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Neuf       εννέα      Neun      九      Nueve       девять       Nio        नौ       Nove        নয়        Tisa   

Behold the mystery of 9, the largest single-digit number. It has unique properties. Let us begin.

If you multiply 9 by 1, you of course get 9. But if you multiply 9 by 2 you get 18, whose digits (1 and 8) also add up to 9.

Multiplying 9 x 3  gives you 27, and 2 +7 = 9.

9 x 4 = 36, and we see 3 + 6 = 9.  And 9 x 44 is 396, and 3 + 9 + 6 = 18 and then 1 + 8 = 9. And so on.

Choose any number, no matter how big, and multiply it by 9. Its constituent digits will always reduce to 9.

For example: 867,412,155 multiplied by 9 is 7,806,709, 395.

7 + 8 + 0 + 6 + 7 + 0 + 9 + 3 + 9 + 5 = 54, and 5 + 4 = 9.

But we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Add up all the digits from 1 to 9 and they come to 45. Needless to say, 4 + 5 =9.

Then there’s this:

If you line up all the single-digit numbers (1 to 9) and multiply them by 9, you wind up with 123,456,789 x 9 = 1,111,111,101. That number’s digits add up to 9.

If you line up 123,456,789 and multiply that number by 18 (whose digits add up to 9) you get 2,222,222,202. All those 2’s add add up to 18 which reduces to 9. If you take that same line-up from 1 to 9 and multiply the result by 45 (whose digits also add up to 9) you end up with 5,555,555,505. And all those 5’s add up to 45, which reduces to 9.

And so on.

You can also take any number whose digits add up to 9 and then subtract 9. Let’s say the original number is 441 (4 + 4 + 1 = 9). Now watch this:

441 – 9 = 432. Then 4 + 3 + 2 = 9.

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Image result for chuck norris


Here’s a neat observation:

Take any 2-digit number, let’s say 64, and divide it by the 2-digit number 99 and see what happens.

64 ÷ 99 is 0.6464646464. Notice how the two-digits on either side (64/99) result in a repeating decimal which also consists of two digits?

The same would work for any 7-digit number divided by the 7-digit number 9,999,999. Let’s say 8,865,931 ÷ 9,999,999. The result is 0.88659318865931…(a 7-digit repeating decimal).

Let’s dig deeper.

The internet tells us Chuck Norris can count to infinity (∞). (They say he can do that twice, in fact). For our purposes the irrational number pi (3.141592653….. ), which stretches to ∞, will suffice. If we use a shortened (non-infinite) version of pi and multiply it by 9:

Pi x 9 = 28.274333877.

Add up all those digits from 28 to 77 and the answer is 54. And of course 5 + 4 =9.

Even if we use a much shorter version of pi, we still can’t escape the pattern. 3.1416 x 9 = 28.2744, whose digits add up to 27, which reduces to you-know-what.

Image result for nine in chineseImage result for nine in chinese

Hindu mystics think the world of 9. So do Buddhists. Their prayer beads (similar to Catholic rosary beads) contain 108 beads. At New Year Japanese Buddhists toll the bell 108 times. And Buddha had 9 virtues.

Indian astrology has 9 influencers (called navagraha): the sun, moon and planets.

Indian mysticism holds that there are 9 elements: earth, water, air, fire, ether, time, space, soul and mind.

9 also looms large in Chinese and Sinitic culture. The word for 9 (jiu) sounds like the word for long-lasting (something akin to immortality, perhaps). And in Chinese tradition the dragon, which represents power and magic, has 9 forms, 9 attributes and 9 children. It has 117 scales, of which 81 are yang (masculine) and 36 are yin (feminine).

The ancient Greeks had 9 Muses (goddesses of creativity). Christian tradition holds there are 9 choirs of angels in heaven. The Vikings of old divided the cosmos into 9 worlds. Both the Aztec and Maya underworlds consisted of 9 levels, as did the Christian hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to after sunset, is the 9th month. The list goes on and on.

In more modern times 9 has held special significance. Westeros, in The Game of Thrones has 9 regions. The U.S. Supreme Court has 9 justices. A baseball game has 9 innings and 9 players take the field for the pitching team. 9 strikes is enough to retire the side. Beethoven, Bruckner, Dvorák and Mahler all died after composing their 9th Symphonies.

The NATO radio alphabet makes 9  the only number to be pronounced in an irregular way – niner – to differentiate it from the similar sounding five.

Some countries AM radio stations’ frequencies are assigned by making sure the kHz add up to 9, for example 1530 kHz.  This is to space them out more effectively and prevent them interfering with other stations’ signals.

The worst movie ever made – believe it or not even worse than The Room – was Plan 9 From Outer Space, directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr. Not Plan 8 or Plan 10, you’ll notice. And – I know this is a stretch – it was made in 1959.

And our mothers carried us around as ever-growing internal residents for about 9 months.

So remember to show 9 a little respect.

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It’s possible they played The Room on a loop at Guantanamo Bay



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   Pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy.


Here we go again

Twists of fate lead to other twists of fate.

Here is the story of a man who experienced some big ones. A pawn in a giant game whose rules he barely understood, he wound up serving in three armies and two wars in two continents. And was a prisoner of war (POW) in three countries.

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It seemed like a great idea at the time

Yang Kyoungjong (surname: Yang) was born in Korea in 1920, about 10 years after Japan incorporated Korea into its Empire. So he was a Japanese national. Ethnic Koreans like him were denied all the privileges of Japanese nationals from Japan while incurring all the obligations of Japanese nationals. He was drafted into Japan’s permanent military garrison in northeastern China (“The Kwangtung Army”).

In 1938 Japan had grandiose plans for enlarging its empire by seizing Mongolia and a big chunk of Siberia. This would be straightforward for two reasons:

Manchuria – officially the independent nation of Manchukuo – was Tokyo’s obedient puppet state in northeastern China. It provided The Kwangtung Army with the perfect launching pad for a war of conquest.

Secondly, despite the Soviet Armed Forces (the Red Army) and its obedient puppet state – Mongolia – looming large, the Red Army was reportedly in tatters. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s paranoia about traitors in every closet and foreign spies under every bed resulted in scores of top Red Army generals arrested, tortured then executed.

Japanese intelligence officers noted with satisfaction that the Soviets’ leading tank warfare specialist was among the first to disappear. The Red Army’s morale, they reported to Tokyo, couldn’t be lower.

Smashing the Red Army would be a cinch.

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“…are hereby sentenced to death…” 

Not so fast! said the Navy. The admirals saw the acquisition of sub-arctic tundra as a monumental waste of manpower and resources. Not to mention this was all the Army’s idea, thereby depriving the Navy of glory. But the generals had the Emperor’s ear, and he approved the idea.

Some months later the generals were casting around for someone else to blame. The campaign was a disaster. Stalin’s Red Army inflicted a stinging defeat. The Navy said We told you so, and submitted its plan for capturing American, British and Dutch territories in the Asia-Pacific region, starting with an attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Not that any of this meant anything to Yang. He – along with about 3,000 Japanese and Manchurian POWs – was transported across Siberia to an uncertain fate.

Back home, Yang’s family received notification he’d been killed in action. Japanese tradition required its troops to commit suicide rather than fall into captivity. To spare their loved ones the shame of having a POW in the family, Yang and the others were declared dead, case closed. (For the Army they were as good as dead anyway.)

He languished in the Soviet Union, learning the debased, obscenity-laden Russian vocabulary of the prison camps, never knowing if he’d see another day, never knowing what fate had in store for him. Then history intervened.

In June 1941 Hitler and his Axis allies (Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Romania) invaded the Soviet Union.

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They caught the Soviets with their pants down, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Only the U.S.S.R.’s vast distances and the brutal winter of 1941-42 saved Moscow itself from capture.

The Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, ordered all Red Army units Hold firm! Fight to the last man! Not one step back! Surrender was forbidden. But hopelessly cornered Red Army troops facing certain death surrendered in droves.

The Soviet manpower situation became critical. Stalin now looked to the prison camps (the gulag) in Siberia and Arctic Russia. In 1942 he released most political prisoners plus the POWs from Manchuria. The idea was: put a little meat on their bones, give them rudimentary training and pitch them straight into battle. That should buy us some time, Stalin thought.

It bought Yang about a year. But in early 1943 the Wehrmacht captured him at Kharkov. He was now in a German prison camp.

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Will trade rag for potato

Prison camp was a generous term. Stalin’s regime spurned all international agreements on the treatment of POWs, so Germany had no legal obligation to provide its Soviet captives with adequate food, shelter or medical care. Most of them huddled in barbed wire enclosures, left to freeze and starve, sleeping in piss puddles, surrounded by putrefaction and despair.

Some were used in ghoulish medical experiments. Some wound up as slave workers as far away as Norway and the Channel Islands. And a surprising number were either forced into the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) or enthusiastically volunteered to fight against Stalin.

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Join us and fight for a brighter Europe!

Nazi ideology permitted the concept of Honorary Aryan: “racially acceptable” non-Europeans, like the Japanese and northern Indians.  There’d be no objection to them serving in German uniforms (whether they wished to or not). Nazi racial experts toured the camps, selecting Soviet POWs to replenish the Wehrmacht‘s numbers after its heavy losses.

The coerced ones joined the eager volunteers trudging out of the piss puddles, stepping over the corpses, getting deloused, receiving actual food and putting on German uniforms. They joined Ost-bataillone (Eastern battalions): Wehrmacht units under German command but comprising troops from the Soviet Union’s non-Slavic populations. (Later, as we’ll see, the Slavs’ official sub-human status was conveniently forgotten and any Russian/Slavic POW or defector wanting to fight Stalin could join in.)

The keen Estonians and Latvians were high up the racial totem pole, and the Caucasians (Armenians, Georgians and so on) were also good to go. So were the Central Asians (Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen…).

Yang made the cut as an Honorary Aryan. We’ll never know whether some racial expert simply liked the look of him or whether Yang somehow managed to convey to his captors that he was Japanese (his Korean ethnicity being irrelevant here). Whatever the case, in 1943 Yang Kyoungjong, formerly of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Red Army, became a private in the Wehrmacht‘s 709th Infantrie-Division. That was a static division – it had precious few motor vehicles and many of its troops were of inferior quality.

Next stop, France.

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We’re racially acceptable

What went through the Korean’s mind as he was shunted across Europe to Normandy to  be pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy?

At least Yang was still alive and in one piece, despite all those chances to become neither. One spring day in 1944 he climbed off a horse-drawn wagon at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass from where he’d started. The salty tang of the breeze from the English Channel filled his nostrils as he joined his new Wehrmacht buddies in a division tasked with repelling the expected Anglo-American invasion.

The 709th Division had its fair share of ex-Red Army soldiers: mainly Slavs and Georgians. Their combat effectiveness wasn’t expected to be high and their willingness to lay down their lives for Hitler was minimal. So, when the invasion came, the U.S. paratroopers assigned to that area easily overwhelmed Yang’s unit.

We don’t know exactly how Yang’s third capture happened, but we know he was luckier than some. Many of his fellow soldiers met a grizzly end, as the movie Saving Private Ryan depicted. In an early scene the Americans take heavy casualties on the beach then fight their way a little inland, encountering a German bunker complex. Two Wehrmacht guys emerge with their hands in the air, shouting something the Americans can’t understand. Czech? Russian? With the noise of battle and the fog of war they might as well have spoken Tamil. The Americans shoot them anyway.

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Wir sind Russen! Russen!

The G.I.’s guarding Yang and his fellow-prisoners saw four East-Asian-looking men among them and discovered one of them was “Japanese” (Yaponskiy). They immediately assumed all four were Japanese. The guards sent word to their superiors who sent word to their superiors who sent word to Washington D.C. There are Japanese troops fighting for Hitler in France! We have the proof right here!

Questions immediately arose. How was this even possible? They couldn’t just cross the Japan Sea to the U.S.S.R. and travel overland to France. Did they somehow make it across the Pacific, traverse South America and cross the Atlantic to Europe? But why go to such trouble? And are there enough Japanese troops in Europe to tip the balance?

Even in 1944 the Anglo-Americans had little idea that the Wehrmacht included hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviets of many ethnicities. When the Western Allies encountered almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones they immediately saw “Japanese”. Only later, as Germany collapsed and masses of prisoners fell into Allied hands, did the reality hit. But the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) already knew about all this.

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Cossacks for Hitler

The practice of POWs switching sides was hardly new. During the American Civil War some 5,000 Confederate prisoners joined the Union Army and about 1,600 Union POWs switched to the Confederate Army. And thousands of Czech and Slovak prisoners defected from the Austro-Hungarian Army to the Russians in World War One.

