How a globe-trotting teenager enthralled millions in 1928
The planet has become such a small place. Now, we can hold the world in the palm of our hand, scrolling on our smartphones from one country to the next while lounging on the sofa.
Unfortunately, the more we open ourselves to the world on the internet, the less we get to see it for real. What a shame that is, because in shrinking the world to bitesize we, too, have grown smaller… both in our life experiences and in our understanding of how others really live.
Not only are we less than once we were, but as the darker aspects of human nature are revealed to us on the internet, so we have become more fearful, too, about undertaking exotic adventures of our own. And when it comes to letting our children loose into the great unknown, well that’s a definite no-no.
In short, we have become fiercely cautious and overly protective.
So, there we sit, smaller and more afraid than ever before. It’s enough to make one hanker back to a time when ignorance was bliss; when not knowing what lay beyond our own shores was a lure, not a threat… when it was a reason to knock down the metaphorical walls around us and embark upon discovery.
Which brings me to Palle Huld, a boy who had the spirit of adventure imbued in his soul; a Dane who travelled the world, and who undertook this remarkable journey alone and at the tender age of just 15 years.
It was 1928, and Denmark’s Politiken newspaper was marking the centenary of the birth of Frenchman Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days. They did so by launching a competition, the winner of which would echo the globe-trotting adventure that had been embarked upon by Verne’s character Phileas Fogg in his famous novel,
Rather unfairly, it was only open to teenage boys, and it was won by a red-haired, freckled lad named Palle Huld, whose challenge was to circle the globe unaccompanied and to do so within 46 days. He would do it in 44.
Huld, who was a boy scout, set out on March 1, 1928, on a voyage of discovery across land and sea that took him from Denmark to England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, Korea, China (then called Manchuria), the Soviet Union, Poland and Germany.
He crossed the Atlantic to Canada, where he met First Nations’ tribes, and then went by luxury liner across the Pacific, meeting with Japan’s Admiral Togo along the way (the only downside to that being when Huld had to remove his shoes for the occasion, thereby revealing the hole in his sock, much to his mortification).
What a journey, though…. and all done on first-class tickets. While Huld did travel alone, he was assisted along the way by reporters from Politiken, as well as by Danish embassy staff around the world, and local boy scout groups in various countries.
His adventure caught the public’s imagination, and newspapers across the globe followed his exploits. Upon his return to Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, 20,000 people turned out to welcome him home.
Huld’s exotic travels must have surely inspired a generation of teenagers to follow in his footsteps. Not only that, but they also seemed to have inspired cartoonist Herge (real name Georges Remi), whose globetrotting teen character Tintin, complete with red hair and freckles, appeared in newspapers a year later.
Palle Huld went on to chronicle his adventures in the book, A Boy Scout Around The World. He later became an actor, first taking to the stage in 1934, and thereafter making regular appearances on Danish TV and in films, until his retirement in 2000.
He died in 2010, no doubt with the memories of the people he met and the places he visited on his remarkable journey still embedded in his mind.
How many parents out there would allow their young teen to embark on such a journey alone? Many of us would balk at such a risk, but what a loss that is for our children… the chance to explore and experience life, unfettered by parental control.
In my own days as a boy scout, I had some of that freedom – nowhere to the extent of Huld, though. My experiences were of going away on a week-long camp aged 13 that I planned and led, organising activities, work rotas and meals for a group of six other boys, all done without the presence of an adult.
I mention this not to show my own organisational ability, but to lament the state to which we have come, where health and safety is taken to the nth degree, to such an extent that almost any sense of risk is eliminated and where concerns over liability overrule everything else.
Such caution, though well intended, impinges on true learning and growth. The spirit of adventure, of risk, as personified by Palle Huld, should be fostered, for it is in such times that our true strengths emerge.
We should step away from the smartphone and embrace the unexpected. Doing so may reveal hidden strengths… ones which, for sure, a certain Danish teenager tapped into on his remarkable voyage of discovery back in 1928 – the year when the name Palle Huld became a byword for exotic adventure.
First, a warning for those of a sensitive nature, there are some upsetting descriptions in the paragraphs ahead…
“Russian soldiers loot, rape and kill. 10 y.o. girls with vaginal and rectal tears. Women with swastika shaped burns. Russia. Russian Men did this. And Russian mothers raised them. A nation of immoral criminals.”
So tweeted Ukrainian politician Lesia Vasylenko on Monday, April 3…
As Putin’s forces withdraw from towns and suburbs around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, reports are beginning to emerge of widespread rape suffered by Ukrainian women at the hands of Russian soldiers
In times of war, it is not only land that is invaded. Rape is the ultimate, brutal act of incursion and domination, and it seems it’s happening in this war, too.
Acts of rape, murder and pillage are things we associate with barbarous abuses of previous centuries, not things being conducted in a modern society, but they’re being visited upon Ukraine’s female population as I write.
The group Human Rights Watch has noted several cases of Russian military committing war crimes in Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, including a case of repeated rape, and the summary execution of six men.
“The cases we documented amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rape, murder, and other violent acts against people in the Russian forces’ custody should be investigated as war crimes.”
A woman told HRW that a Russian soldier had repeatedly raped her in a school in the Kharkiv region where she and her family had been sheltering on March 13. She said that he beat her and cut her face and neck with a knife. The next day she fled to Kharkiv, where she was able to get medical assistance.
Meanwhile, UK newspaper The Guardian reported that investigators were collating testimonies of gang-rapes, assaults at gunpoint, and rapes committed in front of children.
“We have had several calls to our emergency hotline from women and girls seeking assistance, but in most cases it’s been impossible to help them physically. We haven’t been able to reach them because of the fighting,” Kateryna Cherepakha, president of La Strada Ukraine, a charity that supports survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault, told the paper.
On March 31, a Polish website reported how a Ukrainian woman from the southern city of Mariupol had died after being repeatedly violated by Russian soldiers in front of her six-year-old child.
And there is more… tale upon sordid tale of vile abuse.
MailOnline reported similar brutal acts in which drunk Russian troops kicked down doors to loot their houses and pulled women out to rape them.
One grandmother, 63-year-old Anna Schevchenko, who lives in the town of Irpin, 13 miles north of Kyiv, told how she witnessed several soldiers – ‘animals’ is how she described them – rape a mother and her 15-year-old daughter.
Hers is one of a growing number of testimonies. In Bovary, east of Kyiv, another resident, 58-year-old Olga Bundarov, told MailOnline: ‘They dragged women out when they were drunk. Sometimes old women too. I had to hide as I was so scared.
‘One of my neighbours saw several women who had been hung after being raped.
‘I don’t know if the Russians had done it or they killed themselves after what they had done.’
The barbarity of it all is truly shocking, but one only has to look to the past to see that such behaviour is not unique. To put it plainly, when it comes to rape and pillage, Russia’s troops have form.
The rapes perpetrated by Putin’s marauders are history repeating itself… a type of history most people supposed had been left behind in the dark days of World War II.
Based on hospital and abortion clinic records, historians estimate that during that conflict, two million German women were raped, in the most part by Soviet troops.
Out of these brutal assaults approximately 200,000 children were conceived by native German women and Russian soldiers.
Those figures come from research conducted by Dr Phillip Kuwert, a senior physician at the University of Greifswald’s department of psychotherapy and psychiatry, who interviewed 35 elderly German women who were raped by Russians in 1945.
One of those he spoke to was then 83-year-old Ruth Schumacher, who recalled being 18 years old and sheltering, wounded, with dozens of other in an abandoned mine in Halle-Bruckdorf, in eastern Germany, when her nightmare began.
“I was immediately gang-raped by five Russians. The memories come back to you over and over again; you can never forget something like that,” she told interviewers.
Such abuses are also chronicled in the 2009 German film A Woman in Berlin, which is based on the diary of an anonymous German journalist, and how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Soviet soldiers in the spring and summer of 1945 in war-ravaged Berlin.
And then there are the World War II diaries of a Jewish lieutenant Vladimir Gelfand, ironically from Central Ukraine, whose writings have an uncanny echo of the reports we are currently reading about Russia’s current invasion force.
Gelfand described the disarray of battalions, their lack of rations, and how they had to resort to theft to offset their meagre supplies.
In one passage from his diary, dated April 25, 1945, once he had reached Berlin, he tells how he encountered a group of German women carrying their belongings.
He asked them where they were going and why they were fleeing their homes.
He writes: “With horror on their faces, they told me what had happened on the first night of the Red Army’s arrival.
“They poked here,’ explained the beautiful German girl, lifting up her skirt, ‘all night. They were old, some were covered in pimples and they all climbed on me and poked – no less than 20 men,’ she burst into tears.
“‘They raped my daughter in front of me,’ her poor mother added, ‘and they can still come back and rape her again.’
Such stories were far from unique, as confirmed by historian Anthony Beevor. In an interview with the BBC for his 2002 book, Berlin, The Downfall, Beevor claimed that he found documents relating to sexual violence in the state archive of the Russian Federation.
According to Beevor, the papers had been sent by Russia’s state police, the NKVD, to their chief, Lavrentiy Beria, in late 1944.
