Another Italian job

This is taken from a California paper from 1855. If you can get past the blatant sexism of the age in parts (handing back the wife to her father, etc), it’s very like a Saki short story. Maybe it is fiction, but I’d like to think it was true. Ingenuity is the best part of revenge, is it not?


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An Italian honeymoon ends in tragedy, 1824

Source: An Italian honeymoon ends in tragedy, 1824

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Looking for a new hobby?

There’s a Brit named Tom Jackson who buys picture postcards — mostly from the sixties and seventies — from garage sales, thrift shops and car boot events. He then puts the picture postcards into the ether via Facebook with just one line of the message included.

He now has 40,000 followers, an exhibition at Gatwick Airport and a book. Hurrah!

Here’s the BBC’s report on the man and his hobby

…but here’s just one of his cards for you to get the picture, so to speak…


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He dreamed a dream in time gone by

John Williams (no, not that one), died in April 1841. He was a miner. No, not that kind of miner. He was the Georgian epitome of success. It was said he employed 10,000 people in the tin and copper industry of Cornwall, in the south western tip of Britain. When he died in April of that year, aged 89, his obituarists could only heap praise on the character of the man. He was someone who had not let wealth taint his “simplicity of manners and the mild unassuming dignity with which he bore the honours of fortune.”

So far, so unremarkable, you may say. What the death notices did not mention was Mr Williams’ well-documented brush some three decades before with an unexplained, some might say downright spooky supernatural, event.

That takes us back to of the night of May 11th, 1812. It was the night when Mr Williams had a dream.

Far away, in London, the afternoon had gone very badly for two men. A deranged merchant who had been jailed in Russia and who felt the British government owed him compensation had been fobbed off by bureaucrats once too often. Taking matters – and a couple of loaded pistols – in hand, he hid behind a door in the lobby of the old House of Commons. When the slender wispy figure of the Prime Minister of the day, Spencer Perceval, came in at 5:15pm, the merchant, John Bellingham, shot the Prime Minister, killing him. So, that day which ended badly for Perceval already, was soon enough to do the same for Bellingham, who was eventually hanged for the murder.

Bad news like that travelled fast, but fast in 1812 meant days to reach Redruth in Cornwall. No tearful Walter Cronkite for them. It would be carried by the Mail Coach from London to Exeter and probably by a horseman along the atrocious roads the rest of the way. So the Williams were blissfully ignorant of what had happened a few hours previously when Mr and Mrs Williams went to bed that night.

During the night Williams dreamed the murder. He dreamt it in cinematic detail. He had never seen Perceval in his life and so he did not recognise at first what he was seeing, but nevertheless he could afterwards, but crucially before he could possibly hear reports describe it vividly and accurately to various people none of whom knew either about the murder.

Williams described exactly what he saw. He saw the colour of the clothes people wore. The appearance and demeanour of the people He saw precisely where the bullet hit. He saw the splash and stain of the blood pumping from Perceval’s chest. He saw the way in which Perceval fell. He saw the gentlemen restraining Perceval’s killer who did not try to run away.

He described in detail what he had seen to his wife. He repeated the story to others in the morning and all that day, before the news could possibly have reached Redruth.

Here’s how The Times reported the story a few years later. Let’s take it up from the moment Williams awoke (and yes indeed The Times chose to spell Perceval as Percival):-

Mrs. Williams very naturally told him it was only a dream, and recommended him to be composed, and go to sleep as soon as he could. He did so, and shortly after, again awoke her, and said that he had the second time had the same dream; whereupon she observed he had been so much agitated by his former dream, that she supposed it had dwelt on his mind, and begged of him to try to compose himself and go to sleep, which he did. A third time the vision was repeated; on which, notwithstanding her entreaties that he would be quiet, and endeavour to forget it, he arose, it being then between one and two o’clock, and dressed himself.

At breakfast the dreams were the sole subject of conversation: and in the forenoon Mr. Williams went to Falmouth, where he related the particulars of them to all of his acquaintance that he met.