The scale here was massive. As early as 1942 NKVD officers saw ample evidence of Soviet troops defecting en masse to the Germans. They learned not only of POWs voluntarily switching sides, but soldiers on active duty. Whole units defected without even waiting to be captured. Not only troops from ethnic minorities, but actual sons of Russia. Not only ordinary Russian soldiers but officers too. Military academy graduates! Not only academy graduates – and this made the sweat trickle down the investigators’ backs – but actual Communist Party members. The Soviet elite! Holy Mother of God! the NKVD officers whispered under their breath as they two-finger-typed their reports to Moscow.

Comrades, let’s not kid ourselves, these reports said (although in more conventional language). We can understand – but never ever forgive! – Ukrainians acting on anti-Soviet impulses after the harsh treatment – harsh but totally justified, comrades! – they received during the agricultural collectivization campaigns before the war. And we can understand – but never ever forgive! – the Central Asians’ resentment at the Soviet government’s completely justified suppression of their anti-revolutionary Islamic practices.

As for the Armenians and Chechens, well, comrades, who could ever trust those people?

And so on. The revelation that Homo Sovieticus would so eagerly betray both the motherland and communism shocked Stalin. Never one for half-measures, he ordered 25-year Siberian prison camp sentences for every Soviet POW returning to the U.S.S.R. – whether he’d actually joined the German war effort or not.

But it got worse.

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He would liberate Russia

General A. A. Vlasov survived Stalin’s mass arrests in 1938. By 1942 he was a highly decorated hero, the Soviet medias golden boy. But that summer Vlasov’s forces – undermanned and undersupplied, unable to advance but forbidden to withdraw – were hung out to dry. He was captured on July 12, readily betrayed to the Germans by a local farmer.

Vlasov later claimed this senseless waste of lives turned him against Stalin and the Soviet system. In the prison camp he approached the Germans with a seemingly outlandish offer: he wished to recruit POWs of Russian ethnicity and train them as an army to fight side-by-side with the Germans against the Red Army.

Russians will fight with passion against the Communist beast, he told anyone who’d listen. And I, Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, will lead them in this crusade.

At first this idea of an army of Russian prisoners helping to liberate Russia fizzled. But later, as the Germans’ manpower situation worsened, their thinking evolved. Among Berlin’s elite the conversations went thus:

These creatures in their barbed wire enclosures must be miserable.


Living in their own filth, waiting to shrivel up and die.


Is it true there’s cannibalism in those camps?

In all probability.

Apparently many of them hate Stalin and everything he stands for.

It stands to reason.

This Vlasov fellow seems rational enough, though.


He’s not Jewish, is he?

No. We checked.

So what have we got to lose?



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 Russian Liberation Army

It took ages to get the ball rolling, by which time most ex-Red Army Russians were already ensconced in Ost-bataillone. Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army was too little too late. By then Yang was in his third POW camp.

The Americans shipped most of their Wehrmacht prisoners to the States. But Yang wound up in Britain. As victory in Europe drew closer Stalin demanded the Anglo-Americans  hand over all captured ex-Red Army men in German uniforms to Soviet authorities. This meant Yang.

But Yang was also ex-Japanese Imperial Army, and strictly speaking he’d never been a Soviet citizen. So the British weren’t obliged to return him to the NKVD’s loving arms.

Let’s review what’s happened so far:

A Korean teenager with Japanese nationality is drafted into the Japanese Army. He’s captured by the Red Army during Japan’s attempt to seize territory from the U.S.S.R. and Mongolia. He’s imprisoned in the Soviet Union until 1942, by which time the desperate Soviets turn political prisoners and POWs from into cannon fodder.

He’s thrown into the Red Army. The Germans capture him in 1943. They shove him into their army, assigning him to France just before the Anglo-American invasion. He’s captured again, this time by the Americans, and shipped to a POW camp in Britain.

Germany surrendered in May 1945.

Yang posed an administrative problem. He wasn’t a German so couldn’t be repatriated to post-war Germany. The Soviets weren’t legally entitled to him. He was technically Japanese but Japan was a world away and remained the enemy until September. Then, with Japan’s defeat, that country could no longer claim him, since Korea’s ties with Japan were severed, meaning Yang was a Korean, not Japanese. So what to do?

The details are murky, but Yang eventually emigrated to the United States in 1947. What transpired between May 1945 and 1947 remains unexplained.

Perhaps he was a Christian, like some other ethnic Koreans. That would have helped his application to move to America. Who knows?

We do know three things:

Yang settled in Illinois – at last! a place he could pronounce! – married and had kids.

He never spoke about his experiences, even to his children. He gave no interviews and resisted the temptation to write his memoirs.

He died in 1992.

So how did the Yang narrative emerge?

Fragments of the saga surfaced over the decades. Other stories circulated about similar discoveries. Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 best-seller about the Normandy invasion – The Longest Day – mentioned Americans capturing “a Tibetan shepherd” in a Wehrmacht uniform. Ryan reported that months later, when they finally found someone to translate, the shepherd explained he’d been kidnapped by Soviets who’d illegally crossed the border to kidnap men for the Red Army. Later, like Yang, the Germans captured him, put him in their army and shipped him to France.

But Ryan’s geography was way off. He should have seen that Tibet is a long way from the Soviet Union. It’s more likely this POW was from China’s Xinjiang Province, whose Uighur people share ethnic and linguistic roots with some Soviet Central Asians. And Xinjiang’s long, porous border with the Soviet Union allowed Red Army “press gangs” easy access.

Some analysts contend that not everything in the Yang story happened to Yang. He may have come from the Soviet Far East’s ethnic Korean population, served in the Red Army as a regular conscript, was captured and forced into the Wehrmacht, then was captured by the Americans. That’s plausible.

Others argue Yang’s a composite character: the stories of two or more East Asian soldiers have been muddled, combined and conflated into one figure. That’s also possible.

Only Yang knew for sure. But he remained stubbornly silent.

In 2011 a South Korean film studio made a highly fictionalized film about Yang (played by a handsome hunk with guaranteed box-office appeal to the ladies). My Way had its Wehrmacht Korean escaping from Normandy and nonsensically making it back to Korea (!). It was a critical and commercial flop. Don’t bother.

Because Yang never gave us his version of these events we can never be certain if we have the truth. He took his story to the grave. And unless something pops up to confirm or refute it, in the grave it will remain.

My Way (2011 film).jpg

Don’t bother with this one



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A race-based colonial rebellion was doomed to failure. But it built a legend.




     4.  THE REVOLT


This is the story of a man from an obscure, impoverished land who made a major impact on his fellow Africans’ lives.

An active clergyman in his mid-40’s, he died in a hail of bullets in 1915. Long before the Kenyan Mau Mau and the Black Panthers in America got the same idea, he instigated a bloody uprising by the black population.

Neurological letter from Malawi | Practical Neurology

On a map of Africa find Egypt. Then move your finger down the Nile. Where Tanzania meets Mozambique and Zambia there’s a landlocked country shaped like a pregnant caterpillar. That’s today’s Republic of Malawi. Until 1964 it was the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.

Our story begins here about 1870.

                                     1. FROM THE VILLAGE TO VIRGINIA

John Chilembwe came from southern Nyasaland. His father – possibly a Muslim – ignored the local Christian missionaries. Chilembwe’s mother was a slave captured from another tribe.

His early life was anonymous. Even his pre-baptismal name is uncertain. He acquired some literacy and by the age of 20 was attending a mission school, where he met the man who would shape his destiny.

That man was Joseph Booth (1851-1932).  An ardent Baptist, Booth advocated self-reliance and hard work for both worldly success and salvation in the hereafter. Moreover, he insisted everyone is equal before God. He left class-ridden England for Australia, where his egalitarian values were more admissible. A Melbourne atheist challenged Booth to obey Matthew 19:21 by giving all his money to the poor.

I’ll do more than that, Booth announced. After his wife’s death in 1891, he sold his business and went to Nyasaland. Booth proclaimed his missionary work among the Dark Continent’s pagans would inculcate both God’s Word and the lessons of thrift, hard work and self-sufficiency.

He engaged John Chilembwe as a servant, student and interpreter. Booth’s Zambezi Industrial Mission recruited Africans to grow coffee. Subsistence farming leads nowhere, Booth announced. Cash crops are the future. But his knack for underestimating difficulties and overestimating his managerial skills combined with Africa’s storms and droughts to produce failure.

Booth made it happen

By 1897 he’d made himself unpopular with Nyasaland’s whites. Africans deserve self-rule, he insisted. Colonialism is naked exploitation. It is unchristian. Independence must come, and the sooner the better.

A typical conversation went like:

Reverend Booth, have you been out in the sun too long? Your opinions are absurd!

Really? Do you think we whites are destined to rule Africa forever?

Who can say? But I can say the natives are lazy children, incapable of self-rule. Give them something to eat and something to play with and they’ll idle their lives away. They lack all capacity for logical thought. They’ve no sense of responsibility. The whole notion is preposterous.

Oh? And yet aren’t we here to raise the natives’ lives so they can eventually govern themselves as our equals?

Did you say as our equals? Were you not a Baptist minister I should say you were inebriated. Why, the very idea..!

But Booth was neither drunk nor addled by the tropical sun. He argued passionately: Education is paramount. When enough natives can read and calculate, they can teach others to do likewise. They will need white teachers no longer. Nor will they require white pastors to preach. Africans can teach and preach for themselves.

That year he took John Chilembwe to America to study for the ministry. Chilembwe was an eager pupil, fervent in his devotions and keen to preach the Word. Who better to prove Booth’s point?

He would now experience life as an African in Lynchburg, Virginia.


Their destination was the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. En route to Lynchburg, the aspiring minister soon learned that “negroes” – or the much cruder word in common use – couldn’t share train carriages with whites. His ship-berths were always less commodious than those available to white passengers. Most hotels and restaurants were off-limits to him. Booth could sit inside a horse-drawn carriage, but the white passengers insisted Chilembwe sit outside with the driver. And on American streets he had to step aside for white pedestrians.

Everything conflicted with Booth’s sermons about everyone being equal before God. Lengthy discussions ensued about this.

The seminary’s principal was a black man, Gregory Hayes. People addressing Hayes as “Sir” impressed Chilembwe. During his Lynchburg years the African saw ordinary black Americans wearing shoes, partaking of the cash economy, using cutlery and reading newspapers. True, as residents of Virginia they couldn’t vote, but in many respects they lived just like many whites.

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Chilembwe pondered all this. Africans should be able to live such lives, he thought. But we go barefoot and fear white civilization. Why?

Along with theology he devoured books by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He learned about the anti-slavery activist, John Brown. And Chilembwe probably encountered something by young W.E.B. Du Bois, who urged black Americans to embrace their African heritage.

The rebel’s on the left

Ideas swirled in this newly ordained minister’s mind as he returned to Nyasaland in 1900. There he “laboured amongst [his] benighted race” and started the Providence Industrial Mission. Its purpose was to foster hard work, self-respect and self-sufficiency among the natives. Joseph Booth – all thoughts of Matthew 19:21 now forgotten – sent encouraging words from South Africa, America and Britain. Booth had become a semi-nomad, exiled from Nyasaland. He embraced new sects like other men embraced new mistresses.

By 1912 Chilembwe managed a network of mission schools. He’d also become a strident critic of Nyasaland’s plantation owners. They cheated their native workers of their paltry wages. Arguing with the white plantocracy was pointless: the white man’s word always prevailed. The owners imported wretchedly poor blacks from Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). Britain’s Colonial Office described their wages as “the lowest in settled Africa”.

Chilembwe paid the nearby Bruce Plantation – and its savage overseer William Livingstone – particular attention. Mutual animosity developed. Alexander Bruce declared education wasted on Africans and this upstart preacher a menace to decent society. Chilembwe’s chapels on Bruce’s land tended to burn down.

Meanwhile, the mission’s American sponsors stopped sending money. Chilembwe’s other income – hunting elephants for ivory – evaporated when his gun permit was revoked without explanation. His daughter died. His eyesight and asthma worsened. He owed money. 1914 was grim. Then, to cap a perfect year, the Great War came to Africa.

Soldiers and pack animals


During the Great War (1914-1918), Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal had a tacit agreement about this being a white man’s war and about keeping their African colonies out of the fight. It lasted barely a week.

German East Africa – Tanzania – became a war zone. British troops arrived from India. Europe’s African colonies mobilized for total war.

Each colony transformed its local Africans into expendable beasts of burden. Their pay and conditions were lamentable. Mortality rates were scandalous.

Chilembwe watched helplessly as British-led patrols dragged men and boys from their villages. He contemplated the Book of Daniel, contemplated justice and deliverance and imagined the mighty being brought to their knees. He also contemplated Elliot Kamwana’s prophecies.

