidence to suggest that a blank cartridge was used in Jakobs’ case. Perhaps it was not thought necessary where British soldiers were executing an enemy spy? Nonetheless, the chair remains a stark reminder of former systems of justice in which prisoners might be shot dead for their crimes. In the case of First World War soldiers who decided that they could not face the horrors of war, that death would come at the hands of their comrades, perhaps even their friends. Blank cartridges were no myth, but their effectiveness remains difficult to assess. How can we possibly measure psychological trauma of this kind? The First World War was a conflict so horrific as to challenge even the most deeply rooted justifications for war, and levels of desertion or mutiny were high. From the perspective of those in authority therefore, firing squads were a brutal but effective way to keep soldiers in line and see the war through to its bloody conclusion in 1918.

Whoa-oh – Who Was Black Betty?

Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right...
Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right…

 

I’ve done a fair bit of film, TV, and radio work by this point, not a lot of which is particularly relevant to my blog (with the exception of my post last year on Brandon Lee conspiracy nonsense and one other about the inventor of the machine gun that I might blog in future). However,  a few weeks back I was asked by Jed Hunt of Siren FM if there was truth to the claim (on Wikipedia, where else?) that the song ‘Black Betty’ was actually about a gun. The song is best known today in its rock version by Ram Jam, but was originally an African-American folk song (in particular, a prison song). I had not heard of this suggestion, but was intrigued. Could ‘Black Betty’ be an earlier form of or equivalent to the famous ‘Brown Bess’ musket? And could the ‘bam-a-lam/bam-ba-lamb’’ line in the song be a reference to gunfire, or perhaps a soldier’s marching cadence?

 

Well, no. Not in its original, historical context at any rate; obviously any performer or even listener can imbue a song lyric with any meaning they wish. But I can state with a fair degree of certainty that ‘Black Betty’ was not written with guns in mind. Before I go into the detail, please do listen to Jed’s superb documentary programme; his research coincided nicely with my own (I was only asked about the potential firearms connection, but the whole origin story piqued my interest, hence what follows).

 

First, let’s put the gun suggestion to proverbial bed. Firearms, like other tools or machines (not to mention domestic and farm animals!) did receive this kind of ironic female nickname; ‘Brown Bess’ for the British soldier’s musket being the most famous. This was derived from a nickname for a common woman or prostitute, and I have a dead tree article on that subject pending – I will no doubt blog about that in the future). On the face of it, ‘Black Betty’ looks promising; it too was one of several nicknames for a prostitute or fallen woman,

 

… but as he must range, Black Betty, or Oyster Moll serve for a Change : As he varies his Sports his whole Life is a Feast, …

-From ’Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’, by Thom d’Urfey, 1719

 

There is very likely a connection too with generic nicknames for black women in America, especially slaves and servants. So it’s plausible enough. However, unlike ‘Brown Bess’, there is absolutely no evidence that I can find for a gun being called ‘Black Betty’. Someone may have used the name, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have caught on, whereas various other nicknames have survived in print, notably Davey Crockett’s faithful gun ‘Betsey’. I did assess the claim itself, and even the reference cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually provide any evidence for ‘Black Betty’ being a gun nickname. It just says that ‘Prior to the “Brown Bess”, stocks were painted black.’ This is false; stocks were never painted. Wiki mentions ‘some sources’, but doesn’t say what these are. I certainly can’t find them. So ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with guns as far as I can tell.

As ‘Field and Stream’ put it (Volume 36, 1931, page 96); ‘In early frontier parlance, was the musket called “Black Betty” as well as “Brown Bess”? Ans. The term “Black Betty” had allusion to whisky or a bottle of whiskey, and never to a firearm.’

So what did the writer of ‘Black Betty’ intend? On the face of it, simply reading and listening to the original lyrics, they certainly refers to a woman. There’s no real indicator of any double meaning, and the lyrics themselves are both straightforward and sparse, with a lot of repetition. Also, it turns out that one of the original recorded performers was actually asked what ‘Black Betty’ meant. You can download the original WAV file from the U.S. Library of Congress website here and try for yourself to discern the full answer (I’ve placed question marks where I’m uncertain), but the initial reply is clear (I won’t censor the ‘N’ word in this context). What’s interesting to me is that Clear Rock responds immediately, without pausing for thought. It’s clear that he either genuinely believes in his response to the exclusion of other meanings, or has been asked many times and is giving a stock response, sanitised for his (white, free) audience. Regardless, here’s my transcript:

 

Interviewer (interrupting): ‘Clear Rock! Clear Rock, who was Black Betty?’

