“THE TERRIFYING TRUE STORY OF ROBERT THE DOLL” and More True Paranormal Horrors! #WeirdDarkness
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Listen to ““THE TERRIFYING TRUE STORY OF ROBERT THE DOLL” and More True Paranormal Horrors! #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
IN THIS EPISODE: In Brazil, two corpses were found on a hill, dressed in matching suits with homemade lead masks draped over their eyes. (The Lead Masks Case) *** If you were to be asked who the most horrible, terrifying figure in the Bible was, you would likely say Lucifer – that is, Satan himself. But there is a figure even more terrifying – and it is God’s right-hand man in the book of Revelation. (God’s Right Hand Man) *** Horror – the stories and images seem to change with each passing year, but there was a violent shift in horror shortly after the violent reality of the “War to End All Wars”. (How Horror Changed After World War 1) *** Two sisters rebel against their depressing family life by diving into witchcraft – and soon learn it was not a wise decision. (Leftover Magic) *** In 1827, young Maria Marten slipped into a red barn to meet her secret lover. It was the last time she would be seen alive. (Murder in the Red Barn) *** Madeleine Smith had a rich fiancé, a secret lover, and one heck of a secret hot chocolate recipe. A lethal secret recipe. (The Hot Cocoa Killer) *** Was the 1971 Lloyds Bank safety deposit robbery a covert operation to retrieve compromising photos of Royalty? (The Baker Street Robbery) *** From mouths nailed shut to being buried headfirst in the ground, throughout history the fear of witches has led to extraordinary measures to keep the dead from rising from the grave. (How To Bury a Witch) *** From creepy voices to mysterious movements to strange laughter and eerie deaths, the legend of Robert the Doll outshines many cursed object stories and has been haunting people for over a hundred years, and shows no sign of slowing down. (The True Story Behind Robert The Doll)
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
”The True Story Behind Robert The Doll” by Melissa Brink: https://tinyurl.com/rnlbjxp
“The Lead Masks Case” by Orrin Grey: http://ow.ly/Re9h30nA2ZX
“God’s Terrifying Right-Hand Man” by Matthew Lavelle: https://tinyurl.com/u88mpbe
“How Horror Changed After WW1” by W. Scott Poole, from the book “Wasteland: The Great War And The Origins of Horror”: https://amzn.to/2t4ZmpT
“The Baker Street Robbery”: https://tinyurl.com/wltn62d
“How To Bury a Witch”: https://tinyurl.com/ttqfd2c
“Leftover Magic” by Weirdo family member Ilsa Beauchamp
“Murder In The Red Barn” by Stephanie Almazan: http://ow.ly/CV4K30nAJDp
“The Hot Cocoa Killer” by Jennifer Jackson: http://ow.ly/8bHt30nAJSg
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Weird Darkness theme by Alibi Music Library. Background music provided by Alibi Music Library, EpidemicSound and/or StoryBlocks with paid license. Music from Shadows Symphony (https://tinyurl.com/yyrv987t), Midnight Syndicate (http://amzn.to/2BYCoXZ) Kevin MacLeod (https://tinyurl.com/y2v7fgbu), Tony Longworth (https://tinyurl.com/y2nhnbt7), and Nicolas Gasparini (https://tinyurl.com/lnqpfs8) is used with permission of the artists.
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(Over time links seen above may become invalid, disappear, or have different content. I always make sure to give authors credit for the material I use whenever possible. If I somehow overlooked doing so for a story, or if a credit is incorrect, please let me know and I will rectify it in these show notes immediately. Some links included above may benefit me financially through qualifying purchases.)
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Forget Annabelle – haunted dolls have been around for ages, and few are as terrifying as Robert the Doll. The history of Robert the Doll is fascinating, encompassing an eccentric artist, a curse, and an ever-growing list of people who claim their lives have been affected by him. Though Robert did get a movie in his name in 2015, his story is creepy enough without all the Hollywood embellishment. Though there’s been some inconsistencies among the facts about Robert the Doll, the facts of this Key West institution’s mythos are as fascinating as the fiction.
Throughout history, in virtually every culture, witches have played a role in the spirituality and history of civilization. Whether they were revered as healers and practitioners of arts beyond our understanding or hunted as strange and dangerous creatures, seeking to do harm to society. More often than not, witches were met with fear, anger and ultimately, death. We’ll look at some of the strangest ways accused witches have been laid to an unnatural rest throughout history.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
In Brazil, two corpses were found on a hill, dressed in matching suits with homemade lead masks draped over their eyes. (The Lead Masks Case)
If you were to be asked who the most horrible, terrifying figure in the Bible was, you would likely say Lucifer – that is, Satan himself. But there is a figure even more terrifying – and it is God’s right-hand man in the book of Revelation. (God’s Right Hand Man)
Horror – the stories and images seem to change with each passing year, but there was a violent shift in horror shortly after the violent reality of the “War to End All Wars”. (How Horror Changed After World War 1)
Two sisters rebel against their depressing family life by diving into witchcraft – and soon learn it was not a wise decision. (Leftover Magic)
In 1827, young Maria Marten slipped into a red barn to meet her secret lover. It was the last time she would be seen alive. (Murder in the Red Barn)
Madeleine Smith had a rich fiancé, a secret lover, and one heck of a secret hot chocolate recipe. A lethal secret recipe. (The Hot Cocoa Killer)
Was the 1971 Lloyds Bank safety deposit robbery a covert operation to retrieve compromising photos of Royalty? (The Baker Street Robbery)
From mouths nailed shut to being buried headfirst in the ground, throughout history the fear of witches has led to extraordinary measures to keep the dead from rising from the grave. (How To Bury a Witch)
From creepy voices to mysterious movements to strange laughter and eerie deaths, the legend of Robert the Doll outshines many cursed object stories and has been haunting people for over a hundred years, and shows no sign of slowing down. (The True Story Behind Robert The Doll)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! And if you’re already a member of this Weirdo family, please take a moment and invite someone else to listen. Recommending Weird Darkness to others helps make it possible for me to keep doing the show! And while you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com where you can find the show on Facebook and Twitter, and you can also join the Weird Darkness Weirdos Facebook group.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
ROBERT THE DOLL=====
There are many stories about Robert the Doll’s origins, some creepier than others. One of the most popular theories is that Robert the Doll was given to a boy named Robert Otto (who was more commonly called Gene), by a disgruntled servant in the early 1900s. The servant was said to be a practitioner of voodoo, and the doll was meant to punish the family for treating her poorly.
In reality, Gene’s grandparents gave him the doll after traveling through Germany in 1906. But even though that story is decidedly less eerie (and less racist), the doll coming from Germany isn’t without creepiness, either. The doll is one-of-a-kind, purchased from a shop window display full of clowns and jesters. While it may not be as evil as a vengeful curse, imagining his frightening face as a clown certainly isn’t much better.
Gene’s relationship with Robert the doll is already eerie enough given that he named it after himself, but that’s only part of the issue. The outfit we see Robert in today is a sailor suit, one that likely belonged to Gene himself. When Gene was ten years old, he woke up in the middle of the night to see Robert sitting at the edge of his bed, staring at him. His mother was then awakened by Gene’s startled screams and the sound of furniture being moved. When she got in there, she saw a terrified Gene with everything out of place. He claimed that Robert did it.
Gene continued to blame anything bad that happened on Robert, like when his parents found mutilated and dismembered toys around the house. One of the theories about why Robert is so haunted is that Gene’s identity is too mixed up in the doll. Gene poured his personality into the doll, making him more and more realistic. Given that Gene went out of his way to even prepare Robert with his own attic bedroom, perhaps that theory isn’t too much of a stretch.
