Jack was the last child born into a working-class family of Canterbury, England in 1929. There were two older brothers and three older sisters. According to family recollections, the boy was a bit of a handful for his ageing parents and seems to have been mostly reared by his sisters.
Jack playing at his flat in Bromley, c. 1980s.
The pivotal moment of his life came in late May and early June 1942, the Luftwaffe firebombed Canterbury Cathedral and parts of the ancient city. This brutally pointless act was one of the barbarisms known as the ‘Baedeker Raids’. The complete destruction of Coventry cathedral is nowadays the best-known consequence of these raids and was revenged several years later in equally brutal act of revenge by the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945.
In Canterbury, fortunately, the damage was much less severe, largely through the bravery of the volunteer firewatchers who waited on the roof of the great monument, picking up and throwing down to the ground enormously dangerous phosphorous firebombs, often as their fuses were burning. The night sky around the cathedral and the city was ablaze with bright chandelier flares and the incendiary bombs that followed them down.
On every night of the raids, young Jack rushed to the bottom of the garden of the family terrace home, transfixed by the flames, the noise and the anti-aircraft fire. They said he was never quite the same again.
In August the following year, Jack was placed on probation for stealing money. He was subsequently referred to a child guidance clinic but by October 1944 he was held at the Philanthropic Society’s Approved School at Redhill, again for stealing money. After finishing school, he worked in various jobs as a labourer, errand boy and lift porter.
In November 1946, he enlisted in the RAF as an Aircraftman, stationed at Cottesmore Royal Airforce Station, Rutland. Eighteen months later, while on leave, he was arraigned at the Kent Assizes. Jack had been arrested for setting fire to the Canterbury Probation Office and, in a separate incident, a motor car.
It turned out that Jack had already torched four other targets in Canterbury and another four at Cottesmore, including a Nissen hut used as a cinema and a firing range. He was pronounced insane and admitted to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in July 1948. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with autism. Jack was nineteen years old.
According to the sparse records released by Broadmoor, Jack weighed eight stone seven pounds and was five feet seven-and-a-half inches tall on admission. He had fair hair, hazel eyes and was described as ‘pale and thin.’ He went to Block 7 for patients under close supervision. Here, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, together with a ‘disordered personality’ and learning disabilities. Family members were allowed to write and visit and, from 1949, began regularly petitioning for a discharge, unsuccessfully.
In 1951, Jack went to Block 5 for convalescing patients and by 1955 he was declared free of mental illness, though still suffering from an unspecified personality disorder, seemingly due to his occasionally disruptive behavior and a lack of insight into his crimes. Discharge requests continued to be denied as he was thought to be a high reoffending risk.
A new Mental Health Act began in 1959, allowing for tribunals to assess discharge requests. Jack’s first two tribunals were unsuccessful, but in 1966 the third recommended a discharge to a local hospital. This was overruled by the Home Office, though he was moved to the ‘parole block’ that year, where he began to join in communal and constructive activities. He contributed to the hospital’s newspaper, the Broadmoor Chronicle, and took a very active and vocal role in the Broadmoor cricket team.
Up to this point, Jack had worked mainly as a cleaner, now he was employed in the handicraft room and became a member of the block committee. He continued his interest in bowls, table tennis and gardening, as well as cricket, and was an excellent self-taught pianist. In the parole block he became known to his fellow inmates by the nickname ‘Rasher’, possibly because of his fondness for bacon.
After another tribunal, Jack was finally discharged – with conditions – into the care of family members in October 1968. Courtesy of the Home Office, he had done his twenty years. But Jack was still not completely free, there were five years of monitoring conditions attached to his liberty.
He was sent to a clerical position at the Southern Electricity Board but left after a few months to take up a succession of jobs as a labourer, car cleaner, then a short stint at Woolworths, all punctuated by periods of unemployment. In September 1971, Jack joined the Civil Service as a messenger. His discharge conditions ended in December 1974, and Broadmoor had no further hold on his life. He moved out from the family and lived independently from that time onwards, mostly in Bromley.
Despite the bonds of affection, Jack’s relationship with the family had been severed by prison and was strained in freedom. He rarely attended family gatherings, though he was a surprisingly cheery jokester. Slight, sharp and faintly bird-like, he chain-smoked – rollies, not tailor-mades – a habit he picked up in Broadmoor. Jack was a self-taught master of the piano keys and had an encyclopedic knowledge of his passion, the cricket. He dressed neatly, lived an austere life and died alone in 1993.
