Archive for the ‘World history’ Category

Taboo’s Company

January 15, 2017
The 'Pirates' version.

The ‘Pirates’ version of the EIC trademark…

The 'Taboo'...

…and the ‘Taboo’ effort. Art imitating art?


I’ve started watching the BBC’s new period supernatural drama ‘Taboo’, and right away noticed something weird about the depiction of the East India Company in the show. It’s not the setup for them being a sort of Georgian version of OCP from Robocop, although that is historically dubious in itself. No, what I noticed was the bizarre choice of the EIC ‘logo’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. As the Radio Times points out, the company trademark (or ‘bale mark’) symbol did change over the decades, but they seem to think that the one used here is a real historical one. It absolutely isn’t, it’s the exact same one from the ‘Pirates’ movies. Given the casting of Jonathan Pryce, I half wondered if this was some sort of weird spinoff/crossover effort, but that seems to be coincidental. The correct bale mark is the heart-shaped one with the ‘4’ shape on top (an old merchant’s symbol), and ‘VEIC’ for ‘United East India Company’. The only real change was a move from curved segments to quarters, see here.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

for 1813 (the year that the programme is set in) would be the one I’ve posted above. This was used on their currency, stock and property in a similar fashion to the Board of Ordnance ‘broad arrow’, though frankly I haven’t seen the ‘heart’ on anything dated post-1808 (anyone that knows the real history here, please do comment). Certainly it was dropped from the Company’s firearms and replaced by a lion rampant from that date onwards. I’m also not sure that it’s appropriate plastered all over their HQ as it is in ‘Taboo’ – I suspect that the coat of arms should be the official ‘logo’ in that context (see this page). I have a nagging feeling that some researcher simply bashed ‘east india company’ into Google Images, which is dominated by the Disney EIC ‘logo’ in screengrabs, merchandise and wiki pages, and assumed that it was one of the real historical variants. If so, how incredibly lazy can you get? If not, what’s the big idea here? Why connect your dark gothic adult historical drama series with a series of light-hearted family movies based on a theme park ride? Yes, I realise most people won’t know or care, but if I thought like that, I’d never write anything here!

I’m not the only one, in fact. Some people on Reddit have also spotted this, and one theory is that they chose the fictional logo to emphasise that this is a fantasy version of the company, but a) what would be the need, and b) why go to the trouble of seeking copyright permission from Disney to use their version, when you could easily design your own. Wait, you did seek permission from Disney, didn’t you, BBC? BBC….?

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

January 8, 2017


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




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

June 26, 2016

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 forum:


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.



(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.

First World War Myths

January 21, 2014

Quite a brave article from the BBC after the recent hoopla from Michael Gove’s Daily Mail piece. Efforts by historians like John Terraine [thank you for the correction commenters – brain fart there I fear!] and Gary Sheffield have made little inroads into our Blackadder-tinted view of the Great War, so this is quite an encouraging bit of popular-level scepticism. It will be interesting to see which group of revisionists ‘wins’ the public perception war as the centenary nears.

Truce Truth?

December 25, 2013


A brief seasonal post to comment on Snopes’ enthusiastic take on the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Such a truce did actually happen, but I feel the Snopes article might give the reader the impression, by omission and by implication, that it was a)universal across the trenches, and b) an effort by working class soldiers to actually stop the war from progressing, only to be bullied into continuing the war by the officer class and harshly punished afterward.

The Long, Long Trail has an excellent balanced summary of what actually happened at Christmas 1914. The background is important here. By Christmas 1914, offensive action by both sides was stagnant, and fighting men were coming to terms with the idea that they would be there for the long haul, and that the war certainly wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”. They longed for a break from the boredom, the adverse living conditions, the threat of death and disease, and the tension and stress of the sporadic fighting. At this stage in the war, the memory of home and Christmas would have been quite fresh, and the arrival of parcels from home, including the official “Princess Mary boxes” of chocolate, nuts and cigarettes, fostered a festive mood. Though the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’ had taken place, the levels of resentment and hatred for ‘the Hun’ amongst the British troops had yet to peak. The Germans were in much the same boat, and as the lines of the front were so close together, it was not difficult to communicate a desire for cease-fire. This is exactly what happened at many points along the front. Curiosity too played a part, cease-fires being an opportunity to learn something of the enemy, his equipment, tactics, and psychology. In any case, the following year, similar behaviour (at least one incident did occur) was actively discouraged by British and no doubt German command.

