May 26

1201 Murder of a Pilgrim Saint

According to CatholicSaints Info, the Scotsman William of Perth (aka William of Rochester) led a wild and misspent youth, but as an adult he had a complete conversion, devoting himself to God, caring especially for poor and neglected children. He worked as a baker, and gave every tenth loaf to the poor. He attended Mass daily, and one morning on his way to church he found an infant abandoned on the threshold. He named the baby David, and adopted him, and taught him his trade.

Years later he and David set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. During a stop-over in Rochester, England the boy David turned on William, clubbed him, cut his throat, robbed the body, and fled. Because he was on a holy journey, and because of the miraculous cures later reported at his tomb, he is considered a martyr.

A local insane woman found William’s body, and plaited a garland of honeysuckle flowers for it; she placed the garland on William, and then on herself whereupon her madness was cured. Local monks, seeing this as a sign from God, interred William in the local cathedral and began work on his shrine. His tomb and a chapel at his murder scene, called Palmersdene, soon became sites of pilgrimage, second only to the tomb of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Remains of the chapel can be seen near the present Saint William’s Hospital.

The stained-glass portrait in Rochester Cathedral above shows William with the traditional pilgrims’s hat, staff, purse, and cockleshell emblem. He is the patron saint of adopted children.

May 25

Towel Day

May 25th is observed around the world by fans of Douglas Adams, author of, inter alia, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Life, the Universe and Everything,  The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and So Long and Thanks for All the Fish. Devotees of the Adams cult carry a towel around with them all day, in honour of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, the original Towel Bearers. The eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide tells its readers:

A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)

May 24

1921 The opening of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial

On April 15, 1920, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company’s payroll was robbed and two men, a guard and the unarmed paymaster, were murdered. As the thieves fled the scene in a dark-blue Buick, they fired at the crowd of workers. Suspicion fell on a gang of Italian anarchists, who were questioned and followed. When police apprehended Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a shoemaker and a fishmonger, they were found to be carrying anarchist literature, and pistols and ammunition which linked them to the shooting scene. They were charged with robbery and murder, which prompted their anarchist comrades to launch a series of bomb attacks including the famous blast on Wall Street that exploded killing 38 people and wounding 134.

The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti opened on May 24, 1921, eventually becoming a famous episode in American jurisprudence and an enduring part of left-wing mythology. The left presented the two as harmless cheese-eating immigrants persecuted by xenophobic bigots, while the right saw them as dangerous terrorists and a warning of the dangers of unrestricted immigration. What made this clash of ideologies worse was the5 incompetence and bias of the judge, Webster Thayer, who had already presided over a trial finding Vanzetti guilty of an earlier robbery. A jury found Sacco and Vanzetti guilty of robbery and murder in July 1921.

It was at this point that the American left rallied and used the undoubted flaws of the trial to raise money, publicize labour and anarchist causes, and demand a new trial. The usual crowd of celebrities, academics, and writers supported the cause, making it an international sensation. As appeals dragged on, another anarchist in 1925 took the blame for the Braintree crimes, absolving Sacco and Vanzetti, but again Judge Thayer denied the need for a new trial. However, by 1926 powerful voices, including future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, Albert Einstein and Dorothy Parker, were arguing that the original case had been a travesty of justice. The uproar was such that Massachusetts governor Alvan Fuller established an independent inquiry into the affair which, after two weeks of study and hearing witnesses, declined to overturn the original verdict. Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution on August 22, 1927 was to go ahead.

In prison, the condemned alternated between calls for violent revenge — “revenge, revenge in our names and the names of our living and dead” — and posing as innocents. Vanzetti was particularly touching, telling Sacco’s son in a letter “remember always these things; we are not criminals; they convicted us on a frame-up; they denied us a new trial; and if we will be executed after seven years, four months and seventeen days of unspeakable tortures and wrong, it is for what I have already told you; because we were for the poor and against the exploitation and oppression of the man by the man.”

Their execution prompted a wave of bombings across America and in Europe. Fifty years later Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts decreed that the pair been unfairly tried and convicted and that “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names”. Though the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti remains a legend of injustice on the left, the two were certainly guilty. Their defence lawyer told Upton Sinclair, author of a sympathetic novel, that he had provided the men with a fake alibi and that they served the cause better as martyrs than if they had been released. Anarchist sources admitted that Sacco was the shooter.

