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

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.


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.

You’ll Go Blind!

No, not that bit of BS history. I’m referring to a breathtaking post on the wonderful about decidely un-‘PC’ advertising. Some of them are pretty appalling by today’s standards, but not really very surprising. What did surprise me were the supposedly official Sega ads relating gaming with masturbation. They seemed very crude, and very risque for the relatively late timeframe of the early 90s.

I wondered if they might be spoofs, and the style reminded me very much of anarchic British schoolboy humour magazine ‘Viz’. I went a-Googling, and sure enough, they really were from Viz. More interestingly though, they weren’t fake. They actually were commissioned by Sega UK. But for the very specific (and at that time, appropriate) audience of Viz readers. They wouldn’t have dreamed of putting these anywhere mainstream, and they could hardly offend anyone in a magazine featuring such sophisticated characters as ‘Fat Slags’ and ‘Buster Gonad’. As an aside, I have a pet theory that today’s internet humour (“none of us is as cruel as all of us” ring any bells?) owes a lot to the sort of misanthropic toilet humour found in its pages.

So these ads aren’t quite in the same league as the others. In context, they aren’t at all shocking (though the also wonderful UsvsTh3m disagree). They would only be seen (at the time) by those who would ‘get’ them. They’re not sexist or racist, and they were set in a context that was far more potentially offensive to a casual observer. A concerned parent or partner would probably assume them to be fake. I actually think it’s possible that a bold company could pull a similar stunt today. Say, via the Onion or the Daily Mash. In fact, there are probably examples that post-date this one. Any suggestions?

Peter Dickowitz and the Premature Burial Theory of Vampirism

The Premature Burial Antoine Wiertz

The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz (1854)

Apologies to those readers who have subscribed to the blog; I know I’ve been very slow with my updates so far this year. I can’t promise regular content, but I can promise that it will keep coming! This latest is about vampires again, I’m afraid!

So, I recently read a piece in BBC History Magazine (Sep 2013, p.36) by Dr Richard Sugg of Durham University, quite rightly pointing out the link between historical reports of vampire or revenant activity and maladies that we now know to be sleep disorders. However, his first cited example raised an eyebrow with me.

The article references an unnamed American journalist, writing in 1870, who describes his own brush with a ‘vampire’ in a Hungarian village called ‘Hodmir’. This presents us with our first problem, as whilst spellings of ‘foreign’ places are frequently all over the place at this time (see ‘Dracula’ itself!), I can’t find reference to any such place. However, I was able to track down the source, a letter to the New York based World newspaper, in an edition dated June 1 1870. Sadly this isn’t available online, only in archive or microfilm form.

Fortunately, aside from the sections quoted by Sugg, the complete thing is available online in a contemporary California paper, the Daily Alta for July 24 the same year. According to contemporary journal The Nation, the author of this letter is a “William St. John”. I’ve had no luck tracking down any such person, either. The letter crops up again nearly twenty years later in the Globe-Democrat and a literature review that references it,  and again in the New York Evening Telegram for June 28 1889.

Now, the account itself reads superficially like a bona fide account of a folkloric case of vampirism, i.e. an educated observer recording the superstitious activities of eastern European peasants who are digging up dead bodies and misinterpreting differential decomposition as vampirism. The man describes a very believable account of his own sleep paralysis, but it his subsequent story about supposed local vampire activity that poses real issues. Have a read.

Vampire fans will recognise many details from the famous story of Arnod Paole, an incident that occurred not in Hungary in the late 19th century, but in Serbia in 1731-2. The original source is ‘Visum et Repertum’, published in January 1732. The Serbian girl ‘Stanoska’ that Sugg refers to was actually a ‘victim’ of Paole’s at this same time (i.e. 1731, rather than the 1738 cited in the article. She appears as ‘Stanacka’ in the English translation.

The name given to the supposed vampire himself, ‘Peter Dickowitz’, is clearly a corruption of ‘Peter Plogojowitz’ (Petar Blagojević), another Serbian case from 1725. This was reported by an official called Frombald who visited the village of Kisiljevo. His report was published in the Austrian newspaper ‘Wienerisches Diarium’ on 21 July that year.

Both of these historical sources are well documented, both appear in the very Paul Barber book (‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’) that Sugg cites in his article, and both owe their fame to Dom Augustin Calmet’s book ‘The Phantom World’, originally published in 1746.

