From Cobh to Boot Hill – the Bisbee Massacre’s Irish Bandit

As Dan ‘Yorkie’ Kelly stood on the scaffold in the Wild West town of Tombstone in March of 1884, his thoughts must shave 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.

The Letson Loft Hotel (Letson Loft Block) was built in 1883 and is located on 26 Main Street, Bisbee, Az. It was originally known as the Goldwater-Castaneda Mercantile Store. Credit: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0

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.

David Grasseé’s book on The Bisbee Massacre

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.

The grave marker for Dan Kelly and his cronies in Boot Hill Cemetery, Tombstone

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.

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Hang ‘Em High – Lady Betty, the Irish Executioner

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”.

Sir William Wilde, who spoke with people who knew Lady Betty

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.

By Pisanello – The Yorck Project (2002) Public Domain

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.

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Love Affair at Auschwitz

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.

Helena Citronova as a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau

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.’

A report on Mary McElroy’s suicide in the St Louis Dispatch (fair use)

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.’

Franz Wunsch

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.

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Murder, Lust, and The Land That Never Was…

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.

Alleged location of Bradley Land, sighted by Frederick Cook, and Cocker Land, sighted by Robert Peary

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.

In any case, an expedition was organised to find the non-existent Crocker Land. Led by Donald MacMillan, it was sponsored by such prestigious institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society and the University of Illinois‘ Museum of Natural History.

Expedition members. From left to right: Harrison J. Hunt, Maurice C. Tanquary, W. Elmer Ekblaw, Donald B. MacMillan, Fitzhugh Green,

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.

Minik Wallace as a boy in America

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.

Axel Heiberg Island (by Matti Blume – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia)

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, ZR Wins, 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.

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Dutch Courage: The femme fatales who lured Nazis to their deaths

Among the dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland, on North Holland’s west coast, the silvery-green leaves of sea buckthorn are buffeted by the Atlantic’s salty breezes and fearsome gales.

You’ll find the shrub on coasts across Europe, and all the way to Mongolia and northwestern China. Also known as sandthorn, sallowthorn, or seaberry, it is a hardy plant that can withstand temperatures as low as -43 C.  The foliage and orange berries are used in certain skincare products.

It has thrived in Zuid-Kennemerland, 38sqkm of national park, located near Haarlem and Zandvoort.

The park is home to deer, squirrels, hedgehogs… even Shetland ponies and Highland cattle graze the grasslands. The birds and butterflies clearly love it, too, flitting between marsh orchids, meadowsweet, and yellow loosestrife that are sprinkled across the dunes.

But there’s more than fauna and flora to be found among the grasses. The area is dotted with memorial stones to others who now call Zuid-Kennemerland home.

A small path leads from a parking lot to the top of one dune, where the lime-rich sand enfolds the remains of 347 victims of the Nazi occupation during World War II. One of them, the only woman, is Hannie Schaft, the first internment at the Dutch Honourary Cemetery (Erebegraafplaats Bloemendaal) back on November 27, 1945.

It was Hannie’s second burial. The first had occurred following her murder among the dunes just a few months earlier, when she was executed by Dutch members of the Gestapo on April 17.

Her bungling assassins managed to wound her with the first shot. But the attractive young woman with the flaming red hair, freckles, and blue eyes would not be cowed in her final moments.

Murdered among the dunes: Hannie Schaft

‘Ik schiet beter’ (‘I shoot better’) was said to be her response to that poor effort. Then she was finished off by the second gunman.

Before she became a martyr for Dutch resistance, Hannie Schaft studied law at the University of Amsterdam, where she was forced to quit her course when she refused to sign a declaration of allegiance to the Nazi occupiers.

She had already joined a resistance group with close ties to the Communist Party and got very active indeed, especially when it came to weapons. Hannie attacked collaborators and occupying Nazis. So determined was she that she even became fluent in German to enable her to gain the confidence of German soldiers. 

She took part in several assassinations and acts of sabotage, including blowing up railway tracks and factories. Spotted at one killing, she was identified as ‘the girl with the red hair’ – a description that was placed on the Nazi’s most-wanted list.

Her exploits read like something from a novel. In June, 1944 she and a comrade from the resistance, Jan Bonekamp, killed Nazi collaborator and policeman Captain Willem Ragut, in Zaandam. Hannie is said to have shot him in the back but Ragut returned fire, mortally wounding Bonekamp in the stomach. 

In September of the same year, she wounded a criminal investigator, but her gun jammed and the intended victim fired back, hitting her in the thigh.

In March 1945, just weeks before her death, Hannie and her fellow resistance fighter Truss Oversteegen disguised themselves as workmen to assassinate a Dutch police inspector. The killing prompted a Nazi retaliation that resulted in the deaths of 15 hostages.

