hound-baskervilles 2

Here’s a good topic for the hinge of the year, the end of one calendar and the start of another. Have you been thinking about hellhounds lately? No? Well then, read on…

Oversized, red-eyed, shaggy, stinking and generally monstrous dogs have been with us from at least the era of ancient Greece. Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the underworld is pretty well-known. Less-so is the Norse equivalent of Garmr, among other canine creepies.

The infernal associations of ‘hellhounds’, as these apparitions are usually known, are also found in many legends heard in the traditions of Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Sometimes hellhounds appear in the form of ghostly predators shadowing travelers along lonely roads (and, very occasionally, protecting them from something worse). Sometimes they are associated with spectral hordes, such as ‘the Wild Hunt’ (see previous post on this).


But the most frequent form of hellhound tradition features, as Arthur Conan Doyle lastingly put it, ‘a gigantic hound’, that bays chillingly then appears at the imminent death of a member of a local aristocratic family, the basic premise of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Doyle seems to have added a family curse to sex up the atmosphere a tad). The creator of Sherlock Holmes said little about his inspiration for this enduring literary spectre, beyond a casual reference to hearing about something similar from a friend. Most commentators have subsequently suggested that Doyle was probably referring to the legend of seventeenth century Devon squire, Richard Cabell.

Cabell did enough dirty work in his life to gather an impressive, if improbably evil, reputation. He was alleged to have murdered his wife (though she seems to have outlived him), made a pact with the devil and to have died while hunting down a maiden across Dartmoor one stormy night.  And it gets better. The locals were reputedly so afeared of him that they built a structure over his despised burying place and placed a large block of stone over his grave to make sure he stayed in it. Whether he has or not, the church was afflicted with lightning, Nazi bombs and arson, and is now a ruin.

The historian Mike Dash has also done some sleuthing on a little-known Scots version of the hellhound tradition. This one is a stonker, complete with clans, a loyal hound and a mysterious dark island in the middle of a loch. The story has a murky history – of course! – but was given flesh by Iain Thornber in a 1980s magazine article. Read all about HERE, where Dash spins the filaments into a fascinating yarn.

For blues fans, the primal music of Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ (1937) evokes a haunted, hunted atmosphere that draws from this tradition and invokes broader African American spooky lore. This includes meeting with the devil at the crossroads and the exploits of the badman, Stagolee (variously spelt), hero of another classic blues and a considerable body of folktale and supernatural – as well as bawdy – lore.

For those who like to take their legends with a drop of analysis, hellhound stories seem to be closely linked to their localities, even if the basic motif is widespread. They can also accrue other motifs, such as Faustian deals with the devil and membership of the Wild Hunt, as in the case of badass Richard Cabell’s tradition. The Scots ‘Grey Dog of Meoble’ also has an element of the loyal hound tradition, probably best-known in the Welsh Beth Gellert tale and also in a modern legend. Hellhounds may also shape-shift into different animal forms, though whatever their species, their function remains the same.

Dark wind rising

Blood moon hangs in troubled skies

Thunder, lightning, hail and rain

Hellhound baying, someone dies



Mike Dash, A Blast From the Past blog, https://mikedashhistory.com/2010/07/24/the-grey-dog-of-meoble/

William Henderson, Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, The Folk-Lore Society, London, 1879, pp. 273ff.

Howard Williams, Archaeodeath blog, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-diabolical-hounds-of-richard-cabell-and-the-commemoration-of-arson-buckfastleigh-church/



Michael Rockefeller in the U.S before his disappearance.


New Guinea’s river-riddled southwest is the home of the Asmat people. Under the control of the Netherlands for many years, it was not until the 1950s that officials and missionaries finally made contact with the fierce Asmat, confirming that they practiced cannibalism as part of their spiritual and warrior culture. The waters of the Arafura Sea fringing their territory became known as ‘the cannibal coast.’

In the early 1960s, a young adventurer from the wealthy Rockefeller family came into contact with the Asmat during an anthropological filming expedition. Impressed with their culture and fascinated by their way of life, the 23 year-old Michael Rockefeller organised a return trip to study the Asmat more closely. Rockefeller was seeking adventure and also anxious to experience one of the world’s rapidly disappearing frontiers as well as documenting the customs and beliefs of an indigenous tribe.

The expedition began in October 1961. Michael and his companions followed a busy schedule of collecting and buying Asmat artefacts, trading for them fishing hooks and liens, cloth, tobacco and axes. He was particularly fascinated by the six meter carved wooden bisjpoles central to the spiritual practices and headhunting of the Asmat. The tall poles represented the ancestors and operated to ensure fertility of the soil and the continuation of human life.