Where this story parts company with its cobbled bits of real folklore is in “St John’s” claim that the ‘vampires’ unearthed by the locals were not the usual differentially decomposed corpses, but victims of premature burial. Not only that, but the poor buggers were apparently murdered right in front of his eyes! At this point alarm bells were ringing in my head, as the idea that vampire folklore originated with live burial is an idea as old as the vampire phenomenon itself, but one that, along with porphoria, was consigned to the wastebin of folklore studies years ago. Live burial did happen, and fear of it was something of a Victorian preoccupation, so it made sense at this time to associate the two. But there’s just no evidence for a connection with vampirism (apart from this suspect account), and as Sugg himself points out, folkloric vampires are now known to be corpses whose signs of decomposition are misinterpreted by their would-be ‘slayers’ to create scapegoats for perceived ills in their community (sleep paralysis no doubt being one of these). Back to the story, what are the chances of not one, but TWO premature burials occurring in the same graveyard? Why the hell didn’t this guy report these murders (not the supposed live burial, the staking, decapitation and burning of the victims) to the authorities? Hungary in 1870 was a civilised European country and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I don’t care how remote this rural village might have been, opportunities to report these killings would have been plentiful and readily investigated by local law enforcement. The answers to those questions, by the way, are ‘slim’ and ‘because he made the story up’.

So how did genuine 18th century history end up being reported as current affairs in 1870? Well, I have a theory. I mentioned that both source stories appeared in Calmet’s  ‘Phantom World‘ in 1746. Well, this was first published in English in 1850, and like the 1870 story, also places the Plogojowitz/Dickowitz case in Hungary. Chances are that our Victorian letter-writer used this, as well as perhaps his own experience of sleep paralysis, as the inspiration for a sensationalist cock-and-bull story that would appeal to the educated audience as a cautionary tale about the hazards of superstition.

Note that none of this actually undermines Sugg’s argument that sleep paralysis would have reinforced and even originated incidences of ‘vampirism’. But it’s definitely not the best source to use to make that argument. I fired off a letter to BBC History Magazine, so we’ll see if they do anything with it.


Wears the Soap?

No, I haven’t failed to spellcheck – it’s an old joke

I’m an RSS subscriber to Retronaut, which if you haven’t come across it already, is a wonderful depository for old photos of all kinds. I recommend it heartily, even if sometimes there are a lack of references for those of us interested enough to find out more. A recent update included some bizarre images of supposed devices designed to curb masturbation, like this one;

No, it’s not part of a steampunk Gonzo costume…

Like the sole commenter at time of writing, I was rather sceptical that these were genuine, and if they were, that strapping them to people was really a ‘thing’ that was done with any regularity. They remind me of the spurious torture implements that were either made up entirely or fancifully replicated in order to titillate and shock Victorian sensibilities (a post on that subject coming up when I can find time to write it).

However, these pics also came from the V&A and Wellcome Trust, both august and scholarly heritage institutions, which gave me pause for thought. I also found more contextual images on the Wellcome’s website, showing people actually wearing the devices, and with original captions describing them as ‘counter-onanism’ contraptions. So I thought I’d dig deeper, and found the amusingly-titled ‘Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror’ by Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck. This makes clear that such devices were widely known about at the time, and that there was even something of a medical controversy about them – some doctors advocating their use, others decrying it. So whilst you might not have been clapped straight into one of these the first time you were caught choking the proverbial chicken (or for that matter, polishing the bean), this does indeed seem to have been a real practice. The above-linked source also details the other methods used to prevent masturbation, and explains the general attitude that it was somehow a harmful practice. Of course, we still don’t quite know the scale of usage of these devices, and it seems likely that only the most well-off parents would consider purchasing them.

We’ve come a long way since then. But then again, we still eat Cornflakes

(More about this chap at my link above and at

Sanity Clause

OK, this one actually IS relevant to the season. This is a fascinating piece on the ‘links’ between shamanism, drug-taking, and the modern figure of Santa Claus. Not because of the hypothesis itself, which is pretty tenuous to say the least, but for the fact that it’s actually self-debunking. It starts out making specious connections between the (pre)historic reality of spiritual leaders taking drugs to (amongst other things) experience flight, and the folkloric/fictional activities of St. Nicholas and his derivatives. But the last third or so makes pretty clear that there’s no evidence for any of it, and those who actually work in the relevant historical fields aren’t convinced. Ronald Hutton’s comments should carry particular weight. Even the editor has left a qualifying ‘may’ in the title. Thus, no journalistic standards have been compromised, and yet I wonder whether most readers won’t still come away with the impression that Santa = Shaman.