“They report on the mass rapes in East Prussia and the way that German women would try to kill their children, and kill themselves, to avoid such a fate,” he said.
Of course, Russian troops weren’t the only sex abusers during World War II. Allied soldiers raped, too, but nowhere near to the same scale. Soviet soldiers may have seen their actions as revenge for the mass rapes perpetrated in The Motherland by Nazi invaders.
It is something of an eerie echo of the past that in their spurious claim of ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, Russian troops now feel it necessary to rape the women, too.
Speaking to The Guardian about the emerging sexual atrocities and the psychological impact on the survivors, Sasha Kantser, from the Lviv chapter of Feminist Workshop, said: “When a woman gets away it looks like she’s safe, she’s far away from the guns and the man who raped her.
“But the trauma is a bomb inside her, that follows her. The scale of what is happening now is heart-breaking.”
As Ruth Schumacher said in her testimony to the University of Greifswald’s Dr Phillip Kuwert: “You can never forget something like that. Sometimes after I talk about it, I sleep for a few hours and then wake up crying, screaming. You can never ever forget.”
The destruction wrought upon Ukraine is unbearable to watch, but there will come a time when the guns finally fall silent and the debris of war is swept away. Ukraine will rebuild itself.
As great a struggle as that will be, one can only wonder how that nation’s population, and in particular its raped women, will cope with the truly monumental task of clearing up the devastation within.
The Irish polar heroes who battled their way through certain death and into history
It’s Easter 1916, April 24, and some desperate Irishmen are about to launch a bid for freedom against overwhelming odds, but this struggle doesn’t have Dublin’s General Post Office as a backdrop, nor the British Empire as the enemy. No, this is an epic battle between Mother Nature and six brave men – three of whom were Irish and went by the names of Shackleton, McCarthy and Crean.
The feat which they undertook on the very day that the first salvos were fired in their homeland against British forces during the 1916 Rising would go down as one of the most remarkable endeavours ever.
Ask most Irish primary school children who Tom Crean was and they’ll tell you. These days he’s the stuff of school projects – his life emblazoned across A3 card with cut-outs of icebergs and Crean’s sturdy weather-worn features staring back at you. But it wasn’t always so.
There was a time when Ernest Shackleton and the tragic Robert Falcon Scott were the twin towers of Antarctic exploration and heroism, but thanks to Michael Smith’s extraordinary book, An Unsung Hero, relating the life and stirring exploits of a seaman from Annascaul, in Co. Kerry, the name Tom Crean can be added to that exalted list, and stand justifiably shoulder to shoulder with those two giants.
Below is a brief flavour of Crean’s polar exploits… of what he endured and what he achieved, and why this quiet, modest man’s name should be on the lips of people not just from Ireland, but from around the entire world…
Crean’s association with polar exploration began in 1901 when he first met Captain Robert Scott as he was about to set sail on the first major expedition to Antarctica.
Crean, aged 24, was serving aboard HMS Ringaroona, which formed part of the Royal Navy’s Australia-New Zealand squadron. He was helping load supplies onto Scott’s ship Discovery, liked what he saw and asked for a transfer, which Scott organised.
That first expedition to Antarctica would prove longer than anyone expected. After deciding to moor for the winter in a sheltered harbour in the Ross Sea, Scott had assumed the following spring and summer would melt the ice that he expected would soon enclose Discovery.
He was wrong, and it would be two long years before the ship was freed from its icy grip in February, 1904, and could head home.
In that time, Crean would spend 149 days ‘man-hauling’ sledges. Man-hauling was the system of placing groups of men in harness and having them drag heavy sledges of supplies for miles on foot across the ice; it placed huge strain on the men’s bodies.
The idea was to lay food depots at various points towards the South Pole for the selected group who would attempt the journey there. That attempt subsequently failed, but there would be other opportunities and other expeditions for Crean in the years to come.
In 1910, there would be a second expedition South. Crean would spend the intervening years from 1906 on with Scott, following him from posting to posting – HMS Victorious, HMS Albermarle, HMS Essex, HMS Bulwark – with Crean as coxswain and Scott as captain.
In 1909, Ernest Shackleton, from Co. Kildare, who had accompanied Crean and Scott on the first expedition, mounted an expedition of his own and was forced to turn back just 97 miles from the South Pole. Shackleton later said he would probably have made it there, but would have been too exhausted to manage the return trip.
The following year, it was Scott’s turn again. The ship taking them there would be the Terra Nova. Crean signed on as Petty Officer in April, 1910. There were 31 in the polar party in total. But they weren’t the only ones with ambitions of discovery. On the voyage South it emerged that Norwegian Roald Amundsen was mounting a rival expedition of his own.
The Terra Nova finally sighted land on New Year’s Eve 1910. Crean and others spent the next months journeying out, laying vital food depots on a route across the Ross Ice Barrier towards the Pole that would be used by the team making the record attempt.
Crean was a popular member of the crew and his outstanding qualities were revealed in one particular episode one day when he and two two others found sea ice breaking up all around them.
Stuck on a 30ft piece of ice that was floating out to open sea they had to jump from once ice floe to the next in a desperate attempt to reach safety as killer whales teemed about waiting for one of them to slip.
In sub-zero temperatures, Crean volunteered to go on ahead, leaping from floe to floe, spending hours moving from one piece of ice to the next. Then he had to climb the 200ft-high face of the Ice Barrier to reach solid ground, before finding help to save his companions’ lives.
The weather worsened for Scott and his crew, and with temperatures at one point falling to -70, they were forced to bunker down until conditions improved.
Finally, in November 1911: Scott and his team of eight (Crean included) set out on an 1,800-mile round-trip to the Pole. The journey was mind-bending in its challenges. Each man would haul 200lbs (90kg) 400 miles across the Ross Barrier, then undertake a 120-mile 10,000ft climb, followed by a further 350-mile trek to the Pole, and then back again.
On January 4, 1912, with 168 miles to go before reaching the South Pole, Scott halted and picked four men to join him for the final push. Crean was not one of them. It was a crushing blow for the man who had been by Scott’s side down the years.
Crean cried as he watched Scott’s party recede into the vast white-scape. Then he and his companions, Lashly and Evans, began the 750-mile trek back to base. It would be the last time they would ever see Scott’s party alive.
The three men struggled through blizzards, battling exhaustion and hunger; at one point getting lost in a storm that left them three days further from their goal than they had thought. Increasingly weak and desperate, they knew they had to make up time, and they chose an almost suicidal method in which to do it.
The three climbed onto a sleigh and glissaded down an ice fall. descending 2,000 feet at a speed of 60mph, in the process passing crevasses that were 200-feet wide.
It was a miracle they weren’t killed, but it was either do that or probably die where they stood.
On February 18, six weeks after leaving Scott, and just 35 miles from base, with Evans close to death and both he and Lashly starving and utterly exhausted, Crean summoned up the last of his strength and set out alone to get help, with just three biscuits and some chocolate for nourishment.
He covered the 35 miles in 18 hours, barely stopping for rest, before reaching the supply camp at the height of a raging storm. He made it inside, to the astonishment of the men present, and organised a rescue party for his two companions.
Later, when Scott and his men failed to arrive back at the appointed time, Crean, despite his already near-death exertions, joined the search party that trekked out to find them. And find them they did, huddled together in a little tent, with Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Dr Edward Wilson on either side of Scott whose frozen fingers clutched the journal he kept of their last hours before cold and exhaustion had taken them all.
But Crean’s polar odyssey wasn’t over yet. In fact, his greatest feat was yet to come.
In August 8, 1914, four days after the start of World War One, Crean was one of six men (Shackleton included) who were to attempt crossing Antarctica from coast to coast (1,800km) using dog sleighs. They set sail in Endurance for Buenos Aires on August 8.
They left there on October 25 and after arriving at South Georgia set out on December 5 for Antarctica. But the ship became ice-bound in the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915 – just 80 miles from their intended destination, Vahsel Bay. Locked in the ice they drifted towards the bay.
Winter came and the sun disappeared for the next six months. At one point 400 yards of heavy ice, blocked their way to the open sea. Shackleton had the men try to saw and hack their way through it, but to no avail.
With no realistic option to reach land and build a shelter, they stayed put and continued to drift, this time away from Vahsel Bay. For 10 months, the ship, locked in ice, drifted 1,200 miles in a semi-circular direction.
The pressure of the shifting ice caused the Endurance’s frame to buckle and warp. Eventually, on November 21, the ship sank.
Three lifeboats were unloaded before that happened. Twenty-eight men, 60 dogs, sleighs and five tents, plus as many food supplies as they could carry were loaded and dragged across the ice for a couple of miles, but the going was too difficult and the men were exhausted.
The ship’s carpenter raised the sides of the lifeboats using wood from the Endurance, so they would not be swamped when they were eventually put to sea. On December 23, the men started hauling the boats across the ice again towards where they reckoned there was open water. It was backbreaking work. They stopped six days later, the ground being too broken to haul the boats across.
