Thursday, October 18, 2018

Conan Doyle For the Defense, by Margalit Fox

9780399589454
Random House, 2018
319 pp

hardcover

On the night of December 21, 1908, 82 year-old Marion Gilchrist sent her maid, Helen Lambie, on an errand to pick up an evening paper.  When Lambie returned, a downstairs neighbor was waiting at the door of Miss Gilchrist's flat on West Princes Street, Glasgow, and told her about some "fearsome noises" he and his sisters had heard in the Gilchrist flat from their flat below.   Lambie had a likely explanation in the pulleys used for the clotheslines, but the neighbor decided to wait at the door anyway while Lambie went in. As she did so, a man came toward her from the flat's spare bedroom and walked past Lambie and the neighbor.  Lambie, going into the dining room, called for the neighbor to come in, and discovered Marion Gilchrist laying on the floor with "nearly every bone of her face and skull being smashed."  The neighbor ran to get the police while Lambie made her way to find Miss Gilchrist's niece.  By the time she went back to West Princes Street and the scene of the crime, a doctor had discovered a "heavy dining room chair" that was likely the murder weapon, since Miss Gilchrist's wounds matched the shape of the "spindle-shaped legs."  As the night went on, a few Glasgow police detectives came to the flat. Papers had been strewn all around in the spare bedroom, jewelry belonging to Miss Gilchrist seemed be present and accounted for, with the exception of a "crescent-shaped diamond brooch", valued at fifty pounds.  Also noted: there was no sign of forced entry, meaning that the woman who normally kept her doors soundly locked most likely let her killer into the flat.  A warning went out to the "Pawns" about the brooch, and four days later, a bicycle dealer revealed to the police that he knew a man who'd been trying to sell a pawn ticket for a brooch matching the description of the stolen one.  It wasn't long before detectives honed in on the man with the ticket, a certain Oscar Slater.



Oscar Slater, from Wikipedia


 The police became focused on this man, believing they had the right guy since, after all, he was already a man of interest -- he was reputed to be a pimp, a petty criminal, and they also discovered that Slater was on his way to America with his girlfriend.  He was picked up, arrested, held in New York City, but agreed to be extradited back to Scotland to prove that he was not guilty.  In the meantime,  the brooch that had been pawned turned out not to have been the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist;  the Glasgow police, however,  were certain that they had the right guy, and explored no other avenues, leaving out any other possible culprits and dismissing testimony from people who could have exonerated Slater.   The case, which came down to some pretty iffy eyewitness identification, went to trial; in May, 1909, Slater was found guilty and sentenced to death, with sentenced commuted to hard labor for life. The story might have ended there, but in 1912, Arthur Conan Doyle was asked to take a  look at the case, which he did using  the same sort of logical, rational approach he had imbued in his creation Sherlock Holmes  to go over the particulars of the Slater case in order to try to redress the huge miscarriage of justice that had occurred three years earlier and sent an innocent man to prison.

The questions at the heart of this story concern two main issues.  One, why was it that  the police, knowing that there was nothing but some pretty dubious eyewitness testimony to connect Slater with the Gilchrist murder, continued to pursue the case against him, and two,  given that factor,  how could the trial culminate in a guilty verdict that carried a death sentence?

Fox slowly takes us through the circumstances of Slater's case and its aftermath;  around these events she puts us squarely in a "watershed moment" in which these events occurred. As she notes, the case
"straddles the twilight of nineteenth-century gentility and the upheavals of twentieth-century modernity,"
a "Janus-headed era" which looked both forward and backward. It was a time in which police work moved along  two investigative  paths, both of which she notes, existed side by side:  a "nascent, rationalist twentieth-century  science that would come to be called criminalistics" -- a "scientific, rationalist" approach,  and  the "murky nineteenth-century pseudoscience known as criminology,"  based largely on work developed by Cesare Lombroso whose theories posited that criminality was inherited and that there were "born criminals" who could be identified on the basis of certain racial and ethnic "signifiers." That's just a quick version of his ideas; there were even worse parts of Lombroso's ideas that I won't go into here.  The Glasgow police evidently chose to not take their time and do a rational analysis of the case based on what they actually had in the way of evidence (which was pretty much nothing), but set against the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia, police, prosecutors, and even the judge  succeeded in making Slater, a German, a Jew, and a known petty criminal, and  "one of the most convenient 'convenient Others' of his age" into the perfect a murder suspect. To get a conviction, they all they engaged in some pretty dodgy practices involving "suborned perjury, withheld exculpatory evidence, and all the inflammatory  illogic that the criminological method allows."