On the following day, Mr. Tucker, of Tremanton Castle, accompanied by his wife, a daughter of Mr. Williams, went to Scorrier House about dusk. Immediately after the first salutations, on their entering the parlour, where were Mr. Mrs. and Miss Williams.

Mr. Williams began to relate to Mr. Tucker the circumstances of his dream: and Mrs Williams observed to her daughter, Mrs Tucker, laughingly, that her father could not even suffer Mr. Tucker to be seated before he told him of his nocturnal visitation: on the statement of which, Mr. Tucker observed that it would do very well for a dream to have the Chancellor in the lobby of the House of Commons, but he could not be found there in reality; and Mr. Tucker then asked what sort of a man he appeared to be, when Mr. Williams minutely described him; to which Mr. Tucker replied, “Your description is not that of the Chancellor, but it is certainly that of Mr. Percival, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and although he has been to me the greatest enemy I ever met with through life, for a supposed cause which had no foundation in truth. (or words to that effect), I should be exceedingly sorry, indeed, to hear of his being assassinated, or of injury of the kind happening to him.”

Mr. Tucker then inquired of Mr. Williams if he had ever seen Mr. Percival, and was told that he had never seen him; nor had ever even written to him, either on public or private business; in short, that he never had any-thing to do with him, nor had he ever been in the lobby of the House of Commons in his life. Whilst Mr. Williams and Mr. Tucker were still standing, they heard a horse gallop to the door of the house, and immediately after Mr. Michael Williams, of Treviner, (son of Mr. Williams, of Scorrier), entered the room, and said that he had galloped out from Truro (from which Scorrier is distant seven miles), having seen a gentleman there who had come by that evening’s mail from London, who said that ho had been in the lobby of the House of Commons on the evening of the 11th, when a man called Bellingham had shot Mr. Percival; and that, as it might occasion some great ministerial changes, and might affect Mr. Tucker’s political friends, he had come as fast as he could to make him acquainted with it, having heard at Truro that he had passed through that place on his way to Scorrier.

After the astonishment which this intelligence created had a little subsided, Mr. Williams described most particularly the appearance and dress of the man that he saw in his dream fire the pistol, as he had before done of Mr. Percival.

‘About six weeks after, Mr. Williams, having business in town, went, accompanied by a friend, to the House of Commons, where, as has been already observed, he had never before been. Immediately that he came to the steps at the entrance of the lobby, he said, “This place is as distinctly within my recollection in my dream as any in my house,” and he made the same observation when he entered the lobby. He then pointed out the exact spot where Bellingham stood when he fired, and which Mr. Percival had reached when he was struck by the ball, and when and how he fell. The dress both of Mr. Percival and Bellingham agreed with the description given by Mr. Williams, even to the most minute particulars.’


There is no rational explanation for what occurred. Williams telling the story as he did appears to have secured enough independent witnesses to make it certain that he did have such a dream. Maybe that’s coincidence. Maybe not.





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While you’ve a lucifer

The usual suspect book awards are lining up to give accolades to a novel about 18th century colonial New York entitled Golden Hill, by a British author, Francis Spufford. I cannot see why. Half-way through the book, I put down Golden Hill for a week or two – about the time I discovered the hero of the book, a man called Smith, was evidently a time traveller who foolishly violated what in Star Trek they refer to as the Prime Directive.

What I mean is this; the author chose to bestow on his narrator a manner of speaking contemporaneous with the time of the action in 1746 — all Richardson and Smollett. Yet he had put a jarringly factual error at the end of his narrator’s pen. Sadly for readers, Spufford, the son of not one but two history professors, had not done his historical homework

The Lucifer Paradox.

Wikipedia has comprehensive and it is to be believed accurate coverage of the history of the match. Extracted from that document is this passage…

In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker’s match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. Holden did not patent his invention and claimed that one of his pupils wrote to his father Samuel Jones, a chemist in London who commercialised his process. A version of Holden’s match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems – an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam. The term “lucifer” persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.