An aunt who lived with the Ottos was worried about all of the chaos Robert the Doll was causing. She suggested to Gene’s parents that they remove the doll from Gene’s room and put it in storage. The Ottos did this, locking Robert in a box and placing him up in the attic. The next night, the aunt was found dead in her bed. She was an older woman, and it has been said that she died of a stroke. Still, the Ottos were superstitious about her death and opted to bring Robert out of storage and back into Gene’s room before he could do anything else.
Prior to Gene’s death, he began spending more and more time with the doll he kept in his attic. He was said to be up there talking to him as his health declined, spending his final months with the familiar figure from his childhood. Once he died, things got stranger; when reporter Malcolm Ross came to visit the house, he claimed that the doll’s presence made him uncomfortable, because its face seemed to change depending on the tone of conversation in the room. Some believe that Gene imparted as much of his spirit as he could into the doll before his death, and it is him who is causing such uneasiness to those who encounter the doll.
Once the Otto home was sold, there was nobody to ensure that Robert stayed in the attic. While stories differ as to who owned the house after the Ottos, each one is uniquely horrifying. One story claims that a family bought the house, and a little girl found the doll in the attic but was unwilling to play with him, claiming he was alive and wanted to hurt her. She would wake up in the middle of the night with Robert sitting on her face, something that paranormal experts believe was a murder attempt.
Another claims that a man who bought the house and found the doll died from carbon monoxide poisoning, and that the doll went missing. The most easily proven story is that a woman bought the house and kept the doll as she moved, eventually turning him over to the Fort East Martello Museum. She said the doll was haunted and moved around her house on its own, continuing the legacy after Otto’s death.
In addition to his tendency to blame anything that went wrong on the doll, Gene also liked to spend time having conversations with it while playing. His parents claimed that while this was going on, they’d hear two voices coming from the room, as if the doll was talking back. Strange stories about Gene and his doll followed him into adulthood, as the child maintained a relationship with it long after most kids would have forgotten.
Visitors to the Fort East Martello Museum often have creepy stories of their own. Robert is a popular attraction at the museum, with many people wanting to take his picture. However, there’s a common belief that you shouldn’t take his picture without asking first, or he’ll punish you. The museum receives hundreds of letters from those who claim that Robert has cursed them for taking photos without permission. Those curses include everything from your average everyday bad luck to broken bones and divorce, with the letters supposedly helping soothe his anger. Guests also sometimes leave offerings for the doll, including candy and marijuana.
Gene’s wife, Anna, died a few years after Gene himself. Before she died, she made a curious request. Because she had never liked the doll, she asked that it be locked in a cedar chest and left up in its attic bedroom. Even after she sold the house, this request was supposed to stay in effect, almost as if she knew that the doll was trouble. While her request was honored, Robert didn’t stay in the attic forever, and once he was freed things really started to get scary.
Robert’s fame goes beyond the museum, and even beyond Key West. The doll was present at TAPSCON, the convention for paranormal investigators meeting in the Tampa Bay area. This marked the first time that Robert had ever traveled outside of Key West, and also meant that a lot of people were exposed to his eerie visage. Robert also made it onto Zak Bagans: Mystery Mansion, a Travel Channel show that required the doll travel all the way to Las Vegas. The doll even got its own movie in 2016, which was sadly not received well by fans or critics. Regardless, Robert has clearly made an impact on the world – one that nobody who’s seen the doll up close is likely to forget.
In Brazil, the two corpses were found on a hill, dressed in matching suits with homemade lead masks draped over their eyes. (The Lead Masks Case)
If you were to be asked who the most horrible, terrifying figure in the Bible was, you would likely say Lucifer – that is, Satan himself. But there is a figure even more terrifying – and it is God’s right-hand man in the book of Revelation. (God’s Right Hand Man)
These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns.
LEAD MASKS CASE=====
Bodies are found every day, often under mysterious circumstances. Most of these discoveries are eventually explained away; their deaths are the result of foul play or suicide, illness or accident. But some cases are so strange that they defy explanation—even after all the evidence has been collected. Such is the story of Brazil’s Lead Masks Case.
On August 20, 1966, a young man was flying a kite on Vintem Hill in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, when he spotted the bodies of two men farther up the hill. He reported the matter to police who weren’t able to reach the bodies until the following day due to rough terrain. When they did arrive, they found a truly bizarre scene.
The two men were stretched out side by side, dressed in matching formal suits covered by raincoats and—most perplexing of all—lead masks that veiled their eyes. While some accounts described these lead masks as the kind used to protect against radiation, other sources indicate that they were quite different in design.
Protective masks typically cover the whole head, with goggles or enclosed sight slits. These homemade masks were more like lead blindfolds that completely covered the eyes but left the rest of the face exposed. While wearing them, it would have been impossible for the men to see anything.
The pair was identified as Manoel Pereira da Cruz and Miguel José Viana. Alongside their bodies authorities found a water bottle, two wet towels, and a notebook. The notebook contained lists of parts and other information related to their occupations as electronic technicians. One page, however, contained cryptic instructions that seemed to relate to the their mysterious deaths. “16:30 be at the specified location. 18:30 ingest capsules, after the effect protect metals await signal mask.”
There were no signs of trauma, no evidence of a struggle, and no obvious cause of death for either of the men. In spite of references to ingesting capsules, toxicology reports were not run on the bodies. The reason? According to reports, the coroner was simply overwhelmed with work at the time. Police, who had no particular reason to suspect foul play, did not push matters.
Investigations performed by journalists both professional and amateur revealed that the men might have been members of a “scientific spiritualists” collective. The paranormal group was apparently popular among local electronic technicians. One account suggested that another technician had died some four years earlier atop a different hill under similar circumstances. He too was found wearing a lead mask.
A friend of the two men claimed that these scientific spiritualists were interested in trying to contact extraterrestrials or spirits, and that they had even constructed a contraption in one member’s backyard to facilitate contact. When police searched the homes of the men from Vintem Hill, they found the tools necessary to make their homemade lead masks, and a book that contained highlighted passages about the “intense luminosity” of the entities they hoped to reach. Such expectations of bright light might explain the need for their lead eye coverings.
Other sources said that the spiritualist community would ingest psychedelic drugs to aid in their communication attempts. This has led many to conclude that the two men who died on Vintem Hill perished from accidental drug overdoses. Adding fuel to the fire of speculation, local newspapers ran stories a few days after the bodies were found in which a resident claimed to see a “round orange UFO” hovering over the hill on the same night that the men had been there.
What the two men hoped to accomplish that night on Vintem Hill will likely never be known. Whether their deaths were the result of drug overdoses or contact with the otherworldly, they left behind a mystery as strange as any you’ll likely find—and one that baffles skeptics and believers alike to this day.
STORY: GOD’S RIGHT HAND MAN=====
John was an apostle of Jesus Christ who wrote many of the texts that inspired the Book of Revelation after he received a preview of the end of days. It’s from John’s writings in Revelation that we learn the angel of death is not the devil, but Abaddon, the leader of fallen angels tasked by God to torture Earth and humanity as punishment for the sins of humankind.
Abaddon’s role in the Old and New Testaments provide a horrifying look at the part archangels are said to play during judgment day, and the function of such angels and demons doesn’t sit well with the Christian view of an all-loving and merciful God.
Even more disturbing, in the Gnostic texts, Abaddon is pivotal in the creation of humankind, gathering the dirt from which God created Adam. So it’s perhaps fitting that Abaddon will also gather souls and carry them to the place of God’s final judgment. While the concept of Satan is frightening, it’s nothing compared to an angel of death commissioned by God to torture sinners.