Jack, probably in his back yard at Bromley. The upturned horseshoe on the brick wall is for luck.
Angelo Duca was born in the town of San Gregoria Magno in the province of Salerno around 1734. His parents were probably tenant farmers and he received no education, though was considered a leader among his schoolmates. By hard work and application Duca was able by the age of twenty to make enough to buy a small block of land on which he built himself a house. This was a considerable accomplishment and the young man looked set for a prosperous and rewarding life.
But the local landholder, Francesco Carraciolo, possessor of several titles including Duke, took offence at the young shepherd’s small plot of land within his otherwise lordly domain and began amusing himself by trespassing upon the property, much to the futile irritation of the struggling owner. This situation had been in place for some time when Duca’s young nephew inadvertently strayed across the boundary into the duke’s land and was set upon by one of the duke’s gamekeepers. Angelo was outraged and confronted the gamekeeper, demanding the return of the boy’s jacket, which, in accordance with the practice of the time, the duke’s man had retained until a forfeit was paid. There was an argument, escalating into gunplay, firstly by the gamekeeper and then by Angelo who shot and killed one of the duke’s horses. This unfortunate act sealed Angelo’s fate.
He attempted to approach the duke’s administrator with an undertaking to pay compensation for the horse and increase the workdays he was obliged to provide to the duke’s estate each year, as well as the tithe he was required to provide at harvest time. His representations were rejected and the duke had an injunction brought against Angelo that involved the forfeit of his house and land. Angelo attempted to gain the intercession of a more fair-minded relative of the duke, but this only made matters worse and Angelo now had only one option left. He must ‘go in to the hills’ and become a bandit. As Benedetto Croce, the first historian to seriously study Duca’s case put it: ‘public opinion was not wrong in considering him unjustly persecuted’.
Duca joined the band of Tommaso Freda, a violent brigand, learning the tricks of the trade. When Freda was executed by his own men for the price on his head, Duca probably became the leader, perhaps having his nickname of ‘little angel’ bestowed at this time. Unlike Freda though, Angiolillo insisted on strict discipline among his men and was transparently honest in dividing the shares of captured booty, taking only the same as his men, an almost unheard-of equality among brigands. Operating mainly in the mountainous north of Basilicata in southern Italy and surrounding regions, ‘the little angel’ was reputed never to have killed without justification and, in legend at least, murdered no one at all. His main method of obtaining funds was said to be by extorting it from those able to pay, usually through polite threatening letters.
His legendry includes a tale of how he robbed a bishop on his way to Naples. Angiolillo asked the cleric how much money he had and was told that the man possessed a thousand gold coins. The bandit then asked how long the bishop would be in Naples and was told that he would be there for one month. Saying that he would only need half that amount to accommodate himself for that period of time, Angiolillo relieved him of five hundred gold coins saying he was happy to take only that amount and wished him well for the remainder of his journey.
In one story Angiolillo relieves a wealthy Benedictine abbot of half his store, dividing the booty between his own band, poor peasants and providing the dowry for a young girl. As a woman who could not secure a dowry at this time and place was usually condemned to a life of prostitution, this is an especially significant outlaw hero action and one with which Angiolillo is frequently credited in his folklore. He is also said to have established his own court, taking the role of the magistrate to settle local disputes, nearly always favouring the poor. He righted wrongs against discriminated priests and forced farmers and administrators to reduce the price of corn so that the poor might be fed.
On another occasion he invaded the banquet of the Duke of Ascoli, relieving the nobles of gold and food which, according to his ballad:
Then he went down, and for the ladies and the poor,
He had a dinner of good things prepared,
And said: ‘If the lords are feasting,
So too must poverty feast!’.
In another Angiolillolegend the great bandit comes across a poor man being dragged to gaol because he cannot pay back the money he owes the usurer. Angiolillofirst releases the man, then confronts the usurer, inflicting a moralistic speech upon him and then burning his records and taking all his money. This he, of course, distributes among the poor. These and many other Robin Hood-like actions, real or not, earned Duca the traditional honoured brigand title of ‘King of the Countryside’.
Angiolillo ’s afterlife was further polished by his numerous victories against the forces sent to hunt him down, most notably at Calitri where he and eleven men roundly thrashed a force of thirty-seven soldiers. These escapades and his increasingly flamboyant style, which included having glittering uniforms made for his men and himself, all contributed to the growth and spread of his fame and by all accounts he was treated as near-royalty by the people of the region and provided the essential sympathy and support required to keep all outlaws at large.