May 23

1618 The Third Defenestration of Prague

When political turmoil grips the Canadian people, the government responds by appointing a Royal Commission, and in the years it takes to issue a final report, the brouhaha always dies down. In times of national crisis, Czechs are wont to throw people out of windows.

The First Prague Defenestration (from the Latin fenestra, and thus the German das Fenster and the French la fenêtre) took place in 1419 when angry Hussites tossed the burgomaster and civic councillors out of a window in the Town Hall to their deaths on the cobblestones below. In 1483 religious quarrels again led to the fatal hurling of the Prague burgomaster and his colleagues through windows.

In May, 1618 sectarian hostility led to a confrontation in the Bohemian Chancellory  between four Catholic regents and a group of Protestant noblemen. The latter demanded to know whether the regents had played a part in provoking the King Ferdinand II to issue harsh anti-Protestant decrees. Two of the regents accepted responsibility for supporting those moves, whereupon they and their secretary were propelled out the window 70′ above the ground. Their survival was attributed by the Catholic faction to a miraculous intercession of the Virgin Mary and by the Protestants to a fortuitous soft landing in a dung heap. The Thirty Years War soon erupted.

May 22

1520 The Alvarado Massacre

It’s hard to say a good word about the Spanish conquistadors; a scummier bunch of rapacious, dishonourable murderers would be hard to find. On the other hand, one is hard-pressed to be a fan of the Aztecs, cruel imperialists who conducted human sacrifices on an industrial scale. A tragic event in May 1520 would prompt a clash between the two cultures that would eventually end very badly for the natives.

In 1519 the Spanish adventurer Hernan Cortes had marched to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and taken Emperor Moctezuma prisoner. The Spaniards and their native allies were housed in their own compound of the magnificent city on the lake, relying on the locals for food. They were a tiny, uneasy band surrounded by a hostile populace resentful at their god-leader’s capture.

While Cortes was absent, dealing with another band of Spaniards on the coast, the Aztecs informed his deputy Pedro de Alvarado that they would be holding a festival in honour of one of their gods. Alvarado was also told by his allies that this was a cover for the start of an Aztec uprising and that the Spaniards were sure to be overwhelmed and sacrificed. Alvarado chose to react violently. He sealed off the square where the dancing was taking place and butchered the unarmed participants.

Here is an Aztec account:

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed; they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods.  At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle. They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere. Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away. At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces. They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go. Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them. The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air. And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place. When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!” Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

This atrocity greatly imperilled the Spanish position in the capital. Moctezuma would be repudiated by the Aztec elite and an uprising in June would eventually drive the conquistadors from the city with great losses. Much more blood would be shed before the Spaniards could crush the native resistance.

May 21

1776 Battle of the Cedars

When Canada defeats an invading army, as occurred 246 years ago this week, we know how to boast about it. Behold the mighty monument to our victory over the Americans at the Battle of the Cedars, 1776! It puts that puny Arc de Triomphe to shame.

In 1775 a Continental Army invaded Quebec. The American forces succeeded in taking Montreal but failed in their siege of Quebec City. By May 1776 their position was untenable and they began to withdraw back to New York. This left their garrison at The Cedars, south of Montreal, exposed to attack. 

When a detachment of British regulars, some Quebecois militia, and hundreds of Iroquois showed up outside the wooden fort, the American commander Isaac Butterfield tried in vain to negotiate an armed withdrawal. When that option was denied, he surrendered. Other American troops at nearby Quinze-Chênes put up a fight but they too yielded. The British officers were able to persuade the Iroquois not to massacre their prisoners but the captives were looted by the natives. 

A prisoner exchange was arranged and the American soldiers were released but Congress, arguing that the Iroquois had committed atrocities, refused to honour their side of the swap. 

May 20

1631 The Sack of Magdeburg

One of the comedic gems of the late 20th century was Ripping Yarns, a BBC production written by two ex-Pythons, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The series made sport of English boys adventure books. Episodes such as “Across the Andes by Frog” and “The Curse of the Claw” are hilarious but my favourite is “Roger of the Raj”, a tale of a young British officer in India. The colonel of the regiment is a kindly old duffer but his wife is a fierce colonialist, as is evidenced by this bedtime conversation:

Lord Bartelsham: You know, I often think that if people had been a little more kind to each other, we could have avoided many of the wars which have plagued society through the ages.
Lady Bartelsham: Rubbish, dear.
Lord Bartelsham: Well… maybe.. but just suppose for a minute that when Wallenstein reached the gates of Magdeburg in 1631, instead of razing the city to the ground and putting its inhabitants to the sword, he’d said… “What a lovely place! How lucky you are to live here. I live in Sweden.. you must come and see me some time.” Just think what a difference it would have made he’d have gone down in history as a nice chap, instead of the Butcher of Magdeburg.
Lady Bartelsham: Eat up dear, and stop talking piffle.