And yet, and yet… our authorial futurologist in Golden Hill can predict into the future not only the outlandish concept of the match in a world of tinder boxes, but even to give it a name and describe its packaging in bundles. Bravo, Spuffurdamus!

Here is the reference below and by the by it’s a long sentence that would have pleased another, given his propensity for such phraseology and of course the ability of his readers to read such sentences in the candle-lit hours, for none other than Charles Dickens would have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of bad writing and would, if confused and jumbled clauses float, have sought to raise the Titanic had it been prepared to do the right thing like Lucifer and to sink before he died or it was built, using nothing save those very clauses’ shared desire to remove the full point from the English language to raise it (Thank-you).

As he tried to penetrate it, the stamping feet fell without malice on his shoes, and he would have reeled back had the rank behind not repelled him just as effectually, so he must stay bruised and upright, as tight packed as a lucifer match amidst a bundle.

One forgiveable Swallow doesn’t deter a Costa Coffee Book Award shortlister to call this book a summer. However it is just littered with similar anachronisms.

Nevertheless I finished it, though I read with pencil in hand, circling anachronisms and verbal modernisms that the editors let slip through, while Pudd’nhead Spufford tried so hard to be writing in 18th century vein.

I could list all the other gaffs but that would seem harsh and pedantic. The bigger sin is of the book is the Downtonisation of history. It continues apace, with dialogue in the tome ripped in places from old scripts of The Sopranos rather than Congreve.

One coda to writers of fiction who read this. You would be embarrassed in front of the creative writing class if you wrote a paragraph where your protagonist sees the un-seeable, or in this case hears the un-hearable through a closed door:-

“After an instant’s silence, there came through the door the sound of furious swearing, of clothes being frantically pulled on”

I’ll allow him to hear the swearing – or at least indecipherable raised voices. But what-the, who-the? What is this man, a bat? A superhero? How noisy can a shirt and a pair of kecks be, FFS?


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Jemmy Wood the banker’s banker

He was not what you’d call a looker. In profile Jemmy Wood bore a passing resemblance to Mr Punch following a good lunch – but James Wood esq, ‘the eccentric banker, merchant and draper’ of the city of Gloucester, England who died aged 80 on this day in 1836,  in his old house above the shop in Westgate Street – died very rich indeed.


His is a story of ‘not quites’. He was not quite the millionaire that the speculations claimed, but pretty close – at a time when to die with a couple of thousand made you rich indeed, £781,107 ten shillings and fourpence made you spectacularly so. His bank was not quite the oldest in the land, but it was pretty darn close. His grandfather started Wood & Co or Gloucester Old Bank in 1716, making it the fourth oldest.

Strolling down his street you could easily miss the bank. It was in a jettied Jacobean or Elizabethan house and shop and through the bullseye glass of the shop windows  were displayed buttons, ribbons and threads – it doubled as a drapers and haberdashery.jemmy 2

In one  corner of the shop was a tiny wooden counter with scales. You could tell it was a bank and you could ascertain what kind of a banker was Wood, by the counterfeit coins that had been nailed to the counter top to warn any future fraudsters. As a practical man Jemmy decided early on that it was not in his interest to give interest on any deposits shorter than a year — even by a day. Jemmy Wood was mean.

In fact he was a miser. He dressed cheaply, he spent little. He was said to have hung around the local docks to gather coal that was dropped as the collier ships were unloaded. Once he went to one of his local farm properties in his shabby tramp like coat and while he was there decided to pick some of his own turnips for himself – only to be beaten by a farm labourer, once for stealing and once more for claiming to be the owner of the field.

He was self-aware though. When journeying by coach to London for his amusement he bet a fellow passenger who had made fun of his cheap old suit that he could do something the other could not. The challenge he set seemed outrageous. The poorly dressed Wood challenged his fellow passenger that when they reached the capital they should each see if they could persuade a bank to advance them a cheque for £100,000. Naturally Jemmy won his £5 bet.