It’s believed that John wrote the Book of Revelation while living in exile on the island of Patmos. There, he reportedly received a glimpse of “The Day of The Lord,” or the end of days. In Revelation, John reveals that fallen angels will be released to wreak havoc and spread torture on Earth during the apocalypse.
It’s in Revelation, and at the moment when John hears the Fifth Trumpet, that Abaddon (or “Apollyon” in Greek) is introduced to the world as the leader of the fallen angels. According to the texts, Abaddon is to unleash God’s wrath upon humanity.
While biblical translation leads to some dispute, one thing most scholars agree upon is that Abaddon’s authority is not unlimited. Revelation 9:4 states: “And it was commanded of them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree, but only those men who have not the seal of God in their foreheads.”
Furthermore, this passage says that Abaddon and his team “were not given the power to kill them, but only to torture them for five months.” Still, Abaddon’s authority actively torture humankind is unsettling. Revelation 9:6 provides some insight into the degree of torture.:”In those days, men will seek death, but will not find it; they shall long to die, but death will flee from them.”
While Abaddon means “the destroyer” or “the destruction,” many consider Abaddon to be the angel of death. While some believe Abaddon to be a location, he is most often considered a fallen angel. His function is to oversee the destruction of Earth on Judgment Day.
In Job 28:22, Abaddon is mentioned along with death when Abaddon is first identified as an actual being and not merely a place.
Those familiar with the Torah or the Bible know that Satan seeks to destroy the works and creations of God. While Satan doesn’t receive as much exploration in the Torah, his existence is undoubtedly present in the text. During the end of days in Revelation, God releases the demons of Hell. Humans who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads will suffer at the hands of Satan and his demons.
Here, Satan functions as the primary antagonist of God, and it’s Abaddon who serves as the leader of the plague of demons to torture Earth. Abaddon is a controversial figure for some, as the interpretations differ on whether Abaddon is a minion of Satan or an angel of death authorized by God.
Some biblical interpretations even treat Lucifer (Satan) and Abaddon as the same figure. However, many theologians point to specific passages in the Book of Revelation and other biblical passages as evidence that Abaddon is a distinct entity. For instance, one verse states: “They have over them as king the angel of the abyss.” This verse arrives after God unleashe the locusts to torture Earth during the end of days.
Some scholars read this in conjunction with Proverbs 30:7, where the locusts have no king. So, while Lucifer functions as the king of Hell, Abaddon is the leader of the locust of demons unleashed to torture those who do not bear the seal of God. Many also point to Ephesians 6:12, where it’s described that Satan has underlings. While Abaddon might not be synonymous with Lucifer, he shares similar traits.
In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, Abaddon is not only the personification of a fallen angel but an actual place of destruction. In Job 31:12, Abaddon is described as a hellish abyss, “for it would be a fire that consumes to Abaddon.”
Some believe that Abaddon is both a manifest being as well as the bottomless pit that he oversees.
John writes of this abyss in Revelation, describing that “after the fifth angel sounds his trumpet, a star falls from heaven and opens the bottomless pit. A storm of smoke arises, and from the smoke, a plague of locusts emerge to torment, but not kill, men who lack the seal of God on their foreheads.”
Some believe that Abaddon is merely a term for a hopeless pit like Hell. Such theories point to the fact that Satan is the ruler of Hell and Abaddon (which means destruction or place of destruction) is only synonymous for the kingdom of torture where Satan has dominion.
Such understandings focus on that passage of Job 31:12, in which Abaddon is described as a place of fire.
This argument does gain some support in Psalm 88:11, which states, “will Your loving kindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon?” However, it’s also in Job where Abaddon first gets identified as a conscious being. In Job 28:22, Abaddon can speak and hear and is the personification of death. Many also point to Biblical Antiquities of Philo, which describe Abaddon as a place.
Abaddon is used interchangeably with death in many passages, but those who study the Gnostic texts point out that Abaddon was present at the tomb of Jesus Christ at the time of his resurrection. His role as either an angel in God’s army or an underling of Satan becomes more confusing in the Gnostic documents.
In the Gospel of Bartholomew, Abaddon approaches Jesus in the underworld after his death. But Jesus laughs in the face of Abaddon, which terrifies him and his sons. When Jesus rises from the dead, Abaddon and his son, Pestilence, seek to protect the underworld. However, Jesus had departed from Hell, and according to Bartholomew, he left only three souls there: Herod, Cain, and Judas.
In another Gnostic document, the Acts of Thomas, Abaddon plays a vital role in the initial creation of humankind. He receives the task of gathering the Earth from which God creates Adam. He’s then identified as a guardian and all of the angels, demons, and corporeal entities fear him.
Additionally, on the day of judgment, it’s said that Abaddon will carry souls to the Valley of Josaphat, where God will deliver all souls for final judgment. This adds to the confusion for many who accept the Gnostic documents as part of their biblical understanding because Abaddon sounds much like Lucifer in this regard.
In many ways, Abaddon is a confusing figure, but one thing is sure: he’s terrifying. His role to torture those members of humankind who do not bear the seal of God seems antithetical to the Christian view of an all-loving and merciful God.
It’s confusing that God can create and love all creatures and things, but unleash a terror like Abaddon onto humanity. In John’s description of judgment day (which is set into action by God), Abaddon is given five months to create what seems like Hell on earth.
It’s actually unclear what the criteria would make humans worthy of a seal on the forehead, but it’s very clear that Abaddon plays a central role in the punishment of humankind.
The Dead Sea Scrolls contain mention of Abaddon in the text of the Thanksgiving Hymns. These were some of the first texts discovered when the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in 1947, and the description of Abaddon within this text can be contextualized both as an overlord of Hell and as a place of destruction itself.
When Weird Darkness returns, we’ll see how World War 1 changed the horror genre forever.
STORY: HOW HORROR CHANGED AFTER WW1=====
What exactly constitutes horror? Being spooked by the dark, and by the dead who might return in it, may have haunted the earliest human consciousness. Ceremonial burial predates all written history; the act apparently represented an effort to placate the corpse so it would not make an unwelcome return. The roots of religion itself may be in this impulse, with gifts to the dead constituting the first ritual.
In fact, much of what we think of as “natural human life” may stem from the terror of death and of the dead. Even sexual desire, and our constantly changing conceptions of gender roles that accompany it, may have much to do with the terror of the dead. The urge to reproduce, once inextricably linked to sex, may have a connection to a neurotic fantasy of cheating death by creating an enduring legacy. You can test the primal strength of this cultural idea by noting how no one questions the rationality of reproduction, even in a world of rapidly dwindling resources. Meanwhile, people who choose not to have children often receive both religious and secular disdain as selfish, the breakers of an unspoken social contract, or simply odd.
Does the fear of death that drives us mean that horror has always been our dark companion, a universal human experience in which cave paintings and movie screens are simply different media for the same spooky message? Not exactly. The idea of death and ruin as entertainment, even something one could build a lifestyle around, appears first in the 18th century in novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Commentators called this taste Gothic because the interest in ruins and castles called to mind the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages.
Our contemporary term “goth,” used to describe everything from a style of music to black fingernail polish, of course comes from those 18th-century goths. The wealthy of that century could fully indulge this new fascination, turning estates into faux medieval manors and forcing their servants, on top of all their other indignities, to appear at parties dressed in robes that made them look like what Clive Bloom describes as “ghoulish monks.” It’s hard to call this precisely a popular taste, as the novels of suspense that inspired these ideas were damned or banned in some places and very few people had a suitable estate, or enough money or servants, for playing haunted house.
