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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Friday, August 31, 2012


James Bedford's body capsule

His heart stopped at exactly 1.15pm on 12 January, 1967. Dr James Bedford, who had been slowly dying of kidney cancer, had finally expired.
Except that Dr Bedford’s death wasn’t quite so straightforward. He had donated his corpse to a bold scientific experiment. His body was to be placed in the care of a dedicated team of cryonic scientists: their task was to preserve it intact in a state of suspended animation, with the aim on one day bringing it back to life.
Dr Bedford: as he used to look
It sounds like a fictional tale from a Frankenstein horror movie, but James Bedford was a real person with a long-held fascination for cryonics. Forty five years after his death, he is still being held in a deeply frozen state.
Bedford had plenty of warning of his impending demise. He had removed himself to a nursing home in California in order that the cryonic procedure could begin within seconds of his death. It was vital to preserve cell structures intact and alive before they succumbed to decay.
Preparing a body for cryonics: need to work fast
The Cryoncs Society of California had a ‘suspension team’ on hand, yet they were nevertheless caught by surprise on the day of Bedford’s death. Robert Nelson, president of the society, was nowhere to be found and several vital hours were lost before he reached the deathbed.
In the intervening time, the ‘suspension’ process had been begun by others. Bedford’s physician, Dr Able, was present at the time of his death. He immediately began artificial respiration and heart massage in an attempt to keep the brain alive while the body was cooled with ice.
To aid this process, heparin was injected into Bedford’s arteries to prevent the blood from coagulating.
Within a very short space of time, the corpse had been entirely packed in crushed ice and his organs injected with dimethyl sulfoxide, a chemical that prevents cell death.
Robert Nelson had by now arrived: he attempted to circulate the chemical solution into Bedford’s carotid arteries and then pass it through the entire corpse using a bag-valve respirator.
He would later report that within two hours of Bedford’s ‘deanimation’ - death - he was transferred to a foam-insulated box, still wrapped in the ice-filled sheet on which he had died. He was also coated with one-inch-thick slabs of dry ice.
Nelson injects Bedford with chemicals
Nelson informed the world’s media that ‘the patient is now frozen with dry ice, minus 79°C., and will soon be stored in liquid nitrogen, minus 196°C.’
He was to be kept frozen until such time as medical science would be able to bring him back to life.
The original idea was to store Bedford’s body in a special cryocapsule housed in Phoenix, Arizona. But Bedford was later moved to a cryogenics company in Southern California.
One of Bedford's capsules
Here, he was cut out of his old cryocapsule - which proved to be faulty - and welded into a new one. This time, he was not refrigerated by submersion in liquid nitrogen. Instead, he was wrapped in a special polyester sleeping bag and sprayed with nitrogen. During the transfer, the temperature of his corpse never exceeded minus 143°C.
Dr James Bedford was not the first person, and nor will he be the last, to dream of being resurrected from the dead. As long ago as 1773, Benjamin Franklin expressed his regret at being born into the world ‘too near the infancy of science.’ He wished to be preserved and later revived in order to fulfil his ‘very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence.’
Others, too, dreamed of having their corpses frozen in order that they might later be brought back to life. Yet it was not until the scientific advances of the 1960s that cryopreservation became a reality.
Bedford's body in the 1970s
In the spring of 1991, some 24 years after Bedford’s death, his corpse was cut out of its sealed cryogenic capsule in order that it could be examined.
The official report revealed that he was in a good state and ‘appears younger than his 73 years.’
There were a few problems. ‘The skin on the left side of the neck is distended… [and] there is frozen blood issuing from the mouth and nose.’
The report added that Bedford’s eyes ‘are partially open and the corneas are chalk-white from ice.’ His nostrils were somewhat flattened against his face, ‘apparently as a result of being compressed by a slab of dry ice during initial freezing.’
Will he emerge looking like Frankenstein?
After thorough inspection, Bedford was transferred to a new capsule and placed back into storage in the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.
And there he remains to this day, a not-quite-dead corpse who hopes one day to be brought back to life.
Does he dream as he lies in silence in his frozen capsule? Is his icy sleep troubled by visions of his eventual return to earth?
Perhaps he will one day be awoken from his suspended state and whisper secrets from the world of the dead.  
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I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Dr  Heim, but you can call me Tarek