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Nyasaland’s somewhere in there

Elliot Kamwana was slightly younger than Chilembwe and was also a Booth acolyte. He’d left the United Free Church of Scotland, deciding it wasn’t so free when it charged fees he couldn’t afford and denied him ordination.

Kamwana became a hospital attendant and preacher in South Africa. Booth –  now in a seesawing relationship with the Watch Tower movement (the Jehovah’s Witnesses) – mentored him. Kamwana took Booth’s anti-colonial and egalitarian ethos back to Nyasaland in 1908.

People still remembered Nyasaland’s recent earthquake, portending the Apocalypse. Kamwana incorporated this into his sermons and mass baptisms. The end is nigh, he proclaimed. Repent! Walk the straight and narrow.

“Jolly good,” said the colonial government. “This Kamwana fellow’s fire-and-brimstone sermons will keep the natives from mischief, what?” But when he preached that all authority except Christ’s would soon end, they exiled him. Kamwana bounced around southern Africa before returning to Nyasaland. Meteor showers – another sign of the approaching Apocalypse – accompanied his return. It’s due in October 1914, he confidently predicted. This white man’s war clearly foreshadowed that.

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This is the end

November came and Kamwana went. His disciples flocked to John Chilembwe, their new champion for Africans’ rights. His incendiary sermons overflowed with Old Testament imagery about slavery and woe. In Nyasaland are we not like the Israelites of old, a captive people made to suffer?

Chilembwe avoided racist rhetoric. He thanked God for his Christian education. He hoped to see his “benighted race” become like black Americans: regular churchgoers partaking of white civilization like the “coloreds” back in Lynchburg.

In fact, if you could time-travel to 1914, dress appropriately and converse with Chilembwe, you’d best not disparage Christianity.

You: “You know, Reverend, before the white men came to Nyasaland, they had the bible and the natives had the land. Now the natives have the bible and the white men have the land.”

ChilembweHow dare you say that, sir! Would you deny my benighted people the Word of God and the chance of salvation? Colonial rule is to be deplored. But for all its inequities it has at least opened our eyes to … etc.

He had no wish to return to pre-colonial idolatry. He merely wanted equal rights for his people. And, as the war intensified, so did his protests.

Chilembwe wrote to The Nyasaland Times (probably the first African to do so):

As I hear that, [sic] war has broken out between you and other nations, only whitemen [sic], I request you therefore not to recruit more of my countrymen, my brothers who do not know the cause of your fight, who indeed, have nothing to do with it.

…It is better to recruit white planters, traders, missionaries and other white settlers who are indeed of much value and who also know the cause of this war and have something to do with it…

The newspaper ignored the letter but alerted the authorities. They discussed exiling such troublemakers to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. But Chilembwe’s patience was exhausted. If the British wouldn’t listen to arguments, they’d listen to gunfire.

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Plantation life was preferable

                       4. THE REVOLT

Gunfire. That meant a bloody insurrection.

Chilembwe studied a military manual and secretly trained his unarmed followers in rudimentary soldiering. A minister in northern Nyasaland agreed to split the whites’ reaction by having his own parishioners revolt once word arrived that the south was in rebellion.

But a Judas among Chilembwe’s disciples warned the authorities twice of this plan. He also warned a white Catholic priest who openly disliked Chilembwe. They all ignored him.

John Chilembwe chose Saturday, January 23rd, 1915. His final speech mixed frank realism with optimism.

He understood colonial rule, he said, and he knew their chances of success were slim. Whoever survived would almost certainly die in the inevitable reprisals. And hiding out in this poverty-stricken land – where peasants would readily tip off the authorities for a mere sack of flour – was suicidal.

Some survivors may reach Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), but both territories’ border patrols would be on high alert for fugitives.

Even so, he urged determination. A copy of his speech survives. Like his letter to the newspaper, it displayed his loose grip on punctuation and idioms. It said in part:

This is the only way to show the whitemen, that the treatment they are treating our men and women was most bad and we have determined to strike a first and a last blow and then we will all die by the heavy storm of the whiteman’s army. The whitemen will then think, after we are dead, that the treatment they are treating our people is bad, and they might change to the better for our people.

Chilembwe divided his forces in three:

  • Some would raid the Blantyre arsenal, stealing weapons for a killing spree.
  • Others would raid the notorious Bruce Plantation – and the overseer Livingstone’s home – and exact revenge for years of cruelty.
  • A few would carry a letter to German East Africa (Tanzania) which said something like: Now, Nyasaland is in revolt by we natives. This revolt is due to the terrible treatment we are treated. We beg you to strike while the iron is hot and to smite a mighty blow to the British in Nyasaland.

Chilembwe failed to grasp that couriers on foot would take ages to reach German territory. And a German invasion would take ages to prepare. In any case, the letter never arrived. The couriers were arrested trekking through neutral Portuguese territory.

To grab the whitemen‘s attention

After cutting the telephone lines, 100 rebels raided the arsenal. But its well-armed guards repulsed Chilembwe’s followers, who withdrew with only five rifles and ammunition.

At the Bruce Plantation insurgents stormed the sadistic overseer’s home. The Livingstones were at dinner when they attacked. Livingstone was wounded. As his wife bound his wounds they kidnapped her and beheaded him.

They speared another European nearby, found two rifles and captured more white women and children. But instead of keeping them as bargaining chips, they released them.

Meanwhile a Chilembwe lieutenant, Jonathan Chigwinya, led a raid on the plantation-controlled village of Mwanje. They speared a white manager in his bed. John and Charlotte Robertson escaped and raised the alarm as their African servant died defending them.

Where was John Chilembwe during this? At Providence Industrial Mission, deep in prayer. He’d delegated tactical leadership to David Kaduya, formerly of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). Chilembwe thanked the Almighty when his people brought him Livingstone’s head.

He conducted the Sunday service with Livingstone’s head on the altar.

Chilembwe was satisfied with Day One, despite the shortage of rifles. Then came bad news. He’d expected the news of this revolt to spread like wildfire and inspire similar uprisings. But they quickly fizzled out. And that upcountry preacher’s diversionary rebellion never happened.

Meanwhile the all-white Volunteer Reserve and native troops attacked Chilembwe’s mission, inflicting 20 casualties before withdrawing. The rebels combined sectarian animus with racial violence by torching a nearby Catholic mission, wounding its white priest.

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Punishment for the  papists

During that fire the Volunteer Reserve-KAR stormed the Providence Industrial Mission again. To their astonishment it was completely undefended.

Chilembwe’s nerve failed. Outnumbered and bereft of support, he aborted the uprising. Everyone fled – mostly without success – disguised as peasants. David Kaduya was the first to be captured and executed.

John Chilembwe was now Public Enemy #1, wanted dead or alive. The authorities combed the land. But first they dynamited the Providence Industrial Mission to show they meant business.

Chilembwe evaded capture for seven days. Then, almost within sight of Portuguese territory, a police patrol cornered him and opened fire.

Only about 30 escaped arrest. The British imprisoned 300 insurgents. They hanged 40 more.

The dynamited mission

              5. THE AFTERMATH

When the dust settled the British applied sledgehammer justice.

They burned the rebels’ homes plus the homes of people unconnected with the revolt pour encourager les autres.

Then they:

  • fined the area’s residents – including non-participants – 4 shillings, a hefty sum;
  • confiscated all weapons;
  • banned all public gatherings;
  • imposed draconian restrictions on African-run churches; and
  • introduced preferential treatment for the Yao tribe. The Muslim Yao shunned the uprising. Not because they loved colonial rule, but because of Chilembwe’s Christianity-coated message.

The Commission of Inquiry found that the Bruce Plantation’s management wanton cruelty engendered widespread bitterness culminating in insurrection. It singled out the late William Livingstone for particular criticism. The openly racist owner Alexander Bruce remained unpunished.

An investigation discovered earlier statements made by Joseph Booth predicting the end of European rule in Africa by 1914. The colonies, he wrote, would become independent democratic nations united with black Americans. The Commission stated that considerable blame attached to Booth for filling African heads with dangerous nonsense.

The Commission recommended a few cosmetic policy changes. The rebels remained under police surveillance long after their release. And as the years rolled by Chilembwe’s legend increased, as did academic analysis of the revolt.

Was he a race-based nationalist? Or a hopeless fantasist? Did his final speech demand martyrdom? Was the insurrection doomed because his urban, Christian, literate followers could never inspire Nyasaland’s rural, animist, tribal majority?

No single explanation will suffice. However, as the century progressed, the Chilembwe saga sustained dreams of self-rule. Independence – along with the name Malawi – came in 1964. The fledgling nation soon degenerated into a Christian North Korea whose obsessively puritanical dictator maintained an iron grip on power and fostered a personality cult.

But Malawi’s “lost decades” under the friend to apartheid-era South Africa (and Latin enthusiast) His Excellency the Life President, the Chief of Chiefs Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda is another story.

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President Hastings Banda at XCV years old 

                            THE  END




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Japan’s student protest movement around 1970 made American anti-war demonstrations look like picnics in the park.

         1.  THE SNOW MURDERER



         4.  THE RULES OF THE GAME

         5.  THE TOWER

         6.  TIME WAITS FOR NO ONE



  Image result for Hiroko Nagata photos

One look at Hiroko Nagata and you know there’s trouble.

She wasn’t your average murderer. When the Japanese police finally caught her in February 1972 she’d participated in 14 homicides. All but two of her victims – including a heavily pregnant woman – were fellow members of the terrorist group Rengo Sekigun,  “the United Red Army” (URA). It had a particularly ambitious revolutionary agenda for a group with barely 30 members, all sleeping on the floor of a single-stove alpine cabin.

The Japanese media branded Hiroko Nagata a she-devil. In the aftermath of  “the snow murders” every Japanese criminologist, psychologist and talking head dissected her psyche. She’d led the group alongside the glib, dictatorial Tsuneo Mori. During police interrogation both were secretive about their relationship. They had every right to be.

This is the story of how the tumultuous student protest movement in the 1960’s-early 1970’s turned Japanese universities and cities into war zones. We’ll see how the protest movement’s attempts to foment a class war:

alienated the very people it claimed to champion, and

unwittingly started a chain of events leading to one of its main group’s – the United Red Army‘s – self-destructive homicides and

how a snowball effect led to the URA’s final traumatic shoot-out with 1,000 police.

We’ll also see how the group was indirectly responsible for a terrorist outrage which even rocked the Middle East.



Japan’s post-1945 generation grew up in a vastly different society from what their parents knew. Democracy filled the air. The emperor was a living god no more. The old militaristic ethos was dead. And at long last the Japanese parliament had an actual political spectrum. In fact – who would have imagined it? – some parliamentarians even belonged to the Japan Communist Party, the JCP.

Few Japanese aspired to live in a Soviet-style dictatorship, but only the communists had resisted Japan’s rampant militarism. For that they’d rotted in military prisons. When the 2nd World War ended thousands of half-starved JCP comrades emerged from their dungeons, blinking in the sunlight and scratching their lice.

They saw the pendulum had swung and they got straight to work. And as Japan’s dispirited troops returned to their devastated homeland, these newly freed communists rammed home the message: Why didn’t you all listen to us when you had the chance?

The prewar leadership was now discredited. The Left took the moral high ground and had the upper hand. America’s supremo in Occupied Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, was no friend of the Lefties, but he was committed to warts-and-all democracy. So the communists were free to organize and evangelize.

Waving the red flag in factories remained important, but universities became the JCP’s happy hunting grounds. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, they declared, and the young have fertile minds. Universities – dilapidated and bomb damaged – hummed with leftist activity. Students with vivid memories of the war flocked to on-campus Marxist study groups to make a brighter world. And they learned to sing the communist anthem The Internationale in Japanese.

The JCP was there every step of the way. Wasting no time, Communist agents cultivated the newly formed “All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Governing Associations“. Its abbreviated Japanese name was Zengakuren. Soon young Marxists dominated Zengakuren‘s leadership.

As the Cold War intensified the Zengakuren-JCP bond tightened. Angered by the government’s crackdowns on the Communist Menace, 20,000 members stormed the emperor’s palace, precipitating the 1952 protest campaign. Zengakuren used molotov-cocktails and threw ammonia into the riot cops’ faces.

But in 1958 the hitherto solid JCP-Zengakuren alliance cracked over doctrinal differences. The students severed the bond. The old-school JCP communists and the young university firebrands became bitter rivals.

kakukyodo japan revolutionary communist league chukakuha

Flying the red flag

By the 1960’s things were coming to a head. The booming economy needed university graduates. But how were students supposed to gain meaningful educations in cramped dilapidated lecture halls and ramshackle labs?

Why were universities run by Dean Kickback and Professor Under-The-Table?

Why were lectures delivered by Associate Professor Thinking-About-Ways-To-Improve-My-Teaching-Would-Just-Be-A-Waste-Of-Precious-Milliseconds?