After selling yards of ribbon and a thousand sewing needles and thimbles, interspersed with high finance, all his long life, the renowned banker expired. Unmarried and with no living relatives, it was inevitable that flies began to gather about the jam pot that was old Jemmy’s loot.

He had made a will though,  leaving everything to four executors – or so it seemed. In the battle over the will that lasted years and sapped about half the money it turned out that the lawyer who drew up the will and appeared to be getting a quarter of the money had fiddled with the paperwork. On hearing the old miser was sick he had made a mercy dash from London to Gloucester while Wood lay morphine-adled and dying. The lawyer took papers from Wood’s bureau, stitched together sheets that had been signed and those that had not, using Wood’s own seal. He then burnt inconvenient codocils that gave away some of the money to the city of Gloucester and some other people. Triumphantly he ‘discovered’ the convenient version of the will. His downfall was that one of the servants had rescued from the grate a bit of the bonfire of inconvenient truth and anonymously sent it to one of those cut out from the will.

Despite a reward of £10,000 advertised for information as to who did save the codocil, no-one came forward. Like some early episode of CSI Gloucester, lawyers pored forensically over the handwriting and the spelling comparing it with Wood’s day book and accounts. In the end the foursome did get the money — less the cost of getting it, but the judgement concluded that the lawyer had indeed massaged the document.

When he was found out, he did the right thing and hanged himself – lawyers, eh?

Jemmy 3

Jemmy as a mantelpiece ornament. You could be certain you’d made it when the potters of Staffordshire modelled you in clay





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The final act in Drama

Here’s one you may have missed. Firstly, it might make you smile that there is a town of 44,000 people in north eastern Greece where it meets Bulgaria called Drama.

The story is a poignant Easter/Passover one of loss, isolation and a hint that maybe all religions are simply, at the end of it, one religion.

It’s  a story written by Stavros Tzimas and published in the Greek English language newspaper Ekathimerini about this man, Jacob Cohen. The last Jew in Drama.


Read it here:-

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Off with his ankle!

If you recently ate a meal that you’d rather not see back again, look away now. I say that because we are about to closely examine the festering old wound of Italian resistance partisan Giuseppe Garibaldi. The look-see at what this poor man went through says a lot about the stoicism of our forebears facing the dire risks that any infection brought with it. It says much of the state of treatment one could expect if you suffered an injury in Civil War times. It says most about the lack of decorum and privacy of public figures when the people felt it had need to know about their designated hitters.

The battle beside an Italian mountain known as Aspromonte took place on August 29 1862. It barely lasted 15 minutes. It came to an end after just a few volleys, as neither side really wanted a fight. In the end around 12-15 died. On one side was a regiment of General Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirt volunteers heading north up the Calabrian boot of Italy from Sicily, metaphorically clutching to their collective bosom the slogan Roma o morte (Rome or death) and the intention to kick the Pope out of his very temporal domination of the capital. Opposing them was the black feather-hatted Bersaglieri corps of the Royal Army of King Victor Emmanuel.

However, as the Italian nursery rhyme about the indecisive little skirmish goes, Garibaldi fu ferito; Garibaldi was wounded. And he was. While running along in front of his men ordering them not to fire on brother Italians, he was hit, twice.

If like me you thought that “If it bleeds, it leads” was a maxim descriptive of TV newsrooms since the Vietnam War, think again. Yes I know there are some Civil War corpse photographs, though by the tightness of their shirts, the dead in them have been that way for a day or so. The darling of Europe’s intelligentsia and the hero of the common man, Garibaldi, was shot twice; once in the thigh and the again in the notoriously slow-to-heal heel, but for the readers of the world’s newspapers, simply knowing that was not enough. Papers from as far away as Australia spent months reporting the will-he, won’t he die accounts of his recuperation.

