Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






17 September 2021

SleuthSayers Tenth Anniversary: What It's Meant To Me


Ten years ago today the Great John Floyd, one of several mystery author refugees from the long-running Criminal Brief blog, became the first SleuthSayer by posting the initial Sleuthsayers blog entry, "Plots and Plans." Ever gracious, John modestly pointed out that he was not posting first in the new Sleuthsayer rotation because he was best-suited to do so, but because it was simply his turn at bat.

Today, I have the honor of posting the 10th Anniversary post for the SleuthSayers blog, and I'd like to echo the sentiment. Long-term readers of this blog will know that my own usual turn at the wheel comes not on Fridays, but on Thursdays. So why did I draw 10th Anniversary duty?

Not because of what I bring to this blog, but because of what this blog has brought to me.

In a recent late-night conversation with Fearless Leader Leigh Lundin, I expressed how much posting at SleuthSayers had helped me as a writer, how I felt the better for the experience, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to share as part of this endlessly shuffling ensemble of writer friends.

Leigh suggested I reproduce the sentiments I expressed in that conversation in this tenth anniversary post. So here goes.

A bit of background: I'm not an original SleuthSayer. My tenure with the blog dates back to February 21, 2013, when the Immortal Rob Lopresti (Leigh's co-Fearless Leader) introduced me as the freshest-minted Sleuthsayer. My baptism by fire came that very day, with my maiden Sleuthsayers post: "I Owe It All to Rilke." So, yep, I'm not an O.G. SleuthSayer. My tenure only clocks in around eight and a half years and counting.

But that's one of this blog's greatest strengths: the breathtaking diversity of the writers who share their experiences here. People have stayed a while and moved on. Others, such as old friends R.T. Lawton and Eve Fisher have been here for years (both longer than I. I'm positive R,T. is a founding member of the blog and Eve must be close to that, if not also one.). Folks have even left and returned. And the best part is that all of this endless, diverse content churns out daily, and has for 3,650 straight days.

Imagine, whether you're a writer or a fan or some combination of the two, being able to learn something new about the art and science and blood and sweat and swearing and muttering to yourself in a crowded supermarket and dancing in the parking lot when having the Eureka moment that fills that plot hole that had you muttering to yourself in the supermarket in the first place and all the depth and breadth and heights that mystery writing has, can, should, and will again reach.

Every. Single. Day.

Rob and Leigh's invitation to join this happy band came at just the right moment for me. I was recently married, with an infant son, and two years removed from the publication of my most recent book. Getting married, buying a house, combining households and having a child, all in just a couple of years, put a genuine crimp into my writing time/head space.

Turns out, SleuthSayers was a lifeline.

My wife, wise woman that she is, maintains that I work best when I'm working on a deadline. SleuthSayers really allowed me to keep my hand in, as it were, by giving me an on-going bi-weekly deadline. This was instrumental in maintaining my chops, developing other aspects of my writing voice, and outlining new projects. This was the case especially early on, when my total actual output was a single published short story over a three-year period.

These days I'm back on pace: with several completed and published projects-my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde (Down & Out Books, Octobber, 2020) the most recently published. And 2021 has been a great year writing-wise. As I've expressed multiple times over the years, I'm a very slow writer. The process for me just takes as long as it takes. And yet this year alone I've placed three new short stories, wrapped a fourth, and am nearing completion on a too-long delayed historical novel.

And I owe it all to this blog. Thanks to all my fellow SleuthSayers, past and present, to Rob and Leigh for believing in me and my writing enough to invite me to take part in this supportive and welcoming community, and especially to our readers, for taking the time and trouble to read what we lay down here for you. Without the audience, the artist is irrelevant.

So Happy Tenth, SleuthSayers! Here's to another ten!

Feels like we're just getting started!

See you in two weeks!



19 August 2021

More Fun With Plagiarism — Led Zeppelin Edition


In case you were wondering what this post will really be about.

On August 2nd, fellow Sleuthsayer Steve Liskow posted a wonderful piece on plagiarism (Take a moment and go read it here.). And like all of Steve's well-written pieces on this platform, it really got me thinking.

As a fellow writer with a long tenured day-gig teaching at the secondary level, I too have a ton of stories about plagiarism. And with the advent of the internet, the instances of student plagiarism that pop up and slap me in the face when reviewing their work have, if anything, increased tenfold. 

And half the time these days, kids don't even bother to change the font of what they lift from other sources. It's literally just a search/highlight/double right-click deal.

Part of my job (I teach 8th grade) is to help students wrap their heads around the notion of original versus plagiarized work. And in their defense, they start my class aged around thirteen. Most of them have rarely, if ever, heard the "P" word before. So I spend quite a lot of time working on it with them. And as I point out over and over and over throughout the year: I am MUCH more interested in reading their original, unfiltered thoughts on what we're studying than those of someone they copied and pasted (usually wildly out of context).

After using his experiences catching out plagiarizers as a teacher for an introduction, Steve pivots and does a terrific job of laying out the case that former First Lady Melania Trump heavily (and notoriously) plagiarized a speech from her predecessor, former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page (right) of Led Zeppelin

From there he moves on to rock band Led Zeppelin and the case for their having plagiarized the intro to their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus", an instrumental piece by American rock band Spirit, who toured with Zeppelin right before they recorded Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which "Stairway to Heaven" appears. Spirit these days is probably best known as the band that produced singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson, who went on to compose the theme music for hit TV comedy The Office.

Did Spirit steal from The Duke?
Steve is convinced by the argument that Zeppelin ripped off Spirit. I have to respectfully disagree, and I cite music producer and YouTube giant Rick Beato, who does a better job than I ever could of defending the notion that while the two pieces are written in the same key, if Zeppelin stole their intro from Spirit, then Spirit stole from a whole bunch of writers who came before, including the Beatles and Duke Ellington. You can hear his argument here. It's worth watching. Beato even makes the case that employing this standard across popular music would mean insisting that Eric Clapton stole from bluesman Robert Johnson, who in turn stole from Mozart.

As a long-time fan of Zeppelin’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Steve charitably neglected to mention many of Zeppelin's other cases of outright thievery, both proven and unproven. There's no question that musically (and especially lyrically) these guys were thieves. Just a few of the more egregious cases:

1. “Whole Lotta Love”/“You Need Love” by bluesman Willie Dixon who gets co-writing credits on the song after suing in 1985 (The linked version above is Muddy Waters' classic version of Dixon's song.).

2. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” - this one is Joan Baez’s fault. The folk-singer covered it on a 1962 live album (I think her version is too showy, with her voice on it too high and "bright." If you'd care to judge for yourself, you can listen to it here), and rather than crediting the original author Anne Bredon, Baez credited it as “traditional.” So Zeppelin did too. Years later, when Bredon got wind of the cover (apparently she didn’t listen to hippie psychedelic blues-rock in 1969) she and Zeppelin agreed to splitting the royalties 50/50. I like to think she got a nice fat royalties check when Pink released her own scorching live cover of the song. Bredon only just recently passed away (aged 89 in 2019).

3. “Dazed and Confused” - Steve cited this one, and rightly, so, but I feel like it needs expanding upon. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page clearly stole this song from folksinger Jake Holmes after Holmes opened for Page’s then-band the Yardbirds in 1967. The lyrics were reworked, but it was clearly Holmes’s song. And what's more Page stole it twice. Here's an earlier version he did with the Yardbirds live on French TV shortly before they broke up. Listening to both versions in order makes it painfully clear how much Robert Plant's voice is an upgrade over Keith Relf's. Holmes never bothered to seek damages or a co-author credit. He repeatedly said that he enjoyed their new take on his original.

English folk singer Roy Harper
4. "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" - Where to begin? The final song from Led Zeppelin III is a bouillabaisse of lifted influences. It's intended as a tribute to English folk singer and friend of the band, Roy Harper. Harper is probably best known either for serving as a frequent opening act for Zeppelin, or for subbing in for Roger Waters and singing lead on Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar", from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. According to Jimmy Page in an interview with Melody Maker, "This came about from a jam Robert and I had one night. There is a whole tape of us bashing different blues things. Robert had been playing harmonica through the amp, then he used it to sing through. It's supposed to be a sincere hats off to Roy because he's really a talented bloke, who's had a lot of problems."

Bluesman Bukka White
But the song itself is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces lifted from country-blues classics, mostly Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down", (from which Plant pulled the majority of the lyrics) and another version of the song (same name, similar refrain, different verse lyrics and different melody) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose melody Page used for the bottle-neck guitar part he played for this song. Other influences include a verse from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me", and two verses lifted verbatim from "Lone Wolf Blues", by Oscar Woods.

5. "In My Time of Dying" - Zeppelin's longest studio recording, and the centerpiece of its masterpiece Physical Graffiti, this song is pretty much another case of outright theft. The website for the psychedelia-based podcast "Turn Me On, Dead Man" lays out the least confusing lineage for this blues classic, including Zeppelin's crediting the song to its four members as the writers:

Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and [Lovin' Spoonful frontman] John Sebastian cited [Bluesman] Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.

The legendary Robert Johnson
The above examples (and there are many others) demonstrate that, as with many popular music acts during the mid-to-late 20th century, Led Zeppelin indulged in the all-too-common mindset of it being "easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." And the notion that "everyone was doing it" doesn't really wash. 

Again, I say this as an unabashed fan of the band's stuff. They did amazing work. I just wish, as someone who generates original ideas, writes them down, and (occasionally) gets paid for them, that they had gone about crediting where credit (and dollars) was due in the right way.

What's most frustrating is that Zeppelin was not incapable or, in some cases, unwilling, to credit their original sources. Their scorching 1969 BBC Session live cover of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", carries the correct credits. Many of their other songs, which ought to, do not.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch Celebration Day, the concert film of Zeppelin's one-off reunion at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Hey, they're thieves, but I'm still  a fan!

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jason Bonham (original drummer John Bonham's son), Jimmy Page–2007

Thanks again to Steve Liskow for the inspiration for this post!

See you in two weeks!

05 August 2021

Five Tips on Getting Back into the Pensieve


 Two weeks ago I wrote about burnout, and the importance of being good to oneself as a way of combatting it. You can read that post here..

Today's post will be a short one. After all, I'm on a deadline. But it's in no way an unimportant subject, for all of its brevity.

As I mentioned in my previous turn at the blogging wheel a couple of weeks back, I've been using this Summer to clear up a whole slew of unfinished projects, and meet requests for submissions. Plus, in the past couple of years I have collected and edited two themed anthologies and expanded three previously sold and published historical mystery short stories into longer form (novella) pieces, and had them published last November.

It feels really good to get all of these projects wrapped and out there. But it does leave my most challenging partially finished project: a half-written, long-delayed historical novel that I have GOT to get to my agent THIS YEAR.

And it's been a while since I had my head deep enough into this novel that I feel comfortable moving around in it, let alone remodeling it any further. So that got me thinking:

How do you get your head "back into the narrative" after a fair amount of time away from it?

With apologies to Harry Potter fans, I call it "getting your head back into the pensieve."

So...this.

We've all been there. You get going on something, and 20k words in, you get pulled away by real life, by your day gig, by the fact the house needs painting, the dog needs walking, the fact that you're busy and you've always got stuff you need to get done. 

And you mean to get it done, but then there's that other thing and that other thing and that other thing, and so on and so forth...

And the next thing you know, it's been months, and you really need to get this piece wrapped. Don't want 20k solid words to go to waste!

What to do to get your head back into this particular pensieve?

Here's what I came up with.

Five Tips to Get You Back into the Pensieve:

1. Read what you've already written. Notice I didn't say "re-read." Make of this dilemma an opportunity to read your own work with fresh eyes. Also note I didn't say "read and takes notes." First time through, just read it. Let the impressions wash over you as they come one at a time.

2.Now Re-read it. And Take Notes. This will go slower than the first read, but it's absolutely essential if you want your finished product to make a lick of sense.

3. Consult your outline and amend it, using your notes. If you didn't outline it, outline it as you re-read it. There's no substitute for this.

4. As you're re-reading, also consider writing out dialogue between your characters, just stream of consciousness stuff. Character monologues (interior is fine) work well too. It doesn't matter whether any of what you write here gets into your final draft. The point is to get your head back into the story, and this is a powerful way to do it. Carry a notebook with you (if you don't already), and if you start hearing your characters' voices in your head while you're out and about, jot something down. And not to show your therapist. This is one time when "voices in my head" is a GOOD thing!