“Horror” in today’s sense had yet to be born. The word existed, but it had an appropriately weird history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “horror” first appeared in the 14th century as a synonym for “rough” or “rugged.” Over centuries, the term started to carry the connotation of something so “rough,” in the sense of “sordid and vulgar,” that it caused a physical shudder.
Once Gothic romanticism appeared in the late 18th century, the word “horror” showed up in poetry and prose in something close to the modern sense. English Romantic poet Robert Southey’s praise of “Dark horror” in 1791 echoed his interest in eerie works in Germany. Even here, the word suggests something a bit sordid rather than spookiness for fun. In a 1798 treatise entitled “On Objects of Terror,” English essayist Nathan Drake used “horror” interchangeably with “disgust” and advised artists only to “approach the horrid” rather than actually enter its darkened halls. In Drake’s view, “horror” meant physical revulsion, not a good scare. Even into the 1800s, the meaning of the word always suggested the body in a state of intense distress. A medical manual from 1822 used the word in this way: “The first attack [of sickness] commences with a horror.”
“The war has left its imprint in our souls [with] all these visions of horror it has conjured up around us,” wrote French author Pierre de Mazenod in 1922, describing the Great War. His word, horreur, appears in various forms in an incredible number of accounts of the war, written by English, German, Austrian, French, Russian, and American veterans. The years following the Great War became the first time in human history the word “horror” and its cognates appeared on such a massive scale. Images of catastrophe abounded. The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, one of the stars in the firmament of central Europe’s decadent and demonic café culture before 1914, wrote of how “bridges are broken between today and tomorrow and the day before yesterday” in the conflict’s wake. Time was out of joint. When not describing the war as horror, the imagery of all we would come to associate with the word appeared. One French pilot passing over the ruined city of Verdun described the landscape as a haunted waste and a creature of nightmare, “the humid skin of a monstrous toad.”
The horror of the Great War consumed the lives of soldiers and civilians alike; it sought them out in their sleep, their imagination, and, bizarrely, in their entertainments. The “horror film” had existed almost from the time of the invention of the motion picture itself in the late 19th century. But a new kind of terror film manifested in the years following the Great War. The spook shows not only became more numerous; they took a ghastly turn, dealing more openly with the fate of the dead, even the bodies of the dead. Moreover, an unclassifiable kind of fiction began to appear, frequently called “weird” (as in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, 1923) because there seemed no better word for it. The public, and its practitioners, began calling it horror fiction. Art and literature pursued some of the same themes, even though at the time a strict division between “high” and “low” culture prevented many critics from seeing horror on canvas or in poetry, and still prevents a few today. British modernist Virginia Woolf wrote that certain feelings proved no longer possible after 1914; a sentiment might be expressed in words, she felt, but the body and mind could not experience the sensibilities “one used to have.”
By the same token, new feelings about death and the macabre began to seek expression. The root of these new cultural forms had a specific and terribly uncomfortable origin: the human corpse. Stirring up the primal, perhaps universal fear of the dead, the Great War had placed human beings in proximity to millions of corpses that could not be buried. Worse, many could not be identified, and more than a few did not even look like what we think human bodies should look like. Shells, machine guns, gas, and a whole array of technology had muddled them into misshapen forms, empty matter, if still disturbingly organic. The horror of the Great War, traumatically reenacted over and over and over after 1918 down to the present moment, drew its chill from the shattered, bloated, fragmented corpses that covered the wastelands made by the war.
My reading of the roots of horror in the Great War is anything but Freudian. That said, Sigmund Freud appears throughout this account as one who not only was affected by the war but also made some interesting observations about how 1914–1918 transformed European culture and consciousness. He complicated his own ideas because of the conflict, conceding that a death instinct may play at least as important a role in how human beings experience life as sexuality and childhood traumas related to it. Thanatos can be as significant, sometimes more significant, than Eros.
One of the ideas Freud entertained concerned how the war changed the subjects that fiction might explore. “It is evident that the war is bound to sweep away [the] conventional treatment of death,” he wrote in 1915. While his own sons and many of his students fought at the front, he declared, “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one. But many, often tens of thousands, in a single day.” Freud hoped, and he expressed it only as a hope, that the return of “primitive” passions, a kind of “bedazzlement” with death, would end when peace returned. He would be mightily disappointed.
One unlikely voice, who indeed had luckily avoided service in the Austro-Hungarian army, helped explain this new, festering reality. Walter Benjamin loved hashish and women too much to get around to writing a proper history; instead, he wrote essays of such beauty and depth that we are still puzzling and wondering over them almost 80 years after his death. He did, during the period that this book covers, fitfully scribble at essays, fiction, personal reflections, and a sprawling unfinished work he called simply “The Arcades Project.”
In 1936, four years before his untimely death, Benjamin wrote an essay he called “The Storyteller,” in which, amid his meditation on the nature of memory, he said this about the Great War: *****Was it not noticeable that at the end of the war men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What 10 years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but the experience that pours from mouth to mouth.
Benjamin of course knew about, and often criticized, the vast literature that the war produced, especially those works that talked of the “sublimity” of conflict, praised the “beauty” of unremitting violence, and often shaded over into fascism’s dreams of mythic warriors. He wrote the words above about the armless veteran one saw at the café, the cousin who had been at Ypres or Gallipoli and sat silent at family gatherings, sometimes staring off into the middle distance. He wrote of the men who wore masks meant to hide their terrible facial wounds, disfigurements sometimes made even more eerie by the first, halting efforts at combat plastic surgery.
Of these men’s experience of war, Benjamin continued: *****A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in the countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.
These vulnerable bodies—millions of which would be transformed into corpses by history’s first fully mechanized killing machine, which we call World War I—haunt every decade of the 20th century. Their eyes, filled first with shock and soon with nothingness, became the specters of despairing creativity for a generation of filmmakers, writers, and artists who themselves often went about their work with shattered bodies and psyches. All of the uncertainty and dread that folklore and popular tale had ever associated with automata, the disconcerting effect of a mirror, shadows, and puppets seemed suddenly to become historical reality in the sheer number of millions of dead, millions more permanently disabled and disfigured, and bodies that came marching home like empty husks, the person whom family and friends had known before 1914 having been left in another place.
We must write of such things, Benjamin counseled, “with as much bitterness as possible.” For many in his generation, bitterness even proved too weak a concoction.
I hope the air feels thick with static, the smell of an alchemy gone awry, a precursor to what Benjamin once described as a “single catastrophe” that tore history apart like a massive explosion, “piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Because not only did single acts of horror happen, they produced a world of horror that we still live in, both in our imaginations and in our daily lives. The artists, writers, and directors who experienced the Great War, most of them directly, never stopped having the same nightmare, over and again, a nightmare they told the world. Meanwhile, like a spell gone wrong, the Great War conjured up a new world, a sort of alternate reality distinct from what most people before 1914 expected their lives to be. It was a dark dimension where horror films, stories, and art became a Baedeker’s guide to the new normal rather than entertaining diversions. Monsters had come out of the abyss.
I have tried to write of these things with as much bitterness as possible.
STORY: HOW TO BURY A WITCH=====
Tuscany Italy – where there lies an 800-year-old gravesite that is believed by archeologists to have been an entire graveyard for witches. After discovering bodies with playing die – an illegal practice of the time – in shallow graves, they also uncovered the remains of two women who had been buried with thirteen nails driven into their jaw. It’s unknown exactly why they did this, but experts suspect it was a way to prevent the corpse from uttering curses should she ever come back from the dead.
