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

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?).



01 April 2021

Drake's Plate: Happy April Fools Day!


The so-called "Drake Plate"
In 1936 a sales clerk named Beryle Shinn blew a tire while driving in the north end of San Francisco Bay, not far from the prison at San Quentin. Shinn, a decidedly "free spirit," decided not to waste a sunny afternoon changing a flat. So instead, he hiked to the top of a nearby hill, and stumbled across a most unusual cast-off: a square brass plate with a hole punched in the lower right hand quarter, and covered in peculiar writing.

Thinking he might find a use for it, Shinn took the plate home with him, where it languished in his garage for several months until he decided the writing on it might mean it was valuable. So in February of 1937 he took it down the road to the University of California, in Berkeley, on the advice of a friend who had been a student there.

Professor Herbert E. Bolton
Shinn wound up in the office of Herbert E. Bolton; director of Berkeley's Bancroft Library, who also held the Sather Chair in American history, and was a leading expert on the history of early California. Bolton deciphered the writing on the plate, and became visibly excited.

Bolton offered to purchase the plate from the bemused Shinn on behalf of the university. When Shinn agreed, Bolton informed Shinn that he had brought him an artifact of singular historical value, and insisted on settling on him the princely sum of $2,000 (Nearly $38,000 in inflation-adjusted 2021 dollars). The university board of regents approved the purchase based on Bolton's expert recommendation. (Interviewed decades later Shinn spoke of how grateful he was to Bolton. The two grand he got for the plate allowed him to buy a house and propose to his sweetheart.).

And just like that, the University of California acquired the legendary Drake's Plate.

Statue of Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth
In 1579 English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake became the first Englishman to captain a ship into the Pacific Ocean. In his ship The Golden Hind, he navigated the treacherous southern passage through the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, ostensibly on a voyage of exploration, on orders from Queen Elizabeth of England herself.

Of course the voyage was a thinly-disguised excuse to prey upon Spanish shipping, and Drake captured and looted a number of Spanish vessels while working his way up the western coasts of first South American and then North America. It is widely believed that one of his final landfalls before heading west across the Pacific toward Asia was at the bay which still bears his name, just north of San Francisco Bay.

Upon making landfall at Drake's Bay, Drake claimed the land in his monarch's name, and dubbed it "New Albion." To commemorate the event, so the story went, Drake had made a solid brass plate, with an English sixpence embedded in it as proof that the plate's creators were English. Then he had the plate mounted somewhere along the coastline of Drake's Bay, and sailed off, eventually circumnavigating the globe and returning to England fabulously wealthy (and with a hefty share for the queen herself, as well, of course.).

A modern replica of Drake's ship The Golden Hind
Bolton, a scrupulously honest, hard-working and prolific historian, was intimately familiar with the legend of Drake's Plate. The long lost artifact was a well-known obsession of his. For decades he had admonished undergraduates with weekend or vacation plans including trips to the region of Drake's Bay to keep their eyes peeled for Drake's Plate. (It is possible that one of Shinn's neighbors, a former student of Bolton's was the one who eventually steered him in Bolton's direction).


Upon deciphering the writing on the heavily weathered plate Bolton became more certain that it was authentic.It was at this point he began negotiating with Shinn to purchase it on the university's behalf. Electroplating testing conducted on the plate helped convince Bolton that it was the genuine article.

The inscription reads:

BEE IT KNOWNE VNTO ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS.
IVNE.17.1579
BY THE GRACE OF GOD AND IN THE NAME OF HERR
MAIESTY QVEEN ELIZABETH OF ENGLAND AND HERR
SVCCESSORS FOREVER, I TAKE POSSESSION OF THIS
KINGDOME WHOSE KING AND PEOPLE FREELY RESIGNE
THEIR RIGHT AND TITLE IN THE WHOLE LAND VNTO HERR
MAIESTIEES KEEPEING. NOW NAMED BY ME AN TO BEE
KNOWNE V(N) TO ALL MEN AS NOVA ALBION.
G. FRANCIS DRAKE

But if Drake had left the plate somewhere along the bay near Pt. Reyes, how had it made its way nearly thirty miles to the east to that hill overlooking San Quentin? That remained a mystery during Bolton's lifetime.