5. Lastly and most importantly: Be Open To Change! This might be an old story, one where you were going in a definite direction, with the ending all worked out. But you re-entering the narrative is the first step toward re-working it. You're not gonna write the story you would have written months ago. Maybe you'll do something close, but you're not that person anymore, and the novel you would have finished then is likely to have been very different from what you're writing now.

BE.

OKAY.

WITH.

THAT.

Take it from a guy who's cleared six long-term projects from his desk over the past few months. No matter how good the novel you might have written back then could have been, the reality is you didn't write it then. You're writing it now. Because you're finishing.

And that's the difference between "starting a novel," and "writing a novel."

Hope this helps! Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you have your own methods for getting your head back in the story, feel free to share those there as well!

See you in two weeks!

22 July 2021

Balance: the Key to Keeping Burnout at Bay!


Fact #1: Like many other artists (musicians, scupltors, painters, actors, etc.), most writers can't subsist on what they make by writing alone.

Fact #2: Like so many other artists, most writers have either a side hustle or a full-on day gig (or both) to make ends meet.

Fact #3: Juggling the writing career and the side hustle can be draining.

Fact #4: Sometimes the day gig/side hustle can take so much from you that you've got nothing left for the writing.

Fact #5: The above four facts are a pretty good thumbnail of my COVID Year-From-Hell.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT a recent selfie.

Those of you who follow my rotation in this blog (BOTH of you! *RIMSHOT*) know that my day gig is (and has been for decades) teaching history. And I love my day job.

That said: "COVID."

Let me repeat for emphasis: "COVID."

I'm not here to gripe about my COVID experiences. Other teachers elsewhere have done a great job laying out the challenges teachers across this country faced during the past fifteen-to-sixteen months. You can read some of their stories here.

Instead, I'm here to talk about the resulting burnout, and its impact on my writing. And also about what I did to counter the effects of said burnout.

Truth is, in this case, it was a simple choice. Allow me to illustrate with a visual aid:

Just in case you needed directions.

And yes, it really is all about "Balance." 

Not THIS kind of "balance." (Crappy album, by the way. Avoid it if possible.)

So what did I do? How did I achieve this "balance"? Well, it wasn't easy. Basically, I had a four-step process:

FIRST: Commit to whatever is right in front of you.

When I was in college, I had a terrific professor. Really engaging lecturer, tons of charisma. He also happened to be assigned as my academic advisor. And in between funny stories about his time as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless, he gave me a single piece of advice.

"I found this great job working as a night-time security guard. I was manning a desk all night and it gave me so much time to study while getting paid."

Now, I worked a lot different jobs in college, including several that were part of the campus "work-study" program. At exactly NONE of them did I get a single opportunity to crack a book and catch up on my homework. I know there are jobs out there like this (and I believe my advisor was telling the truth about his own experience), but it has never been my experience that you can do one thing well stealing time from something else you're obligated to succeed at.

So what I'm saying is: "Lean IN." Give it your all. Leave everything you've got at whatever you're working on, on THAT particular playing field.

In a conversation with my agent the other day, she told me how she's more swamped than ever, because so many people, while cooped up during COVID, have been writing books. That doesn't surprise me.

But the day job I work isn't the type to which I would feel good about phoning in the work. It's just not a job you can do well if you're half-assing it. On top of my day gig, I have a mortgage and a marriage and a child.

So how much writing was I going to get done during COVID? I published this, and I'm pretty proud of it:


In fact, I used COVID to finish up several project I'd left in various stages of completion during the previous couple of years. I've also written and placed three short stories (so far) this year (2020-2021). Three stories, three different anthologies. Publication dates forthcoming.

And yeah, I know, three short stories in a year might sound like light output, but a couple of things:

1. I write VERY slowly.
2. If I write it, it sells, it gets published and I get paid.*

(*with the exception of my first "mistake" novel, and a few early dry runs of short stories that have really not progressed much past the "rough sketch" stage.)

How did I manage this? Simple: when I was at work, I worked. When I was playing with my son, I played with my son. When I was spending time with my wife, I spent time with my wife.

And when I wrote, I wasn't worrying about my day gig. Or my mortgage, or my family. Because, by leaning in and taking care of business on each of these fronts, I was able to clear my mind and better focus/be way more productive than I had any right to be.

Second: Find a way other than writing to keep your subconscious working on your writing.

I keep a writing journal in which I write about my creative process, into which I transcribe story ideas, snatches of dialogue or narrative as they come to me, and I make a point of writing in it three to five times per week, writing day or not.

Find your thing that helps you continue to churn. Keeping out heads in the pensieve (I know, I know, Harry Potter reference) is part of makes us successful.

Third: Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough one. It means not kicking your own ass if you don't write for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. There were several months while trying to teach during COVID that I was so stretch so thin and so stressed and so gassed, that I was lucky to journal a couple of times per week.

Whoever said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," boy, did they have that right. Beating yourself up about not writing just takes time and energy away from where it is better spent: getting your butt into that chair and getting to work. Work now. Recriminations on the way up the aisle to accept that Lifetime Achievement award.

This one is essential to combat the burnout that is an inevitable portion of most of our professional lives during the Time of COVID. You want to finish that novel? You're not gonna get it done kvetching at yourself about it. In fact, your work is likely to suffer all the more if you're playing these sorts of mind games with yourself.

Or better yet, don't!

Fourth: Build in transitions!

With the challenging day-gig year that I just wrapped up on June 25th (you read that right, June 25th!), I'll admit that I ended the school year pretty danged fried.

Which was why I cut a deal with myself: I didn't even think about writing until I'd had two weeks' distance from the end of the school year. 

I did other things: read. Organized my stuff at home. Played with my family. Slept. A LOT.

Transition time helps the brain reset itself. I've never regretted down time in my writing schedule. My work is always the better for it.

And that's it. My four step process for coping with, and transcending, burnout. What's yours? Let's hear from you in the comments!

Now that's more like it!


See you in two weeks!


08 July 2021

I've Got This Great Character In Search Of A Story


(Still on a deadline—in fact I'm behind. So I'm updating and reposting this blog post from 2014 about character, and how it's where you find it! Back in two weeks with all new content!) 

So I know this guy.

70 years old.

Recently retired elementary music teacher for the past two decades.

