Sunday, 28 October 2018

George Washington and the cherry tree

When George Washington was six years old he was given a hatchet, which he used to inflict serious damage on his father’s young cherry tree. When challenged as to whether he was the culprit, George said that he could never tell a lie and that he had indeed done what he was accused of.
Do you actually believe that this is true? There are probably still huge numbers of people who do, simply because they were told the story by people whom they trusted to be as truthful as young George Washington, but there is absolutely no reason why they should! The whole tale was complete fiction – fake news if you like to use that term. 
The fib was the work of George Washington’s biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was born in Maryland in 1756 and ordained in London by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1784 before returning to America. He ministered at a church in Virginia that had formerly been attended by George Washington and his father, and he therefore saw himself as ideally qualified to write the President’s biography. 
When Washington died in 1799 the book was underway but not yet complete. Parson Weems rightly concluded that demand for a biography would be high and that a heroic yarn would sell far better than a dull political biography. He therefore decided to spice it up with a few extra tales from the President’s youth that would demonstrate why he became the man that he did. The fact that the events in question, including that concerning the cherry tree, were complete myths was a minor consideration.
When “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington” was published in 1800 it became the instant best-seller that Parson Weems had hoped for, and had reached its 29th edition by 1825, when Weems died. The book found a place in the homes of many thousands of Americans, sitting next to the Bible on the nation’s bookshelves. Just like the Bible, every word in it was held to be true, including that of the cherry tree hatchet job!
© John Welford

Thursday, 25 October 2018

What really happened to Grigori Rasputin?

History is full of stories that “everybody knows” but which later turn out not to be true after all. One of these concerns the assassination of Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk”, in December 1916.

Rasputin was a strange character from Siberia who persuaded the Russian Tsar and Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, that he could help with the treatment of Crown Prince Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. He did indeed appear to have a beneficial effect on the boy’s health, possibly through keeping at bay the court doctors whose treatments were making his condition worse.

However, Rasputin then went further and started to become influential in political matters, which did not go down well with the class of aristocrats who formed the Russian court and whose advice was being ignored. It was one of these, Prince Felix Yusupov, who is credited with being Rasputin’s assassin. 

The story that is usually told is that Yusupov invited Rasputin to an evening drinks session where he was given poisoned cakes which he wolfed down greedily but which had absolutely no effect on him. Yusupov then – according to him – shot his victim twice in the heart but Rasputin refused to die. The prince was then joined by associates who continued to shoot Rasputin as well as stabbing him and kicking him in the head, again to no effect. He only died after being wrapped in a rug and dropped through a hole in the ice on the frozen River Neva.

But the real facts are very different.

For one thing, the plot to assassinate Rasputin originated in London, not St Petersburg. Had Rasputin succeeded in his aim of persuading Tsar Nicholas to withdraw Russia from World War I, the full might of the German Army would have turned westwards to make life extremely difficult for the Western Powers, especially Great Britain. The British therefore had very good reasons for wanting Rasputin dead.

The chief agent in the plot was a British intelligence officer named Captain Oswald Rayner, who had known Prince Yusupov at Oxford University and travelled to meet him in St Petersburg. It was Rayner who actually killed Rasputin by shooting him once in the forehead with his Webley service revolver. The mad monk died instantly and was then dumped in the river. Captain Rayner promptly made his escape back to England.

The Yusupov account, which made him look like a noble hero who had saved Mother Russia from the Devil incarnate, was full of holes, unlike Grigori Rasputin.

For one thing, Rasputin would never have been tempted to drink madeira or eat sweet cakes. This was because a previous abdominal injury had made it impossible for him to ingest sugar without causing him severe pain. 

For another, an autopsy carried out on the body when it was recovered from the river found no water in the lungs, which meant that he did not die from drowning and was already dead before going though the hole in the ice. Reviews of the autopsy by forensic pathologists working in recent decades have confirmed the original findings and pointed out that the fatal wound almost certainly came from a weapon that was only used by British soldiers at that time.

However, if the assassination aimed to prevent Russia from abandoning World War I, it did not succeed, because that is what happened. This was due in part to Germany responding by allowing Vladimir Lenin to cross Germany from his exile in Switzerland so that he could return to Russia and lead his Bolsheviks to victory in the 1917 Revolution.

So the clinical and well-planned assassination of the mad monk only succeeded in delaying the inevitable.