 

Clear Rock: ‘”Black Betty was a old nigger woman on that Goree Farm right out from Huntsville, but(?) she threw(?) her hip(?) cutting a tree down and I(?) never knew(?) her(?)’

 

Interviewer: ‘Black Betty was(?) a(?) tree(?) cutter(?)?’

 

Clear Rock: ‘Yes sir-a.’

 

In case there were any doubt, the Library of Congress also have transcribed notes from the same field trip. It doesn’t give us the full quote, but confirms that ‘Black Betty’ was a ‘tree cutting song’, and with this quote confirms that Betty was, in the mind of this performer at least, a real woman:

 

‘Black Betty was a old nigger woman right outa Goree’.

 

As these notes then state, Goree was a state prison farm for women. If Betty was ‘old’ in the 1910s or 20s, and if the song’s lyrics reflect her real history, she must have had her mixed race baby somewhere else, because Goree only opened in 1911. Of course, there is the chance that there never was a real, individual ‘Black Betty’. That does not mean that the song isn’t about ‘her’; we’re talking here about meaning, not historical reality (but once again, Clear Rock certainly claimed she was real).

 

The above isn’t the earliest known recording, so there is room for a more original interpretation. However, it’s damn close. Clear Rock did perform with his contemporary James ‘Iron Head’ Baker on one of two versions recorded by the latter during a December 1933 research trip by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax to Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. Clear Rock’s words carry as much weight as any of his contemporaries, and he appears to have been the only singer to have been drawn on the meaning behind the song. He would surely have been aware of any subtext or double meaning, yet chose to identify ‘Black Betty’ as a specific woman. Of course, he may have deliberately withheld a deeper meaning.

 

Certainly the Lomaxes thought so, despite the answer they’d recorded (twice) from Clear Rock. They wrote in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs that:

 

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.” (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)

 

Note that the convict that they refer to is probably not Iron Head, as he was an inmate at Central State, not Darrington. The version written down is also different. Still, as Wikipedia relates;

 

‘John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as “Iron Head”) in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song. In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled “‘Sinful Songs’ of the Southern Negro”, Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is “Black Betty”. Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war’s end that “prisoners sang of ‘Black Betty’, the driver’s whip.”

 

Lomax was quite correct. ‘Black Betty’ was a name for a whip or whipping post, and it’s plausible that the ‘bam-ba-lam’ line might be a reference to the flogging that was common in prisons until the early twentieth century. However, note that ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’ was published in 1934, five years before Clear Rock was asked this very question and stated that ‘she’ was ‘an old nigger woman’. So one of the original performers of the song basically contradicted Lomax’s assumption that the song was about the whip. At the very least, it’s about both. Also, it’s not clear that any of the interviewees were necessarily asked about the Black Betty of the song. Nonetheless, I do have to give Lomax’s opinion a lot of weight, and they had decades to change their mind on this point, yet every edition of that book asserts the whip. For example:

 

‘She was the whip used in Southern prisons.’ (Lomax 1940, 60-61).

 

We must also recognise that the way oral and musical tradition works means that even if the writer of ‘Black Betty’ only had a woman in mind, the whip was definitely a current meaning at that time. Thus, as soon as someone performs the song, it’s going to become about a whip as a dual meaning with the woman directly referred to in the lyrics.

 

So there you have it; Black Betty was a woman, and may also have been a prison whip. However, the 2012 liner notes for the 1933 recording featured on the ‘Jail House Bound’ record confuse things still further:

 

‘7. “Black Betty” (AFS 200 Side B) by James “Iron Head” Baker with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up; recorded in December 1933 at Central State Prison Farm in Texas. Lomax claimed that this song was about the whip used to punish prisoners rather than a tale of a woman, but both Alan Lomax and Bruce Jackson found prisoners who argued that “Black Betty” was actually the prison transfer truck.’

 

Wikipedia reports that:

 

‘In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka “Big Head”), Reese stated that the term “Black Betty” was used by prisoners to refer to the “Black Maria” — the penitentiary transfer wagon.

 

Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:

 

‘As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, “bam-ba-lam.”’