A month later, Michael, together with a Dutch anthropologist named Rene Wassing and two local boys, was travelling in a motorised canoe through the Arafura Sea. Their intended destination was a wild area of southern Asmat country where the European presence was just one missionary. As they crossed the mouth of the Betsj River the canoe was swamped by a large wave. All four passengers were thrown into the wild water. The boys swam for the shore to summon help while Rockefeller and Wassing waited helplessly with the overturned boat, drifting further away from the coast. When it got light, Michael stripped to his underwear and tied two plastic jerry cans around his waist. With the extra buoyancy they would give him he began to swim towards the distant shore.

Unknown to Rockefeller and Wassing, the two boys had reached the town of Agats after many hours struggling through the swamps. They raised the alarm. A search plane spotted the capsized hull later that day and a rescue plane arrived the following morning. Wassing was saved but Michael Rockefeller was never seen again.

A desperate search followed. Did he drown from exhaustion and exposure? Perhaps he was taken by a shark or other predator? Or …? The Rockefeller family hired a Boeing jet and flew media to the area but they were unable to get closer than 240 kilometres to the coast where Michael was last seen. Official and unofficial efforts to find the missing millionaire were made and the event was reported around the world. But less than a week after his disappearance, the Netherlands government declared there was no hope of finding him alive.  A few weeks later the search was ended. But the mystery of Michael Rockefeller’s fate began to grow.

Michael Rockefeller was declared legally dead in 1964 but that did not stop the flow of speculations and dark rumours about the time, place and manner of his death. Or even if he was dead at all. One of the earliest elements of the legend had it that the missing adventurer was alive and living in the jungle, either of his own free will or perhaps as a captive.

In 1968 an Australian smuggler and gunrunner named ‘John Donahue’ claimed not only to have seen Michael Rockefeller but to have spoken with him. Donahue had been pursuing his nefarious business interests in the Trobriand Island group off northeastern New Guinea where he met a bearded and crippled white man being held captive by the Trobrianders. The man identified himself as Michael Rockefeller. He told Donahue that he had managed to swim to the coast from the drifting canoe, wandered through the swamps for several days, then broken both his legs in an accident. He was fortunately rescued – or captured – by a group of Trobrianders who were in the area on one of their regular extended sea journeys. They took him back to their home and were keeping him in their village. Why the Trobrianders wanted to hold this man was not specified. Donahue apparently disappeared before he could provide further details.

Little, if any, credible evidence exists for this throwback to the myths of castaway sailors forming colonies or integrating into local indigenous populations. And there are other stories.

Asmat canoes

Papuans on the Lorentz River in Western New Guinea during the third South-New-Guinea expedition of 1912-13. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures.


One popular explanation had it that the Netherlands authorities murdered a number of Asmat people in 1958. Asmat custom called for killings to be revenged and it is speculated that Michael Rockefeller did make it to the coast but swam into a revenge cycle initiated by the murders. The Asmat saw his sudden appearance as an opportunity to avenge themselves against the white men who had attacked them a few years before. In those days, Asmat revenge killings included taking the heads of their victims and eating their bodies.

More lurid versions of this explanation claim that the Rockefeller family hired private investigators to determine the fate of their son. One allegedly obtained three European skulls from the Asmat and, in return for a $250 000 fee, presented these to the family as evidence of Michael Rockefeller’s fate.

The Rockefeller family continues to mourn the loss of this naïve but passionate adventurer. In 2012 Michael’s twin sister published a memoir of her and her family’s struggle to deal with Michael’s disappearance. The enigma is still rehearsed from time to time in films, books, plays and the media.

Many of the Asmat artefacts collected by Michael Rockefeller, together with his photographs can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at The Peabody Museum at Yale University. While the man’s memory lingers on, so does his mystery.


Thomas_Jeffries 2

Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.


[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.




One of the many myths of terra Australis incognita– the unknown southland – is that the Portuguese navigators made it that far south. There are wrecks and artefact finds that are claimed, by some, to be Portuguese and so to prove that those adventurous mariners were present early along Australian coasts, as were English and Dutch explorers.

The navigational skills of Portuguese explorers were certainly extraordinary and provided the basis for what became an empire, so it is certainly conceivable that they did visit Australia. Unfortunately, no-one has yet found any incontrovertible evidence that they did, despite some clever manipulation of old maps and charts.

I wrote about all this in The Savage Shoreand had to conclude that there just wasn’t enough evidence to put the Portuguese on these shores.  But recently, a reader of my book emailed me with an intriguing note.

Robert Bremner, himself a historian, lived for many years in Portugal and some years in Mozambique. He was once told by a long-time English resident of Lisbon that the sixteenth-century choir stalls of Viseau Cathedral (picture above) bore an extraordinary wooden carving. It was described by some as a ‘duck-billed rat’ and Robert was intrigued. He took the time to visit Viseu and found the choir stall, now apparently upstairs in the museum, and took a photograph. It seems that the carving could represent the platypus, the odd creature unique to Australia. If so, it would certainly strengthen the case for an early Portuguese encounter with the great southland.