Married three decades. Father of two.

He is one of the most interesting characters I know.

Really.

Seriously.

He is.

Go back and re-read the thumbnail I just gave you.

Now let me elaborate.

All of the above AND...

Thirty years a professional musician (including opening for the Grass Roots at age 15 in 1965!).

So, these guys. And yes, the dude second from the left really is Creed Braxton from "The Office."

So of course I ask him, "What were they like?"

("They" being the aforementioned Grass Roots.)

He smiles and says, "They were dicks."

He doesn't dance. Ever.

When I ask him why not, he says, "I never had to."

"Why not?"

"I'm the drummer. I never needed to dance to get girls."

(Note: the guy's wife is a knockout and they have been happily and faithfully married for the above-referenced THREE DECADES)

He once took a gig in Guam for four weeks that wound up lasting six months.

He knows an uncle of mine who is the amazingly-not-yet-dead black sheep (and then some) of our family. Their paths crossed years before I got to know him, back during his playing days. I'll leave it to your imagination how he knows him.

(And you're RIGHT!)

I once referred to someone we both know as a "hot mess." His response?

"I played in a band called 'Hot Mess'..." followed by reminiscences about same.

(This has happened more than once and is always entertaining.)

He once hid out in Alaska for over a year. This after getting stranded in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way there. I infer that there was a girl (or several) involved.

I convinced him to go to a Rush concert with me (I'm a HUGE fan). He is the only drummer I've ever known who attended a Rush concert and came away much more interested in what Alex Lifeson (the guitarist) was doing onstage than in what the then-world's greatest living rock drummer (Neal Peart) was doing behind his drum kit.

He's clean and sober now, and has been for years, if not always continuously.

He is one of the most painfully honest, most loyal and gentlest souls I have ever met.

I have seen him with blood in his eye and murder in his heart over the treatment of our society's most vulnerable members. I am hardly a conservative, and yet he makes me look like William F. Buckley.

And yet he lives on a golf course (It's a long story!) and sports a significant handicap.

All of the above is true.

I started this blog posting intending to wrap it up by saying that I had a great idea for a character based on this friend of mine, but no story in which to insert him. And then a funny thing happened.

I remembered a story he told me once about this woman he met, who turned out to be married, and....

...oh, forget it.

Wouldn't want to give away the ending!

Characters can come to us from the strangest of places and by the most indirect of routes sometimes, can't they?

See you in two weeks!

10 June 2021

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Speculator, Spy...Murderer?


Edward Bancroft
[The natives of the South American mainland prepare poisons] which, given in the smallest quantities, produce a very slow, but inevitable death, particularly a composition which resembles wheat-flour, which they sometimes use to revenge past injuries, that have been long neglected, and are thought forgotten. On these occasions they always feign an insensibility of the injury which they intend to revenge, and even repay it with services and acts of friendship, until they have destroyed all distrust and apprehension of danger in the victim of the vengeance. When this is effected, they meet at some festival, and engage him to drink with them, drinking first themselves to obviate suspicion, and afterwards secretly dropping the poison, ready concealed under their nails, which are usually long, into the drink.


—Edward Bancroft, An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America

Two weeks ago I discussed the strange circumstances surrounding the career and sudden death of American diplomat and merchant Silas Deane. This time around I delve into the backstory of the man who may well have murdered him.

As I mentioned previously, Connecticut-born Edward Bancroft was briefly a student of Deane's a number of years before the American Revolution. Apprenticed by his step-father to a doctor, Bancroft rebelled by running away to sea. He wound up in Surinam (known at the time as "Dutch Guiana."), where he worked as a surgeon on the plantation of a British subject named Paul Wentworth (more on him later).


Bancroft quickly established himself as an expert on the local flora and fauna, and after a brief return to Connecticut to square things with his family, moved on to London where, at the age of twenty-five he published the above referenced book-length "essay," which dealt, among other things, with South American curiosities such as a completely new method of dyeing wool/cloth, and poisons such as curare, and in which he offered proof that the shock generated by a local variety of eel really was a result of a type of bioelectricity they generated.

Benjamin Franklin in London
This work quickly established Bancroft as a man of letters, and with his background studying electric eels, he soon made the acquaintance of, and became friends with, another American-born intellectual who was conducting experiments with electricity: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had been living in London for nearly twenty years, ostensibly serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was Franklin who eventually recommended Bancroft to Deane as a possibly useful personal secretary when the Continental Congress sent Deane to France to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the French crown.

To Franklin Bancroft was the ideal choice: still living in London, he would be able to come and go between England and France without attracting the attention someone like the firebrand Thomas Paine (who was English-born) would. And he could likely be enticed to pass on what he could learn of British war plans to his employer, Silas Deane.

So that's what Deane did, asking Bancroft, whom he knew, but not especially well (not having seen him since 1758, the year Bancroft ran away to sea), to cross the Channel and meet him in the French port of Calais, ostensibly to reminisce over old times. When Bancroft returned to England, he had agreed to work for Deane, and, in turn, to spy for the Americans.

And once back in London, Bancroft then wasted no time getting in touch with his old friend and mentor Paul Wentworth, who had returned to England from South America, and was now working in some capacity for Britain's intelligence apparatus. And Wentworth, in turn, introduced Bancroft a couple of government department secretaries, who quickly struck a deal with Bancroft.

Bancroft would spy on Deane and the American delegation in Paris, and in return he would received an annual pension of £200 per year.

For life.

Bancroft and Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, quickly worked out a system whereby he would pass information about the American negotiations with the French over the question of a potential French entry into the war with Britain on the American side. Every Tuesday morning Bancroft would take a walk in Paris's famed Tuileries Gardens, and place a bottle containing information about the aforementioned negotiations in the hollow of a tree. One of the ambassador's aides would retrieve the bottle, while in turn passing along useless information that Bancroft could in turn pass along to the Americans.

And this went on for over a year. Although there were those among the American delegation who suspected Bancroft of being less than honest (and they included John Adams, who once wrote of Bancroft that he was, among a host of other sins, "a meddler in stocks as well as reviews, and frequently went into the alley, and into the deepest and darkest retirements and recesses of the brokers and jobbers...and found amusement as well, perhaps, as profit, by listening to all the news and anecdotes, true or false, that were then whispered or more boldly pronounced."), none of them apparently suspected him of selling them out to the British.