Whilst part of me wants to rant about this, actually I wonder if this isn’t a clever way for everyone to enjoy this story. My own work on the vampire killing kits ended up being reported in a similar way, and despite my best efforts, many would still have failed to pick up the message I’ve been trying to convey (they’re not ‘real’, but they’re still worthy of interest). But the comments on the above article demonstrate a good deal of incredulity and some actual scepticism, so people are thinking critically about this kind of bold historical claim.



You’re Pulling My Leg

‘I say, would you mind awfully attaching some

urchins to my breeches?’

Guided tours of heritage sites can be a bountiful source of BS history. A friend and I have even come up with a game called ‘Hence the Expression’, where we’ll compete to dream up with the most fanciful origin possible for a given word or phrase. Unfortunately the real tour guides are sometimes beyond parody. A favourite of mine involved the claim that big dining tables historically had reversible surfaces in order that the household dogs could ‘clean’ the table with their tongues between courses. See what I mean?

Another slightly more plausible example is that sometimes given for the expression ‘hangers on’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘pulling one’s leg’); that it derives from the individuals paid by a criminal’s family to pull down on them during their hanging, and thereby minimise their suffering. I last heard this during a tour of Lincoln Castle, where it’s a bit of a staple claim, even appearing on the wall of the cafe. Tastefully, it specifies that ‘hangers on’ were children.

A quick note with respect to my title above; although ‘hangers on’ remains the subject of this post, I have come across a few instances of this explanation being given for the expression ‘to pull one’s leg’.

To start with, I should concede that the basic premise is sound; people did occasionally attempt to hasten the death of the convicted, although as the linked source points out, it wasn’t usually desired by the authorities. This simply provides a convincing basis for a story like this, it does NOT make it true. It also does not provide evidence for the veritable trade in ‘hangers on’ implied by the claim.

Interestingly, the phrase does appear in my favourite period slang dictionary (1699), but not in its own right:

‘Burre, a Hanger on or Dependent.’

We can presume, therefore, that it was a common phrase in the standard English of the day, and that there was no need to spell out either its meaning or origin. In fact we can trace it back as far as 1549, in Hugh Latimer’s ‘Sermons’:

‘But your Majesty hath divers of your chaplains, well learned men, and of good knowledge: and yet ye have some that be bad enough, hangers-on of the court; I mean not those.’

The term doesn’t appear in any dictionary, slang or otherwise. Indeed, why would it? The etymology here is surely self-explanatory. A ‘hanger-on’ is a sycophant who almost literally ‘hangs-on’ to the coat-tails of a well-off and/or well-known person. Just as a parasitical animal physically hangs on to its host. There’s no need to associate ‘hang’ in the sense of ‘attach’ to ‘hang’ in terms of the form of execution. Possible irony aside, there’s also no connection between the supposed origin and the meaning of the saying – a metaphorical hanger on attaches himself to the great and good; a literal one to the lowest of the low.

Not only that, but the French-derived synonym ‘dependant’ happens to also mean to ‘hang down’ or ‘hang on’, as in ‘pendant’ (as noted here), backing up the idea that ‘hanger-on’ is purely descriptive.

As usual, I’ve had a bash at finding early references, and the furthest I can push this one back is a piece of fiction that although set in the 1750s, was published very recently – in 2001.

‘the friends and relatives and hired ‘hangers-on’ hauling on the feet to hurry death. . . ‘
(‘Slammerkin’ by Emma Donoghue, p.76)

The first non-fiction cite is a throwaway line, given without reference, in a local history book ‘Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea’ (2004).

‘…it was customary to accelerate the business of hanging by means of the poor victims having their ‘leg pulled’ by a ‘hanger on.’

Everything else post-dates these appearances in print. How the idea spread is anyone’s guess; I tend to think that these trite origin stories started as jokes, like oral email forwards. They provide easy to understand, evocative and memorable ‘bites’ of history, particularly where they relate to the dark side of the past and allow us to feel superior to our barbarous forebears. The problem is that they’re often bollocks. So, the next time a tour guide or some bloke down the pub tells you where a particular saying came from, question it: The more convenient and appealing it sounds, the less likely it is to be true!

Eye-Eye, Cap’n!