In Warwickshire, England there stands an odd assortment of stones referred to as the Rollright Stones. According to local lore, they are believed to be the petrified remains of a long-ago king of England and his faithful men, turned to stone by a fearsome witch. In 2015, during an archeological dig near the stones, a skeleton, soon to be nicknamed Rita of Rollright, was discovered. An estimated 1,400 years old, the woman was found with a bronze vessel, a piece of amethyst, a bead of amber and a spindle whorl indicating she was a Saxon spiritual woman of high status. While the dates of the stones and Rita don’t match, it hasn’t stopped some speculating that she might even be the legendary witch who possessed the power to turn men to stone.
A very odd grave has been lying in wait in Venice since the 16th century. It was discovered in 2006 and contained the body of a woman buried alongside plague victims. Her burial was strange, however, as they found a brick forced into her mouth, a common practice of the time used on the bodies of suspected vampires as a way of halting the spread of supernatural disease. Stranger still, it is now thought that she was also a witch. Her age is part of what leads scientists to believe she may have been an accused of witchcraft since women of the time who lived past 40 (the average life expectancy of the period) were thought to have dabbled in the dark arts to extend their length of life and cheat death.
Recently discovered in a tomb in Northern Israel, was the body of a 12,000-year-old woman believed to be a witch or she-shaman dating from the prehistoric Natufian civilization. Within the tomb, archeologists found 50 complete tortoise shells, the pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of a golden eagle, the tail of a cow, two marten skulls, the forearm of a wild boar and a human foot. Curiously, the woman had been covered by ten heavy stones designed to protect the body from wild animals; however, there are some historians who have suggested the stones were also used to trap the witch’s spirit within the grave.
In 18th century Scotland, Lilias Adie who found herself accused of witchcraft by the townsfolk of her home. Coerced into confessing to being the devil’s wife by the church, she died in prison before she could be tried, sentenced and burned for witchcraft. While most witches were dumped into shallow graves, Adie’s burial was a little unorthodox. She was buried in muddy sand on the shore during low tide with a stone placed over her body. Her remains have since disappeared into the sea, though the stone slab remains. One theory is that she killed herself, as the common practice was to bury suicide victims in the muddy shore as to not disturb consecrated ground.
In Lancashire, England is the unusual grave of yet another witch. Meg Shelton who died in 1705 is better known to history as the Witch of Woodplumpton. Accused of witchcraft by her fellow villagers, after her death they went to extreme lengths to prevent her from ever rising again. Her burial may seem normal at first glance, but, according to legend, it’s a very odd one. The townspeople buried her vertically, head first in the ground in a small, tight shaft so that if she tried to dig her way out she’d be going the wrong way. They then covered the hole with a large stone so that she may never escape. The stone remains to this day in the churchyard of St Anne’s Church accompanied by a small plaque warning visitors that the Witch of Woodplumpton lies buried beneath.
Rebecca Nurse is probably one of the most famous victims of the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Nurse’s trial and conviction was like any other, unjust and full of heresy. She was calm and collected at the gallows, and buried in the traditional shallow grave of a witch without incident. It was what happened later that was most interesting. Witches were denied Christian burials but her family snuck to the gravesite after dark and unearthed her remains. They then moved her body to a burial site on the Nurse homestead. As for the others, many of their burial locations have been lost to history as no records were ever kept or even made. Today, a monument sit’s upon Nurse’s grave, a tangible reminder of the consequences of history’s violent response to superstition and fear of the unknown.
STORY: HOT COCOA KILLER=====
Emile L’Angelier was in love – or so he said.
He had been secretly seeing Madeleine Smith for months. She was young, beautiful, and from a well-to-do Glasgow family. Since Emile was a lowly warehouse clerk, her father forbid the relationship (it was 1857 Scotland, after all). Of course, Madeleine agreed to keep seeing him. How could she resist?
A mutual friend let the lovers meet at her house. Or Emile would visit Madeleine’s bedroom window after her parents had gone to sleep.
When they couldn’t talk in person, Emile and Madeleine wrote each other letters … explicit letters.
But Madeleine’s family had other plans for their eldest daughter. She eventually became engaged to a man named William Harper Minnoch, who was from their same social circle. When she broke the bad news to Emile, she asked him to destroy her letters so they would never be discovered.
But Emile refused. He told Madeleine if she didn’t run away with him, he would send the letters to her father, ruining her new relationship and shaming her family.
While Madeleine’s future crumbled, Emile kept up appearances, telling friends they were still in love. He claimed to be visiting her bedroom window, where they talked about their future while sipping hot cocoa and coffee.
After one of the supposed secret evenings, Emile’s landlady noticed he looked a little ill. The next day, the two had tea, where Emile made a strange statement: he declared he would always love Madeleine – even if she poisoned him.
Over the next three weeks, Emile got sicker, until one morning, his landlady found him dead. An autopsy showed copious amount of arsenic in his stomach, along with a dark brown liquid. It looked like chocolate.
Madeleine’s letters were soon discovered, and she was accused of poisoning Emile. But no one could testify they had seen Madeleine and Emile together during the last weeks of his life. His friends assumed they were still meeting, based on what Emile had said, but Madeleine adamantly denied it.
It was her word against a dead man’s. Emile had already attempted blackmail. Could he now be framing Madeleine for murder from beyond the grave?
The jury came back with a “not proven” verdict, meaning they didn’t think Madeleine was innocent, but the evidence didn’t prove she was guilty, either.
Soon after the trial ended, Madeleine broke off her engagement to William and moved away to escape public scrutiny. She eventually landed in the United States, where she assumed a new identity and died without anyone knowing the true story behind her deadly affair.
Up next… two sisters rebel against their depressing family life by diving into witchcraft – and soon learn it was not a wise decision. (Leftover Magic)
In 1827, young Maria Marten slipped into a red barn to meet her secret lover. It was the last time she would be seen alive. (Murder in the Red Barn)
These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns.
MURDER IN THE RED BARN=====
In March 1826, a love affair blossomed between 24-year-old Maria Marten and 22-year-old William Corder. Just one year later, their secret romance ended in slaughter—and became one of the most notorious murder cases in English history.
The couple hailed from Polstead, a small town in Suffolk, England. William Corder, the son of a farmer, had a reputation for being a ladies’ man and troublemaker—he once swindled his father out of his own pigs and helped steal livestock from another farmer. The comely Marten was no stranger to romance either. She already birthed two children. One was from William’s older brother, though the baby died as an infant. The other was a baby boy whose father wanted nothing to do with the illegitimate child, apart from sending money from time to time.
William preferred to keep the relationship secret. Yet in 1827 the pair had a child. Though the offspring died soon after birth, young William still seemed intent on marrying Maria. Alas, Maria had a less than favorable reputation in the community; William spoke of rumors that authorities wished to prosecute her for having bastard children. So William suggested they elope.
The pair hatched their plan in front of Maria’s stepmother, Ann Marten. They were to meet at the Red Barn, a popular landmark located on Barnfield Hill, less than a mile from the Marten home. Afterward, they would leave for Ipswitch.
A date was set: Wednesday, May 16, 1827. William appeared eager to marry his sweetheart. As the secret wedding day arrived, however, he delayed not once, but twice. Two days later, William visited Maria, and as witnessed by Maria’s stepmother, told her they had to flee at once; a warrant, he claimed, was out for her arrest.
Historical records indicate that no such warrant had been issued. Nevertheless, William’s words frightened Maria. She feared being seen, so William convinced her to disguise herself as a man. The two were to meet in the Red Barn, where William would wait for her with a disguise. They would then flee to Ipswich as originally planned.
The unsuspecting Maria did as she was told and made her way to the Red Barn. It was the last time she would be seen alive.