Q: Why do Japanese professors hold teaching in such contempt?

A: Because it interferes with getting published and waging faculty power struggles.

Soon the undergraduates’ frustration reached boiling point.

Their frustration wasn’t merely about abysmal campus infrastructure, professorial indifference, exorbitant tuition fees, administrative inertia and built-in corruption. Japan’s servile attitude to Uncle Sam during the recent security treaty negotiations was on everyone’s mind. The prime minister’s eagerness to negotiate away Japan’s rights as a sovereign nation enraged both leftists and nationalists. Now, in 1960, their fury took a dramatic turn.

In June Zengakuren students and their allies stormed the parliament. One of the 5,000 riot police killed a 22-year-old female student, Zengakuren‘s first martyr. 300,000 protesters then surrounded the parliament building.

Now came a momentous shift. Zengakuren‘s radicals  had long expressed outrage that their compatriots tolerated such political leadership. Now they asked how people could tolerate such a corrupt political system. Every radical (“rad”) agreed: revolution was the only solution. But then the movement splintered into a bewildering forest of factions. Everybody proclaimed the need for revolution. The big question was What kind of revolution? From the 1960’s into the early 1970’s this question fueled countless impassioned debates. And lots of violence.




The summer of 1969.

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Just over a year earlier the streets of Paris heaved with students and workers, teachers and truckers, plumbers and poets waving banners and chanting revolutionary slogans. 11,000,000 workers went on strike. France was on its knees. But then the flame of the May ’68 Revolution spluttered. In June’s election the conservatives gained a solid mandate, and when the dust settled it was like May had never happened.

There were obvious lessons in this, but they bounced off the heads of Japan’s radical students. Meanwhile, their campuses remained woefully unhappy, overcrowded institutions whose professors remained uncontaminated by concern for their students.

With a few praiseworthy exceptions a typical Japanese university was administered by President Under-the-table and Dean Kickback. You were “taught” by Professor Ivory-Tower and his assistant, Professor Thinking-About-Ways-To-Improve-My-Lectures-Would-Just-Be-A-Waste-Of-Precious-Milliseconds.

Desperately needed student housing was still being demolished and the vacant blocks sold to real estate pirates. But … what differentiated 1960 from 1969 were (a) the Vietnam War and (b) all the left-wing factions.

The May ’68 demonstrators protested the Vietnam War – as if Washington gave a hoot what the Frenchies thought – but they also protested underfunded universities, outdated teaching methods, government arrogance and bureaucratic sloth. This resonated with Japan’s students. Even so, France was a world away from Indochina. The Vietnam War was on Japan’s doorstep. American air and naval units in Japan and Okinawa routinely launched attacks on Vietnam.

Students nationwide condemned their craven government’s willingness to make Japan a cog in Uncle Sam’s war machine. The Japanese Left was divided on everything except Vietnam. On that it stood firmly united.

Some preached worldwide revolution. Some wanted to smash Japan’s alliance with America (like Hiroka Nagata’s group, emerging that year). Or smash capitalism and the consumer culture.  


Magnum Photos

The Revolution starts here!

Visit any major Japanese campus in 1969 and you couldn’t miss the spectrum of opinions – except on the Vietnam issue – everywhere you looked. It would be a jungle of political consciousness groups, revolutionary brigades, revolutionary fronts, revolutionary corps, revolutionary armies, revolutionary alliances, revolutionary councils, solidarity committees and action groups. Everyone was anti-this / pro-that. Everyone was an -ist or an -ite.

If the factions ever considered setting aside doctrinal differences for the benefit of a greater cause, they never acted on it. Quite the opposite. This brigade denounced that council as scum and capitalist stooges. This front scorned that alliance for being maggots and imperialist lackeys. This solidarity committee had utter contempt for the fascist cockroaches in that corps.

When they weren’t demonstrating against the Vietnam War, the U.S-Japan alliance, America’s occupation of Okinawa or the constipated university system, on-campus radical leftist groups could usually be found drowning out rival factions’ rallies with megaphones, erasing their rivals’ graffiti and storming their offices. And much worse.

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Another schism in their -ism


Demonstration.  What images come to mind?

21st-century demonstrations usually involve chants like:





Whereas we imagine Japan – especially in bygone decades – as a constrained, polite and orderly society producing protest chants like:





However, a typical Japanese student protest around 1970 was like this 1-minute-and-16 -second video (no sound):

And like this 2-minute video (also soundless):

Incidentally, the woman being arrested in the second video’s 1 minute 27 second mark was Fusako (The Red Queen) Shigenobu. She’ll figure prominently in part 2.

The inevitable questions here include: How did these student radicals organize themselves? What was with all those helmets, towels and sticks? And those weird conga lines of protesters snaking through the streets? And how did the police deal with all this?


White helmets, red helmets, white helmets with a red stripe, yellow helmets. Each signified something. Yellow helmeted protesters were with:

  • the JCP (Communist Party). They had the numbers and the funding. But they avoided heavy violence, so lacked the obvious oomph of:
  • the Kakumaru (Revolutionary Marxists): white helmets with a red stripe and big Z. They were the well-coordinated ex-partners of, and therefore the implacably bitter enemies of:
  • the Marugakudo Chûkaku-ha (Marxist Student League Central Core Faction): white helmets with 中核 (Chûkaku Central Core”) emblazoned on them. This was the radical fringe’s radical fringe. Chûkaku-ha wanted to make every other group look about as revolutionary as boiled cabbage and about as violent as the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Or:
  • the Shagakudo: red helmets with 社学同 (Socialist Student League) on the front. They adored the May ’68 French protesters, and were respected for the sheer professionalism of their street barricades, if nothing else. Or the group which we’ll get to know well in part 2:
  • Sekigun-ha, or the Red Army Faction (red helmets emblazoned with 赤軍派 [“Red Army Faction”]). Originating in western Japan it started bombing police stations and robbing banks. It perpetrated Japan’s first airplane hijacking. Their mission? To “Escalate the Present Struggle into Armed Revolution”. They claimed to be soldiers in a war to the death.
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Uchigeba in its clearest form


The implacable doctrinal conflicts among rival factions – uchigeba didn’t merely manifest in shouting matches and erasing each others’ graffiti. Like the Germanic tribes engulfing the Late Roman Empire, the various on-campus factions would just as soon fight each other as fight their common enemy. Convinced of their own ideological purity and every other faction’s criminal betrayal of revolutionary ideals, each faction felt obliged to destroy the others.

Uchigeba took several forms. The factions conducted brutal midnight “liberation” raids on rival groups’ on-campus offices, brawled and hurled bricks through windows. They kidnapped “enemies of the Revolution” (other factions’ members), slapped them around and released them. But from 1970 the Kakumaru vs Chûkaku-ha enmity escalated into torture and murder. More on this in Part 2.

The police rarely intervened unless a university requested. They were happy to see the “rads” at each others’ throats instead of turning the streets into war zones.


zengakuren japan radical politics riot demo

Say hello to my gebabo

Demonstrators wore towels soaked in water or lemon juice over their noses for protection against teargas. They wielded sticks called gebabô. That name combined gebaruto, the Japanese pronunciation of the German noun Gewalt (“force”) and bô (stick). Some gebabô had iron tips or nails.

At street demonstrations they linked arms (making individual arrests more difficult), forming lines several protesters abreast. Chanting slogans, they zig-zagged towards the police lines.

Each “snake line” followed its line master, a guy at the front. Like a traffic cop he blew a whistle to direct the line. He set the rhythm. He watched out for photographers and TV cameras, directing the line for optimum media exposure.

The hypnotic chanting and rhythmic movements mesmerized the protesters. As if to break the spell, the line master sounded a signal and the protesters immediately formed a phalanx. Everyone raised their gebabô and charged at the riot cops. The police reaction varied. Sometimes they’d suddenly open their ranks and let the students through. The cops would then close ranks, sandwiching the students before letting them have it with their truncheons.

The police preferred meeting massed charges with water cannons (sometimes spiked with eye irritants), but the narrow streets of typical Japanese cities sometimes prevented that. Some water cannons sprayed dyed water so the “rads” at the forefront of the charges became clearly identifiable and arrestable.

These massed charges traditionally put the youngest students in the vanguard. Teenagers were mostly inexperienced, so readily accepted the risks that experienced protesters had learned to avoid. They’d act more aggressively in order prove themselves. Plus – and this was the clincher – they weren’t yet 20 years old. Under Japanese law they were minors, meaning they’d receive more leniency from the courts. They might be let off with having to issue an apology (Ha!) or with a warning (Ha ha!). Or a small fine, paid by the group’s emergency funds.

Japanese anarchists with good-looking praxis : COMPLETEANARCHY

Testosterone drove these protests. Even the most ardent female radicals were limited to support roles away from the main action. During lulls in the protests, “the girls” brewed the tea, solicited donations at subway exits, rolled bandages, emptied the ashtrays, made posters, distributed pamphlets, emptied more ashtrays……

Older, more experienced protesters usually got molotov-cocktail or rock-throwing assignments. As the police absorbed gebabô charges the radicals’ rear-guard maintained a furious barrage of missiles. While dealing with massed charges and hand-to-hand fighting, the cops faced more fire and rocks (with some protesters hit by friendly fire). Teargas was the normal response if water cannons weren’t available. On good days they could combine both.

Demonstrations occasionally targeted people. President Eisenhower’s Press Secretary’s visit in 1960 met such violent protests that he feared for his life. An American helicopter whisked him to safety. Some “attacks” were laughable. In Tokyo in 1969 a student radical penetrated the police cordon and tried to stab U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers with a sharp pencil. Rogers was unharmed. The attacker targeted the wrong guy.

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No little umbrella in this cocktail


The riot police were Japanese law-enforcement’s elite, numbering 29,000 by 1969. Applicants passed rigorous psychological and physical tests before training intensively for urban warfare. Most were officially limited to only a few years as riot cops before reassignments to safer duties. This was to prevent burnout from the stress, the injuries and all the adrenaline.

It was an exciting, prestigious and well-paid part of their career, despite the constant criticism. The police always over-react, one media outlet or politician would declare. No, they’re far too lenient insisted another. The students are merely exercising their democratic rights, you fascist thugs, cried the Left. Crack more skulls and make more arrests! demanded the Right.

In any case, the riot police were not above raiding hospital wards after a street battle and beating injured radicals in their beds.

    5. THE TOWER

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It just kept escalating

                                            Ask any Japanese person who remembers the Tokyo University (TôDai) Siege of 1968-69 and you’ll get a reaction. The final assault by thousands of riot police on Japan’s most prestigious university was televised nationwide. Many old-timers can recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. This was the turning point in the nation’s student protest movement.

It started in 1968 when senior medical students politely protested unwelcome changes to their training regimen. The outraged administration’s heavy-handed response forced a confrontation. Both sides dug in. The lukewarm support they’d received until then – these were medical students, after all – now intensified. By July most of TôDai was on strike.

Tokyo University’s administrators were trapped. The med students’ demands weren’t unreasonable, but Tôdai couldn’t lose face by backing down.  The campus was now in virtual paralysis. That year’s students couldn’t be promoted. The entrance exams for the Spring 1969 intake were scrapped. By October every department had shut down. And about 20 other universities had “solidarity rebellions” supporting TôDai’s protesters.

Meanwhile, “rads” occupied Yasuda Auditorium, the 9-story edifice dominating the campus. Riot police evicted them. The students then coordinated their resistance. And before you could say The Revolution starts here they’d retaken Yasuda Auditorium.

By the end of 1968 a partial accommodation was within reach. But the factions occupying Yasuda Auditorium started fighting each other as well as the police. They sometimes took time off from uchigeba to “arrest” professors and publicly interrogate them over blaring loudspeakers, like the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution. One professor endured nine straight days of this.

Actions: louder than words

 The cops were in a bind. TôDai needed them to restore order.  Yet unresolved legal questions about police jurisdiction and university autonomy muddied the waters. The administration faced censure for involving the cops in the first place. But by now this had dragged on long enough, and something had to give. Tokyo University had become Tokyo Jungle.

In mid-January 1969 the media reported the police were preparing an all-out assault to dislodge the rads from Yasuda Auditorium. 8,500 police assembled. Students on nearby campuses tried to divert the police with impromptu riots. The cops ignored them and zeroed in on Tôdai.

All the various factions in the auditorium put uchigeba on temporary hold and coalesced against the common enemy. All except Kakumaru (white helmets with red stripes). Kakumaru made a complete withdrawal so it could live to fight another day. (This added immeasurably to the hatred Chûkaku-ha – white helmets with the characters for “Central Core” – already bore its bitter rival.)