He was known to his friends and neighbours as Uncle Tarek - a genial and good looking individual who was a familiar sight in the narrow streets of 1980s old Cairo.
There was just one thing slightly strange about Uncle Tarek. Although he was a keen amateur photographer and rarely stepped outside without carrying a camera, he never allowed himself to be photographed.
There was good reason for this. Uncle Tarek was hiding a dark and terrible secret, one that would have horrified his many friends. His real name was not Tarek Hussain Farid, as he claimed, but Aribert Ferdinand Heim, one of the most brutal and evil of Hitler’s henchmen.
As an SS doctor stationed at Mauthausen concentration camp, he was infamous for torturing and killing numerous victims, taking a sadistic delight in watching their gruesome deaths.
The butcher of Mauthausen
If his many accusers are to believed, Dr. Heim performed operations on his prisoners without using anaesthetic, removed organs from healthy inmates and then left them to a lingering death on the operating table and injected various poisons, including petrol, into the hearts of others.
One of his victims, an 18-year-old Jewish man, was said to have gone to the camp’s clinic with an infected foot. When Heim asked him why he was so fit, he said that he’d been a top swimmer.
Heim gave him anaesthetic, ostensibly so that he could operate on his foot. But no sooner was the man asleep than he cut him open, took apart one kidney, removed the second and then castrated him. He then cut off the man’s head so that he could use the skull as a paperweight.
Heim's victims at Mauthausen
Dr Heim was captured by the Americans at the end of the war and briefly imprisoned. But his prison guards were unaware of his crimes and released him shortly afterwards.
Less than a year later, United States war crimes investigators were appalled to discover that the man they had set free stood accused of a truly horrific catalogue of murders. According to Josef Kohl, a former inmate at Mauthausen, he was the camp’s worst Nazi butcher.
‘Dr. Heim had a habit of looking into inmates’ mouths to determine whether their teeth were in impeccable condition,” said Mr. Kohl. ‘If this were the case, he would kill the prisoner with an injection, cut his head off, leave it to cook in the crematorium for hours, until all the flesh was stripped from the naked skull, and prepare the skull for himself and his friends as a decoration for their desks.’
Heim, the Baden-Baden gynaecologist
Heim kept a very low profile after his release by the Americans, yet he remained in Germany, living in Baden-Baden under an assumed name and working as a gynaecologist.
In 1962, German police discovered his whereabouts after a lengthy investigation and prepared to swoop. Heim was tipped off about his imminent arrest and fled the country that very day. He was never seen in public again.
According to his son, Heim drove through France and Spain before crossing into Morocco and eventually settling in Egypt.
Heim's home: Cairo old city
It was a clever move. Unlike the majority of Nazis on the run, who ended up in South America, Dr Heim elected to remain in the Middle East. Here, he lived an unassuming life.
He knew if he was to avoid capture, he needed to construct a convincing new identity for himself. He changed his name to Tarek Hussein Farid and converted to Islam. Each day, he would walk through the Egyptian bazaars to the Al Azhar mosque. He would also frequent the famous Groppi Café, where he bought cakes and sweets for the children of his friends.
The hotel where Heim lived (copyright New York Times)
German and Israeli investigators continued to pursue leads but they always followed the wrong scent, believing him to live in South America.
In fact, Heim was by now living with the Doma family of Cairo, which ran the Kasr el Madina hotel. This was where he spent the last decade of his life, until his death from cancer in 1992.
The briefcase that revealed the truth
(copyright New York Times)
Even when he died, his secret double life was not exposed. It was not until 2009 that his old briefcase was unearthed. When opened it revealed that Uncle Tarek and Dr Heim were one and the same person. Although some of his papers were in the name of Tarek - and others in the name Heim - they bore the same date and place of birth: June 28, 1914, in Radkersburg, Austria.
Dr Heim’s son later confessed that he had learned of his father’s whereabouts through his aunt, who is also now dead. He said that he declined to inform the authorities of his father’s true identity - and his death - because he didn’t want to upset his many friends.
Instead, he buried his father in an unmarked and anonymous grave, where he still remains. One of the last of Hitler’s butchers - and the most high profile Nazi to have escaped capture in recent decades - he escaped paying the price for his hideous crimes against humanity.