In common with many other outlaw heroes of myth and history, Angiolillo was deeply religious. This also caused him to believe that he was magically or divinely protected from danger and harm. He supposedly wore a magic ring that warded off bullets, a useful protection commemorated in at least one folktale. Another of his legends emphasises the universal skill of the noble robber to fool his enemies by disguise.
One of the most commonly-told oral traditions of Duca, told both to feet-on-the-ground historians Croce in the late nineteenth century and, eighty years later, to researcher Paul Angiolillo (no relation to Duca), focuses the outlaw’s legend. Once, seated inconspicuously in a tavern the outlaw overheard a full regiment of soldiers boasting how they would defeat the notorious brigand. He was so enraged that he revealed himself and challenged the soldiers to capture him. Recovering from their astonishment, the soldiers rushed him. The outlaw grabbed a length of hard-dried codfish and laid about them as they came, forcing them all to run away.
Angiolillo’send came in 1784 and conformed to the pattern of the outlaw hero. Betrayed by a member of his gang, he was finally run to ground in the Capuchin monastery of Muro Lucano. Wounded himself, and with another wounded accomplice, Angiolillo was trapped in the monastery tower and burned out by the soldiers. His companion was taken but told the soldiers that his leader was dead, a ruse they initially believed.
But then Angiolillo made a dramatic reappearance, falling to the ground from a great height and injuring himself as he landed. In the confusion and in his disguise, he was able to walk through the line of soldiers and take shelter in an aqueduct. Alas, a young boy saw him and alerted the troops. At this point, according to legend, Angiolillo’s magic ring had fallen off, thus explaining his capture.
The outlaws were taken to Salerno and held awaiting trial. So popular was Angiolillo that many volunteered to defend him in court. But the King decreed that the dangerously popular outlaw was to be hanged without the formality of a trial, an action that would later be strongly criticised by the Sardinian ambassador in a report to his government on the administration of the Kingdom of Naples just two years later. Angiolillo’s body was drawn and quartered, the various grisly parts being publicly displayed in those parts of the country where his depredations had been most frequent.
Angiolillo’s ballads further embellished the considerable legend of his life and a contemporary reported in the early 1790s that the Neapolitans ‘look upon him as a martyr, who perished as a victim of his love for the people.’ His songs were in oral tradition until at least the end of the nineteenth century and continued to circulate in street pamphlets during the early twentieth century. A number of writers, including Dumas, romanticised the real and attributed deeds of Angelo Duca, ‘the little angel’ who became ‘King of the Countryside’ in late eighteenth century southern Italy.
Croce, B, Angiolillo (Angelo Duca):Capo di Banditi, Pierro, Naples, 1892.
Paul F. Angiolillo, A Criminal as Hero: Angelo Duca, Regents Press of Kansas, Lawrence, c1979.
Guiseppe Goran, Mémoires secrets at critiques des cours, des goveurnementsts, et des moeurs des princpaux états de l’Italie, Paris, 1793.
So began a broadside ballad of the early nineteenth century, a song that would live on in popular culture for generations. Herman Melville knew it, fragments ended up in a mid-twentieth century children’s rhyme and it became a popular folk dance tune.
Who was the King of the Cannibal Islands’, and why was such an inane piece of doggerel so popular for so long?
The initial cause of the song’s composition was a grisly tale of shipwreck and mystery.
After transporting a cargo of convicts to Sydney Cove in 1809, the Boyd under Captain John Thompson sailed from Sydney in October that year. Aboard were around seventy passengers and crew, including a number of Maori, one a chief’s son named Te Ara. Thompson was keen to obtain some kauri spears to add to his cargo of seal skins, coal, lumber and whale oil. Te Ara recommended Whangaroa where his people lived and where he assured Thompson there were excellent stands of kauri.
The Boyd moored and Te Ara went to greet his kin after a long absence. The Maori came aboard the ship and relations were cordial at first, until Thompson took a small boat party ashore to search for spears. They never returned. The Whangaroa Maori clubbed and axed them all to death. The Maori then rowed out to the Boyd and began to massacre those aboard, dismembering the victims while a few survivors watched in horror from the rigging.
At the end, only five of those aboard the ship escaped the butchery, aided by Te Pahi, a visiting Maori chief from the Bay of Islands apparently shocked at the scene. One survivor was later killed, leaving Ann Morley and her baby, a two-year-old Betsey Boughton and cabin boy Thom Davies in dangerous captivity.
What caused such brutal events?