It has since come to light that the plate was originally discovered near Drake's Bay by a chauffeur named William Caldeira. Caldeira later discarded somewhere along the road near San Raphael, and somehow it made its way from there another ten or so miles to the hilltop near San Quentin.

Which brings us to the question: "Is the Drake Plate genuine?"

Of course not.

The plate is the product of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by several members of "E. Clampus Vitus," a “historical drinking society or a drinking historical society,” of which Bolton himself was a member. Light-heartedly dedicating themselves to "the erection of historical plaques, the protection of widows and orphans, especially the widows, and having a grand time while accomplishing these purposes," the "Clampers," as they dubbed themselves, included many prominent California residents, and were infamous for the practical jokes their members played upon each other.

George Ezra Dane- The Mastermind
Keenly aware of Bolton's obsession with the Drake Plate, Several of his fellow "Clampers," including such prominent historians as George Ezra Dane, Carl Irving Wheat and George H. Barron, former curator of American history at San Francisco's famous De Young Museum, decided in 1933 to play a joke on Bolton. 

The hoax was originally Dane's idea, and he quickly recruited several of his fellow Clampers to assist with the prank. With the possible exception of Barron (who, it was later reported, secretly nursed a grudge against Bolton for supposedly being instrumental in Barron's eventual dismissal from his position at the De Young), the intent of the Clampers involved in the hoax seems to have been to have a bit of innocent fun pranking a friend. Either way, things got out of hand.

They bought a piece of brass at a San Francisco shipyard, and one of them tapped the words of the inscription into the plate with a cold chisel. But they also left hints that the plate was a fraud: the group's initials, "E.C.V." painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. George Clark," the "chisler" of the inscription, even added his initials to it. Bolton took the "G.C." to stand for "Captain General," a rank which did not exist in Elizabethan England.

Carl Irving Wheat- Fun Guy
Then the Clampers planted the plate out near Drake's Bay and waited for it to be found. When it turned up in Bolton's office nearly four years later, with Bolton believing it to be the genuine article, the members of the group realized the joke had gone too far.

But rather than come forward and potentially publicly embarrass their friend Bolton, the Clampers anonymously joined the ranks of those who challenged the plate's authenticity. They even "satirically" wrote an article hypothesizing how the plate could have been faked in precisely the manner in which it actually was. They faked another plate, this one clearly a forgery, with a satirical verse, poking fun at the authenticity of the original, inscribed instead of a supposed proclamation by Drake.

Nothing worked. Bolton was undeterred by any of the criticism of his analysis, and died in 1953 still believing the plate Shinn brought him was genuine. And apparently none of the Clampers who were in on the joke had either the nerve or the heart to come forward blow the whole thing up. They all also eventually took the secret of their prank gone horribly wrong to their respective graves (Dane, the mastermind of the entire prank, wound up dead of a gunshot wound in Golden Gate Park, just a few years later, in 1940, aged just 36).

The plate itself resided on public display in the Bancroft Library for decades, even as the doubts as to its authenticity lingered in academic circles. Eventually, with the 400th anniversary of Drake's voyage looming, the plate was tested again, using new technology, and was proven to have been rolled- a modern process, rather than hammered, as would have been the case had it been forged in the 16th century.

UC Berkeley's famous Bancroft Library

It was not until 2002 that the secret notes of one of the members of E. Clampus Vitus kept about the perpetration of the hoax were discovered (in, where else? The Bancroft Library!), that the Clampers's connection to the whole affair actually came to light. A group of historians published their findings based on researching the notes in California History in 2003. They announced those findings at a press conference in a room at the Bancroft, where the fake Drake Plate was still on display, under glass.

And yet many historians still believe in the existence of the genuine plate, and that Drake left in the bay which bears his name. And it continues to be the subject of intense speculation in academic circles to this very day.

As one of the co-authors of the 2003 article, marine historian Edward P. Von der Porten, noted at the time: "There is still a plate of brass out there."

And on that note: Happy April Fools Day!

See you in two weeks!



18 March 2021

A Kinder, Gentler...Bootlegger


Roy Olmstead
 Two weeks ago I wrote about rum runners and the ships that anchored out into international waters anddelivered illegally imported booze to them. This week I've decided to move ashore and talk about the guys who offloaded the hootch and ran the considerable risks (at equally considerable profit) of delivering to a thirsty nation.