Silas Deane when he still just a wealthy merchant
As I mentioned in our previous installment on Deane's death, Bancroft had a profound interest in this relationship with the British intelligence services not being found out, especially after the war, around the time that Deane intended sailing to America to rehabilitate his own reputation. Bancroft was still receiving his secret pension (which had subsequently been raised to £1,000 per year), and had applied for a potenially lucrative patent for dyeing wool and cloth using the techniques he'd learned in Surinam.

But, as laid out by historians James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle in their 1992 book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, Bancroft and Deane also shared some unsavory secrets about Bancroft's time in Deane's employ:

It turned out Deane's arrangement worked well—perhaps a little too well. Legally, Deane was permitted to collect a commission on all the supplies he purchased for Congress, but he went beyond that. He and Bancroft used their official connections in France to conduct a highly profitable private trade of their own. Deane, for instance, sometimes sent ships from France without declaring whether they were loaded with private or public goods. This if the ships arrived safely, he would declare that the cargo was private, his own. But if the English navy captured the goods on the high seas, he labeled it government merchandise and the public absorbed the loss.

Deane used Bancroft to take advantage of his official position in other ways. Both men speculated in the London insurance markets, which were the eighteenth-century equivalent of gambling parlors. Anyone who wished could take out "insurance" against a particular event which might happen in the future. An insurer, for example, might quote odds on the chances of France going to war with England within the year. The insured would pay whatever premium he wished, say £1,000, and if France did go to war, and the odds had been five to one against it, the insured would receive £5,000. Wagers were made on almost any public event: which armies would win which battles, which politicians would fall from power, and even on whether a particular lord would die before the year was out.

Obviously, someone who had access to inside information—someone who knew in advance, for instance, that France was going to war with England could win a fortune. That was exactly what Bancroft and Deane decided to do. Deane was in charge of concluding the French alliance, and he knew that if he succeeded Britain would be forced to declare war on France. Bancroft hurried across to London as soon as the treaty had been concluded and took out the proper insurance before the news went public. The profits shared by the two men from this and other similar ventures amounted to approximately £10,000. Like most gamblers, however, Deane also lost wagers. In the end he netted little for his troubles.

So Bancroft, angling for a patent that could well be the foundation of a fortune, had to be worried that his speculation on "sure things" alongside Deane would come to light at precisely the right time to sink his patent application. Such behavior was ungentlemanly, and Bancroft, as Adams had said, carried the stench of someone who hung out with unsavory back-alley money men.

On top of this, Bancroft had already been forced to flee to France once before to escape hanging in the years since he'd worked for Deane. Many in the British government did not trust him, with his having publicly worked for one of the Americans negotiating with France, and this included King George III himself. 

So while Bancroft was outwardly prosperous and seemingly headed for more wealth and fame at the time of Deane's return to London en route to America in September of 1789, he had plenty to lose, should Deane open his mouth about their adventures in insider trading in the run-up to the Franco-American alliance of 1777. 

And Bancroft knew how to use curare.

While we'll never know for sure whether Bancroft had a hand in Deane's sudden death, there is plenty to consider in the case that can be made against him.

See you in two weeks!

27 May 2021

The Strange Death of American Diplomat Silas Deane


Silas Deane
Silas Deane

Silas Deane's career began with one of those rags-to-riches stories so much appreciated in American folklore. In fact, Deane might have made a lasting place for himself in the history texts, except that his career ended with an equally dramatic riches-to-rags story.

— James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle


You know his ambition… his desire of making a Fortune… You also know his Art and Enterprise. Such Characters are often useful, altho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.

— John Adams writing of Silas Deane


The over-achieving son of an ambitious Connecticut blacksmith, Silas Deane was by turns a graduate of Yale, a teacher/law student, merchant, politician, and the first "minister plenipotentiary" from the rebelling British colonies of North America to the Kingdom of France. By the time he died in 1789, aged fifty-one, he had long since experienced a complete reversal of his fortunes: for the final decade of his life Deane remained a discredited pauper, hounded by scandal, plagued by declining health, and eventually forgotten by history. A puzzling turn of events for a man who racked up success after success during the early years of his life.

And yet nothing about Silas Deane is more puzzling than the manner of his death.

After graduating from Yale in 1758, Deane supported himself by teaching school while simultaneously studying law. One of his pupils from this period, a tavern-keeper's son named Edward Bancroft, figures prominently in the final years of his life, first as Deane's secretary during his negotiations with the French over the question of a possible alliance with the rebellious colonies against the British, and later as his benefactor: one of the few people who would advance the penniless Deane money. 

Bancroft was Deane's pupil for only a brief amount of time (he ran away to sea), but the two remained friends, and when Deane needed a private secretary to assist in negotiations with the French, he contacted Bancroft, now a physician and scientist of some note, then living in London, and invited him to come work for the American delegation which by then consisted of three men: Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and the dour William Lee.

But more on Bancroft and the American diplomatic mission to France in a bit.

After being admitted to the bar in 1761, Deane briefly practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, before eventually moving to the town of Wethersfield, where he married Mehitable Webb, the wealthy widow of a merchant, took over the family business, and built a big new house next door to the one where his wife and her children had lived with her first husband. His wife gave him a son, Jesse, in 1764, and died herself not long afterward, in 1767.

On the left is Deane House, the house Silas Deane had built for his new family. On the right is Webb House, the one his widow had lived in with her children during her marriage to her first husband.

Deane remarried, this time to the wealthy and politically-connected granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut, and decided to go into politics. When the first Continental Congress was convened, Deane found himself a member of the delegation appointed by the Connecticut legislature to attend. 

However, Deane was not without his enemies, especially those who envied him his wealth and the swift rise in his political fortunes, and he was not selected to return to Congress the following year. Instead, members of Congress approached Deane about acting as minister to France, and securing badly needed military supplies for the Revolutionary cause.

Deane agreed, departed immediately for Paris, and began throwing quite a bit of his own money around trying to raise more money, and secure a treaty of alliance with France. By the time he called on Bancroft to join him from London, Deane had spent a considerable sum of his own private fortune on this mission for which he drew no salary. 

And at this point things began to go south.