At some point before the Boyd reached Whangaroa, Te Ara was lashed to a capstan and either flogged or threatened this punishment by Captain Thompson for his refusal to work his passage. He protested that he was a chief’s son and should not be so basely punished but was mocked by the sailors and denied food. This was a loss of face among his people triggering an obligation to take revenge.[i] A dreadful vengeance it was.
According to the rescuers under Alexander Berry who arrived at the scene in December there was evidence of mass cannibalism. As Berry later wrote: ‘The horrid feasting on human flesh which followed would be too shocking for description’.[ii] They also found the charred remains of the Boyd, apparently blown up when the Maori tried unsuccessfully to make use of the muskets and gunpowder aboard. The flames ignited the whale oil and the ship quickly burned and sank, a number of Maori, including, including Te Ara’s father, dying in the conflagration.
Assisted by Maori from the Bay of Islands, Berry secured the safe return of the four survivors as well as the government despatches and private letters carried by the Boyd. Betsey was in a poor condition, crying ‘Mamma, my mamma’.[iii]After threatening the killers with a murder trial in Europe Berry relented, avoiding further bloodletting, though so great were tensions in the region that a planned mission settlement was postponed for several years.
Berry took the remaining four survivors on his ship. They were bound for the Cape of Good Hope but suffered storm damage and eventually ended up in Lima, Peru. Here Mrs Morley died. Davies went to England aboard another ship and the two children went with Berry to Rio de Janeiro and then to Sydney.
Meanwhile, news of the massacre, cannibalism and capture of the survivors fuelled darker emotions. Men from a small fleet of whalers attacked Te Pahi and his people. This seems to have been a complete misunderstanding of the massacre as Te Pahi by most accounts tried to help the Europeans. Berry may have confused the similar names of the two chiefs in his account of what had happened. Up to 60 Maori and one whaler died in this misguided act of revenge. Te Pahi then attacked the Whangaroa Maori and died from wounds dealt in battle.
In later life, Thom Davies returned to New South Wales where he worked for Berry but was drowned on an expedition to the Shoalhaven River with Berry in 1822. Betsey Broughton married well, living until 1891. Mrs Morley’s daughter eventually ran a school in Sydney.
As the story of the Boyd massacre became more widely known in Britain and beyond, it encouraged both shock and humour. The grisly tale of blood, betrayal, cannibalism and survival fuelled the growth of a ‘savage natives’ stereotype that would become the stock in trade of rip-roaring adventures and south seas island concoctions for decades to come. Pamphlets appeared, warning people against migrating to such dangerous places. Popular comic songs like ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’ were based on this and other colonial encounters, reflecting European attempts to process such dramatic cultural and social differences through absurdity.
Here’s the hardback cover of my upcoming book with Yale University Press, published in UK and USA in May and as a paperback in Australia around the same time.
There’s an audiobook as well. All available on pre-order now.
Condemned came about because the human story of Britain’s transportation system has never been fully told. Historians have researched the legal, political, penal and other aspects of the topic and we now have a good understanding of the operation and impact of transportation in Australia, America, Africa, India and the many other British possessions where men, women and children were sent to labour. Against this background, I wanted to retrieve and tell a few of the life stories of the transported and convey something of how people dealt with such a traumatic experience. Many were broken by it – but many others flourished and made significant contributions to the places of penance to which they were exiled.
My previous work on the transportation was focused on the Australian experience. When I came to look at the much larger picture of imperial transportation, I learned how adroitly Britain had exploited human resources to build and maintain an extensive empire. As I researched further, I began to see that as the penal transportation system declined, one of its main aims was quietly pursued by other means.
Children were among the earliest victims of the system in the seventeenth century. They were again from the nineteenth century through a charitable continuation of transportation. The tens of thousands of orphaned or unwanted girls and boys conveyed to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Southern Africa were not felons. But, like the convicts who preceded them, they were sent to provide labour for developing the empire, as well as the means to populate it further.
An important reason for the eventual abolition of transportation was public opposition to its abuses, injustices and sheer brutality. Later, the evils of child migration were exposed and addressed through public advocacy in those countries where unaccompanied children were subjected to institutionalised terror. The success of these hard-fought campaigns prefigures contemporary human rights and social justice campaigns, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The large and long story of transportation, in whatever form, covers much of the globe and spans four centuries. The consequences continue into the present century through lingering historical guilt about convict ancestors and inquiries, apologies and compensation payments to the system’s last victims. Those who were, rightly or wrongly, condemned to the grinding inhumanity of transportation deserve to have their stories heard today.
