Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Jackasses of History Blog

I was surprised by good response from the "Jackasses of History" series, and realized it's better off with its own dedicated blog. I intend to update it at least once a week, hopefully on Tuesdays. I've enjoyed writing Jackasses of History and thank everyone who said they liked it. For all future Jackasses, consult Jackasses of History, the blog.

Jackasses of History: John Thurtell

John Thurtell (rhymes with "turtle") was known to his friends and family as "Jack." That's appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you're going to be one of those, make sure you're good at it, or, like Thurtell, you'll end up at the end of a rope.

"Now where did I hide that gun?"
Thurtell was born in the late 18th century into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father was a prominent merchant and city councilman who also served as mayor. Thurtell shared his father's ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant - which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don't know what he did, but they didn't kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell's service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.

Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war. It was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor's son.

Thurtell's father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who'd moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as "a man of integrity."

Thurtell's jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell's father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds (that is, £, a huge sum at the time) worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold, he returned without the money, saying he'd been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father's influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821.

It was a bad year for the Thurtell family - his brother Tom had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell's). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.

The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom's name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King's Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom's original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn't stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother's name.

Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom's name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom's name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he'd mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down - Thurtell's remodeling job ensured the night watch didn't see the fire until it was too late.

But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom's name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom in the ass, although Thurtell, as we'll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.

Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he'd racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell "suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality." He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he'd imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumors that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, he'd become a laughing-stock (not, of course, through his own jackassery).

In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we'll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne'er-do-wells - think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman's carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.

Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he'd already killed Weare - and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert's cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare's throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare's brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert's property - after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert's cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he'd taken off Weare's corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.

The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons - but he couldn't find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare's body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn't long before they showed up looking for Thurtell - whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare's friends knew he'd planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn't show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration - all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.

At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King's Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn't work. He was convicted of Weare's murder and hanged in January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: "I forgive the world!" His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.

Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.

Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell's jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Jackasses of History: George McClellan

Before we talk about why General George B. McClellan, once the general-in-chief of Union forces during the American Civil War, is a Jackass of the First Order, let's talk about his good points. He was handsome. He was charismatic. He was a very good organizer, and academically, understood military tactics and, especially, training.

"Attack the Confederates? Meh."
Unfortunately, he was pompous, vain, prone to bask in unwarranted self-congratulation, ignored orders, was insubordinate to his commanders (especially President Lincoln)  utterly identified with the aristocratic south, supported slavery, and, worst of all, seemed overly cautious to the point of cowardice. He blamed all of this failures on others, and history would judge him not only by his contemporary detractors, but by embarrassing revelations found in his own letters and papers after his death.

George McClellan was a blue-blood, born into a wealthy family. He showed early promise, graduating university at 13 and being given a special dispensation to enter West Point early. He graduated second in his class. At West Point his closest friends were Southern aristocrats and he was sympathetic to their lifestyle, believing firmly that slavery was protected by the Constitution. 

During the Mexican-American War, he served as a commander of engineers and did well constructing things under fire, although he never saw actual combat as a participant. He wrote a manual on bayonet tactics, but it was only afterward he acknowledged he had simply translated it from the French. After that, he was sent to the West to shore up fortifications and scout out passes through the Cascade Range of the Rocky Mountains. He was utterly insubordinate to his commander, the governor of the Washington Territory, because he considered him a social inferior. Ignoring orders and acting on faulty intelligence, he found a pitiable pass through the mountains, somehow managing to miss three far better ones that were quite close by. These would later be used by the railroad companies. This process took him so long that he was presumed dead, and he was bitter about newspaper articles that reported he'd been killed by Comanches. He refused to surrender his log books when he was relieved of command; it later turned out this was because of embarrassing personal comments he made about his commanding officers.

He soon became a protege of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who sent him on a secret mission to the Dominican Republic with an eye toward future annexation. His ties with the south were strong. He believed in the Union, but felt that the Federal government should not interfere with slavery.