Unable to move further, they made camp, and waited…. until April 1916, when the ice finally broke up enough for them to be able to launch their boats. In the meantime the men had all grown weaker, subsisting on seal meat and their sleigh dogs.
They had spent the best part of two years stuck on the ice.
But the perils were only beginning. Huge lumps of floating ice threatened to sink the three little boats as they set off to find land. For five days, they sailed through the bitter sea, every wave and clump of ice threatening imminent disaster.
Then, on April 15, they landed on the exposed shore of Elephant Island, many of the men were in states of complete collapse and unable to fend for themselves. On April 24, Shackleton and five men, Crean and another Irishman Tim McCarthy included, set out on the boat the James Caird for South Georgia to get help.
It was the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, who managed to navigate the 800-mile voyage to South Georgia – 10 days of hell in a tossing boat in huge, swelling seas and dreadful conditions. It has been described by experts as being one of the most remarkable navigation feats in maritime history.
On May 10, the group finally landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia, where they stayed, sheltering from the elements in their boat, too exhausted to venture inshore.
Then, on May 19, three of them – Shackleton, Crean and Worsley – hiked for over a day across the treacherous mountainous terrain of the inner island until they reached Stromness whaling station. That journey alone was considered a marvel by those who knew the terrain.
When they finally reached the whaling station 30 hours later, all three men had walked, rowed and sailed their way into polar history.
Their three companions (Kinsale man Tim McCarthy among them), waiting on the other side of South Georgia, were found the next day. A rescue ship later managed to reach the 22 stranded on Elephant Island. All returned home.
Not one man was lost throughout the entire ordeal.
And now, this momentous, extraordinary story of survival has been enhanced even further, by the discovery of the doomed ship herself, the Endurance – so aptly named – resting undisturbed and intact 9,842 feet below the surface of the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea.
The shipwreck is protected an historic site and will remain in its icy waters undisturbed… a reminder of the courage, grit and fortitude of the men who sailed her and whose actions went into the annals of exploration.
Shackleton, Crean and McCarthy are just three Irishmen who put their lives on the line in the Antarctic, but there were others, too, and all of them, coincidentally, from Co. Cork.
Patsy Keohane, from Courtmacsherry (went on Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913 as well as the TerraNova expedition), Bandon man Robert Forde (also on the TerraNova expedition), and Edward Bransfield, from Ballinacurra (who is credited with being the first person to sight Antarctica) all made their marks.
Now a campaign is underway to celebrate these brave men by naming future Irish naval vessels in their honour. Let’s hope that the Minister for Defence heeds the clamour and acts accordingly.
Less than a year after his rescue on South Georgia, Tim McCarthy was dead – killed in a German torpedo attack on the Merchant Marine vessel upon which he serve after his polar exploits.
Shackleton died in January 1922, ironically on South Georgia, when he had a heart attack while about to launch another Antarctic expedition. He was only 47 years old.
Crean could have joined him on that trip, but maybe he sensed he’d pushed his nine lives far enough. Instead, he moved back to Annascaul and lived a quiet life, only the name of the pub he opened there hinted at his exotic past – he called it The South Pole Inn.
His silence was also founded on the harsh fact that he had served in the British navy and he was now living in the newly independent Ireland, where people had engaged in a bloody war to call the land their own.
It was a place where anyone associated with the Crown was putting their life at risk. Tom’s brother Cornelius, a sergeant in the British-run police constabulary, paid with his life for that association, so Crean kept quiet, until his death in 1938, at the age of 61, and his polar exploits were all but forgotten. Such are the vagaries of history.
Thankfully, those exploits have since been put on view for all to appreciate.
When Shackleton, Worsley and Crean stumbled into the Stromness whaling station on South Georgia that May day in 1916, they were greeted by the grizzled whalers who worked there, men tougher than teak… men who had seen the stormiest of seas and the worst of Antarctic’s weather.
Understanding what had been accomplished by the trio, the hardened veterans of the sea lined up in awe and, one by one, shook the hands of Crean and his two companions.
‘These are men,’ one of the whalers said.
It was a fine compliment, but he was wrong; they were far, far more than that – they were titans.
How fitting it is that their ship was named so, because endurance was the very cornerstone upon which their reputations were built. Their ability to endure, to withstand and to survive all that Nature could throw at them puts them in the pantheon of polar greats.
Shackleton was a remarkable leader. To take his men through such an ordeal and to bring them all home alive was a miraculous feat. That said, when you have someone of Tom Crean’s qualities at your shoulder, it is easy to believe in miracles…
History repeating itself. That’s the phrase dujour; a way to try to understand what is happening in Ukraine. Enigmatic Putin, and the parallels with Hitler taking over the Sudetenland and all the invasions that followed on from that, reverberate like an echo from history.
The past is repeating itself, but then it always does. Think back to the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7/12/41- an out-of-the-blue challenge to American might that was repeated almost 60 years later on 9/11/2001 when planes went crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Once again, America was challenged, and it responded.
My childhood was a literary diet of Victor, Warlord, and Commando comic books, where the Allies battled the Nazis – white hats versus black hats. It was simple to see who the bad guys were. Even as a child I knew who I would fight for.
And here we are again – an easy-to-understand conflict, where we root for the feisty underdogs, and the brutish invaders are plain to see, as is their despotic leader. History repeating itself.
Those comic-book tales and all the movies that went with them – of nations at war against a ruthless enemy – have returned. But it’s different, because instead of imagining what it must be like to live in a time when people have to find the gumption needed to defeat a dangerous megalomaniac, we now must face that challenge ourselves.
A crucible of historic proportions is upon us. How we deal with it will define generations to come. We are in the midst of epoch-making history.
How does it feel? Like in the comic books? Will we live up to the deeds of the heroes of Warlord and Victor, or of our ancestors who brought a Nazi despot to heel?
Will history repeat itself for Putin, too? Will he end his days holed up in a bunker and with only a bullet for company in his final moments, or will he use the technology at his fingertips – tech that Hitler never had – and push the button to go out with a real bang.
After all, what has he got to lose? His country’s economy is soon to be in freefall, he is ostracised across most of the globe and will soon be a pariah in his own country. And on top of that, of course, there are the health rumours…
That walk of his, for starters – the ‘gunslinger’s gait’… the way Putin rolls his body as he moves and usually swings one arm… you’ve seen him do it, but maybe never gave it a name. Well, the medical experts have, and some of them say it’s an early indicator of Parkinson’s disease. So, if Putin has Parkinson’s and he’s on a downward physical trajectory, what has he got to lose if he decides to push the big button.
If you were him under those circumstances, what would you do… watch as your body betrays itself and forces you to relinquish the almighty power at your fingertips? Yes, of course, you have your hundreds of billions of dollars squirreled away, but what is that without the power, the fear and the accolades that come with holding the highest office in the land?
For a man in pole position like he is, would mere billions be enough of a consolation to forsake his position as numero uno? Maybe sanctions mean nothing when you’re body is failing you. Maybe getting to play with all those military ‘toys’ at your disposal, truly testing their capability, is preferable to going out with a whimper and with Parkinson’s.
The analysts talk of an ‘off ramp’… something that will help Putin climb down from the perilous height upon which he has placed both himself and the world. But maybe there is no ‘off ramp’. Maybe he really does want to go out with a bang.
We were here before… on the edge of nuclear catastrophe, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. History repeating itself. Thankfully, Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader at the time, blinked first and nuclear destruction was averted.
Whatever Putin decides to do next, though, we can only respond to the challenge before us. There are people in desperate need; people on our doorstep, dying before our eyes. So, do we stand up to the despot or let him ride roughshod all over them and all over our consciences… the very thing that makes us human?
That choice may not even be ours to make. There might be a nuclear winter whether Nato sends in troops or not. Putin might do the terrible deed anyway. So, I ask again – do we stand up to the despot now or not?
I don’t think history has all the answers, but it does tell us what the outcome was when our grandparents stepped up and took on a dictator.
We are in their shoes now and must make history of our own.
Warlord, Victor and those Commando comics are no longer idle fancies – the dilemmas they posed about courage and sacrifice face us right now.
We must decide. We must act; for failure to do so risks us losing that most important treasure of all, our consciences – the essence of our very humanity.
Putin has taken so much already, can we really allow him to take that, too?
Przemysłowa Street and the surrounding area in the Polish city of Lodz, is a narrow, tree-lined, grass-verged thoroughfare with low-rise, utilitarian, multi-coloured, apartment blocks.
On a sunny day, though, it looks like it might be a pleasant enough place to stroll through, with the leaf-dappled shadows of the trees making patterns on the concrete paths.
There’s Seventies’ feel to it, but a remnant of the past still lingers among the more modern concrete – nothing special mind, just some lacklustre buildings that are now also used as accommodation.
They would be insignificant to any unknowing passer-by, but monumental for some, as they are all that remain of the Nazi camp that became known as ‘Little Auschwitz’.
For those not blinded by hate or prejudice, the Holocaust delivers horrified disgust, but the same can also be said for the testimony of the survivors of this penal camp for children aged from two years old to 16, who were brutally beaten, given starvation rations and endured forced labour.