Franklin shortly after arriving in France in 1777
While Benjamin Franklin remained a friend to Deane for years, Arthur Lee, the other member of the American delegation in France, seemed far too disagreeable to have much in the way of friends. A member of the wealthy and powerful Lee family, one of his elder brothers—Richard Henry Lee—later served as president of the Continental Congress and senator from Virginia, another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Along with being accomplished, the Lee brothers had in common the fact that neither of them much cared for their irascible, ill-tempered younger brother Arthur.

Not surprisingly, Arthur Lee took a distinct dislike to ever-on-the-make Deane, who, in addition to working on an alliance with the French, was also attempting to line up investors in a possible canal linking Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and a scheme to secure steam engines of the type he had seen being used in England a use them in American grist mills.

To complicate matters, negotiations with the French slowed down, likely due in no small part to the fact that Bancroft, whom Deane trusted implicitly, was in fact a British spy. Every Sunday for well over a year Bancroft would drop a parcel containing his weekly reports of the progress of Franco-American relations into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Gardens, whence it was retrieved by another British agent and posted to London.

The Disagreeable Arthur Lee
It wasn't long before Arthur Lee denounced Deane to Congress, claiming he had used his position in Paristo enrich himself to the tune of £50,000. This charge resulted in a heated debate, which in turn resulted in Deane being recalled from France.

When Deane returned to America he had not been apprised of the nature of the recall. He had come back from France on a French warship, accompanied by the first French ambassador to the United States—treaty secured. As a result he had left his account books in Paris, and was left to defend himself without the documentation of his considerable expenses.

Things went downhill from there. After a long, public and ugly back-and-forth, both in congressional session and in the press, Congress rebuffed Deane's requests for reimbursement, and he returned to France a much poorer man than he had been, thoroughly embittered by the experience. 

Shortly before Cornwallis' hugely consequential surrender  to Washington's Continental/French forces at Yorktown in 1781, letters written by Deane to friends back in America—in which he denounced the Congress and suggested the best course of action for Americans might be to patch things up with Britain—fell into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in New York City. Within days they had been published by a Tory newspaper in that city.

Now unwelcome in America, and with France getting too hot for him, Deane moved to Ghent, in Belgium and spent his time drinking and importuning old friends and acquaintances for money. This continued until 1789, when Deane decided enough time had passed that he might be able to restore both his reputation and his fortune at home.

He went to London, where he visited Bancroft (who continued to supply him with money) and the American painter John Trumbull. From there Deane booked passage to America on the Boston Packet in September. The ship departed London, but soon ran into fierce winds and laid to in order to make necessary repairs.

During a stroll around the deck with the ship's captain, Deane suddenly became violently ill. The captain put him to bed, where he soon died.

As recently as 1787 Deane had been bedridden by a protracted bout of ill health, so not much was made of his death by the British authorities who investigated it. He was buried in Kent, and for them that was the end of the matter.

In American circles the rumor ran riot that Deane might have been a suicide, what with his poor fortunes and shattered reputation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both referenced the event and the possibility of suicide in their correspondence.

Deane's fortunes were eventually posthumously restored. in 1841 Congress paid $37,000 to Deane's granddaughter as compensation for his expenses, along with admitting that the process by which his claims had been initially denied was rushed, shoddy and unprofessional.

As for Deane's death: natural causes? Suicide? Absent an exhumation and an autopsy, who can say what really happened here.

However, in 1959 historian Julian Boyd advanced a theory that Deane was, in fact, murdered. The most likely suspect? Deane's old pupil and secretary, Edward Bancroft.

Edward Bancroft
The Duplicitous Edward Bancroft

Because when Bancroft ran away to sea, he washed up in Barbados. While there he took a position as a surgeon for one of the sugar plantations on the island.

During his sojourn there Bancroft learned quite a bit about the science surrounding textile dyes. It was how he would make his name later. The plantation owner took a liking to Bancroft and sent him all over the Caribbean as his representative. During that time Bancroft became an expert in the making of dyes, and set about perfecting the process.

He also became an expert on poisons. While in Surinam he came in contact with native peoples who tipped their arrows with all manner of nasty concoctions. And Bancroft took notes. More than that, he touched on the subject in a book he wrote about his travels in the Caribbean.

As Boyd's theory went, Deane managed to work out the fact that Bancroft was a spy. Bancroft, by now drawing a hefty pension from the British government in exchange for his efforts in its behalf during the Revolution, also hoped to be awarded a lucrative patent for his dyeing process. 

Said patent might not be forthcoming in the event of Bancroft being unmasked as a spy. And Bancroft saw Deane on his final day in London. Oh, and the initial source of all of those rumors about Deane committing suicide? You guessed it. Edward Bancroft. Apparently he spread the word far and wide.

So...natural causes? Suicide? Murder? History is mute on the subject.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

See you in two weeks!

13 May 2021

What's in a Name—Ancient Egyptian Edition: Ptolemy


The following is adapted from material published in my book The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media 2011). Although there were fourteen (or depending on whom you believe, fifteen) Macedonian Greek kings of Egypt named Ptolemy, here below are featured the three most interesting. And by "interesting," I mean they lived up to the title of the book in which I featured them: three truly "ancient bastards."

Read on!

Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367 B.C.-ca. 283 B.C.)

“And thus Aridaeus, who had spent two years in preparations, brought the king’s [Alexander’s] body from Babylon to Egypt.  Ptolemy, in honour of the king, met the corpse with his army as far as Syria, where he received it, and accompanied it with great care and observance: for he had not resolved as yet to accompany it to the temple of Ammon, but to keep the body in the city [Alexandria] which Alexander himself had built, the most famous almost of any city in the world.  To this end [Ptolemy] built a temple in honour of Alexander, in greatness and stateliness of structure becoming the glory and majesty of that king; and in this repository he laid the body, and honoured the exequies of the dead with sacrifices and magnificent shows, agreeable to the dignity of a demigod.  Upon which account [Ptolemy] was deservedly honoured, not only by men, but by the gods themselves: for by his bounty and generosity he so gained upon men, that they flocked from all parts to Alexandria, and cheerfully enlisted themselves into his service, notwithstanding the king’s army was then preparing for war against him: and though he was in imminent danger, yet all readily ventured their lives to preserve him.  And the gods themselves, for his virtue, and kind obliging temper towards all, rescued him out of all his hazards and difficulties, which seemed insuperable.'