Allies on the ground helped the holdouts stockpile molotov-cocktails, rocks, bottles of acid, bricks and whatever they could scrounge at short notice. They’d long ago rained all the desks, tables, bookshelves and doorknobs down on whoever was blaring demands that they put an end to this nonsense, stop this fiasco and come down this very instant. The final showdown loomed.


This teargas should do the trick

The police had shields, clubs and 10,000 teargas grenades. They cut off the auditorium’s water, gas and electricity. Helicopters dumped freezing water onto the students while enormous water cannons blasted the auditorium from below. Evening news reports televised ghostly images of the students hurling flaming bottles over the ramparts, creating arcs of sparks in the night sky.

On the second day red, waterlogged flags still adorned the tower. The police continued the water attacks from above and below. The students maintained their avalanche of bricks and molotov-cocktails. But the cops made headway, advancing floor by floor, squeezing the radicals into the building’s top floor where escape was impossible.

On Day 3, as the non-stop nationwide TV coverage transfixed Japan, the students ran out of both missiles and options. A few flung their own shit at the police with improvised catapults. But despite their hopeless position they resolved to go down fighting. They grabbed their gebabô, soaked their anti-teargas towels in water – there was no shortage of that – and set themselves for the final onslaught.

Wave after overwhelming wave of elite cops raided the top floor. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The police prevailed. What remained of Yasuda Auditorium reverted to university control.

The police commander then made an astonishing gesture.

He later admitted he was not without sympathy for their grievances, but he’d had a job to do. He praised the students’ courage and spirited determination.

That was why, when the last gebabo hit the floor and the last “rad” surrendered, he told his men to stand back.

Stand back, he ordered, and let them get cleaned up and sort themselves out. His panting, sweating, bleeding front-line cops obeyed. Those students who were still ambulatory assembled and linked arms. They then stood erect, linked arms and belted out a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Hands on their heads, they marched proudly down the stairs – each according to his faction – to be handcuffed and stuffed into paddy wagons.

The Todai Riots: 1968-69 | Deep reads from The Japan Times


But 1969 brought changes. Public support waned. People muttered: Sure we denounce the Vietnam War. And sure we wish for Okinawa’s rightful return. And sure we want Japan and Okinawa out from under Uncle Sam’s thumb. But why all this chaos? All this disruption to everyday life for us ordinary folks? So much teargas and violence on the streets? Over 500 arrests a month in 1968! Anyway, aren’t students sometimes supposed to, you know, study?

The more perceptive radicals sensed the decline. Apart from America agreeing to return Okinawa on absurdly lopsided terms, there was nothing to show for all their efforts. The Yankee war machine still attacked Vietnam from bases in Japan/Okinawa and capitalism was still firmly entrenched. The Revolution seemed as remote as ever. The movement had degenerated into a ritualistic slugfest between two boxers on autopilot. Greater public support was essential.


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Nothing to see here

Public support? Perhaps the unions…?  Sorry, kids. This isn’t the 1950’s.

Stirring newsreel images of French students and workers marching arm-in-arm served to reinforce the message: Japan’s protest movement was stuck. The unions stayed aloof. Their interests no longer overlapped with those of the radicals. The urban proletariat showed little enthusiasm. The farmers cared more about soy beans than social issues. A few high school hotheads were keen, but so what?

More bad news: the police had informants in the movement. They weren’t undercover cops. The nagging question was: Who knew what really went down when the cops secretly interrogated some rads then very kindly released them back into the movement?

The obvious answer was recruitment by blackmail.

Police raids on radical hideouts were sharpening up. Five simultaneous raids from Tokyo to Osaka on one September night in 1969! And 21 arrests! At the October 21st Anti-War Day protest the cops knew where some leaders would be even before some members of their own organizations knew.

More key arrests made, more dark suspicions raised.

But the police had their own looming problem. Those September raids netted not only key radicals, but chemicals. Chemicals for making explosives, said the lab reports. A collective groan filled the National Police Agency.

A new development had emerged. The recent increase in molotov-cocktail attacks on police stations signified a major change in tactics. Some radicals were evolving from battling the riot police to hit-and-run fire-bomb attacks on selected targets. They were old hands with those molotov-cocktails. But were the rads now planning to bomb their way to victory?

                                                         CONTINUED  IN  PART  2



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Japan’s student protest movement around 1970 became increasingly violent and morphed into something far more sinister.




     4.  THE MERGER



    7.  NOW WE ARE FIVE…



    10. DREAMS OF ’68


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                                                                            Bombs? asked Takaya Shiomi, dropping ashes from his cigarette. We’re absolutely going to use bombs!

That’s what the National Police Agency would’ve heard Shiomi declare in late 1969 if they’d been able to bug his conversations. This ex-philosophy major at Kyoto University founded the notorious Red Army Faction (RAF) that summer.

The RAF’s “parent” was the Communist League, known by its German nickname Bund (“Federation”). Bund was itself an offshoot of the mainstream Japan Communist Party.

You’re all talk and no action. We’re out of here! snarled Bund as they stormed out of the Communist Party in 1958. Which was what Shiomi’s people snarled when they stormed out of Bund in 1969.

Action? Shiomi asked, dropping ashes from his cigarette. The Red Army Faction is all action! We’re an army, unlike those Bund wankers. He challenged convention by forging loose alliances with like-minded organizations. He engineered mergers, always on his terms. He even attempted a trans-Pacific alliance with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), but his timing was off. And he foresaw a road paved with bombs leading to victory in the class war.

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Later “The Weather Underground”

The traditionalists deplored Shiomi’s ecumenism. He called them dinosaurs. Comrades! We all want to hasten the Revolution. It hasn’t started in Japan (yet). But it has in Cuba and China. If we’re shoulder to shoulder with them, we share their victories and bring the World Revolution closer. Right?

Next, he addressed the RAF’s demographics. We have too many university boys. Bring in the workers! And the women. But no philandering. Remember our mission: to detonate bombs and hasten the Revolution through armed struggle.

We’re soldiers, Shiomi reminded them, dropping ashes from his cigarette. Soldiers kill. 

His followers with fire in their eyes yearned to hear this. Soon the Red Army Faction had 150 core “soldiers” and hundreds of non-core supporters nationwide. Many were young. So young that the RAF’s alpine bomb-assembly camp had a 15-year-old trainee. Eight were still in high school.

We know this because one or two youngsters simply had to tell a trusted friend: This is TOP TOP TOP SECRET so don’t breathe a word, but I’m going to Daibosatsutôge in early November to learn how to make bombs! Then some of us head to Tokyo and blow up the Prime Minister’s Residence! And start the World Revolution! 

The police pounced and made 53 arrests.

Well, said Shiomi, dropping ashes from his cigarette, let’s work on the next plan.

The RAF’s rank-and-file continued their bomb-assembly training. The senior members explored options. Meanwhile, most other radical groups stayed committed to charging the police lines and the tear gas, their gebabô held high. The RAF snorted derisively, like Flat Earthers watching a NASA documentary.

But Shiomi wasn’t destined to stay top dog. The cops nabbed him in March 1970. The arrest was a lucky fluke, a case of mistaken identity which played out beyond the cops’ wildest dreams. It came just days before his “next plan” was scheduled to take off.


Many years later, when Shiomi was an ex-convict working as a parking attendant, he described the Red Army Faction’s plan for Japan’s first hijacking as “a success which ended in failure”.

His nine-man team researched and rehearsed the hijacking of an airliner. They planned to wear conservative clothes to avoid attracting attention. Two were the RAF’s most senior members. The youngest was 16 years old. One was the bass guitarist for Japan’s top psychedelic band, Les Rallizes Dénudés.

They selected JL-351, a regular commercial flight from Tokyo to the southern city of Fukuoka on March 31st. In this era before x-ray checks and metal detectors they easily smuggled on knives and pipe bombs. The seven crew members and the other 113 passengers suspected nothing.

At cruising altitude the hijackers brandished their weapons and demanded to be flown to North Korea. When the captain regained his composure he explained the plane couldn’t reach the North Korean capital – Pyongyang – without refueling in Fukuoka. The hijackers mentally winced. Their planning hadn’t considered this. But they had no choice.

At Fukuoka 300 police – some disguised as Japan Airlines staff – plus journalists and airport officials surrounded the plane, buying time by claiming a stalled plane blocked the runway. They negotiated the passengers’ release, but 23 women, children and old people were all they could get. Then the stalled plane miraculously repaired itself and JL-351 took off for Pyongyang.

yodogo hijacking incident japan

Free to flee


When the plane landed 90 minutes later and the elated hijackers prepared to disembark they noticed something strange. Where were all the North Korean flags? And where were all the obligatory pictures of President Kim Il Sung?

Jl-351 had actually landed in Seoul.

At the subsequent official inquiry the crew testified their navigation directions had come from air traffic controllers claiming to be North Koreans. Only when they noticed all the incongruities did they discern they’d been deceived.

Japan’s Transportation Vice-Minister went to Seoul to take charge. He offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the remaining passengers. JL-351 had left Tokyo 79 hours earlier. Everyone was hungry, smelly and exhausted. They were out of cigarettes. The toilets overflowed. The hijackers agreed and the plane took off.

At Pyongyang Airport the North Koreans interrogated everyone separately. Then they provided showers, fresh clothes and a lavish banquet. They returned the plane, the crew and politician to Japan. Then the hijackers informed their hosts this hijacking was merely part of a much grander plan to reach Havana, where they planned to partake of Cuba’s revolutionary experience and learn valuable lessons to be applied in Japan. So how soon, please, can you arrange to fly us there?

Current circumstances present difficulties in this regard, said the North Koreans. What they left unsaid was: You’re not going anywhere. What are we, your travel agents? The hijackers received spacious apartments in Pyongyang. They twiddled their thumbs, convincing themselves they’d soon be in Cuba. But as the weeks became months, reality hit.

They were made to study Korean and work as translators and language teachers. Later some young Japanese women were lured to Pyongyang and forced to marry them. And there most of them grew old.


“Long live the decisive combative amity between the Korean and Cuban peoples!” (Translation by Charles M. Mueller)


Shiomi’s successor had hardly taken over when detectives arrested him on his way to his fiancée’s apartment. (His fiancée later became one of Hiroko Nagata‘s “snow murder” victims.) In his pocket they found detailed plans to kidnap an ambassador and trade him for Shiomi.

More arrests followed. The leadership now devolved onto Tsuneo Mori. A native of Osaka, he’d never had much luck. He missed out on the university of his choice. As a college student Mori adored a woman who was spreading around what he’d assumed was exclusively his. He became depressed and abandoned radicalism. He withdrew into himself. But a friend – one of the future hijackers – enticed him back into the radical fold.

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As a leader Mori unnerved subordinates during conversations with his “loud silences”. He defied the current fashion and kept his hair short, like a warrior-monk. He knew Shiomi’s claim about the Red Army Faction being all action was hyperbolic. Its loose organization meant each decision was up for debate and review. Mori wanted things to be conclusive, just like when he captained his junior high school’s kendô (Japanese fencing) team.

Listen, said Mori, we need to tighten up. Security nowadays is a joke.

“Given your predecessor’s carelessness, we agree.”

All this international stuff gets us nowhere. Shiomi’s worldwide plans are pointless. We need to focus on Japan.

“We have no objection.”

We need to tighten up and make bombs to kill imperialists. And rob banks for money to buy guns and smash the system. Smash it right here in Japan.

“Not so fast!” said 25-year-old Fusako Shigenobu, the woman being arrested in Part 1’s second protest video.

She was the daughter of a former Kempaitei (Japanese Gestapo) officer. The gossips claimed she worked as a hooker to raise money for the Radical Left. She’d actually worked part-time – among other jobs – for a soy sauce company and took university courses at night. In the testosterone world of left-wing extremism she stood out. Not just for her beauty, but for her reluctance to “play a woman’s role” and for her passionate devotion to the Revolution. Shigenobu cared deeply about the Palestinian situation and took issue with this new leader’s direction.

Mori always avoided direct contact with her. They spoke through messengers:

“Comrade Mori, the imperialists keep killing the Vietnamese and the Palestinians. So why don’t we kill the imperialists? Why do we target Japanese cops when the real enemies are in the Middle East and Vietnam?”

You want us to go to Vietnam!?

“No. I want to fight for our Palestinian comrades in the Middle East. And I’m sure other comrades will join me.”

Well, said Tsuneo Mori when other comrades volunteered, off you go then! Mori loathed this vexing woman. He was thinking about bank robberies and guns. Let Comrade Shigenobu’s team play with their Arab chums in the desert. We have serious business right here.

The Real-life Princess Leia - Japan Daily

The Red Queen

There was a snag.

Shigenobu’s police record would derail her passport application. But in that pre-computer age if she changed her name by marriage and immediately applied for a passport she could leave Japan before her rap sheet surfaced. An RAF member married her and in early 1971 they all left for Lebanon.