On March 21, she was captured carrying a weapon and resistance propaganda. During her interrogation, she was identified as ‘the girl with the red hair’.

But she wasn’t the only woman out killing Nazis, the aforementioned Truus Oversteegen and her sister, Freddie, were at it, too.

Freddie Oversteegen was only 14 years old when she joined the resistance. Two years later she was carrying out assassinations with her older sister on collaborators and Nazis, luring them to their deaths in ambushes.

Sister in arms: Truus Oversteegen

They were from Haarlem, raised by a mother who took Jewish refugees into the family home as Europe teetered on the brink of war. When the Nazis invaded The Netherlands in May 1940, the sisters and their mother began their acts of resistance by distributing anti-Nazi propaganda and posting warnings to those who considered collaborating with the invaders.

Such acts, though harmless in themselves, carried heavy penalties for those who were caught, but the sisters were never suspected, particularly Freddie who looked even younger than her tender years when she wore her hair in pigtails. She and Truus would slip by Nazi controls unnoticed, moving weapons and stealing identity papers to help Jewish people escape.

They eventually moved on from such work to assassination – an unusual development to say the least for teenage girls. Their innocent looks allowed them to get closer to collaborators and Nazis than might otherwise have been possible.

In one instance, Truus used her charms to entice an SS officer from a restaurant and out for a walk in the woods, where resistance fighters were waiting to execute him. In another, she and Freddie flirted with the guards at a warehouse to distract them before burning the building down. Both killed. How many, they refused to say. They would follow targets to their homes and fire on them there or ambush them on their bicycles.

It was the Dutch equivalent of a drive-by-shooting. “My mother drove the bicycle, and Freddie sat on the back and was shooting,” Truus’s daughter, Hannie Menger told the Observer. “Because they were girls, nobody noticed them.”

When they weren’t assassinating Nazis and collaborators they were busy hiding Jews, helping tend patients in an emergency hospital, and blowing up the Ijmuden-Haarlem railway track.

Freddie Oversteegen
Deadly: The innocent-looking Freddie Oversteegen

Sophie Poldermans, who wrote about the trio in her book, Seducing and Killing Nazis, recalled how the base inhumanity of the Nazis overrode any qualms the girls may have had about their own actions.

As Truus told Poldermans in her book: ‘Once, I was confronted with an SS soldier, a Dutch SS soldier even, who was killing a small baby by hitting it against a wall. He grabbed the baby and hit it against the wall. The father and sister had to watch. They were obviously hysterical. The child was dead. I shot that guy. Right there and then. That wasn’t an assignment, but I don’t regret it.’

Is it any wonder then that the young sisters suffered PTSD as a result of their wartime activity. Nightmares, screaming, and fighting in their sleep were not uncommon occurrences, according to Poldermans.

Unlike Hannie, who was just 25 when she died, Truus and Freddie lived to a ripe age. The elder sister died in 2016, aged 93. Her younger sibling, Freddie died in 2018, just two days shy of her own 93rd birthday.

“If you ask me, the war only ended two weeks ago,” her son Remi Dekker told the Observer in the days after her death. “In her mind it was still going on, and on, and on. It didn’t stop, even until the last day.”

“She shot a few people, and these were the real, real bad guys,” Remi recalled. “But she hated it, and she hated herself for doing it.”

They had a long inning’s, and they built lives for themselves in the post-war years. For many of those years, though, due to their Communist leanings, they went largely unrecognised for the wartime service they had done their country. However, in 2014, they were each awarded a medal for their war service by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

That they managed to carve out lives at all as mothers and homemakers, is testament to their strong will – a will that enabled them to look beyond the killings they had committed and towards a future free from oppression.

Recognition at last: Freddie and Truus Oversteegen with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in 2014

Toughened by their experiences in the resistance, they carried as best they could, the heavy burden their actions had on their own consciences.

They were indomitable, as was their comrade in arms, Hannie.  

Like the hardy sea buckthorn buffeted by the gales of the Atlantic coast, her spirit stood up to all the Nazis could throw at her, even using her final words to show her defiance.

Orange is the national colour of The Netherlands, so it is fitting that she lies where she does, close to the buckthorn’s silvery-green leaves and its orange berries… the orange of the homeland she gave her life for.

I hope it also grows where the Oversteegen women now rest, and that their rest is a quiet one.

A small aside…

In my university days I spent the summer of 1985 in The Netherlands. Myself and my three companions took a couple of days out in Amsterdam upon arrival, getting our bearings before someone put us wise to finding work on the tulip farms in the countryside. We caught a bus to somewhere near Hillegom, the centre of the bulb industry. It’s just a short drive from Haarlem.