Surviving History is taking a short break! Next blog post will be on Tuesday 4 September

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I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


She stood alone on the parade ground, defiant to the last.
Seductive, naked and erotic. But a spy? 
In her heyday, she had been a sensation, celebrated across Europe for dancing publicly in the nude. She had brought oriental exoticism to the outré clubs and cabarets of belle epoch Paris.
Now, on a chill autumn morning 1917, Mata Hari was to face execution by firing squad.
She refused to be tied to a stake and she also declined to be blindfolded. If death was to be her fate, then she wished to look the soldiers in the eye as they prepared to fire their rifles.
Mata Hari’s alleged crime was to have spied for the Germans during the First World War. But the case against her was at best a flimsy one: she herself vigorously protested her innocence.
'No, I will NOT take off my bra.'
Almost a century after her death, those protestations look as if they were genuine. Mata Hari was almost certainly executed by men driven by prejudice and prudishness: even the prosecutor would later admit that ‘there wasn’t enough evidence to flog a cat.’
As the men of the firing squad lifted their guns, Mata Hari surely knew that she was being condemned for her scandalous dances that had delighted Paris in the years before the First World War.
Dressed to thrill
The young Margaretha Zella, as she was then known, had arrived in Paris in 1903. She was escaping an unhappy marriage to an alcoholic and promiscuous Dutch captain. He was violent as well, whipping her with the cat-o’-nine-tails.
‘I cannot live with a man who is so despicable,’ wrote Margaretha in a letter to her father. ‘I prefer to die before he touches me again.’
She left the captain soon after discovering that he’d transmitted his syphilis to her two children. In revenge, he ensured she was penniless. Her only hope of survival was to exploit her sexuality.
She moved to Paris were she soon found employment in a circus. Shortly afterwards she changed her name to Mata Hari (‘Eye of the Day’ in Indonesian) and became an exotic dancer.
Paris' Moulin Rouge: Mata Hari's dances were better
Openly flaunting her body - and dancing virtually in the nude - she caused a sensation. Her most famous act saw her steadily remove all her clothes until she was wearing just a jewelled bra and a few golden beads on her arms. Her bra was the only item of clothing she rarely took off: she had small breasts and didn’t like to reveal them in public.
The critics were in awe of the eroticism of her dancing. ‘Feline, trembling in a thousand rhythms, exotic yet deeply austere, slender and supple like a sacred serpent,’ wrote one.
Entrapmment: Georges Ladoux
The money rolled in as she was courted by Parisian high society. ‘Tonight I dance with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B,’ she once remarked. ‘If I don’t have to dance, I make a trip with Marquis C. I avoid serious liaisons. I satisfy all my caprices.’
In the spring of 1914 she was offered a lucrative contract by the Berlin Metropole, one that she accepted. But the world was on a fast track to war and it was soon to engulf her. Her money and her valuable fur coats were seized. Penniless and adrift, she had no option but to return to her native Holland.
It was in Holland that she was visited by the German consul, Karl Kroemer. He told her he was recruiting spies and offered her 20,000 francs and the code name H21 if she would spy for the Germans.
The day she died.
She took the cash as compensation for the money and coats that had been seized in Germany. But she always claimed to have had no intention of spying. Instead, she returned to Paris where she resumed her glamorous life, dancing for the many wealthy officers in the city.
Unbeknown to her, she was being tracked by two secret policemen who opened all her letters. They collected much information about her love life - including, embarrassingly, her nocturnal liaisons with their senior colleague. But there was no evidence of espionage.
Reputedly the execution of Mata Hari
Her fate was sealed when the head of French intelligence, Captain Georges Ladoux, got involved. His intelligence bureau had been much criticised for failing to achieve results: he knew that exposing Mata Hari as a spy would be a sensational coup - one that would rebound well on him.
He publicly accused her of passing secrets to the enemy and had her arrested on 13 February, 1917. It was said - wrongly - that she was naked when the officers came to arrest her.
There was almost no evidence against her; the prosecution did not find a single document that she was said to have passed to the Germans. But Captain Ladoux was determined that she be found guilty and he got his way. On 15 October, 1917, having been sentenced to death, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad. She was 41.
She crumpled to the ground as the shots rang out - the world’s most famous dancer died in an instant.
But the officer in charge of the execution could stop himself from walking over to her corpse and firing a bullet into her brain at point blank range.
It was a nasty and quite unnecessary coup de grace.

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Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

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