Last night, I was announced the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novella by the Crime Writers of Canada. The story, “How Lon Pruitt Was Found Murdered In An Open Field With No Footprints Around”, originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s the second in a series of stories set in Depression-era Arkansas. The first, “How Aunt Pud, Aunt Margaret, And The Family Retainers Kept Me From Hanging”, also was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award a few years back. A third may be published soon. And, before you ask, No, I don’t always have such long titles — just for this series.
Pictures of that drowned child refugee have raised an odd debate. Should the pictures be published or is that exploiting a tragic event? The entire argument took me back to 1966/67 when American anti-war activists published a poster featuring one of Goya’s black paintings over the text “America Eats Its Young”. Here is the painting:
This is a depiction of Cronos, or Saturn, devouring his children. Cronos had been told that he would be displaced as king of the world by his sons, so he ate them. Zeus escaped and did finally overcome his father. But Goya hardly cares about any of that; he has depicted a horror that is born of humanity, not the gods.
So the poster went up and immediately people said that it was insulting to America and in bad taste and should be removed. These were college professors talking about taste, because teachers are the guardians of culture. At around this same time there arose a controversy about television coverage of the Vietnam War. The images were too disturbing for many people. The controversy came to turn on the question of whether American troops should be shown cutting the ears from Vietnamese corpses. The argument against was that the news came on around suppertime and that people shouldn’t have their meals disturbed by such images.
At the time, this entire debate made me very angry. It seemed to me that the statement that Goya and video images were in bad taste was a lie. What really disturbed these folks was having to confront reality — American youths were being murdered by their government, and were being transformed by that same government into trophy-hunting killers. It seemed to me then that there should be more distasteful images shown on TV, that there should be more photos and posters put up, that people should have to confront the events that they were complicit in creating.
Now this applies to the photo of that little boy’s corpse. This is a result of government policies that are intended to make it difficult for refugees to enter the country. This is the result of having an immigration policy that deliberately over regulates the entry of people into Canada, even when they are sponsored and funded and are not going to be any sort of public burden. The minister reponsible, Chris Alexander, has repeatedly lied about the number of refugees that have been allowed into the country, claiming more than 1600, when the actual number is fewer than 300. How can anyone believe that this government will bring in the 10,000 Syrian refuges that it has promised to admit into the country? The Harper government has lied about so many things, so many times. Their answer to the refugee problem in Syria? Bombing! Harper says the way to solve a humanitarian crisis is to kill people.
I think everyone should see the picture of that dead little boy. I think they should see pictures of people being bombed and the results of bombing campaigns. I think everyone needs to be faced with the consequences of their government’s actions. But, say, I’m not going to publish the photo of Alan Kurdi here — after all, many internet filters would then block this post because it might offend people’s sense of taste. Instead, just so we’re clear, here are pictures of two of the people who caused that child to drown. Oh, and another glimpse of Goya.
Sports franchise owners are often scumbags (for instance and for instance) so no one should be surprised to find that many are criminals, but the National Hockey League stands out for the sheer number of criminals that have owned teams. Toronto, Nashville, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Vancouver, and the New York Islanders have all had owners sent to jail while they still owned the teams. Edmonton’s Peter Pocklington was no longer involved with the Oilers when he went to jail but he makes the cut for the NHL All-Star Team. Player rep Alan Eagleson who robbed his clients’ pensions is honorary coach. Ladies and Gentleman, I present Great Crime Bosses of the NHL:First up: William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, one-time San Jose Sharks part-owner, who conned at least $67.5 Million out of numerous people and used $25 Million of that to buy a 27% share of the Nashville Predators in 2007. After ten disappointing years, owner Craig Leipold had decided to sell the Nashville franchise. Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion fame tried to buy the team so he could move it to Hamilton but managed to alienate everyone in sight and was shut out of further dealings. Enter Boots Del Biaggio at the head of a group who wanted to buy the Preds and move them to Kansas City where he controlled a sports arena. Del Biaggio had previously tried to move the Pittsburgh Penguins to KC. He was co-owner with Mario Lemieux of a minor league team and Lemieux was miffed at Pennsylvania’s thwarting of an attempt by a gambling combine/casino to build a new arena for the Penguins. Anyway, Nashville rallied to hang on to hockey and a local group arranged to buy the team from Leipold, who then moved on to ownership of the Minnesota Wild. Del Biaggio joined this new group and contributed his share to a rumored $193 Million purchase price. A year later, Del Biaggio was suing for bankruptcy and holding secret meetings with Balsillie to buy out his share of the Predators. The League refused to allow Balsillie to buy in and Del Biaggio’s share went to a bankruptcy trustee who may still be looking for a buyer. Del Biaggio used faked documents and personal charm to scam millions which he then gambled away, both in Las Vegas and on Wall Street where he favored high-risk offerings that usually