In the 1880s mountainous Paphos was one of the poorer regions of Cyprus. Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived side-by-side under the control of a British administration that had perpetuated the Ottoman system of considering the Turks and Greeks on the island as members of their own ‘nations’, with their own religious, legal and educational institutions. Cyprus had a history of occupation and domination reaching back to the ancient Egyptians so the British, who assumed control in 1878, were just the latest in a long line of colonisers. The actions of the Hassanpoulia (poulia means ‘birds’) as the family confederacy and the other members of its gang were known, came to be seen by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots as a form of revolt against British authority. The British administration certainly perceived the activities of the gang and the considerable sympathy and support they commanded among the dispossessed and disgruntled peasantry, as a potential source of political trouble.
But within a decade of the deaths of the Bullis two distinctly different traditions developed. The Turkish Cypriot tradition continued to present the Bullis as heroic outlaws but in Greek Cypriot epics they are treated much more negatively. The disjunctions between the two traditions reveal both the ambivalence of outlaw heroism and the potency of the tradition itself, as seen in the extent to which the composers and singers of the Greek epics needed to demonise the Bullis.[i]
The events that generated these traditions began in May 1887 when the 19 or-so years old Turkish Hasan Bulli was accused of theft. The accusation was denied and Hasan took to the hills. According to one version of the story he became involved in a feud with another outlaw over Hasan’s uncle’s young wife and was eventually framed and arrested. He soon escaped and continued his lawless existence, still trying to kill his rival. He survived the next eighteen months of attempted betrayals and traps by robbing the local herds and apparently polarising opinion for and against him. Eventually he contracted malaria and, in a weakened state, gave himself up to the police. Convicted and sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which he served in an untroubled manner for six years, even being allowed the privileges of a trusty.
But in 1894 he heard that his two brothers Kaymakam and Hüseyin had been betrayed and arrested. They had been involved in a Greek-Turkish dispute over a woman and were accused of murder. Hüseyin attempted to escape and join them but was killed by prison guards. His brothers gathered a band of outlaws and survived until their killing or capture and execution in 1896. Large rewards were offered in vain by the British for the capture of the outlaws.
In 1895 the Outlaw’s Proclamation Act was also passed in an attempt to limit the influence of their activities which, whatever their intent, were widely interpreted by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots at the time as being directed against the British. This act was another descendant of the medieval notion of outlawry and effectively subverted the usual legal processes ‘extraordinary powers being given to the Executive to remove from the disturbed districts, persons suspected of assisting and harbouring the outlaws’.[ii] Application of the Act in the districts of Limassol and Paphos involved the arrest and gaoling of the main holders of flocks. The success of the outlaws in eluding capture for so long is a clear testament to their support from the larger populace, as was the necessity to hold their trial elsewhere and to bury their executed remains within the prison walls.
From early in the twentieth century there arose two oral epics about these events and their protagonists – a Greek work of 318 verses and a near-400-verse Turkish work. The Greek poem acknowledges the bravery, escaping and disguising abilities (including dressing as women) of the Hassanpoulia, common features of outlaw hero traditions:
They used to fly like birds
And they used to try a different costume everyday
They used to be dressed like a Turk one day
And like a Greek the next day…
But they are also savage rapists and promiscuous murders rather than revolutionaries and the Muslim Hassanpoulia’s end is attributed to the curse of a Christian priest.
The same events are interpreted quite differently in the Turkish-Cypriot epic. The kidnappings and rapes made much of in the Greek story are rapidly passed over as everyday events. The various murders are portrayed as justified retribution against informers and the Hassanpoulia swear to die fighting rather than surrender to the British overlords:
I died but I did not surrender to the British
Let the British hang me, pity on me
Death is much better for me than this outrage.
The Turkish version is much what might be expected of an outlaw hero tradition from almost anywhere in the world. The hero is wronged, is a great escaper, a brave hero, a friend of his own people and an avenger of their injustice against their oppressors. To fail, he – in this case, ‘they’ – must be betrayed. The importance of female and male honour, while often encountered in other outlaw hero traditions, is especially intense in this culture and forms not only the rationale for most of the criminal activities of all the brothers but is also the pivotal difference between the Turkish and Greek traditions. So important is the moral code of the outlaw hero tradition forbidding the misuse of women, that the events, real or not, are graphically highlighted in the Greek version of the abduction of the Turkish women:
She was sleeping with her husband, when
She was forcefully taken away, and
Almost her poor husband was killed.