© John Welford

Monday, 22 October 2018

The murder of Prince Arthur by King John

King John of England (reigned 1199 to 1216) is widely regarded as one of the country’s “bad kings”. This was largely due to his tyrannical behaviour and the actions he undertook during his elder brother Richard’s reign to raise money to pay for Richard’s ransom when the latter was imprisoned in an Austrian castle. The methods he used to drag money out of people were largely responsible for the Robin Hood legends that tell of resistance to tyranny.
As king, John’s autocratic rule led to him being forced to sign a document in 1215 that guaranteed certain freedoms to the people of England (most notably its aristocratic classes) that is known to history as Magna Carta.
Although King John’s reputation may be worse in some respects than he deserved – he was an able administrator if nothing else – one incident can only serve to tip the balance towards the negative side. This was the murder, by his own hand, of his nephew Arthur.
King Henry II (reigned 1154 to 1189) had four legitimate sons who survived to adulthood. The eldest, Henry, died before his father did, which meant that the second, Richard, became king in 1189. The third son, Geoffrey, also died during Henry II’s reign, but he left behind him a son, Arthur, who was born in 1187.
John, who was the fourth son of Henry II, therefore became king when Richard died in 1199, with there being only one other member of the royal family who might constitute a threat to his rule, namely Prince Arthur, aged twelve when Richard died. Richard had actually made it known that he wanted to be succeeded by Arthur, as opposed to John, so the threat was far from imaginary on John’s part, especially as Arthur soon made it known that he was not averse to becoming king as his Uncle Richard had suggested.
Arthur had been brought up and educated in Brittany, his father Geoffrey having been Duke of Brittany. It was while campaigning in France in 1203 that John happened to capture Arthur almost by chance. It had not been his intention to make such a capture at the time, but the opportunity to nullify the threat posed by Arthur could not be ignored.
Arthur was imprisoned firstly at La Falaise in Normandy and then at the fortress of Rouen, also in Normandy which was still an English possession at that time.
A contemporary source relates that, on the day before Good Friday, King John was at Rouen and had drunk too much wine at dinner. He flew into a rage that he directed at Prince Arthur, then aged 16. He seized the prince by the throat and throttled him. He then tied a heavy stone to his body which was dropped into the river Seine. 
Some time later Prince Arthur’s body was recovered by some fishermen and given a respectable but secret burial.
Not surprisingly, the story has not been universally accepted as true, and it is not possible to be absolutely certain about it, either in substance or detail. However, it would certainly not have been out of character for John, and Prince Arthur definitely disappeared from the scene at this time.
© John Welford

Thursday, 4 October 2018

The death of Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges lost her head to the guillotine on 3rd November 1793. Her mistake had been to question whether the French Revolution was going in the right direction.

She was a remarkable woman who was definitely ahead of her time. Born in 1748, she was a playwright who ran her own theatre company and campaigned against slavery. She was also an early feminist, who wrote a pamphlet entitled: “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”. Her earnest belief was that women were born equal to men and deserved to have the same rights. 

Her humanitarianism was what led to her downfall. She became horrified by what had happened to the Revolution that had begun in 1789 with promises of freedom for all and the end of tyrannical rule. One form of tyranny, namely that of France’s absolute monarchy, had been replaced by another, in which Robespierre and the Jacobins had created a new dictatorship that could not countenance any opposition.

She published a poster that called for a national referendum to allow the people of France to decide which way they wanted to go – towards a republic, a federal regime or a restored monarchy. This sealed her fate.

Her feminism was perhaps the final straw. One Jacobin commented that her death would be a lesson “for every woman who abandoned the cares of her home to meddle in the affairs of the Republic”.

© John Welford

The motoring adventure of Bertha Benz

Would the motor car have made its impact on the world at the time it did without the exploits of a woman named Bertha Benz? One has to wonder.
Bertha was the wife of inventor Karl Benz, who built the world’s first road vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. However, having built it he seemed reluctant to do anything with it, apart from admire it as it sat outside his house. It was an odd-looking vehicle by modern standards, having three wheels, steered by a tiller, and with seats that faced each other as in a railway carriage. 
Bertha decided, one day in August 1888, that this invention needed a bit of a publicity boost. She therefore took two of her sons on a ride in the car, to go and see her mother, who lived 65 miles away.
Bertha Benz was obviously an adventurous and ingenious lady, who was quite prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to overcome the shortcomings of her husband’s invention and face the discomforts of the journey. For one thing, the roads she had to travel along were nothing like modern ones with nice smooth surfaces, and the wheels of the vehicle did not have pneumatic tyres. The only springs were similar to those found on a horse-drawn carriage.
The engine soon needed cooling, so she had to stop whenever she crossed a river to collect water for this purpose. When the fuel line became blocked she freed the obstruction with a hatpin and had to use one of her stocking garters to insulate the ignition. 
The fuel tank was too small for a journey of this length, so she had to buy a petroleum solvent from a wayside pharmacy. Fortunately, this did the trick.
News of her trip sped faster than she did and she was greeted by eager newspapermen when she and her passengers reached her mother’s house. After three days she started off back home again, having made a detailed list of all the improvements that husband Karl needed to make in order for his invention to be commercially viable!
© John Welford