declined in value. In 2009, Boots Del Biaggio was sentenced to eight years and ordered to repay some $67.5 Million, which may happen the same day Hell freezes over. BTW, I don’t know how $25 M gets you 27% of $193 M but that is probably one reason why I am not spectacularly wealthy. Rookie forward on this team — and they are all forwards — is Sanjay Kumar, most recent of a long list of owners who have abused the NY Islanders. Kumar was the protege of Charles Wang, founder, with Russell Artzt, of Computer Associates, a multi-billion dollar firm that is currently invested in the Cloud. Kumar joined Computer Associates in 1987 and replaced Wang as CEO in 2000. Under Kumar’s guidance CA used a “long month” bookkeeping practice to delay accounts in a way that would make them appear more desirable to investors. See, if an end-of-quarter month is 35 days long, you can show extra revenue and maybe pretend to pay off debts a bit earlier, thus enabling your outfit to reach its projections. There was other stuff, too, all designed to make Computer Associates look a lot better investment than it was. Mind you, it was a good place to work — Wang took the largest corporate bonus in history (up to that time) in 1999 when he accepted a $675 Million stock grant. Over a billion dollars was paid out in bonuses that year, even though CA was slipping in sales and profits. None of this escaped the notice of stockholders, who took a class-action lawsuit against CA claiming that, in 1996 and ’97, the company had inflated revenues by $500 Million on paper to boost stock prices. And there was a proxy fight over management practices which probably led to Kumar replacing Wang as CEO. And there were bribery charges brought against Wang. And Federal authorities were interested in the company, too. The SEC finally clamped down on CA in 2004. in 2006 Kumar was sentenced to twelve years in prison and a staggering $796 Million in restitution. Meanwhile CA agreed to repay more than $225 Million to stockholders and also clean up its accounting practices. Shortly before going to prison, Kumar sold his share in the Isles to Wang. And that means that the story is not yet over because many folks think Kumar took the fall for Wang. Certainly, that’s Kumar’s story. He says that Wang regretted leaving the CEO post and wanted back in so he stuck Kumar with the fraud that he had perpetrated. Wang is still waiting on the report of a Special Litigation Committee that has already said: “…fraud pervaded the entire CA organization at every level …and was embedded in CA’s culture, as installed by Mr. Wang, almost from the company’s inception.” Probably Wang will only be dinged in a civil court for cash, but, if there are future indictments, Kumar may have a new linemate on the Criminal Owners All-Star team.
When Wang and Kumar bought the Islanders they were seen as saviors because the franchise was in deep trouble. The team was brought into the NHL in order to stave off a Long Island franchise attempt by the World Hockey Association, catalyst for so much that is interesting in the NHL today. But the new team had to pay off more than $40 Million to the Rangers for infringing on their territory so it started out in a financial hole. The team was still in debt to the Rangers and to the League when the original owner, Roy Boe, sold to John Pickett in 1978. Pickett almost got the Islanders back in the black by concluding a cable TV contract worth a great deal in annual revenue but he signed a horrible lease on the stadium and the team tuned into a drain attached to his wallet. Four Stanley Cups (resulting from a smart management decision not to trade draft picks) were not enough to keep the team afloat at the end of the ’80s. Pickett brought in a group of investors called the Gang of Four (more on them later) who picked up a 10% share of the team and handled day-to-day management, but he was just treading water. Then, out of the blue, a buyer emerged. Our next team member, John Spano.John Spano had been a serious prospect to buy the Dallas Stars in 1995 but was somehow unable to close the deal. He also made a stab at buying the Florida Panthers that went nowhere. Then, in 1996, Spano offered John Pickett $80 Million for the Islanders and $85 Million for its exclusive cable contract which earned $13 Million a year for the team. A bit later, Spano also agreed to buy out the Gang of Four. Gary Bettman was overjoyed to have a guy with money taking over the Islanders and the NHL quickly gave its okay. Spano made a bit of a downpayment to Pickett and began acting like an owner, throwing a few bucks into players’ accounts and forcing Mike Milbury to give up his coaching job to Rick Bowness. But, in 1997, it was John Pickett who showed up at the NHL owners’ meeting. It seems Spano didn’t have any money other than the $2.5 Million he’d splashed around the Islander dressing room and he’d borrowed that. The cheque he’d given Pickett for $17.5 Million, bounced. In fact, Spano owed back taxes on his house of $85,000 and was being sued by a couple of companies he had done business with for various frauds. Awaiting prosecution on multiple charges, Spano fled to the Cayman Islands, but returned to the US after striking a deal with prosecutors. Spano delayed his court appearance for a long while but, after trying to pay rent with an expired credit card and bad cheques, he lost his bail, his lawyers quit for fear they wouldn’t get paid, he finally pled guilty to fraud charges and, in January of 2000, was sentenced to six years plus $11 Million in restitution, including $1.25 Mil to Mario Lemieux, who seems an easy mark. Let out of jail on supervised release in 2004, Spano immediately returned to fraud, was charged, convicted, and served four more years in jail before being released in 2009. He’s still out there, folks, be careful! Oh, and the Gang of Four? Two of their members were Stephen Walsh and Paul Greenwood who were indicted for fraud in 2009. They had bilked investors out of more than half a billion dollars over the years. Since they weren’t owners at the time, they don’t make the All-Star Criminal Team. Sorry, lads, I’m sure it would have been a comfort to you over the years you may have to serve in prison (sentencing perhaps next month).