They have their turns over her, one by one
Who is going to ask about her, who is she going to complain to
Blood is gushing from her like a fountain…
And also in the Greek version:
Three insatiable monsters suddenly entered the house
They took her away and spent the night somewhere else
At an isolated sheep fold, at a remote cottage
They almost killed her, and tore her breasts.
The Hassanpoulia have continued to play an important cultural role in the fractured politics of Cyprus. While both Greeks and Turks, in Paphos at least, may have seen the outlaws as an expression of their dislike of British rule and supported them accordingly, the increasingly polarised politics of the succeeding century have solidified the opposing interpretations. In the now Greek southern Cyprus the Hassanpoulia are common bandits, while in the northern Turkish sector of the island they are symbols of the popular struggle against colonial oppression.[iii][iv][v]
[ii] Bryant, R., ‘Bandits and ‘Bad Characters’: Law as Anthropological Practice in Cyprus, c. 1900’, Law and History Review vol 21, no 2, Summer 2003, par 55 (online).
[iii] Though see Paul Sant Cassa’s ‘Banditry, Myth and Terror in Cyprus and Other Mediterranean Societies’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 35, No. 4, Oct. 1993, which argues that ‘the Hassanpoulia were never incorporated in a Cypriot national rhetoric and subsequent Cypriot agonistes modelled themselves on the equally dubious Greek klephts rather than their own home-grown variety’. p. 794.
[iv] At http://www.cypnet.co.uk/ncyprus/culture/hasanbullis/, accessed October 2004. The article is based on the following cited sources: N. Gelen, “Bir Devrin Efsane Kahramanlari: Hasan Bulliler”, Halkin Sesi Matbaasi, Nicosia, 1973, B. Lyssarides, “Hassan Poulis, the Jesse James of Old Cyprus”, Cyprus Weekly, No.815, p.11, G. Serdar, 1571’den 1964’e Kibris Turk Edebiyatinda Gazavetname, Destan, Efsane, Kahramanlik Siiri: Arastirma-Inceleme, Ulus Ofset, Nicosia, 1986, O.Yorgancioglu, Kibris Turk Folkloru, Famagusta, 1980; pp. 91-107.
[v] Lyssarides, B. 1995. ‘Hassan Poullis, The Jesse James of Old Cyprus’,
Readers of Gristly History might recall an earlier post about the mysterious existence of a platypus on a sixteenth-century carving in Viseu Cathedral, Portugal. Historian Robert Bremner alerted me to this fascinating indication of a direct or indirect Portuguese knowledge of Australia at this very early date and has now provided his photographs of the carvings.
Some of the most widespread and pernicious forms of untruth come in the form of stories. Urban legends (or ‘myths’), fake news and conspiracy theories have a story structure.
An old favourite horror legend tells of a young couple making out in their car at a lonely place. They hear a noise outside and the man goes to investigate. While he is gone, his girlfriend turns on the car radio to hear a news bulletin that a dangerous maniac has escaped from the local asylum. The boyfriend does not return and the girl become very frightened. Suddenly, she hears a thumping noise on the roof of the car – ‘thump, thump, hump. Terrified, she screws up her courage, opens the door and gets out to see what is causing the noise. Squatting on the roof of the car is the grinning maniac holding the bloodied head of her boyfriend and banging it on the car roof – ‘thump, thump, thump. A favourite among teenagers, this modern legend was always told as a true story and gave nightmares to generations. It might still do so.
Conspiracy theories also have a story structure. The QAnon delusion is that a network of Satanic paedophilic cannibals is running a global sex trafficking network. President Trump is waging a desperate, covert war against the shadowy figure of ‘Q’ who heads the network. This story, or one of its versions, is worthy of a superhero movie, possibly in production as I write. It is a complete fiction, of course, but very many Americans, and possibly others, believe it to be true.
Stories like these are told as truth by someone, or ones, the hearer knows, whether personally and face-to-face or through social media. This certifies the claims in the stories as credible through the curious human tendency to believe what we are personally told.
These stories fill an information gap, answer questions, solve a mystery etc., satisfying the human absence of knowing, something we have found unbearable throughout history and probably long before. We must have information, explanation, something, no matter how unverifiable and incredible.
The End of Experts
In the past (before the WWW), it was possible for fake news and other misinformation to be rebutted by those with authoritative credibility – scientists, academics, politicians (some, at least). With the growth of doubt and the demotion of ‘experts’ to simply wielders of another opinion, this is no longer possible. Now, one opinion is as good, or bad, as another, no matter whether it is informed or not.