Many of the actual meetings began as practical opportunities to bury the accumulated dead, with the spiritual/psychological bonus/trigger of it being a time of a shared religious occasion. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

Though these truces were indeed spontaneous and strictly unofficial, this was no overt protest against authority or the validity of the war. A number of officers did take part or at least observe, even if they were obliged to report what was happening to commanders. Whilst threats of courts martial were made to prevent a recurrence, no significant punishments were actually meted out. Comments about the theoretical moral significance of the cease-fires came from officers as well as men;

“These incidents seem to suggest that, except in the temper of battle or some great grievance, educated men have no desire to kill one another; and that, were it not for aggressive National Policies, or the fear of them by others, war between civilised peoples would seldom take place”.
-Captain Jack, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 13th Jan 1915

But neither this officer nor his men were thinking to try to end the war by their actions. Even some of the senior ‘brass hats’ did not entirely disapprove, as long as efforts to actually win the war were resumed afterward. Some Germans did tell individual Brits that though they could not visit them again, they would “remain (their) comrades” and if they were forced to fire, they would aim high. This by no means reflects a consensus among the troops, as evidenced by the next four years of bitter fighting! Officers did not generally seek to stop the fraternisation; they passed reports up the command chain instead. No doubt some of them did not approve, but neither did some of the men, as letters show. Interestingly, a young Adolf Hitler is supposed to have commented that;
 ‘..such a thing should not happen in wartime…Have you no German sense of honor left at all?’
Certainly not everyone felt like taking part, nor did they all have the opportunity to do so. Some soldiers sent to parley with the enemy ended up as prisoners. The truce(s) were also very much a British/German thing, reflecting the great effort put into averting Britain’s entry into the war, Germany being somewhat kindred, and no direct threat to British sovereignty. The mood of the French and Belgian troops would have been much less buoyant, fighting as they were in their own occupied and war-torn countries. Cease-fires were a result of young men with national but not personal scores to settle, coming from equally diverse backgrounds with plenty in common culturally. They could have been friends under different circumstances. Many had family in Germany, and some German soldiers had lived or even been brought up in Britain. It seems strange to us that sworn enemies having reconciled so easily in this way, could so easily go back to killing each other. It’s a paradox, but it’s not unusual as far as the experience of fighting men goes.
This was not a unique reaction to nor a rejection of the new form of ‘total’ war. Similar incidents of “peace breaking out” are said to have taken place in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Revolutionary war, the Crimean War, and even the Second World War (see Gilbert’s ‘Stalk and Kill’, 1997). In all the theme is similiar, bored battle-fatigued combatants in close proximity start larking about with each other. Gilbert’s stories involve one side holding up a target for the opposing side to shoot at and then cheering or deriding them depending on the marksmanship. They usually seem to be in a spirit of camaraderie, albeit with the enemy. It always ends the same way – back to the business of war the next day. The Civil War story is interesting in that during an unofficial truce one side accidentally fired a round. As the two sides picked up their arms to resume fighting, the offending party sent the man over the trench who had fired the shot and made him parade back and forth carrying a heavy beam for two hours. This appeased the offended party who did not fire at the man but applauded their efforts.
Some have drawn parallels with medieval “truces of God” which allowed combatants to observe sacred feasts whilst on campaign. But there’s also a psycho/sociological angle, that many of us in the civilian world just don’t get. You don’t have to hate your enemy or want to kill him individually, to have no hesitation to kill him in battle. It’s the warrior’s paradox; something peculiar to fighting men and women that people find increasingly difficult to understand. Patriotic ideals aside (though there was no shortage of these during the War), it’s about doing what you’ve been trained to do, no hard feelings (at least at this stage of the war). Richard Dawkins has speculated that one of his theories may apply here, wherein two competing groups will work together for mutual benefit; in this case, getting a break from the fear and tension of war. Participants would have known that it couldn’t last, so took advantage of the opportunity to blow off steam.
I would conclude by saying that though ‘the truce’ happened, it wasn’t really the universal realisation of the futility of war that many think. No more than 50% of the Western Front took part, and many protested the fraternisation, both officers and men. The great human cost of the war as it developed, and the subsequent reaction against imperialism and economic/territorial war between states, has led us to reimagine the various separate incidents of fraternisation as a single organised legendary event. So much so, that people receiving a version of the story in their email inboxes in recent years have questioned its veracity, hence the Snopes verdict. However the phenomenon has been altered by time and hindsight, there’s no doubt that the men of both sides appreciated the chance for a brief return to normality and civilisation, and looked forward to the return of real peace to Europe.