As the battle was brief and the partisans surrendered, Garibaldi got prompt medical treatment from an army surgeon for a laceration to his left thigh and a more serious hole in the right ankle. The heel wound was no better by September and people gloomily began to hint at amputation or worse, that it may have “fatal issue”.  He was by now weak, feverish and in pain. The biggest question was whether the bullet – and we are talking of one of those conical Minié type rounds weighing more than an ounce – was still buried inside the joint where the leg bones meet the foot. X-Rays are a wonderful thing, but it would be nearly 40 years before they were discovered and just a few years after used in hospitals. So finding out was going to be done the old fashioned way, as we shall see.

Garibaldi was almost a Nelson Mandela figure to armchair champions of liberty, so every sawbones wanted a piece of the surgical action. Foreigners joined doctors from all parts of Italy and congregated where Garibaldi rested in a first floor room with taped up windows. The British entrant in the European Find the Bullet competition was Professor Richard Partridge. Though an A lister, he had no experience of gunshot wounds. Still he was big in the medical establishment and destined to become president of the British Royal College of Surgeons in a few years.

gari partridge

Partridge’s career was ruined by the Garibaldi debacle

With Godlike conviction Partridge told the world that there was no bullet in Garibaldi’s ankle. With that scientific arrogance — certainty delivered in the absence of knowledge — he pronounced that Garibaldi would make a full recovery. He collected his fee from British well-wishers and went home.

By late October though, the humbled Partridge was forced to retrace his steps across Europe. Those ‘inferior’ Italian doctors claimed the leg was plainly not healing because there really was a bullet embedded deep against the bone.

So an international surgical seminar was called in the sick room.  They came from as far away as Russia, though at least Russian Professor Pirogov’s pioneering work with injured men during the recent Crimean War gave his some real experience of bullet wounds.

Pirogov (left) said there was a bullet, as did a French surgeon named Auguste Nélaton (right). Partridge was adamant that he was correct first time. Altogether 17 doctors at various times gathered at Garibaldi’s bedside and opinions were, shall we say divided. What Garibaldi made of all this goes unreported, but it is worth a glance, wincing for him from behind the couch, at what he endured for them to come to this inconclusion:-Gari report

Nélaton thought about the problem of locating a hard object (the bullet) hidden among the crevices of the shattered bones of Garibaldi’s ankle and in a moment worth celebrating he devised an instrument that was cheap, easy to use, portable and which worked to determine where a bullet was. It was so simple. On the end of a probe he put an unglazed ceramic ball. Pushed against bone, no mark. Pushed against a soft lead slug it left a discernable grey smear.

Gari probe

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Garibaldi and Nélaton both looking relieved. Inset shows the white mark in Garibaldi’s boot where the slug entered

Three years later, in the early morning of April 15 1865 a world away, the Nélaton probe was pursuing its path through another famous wound, but this time the patient was already beyond saving. That patient? President Abraham Lincoln.





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This takes all the biscotti

From a British daily that once was listed in the realm of ‘quality newspapers’ but has descended the slippery slope of clickbait, The Daily Telegraph, today comes this howl-at-the-moon mad piece of over-interpretation of archaeology based on an agenda. We have previously ventured into noting that everything that ended up in a river or a ditch must have had ‘religious significance’ according to today’s archaeologists, but this takes the concept ‘…it must be so cos I want it to be so’ to a new depth. Note to self: when sheltering under a tarpaulin with my nextdoor neighbour from an erupting volcano and about to die, I will make sure that our proximity will not allow the suggestions. Worth reading the comments section in confirmation that there are still folks like us out there who do not fall for this guff…

Embracing figures at Pompeii ‘could have been gay lovers’, after scan reveals they are both men

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“She rode to town on her own horse”

Just a further thought on the “scandalous practice of wife selling” from the previous story. This idea of an auction was not any brutalising suttee of a marriage where women were subjugated by gnarly unreconstructed men who had tired of the old model. In case there was any doubt of the amicable and liberated relationship between the man and woman who conducted those auctions, here is another tale of the sale, this time from Plymouth. The year is 1822 and it is the week before Christmas. Worth noting that she deserted him and that she had been living with someone else for some long time. What made her a bit of a catch was that she “had her own horse”. My kinda gal:-


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