 

I would call this ‘unconfirmed’. I can’t tell when Bruce Jackson interviewed prisoners, but his book was published in 1972, and the earliest references I can find are 1960s. Jackson’s interviewees may not have heard of ‘Black Betty’ being a whip simply because whipping had long been discontinued. Perhaps the name jumped from whip to truck? After all, the use of the whip had been officially discontinued by the time Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lead Belly were performing the original version of the song. It’s logical enough that it might survive as another inanimate (well, sort of animate!) prison object of misery.

 

Strangely, when I did my usual Google Books trawl, by far the most common usage of ‘Black Betty’ in the nineteenth century was in reference to a bottle, usually a bottle of alcohol. However, this doesn’t seem to be current in early-mid twentieth century U.S. prisons, so can I think be discounted along with the gun explanation.

 

tl;dr – the Black Betty of the song was a woman, possibly also a prison whip, and may later have become the prison wagon. ‘She’ has never been a gun, a bottle of alcohol, or any other object that those of us not imprisoned and engaged in cutting trees might imagine.

 

English Muffins Are English, Damn Your Eyes!

Oi, America! The Muffin Man would like a word…

As an Englishman and avid consumer of bread related products, I was shocked to my very core recently to read that ‘English’ muffins were actually invented in the US only 100 years ago! The author of the article (published last year) claims that they were derived from the equally delectable British crumpet goes so far as to say that ‘Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain’. As a child of the 1980s myself, I couldn’t personally contradict this, though without sending panicked messages to friends and relatives, I felt sure that they would remember them going further back.

The thing is, having tried the utterly delicious Thomas’ English Muffins on trips to the US, I could almost believe this. They are far, far nicer than even the best of our own, crispy yet chewy, with a strong taste and full of lovely holes. Could it be true, I thought? Could the ‘English’ muffin, like the ‘Scotch’ egg, actually be a foreign interloper? After I’d re-evaluated my very existence, I had a thought. Hang on, I said to myself, why would anyone market a product as ‘English’ to (among others) other British immigrants if it didn’t previously exist? What about ‘The Muffin Man’, a folk song dating to at least 1820? Was it really about American-style muffins? I set to work on my usual first recourse, Google Books, and discovered that there were plenty of references that pre-date Thomas’s efforts to both ‘crumpets’ and ‘muffins’ (notably, one of Dickens’ books). Despite the article’s claims, they were clearly different things, quite far back into the 19th century. Ironically, I couldn’t find mention of the crumpet before about 1800, so if anything, the crumpet and pikelet might actually be derivatives of the muffin (which might explain why we no longer have holes in our muffins – see below).

Digging a bit deeper, I found actual period muffin recipes dating back to the 18th century, the earliest being ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse (or, “A Lady” as she appears on the frontispiece!), first published in 1747. This makes very clear that the same basic bread product was being made well over a century before Thomas set foot in the US, and quite possibly before that. The oldest recipe even mentions that they should be ‘like honey-comb’ inside, just like Thomas’. There were a couple of references that described muffins as being a form of oatcake, but it’s obvious that many muffins were made with wheatflour, and the title of the 1750s recipe shows that the type of flour was interchangeable.

Having effectively debunked the offending article, this was a bittersweet moment, because without exception, present-day British English muffins DO NOT have ‘nooks and crannies’. Our crumpets have stolen them all. Which is, frankly, a national disaster. Our English muffins are good America, but yours are even better. It was at this point that I discovered that someone had already written up the history of the English muffin. I couldn’t find a transcript of John Thorne’s self-published pamphlet, but I did find this article, which outlines the contents (and provides a recipe, happily).

Why would the article claim that you couldn’t buy muffins prior to the 1980s in the UK? Either they’re plain wrong, or *supermarkets* weren’t selling them until then. If so, it’s meaningless, because until the 1980s supermarkets were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, and local bakers as well as home cooks would have been making their own muffins. They were a staple snack food that transcended class, being a high-calorie working class convenience food sold in the street that became a dainty teatime treat for the well-to-do.

So the English muffin really was an ENGLISH muffin by 1880 when Thomas started his bakery. By this time the muffin in the Americas had evolved into an oven-baked cake (just as ‘biscuits’ had). So the ‘English’ prefix was added to differentiate the parallel product of the same name.

 

None of which changes the uncomfortable fact that American English muffins are by far the best!

[Edited to add – a photo of Thomas’ own bakery cart on their website – http://www.thomasbreads.com/about-us – and backed up by period trade directories, shows that Thomas advertised both ‘English Muffins’ and ‘London Crumpets’ as separate products. Clearly New Yorkers were not swayed by a bit of crumpet…]

Not Quite the Whole Nine Yards

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.