The Spano affair was quite upsetting to the NHL and they vowed afterwards to use real due diligence in checking out prospective team owners — less than a thousand dollars was spent investigating Spano. Kevin Connolly has made a movie about John Spano titled Big Shot, that is on TV from time to time. Most of the material about the Islanders above comes from a great seven-part series by Dan Saraceni for Lighthouse Hockey that I highly recommend.Still from the great state of New York, let’s go upstate to Buffalo for next team pick, John Rigas. Rigas earned his millions from a family cable television operation, Adelphia, based in Pennsylvania. In 1997 the team had been losing money for years and was in deep financial trouble. It was rumored that it would be unable to meet its payroll in December. John Rigas bought the team, then fired team president Larry Quinn, replacing him with his son, Timothy Rigas. A good season followed, then a disappointing one, and the following season the team was steamrollered in the playoffs by Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. In 2002, charges were laid against John Rigas and his sons for fraud. Among other things they were accused of using company funds as their own — Timothy buying a hundred pairs of bedroom slippers out of stockholder cash — and hiding $2.3 Billion from shareholders. John still denies he has ever done anything wrong. After lengthy delays, John got fifteen years in prison and Timothy got twenty. In 2002, when Rigas was indicted, the NHL took away his ownership and ran the Sabres from Gary Bettman’s desk. In 2003, a new ownership group led by Tom Golisano and including Larry Quinn, bought the franchise. Bruce McNall made his fortune smuggling stolen antiquities into the US. Later, he produced a couple of movies including Weekend At Bernie’s which made him a few dollars, too. In 1986 McNall decided to get into hockey and purchased, over two years, the LA Kings. Shortly after assuming complete control of the franchise, in the summer of 1988, McNall closed a deal with uber-scumbag Peter Pocklington to buy Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. McNall also managed to pick up Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey at Gretzky’s urging. He tried to get Messier, too, but refused to trade Luc Robitaille and so wound up without a complete set of Edmonton Oiler stars. “Pocklington basically wanted the money but Glen Sather wanted the best players he could. Robitaille was number 1 on his list and it took forever to get him to realize I wasn’t giving up Luc,” said McNall in an Ask-Me-Anything session on Reddit last year. (Highlights. Full AMA.) In 1991 McNall and John Candy purchased the Toronto Argonauts football team and hired US superstar Rocket Ismail away from the NFL. The Argos won a Grey Cup before Ismail went back south. McNall was named chairman of the NHL Board of Governors and supervised the hiring, in 1992, of Gary Bettman, which may cause you to despise the guy right away. Both the Gretzky and Ismail deals were instrumental in raising player salaries. The Kings never won the Stanley Cup in those years, but they came close in 1993. That was pretty much McNall’s high point, too. In 1994, the authorities closed in with questions about various irregularities including bribing a bank president to give him loans. McNall defaulted on a large loan at the end of 1993 and was forced to sell the Kings. It turned out that his wheeling and dealing had gutted the team financially and, in 1995, the LA Kings went into bankruptcy. Luc Robitaille was finally traded and Grant Fuhr briefly joined the Kings. (McNall’s memory is that he obtained Fuhr from Pocklington at the same time as Gretzky, Kurri, et al.) Needing some cash during this period, McNall persuaded Michael Eisner to create a franchise in Anaheim for the Disney Corporation. That deal netted him about $25 Million as Eisner had to pay to set up in Kings’ territory. But soon enough McNall was serving a six year sentence for the usual fraud charges that convict so many of these All-Star Criminal Owners. Still, he seemed not to draw the kind of disgusted sneer that the others merit. Gretzky visited McNall in prison and refused to allow his 99 jersey to be retired until McNall could attend the ceremony. Also unlike the others, McNall cheerfully admits most, or at least many, of his misdeeds. His autobiography, Fun While It Lasted: My Rise and Fall in the Land of Fame and Fortune, gives many details. When I first started looking at criminal hockey owners, I thought that no team had been successful after having suffered through a crime boss, but two Stanley Cups for LA disprove that thesis. McNall is first-line center on the Criminal Owner All-Stars. One of the people that bought the Kings from McNall, Jeffrey Sudikoff, sold out his share during the 1995 bankruptcy. Sudikoff was later convicted of insider trading and other fraudulent activities but was sentenced to less than a year in prison, plus the usual restitution, of course, which usually no one seems to expect to get back. Sudikoff does not make the cut for this All-Star team. Is there anything else that needs be said about Peter Pocklington except that he sold Gretzky like a slab of meat processed in one of the plants where he tried to break unions? Gretzky wept but allowed Pocklington to say that he, Gretzky, had initiated the trade. Everyone else is clear that Pocklington said that he needed fifteen million dollars and would flog his greatest asset (and Edmonton’s hope for a Cup dynasty) to get it.
When Gretzky went to L.A.
my whole nation trembled
like hot water in a tea cup when a train goes by.