Their airy concept of a Red Army Faction (Middle East) branch didn’t survive contact with reality. How could they coordinate with Japan? By telegram? Shigenobu’s people were isolated in Lebanon. But that suited her, especially after hearing disturbing news from Japan that autumn of the RAF merging with a group she detested. (More on this soon.) So The Red Queen – her nickname referred to her fashion sense as well as her radicalism – embedded her people with Palestinian groups, cutting all notional RAF connections. Later she renamed them the Japanese Red Army (JRA).

The proto-JRA sent shockwaves in May 1972 when three of its members flew to Israel’s Lod Airport on fake passports. They whipped out Czech rifles and opened fire indiscriminately, killing 26 people and wounding 80. One attacker was Shigenobu’s husband. He and another were killed. The third, Kozo Okamoto – a former agriculture student – was wounded as he attempted to blow up a plane and himself with a grenade. He faced an Israeli court. They learned his brother was one of the Jl-351 hijackers. It must run in the family, they said.

Okamoto behaved outlandishly at his trial.

He wrote an official confession admitting total guilt but signed it with a false name. He claimed he’d converted to Christianity. When his lawyer noticed some uncertainty as to his client’s age which – with Okamoto’s youthful features – might suggest he was a minor, Okamoto immediately told the court he was 24. His most bizarre act was attempting a do-it-yourself circumcision in his prison cell using nail clippers.

Okamoto & Shigenobu (’72)

Okamoto walked free in a prisoner exchange 13 years later. He bounced around the Islamic world then settled in Lebanon. The Red Queen stayed in the region, engineering this hijacking and that embassy attack. She had a daughter, Mei (from the Japanese word kakumei, “revolution”), wrote books and granted interviews to Japanese journalists. She surreptitiously entered Japan after three decades among the Palestinians. But her cover was blown and she’s now behind bars. She has cancer.


Meanwhile, Tsuneo Mori turned the shrinking Red Army Faction into bank robbers. “Combat platoons” studied locations, security systems and getaways. Things prospered until a six-million-yen heist. That one really stood out. Not only for the amount but for the information it provided the cops.

Following every lead, they made arrests and recovered the money. But how, they asked, did a shotgun from a recent gunshop robbery committed by Hiroko Nagata‘s group, Keihin Ampo Kyoto (Tokyo-Yokohama Joint Struggle Group) get into RAF hands? Collaboration?

More than that. Mori’s crew had money but few weapons. Nagata’s group had guns but no money. The RAF’s swerve from worldwide revolution to eradicating Japanese capitalism overlapped with Keihin‘s principles. A merger would be mutually advantageous. So a merger was made.

Mori (26) and Nagata (27) were officially co-leaders. Hiroko Nagata downplayed her femininity. She comported herself as a revolutionary first, a woman second.

Nagata later told her police interrogators she was “a very sensitive person” whose move from studying pharmacology to embracing terrorism resulted from her “interest in society and how a person should live”. Never popular with the opposite sex, she was self-conscious about her looks. She had Graves’ Disease, causing her eyes to bulge and her voice to deepen. Nagata detested hot weather – another Graves’ symptom – and became irritable in the summer. She spurned cosmetics. “Being pretty,” she told her female followers, “just leads to bourgeois sentiments.”

She was the common-law wife of another member (who was himself already married with a baby), but there was little warmth there. We’ll hear about him later. Towards the end she announced she was “divorcing” him to “marry” Tsueno Mori, who also had a wife and baby. Nagata’s police interrogators showed a prurient interest in her dealings with men. They asked about a prison visit she’d made in late 1969 to a recently arrested Keihin radical. Why had she spoken so harshly to him? She said he’d once been her mentor in the gritty world of radical activism but had raped her earlier that year while his wife was away.

Hiroko Nagata | Photos | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers

Now, in mid-1971, Nagata merged her group with the Red Army Faction. This official union’s new name was the United Red Army (URA). She could bring valuable energy to the group after all the arrests and desertions. The RAF’s former alpha female was off in the sand dunes with the Palestinians, but here was a new one. Strong like a man, and with leadership experience. She’d fit right in. But first she had some unfinished business.


Hiroko Nagata hated deserters from the cause. Such human scum deserved death. In August 1971 she told Mori she planned to “take care of” two people who’d fled Keihin.

They were a nursing student and her clueless ex-boyfriend. Nagata’s guys kidnapped the woman, beat her senseless then strangled her. Earlier the ex-boyfriend had foolishly spoken of one day writing about his experiences with Keihin. A URA woman lured him into a trap. Nagata’s guys strangled and buried him near his ex-girlfriend.

These murders unsettled Mori. Not that he was squeamish about these matters. He’d once given such an order himself, but the guys he’d sent to kill a deserter showed weakness and spared her. Yet he noticed Nagata’s people always obeyed her orders to the letter. Mori sensed this made him look weak. His leadership may be imperiled. He needed to reassert his authority. This got him thinking.

Mori realized the URA’s unity was illusory. The ex-Keihin and the ex-RAF members rarely mingled. There were regional and social differences. You could tell by their accents. Unlike the RAF, Keihin had recruited many women. It marched to a different tune. He now decided to reinforce the group’s solidarity and ideological purity.

In December 1971 he ordered a temporary stop to the bombings of police stations. The URA would now enter a period of intense physical training, self-examination and stringent ideological preparation for the revolutionary struggle.

And he would cull the weakest members.


Mori rented an isolated cabin in the mountains. Attrition had reduced the URA to 19 men and 10 women. If there’d been any comedians among them they would have thought – but never uttered – We’re now the United Red Platoon.

It was the dead of winter. Overnight temperatures plunged to minus 20° Celsius. Mori had everyone (except a pregnant woman) run through the snow, hide behind rocks, scramble up hills, roll down hills, lob imaginary grenades and shoot imaginary cops while chanting revolutionary slogans and issuing bloodcurdling cries. They lived like Spartans, eating simple food and sleeping on the floor. There was only one wood-burning heater and no electricity or running water.

The rules were simple: no alcohol and no philandering. When they weren’t rehearsing the Revolution outdoors they were inside the cabin reading turgid revolutionary tracts under kerosene lamps.

Every day they underwent sôkatsu: self-criticism, confession and discussion. The purpose was ideological purification. Mori dictated the tone of these cultish sôkatsu sessions, but he artfully made the required terminology so vague that nobody was sure what they were confessing to or what constituted valid criticism. Anything could mean anything. Every sentence became a minefield. It was like playing a game whose rules were known only to the umpire.

United Red Army (Jitsuroku rengosekigun- asama sanso e no michi)

Say the wrong thing – but how did you know it was wrong? – and you’d be the target of a Mori tongue-lashing or Nagata’s kicks and slaps. The first fatality was a 21-year-old male named Mitsuo Ozaki. His revolutionary zeal had been found wanting. His punishment was to be “toughened up” by having a much stronger man beat him. Ozaki took the blows, then thanked Mori for the chance to prove himself. Mori interpreted this as bourgeois ingratiation and a sign of weakness. He ordered Ozaki to stand upright all night.

The next day – New Year’s Day 1972 – they beat him again then tied him to a post in the snow. Mori interrogated him and declared him still unworthy of URA membership. He needed another beating. That was the coup de grâce. Ozaki bit off his tongue as he expired.

This shocked the group. They’d only wanted to reform Ozaki, toughen him up, not kill him. The silver-tongued Mori absolved them, saying this was nobody’s fault. Ozaki brought death on himself by not measuring up to the required revolutionary standards. It was death by defeatism. He’d brought this on himself.

Nagata overheard one guy’s “inappropriate conversation” with a female member. He’d be the next fatality. She demanded his beating as a warning to the other males. The warning resulted in six broken ribs and a ruptured liver.

Kazuko Kojima was accused of having once divulged information to the police. Mori made her and a 22-year-old male Yoshitaka Katô (who’d murdered the deserters the previous summer) write self-critical essays. Late that night Kojima complained Katô was molesting her. Nagata decreed punishment for both: Katô for his alleged molestation and Kojima for providing temptation by sleeping nearby.

Katô’s two teenage brothers were ordered to beat him. They tied him and Kojima to posts outside the cabin. Katô repeatedly banged his own head on the post, claiming this would produce a stronger revolutionary mindset. But that revolutionary mindset never came: he and Kojima died of exposure.

And so it went, one pointless death after another. Nagata targeted Mieko Tôyama, the ex-fiancée of the RAF leader – Mori’s predecessor – who was arrested near her apartment. Nagata hated how Tôyama wore a ring and had blithely brushed her hair during a meeting. She accused Tôyama of sexual misconduct “while on duty” with Masatoki Namekata, a TôDai siege veteran. Nagata made Tôyama punch herself in the face for 30 minutes.

Namekata watched all this then broke down and confessed to having contemplated desertion. They broke his legs and tied him and Tôyama to posts in the snow, where they both froze to death overnight.

And so it went. It was now mid-January 1972. The group lynched one guy for confessing to sexual urges. Another was  lynched for not participating wholeheartedly in previous lynchings. Another committed suicide by deliberately angering Mori, then demanding immediate execution. The 8-month-pregnant woman, a 24-year-old Keihin veteran, was the URA’s cook, cleaner and treasurer. Mori suspected she had ideas above her station,  so she was the next to go. They discussed inducing her baby’s birth and raising it as a United Red Army child. But mother and baby died after her beating. Her husband was among her killers.

During all this some members braved the elements and escaped. The URA continued tearing itself apart. You protected yourself by attacking someone else. Find a reason, any reason. Beating or stabbing someone helped you vent your frustration and forget the secret fear that you might be the next one to get it.

Tissues inside a sleeping bag proved that one guy had masturbated. He was the next one to get it. And so it went.

Hiroko Nagata’s erstwhile husband’s loyalty had ensured his survival through this sôkatsu process. He was Hiroshi Sakaguchi. One mid-February morning Mori and Nagata left for a few days on business (which no doubt included comfortable accommodation). Before leaving they summoned Sakaguchi – No hard feelings about the “divorce”, comrade! – and ordered him to take charge of the URA’s remnants in their absence.

That same day Sakaguchi sensed the noose was tightening. Local people had reported a suspicious group of young city slickers – some with distinctive Osaka accents – in the area. Time to abandon the cabin and move to a nearby cave. He contacted Mori and Nagata at a pre-arranged phone number about this. Then everything went awry.


12 corpses, 12 faces


       7. NOW WE ARE FIVE…

Sakaguchi’s people headed for the cave. Then a newspaper article revealed their cabin had just been discovered. He decided the cave was too risky and they needed a safer hideout further away. But he didn’t notify Mori and Nagata, who still thought the cave was everybody’s destination.

On February 17th Mori and Nagata drove to the cave but encountered a policeman at a checkpoint. Mori smoothly explained he and the lady were part of a film crew going to a remote location to shoot scenes. The cop said This area’s off-limits. You’ll need to find an alternative route. The couple drove off, but soon returned to the area attempting to link up with Sakaguchi’s group, still unaware of the change in plan.

The same policeman from the checkpoint noticed their return and became suspicious. He called for backup. They cornered the couple. Nagata drew a knife and – being a “she-devil” – lunged at the nearest cop. Mori put up weak resistance. When the police found they’d nabbed the URA’s leaders they couldn’t believe their luck.

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The end of…

Hiroko Nagata | Photos | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers

…their affair

Hiroshi Sakaguchi was now the United Red Army’s leader. He just didn’t know it yet. Survival was now the sole concern. A group of nine was far too conspicuous. He ordered four of them to somehow escape independently. He would take a separate route with the remaining four.

After hasty goodbyes the first group trudged off through the snow. By morning they reached a local train station. A newsstand owner became suspicious and called the police: There are two men and two women – raggedy looking – on the platform. One of them approached her and bought newspapers and cigarettes. The cops swooped and arrested them.


The United Red Army was now Hiroshi Sakaguchi (25); Kunio Bando (25), a veteran RAF footsoldier; Yoshio Masakuni (26), a Keihin stalwart; and two teenagers, the surviving Katô brothers (whose oldest brother was an early “snow murder” victim) .

They found an isolated cottage. But a police helicopter spotted them. After a brief firefight they escaped and reached a three-story concrete tourist lodge called Asama Sanso built into the rugged mountainside. Here they’d make their do-or-die stand. It was February 19th, 1972.

The owner’s 31-year-old wife was alone. The URA stormed in, tied her up and checked every room in case she had company. They blocked every window and door with furniture, bedding, whatever they could find. They had food for about 10 days, a TV, a radio, four shotguns, a rifle, a revolver and abundant ammunition.

The police moved in and deployed snipers. But then Tokyo sent orders: Do nothing to endanger the hostage. Take the radicals alive repeat alive. Down came the snipers. Cops lined all approaches to the lodge. They kept the electricity, gas and water connected in case the hostage was still alive.