When the Civil War broke out, he claimed a great victory at the Battle of Rich Mountain. It wasn't much of one - it was, in truth, somewhat indecisive, although the Confederates did withdraw. Faced with many Union setbacks at the outbreak of the war, the public nevertheless hailed McClellan as a hero, calling him the "Napoleon of the United States." He seems to have taken this seriously, as his pose in our photograph makes clear. Never mind that during the battle, he threw his own subordinate, commander William Rosecrans, under the proverbial bus by not committing reserve troops to reinforce Rosecrans, which was an essential part of the battle plan, resulting in a Pyrrhic victory.

He became so popular he wrote that if he wished, he could be Dictator of the United States. Because he was a good organizer and had the public on his side, Lincoln put him in charge of the Army of the Potomac, charged with defending Washington DC from the Confederate forces of General Joseph Johnston, who were massed nearby - far too close for comfort.

McClellan boasted that he would crush the rebels in a single campaign, then proceeded to sit around and do pretty much nothing for a few months. He consistently over-estimated the size of the Confederate forces, falling victim to tricks that even the simplest recon missions could have penetrated. For example, Johnston painted tree trunks to look like canon; he marched the same few troops through a gap in McClellan's sight-line over and over and over to give the impression there were more of them than there were (they were just walking in a large circle). McClellan had the largest unit ever assembled in the United States, and one of the largest in the world at the time. Nevertheless, he felt he was not in a position to attack. At no point during his command did McClellan's forces not outnumber his enemy by at least two to one, and often the ratio was far greater.

Meanwhile, he wrote scathing remarks about abolitionists, and issued a proclamation to southerners that he would not free their slaves if he invaded, and would ensure that their property was not damaged (a promise he could not possibly have kept). This was done without the knowledge of his superior, General-in-Chief Scott, or President Lincoln, which miffed them greatly.

McClellan then threatened to either quit the army or stage a military coup unless he was made General-in-Chief. Lincoln reluctantly agreed, hoping that McClellan's skill as a trainer and organizer would come through. But Lincoln and the war committee became increasingly frustrated at McClellan's apparent lack of zeal, as his army sat encamped and made no moves against the Confederates. At the Battle of Ball's Bluff, McClellan managed to lose despite outnumbering his opponents by three to one. When a Congressional committee called him in to explain, McClellan called in sick. His subordinates testified that he did not share any specific overall strategy with them and they were left without orders during the battle.

McClellan blamed Lincoln for his failures, calling him a "baboon" and "gorilla." When Lincoln came to visit McClellan at his home, he kept the president waiting for half an hour, then had a servant tell the president he had gone to bed.

Under intense pressure from Lincoln to do something, McClellan finally shared a plan to divide the Confederate forces called the "Urbanna campaign." This came to nothing, as McClellan took a long time to prepare. Meanwhile, General Johnston somehow managed to move his entire Confederate army without McClellan realizing it, rendering his tardy and over-cautious campaign plans utterly moot.

Lincoln removed McClellan as General-in-Chief, but kept him in charge of the Army of the Potomac and ordered him to focus on taking Richmond, the Confederate capitol. But he conducted this campaign with a significant lack of zeal, it seemed, and soon developed a reputation for never being where the action was. At the Battle of Malvern Hill, for example, McClellan was 10 miles away, in a boat. Newspapers mercilessly lampooned him for sitting in safety while his men died. When General John Pope of the Union moved his army toward Virginia, McClellan was ordered to reinforce him. McClellan didn't, and this resulted in the loss of the Second Battle of Bull run. Lincoln realized that McClellan was better at engineering and training, and put him in charge of the fortifications of Washington DC, against the advice of his cabinet. Said Lincoln of McClellan, "If he can't fight himself, he excels at getting others to fight."