“The Trade That Shook the Hockey World”, John B. Lee
Pocklington wrote a book about this: I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal after he realized that he couldn’t stay in Canada any longer and moved to the US. So it is some satisfaction to all Canadians that Peter Pocklington was finally found guilty of something (there are so many possibilities, but fraud and perjury finally won out) and sentenced to prison. It is less satisfying when you know that the sentence was only six months plus six months house arrest, and even less satisfying than that to learn that he has yet to serve a single day. You can fantasize about Pocklington meeting his cellmate, a 250 lb. emigre Canadian hockey fan named Cookie who is serving a life term for murder, aggravated assault, and similar misdeeds, but that’s all it is — a fantasy. Pocklington is the despised member of the Corporate All-Star Criminals, sort of their Brad Marchand.By the end of the 1960s, with the NHL expanding to more cities, there was a concerted drive to finally get a franchise for Vancouver. A local group, based around the WHL/PCHL minor league franchise Canucks was in the running. Rumor has it, Stafford Smythe blocked this for some reason or other, but maybe this is just western prejudice against godawful Toronto. Anyway, Vancouver did get a team but the new owner was an American named Tom Scallen. Scallen had gotten rich with Medicor, a Minnesota company that had something to do with the incomprehensible American medical system. That was 1969. By 1972 Scallen was facing various charges resulting from his manipulation of Canucks funds, essentially using hockey proceeds to pay Medicor debts. He spent the next two years in jail and was deported on his release. The Griffiths family bought the Canucks from Medicor and since then things have improved except no Stanley Cup. Scallen insists he did nothing wrong. He was pardoned in 1982 during Trudeau’s decline. A journeyman winger, Scallen will skate on a line with Kumar and Del Biaggio, unless the All-Stars acquire Wang, in which case he may join the father/son Rigas duo. Captain of the All-Star Criminal Owners team is Harold Ballard, the man who destroyed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ballard was buddies with Stafford Smythe (see Canucks section above), son of Conn Smythe who owned the Leafs. Stafford bought the franchise from his father in 1961 but it was Ballard who gave him the money and Ballard became part of the Leafs organization. These were good years for Toronto who won four Stanley Cups 1962-67, but at the same time Harold Ballard was showing his dark side. At one point he threatened to cut a video line with a fire axe unless the CBC agreed to his demands; he took down a portrait of the Queen in order to stick more seats up in the rafters — “What position can a queen play?” he said; when the Beatles played at Maple Leaf Gardens, he cut off the water fountains, turned off the air conditioning, and charged triple prices for soft drinks. Increasing profits was Ballard’s entire purpose in life. Meanwhile, players had begun to chafe under the serfdom imposed on them by the NHL. The World Hockey Association and the Players’ Union revealed new horizons. Ballard despised unions and he hated the WHA, refusing to ever deal with it. By the end of the 60s, Ballard had alienated several Toronto stars, especially Dave Keon. In 1969 charges were brought against Ballard and Stafford Smythe for using company — that is, stockholder — funds as their own. John Bassett, the third major owner of the Leafs, persuaded the Board of Governors of Maple Leaf Gardens to fire Ballard and Smythe, but the Board and Bassett lacked the followthrough to carry this out. Smythe and Ballard returned, got rid of Bassett, Smythe died, and Harold Ballard wound up owning the entire franchise right before going to prison in 1971 after being convicted on forty-eight out of fifty counts of fraud, tax evasion, and theft. Among other items he had bought motorcycles for his sons and charged them as expenses to the Toronto Marlboros, another of his properties. At this time the negotiations for the Canada/USSR Summit Series was going on and Ballard offered Maple Leaf Gardens as a training venue and did other diplomatic things to win a little favorable PR. Later, he billed Team Canada for every nickel he could squeeze out of them. Ballard described his prison years as living in a motel with steaks for dinner and color TV in his bedroom. While he was incarcerated, Leafs management hired a European — something Ballard opposed — the great Borje Salming and made other moves that kept the Leafs a potentially good team. On his release in 1973, Ballard did all he could to destroy this work. Dave Keon’s contract expired in 1975 but the NHL Players Association was not yet able to stop an owner from controlling a player’s leaving his team. Ballard named a huge price for any team trying to recruit Keon, who jumped to the WHA. Keon, who had been a key member of the Stanley Cup winning Leafs, refused to have anything more to do with the Toronto organization for twenty years, after Ballard was dead. Meanwhile, a new young player with signs of greatness named Daryl Sittler had been acquired by the Leafs. Ballard at first lauded Sittler, then — after Sittler became active in the Players Association — tried to destroy him. He traded away Lanny MacDonald who was Sittler’s good friend and denounced Sittler to the hockey press, an action which resulted in Leafs players trashing their dressing room in protest. Sittler ripped the C from his jersey and Ballard said that was equivalent to burning the Canadian flag. Meanwhile Ballard, though micromanaging the team, hired his buddy Punch Imlach as coach. Imlach operated as a Yes man for a while but suffered several heart attacks that effectively removed him from the fracas. In 1981, Sittler finally found another team willing to pay Ballard’s price and he was traded. During all this period the Leafs’ revenues went up. Ballard tripled the franchise income in the early 60s and kept it rising thereafter. At the same time he engaged in petty nastiness that no one can quite explain, like destroying all the Stanley Cup and other championship banners that at one time hung from the Garden rafters. Why on earth? But the fact is, the man was a convicted criminal, possibly sociopathic: Harold Ballard needed no reason except his immediate desires. There are so many other stories about Ballard — his trashing of Foster Hewitt’s pressbox when the Hockey Hall of Fame wanted it as an exhibit, for instance– and the opportunities he wasted — Frank Mahovlich and Bernie Parent were two other potentially great players lost to the Leafs — but whatever the stories, the consensus is that Ballard was the worst hockey owner of all time. Which is why he is captain of this All-Star group of criminals. Can’t you see them skating onto the ice in their black-and-white striped jerseys, their names just over their numbers on the back, sort of like Beagle Boys? (Ballard once refused to put players’ names on their jerseys. He was disciplined by the NHL so had names added, white letters on white jerseys, blue letters on blue ones, so that they could not be seen.) They skate out onto the ice, looking for a way to screw over their team mates, seeking a profit that can be made somehow, perhaps by throwing a game. Oh, don’t you just love the criminals that bring you hockey!
