Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012


It was Friday the thirteenth and there were thirteen prisoners, all of them awaiting execution.
Albert Pierrepoint: a very British hangman
They had been dubbed the ‘Beasts of Belsen’: 10 men and three women who had sent tens of thousands of concentration camp victims to their deaths. Now, it was their turn to die.
There was never any doubt as to who would undertake the executions: Albert Pierrepoint was Britain’s most experienced hangman. He had got the job of executioner in 1932, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. He'd proved so reliable and efficient that within nine years he was promoted to Chief Executioner. He even perfected the art of double executions, hanging two men at the same time.
Guilty: the beasts of Belsen
Pierrepoint's most celebrated executions came in the wake of the Nazi war crime trial of the 'beasts of Belsen. The convicted prisoners included Irma Grese, a vivacious young blond girl who'd joined the SS at an early age and worked enthusiastically at Belsen, lashing her Jewish prisoners to death with her riding whip before they reached the gas chambers.
Also convicted was Juana Bormann, who had treated her prisoners with horrific violence, setting her vicious Alsatian on the weak and sickly. Many of them were gnawed to death.
‘First she egged the dog on and it pulled at the woman [victim’s] clothes,’ said one of the witnesses at her trial. ‘Then she was not satisfied with that and made the dog go for her throat.’
Irma Grese: mass murderer who smiled
She, like Irma Grese was found guilty and convicted to hang.
Albert Pierrepoint had executed scores of people over the previous decade but he had never hanged 13 in one day and nor had he despatched anyone quite so evil as this bunch. He was particularly keen to meet Irma Grese, whom he regarded as the worst of the lot.
‘She walked out of her cell and came towards us laughing,’ he wrote. ‘She seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.’
When asked her age, she paused and smiled. Pierrepoint also found himself smiling, ‘as if we realised the conventional embarrassment of a woman revealing her age.’
These ‘Belsen’ executions were to be rather different from Pierrepoint’s previous ones. He was put in total charge from beginning to end - a job that required meticulous planning. ‘I had to supervise the weighings and measuring of the condemned thirteen in order to work out my drops.’
He had never done this before: in Britain it was done by prison officers.
When Pierrepoint had first arrived at Buckeburg prison, where the criminals were held, he was appalled to see 13 graves being dug for the condemned prisoners.
He felt that this was unseemly. ‘I complained about it to a prison official but was told that nothing could be done to stop it.’
Timothy Spall is Pierrepoint the in movie
He then went inside the prison to meet the condemned men and women. ‘I walked down the corridor and the thirteen Belsen faces were pressed close to the bars.’
Pierrepoint was taken aback. ‘Never in my experience have I seen a more pitiable crowd of condemned prisoners.’
The first to be weighed and measured was Josef Kramer, who had killed thousands of victims. He was sullen and gave monosyllabic answers to Pierrepoint’s questions.
Kramer: no regrets
The next prisoner, Dr Fritz Klein, had been convicted of killing up to 300 victims at a time in the gas chambers. Pierrepoint found him full of energy and not a bit contrite. ‘[He] came walking briskly down the corridor and efficiently complied with the formalities.’
Once all the prisoners had been weighed, Pierrepoint had to work out the length of rope. If the drop was too long, it would tear their heads off. Too short and it might not kill them.
Pierrepoint was woken at 6am on Friday 13 December, 1945. He decided to execute the women first, beginning with Irma Grese. She proved a model of calmness, walking slowly to the trap and standing on the white chalk mark. 
‘As I placed the white cap over her head, she said in her languid voice: ‘Schnell.’’ The trapdoor crashed from under her feet and her body twisted as the rope broke her neck. Pierrepoint’s first prisoner was dead.
He hanged the two other women before pausing for a refreshing cup of tea. Then, he set to work on the men, adjusting the scaffold for the double executions.
Always keep a note of your executions
First to go were Josef Kramer and Fritz Klein. They were roped together and also roped by their necks. ‘I adjusted the ropes and flew to the lever,’ recalled Pierrepoint. Twenty five seconds later, both were dead.
The executions took many hours and it was dark by the time all the prisoners had been despatched. Pierrepoint was exhausted but he nevertheless went to a mess party that night. He was proud to have hanged the ‘Beasts of Belsen’.
He would subsequently be appointed to execute a further 190 Nazi war criminals, including Bruno Tesch, inventor of the gas Zyklon B. Pierrepoint was by now so efficient at his job that he could despatch his clients - cell to gallows - in under 60 seconds.
Pierrepoint was eventually retired at the age of 72, due to failing eyesight. Home Office officials cancelled his contract when they learned that he almost noosed his assistant and sent him through the trapdoor by mistake. 