But when McClellan had his chance to shine, he blew it. General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland with the Army of Northern Virginia, counting on pro-slavery citizens there to smooth the way. While Lee stampeded into Union territory, he told his subordinates he was counting on McClellan's reputation for being too cautious and academic. McClellan was ordered to chase Lee, but moved his troops at a mere six miles per day. Then he got his golden ticket: spies discovered Lee's battle plans hidden in a rolled-up cigar. McClellan was ecstatic and wrote to Lincoln that if he couldn't crush the Confederates with this knowledge, he would consider himself a failure and go home.

Of course, he didn't crush the Confederates, he didn't consider himself a failure, and he didn't go home. Catching up with Lee at Antietam, he postponed his attack several times due to early-morning fog. This gave Lee plenty of time to prepare. Ultimately, the battle was called a Union victory, but only because Lee withdrew his much smaller force from the field first. The battle was technically a draw, with no tactical advantage for either side. Lee retreated, but McClellan had every opportunity to pursue and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, he allowed Lee to maneuver his entire force back across the Potomac into Virginia to regroup and fight another day. In fact, McClellan was many miles away in his tent during the battle, too far away to personally supervise anything. He also, for some reason, chose not to use any cavalry in the battle, leaving a powerful force sitting idle. His subordinates complained that McClellan had shared no overall battle plan with them, making it impossible for them to take initiative or respond to unfolding events during the battle.

Lincoln ordered McClellan's dismissal, replacing him with the famous-whiskered General Burnside. Lincoln also ordered the Emancipation Proclamation at this time. Furious, McClellan ran against Lincoln for president in 1864. But repeated Union victories under his successors doomed his candidacy, and Lincoln won in a landslide. Tellingly, the military voted 3-1 overall in favor of Lincoln, and some 70 percent of the Army of the Potomac voted for Lincoln as well, despite McClellan's personal popularity among the rank-and-file.

McClellan went to Europe after the war, and planned to return and run for President again following Lincoln's assassination. However, he backed out when he learned that Ulysses S. Grant would oppose him. He was appointed to be the Superintendent of Public Works for New York, but the senate blocked the appointment, citing his incompetence. He was elected the governor of New Jersey, where he spent a single term somehow not managing to stir controversy or screw anything up. He wrote a book defending his conduct in the war, a volume full of bitterness toward his superior officers, blaming all of his failures on Lincoln's refusal to give him enough troops - ridiculous, when we consider he constantly outnumbered his opponents. McClellan died unexpectedly from a heart attack at 58 years old. Neither of his children had children, thus saving future generations from the jackassery in his gene pool.

McClellan went to his grave believing history would vindicate him, but ironically it was his own pen that doomed his reputation. His personal letters to his wife were made public after his death, revealing his tendency for self-aggrandizement and self-congratulations, scathing racist remarks, and total identification with the aristocratic southerners he was supposed to be fighting. History can only conclude that McClellan enjoyed all the trappings of being a general, had a solid understanding of war from an academic point of view, but was reluctant to fight, either from cowardice or because he sympathized too greatly with his enemies.

So, for being pompous and self-important, racist, blaming his inactivity and failures on others, refusing to share battle plans with his subordinates, staying miles away from the front lines of any battle, for publicly snubbing and mocking the commander-in-chief, for terrible political judgment, for prolonging the most terrible conflict in American history through his inaction - congratulating himself all the while as the "savior or the Union" in letters to his wife - General George McClellan is, without a doubt, one of the true Jackasses of History.


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Jackasses of History: Jonathan Wild

Jonathan Wild was both cop and criminal. He may not rank as a complete "jackass of history" (see previous post) because he was (arguably) competent until the end of his career. But Wild, the so-called "Thief-Taker General" of London, is an interesting character nonetheless, and approaches jackassery close enough to be included in our Jackasses of History.

Bad Cop!
Wild was born in the late 1600s to a carpenter. As a young man he was an apprentice buckle-maker in Wolverhampton but left for London to work as a servant. He was soon fired from this job, returned to Wolverhampton, then shortly thereafter left his wife and child to return to London.