Their testimonies are moving in so many ways. One simple line from one of the survivors referred to “the older children” when he was describing a particular incident – he was talking about children who were nine years old.
The older children…
Researchers at the Museum of Polish Children recently discovered a trove of letters written by the young inmates to their parents. Despite being heavily censored by the Nazis, pitiful insights into the children’s desperate plight are revealed.
Here’s an extract from one written on February 15, 1944, by Halinka Cubrzyńska. Halinka was 12 years old at the time: “My dear parents, if you can get me some leather boots and send me, because I have nothing to wear (…) I am asking for some soap and a spoon too, because I do not have anything to eat.”
And here’s another, from a 12-year-old Jas Spychala, dated October 16, 1944. He writes: ‘My darling mummy, please bake me 20 pancakes. And onions and mustard.’
Put bluntly, the children were starving. For breakfast, they were given one slice of bread and a cup of black acorn coffee. Dinner was a bowl of soup made from potato peelings – not full potatoes. Sometimes they would get cabbage or beet-leaf soup, which was crawling with caterpillars.
One man recalled how he ate these also, as he was told by some other children that they were a source of calcium; anything to feed a starving body.
Supper was coffee and another slice of bread, if there was any left.
Starving or not, those aged eight and over had to work – mending boots, polishing and repairing belts or backpack straps, straightening pins, weaving baskets, making straw shoes.
And if they weren’t doing that they were washing and ironing, cooking, cleaning and tending the garden – making it so tidy that not even a stray leaf could be seen on the ground or terrible punishment would be meted out.
According to the Museum of Polish Children: “The official reason behind the creation of the camp was the ‘issue’ of them being left without care and reportedly having a negative influence on German children. The children concerned with regard to that ‘issue’ were those who lost one or both parents as a result of their execution, apprehension, or resettlement in order to provide forced labour.
“Children were also sent to the camp in relation to their parents’ participation in the resistance, their religious affiliation (children of Jehovah’s Witnesses) or refusal to sign a volkslist (a document in which a non-German citizen declared that he had some German ancestry).
“Also imprisoned there were orphaned children forced to commit minor offences due to their complex life circumstances, children with disabilities or children who had simply been apprehended on the street for ‘vagrancy’.
“Living conditions for the children were practically the same as those of adult prisoners of concentration camps. Filth and insects were commonplace in the camp. The child prisoners often fell ill with diseases such as typhoid, pneumonia, bronchitis, bladder infection, tuberculosis, scurvy or trachoma.”
The brutality was truly barbaric. In his testimony, survivor Wladislaw Jakubowski recalled how he fled from a hospital bed only to be subsequently caught. He was taken to an SS officer who used a large ruler with which to beat him, so severely that he broke the boy’s arms… and then kicked him so hard that he was knocked through two closed doors.
One girl was forced to drink urine after being caught sipping orangeade in the kitchen.
According to survivor Jerzy Jezewicz, children too weak to work or to walk unaided were taken to the death barrack to die there or “were finished off at the yard”.
Imagine, little children, torn from their parents and subjected to this…
They couldn’t wash properly either, and could only use cold water, and did so in freezing conditions.
Many of the children died of starvation and disease or from vicious beatings and floggings at the hands of camp guards.
Edward August and Sydonia Bayer were two of the most notorious of the guards.
‘[August] beat and kicked them in the most sensitive places, he buried them in boxes of sand, dunked them in a barrel of water, hung them by the legs on a chain and lowered their heads into a tank with used car lubricants,” camp survivor Jozef Witkowski recalled. ”He cut their genitals with a penknife, beat their heels and extinguished cigarettes on prisoners’ chests’.
Bayer was in charge of the girls’ section of the camp.
‘She liked to drag sick children into the snow and pour cold water on them. She ordered them to be whipped, beaten, kicked, deprived of meals,” said Jozef.
Survivor Maria Jaworska recalled how a 10-year-old girl who had wet her bed was brutally beaten by Bayer, and died a few days later.
Camp records show that Bayer recorded the cause of the girl’s death as tuberculosis. Both she and August would be executed for their crimes after the war.
According to the most recent findings, in total 2,000-3,000 children were held prisoner at the camp. Of these, approximately 200 were murdered or died in the camp, although the precise number is not known.
Presiding over this vile pile of sadistic brutality was SS Sturmbannführer Friedrich Camillo Ehrlich.
Although captured by the Red Army and sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of the war, Ehrlich was later released by East German authorities, thanks in large part to an administrative error, which recorded his name as Karl Ehrlich.
Research conducted by Michał Hankiewicz, from the Museum of Polish Children, showed that Ehrlich left for West Germany, where he reinvented himself as, of all things, a consultant to the German police force.
The irony is grotesque. This monster who had ensured the torture and murder of little children wrote books on law enforcement and detection, one of which was titled Einbrecher (German for ‘Burglars’).
No charges of his crimes against children were ever brought against Ehrlich and, on 6 June 1974, he died in Munich a free man at the age of 81.
How is it that people like Ehrlich can neatly pack away the past and begin again, blotting out the horrendous killings and barbarous acts so that they can live among civilised society?
How do others do it? Between 1989 and 2003, hundreds of thousands died in a civil war in Liberia. It was a conflict that went beyond the pale in its ferocity, one in which people were literally butchered – their bodies dismembered and dragged through the streets.
One of the chief protagonists in this barbarism was General Butt Naked (Joshua Milton Blahyi). That name mays sound comical to those unfamiliar with it, but when you realise what Blahyi got up to, the smile will fall away.
Blahyi was a warlord who would go into battle without clothes as a way of showing his fearlessness – hence the nickname. Testifying in January 2008, to Liberia’s post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he recalled his actions:
“Any time we captured a town, I had to make a human sacrifice. They bring to me a living child that I would slaughter and take the heart out to eat it.”
He can’t put a number on the amount of victims whose blood is on his hands, but Blahyi he did say that “it is not less than twenty thousand”.
Blahyi himself has since renounced his past and is now a preacher, but believes that he should be punished for his actions. He runs a centre which endeavours to rehabilitate former child soldiers and reintegrate them into society.
Life goes on, even after participating in murder and mayhem.
Human nature is a puzzle, none more so than that of the mass murderers who get to live another day, live another life, while their victims – the ones who managed to survive, that is – bear the trauma of their suffering and even the guilt of their survival.
Wiping the slate clean and starting afresh is something we all might give fanciful thought to at some time or another, but it’s galling to know that such a luxury should also be afforded to the monsters out there, the ones who kill with impunity but who get to live among us, untainted and unhaunted… the ones who get away with murder.
Elmer McCurdy’s life may have been relatively short, but there can be no arguing that he packed a few memorable moments into it before he shuffled off this mortal coil.
Born in 1880, some would say Elmer was in his prime when he died rather suddenly of lead poisoning during a gunfight with law enforcement officers at a barn near Pawhuska, Oklahoma in 1911.
Yes, Elmer fought the law and the law won, but that particular contest wasn’t unique because Elmer’s resumé was replete with such losses over the years.
Aside from failing in a gunfight against sheriff’s deputies, he also failed as a burglar, a bank robber, a train robber, and an explosives expert. But lest it is thought that Elmer’s failings were solely of the criminal kind, it should also be noted that he also failed as a miner and as a plumber, largely due to his propensity for getting drunk, a habit which resulted in him being arrested for public intoxication in 1905.
It would be fair to say that Elmer tried to straighten out his life when he joined the US Army in 1907. During his service as a machine-gun operator, he was also trained in the use of nitroglycerin.
Of course, being trained in how to do something and actually performing that task to the correct standard is a very different thing entirely, as became evident when Elmer attempted to put his ‘skills’ to the test after he left the Army on November 7, 1910.
In March of 1911, he and three others held up the Iron Mountain-Missouri Pacific train after receiving a tip-off that it carried a safe containing $4,000.
He and his accomplices did manage to stop the train, but McCurdy’s heavy hand when it came to dispensing the nitroglycerine, resulted in the safe being destroyed in the ensuing blast, along with much of the money.
All that remained was an estimated $450 of silver coins that had fused to the frame of the safe due to the intense heat of the blast.
Undeterred, in September of 1911, the gang targetted The Citizens Bank in Chautauqua, Kansas. After breaking through the bank wall, McCurdy used his nitroglycerin to blow the door of the bank’s vault clear across the room. His attempts at blowing open the safe that was contained inside proved fruitless, however, and, before fleeing, the gang only managed to net €150 in coins that they found in a tray outside the safe.
McCurdy’s lawlessness continued up to his final heist in October 1911 near Okesa, Oklahoma, when he clearly adopted the attitude of ‘go big or go home’.
Intelligence proved vital for this robbery. Elmer and his two buddies received word that a Katy train was carrying a treaty payment of $400,000 that was bound for the Osage Nation. Unfortunately, intelligence only went so far, and, well… the gang robbed the wrong train. The haul (a rather generous term admittedly) netted the grand total of $46, a watch, a coat, a revolver and some whiskey.
The trio split up soon after, with McCurdy hiding out in the barn of a pal Charlie Revard’s ranch in Oklahoma, where he and the ranch hands disposed of the whiskey.