Here’s a lookback at some of this year’s posts which seemed to deserve postscripts.
That was the question I posed on September 5. There were reports that Kim Jong-un had executed former girlfriend Hyon Song-wol and a number of other musicians for pornography and bible-reading. I questioned whether the reports were true or if North Korea had become just another heading in the News of the Weird section, usually given over to Urban Legends. Well, Hyon Song-wol has not been heard from since last summer. Meanwhile, Kim has released videotapes of the trial of his uncle which resulted in a death sentence. In fact, Kim seems to have executed a number of people recently. So, I have to conclude, it is North Korea and not us. Kim seems to be ruling in the Stalinist mode: be totally paranoid and nurture absolute fear among your courtiers. Rest In Peace Hyon Song-wol.
This February post talked about three recent crime cases that I thought would make for good episodes of Law and Order — the fact that the show was cancelled three years ago notwithstanding. There were three cases mentioned: first, the murder of self-professed “gun nut” Keith Ratliff; second, the case of cannibal cop, Gilberto Valle, which was then being tried; third, the case of ex-cop Christopher Dorner who had gone on a mad killing spree in California– he was being hunted when the post was written.
The murder of Keith Ratliff has not been solved. Police executed a search warrant on associate Kyle Myer for illegal explosives but found nothing illegal. It is speculated that Myer is a suspect in the murder, although no evidence of official suspicion of the man has been produced.
Gilberto Valle was found guilty of kidnapping conspiracy, which carries a possible life sentence, and a less-serious charge of misusing a government computer. He was due to be sentenced in June but sentencing has been postponed while his lawyers try to get him a new trial.
Christopher Dorner was found dead of gunshot wounds after his cabin was besieged by police, who deny setting it on fire. The fatal gunshot may have been self-inflicted. During the manhunt, the police shot up several vehicles belonging to innocent people. The State of California paid out several million dollars in damages to a 71-year-old woman and her daughter who were both wounded.
Although Bergwall was cleared of his final murder charge months ago, he is still being held in a psychiatric facility. His blog complains about the food there and promises to give lyrical descriptions of freedom when he is released, although Swedish authorities would clearly rather not do that. Bergwall remains in limbo.
Eventually I’ll get around to part 2. I came across a pile of writings about Cary’s work that I want to digest first.
Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside Edinburgh. The Seat and other peaks are located in Holyrood Park, a place for tourists and hikers now, but in 1836, sheep grazed here and locals hunted rabbits. Five boys were out after rabbits in the summer of 1836 when they opened up a recess in the rocks and discovered a stack of small wooden coffins, each less than four inches long by an inch wide. The boys threw the small boxes at each other, trashing some of them, but the next day one of their teachers made his way up the mountain and recovered those coffins that he could find. He took them home and pried off the lids to discover tiny wooden bodies. Over the next one and three-quarters centuries, people have speculated on just what these coffins are all about and why they were left where they were.
Anthropologists came up with theories about voodoo dolls and the like, and folktale collectors began calling them “Fairy Coffins”, a name that has stuck. There is a notion that these might be in memory of dead children:
a mother carv[ed] them for stillborn or miscarried children: portraits of the sons she never got to raise, made from the toys they never got to play with.
Now, it is not unknown for a woman to have seventeen children, but to have them all die at birth or in childhood seems such cruel happenstance that my mind simply rejects it.
Simpson and Menefee, authors of the key article on the coffins, put forward the notion that the coffins were related somehow to Burke and Hare, who had been convicted in 1829. Burke and Hare killed sixteen people and robbed one grave, so the number of corpses is right. But twelve of the victims were female and — so far as can be determined — all the figures in the coffins are meant to be male. Also, it is possible that the coffins were an on-going project, not meant to end with seventeen objects.
Accepting that their theory is problematic, Simpson and Menefee have suggested that investigators should look for tragedies of the era connected with the Edinburgh area that have seventeen victims — a shipwreck for instance. To date, no one has come up with a better idea and the Burke and Hare murders are given as the reason for the coffins by the Scottish National Museum.
Arthur’s Seat has certainly had more than its share of violent death: the slaughter of rebellious apprentices at Murder Acre in 1677, a murder-suicide at Hangman’s Crag in 1769, deaths accompanying various Scots attempts to rid themselves of English rule, a mutiny of local soldiers which had one direct death in 1778 and many indirect after the lads were shipped off to India. Corpses are found from time to time, some are possibly those of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men, some are far more recent.
Once the site of a monastery, the area was considered by locals to be a place of sanctuary and various outcast individuals lived there on the fringe of society. A furnished cave from the 18th Century has been uncovered and explained as a smuggler’s hideout or an outlaw refuge, but any number of possibilities come to mind, a priest-hole, for instance, or a safehouse for Jacobite spies.