Our first evening in the area wasn’t the greatest. We were 18 years old – green as saplings – and unable to find a place to stay that night. Undaunted, I suggested we make our way to the beach, where we could bed down in our sleeping bags among the sand dunes. And that’s what we did.

It’s only now as I look at the map of the area that I realise back in 1985 we were probably sleeping in the very dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland… the dunes where Hannie Schaft had met her cruel end 40 years earlier, and where she now lies, close to where the buckthorn grows.

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Fires, factories and forgotten disasters

Oppau factory disaster of September 1921

The Oppau factory disaster of September 1921

Quite what the citizens of Mannheim, Germany, made of the lumps of metal that hurtled through the air and landed in their environs on September 22, 1921, is anyone’s guess. The fact that the metal had been blown from the town of Oppau 20km away, probably didn’t immediately register. What may have, though, was the sound of the explosion that propelled the machinery there in the first place.

Centenaries of major events are pretty big deals, particularly when they mark disasters that affected thousands of lives, but we had one last week and not a peep was heard online or anywhere from what I can see…

That explosion of 4,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the Badische Aniline and Soda Factory (BASF – the manufacturer of cassette tapes, to those of a certain generation) in Oppau sent shock waves for hundreds of kilometres. Railway tracks buckled, trees were uprooted and, in Oppau itself, buildings were so badly damaged that 75% of the town had to be rebuilt.

Located between Stuttgart and Frankfurt, the massive BASF factory at Oppau employed 10,000 workers, producing vast quantities of ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate, which is used in fertiliser.

Vast silos, each with a capacity of 50,000 tonnes, stored the mixture, which, due to its accumulated weight, would compact and could only be shifted by drilling into its base and inserting small charges of explosives to break it up.

The practice of blowing up compacted ammonium nitrate was quite common and had been used by BASF 20,000 times previously. On this occasion, though, things went disastrously wrong due to the gradual change in the humidity within Silo 110, with the result that the mixture became incredibly volatile.

When the small charge detonated to break up the compacted ammonium nitrate it triggered two subsequent explosions, seconds apart, that created a crater 96 metres wide and 165 metres long, and killed more than 560 people, and injured a further 2,000.

Ten years before the Oppau blast, another factory tragedy claimed the lives of scores of workers. The fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in March 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers from the fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping to their deaths.

The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in Manhatten, and was said to have started due to the disposal of a lit match or cigarette butt in a wooden scrap bin, which held two months’ worth of accumulated cuttings – scraps from the thousands of shirtwaists that had been cut at a nearby table.

Doors to the factory’s stairwells had been locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorised breaks. When the fire broke out the result was horrific, as recorded by eyewitness Louis Waldman, who described the scene as dozens of people plunged from the blazing building:

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, which killed 146 people
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in fire New York killed 146 people

‘Horrified and helpless, the crowds – I among them – looked up at the burning building, saw girl after girl appear at the reddened windows, pause for a terrified moment, and then leap to the pavement below, to land as mangled, bloody pulp. This went on for what seemed a ghastly eternity. Occasionally a girl who had hesitated too long was licked by pursuing flames and, screaming with clothing and hair ablaze, plunged like a living torch to the street. Life nets held by the firemen were torn by the impact of the falling bodies.’

The victims were aged from 14-43 years. A total of 123 girls and women died that day, as did 23 men.

You would think that lessons might have been learned over time, but history has a terrible habit of repeating itself.

In 2012, a fire broke out in the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when at least 117 workers died and 200 were injured in a suspected arson. Inadequate fire exits, which were too narrow to accommodate the fleeing workers, contributed to the death toll.

And still, they happen. In July of this year, fire engulfed a food and beverage factory, again in Dhaka, killing at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside due to a locked door.

One of the world’s worst factory disasters occurred in 1984 on the night of December 2-3, when a gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madyeh Pradesh, in India, exposed over half a million people living in nearby towns to highly toxic methyl isocyanate gas.

The leak was alleged to have been due to a lack of pipeline maintenance. Whatever the cause, anywhere up to 16,000 men, women and children are said to have died as a result (the official immediate death toll was 2,259 but other estimates suggest 8,000 died in the first two weeks, followed by another 8,000 since from gas-related diseases). An astonishing 558,000 people were injured.

Disasters like those in Oppau, Beirut, New York, Dhaka and Bhopal decimate lives, but most are somehow lost in the folds of history. It’s the wars and the big heroes and villains that we tend to remember. Low-paid factory workers or people on the poverty line living in the shadow of multi-billion pharma plants just don’t make the grade, unfortunately.

Now, though, in the centenary of Oppau, we can take the opportunity to remember those factory worker victims and, in doing so, take a moment to recall all those others who fell in industrial disasters… disasters that are more frequent than we imagine, and which, for those who suffer them, are just as seismic as any great moment from history.

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