And it was here also that Elmer McCurdy with a bounty of $2,000 on his head (more money than he had ever managed to steal in his criminal career) was tracked down and where, aged 31, his ‘reign of error’ finally came to a bloody and irrevocable end in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies.
And that would be the end of the life and times of Elmer McCurdy if it weren’t for the sterling work of the undertaker, one Joseph L.Johnson, who later took charge of his body.
To preserve the corpse until expected collection by relatives, embalming fluid was injected into it. And then Johnson waited for someone to collect it – and to pay him for his services. And waited. And waited.
That embalming fluid proved a rather potent mix to judge by the results. Impressed by his own skills and wanting some recompense for his handiwork, Johnson hit on the idea of selling tickets to the public to view the body of a ‘notorious’ bandit, albeit a well-preserved one.
Elmer’s mummified corpse proved a popular attraction; so popular, in fact, that there came a time when two men arrived to claim they were Elmer’s relatives and took his body with them…. only to include it as part of a travelling circus of their own, to be displayed far and wide.
And so Elmer’s ‘life’ on the road began. Over time, he went from one one carni show to the next, to be poked at, toyed with and tweaked by curious citizens willing to pay a few cents admission for the privilege of viewing McCurdy’s corpse.
Fashions and attractions change, though, and at one or point or another over the years, Elmer lost his pulling power. That said, he was displayed in the lobby of movie theatres for screenings of the 1933 movie, Narcotic, with Elmer’s increasingly wizened remains acting as an illustration of the effects of drugs on the human body.
Later, he would also be used as a prop in the 1967 horror movie, She Freak, before being eventually sold on along with a job lot of wax mannequins which were exhibited at an exhibition at Mount Rushmore.
After being damaged in a storm, resulting in Elmer’s ear tips, toes and fingers, being blown off, and with his hair also lost over time, the corpse was sold and hung in the Laff in the Dark ghost train of The Pike Amusement Park, in Long Beach, California.
For a man who only managed to rob a few hundred dollars during his criminal ‘career’, it is somewhat ironic that it was while a production crew were filming an episode of the TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man at the amusement park that Elmer McCurdy’s ‘life’ after death came to a close on December 8, 1976.
It was here that Elmer, a pale shadow of his former self – now bald and painted neon orange – dangled from a gallows with a noose around his neck. He was finally discovered when a member of the crew attempted to move what they assumed was a mannequin, only for the arm to break off, revealing human bone and muscle beneath.
When Elmer’s body was subsequently examined, a 1924 penny and ticket stubs for an old carnival were found in his mouth, thus enabling investigators to backtrace his ‘movements’ and eventually discover his identity.
Whatever about his crimes in life, it seems inordinately cruel that Elmer McCurdy should end up bald, ear-less, toe-less, nose-less and finger-less…. and painted orange… hanging amongst the gloom alongside all manner of gargoyles. The fact, too, that someone would think it fine to use his mouth as a receptacle for ticket stubs is also more than a little unsettling.
Elmer ‘The Mummy’ McCurdy’s body was eventually sent back to the place of his death – Guthrie, Oklahoma, where he now rests, in peace at last.
Elmer’s activities were clearly criminal and very dangerous to others, but what does it say for all those folk who poked and prodded his corpse down through the years – where was their moral compass and their respect for the dead?
You might say that times were different then… that there was limited entertainment for people and they found fun where they could. But our fascination with the dead goes on to this day; whether that takes the form of historical interest in Egyptian mummies like Tutankhamun, scientific curiosities like preserved ancient bog bodies, or the petrified remains of human sacrifices found in South American mountainsides.
I’ve even seen mummies in Dublin – at St Michan’s Church, just a short hop from my old neighbourhood of Stoneybatter, where the bodies of four people (one said to be a Crusader) lie in open, dusty coffins, mummified due to the dry air in the crypt. At the time I viewed them, I didn’t get a sense of disturbing the dead, but in hindsight, I think that’s the only way to describe what I was doing.
Then, of course, there are those religious relics that are found in various church buildings around the world.
I still remember as a schoolboy being shown the wizened head of St Oliver Plunkett, which rests in an elaborate brass Gothic glass case in St Peter’s Church, in Drogheda.
Oliver Plunkett was the founder of a religious college who fell victim to anti-Catholic hysteria in Ireland in the 17th century. He was sentenced to death for promoting the Roman Catholic faith and, in 1681, was hanged, drawn and quartered, with his head eventually being brought to Drogheda, where it has been on display since 1929.
He’s not the only one. From the heart of St Laurence O’Toole which resided in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, to the blood of St Valentine, or more accurately a “small vessel tinged with his blood”, which was excavated in Rome in the 19th Century, according to the Carmelite Order.
Mind you, St Valentine has come in various incarnations, from a Roman priest martyred in the third century for arranging marriages for Roman soldiers to a Bishop of Terni, who was beheaded for converting Romans to Christianity. As a result there are relics of ‘St Valentine’ in Madrid, Rome and Vienna.
And relics are still hugely popular. In fact, sometimes they even go on tour.
As recently as 2001, an estimated three million people (almost three-quarters of the population) viewed the bones of St Therese of Lisieux when they were brought around Ireland on an 11-week tour, before heading off to Bosnia, to be followed by a trip to Canada for another tour of the faithful.
St Catherine of Siena, the 13th-century mystic and member of the Dominican Order, is another whose body, or bits thereof, are scattered near and far. Her head is on display at the Basilica of San Dominica in her home town of Siena, while some fingers reside in Venice, a shoulder blade in Rome and some ribs in Florence.
And if you want to get a bit closer to St Anthony of Padua you can always view his lower jaw and tongue, which were exhumed in 1263 and are still on elaborate display at the Chapel of the Relics of Padua’s Basilica del Santo, in Italy.
Is there really a difference between gawking at the corpse of a train robber and venerating before the relics of a dead saint, surely both boil down to the same morbid fascination.
Those ticket-paying crowds who queued to view Elmer McCurdy’s mummified remains may have forgotten the concept of allowing someone to rest in peace, but then so, too, have those churches around the world, where the remnants of certain scattered saints now ‘rest in pieces’ instead.
Perhaps to those who view them, the remnants of the saints teach a valuable lesson about the notion of belief and sacrifice. If so, then the gawkers at Elmer McCurdy might claim they, too, were taught a lesson about the consequences of turning away from law and order.
Or maybe it’s how you spin it… one person’s morbid gawker is another’s religious worshipper.
That point aside, perhaps it’s time that King Tut, all the other Egyptian royals and all the saints out on display join that old wannabe Wild West bandit Elmer McCurdy and be allowed, finally, to rest in peace.
As Dan ‘Yorkie’ Kelly stood on the scaffold in the Wild West town of Tombstone in March of 1884, his thoughts must have strayed back to Queenstown (now Cobh), in Cork, from where he had set sail just three years earlier to make his fortune in America.
But the closest 24-year-old Dan had come to achieving the wealth he’d dreamed of was at the point of a gun, and that hadn’t worked out too well given that he now stood with the hangman’s noose around his neck for jewellery.
‘Let her loose,’ he told his executioner before the trap door lever was pulled and Dan Kelly took the long drop to eternity.
The Tombstone Epitaph’s headline of March 29, 1884, ran: Five Murderers Suspended from One Beam at Tombstone Arizona
The five were Kelly, O.W. Sample, Dan Dowd, James Delany and James Howard. As the Epitaph’s reporter records: ‘The five bandits marched up the steps of the scaffold without flinching, and all declared their innocence… They bade their friends goodbye. They expressed faith in the Christian religion, and requested that their bodies be delivered to Father Gallagher… The murderers were all dropped off together, and, with the exception of Dowd, died without a struggle.’
More than a thousand people turned up to witness the executions, and viewing spots were at a premium when Kelly and his partners in crime were hanged at a quarter-past-one in the afternoon.
As the Epitaph states: A large balcony had been erected outside of and overlooking the jail yard, the builder intending to charge a dollar and a half admission. The mob became indignant and tore the balcony down. In the row which followed seven persons were injured. One man had his leg broken and another his arm. The balcony would have seated five hundred persons. With this exception, everything passed off quietly.
Not even in death were Kelly and his fellow bandits afforded any dignity as the town rioted around their dangling corpses.
But lest some smidgen of sympathy grow in any hearts it’s worth noting what it was that had resulted in Kelly being up there in the first place.
To know that one has to go back a few months, to December 8, 1883, when he and four accomplices managed to turn the nearby town of Bisbee into a shooting gallery that left five dead and eight wounded.
Nestled in the Mule Mountains, in Arizona, the town of Bisbee had its origins just three years earlier when, one summer day in 1877, Army Scout Jack Dunn was filling the canteens of his fellow soldiers at two huge pieces of granite, known as Castle Rock, when he discovered copper ore and recorded the first mining claim.
Prospectors explored the area and soon more claims were filed as numerous lodes of ore were found, turning Bisbee into the ‘Queen of the Copper Camps’. There was some gold and silver discovered too, so it’s easy to see why Kelly and his cronies were drawn to the town.