He soon found himself in debtor's prison, but made himself popular by running errands for the guards. He was able to scrape together enough to buy his freedom. In prison he met a prostitute named Molly, who got him involved with her gang of thieves and whores. He became an expert in the underworld, serving as a pimp and a fence. He lived with Molly as her husband, even though both were already married, and served as her pimp.

Wild eventually got a job as a deputy for notoriously corrupt "Under-Marshall" Charles Hitchen, who routinely extorted money and goods, enriching himself in his position. Unfortunately this was normal at the time. London had no effective police force and a population of about 70,000 - huge for the early 1700s - and crime was on the rise. London was crawling with unemployed soldiers after the War of the Spanish Succession, which made matters worse. Wild served under Hitchen, but continued to fence goods and act as a pimp for Molly and several other prostitutes.

Eventually, Wild realized he could do better on his own - away from both Molly and Hitchen. Like a true jackass, he cut off Molly's ear to mark her as a prostitute. He set up an office, called himself Hitchen's "deputy" even though he wasn't, and wore a sword despite the fact that he did not have "gentleman" status (which was illegal).

Nevertheless, the city's fear of crime allowed him to operate as a thief-taker. He became wildly popular as he appeared to be successful at curbing crime (he sent some 60 thieves to the gallows). In truth, he specialized in having items stolen, waiting for the theft to be reported, then "discovering" the goods and returning them for a reward. If a scapegoat was needed, Wild would offer up a member of a rival gang or one of his own gang members who had crossed him. He fenced goods for them and kept the majority of profits for himself, amassing a decent pile of wealth. If he came into possession of stolen goods that would allow him to blackmail someone - such as finding a personal belonging in a whorehouse - he would often put out an advertisement in one of the many news-sheets of London, with the blackmail implied.

He became so popular that the Privy Council that advised the king asked for his input on new ways of controlling crime. Near-jackass that he was, Wild advised that the reward for capturing a thief be increased by 300 percent. Obviously, this was to his benefit and he continued to enrich himself.

When he'd tackle another gang, he would make sure the news-sheets knew about his heroics. But while appearing to be acting for the public good, Wild was just engaging in gang wars disguised as law enforcement. He soon controlled London's largest crime ring, one of the first we can consider "organized crime" in the modern sense.

Things began to go badly when he tangled with a former associate who had struck out on his own - Jack Sheppard. He was handsome, well-liked, and seen as something of a Robin Hood-type by the apprentices and cockney folk of London. He was also known for non-violence, which was probably the cause of his falling-out with Wild in the first place. Wild had him arrested, but he escaped. He was arrested again, and escaped. The news-sheets had a field day with this. Eventually Wild got Sheppard's wife so drunk she betrayed his secrets, and he was arrested again - and escaped again. This made Wild look bad in the press, and Sheppard's supporters began to grumble about Wild's apparent (and actual) hypocrisy.

West arrested a partner of Sheppard's named Blake. At trial, Blake begged to be transported to the colonies instead of facing execution, but Wild blocked the request. In a rage, Blake managed to launch himself at Wild and slit his throat. He survived, but was laid low for quite some time. Blake was executed.

Meanwhile, Sheppard was captured again, wrapped in 300 pounds of chain, and was kept under watch. He received visits from members of the gentry and public sentiment was with him, due to his ethos of non-violent thievery. Nevertheless, he too was executed, but Wild did not attend because he was still convalescing from his throat wound.

Soon after he recovered, Wild staged a violent jailbreak to free one of his thieves. This went badly, public sentiment turned against him, and he was sought by the authorities. He was sent to Newgate prison but continued to run his empire from there. He was brought to trial for the violent jailbreak and for stealing jewels from the Knights of the Garter. When it was obvious that the public had turned against him, Wild's former accomplices began giving evidence against him. He was sentenced to death. Unmanned, he broke down and begged for his life, but the court was impassive. In prison, he developed gout, was in constant pain from it, and lapsed into complete insanity. On the day of his execution he tried to commit suicide by drinking laudanum, but threw it all up and went into a coma. He was hanged anyway, still in the coma, at one of the largest public hangings in London. The same public that sang his praises earlier now cheered his death. Tickets were even sold for the best views of the hanging.