The first decades of the 19th Century, as Scotland modernized, were troubling to many locals. Horse-drawn railways constructed to bring coal into Edinburgh proliferated in the 1830s, and others were constructed to the harbors at Granton and Leith. Edinburgh residents were pleased to use the railroads for excursion purposes but were skeptical about the benefits of improving transport to the harbor towns. Leith opened its first harbor in 1806 and its second in 1817 — though it lacked effective city governance for a decade and became notorious as a hangout for thieves and ruffians. Some locals believed that the harbor towns were draining life from the region as they became embarkation points for New World emigrants.
Edinburgh was surpassed by Glasgow as Scotland’s largest city in the 1820s and there was a sense of decline in the city. The “Scottish Enlightenment” had ended before 1800 with the death of such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith and such soon-to-be-famous Scots as Sir Walter Scott had yet to make their mark. There was some anxiety about the great changes that were taking place.
The Holyrood area was held by the Earl of Haddington whose ancestors had received it from James VI. But after the Earl was accused of non-payment of poor taxes and was found to be quarrying stone from the mountain and selling it in London, in 1831 the Crown removed the noble grant and turned Holyrood into a park, officially named King’s- or Queen’s-Park from that time forward. Locals continued grazing their flocks and hunting rabbits around Arthur’s Seat until recent times.
Modernization combined with a sense of lost importance — quite a bit of turmoil in a short period.
But, of course, the coffins might not be connected with any particular event, nor even the malaise that infected some of the populace; they might simply be the product of a person or persons who thought this a cool project.
Of the original seventeen coffins only eight are still preserved. These are on display at Scotland’s National Museum.
Here’s what is known and unknown about them:
1– It is unknown exactly where the coffins were found. Various widely separathed places near Arthur’s Seat have been named. Whinny Hill, an eroded volcanic cone to the east, seems a likely candidate, though a place south-east of Arthur’s Seat is favored by some.
2– The coffins were in a niche (probably not man-made) in a hillside. Pieces of slate, perhaps three of them, were used to cover the opening. Reports that these were headstone-shaped are (I think) embellishments.
3–The coffins were arranged in two stacks of eight, and one coffin, possibly the beginning of a new stack, next to them. This description is apparently from one or more of the boys who discovered them but we have no first-hand reports, nor even the names, of these lads.
4– The coffins are in different stages of decay. Whether this means that they were placed in the niche at different times or simply suffered different amounts of moisture and weathering is unknown.
5–There was no real examination of the niche nor the slate covers. It is possible that no one but the boys actually saw either of these.
6–The eight coffins that have lasted through the years are carved from Scots pine. A knife, possibly with a hooked blade, was used to cut away a recess in a 95mm/3.74inch by 23mm/.9inch block of wood. In one case the knife blade has actually cut through the coffin bottom. Since a woodworker would have (presumably) used a chisel or gouge rather than a knife, it is conjectured that the maker(s) was/were a leatherworker or practiced some other trade requiring a very sharp knife. The 19th Century Edinburgh directories on-line show a number of boot and shoemakers and there is a large saddlery warehouse as well. (The directory for 1835 is not on-line but is available at museums and libraries in the area.)
7– The coffin lids are decorated with pieces of tin. Since tin was used to make shoe-buckles, this points toward a shoemaker.
8– Some of the coffins have rounded corners while others are square. It is conjectured that two carvers were at work.
9– Two of the coffins were originally painted or stained red.
10– One coffin is lined with paper made after 1780.
11– The wooden figures inside the coffins were not carved for that purpose. Some have had arms removed so that they will fit. Some show traces of black painted boots. Facial features include wide-open eyes. It is thought that the figures were orginally toy soldiers, possibly made in the 1790s.
12–Simpson and Menefee: “single-piece suits, made from fragments of cloth, have been moulded round the figures and sewn in place. With some figures there is evidence of adhesive under the cloth.” Some of the cloth is patterned or printed.
13–Some of the cloth on the figures has rotted away but what remains is in such good shape that it is thought that it could not have been buried long.
14– Cotton thread, used to sew the burial suits, replaced linen thread after 1800. Thread used to sew one of the suits is three-ply which came into use about 1830.
15– No DNA could be recovered on the dolls, cloth, or coffins. Scientific tests that might show age by analyzing paint or cloth have not been done.
So, the best conjectures are that: the coffins were carved by one or more individuals, possibly engaged in a trade that required a very sharp knife; who repurposed a group of toy soldiers for this project; and that at least one of the coffins was made within five or six years of their being discovered, though they may not all have been deposited in the niche at the same time.
That’s it. The mystery of the fairy coffins is likely to remain unsolved, barring the discovery of a pertinent old letter or manuscript in an attic trunk in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, your theory is as good as anyone else’s.
The best article on-line is this one by Mike Dash, originally published at Fortean Times.
Article in the July 16, 1836 Scotsman (“The Logic-chair”) describing the discovery of the coffins is available on-line, but it costs..
The 1994 study by Simpson and Menefee is in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, available for £4 plus postage.
About a week ago, a South Korean newspaper reported that Kim Jong-un had executed his ex-mistress and a number of other members of her musical troupe for the crime of making pornographic films, and possibly for possessing Bibles. There were some lip-smacking details: death was by machine gun and family members had been forced to witness the event before being herded off into the prison gulag of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea.