Bisbee had no bank, but it did have Goldwater and Castaneda Mercantile, a general store that held a safe into which the payroll for the local Copper Queen Mine was regularly deposited.And so, on December 8, with most peoples’ minds preoccupied with the lead up to Christmas, five men rode into town and dismounted at a quiet area, and headed to the general store.
Three went inside, while the other two, armed with Winchester rifles, guarded the entrance. While the robbers ordered the bookkeeper to open the safe the two outside warned onlookers to keep back or they would be killed.
Inside, the raiders were shocked to discover only $800 in the safe, not the $7,000 (the equivalent of $187,000 today) they had expected – the fact was they had arrived too early; the miners payroll had yet to arrive at the store.
It was around about this point that things really started to unravel. Outside, one town citizen, JC Tappenier attempted to confront the two robbers and was summarily gunned down. Across the street, in a local restaurant, Sheriff Tom Smith heard the gunfire and ran out to investigate, only to be shot.
Then an eight-month-pregnant Anne Roberts, who ran the restaurant, went to the door to see what was happening and was also hit by a bullet. Neither she nor her unborn child survived.
Next to fall was John Nolly, who unwittingly drove his wagon in the maelstrom of lead. As he tried to hide beneath his wagon, he too was fatally shot.
Others were wounded by the indiscriminate gunfire from the fleeing robbers as they raced from the bank and mounted their horses.
How Dan Kelly managed to get himself involved with this blood-thirsty band in what became known as the Bisbee Massacre is not entirely known. What is known is that after arriving in New York, he decided to head west in search of adventure, which he found in spades after falling in with some cowboy outlaws while he was living in Clifton, Arizona.
Historian David Grassé recounts this whole bloody episode of the Wild West in The Bisbee Massacre: Robbery, Murder and Retribution in the Arizona Territory, 1883–1884.
He notes that Kelly was one of the three robbers who entered the store. Unfortunately for him, while in the process of holding up the place, his mask slipped and his identity was revealed.
The Tombstone Epitaph records the subsequent capture of the gang: A number of people were soon in pursuit of the desperadoes… The highwaymen made their escape, carrying with them about $1200.00. A reward of $2000.00 was offered for the arrest and conviction of the persons implicated in the crimes. As the desperadoes, with one exception, all wore masks, it was at first difficult to trace them. Clues soon developed that led to the arrest of six men. These were Daniel Dowd, James “alias “Tex” Delaney, Oscar W. Sample alias “Red”, Daniel Kelly, James Howard, and John Heith (stet).
That last-named man proved to be the mastermind behind the heist. In fact, John Heath, a local brothel keeper, was even brazen enough to join in the posse and attempt to lead them in the wrong direction as they pursued the gang.
Howard was the first to be captured, mainly because he was the only one who hadn’t bothered to wear a mask (even back then they had anti-maskers). Next up was Heath whose behaviour with the posse attracted suspicion, and also because he was spotted associating with the gang the night before the robbery.
Kelly was caught posing as a hobo on a train in New Mexico. Two of the others were caught in saloons, while Dowd was tracked to Mexico itself and was secretly spirited back across the border to stand trial in the US, much to the subsequent chagrin of the Mexican government. All were hauled back to Tombstone in chains to stand trial.
All were sentenced to hang, apart from Heath, who got life. But life for John Heath didn’t last very long because a mob, clearly unhappy with the verdict, decided to settle things themselves by dragging him from his cell and lynching him on a telegraph pole located, appropriately enough, at the corner of First and Toughnut Streets.
Grassé recounts how the Tucson Weekly Citizen described the execution of the perpetrators as a ‘hanging bee” that would “prove to the world that there are law-abiding people here [and one that would] “convince people in the East that life and property are safe in the Territory’.
The Bisbee Massacre was big news. In the days ahead of his execution, Dan Kelly was interviewed by a reporter, and told him confidently: ‘I will walk upright to the gallows’.
Fine words. It’s just a pity he couldn’t have been so upright with the rest of his life.
On this date 138 years ago, Daniel Kelly and his gang of desperadoes perpetrated one of the most notorious robberies in Wild West history.
For this, they paid the ultimate price, but so, too, did five innocent victims – one of whom had their life snuffed out before even being born.
They say desperate times call for desperate measures, but you’d wonder how desperate things would have to be in order to do what Elizabeth Sugrue did to keep bread on the table.
Elizabeth’s name may not now be famous enough to shake the very pillars of history, but back in her day, ‘Lady Betty’ as she was known certainly gave good cause for people to quake in their boots.
Her story is so extraordinary it teeters towards the fanciful, and some parts may be just that; however, there’s more than a dollop of truth to it, too.
Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, wrote about her in “Ireland: Her Wit, Peculiarities and Popular Superstitions,” describing Sugrue as being “middle-aged, dark-eyed, swarthy complexioned but by no means forbidding-looking woman”.
Born in Co. Kerry around the 1740s, Elizabeth Sugrue’s life was a hard one. Evicted from her farm after the death of her husband, she found herself homeless and the mother of two children.
Desperate, they trekked hundreds of kilometres ending up in Gallowstown, in Co. Roscommon. The journey cost the life of one child, but she and her son, Padraig, did make it and eked out a miserable existence, scavenging for food to make ends meet.
Those difficult years didn’t abate and, when he was old enough, Padraig, who had to contend with his harsh conditions as well as his mother’s harsh, violent nature, decided to enlist in the British Army, where he is thought to have served in North America.
Over the following years she received letters from her son about his foreign exploits; however, it would seem her temper didn’t improve with his absence.
This fact was driven home one night when a stranger called to her hovel, seeking board. The man paid in gold coin, and so Sugrue gave up her bed to him. As he slept she brooded on her misfortunes and thought of the bag of gold her visitor carried with him and how it would improve her lot.
Tempted to distraction she took a knife and stabbed him dead, then rifled his pockets for the gold, only to discover papers that revealed the murdered man was none other than her own son, returned from America.
Sugrue was later arrested, placed in Roscommon Gaol, and sentenced to be hanged for her crime. And it is at this point when Elizabeth Sugrue’s future was at its most bleak that things took another extraordinary twist.
The hangman was sick.
What to do? The public had gathered for their entertainment and the town sheriff was all a dither with nobody available to do the terrible deed. Which is when the notorious Elizabeth Sugrue stepped into true infamy and offered her services.
Sir William Wilde, who spoke to first-hand sources for his book, recounts how her offer was accepted and, there and then, on the gallows she hanged every last one of her fellow prisoners (said to number twenty-five, among them sheep-stealers, cattle-rustlers, shoplifters, and ‘Whiteboys‘), no doubt to the delight of the assembled masses.
When the jobs were done she avoided a similar fate herself and was escorted back to her cell.
Things got even better for Sugrue because the hangman soon succumbed to his illness. The authorities decided that they had just the woman to fill the vacancy, and so ‘Lady Betty’ was born – Roscommon’s official executioner.
It was a post she would hold for many years. Sugrue lived out her days within the safe confines of the jail, tending her garden and decorating the walls of her home with charcoal sketches of every person she executed.
That image alone is enough to give one pause.
In 1802, Lady Betty’s own sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, in recognition of her service to “the safety of the public” in Roscommon.
Sugrue died in in 1807. One account claims that this was due to her being struck with a rock, wielded by a prisoner who had been sentenced to manual labour; others say her death was from natural causes.
The story of Lady Betty is probably a blur of definite fact and some fiction, but whatever the entire truth, it is an extraordinary life… that of the cruel hangwoman who sowed terror in the hearts of those around her and in doing so ensured for herself an infamous place in Irish history.
Love means different things to different people. Circumstances shape it and turn people towards each other in the most unexpected of places. Sometimes it’s fleeting, other times deeply felt. Yet, there are times when ‘love’ is a means to an end, a peculiar, complex thing that tests our very understanding of emotion. Sometimes, and for good reason, ‘love is blind’…
And that’s the only way I can describe the story of Helena Citronova and Franz Wunsch, who found themselves living through the horrors of Auschwitz, where Death’s pall hung in the air like incense… a place where the very pits of human depravity and degradation were dredged ever deeper; a place where infants were murdered alongside the infirm and elderly, their corpses burned, their belongings picked over by scavengers, their very bones and hair forming part of an obscene production process to manufacture goods.
Here, in this hell where sick, murderous savages preyed upon the vulnerable and the defenceless, here, of all places… a strange and unfathomable sort of love blossomed.
As extraordinary as that notion could be, the hammer blow really falls when you realise that these two people stood on opposite sides of the wire.
Helena was a prisoner, while Franz was an SS Unterscharfuhrer (akin to a corporal), who was not adverse to meting out vicious, death-rattle beatings whenever the temptation took hold.
Look at the photograph of Helena in her striped camp uniform; it’s not that of the typical image we associate with the awfulness of Auschwitz. She is not emaciated, nor does she look as if she will fall dead to the ground at any moment. Her eyes are not bleak pits forever scarred by the suffering she has witnessed.