Perusing the most interesting Lifehacker blog yesterday, I came across mention of a suggestion that pirates’ eye-patches were used to preserve night vision when moving between the deck and interior of a ship. It’s one I’ve heard before, and Wikipedia refers to it in more general, nautical terms. The first listed source is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though I can’t find any entry entitled ‘Eye Eye Matey’. The redundant section immediately below references the Mythbusters episode where they tried it out, and found it to be plausible enough. As that last link shows though, there is no actual historical precedent for the idea.

This led me to consider where the pirate/eye-patch thing did in fact come from.

Here I will direct readers to the rather good Athenaeum Electronica blog, which has covered this very issue in some detail. I broadly agree with their concluson that our modern and specific association with pirates most likely originates with the classic 1950 movie version of ‘Treasure Island’, as depictions of patched-up pirates are few and far between prior to that.

However, I think there’s more to it than that, something that the great post linked above has missed by limiting his research to pirates specifically. The one-eyed, peg-legged sailor is actually an older trope, used to imply the rough and dangerous life of a naval seaman or officer; see the early C19th cartoon reproduced here, this 1851 fictional description of veterans at the Greenwich Hospital (complete with ‘iron hooks’!), or this 1828-dated fictional use of a ‘factitious leg and black eye patch’. Whilst these injuries may not have been as ubiquitous in reality as the stereotype implied, they would have been fairly common amongst veterans of all services, and sadly are again common today thanks to the Afghan and Iraq wars. And sailors could still find work with a missing eye, as Samuel Johnson’s diary shows. The skillset of a seaman was far more valuable to a ship’s captain than his depth perception. In any case, direct injury wasn’t the only threat to one’s eye; disease too was a serious problem.

I would also note that the line between historical pirates and other sailors was less clear in the past, what with the prize money system and letters of marque. Today’s sailors have nothing in common with their piratical counterparts.

This being so, consider this Punch illustration from 1896:

Perhaps it was intended to reference the fairly-recently (1883) published ‘Treasure Island’, but given the inclusion of a sailor’s hat, I have a feeling that it’s really a continuation of the ‘disabled seaman/old sea dog’ trope that’s still going today, independent of (or perhaps interdependent with) things piratical. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t just create the idea from whole cloth. He designed Long John Silver’s appearance to be familiar to the audience – not necessarily as a pirate, but as a grizzled sailor.

I realise International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a way off, but be sure to include an eye-patch in your Pirate Regalia…

Vampire of Venice

duckulaCount Duckula receives the terrible news about his Italian cousin

Another more traditionally blog-sized post this time – a longer ramble is pending! This time though, I’m looking at sensational evidence of medieval European vampires! Or so the media are saying. See also the video here – and note right off the bat that the the “stake in the heart” is a popular myth, is not only wrong, but hugely ironic, since the stake is well documented as being one of the few features of the folklore that has survived into the fiction also.

I have no beef with the basic thesis, but as ever, the media spin is misleading. Firstly, the theory that vampire folklore comes from near-universal misunderstanding of the process of decomposition is NOT new. In fact, there’s a whole book on it, written by Paul Barber in the 90s. I heartily (ha) recommend it in fact. It outlines a great deal of evidence for both “profane” burial of potential vampires, and exhumation and “killing” of suspected ones. This brings me to my second problem – Barber’s best evidence ties historical descriptions with archaeological evidence. His historical evidence on its own is also compelling. But he only mentions archaeological anomalies – strange items in graves as tentative support for a broader application of his theory – not to say that these were definitely also vampires (or other undead corpse-related creatures). Whereas these guys are using one find to claim exactly that. In fact there are all sorts of reasons for things like decapitation, sickles on the chest, stones in the mouth etc – some may be intended to stop vampires from rising, but many others have no such proven link and may just demonstrate of contempt for the deceased – no superstition necessary. For example,  a burial in Greece where a wife’s head was removed and placed in the lap of her husband seems unlikely to be related to vampires and more so to moral trangression – adultery perhaps (if not wanton descretation – always an option). A large object jammed into the mouth might reflect punishment for gossiping or badmouthing – not everyone in a mass grave at a time of plague will have died of said disease – such crises make individual burial difficult to achieve whatever one’s cause of death (save those with the highest social status).Then there’s outright criminal punishment – from Roman executions to medieval hanging, drawing and quartering, to the anatomist’s table in the modern-era. It’s all about denying socially accepted burial rites to someone who has done something wrong. Though it might overlap, “vampire” prevention and cure is about fear of the dead rather than punishment of the living. Which does this case represent? Again, far from clear. Yet another possibility, very relevant in this case, is some sort of prophylactic against the disease itself – sure, this woman was the only one in her mass plague pit grave to be so dealt with – yet lots of individuals in this Anglo-Saxon cemetery had stones in their mouths. A whole pit of vampires? Unlikely. Disease victims? More plausible. Or once again, were they punished criminals, or morally deficient in some way? We can’t really know. Nor can we with this Venice “Vampire”.