But did this actually happen? The South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, is considered Korea’s top journalistic publication, but need I mention the top US paper and, say, Weapons of Mass Destruction? And Chosun Ilbo is very much part of Korea’s power elite and has been accused of slanting reports in aid of that elite. Perhaps South Korean politicos felt the need to mock the North for some reason or other; Chosun Ilbo is able to help. All reporting has to be read critically.
So what do we know? The woman in question, Hyon Song-wol, reportedly became involved with Kim Jong-un ten years ago, but Dad (Kim Jong-il) didn’t approve and broke up the relationship. Rumor has it that Hyon and Kim Jong-un carried on, though, even after her marriage to an army officer.
The Kim dynasty has been very secretive about family matters. It was something of a departure for Kim Jong-un to be seen and photographed with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, over the last year or so.
Hyon was a member of the Wangjaesan Light Music Band musical troupe that often performed with the Unhasu Orchestra, a serious group that played in Paris last year. Mun Kyong-jin, a highly regarded violinist, and two other concertmasters of the Unhasu Orchestra are among those said to have been executed. Also reported slain were members of the all-female Moranbong Band. Hyon also performed with the popular group, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. Her best known number was “A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed” (also translated as “Excellent Horse-like Lady”) where she performed as a worker in a textile factory, dancing amongst the bobbins in a widely-seen video. Glorification of the worker and militarist patriotic numbers are staples of North Korean music.
Ri Sol-ju is a former member of the Unhasu troupe, though Kim has tried to erase her show biz past. There is speculation about her involvement in the executions. So far as I can tell, it is all speculation. About ten days before the reported executions, Kim and Ri Sol-ju attended a performance of the Unhasu Orchestra and Wangjaesan Light Music Band.
The pornographic video sold in China is said to be the one on this page. Hyon and two other women dance to “Aloha Oe”, sung in English, while wearing red borsalino hats and vests. They throw off the vests toward the end of the number, somewhat like a stripper might do, except that there is no nudity.
Now watching that video has to convince you that North Korea is weird. No doubt about it. Kim Jong-il once kidnapped a movie director and an actress from South Korea and kept them captive to make movies for him. And there are reports that Kim Jong-un had a senior military officer executed for drinking during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il. According to reports, Kim commanded that the man be obliterated so the executioners zeroed in a mortar on the spot where he stood and blew him up. Yep, weird.
The problem is that no one really knows what is going on in North Korea. The first real evidence of the prison camps came from an escapee. Still, that was a widely-disseminated rumor that turned out to be true. And perhaps this story of executed musicians is true as well, or perhaps it’s just that First World people have a taste for News of the Weird. A spokesperson at North Korea’s official YouTube channel has denied the reports and, a little while back, claimed that Hyon and the Unhasu Orchestra were going to perform September 9, Foundation Day of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. But, so far, no video of Hyon taken since August 17 has been shown on YouTube.
In 1553, a wood-cutter named Heinrich Schmidt was standing amongst a crowd in the Bavarian town of Hof, listening to the Margrave detail a plot to assassinate him. The Margrave had arrested three men and accused them of the crime. Now it was time to execute them. There was no official executioner handy, so the Margrave invoked a local custom: he pointed at Heinrich and ordered him to do the deed. The wood-cutter was reluctant but was told that if he refused to carry out the order, then he would be executed instead as well as the men standing on either side of him. So Heinrich Schmidt picked up a sword and cut the heads off the three men.
Having killed these men, Schmidt became a social outcast, like a gravedigger or a slaughterhouse worker, the kind of workers that are called burakumin in Japan and shunned to this day. So Schmidt turned to the only job opening available for a man like himself — he became an official executioner. Two years later, his son, Frantz, was born and, when he was old enough, became his father’s apprentice.
“Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the diary of Frantz Schmidt which details his life’s work as an executioner and torturer, first under his father, then in Nuremburg. Over the course of forty-five years, Frantz Schmidt executed 361 people and tortured hundreds more. These acts were all noted in his diary. He was proficient in using the noose, the wheel, fire, and drowning besides the sword, which was considered the most merciful of execution methods.Each of the methods required a certain knowledge of the human body and its capacity for injury. Executioners had to know how to break a prisoner’s limbs on the wheel in such a way that he would survive for a time. They had to know how to torture without killing. They had to be able to cut out a tongue or perform other judicial maimings without having the prisoner bleed to death. They had to know the proper angle for a waterboard (yes, they had them then.) Sometimes executioners had to heal their prisoner’s broken limbs or other wounds before they could participate in the ritual of public execution. So Schmidt operated as a healer on the side, a trade he found much more congenial and one that he studied. In order to learn more about the human body, he dissected quite a few. Schmidt later estimated that he had treated over 35,000 patients and he was proud of the fact.
Five years after hanging his first man, Schmidt took up work in Nuremburg. He first served as assistant to Nuremburg’s chief executioner, then succeeded him. He also married his master’s daughter — both husband and wife being tainted by association with one of the nastier trades, they would have had difficulty finding a spouse elsewhere. But the post of chief executioner was well-paid and the Schmidt family lived in an upscale part of the city.
A public execution was staged as a morality play. In the first act, the prisoner — whose guilt had already been determined — was allowed a last meal, including alcohol, then was dressed in a white blouse. The executioner then entered and asked the prisoner’s forgiveness before sharing a traditional drink with him. During this time the executioner would be assessing the prisoner’s state of mind and health, judging when he was ready to proceed.