Over the course of this narrative, among other things,  the author also seeks to reveal Oscar Slater as a human being rather than just an unwanted "Other."  She also examines Conan Doyle as a crusader, an "emblematic avatar" of the "long nineteenth century," which as the author says, ran beyond the century mark up to the outbreak of the first world war.

  The inside dustjacket blurb of this book tells its readers that
"For all the scores of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in the world, there is no recent book that tells this remarkable story, in which Conan Doyle becomes a real-life detective on an actual murder case."
 The Slater case may not be as well known as the Edalji case,  the basis of the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, so this book is good mainly for people who may be interested to learn about Conan Doyle outside of  his role as the "creator of the most famous detective in the world" and as a man with a "code of honor" who more than once refused to let justice take a wrong turn and affect innocent lives. But beware --  I've read three or four biographies of Conan Doyle since I read this book, and I don't completely agree with Fox's conclusions about the man himself, in which she sort of glosses over more than a few facts. I'll refer you to Russell Miller's The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle and Out of the Shadows by Georgina Doyle for further reading.  And while personally I think that there's a lot that could have been edited out without any detriment whatsoever to this story, one of the strengths of this book is that the author has managed to place her study  meaningfully into the context of that "watershed moment" mentioned above, socially, culturally, and scientifically, rather than just rehashing the bare bones of the case.

While the blurbers call this book a "thrilling true-crime procedural," I wouldn't go that far, but  it is a story that speaks to our own contemporary concerns not only about "the racialization of crime" but also about some pretty shady practices in law enforcement and the justice system which all too often ruin the lives of innocent people.



Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann

9780307742483
Random House/Vintage, 2018
373 pp

paperback

I love David Grann's work. I've read his The Devil and Sherlock Holmes which I loved, The Lost City of Z which I loved even more, and I've already pre-ordered his next book The White Darkness, which comes out in October, although you can get a head start on it via The New YorkerThis book, Killers of the Flower Moon, is probably the most difficult of all of his books to read on an emotional level, since it deals with such an horrific topic.  This one I had to read sections at a time because it was so powerful; it also made me so damn angry I actually found myself yelling.  Personally,  when a person like David Grann can hand me a story that gets me that emotionally involved, well, he has done his job and has done it well.

The back cover blurb gives the basic story, which is divided into three different "Chronicles."  In the first part, we discover that (and this isn't spoiling it -- just sort of paraphrasing the blurb) people in the Osage Nation had the sense to buy up the rights to the land on which they were eventually settled in Oklahoma.  When oil was discovered, as the blurb says, by the 1920s, they became "the richest people per capita in the world."  However, the Federal Government decided that the Osage people weren't capable of managing their own wealth, and as though they were children, assigned guardians to do just that.  As Grann reports,
"Over the tribe's vehement objections, many Osage ... were deemed  'incompetent' and were forced to have a local white guardian overseeing and authorizing all of their spending, down to the toothpaste they purchased at the corner store.  One Osage who had served in World War I complained, 'I fought in France for this country, and yet I am not allowed even to sign my own checks.' "
Even worse than the Feds' prejudice in setting up these guardianships in the first place, these people were generally chosen from among the most prominent citizens in Osage County, and in what can only be called a racist move, all of them were white.  In telling this story, Grann has focused on the family of an Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart.  As he explains in an interview at vice.com, placing Mollie at the center of the story allowed him to treat her as a real person, not just a statistic or a descendant, and it also gave him the opportunity to tell things from the point of view of the Osage.  The first section takes us to the murders of several members of the Osage Nation, of which Mollie's family became a "prime target," "one by one."

The FBI becomes involved in part two, in which Grann goes through why J. Edgar Hoover wanted his men on the case, the possible suspects, and introduces us to Tom White, a former Texas Ranger turned FBI agent who put together a team that would work undercover to try and solve the case.  While I won't dwell here on what happens next, one of the most infuriating parts about these murders is that the more deeply White delves at the time, the more a much larger picture of a huge and all-encompassing  conspiracy develops and truthfully, I wondered if anyone was ever going to be brought to justice for these horrible crimes. 

But it's really part three that shook me to my core, because of what Grann discovers in his research. About that I will say nothing, but I could hear myself gasping at the implications of what he found.  And to be really honest, I was so upset after finishing this book that I had to step away for a few days just to get myself together again. 

The book is masterfully done, especially since the author sets what happens to these people in the context of the broader period of rampant corruption and graft at the highest levels of government, and in that sense, provides a background for what will occur over the course of this narrative. At the same time,  this book further reinforces the fact that when history is recounted in this country, it's white history, while the Native Americans' stories are for the most part completely ignored.  You only have to be breathing these days to understand why that is.  But overall, what really hit home was the fact that this is not only a story that needed to be told and to be brought out into the open, but that as Grann says, it continues to resonate with the Osage people -- that it is a story that is "still living history for them." 

Killers of the Flower Moon is not a long book so you may be tempted to read it all in one go, but don't.  This book is so powerful that even now while thinking about it, I'm getting angry all over again.  And now that I'm looking over what some other, less than enthusiastic readers have to say, I have to wonder what they expected.  This one from an Amazon reader especially killed me:
"I couldn't connect with any of the victims due to a lack of back story or personal history.  The reader just doesn't get to know the characters. It read like a boring history book that could have been so much more."
To each his/her own, of course, but evidently we didn't read the same book. 

Highly, highly, highly recommended. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

True or not, it makes for a rollicking good story: An Adventure, by C.A.E. Moberly


"Do you think the Petit Trianon is haunted?"
                      -- 11



9781330900031
Forgotten Books, 2018
originally published 1911
212 pp

paperback

In August 1901, two women visiting Versailles decided they'd visit the Petit Trianon.  Baedeker in hand, Miss Charlotte Anne Elizabeth Moberly and Miss Eleanor Frances Jourdain set off from the Salle des Glaces toward their destination, and what happened next became the subject of this book.   It also sparked a controversy that continued over the decades, a number of books, radio and television dramatizations, and as Wikipedia quotes historian Roy Strong, the incident  "retained its hold on the public imagination for half a century."  Even now, a full century-plus later, all manner of websites exist on the topic of what came to be known as the "Moberly-Jourdain Incident," so obviously some people are still interested.

The two women (who go by the pseudonyms of Morison and Lamont in this book)  set out on what Miss Moberly/Morison described as "a most enjoyable walk."  They passed the Grand Trianon which was on their left,
"and came up a broad green drive perfectly deserted. If we had followed it we should have come immediately to the Petit Trianon, but not knowing its position, we crossed the drive and went up a lane in front of us."
Evidently Miss Moberly was surprised that Miss Jourdain/Lamont didn't stop to ask directions from a "woman who was shaking a white cloth out of a window of a building at the corner of the lane," but they continued on their way, and eventually came to a point where "there were three paths" in front of them.  They followed the center path, since there were two men there from whom they thought they might get directions.  The men were dressed "in longish green coats with small three-cornered hats," and indeed directed them to continue straight. When they left the lane,  Miss Moberly reports an "extraordinary depression" that had come over her that she could not shake. Coming to a small garden kiosk, they encountered a man who looked at them, causing Miss Moberly to note that this was the "culmination" of her "peculiar sensations," and that she "felt a moment of genuine alarm."  Without giving away all of the strange occurrences reported by these women, they encountered yet another man who let them know that they were going the wrong way, and eventually they arrived at a house they had assumed was the Petit Trianon.  And if things weren't already weird enough for these two women, they become even more bizarre at this point, when Miss Moberly encounters a woman sketching.

On returning to Paris, an entire week elapsed before their strange afternoon came up in conversation.  Miss Moberly, who was writing a "descriptive letter" about their "expeditions of the week before," notes that the "scenes came back one by one," and she was once again plagued by the "same sensation of dreamy unnatural oppression."  At that point she turned to her friend and asked her if she believed that the Petit Trianon was haunted, to which Miss Jourdain instantly replied "Yes, I do."  They talked about it for a while, then the matter was dropped until some three months later, when Miss Jourdain reveals something to Miss Moberly about that day that prompted the latter to write that "we had a new element of mystery," and that the two women
"resolved to write down independent accounts of our expedition to Trianon, read up its history, and make every enquiry about the place." 
They each wrote out their accounts independently, and spent the next few years trying to find evidence for what they'd witnessed.  Miss Jourdain reveals in her account her discovery that August 10th, the day that they had been at Versailles, "had a great significance in French history...":
"On August 10th, 1792, the Tuileries was sacked.  The royal family escaped in the early morning to the Hall of the Assembly, where they were penned up for many hours hearing themselves practically dethroned, and within sound of the massacre of their servants and of the Swiss guards at the Tuileries."
She also reveals that both of the women wondered if they had "inadvertently entered within an act of the Queen's memory when alive..."

 In 1911, the two women published this book, which includes their accounts, their research over the ten years that had elapsed since their initial experiences, and it is here that the authors also attempt to offer proof that what they had encountered could have only taken place in the late eighteenth century.  They claim to have had no previous knowledge of Versailles in the eighteenth century prior to 1901, making it impossible to have come up with the detailed descriptions given in their respective accounts. Noting that they do not "pretend to understand -- what happened to put us into communication with so many true facts,"  they go on to say that the book was meant to "record exactly what happened as simply and fully as possible."


Whether or not you believe their account after reading this book, it does make for a rollicking good story. It obviously held great appeal for contemporary readers; Mark Lamont who investigated this case and published his findings in his The Mysterious Paths of Versailles (Book Venture Publishing, 2018), says that it was popular enough to merit a second printing the same year it was released. (69)  And speaking of Lamont's book, anyone planning to read An Adventure or who is even remotely interested in the experiences of these two women really ought to have Mysterious Paths of Versailles on hand as a companion read.  Lamont not only combs through their accounts, but piece by piece examines their evidence, and examines various hauntings and seemingly unexplainable phenomena experienced by others.  He ends by repeating a statement made by the Spectator's review of An Adventure in 1911, saying that it "probably best sums up the current status of the case as it did a century ago" -- it is
"a challenge to be answered, a problem to solved, now or a century hence, or never." (340)
 If you can find it, there's also a dvd based on this story (although seriously embellished -- I know, since I watched it after finishing An Adventure) called Miss Morison's Ghost, with Dame Wendy Hiller in the title role.  And while it's your own call whether or not the story is a hoax, An Adventure is still a fine read for anyone at all interested in otherworldly sorts of phenomena. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog

"I looked around, and there was the jungle, manifesting the same seething hatred, wrathful and steaming, while the river flowed by in majestic indifference and scornful condescension, ignoring everything:  the plight of man, the burden of dreams, and the torments of time."
                                                                                                                         -- 299



A couple of months ago I found great joy in reading Ned Beauman's strange but wonderful novel Madness is Better Than Defeat, set mainly in the Honduran jungle which among other things, features a character whose task is to direct a film called "Hearts in Darkness" against the backdrop of an old Mayan temple. What he and his crew of actors and others do not know before they leave is that this same temple is also the destination for another group sent into the jungle, whose job is to dismantle the ruin piece by piece and ship it back to the US.  Eventually both groups come together and a standoff ensues.  One of the things that struck me while reading this book was the director's obsession with finishing this film and getting it just right in spite of the ensuing calamities, and it was impossible to read it without thinking about the making of Apocalypse Now and all of the huge setbacks encountered by Francis Ford Coppola.  After reading the book I looked through several interviews with Ned Beauman, and somewhere (and with apologies, I was dumb and didn't bookmark it), he made mention of Werner Herzog, another obsessive director who made Fitzcarraldo.  I'd seen the movie eons ago but I decided I'd watch it again, which then led me to Burden of Dreams,  the story behind that film.  Both were fascinating, but I wasn't quite finished yet -- I had to buy a copy of Herzog's Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo because at that time I was hooked on this story.  And I had to know what made this man tick.



9780061575549
Ecco, 2010
originally published as Eroberung des Nutzlosen, 2004
translated by Krishna Winston
306 pp -- paperback



As Herzog tells us in his preface, the book is not a collection of "reports on the actual filming," and it is not a journal, "except in a very general sense."  He refers to it as "inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle," but then says that he's not sure if that's really it either.   The book covers the period from June 1979 through November 1981, and while it is filled with some of the struggles he endured while trying to get his movie off the ground, it is also a deeply personal account, suffused with his observations about the Amazon jungle, its people, the rivers, and his relationship with nature,  trying to find some insight into it all while trying to maintain a sense of calm as the leader of the enterprise.   

For anyone unfamiliar with the movie Fitzcarraldo, it is very loosely based on the story of a Peruvian rubber baron, Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. As Herzog explains in Burden of Dreams, the director only cared about one part of Fitzcarrald's story, in which he dismantles a ship and moves it across an isthmus onto another part of the river. In Conquest of the Useless he reveals how he sees it:

"It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape,, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong."
In Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo buys a ship and uses the native people who have joined him and his crew to move the ship up a steep slope to another part of the river where he can access his newly-bought rubber holdings, the profits of which he will use to realize his dream of building an opera house in Iquitos (a la the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus).   I won't go into any great detail here, but what I discovered in reading this book is that there are a number of similarities between Herzog and his character Fitzcarraldo, who is more than once referred to in the film as "the conquistador of the useless."  Both are dreamers, and both in their own way are lunatics, compelled by their visions.    As just one example, Herzog's backers assumed he'd use a model steamship, but no -- as he says here, he had to have a real one "being hauled over a real mountain" because it was stylistically characteristic of "grand opera."   In another entry from February 18, 1981, he goes so far to note the idea of playing Fitzcarraldo himself,  "because my project and character have become identical."  There is no greater truth in this book to be sure.  

One more thing I'll mention is the writing.  As I noted earlier, Conquest of the Useless is not simply a reconstruction of his time in the Amazon jungle while making the film, and Herzog's personal observations are beautifully conveyed through his prose. I noted one that I'll share here, made while he is in Belén near Christmas 1980:
"...Outside I looked down at the river for a long time, trying to regain some composure. Chatas, flat barges, are chugging along, carrying pipes for distant oil-drilling operations. Belén is partially under water. Today at daybreak the birds were pleading for the continued existence of the Creation. For them, anything but the continuation of the status quo is deadly. My watch has stopped now once and for all but for a long time I have been thinking in Amazonian terms anyway: before dinner, after the storm, toward evening. A blind, barefoot beggar was groping his way along the wall of a house. A woman was drinking water from an aluminum pot in which slimy fish from the river, with big eyes, were floating. One of them was dead, its underside white, belly up. Then a child drank from the pot."
 Having seen Fitzcarraldo before reading this book,  I wasn't surprised here at his ability to pick up on such detail, but I came away from Conquest of the Useless  with the conviction that his artistry went well beyond his directing skills. 

Of course, if you're interested in such details as his frustration with Klaus Kinski, or what it was like to work with Mick Jagger and Claudia Cardinale, that's here too, but this book reaches much deeper than a simple tell-all sort of thing.

highly recommended, even for people who haven't seen the movie, but you'll get much more from it if you do.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Lawler




9780385542012
Doubleday, 2018
426 pp

hardcover

"Why do people search for Noah's ark?...Why do people search for Amelia Earhart? What is going to come out of it? You can't own it. You get fifteen minutes of fame. But anybody could be that person.  There is a mental illness involved with searching for something that hardly be found. I've seen so many people go over the deep end. It's a disease. that is why the Lost Colony is such a great story." 


I am fascinated by mystery stories, and they don't have to be fictional to capture my interest. This goes back to my childhood when I would read anything and everything, fiction and nonfiction alike.    My mom was a member of the book of the month club (or something akin to it way back when) and I clearly remember running out of library books one day and picking up her copy of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Fred Goerner.  I had absolutely no idea who Amelia Earhart was at the time, but I still remember being held captive by the story and the photos.  I mention that book here because it began my intense interest in "real" mysteries -- you know, the kind you may never find the answers to in your lifetime but which never leave your brain.   For me, the fate of the "lost colony" of Roanoke was another such real mystery stemming from childhood, and I joined the ranks of lost colony obsessives.  But while I may be obsessed,  I'm still picky about what I read and even more so about what I think is plausible, so when I saw that Andrew Lawler (an author I trust whose work I've read many times in The Smithsonian) had published a book about it,  I couldn't push that buy button quickly enough.  It is an informative, thought provoking and downright captivating book that any Roanoke obsessive must read, unless, of course, you're of the alien abduction or yes, even zombie crowd who thrive on more out-there sort of theories.

Most people are familiar with the legend of the lost colony (more on this term later), which says that in 1587, a British expedition found their way to the Roanoke Island off of the coast of North Carolina.  Three years later, a ship carrying John White, the governor of that colony, who had gone back to England in the meantime to pick up supplies for the people left behind, comes sailing back to Roanoke only to find it completely deserted.  While searching for his people, including his daughter Eleanor, mother of the first English child born there (Virginia Dare),  White comes across the letters C R O carved into a tree, but of the colonists themselves there is no sign -- as the author says, just "vanished from history."  So what happened to them?

In his book, Mr. Lawler explains how a chance meeting at a dinner held for speakers of an archaeological conference led to him becoming "immersed in the immense literature that has built up around the Roanoke voyages." It seems that in making conversation with a British archaeologist by the nane of Horton, Lawler discovered that the man was "doing a little digging in a place called Hatteras."  Lawler "jokingly" asked the man if he'd found the Lost Colony. It was the mention of Hatteras and the response "Indeed!" from the archaeologist that sparked the author's curiosity,  but further questioning and a number of emails later were met only with silence once Horton realized that he was speaking to a reporter.  However,  out of the blue a year later, the author received an email from the archaeologist saying that  "we now have pretty compelling evidence for the fate of the Lost Colony."   Hatteras, of course, is the modern name for Croatoan, the location that White felt the original colonists had gone to in his three-year absence.  In fact, there was a contingency plan that had been made before White sailed from Roanoke leaving everyone behind on his last voyage.  As we learn,
"If the settlers were to leave the island, .... they 'should not fail to write or carve upon the trees or posts of the doors the name of the place where they should be seated.' A cross over the name of their destination would mean that they left in an emergency..."
 The letters C R O in the tree along the bank of the north shore,  and the word CROATOAN carved into a post in the settlement itself were part  a "pre-arranged code" -- a "secret token agreed upon between them and me." If the colonists had left in an emergency, they were to also add a cross over the name of their destination.   Since the colonists had not left a cross, White assumed and "greatly joyed" that he had "safely found a certain token of their being safe at Croatoan," although he also wrote that the plan had been for the colonists to move "fifty miles into the main," meaning inland, while Croatoan was to the south. 

Horton invited Lawler to come and view their Hatteras findings, and Lawler began looking into other archaeological work being done, including one being done in the area fifty miles inland, and learned that "there was more to the story than a couple of archaeological digs."  As he became interested in the activities and theories of  "a larger cast of modern characters mirroring the colorful Elizabethans they pursued with such passion," he soon found himself "trying to piece together a bevy of smaller puzzles." 

It is from this point that the book launches into the history and the people "central to the Roanoke missions," followed by an examination of different "clues" both archival and archaeological, including the famous "Dare Stones" and other so-called evidence.  And speaking of the Dare Stones,  the author looks into why the story of Virginia Dare continues to hold such a fascination; he makes some compelling observations about  the role this iconic figure and the Roanoke colonists came to play in an America that saw a number of upheavals including slave rebellions and Native Americans being forcibly moved out west.   He reveals how the figure of Virginia Dare has evolved at different times in our history, going for example, from an icon of racial purity to a symbol of "amends for the wrongs done by generations of whites against Indians."    Finally, he comes across another "secret token waiting to be read," as he explores the matter of descendants of these original colonists, whom he says, were not really "lost," until in the nineteenth century when the Roanoke colony became the subject of a romantic fictional story, with little Virginia Dare at its center. 

 At one point I had to laugh when the author describes how his work had gone "beyond professional diligence and into very obsession" that he'd seen in others.  There are several mysteries to be solved here, but as far as he's concerned, the "lost" colonists were like anyone else who in the same situation would have taken steps to insure their own survival -- it's much  more likely that they did the obvious and assimilated themselves into the nearby Native American tribes.  But, as he says,
"The real power exerted by the lost Colonists was not in archives or archaeological trenches but in the stories they spawned,"
so there will continue to be people who, despite the common-sense answer of assimilation, will continue to spin their own ideas or who will further the myths behind one of the most intriguing mysteries in our history. 

Bottom line: it's fascinating stuff and Lawler is the  right person to put it all together. Very highly recommended. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, by Edward Brooke-Hitching



9781452168401
Chronicle Books, 2018
295 pp
hardcover

[My many thanks to the publisher and to the powers that be at LibraryThing for my copy.] 

In the introduction to this book, the author says that
"This is an atlas of the world -- not as it ever existed, but as it was thought to be. The countries, islands, cities, mountains, rivers, continents and races collected in this book are all entirely fictitious; and yet each was for a time -- sometimes for centuries -- real. How? Because they existed on maps." 
The Phantom Atlas is a book that is not only filled with photos of  "the greatest cartographic phantoms ever to haunt the maps of history," but also with a fair bit of the history of these "phantoms" that reveals quite a lot about their respective provenances and most especially the influence that mapping them would come to have on future adventurers and explorers.  And the romance continues:  in the story of the "Lost City of the Kalahari," for example, we discover that as late as 2010 an expedition was mounted to find the ruins marked clearly on a map submitted by  William Leonard (aka "The Great Farini") in the 1880s to the Royal Geographic Society as part of his experiences in southern Africa.  While largely discounted in his own time, in 1923, interest in this "buried civilization" was renewed, and by 1967, as the author reveals, "at least twenty-six missions" had been undertaken, even though there was no actual evidence that this lost city of the Kalahari ever existed. 

And then, of course, there are maps that have had true political implications, as in a modern controversy over Bermeja Island, off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula  at had found its way onto a map in 1539.  Because of oil rights involved, it quickly became a source of controversy when a theory was floated that the CIA had destroyed the island "to ensure US hegemony over the oil fields." 

The Carta marina, by Olaus, from Wikipedia; if you're at all interested Slate has an interactive map 


The book goes on to explore why these nonexistent places began to be mapped in the first place, incorporating elements of mythology, religion, and superstition, but also physical phenomena such as the Fata Morgana.  Then there are the tricksters who felt no compunction about inventing islands or countries either for fame or for cash, as in the example of "Sir" Gregor MacGregor, who set up a scheme involving land ownership in the Territory of Poyais, which appeared on an 1822 map of central America's Mosquitia region.  For just "two shillings and three pence" a person could own a piece of paradise and have the opportunity to "live like a king."  And people went -- only to discover after giving up their cash, that Poyais did not exist; most were just stuck there. When relief came, sadly,  less than fifty people out of the 270 who thought they were off to a better life were actually able to make it home.

The Phantom Atlas is so very nicely done and I'm not simply referring to its amazing, giftworthy quality.  It is  perfect for people who appreciate the artistic quality of the maps that the author's used here and even more so for people like me who enjoy the history behind them.  Some of these accounts are so strange that they could seriously be the basis of pulp fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction or even horror stories.  The dustjacket blurb calls this book a "brilliant collection," and I couldn't agree more. 