Maria vanished after that day in May. When family and friends questioned William, he claimed she had simply left for Ipswich ahead of him. Inquiries continued, and William made himself scarce, leaving town altogether. He wrote to the Marten family claiming that he and Maria were indeed married and living together on the Isle of Wight. Various excuses were made as to Maria’s silence—she was ill; her hand hurt and she could not write a letter; she did write a letter but it must have been lost in the mail.
Months went by, and the suspicions of the Marten family only grew. It was around this time that stepmother Ann spoke of troubling dreams. She had visions of Maria’s murder, her body being buried in the Red Barn. On April 19, 1928, Ann’s husband made his way to the barn to soothe his wife’s troubled mind. As instructed, he dug in one of the grain storage bins. What he discovered was shockingly consistent with Ann’s vision.
Wrapped in a sack were human remains. While the body had decomposed, family members successfully identified the body as Maria’s thanks to preserved hair and clothing. A tooth missing from Maria’s mouth was also missing from the corpse’s jaw. And one glaring piece of evidence implicated Maria’s former lover—William’s signature green handkerchief was wound tightly around the body’s neck.
The constable of Polstead set out to find William Corder. The man, it turned out, put little effort in covering his tracks. Authorities secured an address through one of William’s friends. With the help of London policeman James Lea, they soon tracked down the suspect in London.
William had established a new life in England’s capital as the master of a boarding house known as Everly Grove. He had recently married Mary Moore—a woman he met courtesy of a singles ad in the paper. Lea devised a sting operation to catch the suspect. He posed as a father inquiring about boarding his daughter, then cornered Corder and notified him of the charges.
William feigned innocence of knowing about Maria and her murder. He was taken to Suffolk and stood trial at Shire Hall, Bury St. Edmunds where he pled not guilty. By then, news of the case spread throughout the region; crowds converged upon the courthouse while media outlets reported on every little detail. The throng grew so large that spectators who wished to view the trial had to be chosen by ticket.
The evidence against William Corder was overwhelming. Maria’s stepmother recounted the events leading up to the murder—the stalled elopement and claims of a warrant, William’s luring of Maria into the Red Barn on the last night she was seen alive. Maria’s father testified about discovering the body. And Maria’s little brother claimed he saw William with a pistol and a pickaxe on the day of the murder. Lea also found the pistols, incriminating letters, and a French passport at William’s new residence.
The precise cause of death was hard to determine. The body had gunshot wounds, there was William’s handkerchief around the neck, and a gash to the eye that may or may not have been a posthumous wound resulting from the pickaxe.
As for motive, prosecutors suggested William was eager to get rid of Maria because she knew too much about his criminal activities, and that they quarreled over the child support she received from the father of her child. Additional rumors swirled over the mysterious death of Maria and William’s infant. The baby was supposed to have been interred in Sudbury, though no record of the burial—or trace of a proper burial at all—could be found.
The jury deliberated for a mere 35 minutes. They found William Corder guilty. The judge sentenced him to hang. In a grisly twist of the era, the judge also declared that William’s body would be dissected for medical study.
William fretted over confessing as he awaited his execution. Finally, at the behest of his wife as well as the prison warden and governor, he admitted to the death of Maria Marten. He claimed that he had been quarreling with his former lover when he accidentally shot her in the eye. He also wrote in his confession that the two argued about someone discovering the actual burial site of their child.
On August 11, 1828, a weak William Corder stepped onto the gallows. He was hanged before a crowd of 7,000 or 20,000, depending on which version you believe. By the time of the hanging, the tale of the red barn murder had swept beyond England. Numerous plays, novels, and tabloid-style newspapers chronicled the events. Charles Dickens reluctantly included the story in his magazine All the Year Round. Many, many years later, American songwriter Tom Waits penned “Murder in the Red Barn”, a song that some critics suggest was inspired by the sensational story.
Supposed locks of Maria’s hair and strands of the rope that hung William Corder were readily purchased by buyers. Around 5,000 people viewed Corder’s body after the hanging. His body was then taken to Cambridge for an autopsy in front of students and physicians. Surgeons, conducting a phrenological examination, noted that the killer’s skull was developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness…” and a lack of “benevolence.”
The Red Barn and nearby Marten cottage became tourist attractions. The barn itself was stripped clear by souvenir hunters and much of the wood was turned into toothpicks. Tourists chipped away at Maria’s tombstone until it was little more than a rocky nub. After the dissection was complete, Corder’s skeleton went on display in a museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. His skin was tanned by a surgeon and bound forever to a book containing an account of the murder. Fitting, indeed.
Hi Mr. Marlar.
Let’s get how to pronounce my name out of the way, it’s pronounced ill-sah bee-chum
First, let me start by telling you that I’m not a very good writer, and I sometimes have difficulty describing things, also, I have another story that I’d like to share with you but I feel that this one should be told first, seeing as it might explain why the tale happened. START HERE——-→ When I was a young child we moved into a house in a pretty bad part of town. We were homeschooled, which was basically illegal in CA so we weren’t allowed to just run around the neighborhood during the day, and we weren’t really doing very much school during the day, of course, meant we were board. Add to that the fact that my parent’s marriage was in a terrible place, my father was a minor drug dealer and my mother was seriously depressed our life was a certain type of hell. So, simultaneously as an outlet for frustration, a way of rebellion, and natural inclination, I and one of my older sisters became very interested in magic and witchcraft. I went the way of my ancestors, who were of Norse decent and began worshiping the old Viking gods, especially Freja (Frey-yah) my sister also practiced magic and started out by worshiping Freja, but ended up venturing down darker paths. It was right around this time that I started to have hallucinations. The most frequent of which were these hordes of dark figures, which at the time I called “Zombies”, but I think that was just for lack of a better word because looking back on my visions they were just black and menacing beings. There were times I heard voices or felt someone touching me. My little sister would see a recurring “thing” in her closet, which she said looked like a cross between a man and a vulture.
My sister and I were avoided because we became known as witches in our neighborhood. Which wasn’t entirely bad, because that meant our bullies and harassers would leave us alone if we threatened spells cast upon them. I truly believe that the house became haunted or inhabited by demonic forces because of our actions. As time went on things outside of our control forced my family to move from CA to KY to live with my very religious Aunt and Uncle, which is where I became converted to Christ, renounced and ended my affair with witchcraft. My life took a very drastic turn, and I’m no a fairly happy person with a family of my own. I feel I still retain a tiny amount of magic, only because I’m able to tell when those I love and are close to are near. I can tell when my husband is going to be home early without him even calling me to let me know, I know it’s my mother in law on the phone before the caller ID says it’s her. The day my mother had a stroke I had to leave in the middle of a church meeting because I became overwhelmed my an unshakeable feeling that something was wrong, minutes late my sister called me to tell me that they were taking her to the ER, and that they didn’t know what was wrong, but that we shouldn’t worry because the EMT’s were sure it wasn’t anything serious. But I knew it was. When the ER Doctor said he didn’t think it was a stroke, I knew it was. Then they called in a neurologist just to be sure, and it was, in fact, a stroke. Afterward, I felt terrified, but calm at the same time, I knew we weren’t going to lose her, but that it was going to be a long and hard road. Today, she’s walking unassisted and is learning how to write with her right hand (she was left-handed before, and her left side was the side affected). She can read still and is just as quick-witted and mentally strong as she ever was.
I can also tell when my children are lying to me, or in trouble. Of course, that last bit can be chocked up to a mother’s intuition, but isn’t that a bit of its own magic?
When Weird Darkness returns…
Was the 1971 Lloyds Bank safety deposit robbery a covert operation to retrieve compromising photos of Royalty? We’ll take a closer look at the Baker Street robbery. Up next.