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There was no hope of escape.
An avalanche of toxic gas: Mount Pelee erupts
At exactly 8.02am on 8 May, 1902, there was a cataclysmic explosion on the Caribbean island of Martinique. The island’s volcano - Mount Pelee - had ripped itself open, forcing a gigantic mushroom cloud into the sky. Seconds later, an avalanche of superheated gas and dust began thundering down the slopes of the volcano.
Directly below, and in the path of the boiling flood, lay St-Pierre, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants. As everyone glanced at the torrent of toxic debris heading towards them at great speed, they realised that survival would depend entirely upon luck.
The avalanche had picked up such momentum that it was to reach St-Pierre in less than a minute. The temperature of the flow was in excess of 1,000 degrees centigrade and it was vaporising everything in its path.
First hint of danger: a burst of smoke
Among the terrified inhabitants of the town was Léon Compère Léandre, a local shoemaker. He had heard the massive explosion and immediately turned to look at the mountain.
‘I felt a terrible wind blowing, the earth began to tremble, and the sky suddenly became dark,’ he later wrote. ‘I turned to go into the house, with great difficulty climbed the three or four steps that separated me from my room, and felt my arms and legs burning, also my body.’
Don't inhale: it's deadly
As he collapsed in agony, four other people burst into the room, ‘crying and writhing with pain.’ It was clear that they’d suffered massive internal injuries from the noxious volcanic gasses.
‘At the end of 10 minutes one of these, the young Delavaud girl, aged about 10 years, fell dead,’ recalled Léon. The others fled the building, hoping to find some avenue of escape.
Léon went into another room, ‘where I found the father Delavaud, still clothed and lying on the bed, dead. He was purple and inflated, but the clothing was intact.’
Léon was by now desperate. According to his account, he was ‘crazed and almost overcome’. Unable to move, he lay on a bed, ‘inert and awaiting death.’
There were a few witnesses to the ensuing disaster: people who were on boats at the time of the eruption. One described how the mountain was ‘blown to pieces, there was no warning.’ Another said simply: ‘the town banished before our eyes.’
Absolute devastation: yet a few survive
There was no hope of outrunning the avalanche. Everyone in the centre of town was killed in seconds - gassed and burned to death by the noxious and fiery fumes.
One hour after the disaster, Léon suddenly work up. He had lost consciousness at the moment the avalanche struck and was only dimly aware of what had happened.
Now, he walked out through the charred remains of St Pierre and eventually reached a nearby village where he amazed the locals with his story.
How he managed to survive the furnace that rolled over the town remains a complete mystery. The only certainty is that the storm of gas and boiling dust had left him unscathed.
Survival in prison: Cyparis
Léon was not the only survivor: one other man escaped the inferno and he was able to recount how he had cheated death on that grim May morning.
Louis Auguste Cyparis had been incarcerated in the city’s prison on the day before the eruption, having been involved in a violent pub brawl. He was locked into an underground cell with windowless stone walls. The only ventilation came from a grating in the metal door that faced away from the volcano.
Cyparis heard the violent explosion of the volcano and realised at once that it had erupted. According to his account, the daylight (which he could see through the grate) vanished: day switched to night in an instant.
Seconds later, scorching air and burning ash entered his cell. He urinated on his clothes and stuffed them into the hole, but this did not prevent him receiving severe burns. But he survived the ensuing avalanche, which buried him alive under the burning ash.
Cyparis's cell: the only volcano-proof building in town
The rescue operation began within hours of the eruption. The warship Suchet reached the burning town at 12.30pm. But the heat was so ferocious that it could not land until 3pm, when the captain managed to get ashore.
Mount Pelee today
He was staggered by what he found. Not a building, nor a tree was still standing. Everything was charred beyond recognition. The entire 30,000 population was dead.
Cyparis was found four days later by a rescue team who heard his lonely cries coming from under the rubble. He eventually recovered from his burns, was pardoned for his crime and joined Barnum and Bailey’s circus.
The only other survivor of that terrible morning in May was a young girl named Haviva da Ifrile. But her escape is even more mysterious than that of Léon Compère Léandre. She was found adrift in a boat, unconscious but alive.
She had no recollection of how she got there.
UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here