                                                                            — Ancient Greek Geographer Diodorus Siculus

The Guy Who Gave His Name To The Greek Pharaonic Dynasty In Egypt

Bust of Ptolemy I in the Louvre Museum
The most successful of Alexander the Great’s successor-generals, Ptolemy I Soter (“Father,” also more than that: "Savior," as in "Father of His Country.") succeeded because he was shrewd, calculating, and able to control the political narrative in an age when spin-doctoring was first coming into its own.  We’re talking, of course, about the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  

During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another, frequently several times over) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed Alexander’s death are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

General, Courtier, Governor, Cadaver Thief?

But for all that, Ptolemy, childhood companion and advisor to the young Alexander, seems different: when offered a command as a royal governor in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy chose Egypt: rich, fertile, both a breadbasket and a gold mine, easily defended because the deserts that surrounded it made travel across them by large military forces nearly impossible.  And from there he ventured out to steal Alexander’s body (as laid out in the lengthy quotation of Diodorus Siculus excerpted above) from the caravan taking it home to Macedonia.  This was a real political coup: control of Alexander’s body, to which he publicly paid every possible honor, gave Ptolemy the opportunity to set himself up as Alexander’s most legitimate successor.  And this is what he did, for the most part settling back and allowing the successors to pick each other off for the next four decades.

The Victor Who Wrote The History

Ptolemy’s greatest accomplishments weren’t founding a dynasty that lasted for three centuries in Egypt, though.  They were two-fold: first, he wrote a history of his famous king, which was used by countless historians during the next millennium (thereby allowing Ptolemy to by and large set the narrative of not just Alexander’s life story, but his own).  Second, he did what no other Diadochus (including the incredibly successful Seleucus) managed to do: he died in bed, of old age.

Truly a coup for a bastard in an age reknowned for its bastardry!

Bastard Son, Bastard Brother?

Ptolemy is listed all over the historical narrative of the period as “Ptolemy, Son of Lagus.”  No further mention is made of Lagus anywhere except his brief mention as Ptolemy’s father.  His mother was a distant relative of the Macedonian royal house and the rumored one-time mistress of Philip, father of Alexander the Great.  It is possible (perhaps even likely) that Ptolemy’s actual father was Philip himself, making Ptolemy Alexander’s bastard half-brother.  This would help explain why a boy eleven years older than the young prince was listed as one of his “childhood companions,” even going into exile with Alexander when the prince fled to Epirus shortly before the murder of his (their?) father.

A silver tetradrachm coin depicting Philip II, father of Alexander, and perhaps, of Ptolemy as well?

Ptolemy Keraunos: the Guy Who Made Oedipus Look Like a Boy Scout

“(T)hat violent, dangerous, and intensely ambitious man, Ptolemy Keraunos, the aptly named Thunderbolt.”

— Modern Historian of Ancient History, Peter Green

In an age where the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” and “bastard” were interchangeable, one of the most notorious bastards on the scene was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Bastard Out of Time

The Thunderbolt’s father and namesake Ptolemy I carried the honorific "Soter" (Again, Greek for "Savior.") for a reason.  In his own way the elder Ptolemy was as much as bastard as his hot-tempered son.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred movement.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace, and the court of one of his father’s rivals, Lysimachus.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

Bastard Marriages

Since the time of the pharaohs dynastic marriage has been a political tool used by rulers to cement alliances and found dynasties.  At no time was this practice more in fashion than during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals married the much younger daughters of their rivals, and married off their own children to yet others of their rivals’ offspring.  Such was the case at Lysimachus’ court: the old man himself was married to one of Ptolemy Keraunos’ sisters, a woman named Arsinoë, and another sister, Lysandra, was married to Lysimachus’ son and heir from a previous marriage, Agathocles.  Confused yet?  Keep reading!

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other.  Arsinoë eventually succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having Agathocles executed.  Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos fled, traveling to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other one of Alexander’s generals still left standing.  Largely for his own reasons Seleucus assured the two that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.

Betrayal

Seleucus’ forces triumphed in the resulting war.  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia.  The only problem was that Arsinoë still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

A Devil's Bargain

Arsinoë agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoë’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  

Coin minted by this Ptolemy during his short reign in Macedon: the likeness is of his sister/wife Arsinoë

You can guess what happened next.

The Betrayer Betrayed, and a Further Betrayal

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoë began plotting against him.  She intended to place her eldest son (the one named “Ptolemy”) on the throne and rule in his name.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoë’s two younger sons.  Arsinoë headed home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes: Gluttonous, Murderous, Unspeakable Bastard (ca. 182 B.C.-116 B.C.)

“The Alexandrians owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!”

                                                                                —Roman General & Politician Scipio Aemilianus

Ptolemy VIII being crowned: apparently stone is slimming!
That’s right, another Ptolemy.  But where the first of our Ptolemaic bastards was ruthless and shrewd, andthe second was brave, intemperate and violent, Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes was an insane, gluttonous monster who celebrated one of his marriages by having his new stepson (also, because of his family’s in-breeding, his nephew twice over, since he was marrying his own sister, who was already the widow of one of his brothers!) assassinated in the middle of the wedding feast, and later murdered his own son by this same sister in a brutal and sadistic fashion.

Turns out all of those generations of in-breeding tends to have crazy results.

What’s in a Bastard’s Name?

When he took the throne of Egypt in 145 B.C. the Ptolemy took the reign name “Eurgetes” (Greek for “Benefactor”).  In truth he was anything but.  Quickly tiring of his lying, his murderous rages, and his rampant gluttony, his subjects began to refer to him as “Physcon” (“Potbelly”) because he was so fat.  The quote that leads off this chapter references that physical characteristic as well as his laziness.  Beholden to the Roman Republic for its support, Ptolemy VIII was forced to actually walk through the city of Alexandria while playing tour guide to a visiting collection of Roman V.I.P.s, including Scipio Aemilianus.

Originally a younger son of Ptolemy VI, this Ptolemy bounced around from Egypt to Cyprus to Cyrenaica (Libya) until his older brother (also a “Ptolemy”) died in 145 B.C.  In short order he manipulated the common people into supporting him for king, in place of his nephew (a boy who was crowned shortly after his father’s death with the reign name of “Ptolemy VII,” with his mother, Cleopatra II- no, not that Cleopatra- as regent/co-ruler), and managed to work out a compromise with his sister-also-brother’s-widow wherein in he married her and the three of them became “co-rulers” of Egypt.