No, in this image she is smiling with real joy, her face with its plump cheeks is a picture of health and happiness. The photo almost appears staged. You look at it and you think, ‘she can’t really be there’. You might be right in that supposition, because, I think the last place Helena Citronova was, in her mind at least, was in that death camp.
Romantics might say she was transported on the wings of love to somewhere far, far better. Pragmatists might look at it differently.
Israeli filmmaker Maya Sarfaty charts Franz Wunsch and Helena’s story in her documentary,Love It Was Not, which lifts the lid on a romance that is a warped version of Romeo and Juliet.
Helena grew up in the town of Humenne, in Slovakia. The daughter of the cantor, or chief chanter, in the local synagogue, she enjoyed performing and aspired to work on stage, but then came the war and in March 1942, aged 19, she was put on a train headed for Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Her first task at the camp was exhausting and dangerous – shifting rubble on the site of a demolished building – but she soon got work in the safer surrounds of a huge warehouse at Birkenau, called Canada, where Helena helped process the possessions of those condemned to the gas chambers.
As far as the Nazis were concerned every object had a value for the war effort, so a mountain of shoes here, a hill of clothing there, hillocks of spectacles, and jewellery emerged by the hour – all plundered; all pitiful monuments to stolen lives – to be sifted and sorted just as their owners were being murdered nearby.
Wunsch, who was just 20 years old himself, was the commander at Canada. Helena met him when the guards sought out a singer to perform at his birthday party. One of the tunes she sang was called Love It Was Not. Apparently, it affected Wunsch deeply as no doubt did the sight of the beautiful singer.
‘She was like a peach,’ fellow prisoner Roma Ben Atar Notkovich recalled in Sarfaty’s documentary nearly eighty years later. ‘You just wanted to pinch her cheek.’
Wunsch would have concurred with that assessment; he was smitten.
‘She was the love of his life,’ his daughter Magda told Sarfaty, who interviewed the surviving families of both Wunsch and Helena, as well more than a dozen of Helena’s fellow inmates.
Helena said she hated him at first, but then the wooing began, and it was hard to resist…
Food, biscuits, a sheet and pillow, notes… Wunsch would slip them all to her, with promises that he would somehow get her out of the hell hole in which she found herself.
While inmate-friends of Helena’s also benefited from Wunsch’s gifts, others were either furious at what they saw as her treachery, or were just plain envious.
Former inmate, Bat-Sheva Dagan, said: ‘Everyone was jealous, deeply, of the very fact that she had that chance, and we would go like sheep to the slaughter.’
Other former inmates confirmed to Sarfaty that women would seek Helena’s help and she would pass Wunsch notes which simply gave the prisoner’s number and the word ‘Help’. ‘For you, anything,’ he would say as he read the note.
When Helena caught typhoid in December 1942, the Nazi set up a bed in the warehouse, feeding her most of his SS rations, until she recovered.
‘He loved me to the point of madness,’ said Helena. In fact, later in life Wunsch would present his own daughter with a double locket containing photos of him and Helena.
‘I thought that was a bit odd. It should have been my mother in there,’ Magda told the filmmakers.
Such was Helena’s power over him that witnesses said on several occasions she was seen to grab Wunsch’s hand and make him stop when he was delivering brutal beatings to prisoners.
Her ‘love’ of Wunsch must have been something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, where prisoners and their captors developed a strong emotional bond, and one which in some cases can last a lifetime.
Kidnap victim Mary McElroy, from Kansas, Missouri, was one such a case. Abducted in 1933 when she was just 25 years old, Mary was held at gunpoint and chained. A ransom of $30,000 was paid and a little over two days later and Mary was released unharmed. Her abductors were tracked down shortly after and sent for trial.
Whatever went on in Mary’s head during her short time of captivity was certainly profound because, instead of being at the forefront of calls for punishment of the men, she actually campaigned for them and met with their families.
In April, 1935, the gang’s ringleader, Walter McGee, was sentenced to death for kidnapping, which prompted Mary to write to the state’s governor pleading for clemency and stating: ‘Walter McGee’s sentence has hung as heavily over me as over him. Through punishing a guilty man, his victim will be made to suffer equally… In pleading for Walter McGee’s life I am pleading for my own peace of mind.’
McGee’s sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison, but Mary never got over the trauma of her ordeal. In January 1940, she shot herself, leaving a suicide note which read: ‘My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now – so – please – give them a chance.’
Mary, it seems, was willing to die for her captors, whether Helena was is open to question, but the devotion she felt for Wunsch certainly must have helped subsume the horror of life in the camp; having eyes only for him meant that she partially blinded herself to the ugly reality around her.
Fraternisation of this nature with the inmates was forbidden, and as a result Helena’s feelings for the SS man deepened with every risk he took on her behalf. ‘As time went by, I really did love him,’ she told her family. And that feeling must have been particularly strong when Wunsch managed to save Helena’s sister, Roza, from the gas chamber.
Roza had arrived at the camp with her newborn son and six-year-old daughter and was already in the queue for the gas chambers when Helena heard of her arrival.
She pleaded with the crematorium guards to release her or, failing that, to allow her to die with them, but then Wunsch arrived on the scene and managed to convince the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele that Roza would be a useful worker.
It was only as Roza was in the changing room removing her clothes in preparation for the ‘shower’ that she was rescued. Her children weren’t so fortunate, and were left to die.
It is an extraordinary image, and a heart-breaking one.
The relationship between Wunsch and Helena lasted for more than two years. It was something of an open secret, even among his immediate superiors, with one telling him: ‘Such a beautiful girl. I can see why.’
The affair came to an end with the imminent arrival of Russian forces, which led to the abandonment of the camp.
Writing in his diary at the time, Wunsch recorded the lovers’ final words as they went their separate ways: ‘…She has tears in her eyes. “I beg you, Franz, don’t forget me”. These are her last words. She embraces me one last time. We kiss long and intimately.’
Lest one think these are merely his fond imaginings, Helena backs up his diary claim. ‘I had feelings for him then, that’s for sure,’ she acknowledged years later.
Filmmaker Maya Sarfaty’s documentary reveals how, after surviving the war, both returned to their home towns, with the Nazi writing endless letters proclaiming his love and his hopes that they would be reunited.
Within a year, Helena’s ardour had more than cooled, and she married. However, so persistent was Wunsch that one of her relatives wrote to him asking him to cease contact.
She eventually moved to Israel, but the guilt of her association with him wouldn’t leave her. According to Helena’s family, she would fly into rages, smashing furniture, and claiming the family was cursed. Clearly deeply conflicted about her time with Wunsch, she would claim in her defence: ‘I saved many people thanks to him.’
The past continued to intrude, though, particularly when, in 1972, Wunsch was put on trial in Austria for his role at Auschwitz.
By then he, too, was married. Incredibly, it was his wife, Thea, who wrote to Helena asking if she would speak in Wunsch’s defence.
One can only imagine the emotional pressure that Helena must have felt. In defiance of death threats from outraged Israelis that she would speak up in favour of an SS soldier who had collaborated in the deaths of millions, she attended the trial in Vienna.
‘I had raised a family. I had fallen in love with my husband. But the past still haunted me,’ she would later say.
Wunsch denied beating any inmates to death, or to have herded people into gas chambers. Helena’s words obviously helped sway the court because he was acquitted of his crimes.
Wunsch claimed he’d been corrupted at Auschwitz. There’s no doubt about that, but it’s no defence for what he did.
His adoration for Helena may well have been a form of tunnel vision to help blind him to the reality of his own brutal actions. If so, it was something he carried with him for the rest of his life.
That photo Wunsch took of the smiling, beautiful Helena in her camp uniform also helped mask the reality of his sins. As his daughter Magda said in the film: ‘He treasured that photo, I know. He would take reproductions. He copied the picture and I know he even took the head off and put it on different clothes, on a different background.’
I can see Wunsch now with his little cut-outs, showing ‘Helena’ at home, ‘Helena’ on holiday, maybe even ‘Helena’ with a child in her arms… a whole life lived in his imagination, a life of glue and paper that he wanted to be more real than the ugly truth he had lived in Auschwitz.
Love is blind alright… it had to be.
Readers’ note: I’ve been told by someone who I regard as a pal and who is now an Israeli citizen that this post is ‘offensive on so many levels’. The last thing this blog tries to do is offend people. This story is clearly an anomaly in the horrendous brutality that occurred during the Holocaust. It certainly does not suggest that inmates fraternizing with their vicious captors was a common occurrence. Nevertheless, it did happen, albeit it being a downright bizarre turn of events. And it is these anomalies of history that this blog attempts to record. No offence is intended.
It’s 1914 and US Navy Ensign Fitzhugh Green is freezing, exhausted, and on foot in the frigid, icy wilderness of the Arctic, watching in frantic despair as his only companion, an Inuit hunter called Piugaattoq, climbs astride a dog sleigh and heads off into the distance.
Green calls after him to come back, then fires a warning shot from his rifle, but he’s ignored. He takes a bead on the retreating figure and fires again. The shot hits Piugaattoq in the shoulder, knocking him from the sleigh. Green hobbles forward on aching feet and then finishes off the Inuit with a bullet to the head.