STORY: BAKER STREET ROBBERY=====
With the robbers broadcasting their crime live over the airwaves, it’s a mystery why the police never caught the Baker Street gang red-handed.
The safety deposit raid in 1971 is one of the most baffling in British criminal history, and rumours that its true purpose has been covered up by the British establishment persist to this day.
The problem is they should never have gotten away with a penny. In the early hours of Saturday 11th September 1971, as the robbers were tunneling into the safety deposit vault at Lloyds Bank on Baker Street, a nearby amateur radio ham was listening to their every word.
The gang were using walkie-talkies to communicate, and radio hobbyist Robert Rowlands had accidently tuned into their transmissions. Rowlands notified the police, who were slow to believe his claim that he had happened upon a genuine robbery in progress. Eventually persuaded, they set out on a frantic search of hundreds of London’s banks in an attempt to thwart the raid.
They didn’t succeed. Rowlands had informed the police that the range of the transmissions meant the robbers must be nearby – within about a mile of his Wimple Street flat. For reasons never adequately explained, they decided to spread the net out to a 10-mile radius instead, vastly expanding the number of banks they would have to search. With limited resources and the need to ask the permission of each bank to search it, they failed to stop the gang in time.
The raid at Baker Street branch of Lloyds bank was then Britain’s biggest and most ambitious, the thieves crowbarring open 260 boxes and making away with an estimated £30m in today’s money. It caused a seismic shockwave across the banking industry and panic amongst the rich and powerful clientele who had their most private, and possibly even illegal, valuables stored in the vaults.
From the beginning, it was clear this was no ordinary heist. It was far more complex, elaborate and well planned than anything that had ever been seen in the country before. The gang had leased a leather goods shop two doors down from the bank and spent three months studiously digging a tunnel from the basement of the shop, beneath the neighbouring Chicken Inn and into the vault.
The robbery required a hitherto unseen level of patience and expertise from the thieves, utilizing then hard to obtain radio communications equipment, explosives, expensive digging machinery and even a thermal lance. It was a professional and carefully planned operation, but one that raised some nagging questions that have never been satisfactorily answered.
Because these robbers weren’t the criminal mastermind their unbelievable heist made them appear. They were small time crooks, petty thieves and con men who had never done anything even remotely on the scale of the Baker Street job before. How had the gang managed to graduate to such big league criminality with such apparent ease?
Even the culprits knew what they had pulled off was impressive, writing ‘Let’s see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one’ on the wall, a reference to the Conan-Doyle story The Red-headed League which involves the detective foiling a similar bank robbery.
The Metropolitan Police didn’t need the world’s greatest detective in the end, and at least some of the culprits were eventually caught. One of the gang – Desmond Wolfe, had made the elementary mistake of hiring the leather goods shop that served as their base under his own name.
Police eventually tracked down the other gang members from their associations with Wolfe. Anthony Gavin, Thomas Stephens and Reginald Tucker were subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail for their roles in the Baker Street robbery.
Unlike many other high-profile criminals, such as the men behind the Great Train Robbery, the gang have remained resolutely discrete over the years. Despite masterminding the most audacious crime in British criminal history, none of the men have ever talked. No big pay-days from the tabloids to tell their story, no lucrative book deals. Quietly released a few years later, they all disappeared into obscurity.
But it seemed none of the men were ever short of money. Nothing taken from the robbery – money, jewels or anything else, was ever recovered. Had the gang somehow managed to retrieve their booty after their release, right under the noses of the police? Or had they been bought off by somebody?
It was questions like his that began a series of rumours, some probably myths, others legitimate and troubling questions that remain unanswered. Was there more to this daring crime than met the eye? Did the British government even slap a gagging notice on the press to prevent them reporting the real truth behind the robbery?
Police always suspected that not only were there others involved but that there must have been a mastermind behind such a daring raid. Such was its expense and complexity it seems unlikely to have been hatched by such small time operators without the help from somebody. The question is who?
Speculation about who was really behind the raid has lead to some sensational theories. What if the real target of the robbers was not loot but something even more valuable?
After the raid, many of the clientele did not come forward to report what they had lost; safety deposit boxes were designed to be discrete and were often used to store sensitive items and documents that their owners would often rather not even admit existed. Was the target something so sensitive it could be used to blackmail one of the powerful clients?
The most famous version of this theory was turned into an entertaining film in 2008 called The Bank Job. Based loosely on the Baker Street robbery, it alleges that British intelligence had hired the gang to raid the safety deposit boxes at the bank to retrieve pornographic photographs of a prominent member of royalty. Although not named, rumors have circulated for decades that this royal was the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret.
Margaret had already skirted dangerously close to scandal in the 60s and 70s. She was notorious for her louche lifestyle and association with several disreputable and criminal figures. It is highly probable MI5, the UK’s internal intelligence service, was at least keeping tabs on Margaret. Was the robbery an operation to prevent a highly damaging Royal scandal becoming public?
The Bank Job claims to be more than just speculation. Writers Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais say they based their script on inside information from a journalist who was involved with the story back in 1971. In the film an underworld figure named Michael X is storing sexual photographs of Margaret taken on her holiday home in Mustique in the Baker Street vault with the intention of using them to blackmail the British establishment into turning a blind eye to his criminal activities.
Did this explain how well funded the operation was? The way the police seemed to be reluctant to catch the gang? And the supposed D-notice placed on the press preventing them from reporting what really happened?
Despite her immense privileges, Princess Margaret was a tragic figure. The Queen’s younger sister would never become monarch herself and failed to carve any kind of meaningful role for herself in the Royal hierarchy.
Bereft of a sense of purpose, the young Princess would increasingly lose herself in a life of hedonism and become notorious for her drinking, partying and a succession of lovers. At her hideaway on the Carribean island of Mustique, Margaret would entertain a string of young men, society figures and even those from the criminal fraternity like infamous cockney gangster John Bindon.
Tales of Margaret’s exploits on Mustique are legendary. On one occasion she photographed several of her male friends naked on the beach. Another time Bindon performed his famous party trick involving hanging 5 half pint glasses from his penis, much to Margaret’s delight. Some biographers now believe Margaret even had an affair with Bindon, something he would occasionally brag about himself.
Whatever the case, she had already compromised herself; a photograph of Margaret with the then wanted criminal Bindon was widely circulated in Fleet Street, although not actually printed by the press until many years later. Such a photograph would have been a scandal in itself, but did even more salacious pictures exist?
Considering what we already know about Princess Margaret, it’s certainly plausible photographs extreme enough to be used for blackmail or cause a major public scandal may have existed. In The Bank Job, exactly such photographs are in the possession of an underworld figure named Michael X.
Real name Michael De Freteis, Michael X was a London gangster, drug dealer and slum landlord in the 1960s and 70s. X became a minor celebrity in the late 60s by setting up a London branch of the Black Power movement and was briefly feted in the press by such figures as John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
According to The Bank Job, Michael X kept compromising photographs of Margaret taken on Mustique in his safety deposit box at the Baker Street bank. He planned to use them as blackmail material to prevent prosecution for his criminal activities. Fearful of a major national scandal if they are made public, MI5 orders the raid to retrieve them.
Shortly after the robbery in 1971, Michael X was allowed to leave England for his native Trinidad, despite the fact he was due in court on charges of extortion. A few months later, the commune he started there burnt down in mysterious circumstances.
The story had fatal consequences for Michael X. When police found the hacked bodies of two of its members buried in shallow graves on the property, he was charged with their murders and hung for the crime in 1975.
Although little or no hard evidence exists in the public domain for the scenario depicted in the Bank Job, the writers of the film – Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, say they had a deep throat style informant who was involved in the original investigation to confirm the events depicted in the film.