In addition, the “vampire” as we know it – blood-sucking corpse – is just one phenomenon blamed historically for everything from failing crops and plague, to “new” hair and fingernails, bloating, blood around the mouth etc (in corpses). Depending upon location and period (and the whims of the superstitious idiots performing the desecration) the affected corpse could have been that of a potential ghost, witch, werewolf, succubus, or whatever. This is actually part of Barber’s thesis – that most of these folkloric beings have a common origin in the decomposing corpse. On the one hand therefore, this strengthens the idea that the brick in the mouth might relate to this fear of the dead, but on the other, it makes a nonsense of claiming a “vampire” specifically, unless this really was a prevalent scapegoat belief in that time, in that place (more evidence, please!). There could even have been some other superstition or religious belief involved, not to do with the dead returning – for example as a vessel for the departing soul (as with stones in corpses’ mouths in Guatemala). The vampire idea is more likely than this latter by virtue of the time and space issue – but my point is that there are any number of other explanations for which the evidence is lost.

There’s also some contradictory info here. The anthropologist himself (see the video above, though this may be a translation issue) appears to claim (though this may be a translation issue) that the woman was killed by the brick (implying that this was done whilst alive), whereas one academic is quoted as saying;

“Maybe a priest or a gravedigger put the brick in her mouth, which is what was normally done in such cases”

Much more plausible, although I’ve yet to find any historical evidence for either claim. If we’re talking prophylactic – done whilst dead, or upon exhumation later on, it’s plausible, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to sound as certain as these guys, you need corroboration. Otherwise every anomalous burial feature can be attributed to whichever pet paranormal being is your bag.

So for these reasons, and although the basic idea here is sound – it’s impossible to say that the people who did this thought the woman was, or might become, a “vampire”. It’s just as likely that she was someone on the margins of society who had her corpse desecrated. There is overlap here, since suicides were often staked a la the eastern European vampire – but where there is a superstitious component to these acts, it’s to keep the spirit or ghost in place, not to prevent bloodsucking corpses. On the plus side, at least this story helps popularise Barber’s definitive (in my opinion) explanation for the original vampire (and other “revenant”) folklore, at a time when most still conflate the folklore (the “real” beliefs) with the later fiction of Carmilla, Dracula etc. I just wish the press releases given to the media could be couched in less definitive terms, because this kind of faux certainty undermines public confidence in the humanities, just as the constant “x thing gives you cancer/protects you from cancer” nonsense undermines science.

What if the Hokey Cokey IS what it’s all about?


What if the Hokey Cokey IS what it’s all about? Catholics in Scotland seem to think it might be. These days the long-running religious struggle in the British Isles between Catholicism and Protestantism is often (thankfully) played out through (arguably) less violent means – football, or soccer to you Americans.

It is this battleground that underlies a recent political storm over, believe it or not, the Hokey Cokey. Some Catholics (namely one Cardinal Keith O’Brien as well as politician Michael Matheson) are claiming that it originated as a slight against the Eucharist – the symbolic cannibalism of Christ. There’s a good summary of the story here, and the specific claim appears in the Times article here;

“…the ditty was composed by Puritans during the 18th century to mock the language and actions used by priests at Latin Mass”

Is it, though? One exasperated commenter to the Scotsman newspaper points out that the song we all know today was not written in the 18th century, nor even the 19th. And the writer was a Catholic himself, a man called Jimmy Kennedy. It was released in 1942 and became a big hit amongst those of the Cockney persuasion.