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'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


He could scarcely believe the ease with which he carried out the crime.
Peruggia: Mona Lisa under his arm
On Monday 21 August, 1911, an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa wrapped inside a white artist's smock. No one saw him steal the world’s most famous painting; no one heard him prise it from the wall.
Peruggia slipped out unnoticed and took the painting home to his apartment.
The greatest art theft of the 20th century could scarcely have been more simple. That morning, Vincenzo had slipped into the Louvre disguised as a museum employee. He had then made his way to the gallery in which Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting hung and lifted its box frame off the wall.
'Has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?'
None of the Louvre’s employees noticed that the painting was missing. Fully twelve hours after it was stolen, the duty caretaker reported to his boss that everything in the museum was in order.
No one even noticed the painting’s absence on the following morning. Paintings in the Louvre were often removed from the walls, because the museum's photographers were allowed to take them to their studios without having to sign them out.
The painter, Louis Béroud, arrived at the Louvre on Tuesday with the intention of sketching the Mona Lisa. He found just four iron hooks in the place where she normally hung. He presumed a photographer had taken her and joked with the guard: ‘When women are not with their lovers they are apt to be with their photographers.’
Happier days
When Mona Lisa was still missing at 11am, Béroud made enquiries to find out when she would be back. Only now, more than 24 hours after Peruggia removed the painting, did it dawn on museum staff that she’d been stolen.
No one had any idea as to the identity of the thief and nor could they fathom his motive: after all, it would be impossible to sell such a famous painting.
The Louvre closed for a week: when it reopened, there was a massive queue waiting to see the spot where the Mona Lisa used to hang.
Overnight, this moderately famous painting became an international icon. Postcards of La Gioconda’s face sold around the world. She was also featured on numerous cigarette cards.
Missing for two years
The French police made frantic efforts to trace the thief. Their only clue was a fingerprint on the glass of the discarded frame.
And this was the point at which the story acquired a strange twist that was to implicate Picasso in the theft.
Just a few months earlier, an eccentric bisexual Belgian named Honoré Gery had visited the offices of Le Journal and sold a journalist a little statuette that he’d stolen from the Louvre. He also bragged about having stolen other statuettes which he’d passed to an unnamed artist friend.
Now, in the aftermath of the Mona Lisa theft, the police were informed of Gery’s crime and began investigating.
Picasso in Paris: 'not me!'
News of the investigation came as a most unwelcome surprise to the young Pablo Picasso, then living in Paris. He was an acquaintance of Gery and was fully aware that he had stolen statuettes from the Louvre. Worse still, Picasso still had in his possession two of the statuettes that Gery had filched. He’d even used them as models for his famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Now, the net closed in on Picasso: he was arrested by the Paris police.
He remained cool under intense questioning. He denied any knowledge of Gery’s crimes and said (quite truthfully) he knew nothing of the Mona Lisa heist. He was eventually released and allowed to go free. The police never learned about the statuettes and their Louvre enquiries reached a dead end.
Peruggia: gave himself up
Two years were to pass before the Mona Lisa spectacularly resurfaced. In November, 1913 a Florentine antique dealer named Alfredo Geri received a cryptic letter which said: ‘The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.’ The letter was signed Leonardo.
Geri eventually got to meet ‘Leonardo’ and to see the Mona Lisa. Peruggia even allowed Geri have the painting authenticated. It was not long before news reached the press that the Mona Lisa had been found.
Geri: found the masterpiece
Perruggia was arrested, tried in Florence and found guilty: he told the court that his sole motive for stealing the picture was to return her to Italy. She was to be recompense for all the Italian paintings stolen by Napoleon.
The judge viewed Peruggia as a harmless fool. He received a sentence of one year and 15 days in jail. Shortly afterwards, his sentence was overturned. He was released and allowed to walk free.
The biggest winner in the whole sorry saga was the Louvre: it now found itself with a world famous painting to hang on its walls.
Peruggia’s extraordinary theft had turned the Mona Lisa from a moderately well-known painting into an internationally recognised masterpiece.
UK paperback

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail