On the Emperor’s Gifts

The islands of the Aegean Sea are known for their beauty. The sparkling clear blue waters mirroring the usually clear skies above all beckon the traveler and the tourist. In 766 AD, all that beautiful area of islands and sea and sun was under the control of the Byzantine Empire. And the emperor that ruled in the capital city of Constantinople at that time was named Constantine V.

Now, Constantine V ruled the empire for a little over 30 years. He took advantage of a time in history when the encroaching Muslim forces were in disarray, and he secured and expanded the borders of his kingdom. He is remembered as an able military leader and decent administrator as those things go.

What he’s not remembered for is his generosity.

And that’s interesting considering how he treated several of his high-ranking political appointees and governors. You see, Constantine V personally saw to it that 17 of his underlings were taken care of on an island in the Aegean. There, they had constant care and watching. Their food was provided for them. They didn’t have to worry about clothing or the basic necessities of life.

And, what’s more, all 17 of them were blind.

Yes, the Emperor Constantine made sure that these incapacitated former administrators and advisors were seen to. He even dispatched servants once a year with special gifts from him to the 17 men. It was his way of subtly reminding them who was taking care of them and why they were in the situation they were in in the first place.

Now, you’d think these men would be grateful, right? They have a great place to live, all their needs were met, and they received special attention via the emperor’s gifts once per year. In their conditions, you’d expect them to show how much they appreciated the situation their ruler had afforded them.

Yet, the 17 men deeply resented him. Their hatred for him burned with the heat of 1000 suns. They spat when they heard his name, and they loathed the moment that the servants arrived from Constantine V bearing his yearly gifts.

Why? What had he done to them that would cause them to resent his generosity so?

Well, you see, it was Constantine V who had blinded them in the first place and exiled them there. These 17–and two others who were executed outright–had sought to overthrow the emperor and install a different ruler over the Byzantine Empire. And Constantine had defeated the rebellion.

And the yearly gifts that he sent them?

100 lashes, each.

On a Horse Race

June 4, 1913, was the day of the famous Derby Race held in Epsom, Surrey. The 1 1/2 mile race is the premier thoroughbred horserace in the United Kingdom. That day, the Derby was won by a 100-1 long shot named Aboyeur, although he was not the first horse to cross the finish line. Another horse crossed first, but, unusually, that horse was disqualified because the horse and rider had committed several fouls along the race course. That’s why Aboyeur ended up in the winner’s circle that day. However, we don’t remember the 1913 Derby because a long shot won that day.

Jockey Herbert Jones is one reason we remember that particular race so well. That day, Jones was astride a steed named Anmer, and Anmer was owned by none other than King George V. Now, Jones was one of the best-known riders of his day. Jockeys were celebrities like pro athletes are today, even gracing the fronts of collectors cards (like a horseracing version of baseball cards). Jones won Britain’s version of the Triple Crown, and he had been astride other colts owned by royalty before. Some said he was one of the favorite jockeys of Edward VII, a king known for his love of the ponies and racing and betting.

But this was not Jones’s day. Anmer broke late and never had a chance to move up to challenge the leading pack that day. In fact, Anmer didn’t finish the race at all. You see, an obstruction was on the race course, and Anmer struck the obstruction, falling, and throwing Jones off his back. He summersaulted and landed on top of Jones. The jockey was knocked unconscious and later was determined to have had a concussion. He also had to have an arm in a sling. King George was most disappointed. He noted in his diary for that day, “Herbert Jones and Anmer had been sent flying” by the obstruction and that it was “a most disappointing day” all around. Luckily, Anmer wasn’t badly injured, and Jones even managed to ride the horse in races again not to much later after he recovered from his injuries.

But, what exactly was this obstruction?

Well, it happened at turn four as the race was about to enter the home stretch. Something ran out onto the racecourse in the direct path of Jones and the king’s horse. Newsreels of the day captured the moment it happened, and you can see it on the internet today. The obstruction–the object that ran out in front of a mounted horse running about 35 miles per hour–was a woman.

It seems Emily Davidson, a 39 year old suffragette from London, crossed under the barricade and moved alongside Anmer and Jones as they sped towards her. The newsreel footage seems to show that she was trying to attach some sort of suffragette pennant to the horse’s tackle or bridle as it flew past. The horse struck her—and killed her almost instantly.

Davidson’s dramatic death is said to have led to the public outcry that would give women in the UK the vote only 5 years later.

On a May-December Romance

Frank’s Uncle Steve loved the teen dearly. The uncle wasn’t really an uncle, actually, but a close family friend and Frank’s dad’s law partner. The pair had known each other since Frank was born, in fact. And, despite the fact that Frank’s “uncle” was 28 years older, the pair fell in love even while Frank was a teenager.

Frank’s dad died in a vehicle accident when Frank was only 11. And when Oscar, Frank’s father, died, this Uncle Steve had become Frank’s guardian and protector since the two men were close due to being law partners,and since there was no other relative who could provide for the young person financially. Oscar had been stupid with his money; he gambled and gave away much of his wealth. That’s why Steve had to step in and take charge of raising the youngster.

Steven often brought the teen into his house, but there is no evidence that anything physical or sexual happened between the two at that point. Steve had been a confirmed bachelor his whole life, and it seems that his love for Frank was really the first time he’d shown any interest in, well, anyone at all from the perspective of love. Would it surprise you to learn that Frank’s mother approved of the relationship between Frank and this much older man? The mother did, actually. Steve even asked permission from Frank’s mom before he asked for Frank’s hand in marriage. Frank’s mom approved wholeheartedly.

Frank really liked photography and political science. At college (a college that Steve picked out and, of course, paid for), Frank excelled and became incredibly popular. Good-looking, smart, and with a maturity that belied the fact Frank was a teenager, several suitors tried to woo Frank during college. One almost succeeded, but Frank turned the boy down. After all, Frank knew that Uncle Steve was waiting. After graduation, Uncle Steve insisted that Frank take a trip to Europe to help “round out” the education received at college. It’s interesting that throughout all the college years, the trip to Europe, the various boys who tried to take Frank’s attention away, nothing changed Frank’s mind about being in love with Uncle Steve.

Finally, when Frank finished school and became 21 (and Uncle Steve was 49), the two lovebirds wed in a simple ceremony before only 31 witnesses.

It was the only time a sitting President of the United States, one Stephen Grover Cleveland, married in the White House. And his young bride, (who was christened Frank Clara Folsom), known publicly as Frances Folsom, would go on to have several children with Cleveland, including one named Ruth–whom you probably know as Baby Ruth because a candy company named one of their candy bars after her.

On An Old Man’s Conversations

George really was a man who enjoyed simple things, but he was no simpleton, he. Some of his friends called him “Farmer George” because he liked to dabble in agriculture (even though he lived in the city, mostly) and because of his liking for things like food, family, and laughter. All in all, a good man who married a good woman and had a bunch of kids.

15 to be exact–9 of them sons. The last two boys were born to George when he was an older man. It was these last two sons that George talked to more than the other children that he and his wife had. You see, George had some health issues as he aged as many of us do. He became bedridden, and the younger children around him were all he saw as the older ones were grown and gone by that time. So, George amused himself by talking to the two younger boys, Freddie, the 9th son, and Eight–yes, George named his 8th son Eight–for hours on end.

The boys never complained about their father’s long talks with them. Oh, he would ask them questions often, and he would listen intently to their answers, but most of the time in his bed-ridden state, George would simply talk…and talk…and talk. And while young boys being that patient with an elderly father seems unusual, you’ll see why the never grew bored with or tired of their father’s attention.

And it’s not that George ignored the rest of his family. Unusually for his day, George doted on almost all his children. The oldest and namesake, well, he was different than his dad. George, Jr., wasn’t fond of the simple things like his dad was. Those two men never really “bonded” as is the phrase today, but what inheritance the older George left when he died went almost all to George, Jr. No, the older George would carry his younger children around on his shoulders, he’d toss them in the air, he’d play games and always–always–remember their birthdays and special events in their lives.

So, for the years preceding his death in 1820, Old Farmer George talked to his two youngest sons about life, death, God, toys, travel, the stars, and even shared secrets with them that no one else knew.

Sadly, the boys never heard what their father said to them.

That’s because both of them had died several years before. Eight–whose name was actually Octavius–died in 1783 at age 4. And Freddie–Alfred–had died at age 2 in 1782.

You see, in his madness, King George III of Great Britain and Ireland, talked long hours to the precious sons he had loved and lost.

On a Grand Larceny

The film franchise Fast and Furious has nothing on perhaps the greatest automobile theft in history.

Seems that over 1,000 Volvo 144s and other odd construction vehicles and trucks were stolen in the 1970s, and no one talks about it much today. In fact, it’s a theft that I’m sure the Volvo Corporation would rather forget. It began with a customer who put in this large order for delivery of some of Volvo’s products. The buyer asked for a discount since the order was so large, and Volvo had no trouble agreeing to a less-than-off-the-rack price. The negotiations between the two sides were amicable. Volvo had dealt with the buyer before with no issues. Perhaps that was part of the long con that the buyer pulled. Perhaps.

At any rate, Volvo was eager to make delivery on such a large purchase. If they could sell $70,000,000 of their cars and other vehicles at one fell swoop, well… And, again perhaps, Volvo’s eyes at that potential payday might have clouded their judgement. Swedish firms are notoriously (they might say suspiciously or realistically) cautious when it came to making big business decisions. On the other hand, did I mention the incredibly large sale?

So, the deal was struck. The buyer would pay upon delivery of the vehicles. The paperwork was done in Stockholm, the containers were loaded on the ship, and the cars made their way to the buyer. Easy-peasy, right?

Not so fast.

Upon receipt, the buyer simply…didn’t pay for the cars or other vehicles. Any of them. And still hasn’t all these years later. Volvo pitched a rather subdued fit and insisted that payment be made Nope. Not one cent was forthcoming. The company, wishing to avoid the public embarrassment of having been bilked, quietly appealed to the Swedish government to intervene since this particular buyer was overseas. I’m not going to say that the Swedish government laughed in the company’s face, but…oh, wait. Yes. Yes, that’s what I’m going to tell you. The Swedish government basically told Volvo that they could do nothing and, what’s more, didn’t want to do anything about the company losing that much money to what amount to a really grand larceny on the part of the buyer.

And, so, Volvo goes down in history as the victim of the largest car theft ever.

That’ll teach them to do business with the government of North Korea.

On The Liberator

Ok, there’s no catch here and no surprise ending–this post is about Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator and “founding father” of much of that continent. To dismiss or pigeon-hole him as South America’s version of George Washington doesn’t do the man justice. He is largely responsible for the freeing of most of Spain’s colonies in that continent from Madrid’s control. And that almost-constant war against Spanish colonialism framed most of the man’s 47 years on earth. He won victory after victory against the Spanish, and paved the way for the eventual independence of many modern nations.

How many people can say that they were the president of not only one, not only two, but three different nations? Yes, at one time, Bolivar was the chief executive of Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia.

At the same time.

Bolivar was a disciple of the humanist Enlightenment philosophers who believed in the essential rights of men. While his ideas met strong resistance in most quarters, it seems that he was for the removal of the system of slavery in all of South America. His detractors said that this position wasn’t without a selfish reason; Bolivar needed soldiers to fight the Spanish, and he was happy to take newly liberated slaves into his ranks. To be fair, for his time, Bolivar was remarkably progressive in his treatment of other races, a trait that was lacking in the leadership of many other democratic republics of that time (looking at you, America).

He also recognized the United States’ version of federalism as the optimal model for a united Latin American nation one day, but he was also practical enough to realize that Spanish colonial influence and the political and social organization system that combined large landowners and the power of the Catholic Church made such unification almost impossible. Before he died of tuberculosis, he felt a failure for not uniting the disparate countries and cultures.

And it’s not fair to say that Bolivar accomplished all he did on his own. A confluence of several factors beyond his control certainly made his successes in getting the various Spanish colonies their independence. Among these factors were the weakening of Spain’s power in the Americas due to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars as well as Britain’s threats of retaliation if Spain made too much of an effort to re-assert its dominance over the South American continent (The Monroe Doctrine said the same thing, but the infant American republic lacked the military teeth to make this stick). Besides, other important military leaders in the various areas of the continent aided him in his liberation activities including Jose de San Martin from what is now Argentina.

But it’s also not an understatement to say that Bolivar was the right man at the right time. History is often made by these confluences of person and period, timing and personality.

I’ll leave you with one more factoid. Besides the nation of Bolivia bearing his name, did you know that one other nation in South America is named after him? Yes, it’s true.

The official name of Venezuela is the Bolivian Republic of Venezuela.

On a Crash Victim

Statistics say that every passenger or driver of a motor vehicle in the United States will be involved in one major automobile accident in that person’s lifetime. That’s a harrowing thought, but I can attest that I have experienced my major crash when I was in college. However, I wasn’t driving when an old man stepped out in front of the WV van my chums and I were riding in. He was killed instantly. Even writing that sentence sends chills through me 40 years later.

Mary King Ward was one such victim of a vehicle crash. Mary was an Irish scientist and astronomer with a reputation for attention to detail in her scientific publications. She also published some scientific books designed for public consumption which proved popular during her lifetime. She married Henry Ward, an wealthy Irishman, and together the couple had a large family.

I wanted to talk about Mary since she, too, died as a result of a car accident. Mary’s accident happened when she was only 42 in August of ’69. The story goes that she and Henry were riding in the vehicle with two brothers, Richard and Charles Parsons, and a family friend near the town of Birr in County Offaly. The Parsons were part of a wealthy family and their car was special. They wanted to show it off to the Wards, so the couple were excited to take a short drive in the Parsons’ new ride. As the car rounded a curve, it flipped. Mary was thrown out of the car. The back wheels ran over Mary and broke her neck almost instantly. A doctor who lived nearby arrived on the scene quickly, but there was obviously nothing he could to to save Mary.

The Parson brother who was driving the car was distraught and could not be consoled. He soon had the vehicle junked. Henry and his children grieved their wife and mother for years. Her promising career in the scientific community was, sadly, cut short by the car wreck.

As I said, all of that happened back in ’69–1869. The Parson Brothers had invented a prototype of a steam-powered car, and Mary was in that vehicle when she was thrown out and killed.

Mary Ward is thus the first casualty of a motor vehicle accident.

On a Mountaineering Expedition

Alexis Pache was a Swiss mountaineer. In 1905, he joined a British-led and funded outfit that attempted to climb the world’s third-highest peak, a Nepalese mountain called Kanchenjunga. He was recruited by a fellow Swiss climber, a man named Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. The group also recruited another Alpine mountaineer from Italy. So, this was truly an international expedition. The British leader of the group was named Alexander.

At over 28,000 feet above sea level, Kanchenjunga today is recognized as one of the most challenging mountains in the world to climb. Glaciers that cling to the mountainside often cause avalanches of ice that make any attempt life-threatening. The locals traditionally believed that the mountain gods felt that the peak was sacred and protected it by using the avalanches to brush off any pesky humans who attempted to scale its summit.