Now the prisoner was brought before a “blood court” consisting of a robed judge holding a rod and a sword, and twelve jurors. The judge would read out the death sentence, including the method of execution, then poll the jurors for their assent. “What is legal and just pleases me,” each would reply. Next the judge asked if the prisoner wished to speak. This was an opportunity for the prisoner to forgive those who had condemned him to death and possibly express his thanks, especially if the sentence was for a merciful beheading. Some prisoners might curse the court, others were too dumb with fear or stupefied by drink to make a coherent speech. When the prisoner was finished speaking, the judge would order the executioner to carry out the sentence and snap in two the white rod he was holding.
The second act of this drama was a procession to the place of execution, which might be a mile or two away. The judge led the way, followed by the prisoner, a couple of soldiers, a chaplain or two, and the executioner and his assistants. Sometimes, if the prisoner was violent or was sentenced to be tortured on the way, he would be carried in a cart. Tortures might include having pieces of flesh torn out with red-hot tongs. The number of these “nips” were spelled out in the sentence. Sometimes the prisoner would have a few more drinks along the way.
The procession route would be lined by crowds of people, who might themselves be drunk and unruly and sometimes threw things at the prisoner. If he could, Schmidt would hurry the prisoner along to avoid problems. The prisoner might pray along with the chaplains and bless the crowd or he might curse his audience or break down in tears.
The final act was the execution itself. The condemned prisoner would mount a scaffold or a platform. There, it was expected that a final prayer would issue from his lips as the noose was placed around his neck or as he sunk to his knees and awaited the executioner’s sword. The executioner would perform the deed then turn to the judge:
“Lord Judge, have I executed well?”
“You have executed as judgment and law have required.”
“For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”
Then the executioner and his assistants would clean up and dispose of the remains.
The idea of the public execution was to make a statement. On the one hand it was supposed to be reassuring—a reminder that people get caught and punished. On the other hand it was a statement about state authority, because the state’s authority was not unquestioned. One of the things government officials were concerned about was private punishment—like lynch mobs and private justice. So it was meant to establish their authority.
No executioner wanted to make a mistake that would sully the grand pageant of death. Though messy executions were frequent at this time, Frantz Schmidt seldom took more than one stroke of the sword to remove a head. Out of 187 decapitations, only four needed more than a single blow. Schmidt was unforgiving to himself for these four, writing in his diary that he had botched the job and did not try to excuse himself. He was proud to practice his trade well. His headsman skill was at least partly due to the fact that he did not drink — at this time executioners were often as drunk as their prisoners when they wielded their sword.Traditionally, the executioner was allowed three sword blows to remove a head. If he needed more, the audience might turn into a mob that attacked him. Only once did Schmidt require three strokes with his sword. This was the execution of a woman who was calm before the blood court and said she was happy to leave this world of woe, but on the way to the place of execution her happiness turned to fear and she had to be restrained. Prisoners who were unable to stand were strapped into chairs before being hanged or beheaded, now this prisoner was carried in the procession strapped to a chair. Instead of holding her head steady, so that her death might be quick, she wobbled it around on her neck making it difficult for Schmidt to properly behead her.
Women were not executed as often as men but repeated offenses might well wind up with a capital sentence. So, Marie Kurschnerin, a prostitute, was pilloried in the stocks and driven out of town. Further offenses brought the punishment of having her ears cropped. Finally, in 1584, Schmidt’s wrote in his diary:
…the thief and whore Marie Kurschnerin, together with thievish youths and fellows, had climbed and broken into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in this city and it had never happened before. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this, that several people were crushed to death.
An entry from Schmidt’s diary for 1617:
November 13th. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine. Because he and his brother, with the help of others, practiced coining and counterfeiting money and clipping coins fraudulently. He also had a working knowledge of magic… This miller, who worked in the town mills here three years ago, fell into the town moat on Whitsunday. It would have been better for him if he had been drowned, but it turned out according to the proverb that “What belongs to the gallows cannot drown in water.” This was the last person whom I, Master Frantz, executed.
Frantz Schmidt served the city of Nuremburg for forty years. He successfully petitioned the emperor to allow his children to have the executioner stigma removed from their names so that they could pursue other trades. After his retirement in 1617, Schmidt served as a healer for the last seventeen years of his life. Ironically, during that period most of his children and grand-children, that he had saved from practicing his deadly craft, died. When Frantz Schmidt himself followed them in 1634, Nuremburg honored him with a grand funeral. Social outcast though he was, Schmidt was also well-respected.
The main source for all the above is Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a really interesting book. An except may be found here and an earlier article about Schmidt by Harrington is here.
Some odd points were picked up from an interview with Harrington and a few items from this article on medieval executions of women which includes an interesting account of the execution by Schmidt of Elizabeth Aurhaltin, aka Scabby Beth.
Schmidt’s original diary long ago disappeared but at least four copies of it were made. Harrington used the earliest copy known as the basis for his book. A 1928 English translation from another copy is a prime candidate for the Internet Archive or Gutenberg.org. Somebody out there hear me.
Also, in this context, I can’t help recommending Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy featuring Severian, apprentice to the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, which is to say, the Torturers’ Guild.