Murderous Bastard

Not only did Ptolemy then promptly have his nephew killed at the aforementioned wedding feast, he seduced and married as his “second wife” the boy’s sister, his niece, his wife’s daughter (confused yet?  It gets better), also named “Cleopatra” (No, still not that Cleopatra, the Ptolemies, like the Romans weren’t very original with names).  This after knocking up his sister/wife/widow of his dead predecessor herself, siring a son named Ptolemy (again) Memphitis.

When the people of Alexandria eventually rebelled and sent Ptolemy VIII, the younger Cleopatra and their children packing off to Cyprus, Cleopatra II (the sister/widow/first wife) set up their son as co-ruler and herself (once more) as regent.  Within a year Ptolemy VIII had the boy, his own son murdered.  Pretty awful, right?  Unspeakable?

No, that’s what came next.

Unspeakable Bastard

Once he’d had the child (no older than 12) killed, Ptolemy VIII had him dismembered and (no lie) sent to his mother as a birthday present!

As if this wasn’t enough, Ptolemy went on to re-take his throne and share power with his first wife until he died of natural causes after a long life in 116 B.C.

*    *    *

And there you have it: saved the best (okay, the WORST) for last! See you in two weeks!


15 April 2021

Historical Bastards Revisited: Aristagoras-Tyrant of Miletus


[Today's entry is the latest in my on-going, on-again-off-again miniseries cataloging infamous bastards throughout history. For previous entries, click here, here, here, and here.]

While the cities were thus being taken, Aristagoras the Milesian, being, as he proved in this instance, not of very distinguished courage, since after having disturbed Ionia and made preparation of great matters he counseled running away when he saw these things (moreover it had become clear to him that it was impossible to overcome King Darius)...                                                                                                                        

                                                                            — Herodotus, The History

How’s this for cynical: yesterday’s tyrants becoming today’s liberty-loving embracers of democracy?  We’ve seen a lot of this during the modern era; Boris Yeltsin in Russia for example, rejecting communism out of convenience rather than out of conviction, and being catapulted to power as a result.

But it’s hardly a new story.

Take Aristagoras, Persian-appointed tyrant of the semi-independent Ionian Greek city-state of Miletus, the guy whose push for home-grown democracy touched off the so-called “Ionian Revolt” of the Greek city-states along the coast of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 499 B.C.; a conflict that led to the loss of thousands of lives, and served as the precipitating event in a wider conflict between the Greeks and the Persians over the two centuries that followed.


Bastard-in-Law

Aristagoras owed his position as tyrant to his father-in-law, Histiaeus.  Histiaeus had been tyrant before him, and had done his job so well that the Persian great king Darius appointed him to his own governing council.  When Histiaeus went east to the royal court at Persepolis, he recommended Aristagoras succeeded him.  Later, when Aristagoras was attempting to foment revolt among the Greek cities of Asia, Histiaeus secretly helped him, hoping that a rebellion led  by his son-in-law would lead to his own being appointed to re-take the city and re-establish himself as Miletus’ tyrant.

The modern-day ruins of the ancient Ionian Greek city of Miletus

Hardly a born-and-bred defender of personal liberty, Aristagoras’ opportunism was born of the most instinctive of human impulses; self-preservation.  Here’s how it happened.

Naxos, with the ruins of the temple of Athena in the foreground
The Proposal & The Vig

Shortly after he’d become tyrant of Miletus, Aristagoras had been tapped to help the empire pick up some new real estate in the form of the Greek island of Naxos, a strategically placed island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.  In exchange for helping with this, Aristagoras was to receive a large portion of the anticipated loot to be taken when the island fell.

In anticipation of this, Aristagoras took out a large cash loan from the local Persian satrap (governor) in western Asia, in the city of Sardis.  With this money he hired mercenary soldiers and ships to help with the conquest.

The Crash

The only problem was that Aristagoras got into a major personal feud with the Persian admiral set to lead the expedition which became so ugly that the guy scotched the whole deal by secretly warning the Naxians of an invasion on the way.  Not surprisingly, the whole venture failed.

But, in a set-up that 20th century mafia bosses would admire, Aristagoras was still on the hook to the Persians for the money he’d borrowed, regardless of the success or failure of the invasion.  Desperate to save his own skin, Aristagoras set about quietly stirring a rebellion in Miletus and the neighboring cities, inviting such mainland Greek cities as Sparta and Athens to help their cousins across the Aegean Sea.

The Results

The Spartans not surprisingly refused (it was too far from home for these xenophobes).  But the Persian king had just succeeded in really pissing off the Athenians by baldly interfering in their internal politics and insisting that they take back the tyrant (Hippias) they had given the boot (with Spartan help) a decade previously.  So they agreed to send a fleet of ships to help.

And with that the Ionian Revolt was born.  The immediate result?  Sardis, the western-most provincial capital in the Persian Empire (and home-base of the satrap who had strong-armed Aristagoras in the first place) was sacked and burned by the Greek rebels.  The Athenians, horrified by the wanton destruction of the ancient city (and the Persians' western capital), withdrew their forces and went home.

The longer-term results: After a five-year-long campaign and the investment of much, time, effort, blood and money, the Persians crushed the Ionian rebels at the battle of Lade. Then they spent the next year picking off the Ionian cities one by one. By 494 BC, all of the Greek cities of the Ionian coast were back under the Persian yoke.

And then the Persians turned their attention toward the interlopers from across the western (Aegean) sea. As it turned out, just because the Athenians were finished supporting the Ionians, that didn't mean the Persians were finished with the Athenians.


The resulting conflict would rock the ancient world. All of the Greek cities on the Greek mainland, on the islands, and even along the Ionian coast, were drawn in. On both sides of the Greco-Persian struggle. And by the time it was over, in 479 BC, the unthinkable had happened: Persia had lost, thousands of her soldiers slaughtered, hundreds of ships sunk or captured, millions in treasure spent. All to upstart barbarians clinging to the western edge of the known world.

And Aristagoras?  Still fearing for his own skin, he relocated to Thrace, where he tried to establish a colony from which to continue the war against Persia, and was killed trying to strong-arm the locals (see how this sort of thing just keeps running downhill?).