Yet, the group was undeterred. Remember that this was a period in western history when men were stretching the limits of human endurance. Robert Peary would reach the North Pole (maybe?) in 1909, and Amundsen would beat Scott to the South Pole two years later. Groups raced each other to be the first to do this or accomplish that before all extreme tests on the globe were conquered.

The group started out by setting up base camps at lower levels and letting their bodies adjust to the thinning air at those altitudes. But at the last base camp, Alexander, the British leader of the climbers, began to behave strangely. He started viciously beating the Nepalese workers the expedition had hired as porters and helpers on the climb. Alexis tried to calm the English fellow and reason with him, but all that did was bring the man’s ire down on the young Swiss. Now, Jules had seen this type of behavior before on high altitude climbs; as some people moved into the thinner air, a type of mania or craziness sometimes overtook them.

In fact, Jules had been on another expedition with Alexander when the pair had attempted to scale K-2, the second highest mountain on earth. At that time, Alexander had brandished a pistol and threatened several members of the group. And, again, it seemed that this man had succumbed to the lack of oxygen to his system. However, the Nepalese workers whispered that the mountain god had possessed Alexander in an effort to keep the foreigners off the sacred mountain.

A sharp disagreement broke out one night when Jules some of the others tried to take command of the expedition away from Alexander. He and Alexis and the Italian suggested that they strike out for a lower camp immediately, that the weather was good enough for them to attempt a descent. They said that they would do well to strike out in the dark so that the most challenging part of the climb down could be accomplished during the day, when the dangers of an avalanche could be better seen. But Alexander sharply disagreed. Again, Alexis tried to play peacemaker, but he received a severe tongue lashing from Alexander for his efforts. The man then stormed off to his tent and refused to come out, pouting like a child.

Undeterred, the rest of the party set out in the dark. However, an avalanche occurred soon after the group left. The screams of those in the party could be heard by the group who remained behind in the upper camp. The avalanche swept away Alexis and three of the Nepalese helpers in the group. From the safety and comfort of his tent, Alexander laughed. “I told them they were foolish to go out in the dark,” he later reported.

The next day, Alexander had his workers strike his tent and he descended the mountain in the daytime, working his way carefully down to the next lower base camp. As he worked down the glacier, he passed the group that included Jules and the bodies of Alexis and those of the Nepalese workers.

And he neither stopped or spoke to anyone as he passed.

What kind of sick, twisted man would behave in such a cold, cruel manner? Alexander was his birth name, but he changed it later in life to Aleister.

You know him as Aleister Crowley, called by some as the most evil man who ever lived.

On a Missing Photojournalist

Photographers who choose to go into war zones and risk their lives to capture the horror and realism of war have always fascinated me. These women and men who willing go into battle do so knowing that they will be facing death through their camera lenses without any desire or ability to fight or defend themselves. I am mystified by that level of bravery. The list of famous journalists killed in wars is long and distinguished. People like Gerda Taro (killed during a battle in the Spanish Civil War) and Robert Capa (survived the D-Day invasion only to step on a land mine in Vietnam) carry a certain aura about them, a panache that is both frightening and attractive at the same time.

This is a story of one of the lesser known photojournalists from the Vietnam War period. His name was Sean. Sean was a handsome young man from California who went to Vietnam to document the conflict there. It was not Sean’s first war, however. He had extensive experience shooting the action in some of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the 1960s, for example, and had seen heavy action and faced danger there that proved his mettle.

However, photojournalism wasn’t Sean’s first career. No, his striking good looks had caught the eye of Hollywood talent scouts, and he had accumulated several largely forgotten screen credits in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He can be seen in an uncredited scene in the famous beach movie, Where the Boys Are. But acting bored Sean, and he longed for a job where he could make a difference, have an impact. So, he chose photojournalism, and that led him to the biggest war story of the day, the Vietnam War. There, he quickly gained a reputation for being a risk taker if that risk meant getting a picture that no one else could capture. In fact, Sean was injured in his leg during one of his risky ventures.