Two days later the police probed for weaknesses. The URA opened fire, injuring two officers. By February 22nd there were 1,200 cops at the scene. Hundreds of TV-crews, reporters and photographers jostled for advantage. The cops brought two of the radicals’ mothers to beg them over loudspeakers to surrender. No response.

Media helicopters buzzed overhead. Unwanted advice poured in from politicians and media pundits. The police faced a host of unknowns.

Was the hostage alive?

How many radicals were there?

What shape were they in?

What was their ammunition supply?

Did they have explosives?

Would they commit suicide before facing capture?


This may take some time

One local resident attempted a solo rescue effort, which cost him his life. The hostage, Yasuko Muta, usually remained tied up. After her rescue she strongly denied being mistreated. She testified the radicals explained leftist political ideology to her. One gave her a Buddhist charm, assuring her it would keep her safe.

During a lull the URA watched the news and saw President Nixon visiting China. Their world now seemed upside down.

On the third night the cops cut the electricity. The next afternoon they demanded proof the hostage was unharmed. No response. At nightfall they attacked with tear gas and smoke bombs but withdrew under heavy fire.

The police tried new tactics. They played taped noises of sirens, screams, motor cycles and chainsaws at excruciating volume. Sleep became impossible. That was the point. In the morning they threw smoke bombs at the lodge to cover their advance. But the fickle mountain winds dissipated the smoke and they withdrew again. Then they deployed three high-pressure water cannons, the type used at Yasuda Auditorium in 1969.

The water cascaded into the lodge. The police followed up with tear gas. They sprayed more water, hoping the freezing temperatures would ice up the lodge and make it uninhabitable. A dense fog rolled in. They brought in high-powered searchlights. They set up a field hospital in preparation. The state TV network’s round-the-clock coverage had a 90% audience share.

On Day 10 (February 28th) they stretched anti-grenade nets outside the lodge. They appealed one last time to give themselves up. No reply, just gunfire. They brought up a crane swinging a huge metal ball to shatter the walls.

The crane smashed gaping holes and the water cannons restarted. An elite assault unit entered the lodge. Downstairs was clear. The unit took fire from above. One round killed the officer directing the assault. The URA and the hostage were upstairs. A bomb exploded downstairs, injuring several policemen.

Tokyo sent new orders: Disregard previous orders to take the radicals alive. Shoot to kill. But by now the radicals and their hostage were cornered on the lodge’s top floor. There was no escape. They surrendered. Mrs. Muta still breathed. And the United Red Army was history.

United Red Army member Hiroshi Sakaguchi is taken after the Asama ...


Initially, Tsuneo Mori and Hiroko Nagata kept their mouths shut. But other captured members blabbed.

The police dismissed their stories of 12 murders in the cabin.They’d seen evidence of violence at the abandoned cabin. But murder? Killing policemen we can believe. And killing rads from rival factions and innocent civilians. But killing 12 of your own? Your sick, grotesque stories are just foolish attempts to waste our time and lead us astray. But they discovered every name, date and location checked out. The frozen corpses were all there to be found.

The media feeding frenzy began. Every reporter and talking head feasted on the lurid details. Everybody had an opinion why these middle-class university students became mindless killers. Bad parenting. Extreme stress. Weak morals. Excessive discipline. Insufficient discipline.

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Some more here


Later analysts compared how Japan’s media and judiciary had treated Mori and how they’d dealt with Nagata. Mori was viewed as a sadly misguided fellow. His actions were horrifying but motivated by a discernible political ideology. So it was somehow possible to make sense of his actions But the court of public opinion judged Hiroko Nagata differently. She was a sadistic witch, a crazed hag. Her abominable deeds stemmed from severe character defects. There was talk of hormonal problems.

She wrote a book in prison. Sixteen Grave Markers: Youth of Fire and Death expressed remorse for her deeds. A prominent Buddhist nun became her regular visitor and friend. Nagata died of brain cancer just before her 66th birthday, after nearly three decades on death row. The courts had rejected her lawyers’ every appeal.

Tsuneo Mori committed suicide on January 1st, 1973. He wrote a poem then hanged himself in his cell.

Hiroshi Sakaguchi, the United Red Army’s last leader, had a chance at freedom in 1975. The Japanese Red Army – Fusako Shigenobu’s crew in the Middle East – captured American and Swedish diplomatic posts in Malaysia. Sakaguchi was among the prisoners whose freedom they demanded. But he refused. He despised the JRA, and declared he’d continue fighting imperialism from his prison cell. Good luck with that, said the JRA, and scratched him from the list.

Kunio Bando, his ex-accomplice, was also on the JRA’s list. He eagerly grabbed the offer. Soon after walking free he hijacked a Japan Airlines plane in Bangladesh. He’s still at large.

Takaya Shiomi, the Red Army Faction’s founder, wrote an apologetic memoir while serving 20 years in prison. After his release he laid low but later ran for office in a local election in 2015, finishing 22nd out of 23 candidates with about 300 votes.

Hijackers (Pyongyang 2004)

In North Korea some hijackers died natural deaths.  But a married couple died trying to escape. Their deaths were officially “industrial accidents”, although how translators get crushed by forklifts was never explained.

The North Koreans “gave” them wives (Japanese women lured to Pyongyang). Allegedly, in the 1980’s some of the wives were sent to seduce and kidnap Japanese nationals in Europe and spirit them to North Korea for nefarious purposes. A few wives are reliably reported to have returned to Japan, although the details remain stubbornly obscure.

One hijacker somehow spirited himself into Japan in 1985 but was soon arrested. Then he caught a lucky break. He was a minor when he participated in the hijacking, plus there was no law against hijacking in 1970. So he did time on only a few minor charges. Another was nabbed carrying counterfeit dollars in Thailand in 2000. They transferred him to Japan, where he later died in prison.

And finally, most student radicals with “light” criminal records eventually felt the urge to straighten up and fly right. Many landed straight jobs in corporations and even the civil service. However, those who were “well known to the police” – radicals with long rap sheets – faced shadowy futures on society’s fringes.

10. DREAMS OF ’68

We own the night


Q: Why did Japan’s radical protest movement start?

A: The Left’s pre-1960 successes faded. For all its passion about liberating “the people” from capitalism, it was too weak to shake things up in any meaningful way. That’s oversimplifying it, but the mainstream Left was simply ineffective at sociopolitical change.

Q: So dissatisfaction with the mainstream Left spawned radicalism?

A: The students rejected the JCP’s outdated, doctrinaire, Moscow-dominated orthodoxy. They wanted to force “the people” to rise up and embrace revolution. By the 1960’s the social conditions were ripe: baby boomers crowding woefully inadequate universities, emerging youth culture, disgust at Japan’s cooperation with the Yankee war machine, rampant corporate and political corruption. Rebellion was in the very air.

Those were restive times – worldwide, of course – but Japanese youth had precious few ways to release their pent up anger. Violent protest was the surest way of putting their grievances out there.

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What an odd approach!

Rouvalis Flowers - Boston Florist, Flower Delivery, Corporate ...

Some radicals viewed things simply: doing nothing was tantamount to compliance.

One told a contemporary researcher: All we want is the battle itself. But there’s also this evocative quote from another book: a TôDai activist told one author in 1970: I feel solidarity with anyone who actually struggles hard to do something. That was it, you see: struggling hard to do something.

Q: But Western students struggled hard to do something too.

A: Consider the contrasts between Japanese and Western protests. Violence and mass arrests were normal in Japan. They were accepted as normal and natural. And remember how some Western protesters carried signs and flowers? Japanese protesters carried gebabô and molotov cocktails.

And, unlike the West, Japan’s popular music scene had absolutely no sociopolitical dimension. There was no widespread counterculture such as in the West: a counterculture which ignored or subverted societal norms. A short-lived Japanese protest music fad emerged, but the all-powerful record companies steered clear.

Keep in mind, too, drug use was virtually expected among American radicals. It was practically unknown among Japanese radicals.

Remember the Red Army Faction’s plan to forge links with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in America? At that time some SDS renegades became the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground) and committed to a wave of bombings. They declared: Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks. Around 1970 “freaks” wasn’t used pejoratively, but referred to long-haired people who embraced the counterculture, wore hippie clothes, got high and so on.

In the West beads, beards, bhongs, bell-bottoms and the two-fingered peace sign helped proclaim the Revolution. But none of that applied among Japanese radicals, who rejected such epiphenomena as trivial and irrelevant. Give peace a chance? You’re joking. And the concept of flower power – had they bothered to regard it – would have baffled them.

“Guerrilla concert” Tokyo subway (1969)

Q: But the campuses weren’t all radicalized. Didn’t most students avoid radicalism?

A: Whenever normal academic activity essentially ceased, the nonpori (nonpolitical students) wanting to focus on their courses were officially told to “study at home until further notice”. Inevitably, on many campuses, you’d see only lots of activists doing their thing. This fostered the image that all Japanese students were radicals.

Campuses had right-wing groups too. They were less conspicuous, but aggressive. Nihon University‘s right-wing president encouraged his rightists to “get the Reds”. They were mostly ultra-nationalists and jocks. Their baseball bats and wooden kendô swords came in handy.

Q: How big was the protest movement?

A: There are various metrics. In ’68 about 80% of campuses had “some sort of conflict”, from mere sitdown strikes and lecture-boycotts right up to the Tokyo University siege and the ferocious, prolonged Nihon University “civil war” (which was every bit as brutal, and a story in itself). In 1969 dozens of university presidents resigned to take responsibility for all the disruption.

The Todai Riots: 1968-69 | Deep reads from The Japan Times

In ’68-’69 about 70 universities were barricaded, meaning the students effectively took over the campuses. 62 high schools were barricaded in 1969, and the police detained about 600 teenagers. By then the monthly radical-arrest rate averaged over 1,000. Two cops died in on-campus “disturbances”, and 10,000 were injured in ’69-’70. There were over 100 bombings between 1969 and 1971. But that number excludes those incidents which – to save face – must have been hushed up or were reported as something less serious. And, of course, some bombs simply fizzled. Pfffffff.

Q: Ultimately, though, little was achieved from all this. Why?

A: Well, having so many factions with competing priorities was decidedly unhelpful. In a nutshell, the radicals talked like political philosophers but acted like motorcycle gangs. “The people” they claimed to represent were appalled.

Remember uchigeba? Conflict between factions. One uchigeba incident epitomizes the factions’ “tribal warfare”. In Yasuda Auditorium shortly before the final assault in the Tôdai Siege, rival radical factions fought an all-out brawl. Nothing unusual about that, except that this was a three-way brawl. Three factions violently attacked each other simultaneously with gebabô and metal pipes.

How did they expect to unite “the people”? They couldn’t even unite themselves.

If the protest movement hoped to replace the existing order with the rule of the proletariat (“the people”) it needed that proletariat – the general working class – on its side. But that was impossible while the movement foolishly clung to its tribal loyalties. Its brutal factionalism alienated Japanese society. That endless internecine violence kept the revolutionary movement stuck in a hole.

The factions cared more about wiping each other out than working towards their common revolutionary goal. That really tells you something about their leaders’ tunnel vision. They were hopelessly blinkered. Their divisive tribalism contrasted starkly with the American anti-war movement’s – and the Paris ’68 movement’s – we’re-all-in-this-together approach. They had a shocking inability – or unwillingness – to see the big picture and act accordingly.

John Lennon - "Power to the people!" #OnThisDay, 12th... | Facebook

And the last straw was the United Red Army’s gruesome self-destruction. The movement could never win public support after that. People wondered: So that’s how they’d have us live? Facing death for brushing your hair, like Mieko Tôyama in that mountain cabin?

There’s one more thing. They were blind to the future. The activists were unanimous about “the people” needing a revolution now. But their post-revolution vision was hopelessly vague. So “the people” saw no reason to buy into any of that.

Q:  What’s transpired since 1972?

A: That year the movement seemed to crash. Yet we can’t pretend that 1972 was the end of the story, even though the nationwide revulsion at the URA’s killing spree drained whatever impetus Japan’s Radical Left still had. That year the campuses quietened down and the violent mass demonstrations dwindled. But uchigeba became homicidal.

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Here’s another one


Throughout the 1970’s the vicious antagonism between two radical factions – the savage Chûkaku-ha and its ex-ally, the more self-disciplined Kakumaru – went haywire. Both sides ignored the class struggle and the Revolution. They just battled each other with deadly force.

They acted like Latin American drug cartels in a turf war.

Neither group lost sleep over collateral damage. You can imagine the public’s reaction to all that. Then, as the 70’s dragged on, they turned from trying to obliterate each other to virtually ignoring each other.