His body was buried, in secret, next to his third wife. But later in the century, when autopsies were being conducted on famous criminals, doctors dug up his body and studied it. His skeleton is still on display at the Hunterian Museum.

Wild captured the attention of writers such as Daniel Defoe, who wrote an account of his life, and was the inspiration for Peachum in John Gray's The Beggar's Opera (Sheppard is represented by Macheath, who would live on the 20th century as the inspiration for Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife").

So, for leaving his wife and son, abusing his legal authority, betraying the public trust, cutting off Molly's ear when he was done with her, turning on his former friends and associates, bungling a jailbreak, misreading the public's admiration of Jack Sheppard, begging for his life when he'd ignored similar pleas from his former friend Blake, and for failing in his suicide attempt, I think we can safely say that while Wild might not have been a complete jackass, he comes pretty close, and deserves to be ranked among the Jackasses of History.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jackasses of History: Thomas Seymour

Thomas Seymour is today's Jackass of History. By all accounts, Seymour was courageous and good-looking. He was also vain, jealous, and, to make matters worse, incompetent. Had he managed himself better, he could have been one of the most powerful men in England. Instead, he was executed for treason.

Can't you tell I'm a giant douche?
Said Nicholas Throckmorton, a friend of King Edward VI, of Seymour: "hardy, wise and liberal ... fierce in courage, courtly in fashion, in personage stately, in voice magnificent, but somewhat empty of matter."

Seymour's sister Jane caught the eye of King Henry VIII as his relationship with Ann Boleyn fell apart, primarily due to her inability to give him a male heir. He married Jane 11 days after Ann's execution. Henry seems to have truly loved Jane, at least insofar as he was capable. She gave him his long-awaited male heir, Prince Edward (the future King Edward VI). Unfortunately, she died from complications of childbirth some two weeks later. Both of Jane's brothers were given powerful positions at court. The elder brother, Edward, was the more responsible and capable of the two, and was one of Henry's privy councilors. Thomas was never granted a councilorship by Henry, who seems to have realized he was a jackass.

Like a lot of good-looking jackasses, he managed to capture the attention of an otherwise lovely, respectable, and classy lady, Catherine Parr, whose attraction to Seymour seems to have been her only major flaw. She was one of the richest widows in England. They began a flirtation that was a great frustration to her friends and advisers. Seymour - either because he loved her or because of her fortune - proposed marriage. Unfortunately, Henry VIII had also noticed Catherine and proposed marriage. As a religious reformer, she felt God had called her to this position. Henry had been backsliding toward Catholicism ever since his break with Rome. She hoped to continue to sway him toward more radical Protestant reform, and even got herself into trouble a few times over it (fascinating tales that must be told elsewhere). With a heavy heart, she rejected Seymour's proposal and accepted Henry's.

Henry then sent Seymour to the continent to manage some parts of his disastrous and costly military campaigns in France. Seymour's bravery meant he met with a few successes, capturing two castles under the command of Sir John Wallop (pack a Wallop?). Otherwise, he was not particularly successful, failing in an important mission to recruit German mercenaries to serve Henry.

Returning to England shortly before Henry's death, Seymour was miffed that he was not on the Privy Council, and resentful that his brother Edward was high in the king's favor. He was determined to weasel his way into the royal family, expressing an interest in marrying either of Henry's daughters (Mary and Elizabeth). Nothing came of this, which surprised no one but Seymour.

Then Henry died, leaving Seymour's older brother Edward as "Lord Protector" for the child King Edward VI. Seymour was made a privy councilor, but this did not satisfy his ambition. He was given a few titles and appointments as a sort of consolation prize. Nevertheless, Thomas was consumed with jealousy of his older brother and constantly sought to undermine his influence over the young king.