Peter Dickowitz and the Premature Burial Theory of Vampirism

August 25, 2013

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.


Sanity Clause

December 23, 2012

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.



Devil Dogs

October 17, 2012

In my post about the apocryphal ‘ladies from hell’ a few years back, I mentioned the US Marine Corps nickname ‘Devil Dog’ in the same breath as being an invention of the press adopted by the fighting men themselves. They form part of a larger trend of applying names to your own military units that you imagine your (hopefully) fearful enemy might choose. I’ve just picked up on this piece from 2011  that deals specifically with that very nickname, and agrees with my own findings. I found it via this more recent article, which although missing the point that it’s an invented term, seems to suggest that its veracity is becoming a moot point, with ‘Devil Dog’ has actually fallen out of favour, and is only really used ironically, even to the point of being a term of abuse during training. That’s really interesting – some sayings and terms persist, some change their meaning, and others disappear entirely.

If anyone’s come across any other terms like this that they suspect might be similarly invented, post a comment below and I’ll look into them. I have some other items to write up and post soon on other subject, as I’m aware I haven’t been very active online lately.

Here we go again…

August 7, 2012

I have this on my desk at work

Another year, another extraordinary claim about poor old Leonardo. I picked this one up from Doubtful News, which quite frankly is a real goldmine for this blog. I’ve covered several instances of this in the past, including the ‘Last Supper’ debacle, which continues to bring most visitors to these pages (sadly).

The really obvious problem this time is that the painting is by no means certain to be Da Vinci’s. Until and unless it is authenticated as such, it’s pretty pointless to try to look for hidden meaning where there may well be none (even if it were a Leonardo). This is a practice that is fraught with difficulty in any case, as any ‘code’ would be indistinguishable from the false patterns one could read into just about any work of art (or natural feature, cloud, cheese sandwich, or book, for that matter).

If you need any more of a warning, the author of the new book (and yes, there’s a book to be sold, and no, it’s not written by an art historian), has serialised it with…you guessed it…the Daily Mail (purveyor of such stories as this).

The ‘similarities’ that they point out (here) are just that; artistic conventions of a certain style and period. I’m not an art historian either, but the second toe being longer than the first is a genetic trait, not just a Da Vinci one. It’s also another artistic convention dating to Classical times (check out Graeco-Roman statues – short winkies and long second toes are pretty much de rigeur). The fleur de lys is a massive red herring, since the Priory of Sion was essentially a hoax. The symbol itself is widely used outwith the ‘Priory’, and oh look, it’s one of the Virgin Mary’s symbols. Talk about cherry-picking meanings.

As for the rest, this is the Leonardo that the author/paper claim is so similar; see what you think. Note however that all of the specialists consulted are either pretty equivocal about it, or outright state that it may be Da Vinci’s school, but do not attribute it to the man himself. The ID of Mary Magdalene is suspect because the Madonna with baby Jesus and young John the Baptist is a massive trope of Christian art. How is this any different? Reminds me of the claims that the carvings in Rosslyn Chapel depicting plants and ‘green men’ are somehow definitively ‘pagan’, when in fact the natural world was important to Christians too. If you ignore the bigger picture, it’s easy to fool yourself into seeing significance where none exists.

Of Bulgarian Vampires

July 29, 2012

This post by Nils at Magia Posthuma raised my eyebrow. It seems the so-called Bulgarian vampire story was even more wildly popular than I’d realised. As I haven’t yet covered it, aside from a couple of comments on Nils’ blog, I thought it worth a post. He has subtly hinted that all may not be as it seems, but as the internet is not known for its subtlety, I think there needs to be an overtly critical voice out there. As you might imagine, I am that voice.