Paradoxically, greater access to tertiary education since the 1960s has demystified them. Professors are no longer rarefied geniuses pronouncing on their subject from afar as unchallengeable experts. Wafter spending lots of face to face time learning with them, we know they are just the same as the rest of us. While this is good form an equalitarian perspective, it has contributed to the undermining of experts.
The growth of the WWW dimension of the internet, particularly that part of it called ‘social media’, has been the single most damaging element in this decline of truth. The sludge that makes up conspiracy theories, urban myth and fake news and the like was always present in society. But individuals only heard, and repeated, it through their limited oral networks, limiting the damage.
Social media, by contrast, expands everyone’s networks, amplifies what is said on and through them, as well as diffusing it instantaneously around the globe. The ability of social media to mimic the intimacy we all associate with personal, face-to-face interaction is a major element in the spread of misinformation.
To some extent, what is often referred to as ‘information overload’ is a part of the problem. As we have all become increasingly inundated with information through innumerable channels, our ability to screen it, verify or even absorb it has plummeted. Now, we all search for the quickest and shortest scrap of information we can find. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ideal medium to satisfy this need.
The mainstream, mostly commercial, media of press, TV and radio has had a paradoxical role in all this. On the one hand, journalists and some organisations have honoured their ethics and traditions in battling lies, half-truths, dodgy statistics and so on. The emergence of fact checking organisations, sometimes linked with universities, is symptomatic of the desperate need to control the flow of misinformation.
On the opposite side of the ledger, we have seen the rise of ‘shock jocks’ and similar thunderers, usually employed by right-leaning media, belligerently trumpeting fake news and generally playing to the prejudices of their audiences. This has come at the expense of respect for credible, informed opinion and comment, as the possessors of such knowledge are execrated as ‘experts’ who have somehow come to be unreliable, biased or simply wrong because the shock jock, somehow, knows better.
Altogether, these powerful, intertwining forces have produced an information environment where lies rule and verifiable, evidenced facts are dead. The most dramatic demonstration of this process, and its consequences, has been in the United States of America over the last four years. It seems that more than seventy million Americans believe the demonstrable lies about the Presidential elections of 2020, as well as a bubbling brew of conspiracy theories, fake news and simple lies. The end result was the storming of America’s Capitol in January 2021 by thousands of such people, some armed and apparently determined to do harm to their democratically elected representatives.
Incredible scenes, yes, but the result of widespread credulity created by the appearance of truth.
Secret societies of one kind or another have been around forever. Familiar examples are the various form of Freemasonry to which many people – mainly men – have belonged over many centuries. Although its origins lie in the trade secrets and self-protection needs of stone masons, the modern Freemason’s movement has long been a highly formalised and respectable organisation, with ‘temples’ in plain sight and making considerable contribution to the betterment of society.
But there are other types of secret society with similar origins yet much more covert and basic than the masons. These take the form of groups that started to form in the eighteenth century to protect occupational secrets, help each other out and generally protect their members from employers and others with more money and power than themselves. Possibly devolutions of medieval craft guilds, these societies operated covertly within the lower levels of rural and, to some extent, urban society, employing secret passwords, initiation rituals and oaths of loyalty unto death. The ‘Miller’s Word’ and, later, the ‘Horseman’s Word’, were among these folkloric keepers of secrets and traditional wisdom that gave them, it was believed by some, magical powers.
“So help me Lord to keep my secrets and perform my duties as a horseman. If I break any of them – even the last of them – I wish no less than to be done to me than my heart be torn from my breast by two wild horses, and my body quartered in four and swung on chains, and the wild birds of the air left to pick my bones, and these then taken down and buried in the sands of the sea, where the tide ebbs and flows twice every twenty four hours – to show I am a deceiver of the faith. Amen.”[i]
Among their other useful purposes, these societies functioned as basic trade unions for their members, protecting their privileges and standing – and so their wages and conditions – within the rural occupational hierarchy and providing some group solidarity when required.
Interestingly, one of the famed early attempts to form a rural trade union at Tolpuddle in Dorset, also featured lurid initiation rites. These seem to have been similar to the secret oath taking of the Words, with the addition of some more theatrical elements, such as the display of a skeleton. Other early attempts to form a trade union, in this case by the bricklayers of Exeter, could involve ritualistic paraphernalia and covert as described by the police who arrested the men at the Sun Inn, Exeter in 1834:
Upon entering the room we found a great number of persons present, I believe about sixty. We found also in the room the articles now exhibited which consisted of a figure of death with the motto, ‘Remember thy latter end’, two wooden axes, two drawn swords, two scabbards, two masks, two white garments, a Bible, a book marked ‘A’ and diverse papers. “When I came into the room, several of the men – I saw three or four – appeared to have been blindfolded and I saw them pulling the handkerchiefs, with which they had been blinded, from their eyes.”