Unfortunately, over the years, Robert has lost track of the photograph. But, if some intrepid adventurer should happen to visit Viseau – which looks like a great place – do take a pic and zip it to me. You could be making history!


1808 mermaid tattoo




Picking pockets is an ancient and still-prevalent form of robbery, a criminal craft complete with its own cryptolect, or secret language. Read on to develop your lexicon of wicked words used by, and about, pickpockets through the ages.

In the sixteenth century and later, the term fig was used to denote the picking of pockets, and the one who did the deed was a figger. There were various classes of figger, depending on skill. The most basic was a nip or cutpurse who simply used a knife to separate money from victim. The more skilled practitioner was a foist. Greene observed in his The Second Part of Conny-catching (1592), that ‘The foist is so nimble-handed, that he exceeds the jugler for agilitie, and hath his legiar de maine as perfectly.’

Leger de maine, or sleight of hand, would still be in use to describe skilled criminality in colonial Australia during the 1840s. By this time, a favoured pickpocket target was a fogle – the elaborate and expensive pocket-handkerchiefs favoured by gentlemen and those who wished to appear as such – and the craft had become known as fogle-hunting or fogle-getting. Fogle lived on in criminal Cant until about 1930 in Britain and perhaps 1940 in the United States, by which time the value of handkerchiefs to the pickpocket had greatly declined. By the early twentieth century pickpockets in Britain, America and Australia were known as whizzers.

Ancient or modern, pickpockets by whatever monikers they used (they were often known as files in the seventeenth century) have always been highly organised with an extensive trade argot to conceal their crimes. In 1552 Gilbert Walker’s underworld exposé, Diceplay, mentioned the figging law, or pick-purse craft, and almost forty years later Robert Greene’s A Notable Discovery of Coosnage provided a helpful list of the craft terms related to ‘the figging law’:

The Cutpurse, a Nip

He that is halfe with him, the Snap

The knife, the Cuttle boung

The pick pocket, a Foin

He that faceth the man (i.e. the victim), the Stale

Taking the purse, Drawing

Spying of him, Smoaking

The purse, the Boung

The monie, the Shels

The Act doing, Striking

By the late seventeenth century the figging law had become the figging lay, but pickpockets were just as active and organised. As early as 1608 Dekker’s The Belmen of London observed of figgers that they parcelled out territories among themselves and their supposedly Biblical secret language was an effective form of communication and identification:

The language which they speak is none of those that came in at the confusion of the Tongues, for neither infidell nor Christian (that is honest) understands it, but the Dialect is such and so crabbed, that seven yeeres study is little enough to reach to the bottom of it, and to make it run off glib from the tongue: by means of this Gibrish, they knowe their owne nation when they meet, albeit they never sawe one another before …


In the early Victorian era pick pocketing was perhaps the most common form of urban crime. So profitable had the game become that the best wire toolers and fine toolers became known as the swell mob and sported the trappings of wealth, and lived lives to match, further enhancing the possibility for ill-gotten gain. Dippers attended race meetings, fairs, shows and hangings in droves, running the old tricks along with a few new variations developed for the growth of public transport, such as the railway carriage and the omnibus. Maltoolers, often female, deprived middle class women travellers of their purses a pogue, slipped the booty to their stickman who rapidly exited the vehicle, leaving the maltooler with no incriminating evidence should the victim discover her loss before journey’s end.

At this time, men still used large and valuable handkerchiefs as an accompaniment to the fashionable habit of taking snuff. Known as kingsmen, these decorated and colourful squares of cloth were greatly prized on the black market and easily pulled by even child smatter haulers. As with much other Cant speech, there was a complex hierarchy of butterfly-like descriptions for different kinds of handkerchiefs. A watersman was made of blue silk, a randlesman was white and green, while a white and yellow handkerchief was a fancy yellow. From the middle of the nineteenth century it became fashionable to use black handkerchiefs during mourning, a central Victorian obsession, and these items, known as black fogles, became the most valuable for lifting.

So great were the labour demands of this illicit occupation that children were trained in groups by kidsmen to become buzzers from an early age. The celebrated depiction of such an academy in Oliver Twist is very close to reality. The real-life models for the fictionalised characters of Fagin and the Artful Dodger were commonplace in Victorian England where children were made to practice dipping skills on tailor’s dummies to which small bells were sewn, tinkling at the slightest insensitivity of a small hand. Despite this training, many were caught and sometimes transported.

‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’, as the famous song went. Maybe not.