And one guy in particular. Ex-cop and "gentleman bootlegger" Roy Olmstead.

Born and raised in Nebraska, Olmstead moved to Seattle in 1904 (aged 18) and worked in a shipyard before joining the Seattle Police three years later, in 1907. Within ten years, Olmstead was a lieutenant. That lasted for three years, because once Prohibition kicked in Olmstead realized the massive amount of money to be made supplying illegal liquor to the masses, and began a side business running hootch. 

And this very week in March of 1920, Olmstead was nearly caught in a raid. He escaped, but was recognized by one of his fellow officers, and was arrested at his home the next morning. The whole escapade cost Olmstead a $500 fine and his job.

Rather than be discouraged, Olmstead threw himself whole-heartedly into the illegal liquor distribution business, and over the next five years became one of the most successful 'leggers in America. By 1925 his operation was one of the biggest employers in the Puget Sound region, had started up his own successful radio station (which his wife largely ran out of their home, and which he used to help get coded messages to his contacts in the liquor business.).

He delivered to such infamous speakeasies as the "Bucket of Blood" (actual name: the Hong Kong Chinese Society). He put cops (LOTS of them) on his payroll to act as lookouts for his operations. He eventually had his own boat, the "Zambesie," which he sent to pick up shipments in the Haro Strait.

Olmstead always seemed able to either stay one step ahead of or buy off both the feds and local law enforcement. This included the Canadian authorities, who taxed liquor bound for the States at a higher rate than booze bound for places like Mexico (after all, it was only illegal to bring liquor into the U.S. In Canada there was no law against exporting to the States.). So Olmstead would hire ships in Vancouver, fill them to the gunwales with booze, forge papers saying they were bound for Mexico, then have them sailed down into Puget Sound and offloaded with no one the wiser.

And he managed this without resorting to the varieties of violence so common everywhere else in America that Prohibition ran up against organized crime only too willing to break legs to get what it wanted. And no prostitution, racketeering, no other illegal activities. Just running booze. The best booze money could buy. Olmstead didn't cut his liquor with furniture polish. Only the best for his customers.

And it worked. Eventually he was profiting to the tune of $200,000 a month. 

It couldn't last.

The Seattle Police tapped his phone. In 1925 Olmstead got hauled before a federal grand jury on two counts of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act. He was convicted, sentenced to four years in prison, appealed all the way to the Supreme Court (Olmstead v. United States), claiming that the wiretap evidence was inadmissible. (The Supreme Court disagreed.)


Olmstead went to jail at McNeil Island in 1927, once his appeals had run their course. He was a model prisoner, served his entire four years, converted to Christian Science and even testified on the government's behalf on a number of subsequent federal cases. 

He learned carpentry in prison and once he was released in 1931, he began volunteering in a number of prison outreach programs, focusing specifically on dealing with alcoholism. He taught Sunday school. For the remaining thirty-six years of his life (he died aged 79 in 1966), Olmstead remained popular with the community, never losing the famous charm that had stood him in such good stead while he was the so-called "King of the Bootleggers."

Roy Olmstead on his way to jail in 1927. Smiling.


04 March 2021

Rum Rows & Rum Runners


There were no floodlights on the seaward side of the ship. Red cut his motor to half of nothing and curved in under the overhang of the stern, sidled up to the greasy plates as coyly as a clubman in a hotel lobby.

Double iron doors loomed high over us, forward a little from the slimy links of a chain cable. The speedboat scuffed the Montecito's ancient plates and the sea water slapped loosely at the bottom of the speedboat under our feet. The shadow of the big ex-cop rose over me. A coiled rope flicked against the dark, caught on something, and fell back into the boat. Red pulled it tight, made a turn around something on the engine cowling.

He said softly: "She rides as high as a steeplechaser. We gotta climb them plates."

I took the wheel and held the nose of the speedboat against the slippery hull, and Red reached for an iron ladder flat to the side of the ship, hauled himself up into the darkness, grunting, his big body braced at right angles, his sneakers slipping on the wet metal rungs.

After a while, something creaked up above and feeble yellow light trickled out into the foggy air. The outline of a heavy door showed, and Red's crouched head against the light.