In another troubled context, convicts on Australia’s notoriously brutal Norfolk Island were said to have formed a secret fraternity known as ‘The Ring’, which policed relations between the gaolers and the gaoled and dealt out justice to any who broke the rules. They too were said to have colourful ceremonies and chilling oaths, including this one:
Its initiations involved drinking blood, accompanied by a dreadful oath of eternal loyalty. When the Ring decided to meet, word went through the prison that no non-member, including guards, should enter the prison yard. The leader, known as ‘the One’, entered the yard first and faced a corner of the wall. He was followed by the Threes, Fives, Sevens and Nines, each arrayed in a semi-circle behind him. All were masked. Satanic prayers were intoned:
Is God an officer of the establishment?
And the response came solemnly clear, thrice repeated:
No, God is not an officer of the establishment.
He passed to the next question:
Is the Devil an officer of the establishment?
And received the answer–thrice:
Yes, the Devil is an officer of the establishment.
Then do we obey God?
With clear-cut resonance came the negative–
No, we do not obey God!
He propounded the problem framed by souls that are not necessarily corrupt:
Then whom do we obey?
And, thrice over, he received for reply the damning perjury which yet was so true an answer:
The Devil–we obey our Lord the Devil!
And the dreaded Convict Oath was taken. It had eight verses:
Hand to hand,
On Earth, in Hell,
Sick or Well,
On Sea, on Land,
On the Square, ever.”
And ended — the intervening verses dare not be quoted —
A cup of blood taken from the veins of each man was then drunk by all.
After these rites were performed, the Ring would conduct their business. Usually it was a trial and sentence of suspected collaborators among the convict population or of any of their gaolers who showed an inclination to be lenient to the prisoners.
Most of his comes from later fictioneers, such as ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley) and Marcus Clarke and is obviously gussied up to chill their readers. Historians have queried whether there ever was a ‘Ring’. Probably. Prison gangs are, and were, commonplace. Was it ever this gothic? Highly unlikely. But the documented existence of the secret societies of millers, horsemen and early trade unionists, with their traditional skills, self-protection and folk magic, suggest that the existence of such groups was possible.
The beliefs and the needs behind such organisations were powerful enough to create and maintain them, often over considerable periods of time, at least in the occupational if not the penal contexts. It is thought that the Horsemen’s Word was still well entrenched in parts of Scotland and East Anglia until the 1930s, by which time, of course, their competitive advantage had disappeared with the mechanisation of pretty well everything and the fading of the horse from serious work.
[i] Neat, Timothy (2002). The Horseman’s Word: Blacksmiths and Horsemanship in Twentieth-Century Scotland. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
[ii] Marcus Clarke For the Term of His Natural Life, first published in serial form in the Australian Journal between 1870-1872. ‘Price Warung’ (William Astley), wrote a number of related stories based on interviews with convicts, beginning with ‘The Liberation of the First Three’ in his Tales of the Convict System, Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1892.
Who are these blokes and what are they talking about?
Just in time for Christmas, my new book is a repackaging of the original editions, unavailable for some years, but back by popular demand. As you can tell from the title, it is a collection of Aussie yarns, legends, lore and language aimed at the interested general reader.
The cover photograph, sourced by the publisher, was a mystery. It was ideal for the book, but where did it come from and who are the men in it? Turns out that they are the ancestors of reader Rhonda Orr, who writes:
… The chap on the right is my Great Grandfather, Mr David Hughes. The chap to the left of him is Mick Ryan and the next one is Paddy Cullen. The younger male in the background near the horses (on back cover) is my Great Grandfather’s eldest son Roy Hughes (approx age 16). My grandfather was his younger son, Merlin Hughes (not pictured).
Roy Hughes went on to be the first ACT Police officer appointed as a mounted Constable in 1927 based at Duntroon.
The photo was taken around 1915-1917 (?) somewhere on the Jenolan Caves road around Rydal (NSW) area, which is where they lived around that time…
If you fancy a good read, or know someone who would, you can buy the Big Book of Great Australian Bush Yarnshere or anywhere online. (It has plenty of stories about the cities, outback and oceans, as well).