Henry's death left Catherine Parr vast wealth and the freedom to marry again. Seymour swooped in and the two were married secretly, quite soon after the king's death. Seymour and Parr moved to his estates in the country. They were made protectors of Princess Elizabeth, who Seymour liked. A lot. When she was 14 years old, he began deeply inappropriate behavior toward her that probably amounted to full-on sexual abuse. However, it is unknown to what degree Elizabeth may or may not have been victimized. A strong-willed young lady faced with attention from a good-looking man, she may not have put up much resistance. All that was acknowledged publicly was that he would "romp" with her, tickle her, "slappe her behinde as she lay abed" and other things. It is even said Parr joined in a few of these "romps." Whatever happened between them, when Parr became pregnant by Seymour (her first child), she became deeply concerned over his behavior with Elizabeth and sent her away to live elsewhere. But then Parr herself died, and Seymour attempted to reconnect with Elizabeth. Already quite astute despite her years, Elizabeth took great pains to avoid him (this lends credence to the belief that she was a victim of sexual abuse, not a willing partner in their "romps").

Frustrated in his attempt to marry Elizabeth, Seymour began to secretly exercise influence over the young King Edward, using his vast wealth to give the king a generous allowance. The king was utterly reliant on others for pocket money, and this enabled him to give gifts and feel more king-like and adult. Seymour tried to cajole Edward into making him his personal governor, but this came to nothing. Finally, Seymour openly attempted to persuade the king to curtail his brother's power, which, again, came to naught. The young King Edward, in fact, seems to have held little respect for either of his Seymour uncles, preferring instead the counsel of Catherine Parr's brother, who he referred to tellingly as his "honest uncle" to distinguish him from the Seymours.

Seymour became increasingly more vocal in criticizing his elder brother and calling his policies into question. Seymour was the nominal "lord admiral" of the British fleet, whom he unwisely tried to enroll in a possible rebellion. Failing this, he negotiated with pirates on the western coasts who it was his job to keep at bay. All of this became too suspicious, and the privy council moved to order his arrest. But, despite being treated shamefully by his little brother, Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, called a council so that Thomas could try to explain himself. This would have probably saved his life, but he never showed up to the hearing.

Soon after, in a staggering display of jackassery, Seymour, perhaps slightly unhinged, attempted to sneak into King Edward's bedchambers. We'll never know why, but it was considered most likely at the time that he was attempting to spirit the young king away, so that he could physically control the royal person and make a bid for power. Like the jackass he was, Seymour failed to realize or remember that the king routinely slept with several dogs. A spaniel barked at Seymour and he shot it. He was suddenly surrounded by palace guards, and being caught outside the king's bedchamber with a loaded gun was too much to explain away. There was no longer anything his big brother could do for him - Seymour was arrested the next day and charged with 33 counts of treason. He was executed within the month, his estates and wealth confiscated by the crown, and his daughter Mary left a destitute orphan.

A byproduct of all this is that the great men of the realm came to know Elizabeth first-hand. All of Seymour's associates were ruthlessly questioned, including Elizabeth, to see who was complicit in his treason. Although she was not first in line to succeed Edward if he died, she was in line, and her association with Seymour placed her under suspicion. During relentless questioning, the sordid details of Seymour's guardianship of her came to light, though Elizabeth is believed to have downplayed this to avoid embarrassment. During her questioning, the council was reportedly impressed with her poise, personal magnetism, and "polite defiance." She was removed from all suspicion, and made a few contacts who would serve her well when she did become queen.