I went up the ladder after him. It was hard work. It landed me panting in a sour, littered hold full of cases and barrels.Rats skittered out of sight in the dark corners. The big man put his lips to my ear: "From here we got an easy way to the boiler-room catwalk. They'll have steam up in one auxiliary, for hot water and the generators. That means one guy. I'll handle him. The crew doubles in brass upstairs. From the boiler room I'll show you a ventilator with no grating on it. Goes to the boat deck. Then it's all yours."

"You must have relatives on board," I said.

"Never you mind. A guy gets to know things when he's on the beach. Maybe I'm close to a bunch that's set to knock the tub over. Will you come back fast?"

                                                                           — Raymond Chandler, "The Man Who Liked Dogs"

As with so many things, when framing this scene of his early detective Carmady sneaking aboard a "gambling boat" anchored out in Santa Monica Bay, Raymond Chandler was writing from life. There were a number of such "gambling boats" that sat anchored in international waters, off the coast of Southern California during the 1930s.

I was reminded of both this story and its basis in fact earlier this week, when I heard the sad news that fellow Sleuthsayer, the great Paul D. Marks had passed away. In addition to being one hell of a writer, Paul was quite the student of history, including a stated obsession with Southern California's historic gambling boats. And a few months back, he wrote one of his best Sleuthsayers posts about them.

So, in honor of Paul, in today's post I'm going to riff on his wonderful piece about the gambling boats by harkening back even further—to the 1920s—and a similar enterprise of questionable legality: Prohibition-era rum runners, and the so-called "Rum Row."

Background

In 1919 the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act, ratifying and enforcing the 18th amendment to the Constitution, and for the next fourteen years the production, importation and distribution of alcoholic beverages was against the law. Not until the act's repeal in 1933 would Americans be able to buy a drink legally again.

Of course, this meant big money was out there for the taking, as long as you didn't have any qualms about breaking the law. "Prohibition," as it quickly became known, helped bankroll a massive expansion of organized crime syndicates in both the United States and a host of other countries.

Why?

Simple. Turns out most Americans liked to have a drink every now and then. And since it wasn't illegal to drink or to possess alcohol you had "bought before Prohibition," flouting the Volstead Act turned into something of a national pastime.

Americans taking the 18th Amendment about as seriously as you'd expect them to.

And with the Mafia and a host of other criminal gangs locking down the terrestrial trade in illicit hootch, that left sea-borne smuggling. And so-called "rum rows."

Rum Rows

A "rum row" was, quite simply, a line of ships anchored outside of U.S. territorial waters, holds full of liquor, waiting to do business with smugglers who would come out in smaller, faster boats, take on cargo, and run it in to shore. Rum rows sprung up almost overnight, on both coasts, and especially in the Caribbean. But for the purposes of this post, we'll focus on the Canadian liquor runs down the West Coast generally, and on the "Queen of Rum Row," a former timber schooner called the Malahat.

The Malahat

We have remarkable documentation of the Malahat's operations, both because the son of one of its captains wrote a book about his father's exploits, and because the engineer on one of the small boats buying booze from rum row ships including the Malahat recorded "home movies" of a number of his boat's runs on an early Kodak camera. AND one of HIS descendants (a grandson) digitized and uploaded whole portions of them to YouTube. Take a look. Fascinating! According to the grandson, his grandfather "had many, many great stories to tell us as kids of his colourful life rum running and other adventures on the coast."

According to author Jim Stone in My Dad, the Rum Runner, ships like the Malahat didn't have to be fast, and they didn't have much to fear from the likes of the Coast Guard. Unless there was criminal activity the Coast Guard left the rum rows alone in most of the spots where they congregated along the West Coast (The Farallon Islands, fifty miles off the Golden Gate, were supposedly a popular spot for the rum row ships to set up shop for months at a time). The speedboats, trawlers and other smaller craft used by local smugglers to load up at rum row were their preferred targets.

On a typical run south from her homeport in Vancouver, the Malahat would carry “200 cases of well-known brands of scotch whiskey, gin, champagne, and liqueurs, followed by 1,000 cases of Old Colonel Rye and Corn Hollow Bourbon.” It could often take months for her owners to sell off all of their stock and return to Canada for another load.

And they made money like they were printing it in their mom's basement.

And on that (bank) note, that's all for this go-round. More on rum rows and rum runners next time.

And lastly, God bless you, Paul Marks.