Lord Bartelsham may have had his heart in the right place but he got some facts wrong about the destruction of Magdeburg which took place on this date in 1631. First of all, Count Wallenstein was not the Imperial general besieging Magdeburg — the title of Butcher of Magdeburg is held jointly by Count Tilly and Graf Pappenheim. None of those generals was Swedish. Bartlesham was doubtless thinking of Tilly and Wallenstein’s opponent Gustavus Adolphus.

Regardless of who was in charge of the Catholic forces who stormed Magdeburg, the ensuing massacres and atrocities were the low point of the Thirty Years War. Tilly was proud of himself. He wrote to the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, “Never was such a victory since the storming of Troy or of Jerusalem. I am sorry that you and the ladies of the court were not there to enjoy the spectacle.” Pope Urban VIII thought it a fine deed, telling Tilly “You have washed your victorious hands in the blood of sinners.” 

Fourteen Pieces of Wisdom

It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured. – Tacitus, Annals, c. 105

The cobra will bite you whether you call it cobra or Mr. Cobra. – Indian Proverb

Permit me, sir, to give you one piece of advice. Be not so positive; especially with regard to things which are neither easy nor necessary to be determined. When I was young I was sure of everything. In a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before. At present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to man. – John Wesley, London Magazine, 1775

Do not let a flattering woman coax and wheedle you and deceive you; she is after your barn. – Hesiod, 8c B.C.

They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. – Carl W. Buehner, 1971

Money swore an oath that nobody who did not love it should ever have it. – Irish proverb

God has promised forgiveness to your repentance, but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination. – Augustine of Hippo, “Commentary on Psalm 145”, c. 400

Nothing has more strength than dire necessity. – Euripides, Helen, 412 BC

What they do in heaven we are ignorant of; what they do not do we are told expressly. – Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting, 1703

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1974

We are human beings, not creatures of infinite possibilities. ­ Robertson Davies, Conversations with Robertson Davies, 1989

A fanatic is someone who looks at beauty and sees injustice. – Theodore Dalrymple, Midnight Maxims, 2021

Not a single one of the cells that compose you knows who you are, or cares. – Daniel Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, 2005

Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away. That is, one can even say that the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind. – Feodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground, 1864


Thoughts on Writing

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker, Esquire, 1959

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. – William Faulkner, interview in Paris Review, 1956

I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them.” Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist. Though I do not know that it is a fact, I surmise that he regarded Madame Bovary with horror. On one occasion Matisse was showing a lady a picture of his in which he had painted a naked woman, and the lady exclaimed, “But a woman isn’t like that”: to which he answered, “It isn’t a woman, madam, it’s a picture.” I think, similarly, if someone had ventured to suggest that a story of James’s was not like life, he would have replied, “It isn’t life, it’s a story.” —W. Somerset Maugham, “The Short Story”, Points of View, 2011

There isn’t any symbolism in [The Old Man and the Sea]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. – Ernest Hemingway, letter to Bernard Berenson, 1952


May 17

1903 Birth of “Cool Papa” Bell

James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, a Negro League outfielder was reputed to have been the fastest player in baseball. How fast was he?

He was so fast that he could turn off the light and be under the covers before the room got dark.

He was so fast that he once hit a pitch up the middle of the field and he was struck by the ball as he slid into second base.

He was so fast that he stole home on an infield bunt. (True story).

1944 Birth of Jesse Winchester

One of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation was born in Louisiana and migrated to Canada in 1967 in order to avoid the Vietnam draft. In Montreal he began to compose songs that could rock but were usually marked by a kind of sweet melancholy. He became a Canadian citizen in 1973 but returned to the USA after Jimmy Carter’s amnesty, becoming better-known among fellow performers than the general musical public. Winchester died of cancer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2014.

Here is a selection of his music that I hope will encourage readers to investigate him.

“Rhumba Man”

“The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”

“Just So Much”

“Lay Down the Burden of Your Heart”

“Sham-A- Ling-Dong”