So, for not realizing his own limitations, for his inability to be content with the incredible good fortune that repeatedly fell into his lap, for molesting a 14-year-old princess, for being stupid enough to think he could foment rebellion, and for grossly bungling his attempt to kidnap the young king, Seymour is, indeed, a true Jackass of History.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Young Elizabeth

 
 
I've just finished the latest book in C.J. Sansom's incredible series of Matthew Shardlake novels, in which the hero, a hunchbacked lawyer detective in Tudor England, meets (for the second time) the Lady Elizabeth. At the time, her stepmother Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's final wife, orchestrated a reconciliation of Henry and his daughters. Elizabeth, however, the daughter of executed Ann Boleyn, was always said to be his least favorite.

This portrait by William Scrots was painted when Elizabeth was 13 years old, and was intended to convey several strong messages about her. As one of the few types of mass media in its day, Tudor portraiture was heavily symbolic. The little book in her hands is most likely intended to be a New Testament. The large book on the stand is often said to be the Old Testament, but the pages are blank. Some have opined that it was meant to convey that Elizabeth's story was not yet written. The painting also showcases pearls, representing virginity (she would be painted with pearls in nearly every portrait). The most striking symbol in the picture is often overlooked, however - Elizabeth is standing in front of a bed. This is subtle today, but would not have been subtle to her contemporaries. The bed is a strong advertisement for her marriageability (a status she would wield as a tool of statecraft for the rest of her life).

This is one of my favorite portraits of Elizabeth. Her contemporaries said she was a serious child, as intelligent and articulate as many adults. Her studious nature is hinted at in the books, but it's also evident in her face. Portraiture in the late period of Henry's reign stressed realism (the work of Holbien, much favored by Henry, is a perfect example). There's good reason to believe this is a very accurate likeness, and if so, there can be no doubting the beauty of the young princess (though at the time this was painted, she was barred from the succession and was known as the Lady Elizabeth). Later written accounts show that Elizabeth was very proud of her hands and long, shapely fingers. The emphasis on this in the portrait, even at such a young age, lends the air of truth to those accounts.

Henry died not long after this portrait was completed. Elizabeth went to live with her stepmother, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, Thomas Seymour, uncle to the young King Edward. As it turns out, Seymour was an incredible jackass who spent the next year sexually abusing the 14-year-old Elizabeth and hatching a hare-brained plot that landed him on the headman's block. Even with the relatively permissive attitude to such abuse in those times, Seymour's behavior was considered shameful and scandalous. However, it is also said that Seymour was incredibly good-looking, and that the young Elizabeth may herself have been a willing, if confused, participant. I find it more likely that Seymour's sexual abuse of the young princess is one of the main things that led her to resist ever being dominated by any man for the rest of her life, and, as there is evidence to suggest she may not have been able to conceive (for she was certainly not a Virgin Queen), she possibly even suffered a permanent injury of some kind.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hounds of Ulster

Many folks in my family have done some fairly intense research into the family history - both on the Scott side (my mother's maiden name) and McAnally. Never mind the Scotts for now, because this is St. Patrick's Day (though truth be told, it seems I've got more Scottish in me than Irish). At one time the McAnallys were known as the "hounds of Ulster," and the original Irish version of the name, Mac Con Ulaidh, means "son of the hound of Ulster." The clan was thought of as fierce warriors. None of this genetic predisposition has passed to me, unless you count war-gaming. A later, Gaelic spelling is Mac an Fhailghigh, which means "a poor man," so I think I prefer the former. At any rate, on this St. Patrick's Day let's remember the Irish Hercules, Cu Chulainn. Given the meaning of Mac Con Ulaidh, I like to think there is some tenuous connection between me and this Hound of Ulster.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Theme From Diamondface

At a (fairly) recent convention I found a near-mint copy of Top Secret SI, a tabletop roleplaying game TSR released in the 1980s. It was intended to be a somewhat more streamlined version of the original Top Secret. Our gaming group in high school had a lot of fun with this one. The current gaming group thought it might be fun to delve back into it (we like percentile games), so I've been working on an original concept for a short campaign.

Because I can't envision a good spy villain without a cool name and an appropriate theme song, I've come up with both, along with a movie poster - 'cos I'm THE BEST GM IN THE WORLD!