That informant was actually Evening Standard journalist George McIndoe, who claimed to have learnt about the salacious photographs after getting to know two members of the Baker Street gang in the 1970s. With none of the men themselves talking and Michael X dead, it’s clearly hard to verify what McIndoe told the writers.
One curious piece of circumstantial evidence does exist, however. Micheal X’s MI5 file is locked up until 2054, 83 years after the robbery and 79 years after his death. The secrecy over the file of an obscure London gangster seems unwarranted. Could it be there is something so explosive in those files that they might still be embarrassing decades after everyone involved is dead?
In later years, a far more sinister variation on the Royal scandal theory has emerged. Brian Reader, a gang member not captured by police in 1971, says the men found sickening images of child sex abuse involving prominent politicians in the safety deposit boxes.
The now elderly Reader made the claims at his trial for involvement in another famous robbery, the 2015 heist of the safety deposit boxes at London’s Hatton Garden. He says the gang at Baker Street were so disgusted by the pictures they left them scattered out on the floor of the vault for the police to find.
If this is true, the resulting scandal would far eclipse even salacious pictures of a prominent royal. Allegations that there is a systematic cover-up of a child-sex ring at that highest level of British politics persists even today. If evidence for such a ring had been found scattered on the floor of a bank vault back in 1971, it would certainly have been concealed by the authorities.
The role of British intelligence in such a scenario could take two forms. The first is that the raid was a stunt orchestrated by them to provide blackmail opportunities against high-ranking politicians. More likely is that on discovering the material in the aftermath of the robbery, MI5 swooped in to aid the cover-up and ensure a scandal did not break that would potentially bring down the British government itself.
On the morning of Saturday 11th September 1971, the Metropolitan Police knew two solid facts about the bank robbery currently in progress somewhere in London. Firstly the culprits were attempting to tunnel their way inside a safety deposit vault, and secondly that that vault was located within a mile of the flat of CB radio ham Robert Rowlands.
If the police had used this information, they would almost certainly have caught the men before they even made it into the bank. Instead, they sent their men on a wild goose chase of more than 170 banks across ten miles of north-west London, massively decreasing the odds that they would find the correct location in time.
Despite this, sometime on Sunday morning, police did search the Baker Street branch of Lloyds Bank. With the gang just a few feet away behind the 15-inch thick door of the vault, the bank was dismissed as the location of the robbery because there were no signs of a break-in.
Whether this was an honest mistake, incompetence or a deliberate blind eye been turned is now impossible to say. But with the police knowing from the transmissions on Rowlands radio that the gang were trying to dig their way directly into the vault rather than go in through the front it is staggering that this search was deemed sufficient to dismiss the bank as the possible location of the robbery.
One of the most persistent rumours about the Lloyds Bank robbery is that a D-notice was placed on the press to prevent them fully reporting the details of the crime.
A D-notice is a request from the government to the press not to report on a specific event that is deemed a risk to national security. Whilst technically voluntary, the UK press would rarely break a D-notice, and several are still used and in effect today.
It is not contested that a such a request was made to the press regarding their reporting of the Baker Street robbery. The robbery was known about for almost two days before news of it was broken on the morning of Monday 13th September. During this period, it is thought a D-notice was in effect to prevent any reporting possibly tipping the criminals off.
The heist was then widely reported for a while, the BBC and most of the national press reported on the crime. After that, news of the raid virtually vanished from the UK media. Radio ham Robert Rowlands, whose recordings of the robbery first alerted police, says his tapes and radio equipment were then seized and a D-notice placed on further reporting.
Unlike similar heists, which have remained in the headlines for months and years afterwards, very little was reported about the robbery again until the publicity generated by the release of the Bank Job in 2008. One small story did appear in The Times in 1973 reporting on the conviction of the three men involved in the raid, but this looks like a curiously scant return for such a sensational crime.
In recent years, the tabloid Daily Mirror has revealed that they and other major newspapers of the time were approached by senior government officials and asked to drop the story. It is hard to understand why they would do this if there wasn’t some element of national security involved. No other major bank robbery in British history has faced the reporting restrictions that seem to be evident here.
Was this to cover-up the robbery’s true intent, or to cover-up what the thieves say they found in the safety deposit boxes and left out for the police to find?
MI5 is renowned in the intelligence world for its skill, efficiency, and cunning. When someone working on an MI5 covert operation leases out a shop as a front for their illegal activities, they generally don’t do it in their own name, allowing for their swift capture by the police.
Yet that’s exactly what gang member Desmond Wolfe did. With a tunnel leading straight from the bank vault to the basement of the Le Sac leather goods shop he had leased, he was essentially caught red-handed. Wolfe was quickly apprehended and the other gang members, all known associates of Wolfe, soon followed.
It seems unthinkable that MI5 would be behind such a plan unless the gang agreed to deliberately take the fall for them. No serious intelligence operation would make such a basic mistake otherwise.
There’s no doubt that the Baker Street heist was brilliantly executed in some respects, but in others ways, it was sloppy and amateurish. Allowing every detail of their plan to be broadcasted over the airwaves seems another mistake uncharacteristic of a professional state intelligence operation.
By 1971, CB Radio was already massive in America and beginning to take off in the UK, despite still been technically outlawed. The robbers were talking to each other on open channels, potentially allowing any of thousands of people in the area to hear their chatter.
If MI5 were involved in planning the robbery, then they made some inexplicable errors which led to the certain capture of their thieves. The possibility that them getting caught and going to prison was part of the deal can’t be overlooked, but it’s a hefty price to pay however much the men were paid.
The conspiracy theory that British intelligence was involved in the robbery to cover up a royal scandal is not outlandish, but it also revolves around their ability to suppress subsequent reporting using the D-notice system. If they have such a powerful mechanism to cover up their activities, it begs the question as to why the robbery was even needed.
Journalists in the 1970s already knew what kind of subjects were out of bounds. Princess Margaret’s antics in Mustique were well-worn gossip in Fleet Street, as were the sexual proclivities of many other politicians and high profile society figures. But like the often very public behaviour of paedophiles such as Lord Boothby and MP Tom Driberg, anything that could damage the establishment was already not reported by mutual agreement.
Even today, paedophile scandals are rumbling on at the BBC and Westminister. Revelations continue that many high-profile establishment figures were routinely protected, a conspiracy of silence preventing them from been exposed.
Elaborate bank robberies seem superfluous in the circumstances.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! You can email me anytime with your questions or comments at email@example.com – and you can find the show on Facebook and Twitter, including the show’s Weirdos Facebook Group on the CONTACT/SOCIAL page at WeirdDarkness.com. Also on the website, if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, click on TELL YOUR STORY – or call the DARKLINE toll free at 1-877-277-5944. That’s 1-877-277-5944.
All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
”The True Story Behind Robert The Doll” by Melissa Brink
“God’s Terrifying Right-Hand Man” by Matthew Lavelle for Graveyard Shift
“How Horror Changed After WW1” by W. Scott Poole, from the book “Wasteland: The Great War And The Origins of Horror”
“The Baker Street Robbery” from The Unredacted
“How To Bury a Witch” from The Occult Museum
“Leftover Magic” by Weirdo family member Ilsa Beauchamp, submitted directly to WeirdDarkness.com
“Murder In The Red Barn” by Stephanie Almazan from The Line Up
“The Hot Cocoa Killer” by Jennifer Jackson from The Line Up
“The Lead Masks Case” by Orrin Grey for The Line Up
Again, you can find link to all of these stories in the show notes.
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “(Jesus said to her) I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even though they die.” –John 11:25
And a final thought… “Words mean nothing if actions show the complete opposite.” – Unknown
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.