Monday, April 16, 2018

The Littlehampton Libels: A Miscarriage of Justice & a Mystery about Words in 1920s England, by Christopher Hilliard

9780198799658
Oxford University Press, 2017
241 pp

hardcover

A series of poison pen letters being circulated in a small English village is the subject of Agatha Christie's 1942 novel The Moving Finger, yet there are a number of other books in which they appear as well.  Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and John Dickson Carr spring to mind immediately as just a few examples; in the hands of these authors murder generally followed as a result.  In The Littlehampton Libels there are no killings, but the poison pen letters circulating in the 1920s within Littlehampton, a "middling town" along the Sussex coast (and beyond), eventually merited police investigations, resulted in four different trials, widespread news coverage,  imprisonment, and, as the title reveals, "a miscarriage of justice."  The stories of the two women involved, according to the author, is a
"kind of English story told over and over in fiction and film but rarely in works of history..."
 And it all began with "a quarrel between neighbors."

In 1918, Bill and Rose Gooding moved into the town of Littlehampton, at No. 45 Western Road.  Rose's sister Ruth Russell shared the house with them and their daughter Dorothy; Ruth had two children of her own.   No. 45 shared garden space with two other houses:  No. 47, the home of the Swan family, as well as No. 49, the "police cottage," where police officers and their families could sublet the house which was rented by the West Sussex Constabulary.  At the time "the libels started flying," the police cottage housed Constable Alfred Russell and his family.  At first, Rose Gooding and Edith Swan (age 30 and living with her parents), seemed to get along well, but an incident in May of 1920 led Edith to call in the National Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children against Rose, in a complaint of "illtreating a child."  The inspector who came out in response to Edith's complaint found nothing amiss, but it was just after his visit that "a flood of filthy postcards" began, with the bad language escalating each time; since they were signed "R--", "R.G.," or "with Mrs. Gooding's compliments," the assumption was that the letters had come from Rose Gooding in retaliation for Edith's complaints.   Rose consistently denied that the letters had been her doing, and the police were satisfied, but that wasn't enough for Edith -- eventually she consulted a solicitor and instituted a prosecution against Rose for "criminal libel," which ultimately resulted in a two-week imprisonment for  Rose, as well as her being responsible for keeping the peace for two years after her release.   While I won't go into details here, mainly because this bizarre story really has to be experienced on one's own, Rose found herself back into prison, appealed, and her case was reopened, along with a major investigation to find the true culprit which reads at times like something you'd find in a work of crime fiction.

In this truly splendid work of microhistory, written in a way I personally believe the best histories should be written,  the author traces not only the events in this case, but uses his investigation to also examine how, as he says, these
 "outlandish insults form part of a larger story of individuality and originality in unexpected places."
 As Bee Wilson says in her review in the London Review of Books(which you should absolutely refrain from reading until you've finished the book),  The Littlehampton Libels  reveals "the uses and abuses of literacy. " It also gives a concise history of the legal use of libel up to this point in time as well as an insight into how the legal system was used by members of the working class.  It's important to note here that one's respectability as a member of this class was based on several factors and there were gradations in the class structure.  In this particular case, as Mr. Hilliard notes, it wasn't "just circumstances that counted against Rose Gooding," but more to the point, it was the fact that she and her family were viewed as belonging to "a slightly rougher class" than her accuser, a woman seen to be of  "very good character" and one who would never use the sort of language found in the poison pen letters.  As the trial testimony was given, and that particular point was made, something popped into my head right out of Christie's  The Moving Finger  and I had to go look it up.   There's a scene in which Jerry Burton tells us that
"In novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women.  It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems." 
Given the "foul and disgusting character" of the Littlehampton poison pen letters and the truth behind who actually wrote them, well, I couldn't help but inwardly giggle thinking about that particular passage.

Obviously my short post here just scratches the surface of this book, but The Littlehampton Libels is a phenomenal work of history,  giving credence to the idea that quite often truth is stranger than fiction. I knew it was going to be something right up my alley when I first read about it, and I don't regret forking over more than I generally pay for a book to read it.  I can't speak highly enough about it.