In 1970, Time magazine hired Sean based on his previous war experience and his dramatic photographs to shoot photos for their publication. As stated above, he and another photographer, a young man named Dana, weren’t interested in the behind the lines pictures. They wanted to get the photos from the front lines, even behind the enemy lines, and the pictures that “safe” war photojournalists were too busy at the hotel bars to take. Towards that end, both Sean and Dana even parachuted into neighboring Cambodia with American troops to show what was happening in a part of the war where America wasn’t even supposed to be fighting.

The two young men decided in Cambodia to get on a couple of motorcycles and strike out into the countryside. No other photographers had tried to show the impact of the war on the civilians of Cambodia, and the two impulsive young men felt driven to get that story told. That drive led them to strike out on the machines one day in April of 1970 towards a checkpoint on the highway that they knew was manned by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge forces.

It would be the last anyone would ever see of the pair. No trace has ever been found of either young man.

In one of his last letters home, Sean wrote this to his mother: “I just want to say ‘thanks’ for home, the car, and just the fact that you are the best mother that I could ever want; and although you never hear me say it, I love you very much! I actually tried to be with you a lot, but everything just didn’t seem to go together.”

Interestingly, Sean didn’t speak of his father. Actually, his father had died a few years earlier. And Sean’s acting career was, in part, because of his father–a father who was also an actor and whose good looks Sean so strongly resembled. Perhaps Sean chose to be a photojournalist as a rejection of his father and that acting lifestyle. He never felt comfortable in a career where he was trading not on his own name and talent but rather on those of his father.

And while you probably didn’t know about Sean, you probably have heard about his dad.

Errol Flynn.

On a Policy that Never Happened

The racist hatred that white/European settlers in the early days of colonial settlement of North America would probably surprise even the most strident Klan member today. Governmental policy as practiced first by the British Parliament and then by the United States throughout much of early American History pretty much subscribed to the “good Indian is a dead Indian” philosophy even that that wasn’t overtly stated.

Not that it needed to be. In our national conversations about race, we carefully work our way around how native tribes were treated throughout the history of North America because we don’t want to address the facts of that hatred. Broken treaties. Unprovoked attacks and wars. Theft. Let’s not even get into the rampant abuses of the current reservation system. Terrible and disturbingly racist governmental policies. For only one example, look up what Andrew Jackson did to ignore a Supreme Court decision by using the US Army to remove the Cherokees from land in Georgia. It’s genocide, folks, and we have pretended it wasn’t for so long by casing it in language shaded with religious imagery by calling it such things Manifest Destiny and other such rot.

Well, some might argue, at least we didn’t use germ warfare against the native population. Or did we? The traditional story is that the British first came up with the idea in the 1760s to provide blankets to native tribes–blankets that had been laced with the smallpox virus. It’s not that this method of “taking care” of the “Indian problem” was more humane; no, it was more a case of the British feeling that such a method of killing was much more palatable to the soldiers who would ordinarily have to “endure” the difficult task of shooting.


And then the stories about the American Army giving similar smallpox-laden blankets to natives during one of the several Trail of Tears journeys during the first part of the 19th Century. There is anecdotal evidence of similar practices happening after the Civil War in the west when tribes were being moved onto reservations. What contributed to these stories was the fact that most native tribes often had a high rate of small pox infections. And blankets were given to native tribes. But, other than some possible talk in government circles about such practices in theory, there is no hard evidence that smallpox blankets were given to tribes–ever–by either colonial or state/federal governments or their agencies.

Again, some people will point to this myth as being only a myth and say that while natives were indeed killed, at least white people never conducted a systematic campaign of genocide against native tribes. But that’s like arguing that, while Hitler killed his millions, at least he never used a pea shooter to do it.

I’ll let the memory of the approximately 20,000,000 natives killed over the centuries since European colonization answer that argument.