The blood from Piugaattoq’s wounds must have been a microscopic blemish on the pristine white vastness around them. Soon even that would be lost to the relentless, driving snow.
Was Piugaattoq in the process of abandoning his companion in temperatures that had already fallen to minus 50C, as Green later claimed, or did the young naval officer misinterpret what was occurring.
Whatever the reason – and more on that later – it was the murderous culmination to an expedition that had been beset by problems from the outset and one which had been launched on a misguided premise.
The dark deed in the white vastness had its roots eight years’ earlier, back in 1906 when Robert Peary led an expedition to reach the North Pole.
Peary was at Cape Thomas Hubbard on northern Axel Heiberg Island, when he thought he spotted mountains on the horizon to the northwest. Convinced that he had discovered new land, he named it Crocker Land, in honour of one of the expedition’s benefactors, George Crocker.
The problem was, a rival expedition led by Frederick Cook, which, like Peary’s, claimed to have reached the pole, said they had passed through the very area where Crocker Land was purported to be and that they had seen no land there.
Supporters of Peary’s North Pole claim knew that if they could show that Crocker Land existed, then this could undermine Cook’s own claim to have reached the pole.
But Peary wasn’t the only one ‘discovering’ somewhat suspect bits of ‘land’, Cook himself was also at it. He described two masses of land with a break, a strait, or an indentation between, and named it Bradley Land after the sponsor of his own expedition.
It is now known that there is no land at either explorer’s locations and that both claims were either errors or downright lies, designed to curry favour with their wealthy backers.
MacMillan, acting as geologist and ornithologist, was accompanied by the aforementioned Fitzhugh Green, who served as engineer and physicist; Walter Ekblaw (botanist, of the University of Illinois); Maurice Tanquary, (zoologist, of the University of Illinois), and surgeon Harrison J. Hunt.
Things got off to a poor start when their steamer, Diana, struck rocks on July 2, 1913, just two weeks into the voyage, forcing the party to change ships before arriving at Etah, north-west Greenland, in August, where MacMillan established a base, close to where Greenland and Ellesmere Island are closest.
MacMillan and his men spent the next few months exploring the area and the coast of Axel Heiberg Island, as well as setting up caches of supplies along the 1,900km route they planned to take to where they assumed Crocker Land lay.
On March 11, 1914, MacMillan, Green, Ekblaw and seven Inuit set off in search of a place that didn’t exist.
The going was tough. Over three days and in plummeting temperatures, they climbed the 1,400-metre Beitstadt Glacier. Ekblaw suffered severe frostbite and had to be taken back to Etah by some of the Inuit, thus reducing the party’s numbers.
More were to follow, among them Minik Wallace, the Americans’ Inuit guide. He had been brought to the States in 1897 as a child with his father and four others by Peary from one of his previous expeditions in Greenland, so that they could be studied by staff at the American Museum of Natural History.
The world that young Minik and the Inuit party found themselves in couldn’t have been more different. Gone was the vast Arctic expanse, replaced by a room in the museum’s basement, where they lived out their days, shaking the hands of many of the 20,000 visitors who paid the entrance fee to see them.
Unsurprisingly, all contracted tuberculosis and most died, including Minik’s father, Qisuk.
Wanting to preserve his body for further study, the museum added insult to injury by staging a fake burial, removing the corpse’s flesh, and then putting the bones on exhibition inside the museum – all without the grieving seven-year-old Minik’s knowledge.
He subsequently found out, years later, but despite his pleading, the museum never returned his father’s body to him. It wasn’t until 1993, following a long-running campaign by author Kenn Harper, that the remains of the Inuit were returned to their homeland and reburied.
Following his father’s death, the boy was adopted by the museum’s curator, William Wallace. He eventually got passage back to Greenland, in 1909, aged about 18.
Before leaving, he told a reporter: “You’re a race of scientific criminals. I know I’ll never get my father’s bones out of the American Museum of Natural History. I am glad enough to get away before they grab my brains and stuff them into a jar!”
Minik’s hard road continued on his return to his homeland. After years in New York, he had forgotten the language and how to hunt, but he quickly relearned them, and a few years later he found himself serving as MacMillan’s guide on the Crocker Land expedition.
When Minik decided to turn back on that trip, there may have been more than hardship and bitter cold that coloured his decision. Some said his head had been turned by the wife of one of his Inuit travelling companions, and that he wanted to see her.
It’s also suggested that the said travelling companion was only too aware of Minik’s interest and decided also to go home, in a bid to keep an eye on his potential love rival.
What with sickness and lovesickness, by the time the expedition reached the edge of the Arctic Ocean on April 11, the group had been reduced to just four – MacMillan, Green and two Inuit, Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk.
Ten days’ later, their dog sleighs having travelled on thin ice, they saw what looked like a huge island.
“Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon,” as MacMillan would later describe it in his book, Four Years in the White North.
But Piugaattoq, with decades of experience of the area, wasn’t convinced and said that it was just poo-jook, an illusion created by mist.
MacMillan disagreed, insisting that they press on, despite the increasingly thin ice. They went a further 200km, risking instant disaster – for five whole days until, with the sea ice breaking up around them, MacMillan finally accepted that what they were seeing was actually a mirage.
The expedition leader would later write: “Our powerful glasses, however, brought out more clearly the dark background in contrast with the white, the whole resembling hills, valleys and snow-capped peaks to such a degree that, had we not been out on the frozen sea for 150 miles, we would have staked our lives upon its reality. Our judgment then, as now, is that this was a mirage or loom of the sea ice.”
MacMillan had to concede: “As we watched it more narrowly its appearance slowly changed from time to time so we were forced to the conclusion that it was a mirage of the sea ice.”
As Kenn Harper described it in a 2006 article for the Nunatsiaq News, MacMillan had been deceived by the atmospheric conditions of an Arctic spring and shifting sea ice and snow, reflected and refracted through the lens of an Arctic mist.
When a crestfallen MacMillan reached firm land again, at Axel Heiberg Island, he wanted to retrieve something from their ghost chase, so sent Piugaattoq and Green to explore westward, while he and Ittukusuk went east. The two parties agreed on a rendezvous point where they would meet after a few days of exploration.
Green and Piugaattoq hit bad weather, which forced them to shelter in a snow cave. Then things got worse as one of the dog team’s died. Nerves were fraught, and the two men bickered over the best direction to go. It was an argument that led to Piugaattoq’s murder.
Green eventually made it back to the rendezvous point several days late, and told MacMillan what had happened. He in turn shared the grim tidings with the other Americans once they were all reunited. But the honesty only went so far. Rather than fess up and explain what happened, he told the Inuit that Piugaattoq had died in an avalanche.
The killing of Piugaattop was never investigated. Green got away with murder.
Had he really been fearful of abandonment by his companion or was there more to it than that? When the truth eventually did come out later in the journals of both MacMillan and Green, the local Inuit certainly thought so.
Writing in the Nunatsiaq News in 2006, Kenn Harper noted: ‘A quarter century ago, when I asked the elders in Qaanaaq why they thought Fitzhugh Green had killed Piugaattoq, they told me that the reason was simple — Green had wanted Piugaattoq’s wife, Aleqasina. She was a strikingly beautiful woman and had been Peary’s mistress until he abandoned her in 1909. Green, the Inughuit believed, desired her.’
The expedition wasn’t through with its troubles by any stretch of the imagination. The bad weather left them stranded in the region for another four months. MacMillan and Tanquary set off for Etah in December 1914 with the aim of getting a message to the outside world, seeking help.
MacMillan had to turn back, but Tanquary persevered and arrived in Etah in March 1915.
Eventually, a message reached the American Museum of Natural History, which sent a rescue ship that itself got trapped in ice and which didn’t return for two years. A second ship was sent in 1916, but by then MacMillan, Green and Tanquary had got back to the United States by dog sleigh. The rest of the team was rescued in 1917 by the ship Neptune, commanded by renowned Arctic explorer Robert Bartlett.
The scandal of the Crocker Land expedition didn’t seem to harm Fitzhugh Green’s career. In March 1927, he was promoted to naval commander, but scandal of another kind did impinge on his life when in September 1947 he and his wife, Margery, the daughter of an automobile manufacturer, were arrested for drug possession. Green died a few weeks later, on December 2.
Those Arctic exploits clearly touched a chord in him as he wrote a novel, ZRWins, about an airship’s flight to the North Pole in search of a lost Viking colony.
As for that other possibly lovelorn member of the expedition, Minik Wallace, things fared even worse. Unable to settle in Greenland, he left there in 1916 and returned to New York, and to his quest to get back his father’s remains.
He found work as a lumberjack in New Hampshire before succumbing to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. He was just 28 years old when he died, his quest unfinished.
Green’s own quest had been for a phantom land, during which he and his companions risked life and limb following a mirage, a Fata Morgana… or, as poor Piugaattoq described it, a poo-jook of the mist.
The expedition may not have found the elusive Crocker Land, but it did uncover a black heart amid the Arctic’s blinding white, where not even the numbing cold could cool hot-blooded men battling the wilderness and, maybe, battling their own lustful desires, too.