However, as you will see from the above link, the old “you put your left X in, your left X out” routine was already well established by 1883, and that was in America (Games and Songs of Children by William Newell). In fact Jimmy Kennedy’s song was copyrighted as the “Cokey Cokey”, and was clearly based upon something already extant. Newell’s book itself points out that in England, the same song went by the name “Hinkumbooby”. The same goes for Scotland, as this book shows. There are similarities here – a silly dance involving a ring and bodily appendages, with a nonsense key-word. It may even go deeper than this, however. The original tune, pre-Kennedy, was “Lillibullero” – an overt pisstake of Catholicism by Protestants dating to the mid-17th century.  It has a longer history of aggression than even that, being adapted by the Orange Order as “The Protestant Boys” and used to abuse Catholics during the Troubles. Things really get interesting when you realise the prominence of the hinkumbooby” variant of the song and dance amongst the Shakers of the US. Shakers being a radical Protestant sect formed in reaction against perceived Catholic persecution, escaping to America in the 18th century. It makes sense that a traditionally anti-Catholic rhyme would remain in currency in a culture like this, even if its significance might well be lost over time.

Whatever weight all this lends to the Catholic claim, the specifics are still somewhat speculative, ie the limb movements and words themselves being a direct perversion of a certain Catholic ritual. An SNP minister has pointed out the similarity of the phrase itself “Hokey Cokey ” (and the variant Hokey Pokey) to “Hocus Pocus”.This is a well-known phrase for nonsense, which is innocent enough on the face of it. One variant of the rhyme includes another nursery rhyme, “looby loo“, which also appears to talk about acting crazy or silly in some way. Crucially though, “hocus pocus” specifically (rather like “mumbo jumbo” refers to magical or superstitious nonsense – exactly what the older Christian rituals came to be seen as by Protestants. The icing on the cake etymologically  (and perhaps too conveniently) is the “hocus pocus” – hoc est corpus connection. This is what is being claimed today, and it likely originates with Tillotson back in 1684 in his criticism of the ritual of Transubstantiation. I have my instinctive reservations about this, and I see they are shared. I look at it this way – at best, Tillotson got it right, and hocus pocus really was a mocking of Catholic ritual. At worst, he made it up, but the claim is itself ancient enough to carry weight – to get Protestants using it against Catholics. Not that this is even necessary – the common-currency usage to mean “magical nonsense” would be enough to support the “hokey pokey” connection given the other evidence presented here. The subsequent mutation to “hokey pokey” is likewise not too great a stretch, though one should never rely upon similarities like this. “Notes and Queries” has more on the phrase.

Some argue that  “hinkumbooby”, “hokey cokey”, and hokey pokey”, are corruptions of one another, which could reinforce the “hocus pocus”  connection. You’d want to be sure of your dates for this to truly dovetail however, and I am not. The variants seem to have existed concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic. The other evidence is enough for me to give this claim a Mythbusters-style “plausible” verdict though.

Regardless of the historical reality (or otherwise), as with any so-called “hate crime”, context is key. In the playground, innocence robs the rhyme of any such power (if it ever had it). In the football terrace environment of rivalry, aggression and animosity, it’s easy to see how even a chant whose meaning has been forgotten (or never existed!), can become a powerful insult. This makes the etymology stuff somewhat of a red herring. If Rangers fans are singing the hokey cokey in order to poke fun at Catholicism,  then that’s the meaning of the song – regardless of past meanings it has carried. and  regardless of how much more heinous it might seem to some if it really were a perversion of Catholic phrases. Which brings us to whole problem with the idea of a “hate crime” – second-guessing what other people know, think, and intend, when the language being used is ambiguous. I won’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole, however!

The irony here of course, whether or not my assessment is correct, is that by pointing out this origin story for the rhyme, the Catholics are actually drawing attention to it,  potentially bestowing it with more context and therefore “hate” power than it could ever have had intrinsically. It’s obvious that the vast majority of people, even at Rangers v Celtic matches, wouldn’t have known about this origin/interpretation. The “nonsensification” effect of repetition is seen in playgrounds across the world, where new rhymes with topical, even political themes are rapidly mutated, Chinese-whispers style, into meaningless verse. Without this reminder, and with the widespread usage of the rhyme as a bit of fun nonsense, the hokey-cokey might just finally have lost its power to offend. The cynical might even suggest that elements on both sides relish the conflict, and making publicity out of it is simply stirring the pot. Hope for some measure of (further) reconcilation is not lost however, as according to the Times, fans on both sides of the divide are planning, on Dec 27th at Ibrox, to taunt those crying “hate-crime” with a rousing joint chorus of the “Hokey Cokey”. Puts the whole thing in perspective, doesn’t it? Unless this is just another “Christmas Truce” (and there’s an article for another day!).