I’m afraid the evidence for these interments being ‘vampires’, imagined revenants of another sort, or even necessarily deviant burials at all, is pretty thin on the ground. Or, for that matter, IN it.

As usual, we have little to go on, and it’s perfectly possible that a forthcoming academic article might reveal all. But as we’ve seen in the past (check out the onward links there too), sometimes the eventual publication doesn’t live up to the media hype that we’ve all been suckered in by previously.

Here’s one of two ‘vampires’ from the Bulgarian dig in question (higher res available at the source, Fox News);

As you can see, there is disruption to the ribs area, but nothing that couldn’t be the result of burial under several feet of earth. It certainly appears to be unrelated to the iron lump that is claimed to be the ‘rod’ (by implication, stake) used to dispatch the undead creature/innocently decomposing corpse. The lump itself is just that – an unidentified angular ferrous object. If it’s the head of an iron shaft, that shaft must be huge. Far too huge, in fact. Why manhandle a valuable piece of metal into position when by far the most common folkloric weapon against vampires and revenants was a wooden stake? Perhaps that’s why they missed the heart or even chest/abdomen (it was not always necessary to penetrate the heart in folklore) completely. It looks for all the world as though the ‘vampire’ play-acted along, taking the ‘stale’ between body and arm like one of the henchmen in countless Hollywood swashbucklers. It’s not that iron wasn’t used as a weapon and a preventative measure against vampires; it certainly was in various Slavic countries.

After the story had circulated a while longer, it acquired a further embellishment, thanks to National Geographic, who claimed that the corpse’s teeth had been ‘pulled’. This seems to be based on the fact that the skull is missing many of its teeth, indeed much of its alveolar process – but only, I noticed, in the post-excavation images of the skeleton as it was being pimped to the media.

(Higher res available at the source, Fox News);

I’m as sure as I can be [edit – I was wrong on this – see the comments below] that this is indeed the same skeleton, that associated with the larger of the two iron lumps. If it isn’t, it’s a third skeleton, and only two have been claimed as ‘staked’. Photos show that the other skeleton and ‘rod’ are clearly different. Note that, like the other one, this too retains its teeth as discovered (image from Heritage Daily);

This being the case, why is it in substantially worse condition? Far from the loss of teeth being a counter-vampire measure, it appears that it is wear and tear, presumably sustained in the rush to get the thing on TV. Deliberate damage doesn’t bear contemplation. It usually takes weeks of post-ex work to clean, draw, document and analyse human remains. Yet here the poor bugger was hoiked out of the ground like a fossil in a plaster jacket, and wheeled in front of the cameras. This can’t be a good thing.

I would note here that the pointy teeth are a creation of fiction, starting with ‘Varney the Vampire’ in the 1850s. Iron teeth are sometimes referred to in folklore, but not their removal as a preventative measure. The usual threat cited is the use of the corpse’s teeth to chew on their burial shroud or on their own limbs, in the manner of the German Nachzehrer (though this belief was more widespread than just the Germanic world).

In the footage linked, note also the claim by the museum director that;

‘Iron rods were used for the richer vampires’.

This is the first time I have ever heard such a claim, and I’m pretty familiar with the literature by this point. It appears to me to be a way of heading off another obvious criticism of the ID for these finds – that historical vampires were not high status individuals. They were working class people, relatives and friends of those who were compelled to ‘slay’ their troublesome dead bodies. The vampire lord is another creation of fiction, as this media piece correctly points out.

This is all a bit of a shame. These are clearly deviant burials of potentially historically significant individuals, worthy of further study for both reasons. As much as I love vampirey news, and I’m sure all this is a wonderful boon to the Bulgarian tourist industry, I think forcing this evidence to fit Western preconceptions about vampires – derived from fiction –  is wrong. I can tell you that I’m not the only historian or archaeologist who is of this opinion, either.

I recommend reading Nil’s discussion of the background and characters surrounding this discovery, which also details the reburial of another skeleton. I’m not wild about this either, as it further prevents serious scholarly study of the remains and condemns them forever as ‘vampires’. I just hope all possible analysis was completed before the skeleton went back into the ground.