Kakumaru eventually went legit, enmeshing itself with the railway unions. Chûkaku-ha aimed to disrupt daily life. In the 1980’s it made some expertly coordinated and headline-grabbing – but pointless – attacks on railway (!) infrastructure, government buildings and even an attempt to lob mortar shells at a G7 Summit. But by now its arson attacks had become a major irritant. What was the point? Why did it still even exist?

And like the other radical groups which still had a pulse, both outfits shrunk as their demographics changed. The students lost interest. Fewer and fewer people – closer to their thirties than their teens – pressed on.


We must also mention the Narita Airport expansion project (Sanrizuka) becoming the  focus of the radicals’ remnants during the late 1970’s into the 1980’s. The government’s ruthless appropriation of farmland for the project backfired by presenting the Extreme Left – with Chûkaku-ha in the vanguard – with a neat package of grievances: rampant capitalism, exploitation of the masses, corrupt politicians colluding with rapacious developers, suppression of dissent, farmers violently dispossessed of their land, you name it. That dragged on for years.

Finally, one group from the mid-1970’s deserves some attention: the East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Front (EAAJAF). It made the self-hating claim that Japan is an inherently imperialistic and wicked nation whose economy was based on exploitation. Its institutions were corrupt to the core and it was shamelessly racist. The root of Japan’s evil was Japaneseness. Japan had a sickness in its heart, they declared. It had to be made to atone for its sins. And maybe even wiped from the map.

Its members minimized suspicion by living straight lives with straight jobs, financing themselves with their salaries, operating in three tiny, loosely connected “cells” called Wolf, Fangs of the Earth and Scorpion. Their secret codename for EAAJAF was, of all things, Clint Eastwood.

Unlike groups like the United Red Army, its members were encouraged to maintain their social and family ties, provided they kept their anti-Japan activities totally secret. They were also free to leave the group at any time.

In 1974-75 they planted 11 time-bombs in various corporate headquarters. Their first time-bomb (Operation Diamond) destroyed the Tokyo HQ of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The group claimed Mitsubishi was a pillar of imperialism. It was angered by the corporation’s defiant lack of public remorse over its use of Chinese and Korean slaves during the war. The explosion killed 8 people and injured almost 400.

One of their goals was to foment uprisings among the oppressed Ainu indigenous minority in Hokkaido and the native Okinawans. (In this they were spectacularly unsuccessful.) They even tried – but failed at the last moment – to assassinate the emperor (Operation Rainbow).

Their ultra-secretive nature and hatred for their society gave them a particularly sinister image. Dogged police work and EAAJAF’s inability to completely cover its tracks eventually led to its demise. In contrast to other contemporary radical groups, as prisoners they freely confessed during interrogation. And their leader made a public apology.

August 30th, 1974: The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Headquarters ...

Q: Getting back to the URA slaughter, what are your personal thoughts?

A: The media attention was indeed sensationalistic. It portrayed Mori as less culpable than “the she-devil”. But he had his own psychological baggage. He felt insecure, unable to live down his earlier withdrawal from the Red Army Faction after his failed romance. And before the merger he faced furtive, lingering insinuations that he lacked the balls for revolutionary leadership. Remember, at their arrest Nagata fought their captors but Mori capitulated pretty tamely.

Did these insecurities contribute to Mori’s excesses in the cabin? Most likely. But he was uncommunicative in custody – like many arrested radicals were – and he killed himself before they could probe this.

Q: What’s happening now?

A: Those groups surviving today have become organizations with phone numbers, bank accounts and sometimes websites. Many are now straightforward lobby groups, campaigning for “the people”. They’re still under routine police surveillance, but remain mere shadows of their former selves.

One recent development provides a convenient finale. You’ll recall the American occupation of Okinawa was a perennial grievance. Japan regained Okinawa in 1972, but before this the government accepted such a lopsided deal from Washington that 1971 became Japan’s “incendiary year”, a year of wild, savage protests.

In a November 1971 demonstration in Tokyo Chûkaku-ha activists (who else?) burned a young cop to death. The police vigorously pursued their prime suspect Masaaki Ôsaka (born 1950). He was on the run for almost 46 years, never leaving Japan.

They arrested him in Hiroshima in 2017. He’d been protected and supported by Chûkaku-ha activists who’d stayed just below the police radar for decades. They’re now in the autumn of their lives. The police are following this up, but not just because these people aided a cop-killer. The money required to keep Ôsaka healthy and safe for so long has attracted their interest. Was it stolen money?

In any case, those old-time radicals’ heyday was so very long ago. It was a different world. They’re living fossils now.

Q: What do they do these days?

We can imagine them gathering from time to time in somebody’s apartment (never the same apartment twice in a row, for security).  They’re complaining about their arthritis, dropping ashes from their cigarettes, yearning for the Revolution, comparing battle scars just like today’s safe-space SJWs compare their tattoos, reminiscing about their best molotov-cocktails, their best gebabô whacks, their best adrenaline rushes and the tingling of their senses and how alive they all felt when it was the late 1960’s and they were all so young and anything was possible.

Mr Osaka was a member of the Japan Revolutionary Communist League National Committee

Then (early 1970’s)…                                               

Masaaki Osaka has been on the run since 1971

…and now (2017).


           THE END





(NONFICTION 6,900 words)                RETURN TO HOME  PAGE



Can we pierce the fog and fish out the facts of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’s shadowy careers without mixing too many metaphors?

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In the early 1900’s two North American bandits with hefty criminal records “led active lives” in South America. Patagonia, the continent’s southern fringe, was their main turf. Their part-time accomplice was “a most beautiful woman”.

La señora norteamericana was no dilettante, yet never really adapted to the outlaw lifestyle. She spoke polished Spanish but had little liking for South America. She disliked the isolation and instability that went with dodging lawmen from two continents.

Their mysterious fate has spawned countless arguments, articles, books and documentaries. Plus a hit movie.


 ii: HERE’S THE PLAN     








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Butch the boy

Their leader was Robert Leroy Parker (1866 – ?). The Parkers were Mormons from Lancashire and Scotland. “Bob”, the oldest of thirteen, shared Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. He inherited his mother’s eyes and jawline. He was a genial lad, fond of books about medieval England, Scottish clans and anything by Charles Dickens. But by 1884, chafing against his native Utah’s economic and religious boundaries, Bob went rogue.

He started with petty crime, a theft here, some cattle rustling there. His crimes were interspersed with periods of good conduct as a ranch hand. Gradually he escalated to big-time robberies – banks and trains.

In Wyoming he was imprisoned for buying a stolen horse. To spare his Mormon family the shame of his imprisonment he claimed to be a New Yorker without kin (Religion: None). After his release he settled on the permanent nom-de-crime Butch Cassidy, after earlier using other aliases.

“Butch” came from working in a Rock Springs, Wyoming butcher-shop, while “Cassidy” originated with an early hero-figure, Mike Cassidy.

Parker/Cassidy founded the most successful train-robbing “gang” – actually a loose band of comers-and-goers  – in U.S. criminal history. It had various names, but The Wild Bunch stuck the longest.

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Butch behind bars

Unusually for the 1890’s, during robberies Cassidy enforced absolute sobriety among his accomplices. The planning phase afforded him genuine pleasure. Despite his easygoing image, Cassidy researched every heist’s details with rigorous precision. He insisted the perfect robbery resulted in  (a) nobody getting hurt and (b) no arrests. Meticulous about the getaway phase, Butch stymied the pursuing lawmen by cutting the telegraph lines and pre-positioning supplies and fresh horses along the planned escape routes.

This was key. Knowing when trains or banks held the maximum cash, what the staff arrangements were and how the security worked was vital. But what was the point if you got caught?

Cassidy targeted railroads, cattle barons (“dudes”) and banks, never ordinary folks. This endeared him to the masses but also produced high-powered enemies.

His longest-serving associate was a tall, taciturn Pennsylvanian, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (1867 – ?).

Longabaugh’s German grandfather was Conrad Langenbach, back when names and spellings were more flexible. The Longabaughs knew poverty, but young Harry’s library card let him escape into fantasies about famous outlaws like Jesse James. He yearned to go west. Aged 15 he did just that, adapting to frontier life with remarkable ease and becoming an expert horseman. He played down his East-coast origins and tried to comport himself as a true son of the west.

Longabaugh called himself The Sundance Kid, commemorating his first serious crime at the age of 20: stealing a horse and gun near Sundance, Wyoming. If he were alive today he’d have 18 tattoos (one for every month behind bars).

Unlike Butch, he was not given to deep analysis. He shunned complexity. While Cassidy’s research aimed to prevent on-the-job hiccups, Sundance didn’t mind them. They gave him an excuse to instill fear, something he enjoyed.

Some described Harry Longabaugh as warm, but he was normally standoffish. He rarely smiled, although maybe he simply wished to hide a flashing gold tooth, which he later replaced with a porcelain tooth once the big money rolled in. Plus he had chronic catarrh (excessive respiratory mucus), so all that snorting, sniffing and spitting was unlikely to transform him into The Sunshine Kid.

Despite their popular image, Butch and Sundance weren’t bosom buddies. They somehow clicked, despite temperaments as different as cheese and chalk. But the lure of big money was what drew them together and kept them together.


 The Wild Bunch (November 1900): Sundance seated L, Butch seated R

Their part-time accomplice – Sundance’s lover – was the most mysterious. Her biography remains a thicket of question marks, frustrating generations of researchers. One commented: It’s as though she had no identity before she met Sundance and no identity after they separated.

Was Etta (Ethel?) Place a Colorado schoolteacher? Perhaps. Other research traces her to Texas bordellos. Perhaps. Was her name originally C-a-p-e-l? Or Platz (“place” in German)? Coincidentally (or not) Longabaugh’s mother was Annie Place. Did that make Etta his cousin?

She was Sundance’s lover until she left South America around 1905. She probably rejoined her lover, but at some point she abandoned South America forever (perhaps) and her trail went stone cold.

Some researchers argue she settled in Colorado. One source claims her daughter was the bank robber Betty Weaver, who was finally nabbed in Kansas in 1932. Another has her running an Arizona sanatorium. Other investigators say Etta simply “went underground” in San Francisco.

One attests she spied on Cassidy and Longabaugh for the U.S. Secret Service and that she was assassinated in California in 1915. Other research claims she returned to South America and (a) committed suicide in 1924 or (b) was murdered in 1922 by Mateo Gebhardt, her Argentinian lover.

And one researcher says Etta lived until 1966, just three years before the Hollywood movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid hit the world’s screens.

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Sundance & Etta in The Big Apple


The year is 1900 and the times they are a-becomin’ different. The heat is hotting up for The Wild Bunch. Law enforcement has become uncomfortably sophisticated.

Lawmen in the West were a spirited and hardy bunch. They had to be. But their resources were often limited, their adversaries just as spirited and hardy, and the West’s vast stretches of wilderness hindered pursuit.

Now the Pinkerton Detective Agency tipped the balance.

It was once the world’s largest private law-enforcement and detective agency. “Pinkertons” formed Abraham Lincoln’s personal bodyguard. Government authorities hired Pinkerton agents for special investigations. Railroads had them guard payroll-carrying trains. Huge profits accrued from locating WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE outlaws.

The agency’s detection-for-profit ethic and its multitude of agents, undercover operatives, archivists and part-time informants made it a formidable outfit. Its voluminous cross-referenced files on every known criminal in America covered every detail. What are his aliases? Where are his known hide-outs? Who are his known associates? What is his preferred weapon? What does he smoke, cigars or a pipe? Does he have visible scars? Missing digits? A limp? Is he left-handed? Which teeth are missing? And so on.

The Pinkertons operated 24/7, accepting any assignment with a reasonable chance of success. That, and their famous “all-seeing eye” commercial logo, engendered the label “private eye”: detective for hire.

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Shouldn’t that be Longabaugh?

Original company logo

They outcopped the cops

This hurt The Wild Bunch. They’d steal a payroll, only to find the Pinkertons had recorded and telegraphed every banknote’s serial number – promising rewards for actionable leads – throughout the area. So spending that cash risked blowing their cover.

Cassidy had to think outside the box. He reasoned thus: Our luck will run out one day, and most likely soon. So why not try something radical? Like Argentina.

The Argentinian government was giving – giving! – virgin Patagonian farmland to North American settlers. While the German, Italian and Slavic immigrants fueling Argentina’s booming economy were still welcome, norteamericanos – with their proven expertise in transforming wilderness into productive farmland – got Patagonian land gratis.

Here’s the plan, Butch announced. We get us some free farmland in Argentina. The Pinkertons won’t think to look for us there. We walk the straight and narrow. Then we don’t have the law breathing down our necks. And we get rich from farming beef.

Who’s in?

Only Harry Longabaugh/The Sundance Kid and Etta Place were in. Fine, said Cassidy. Then just us three will go. ¡Adios!

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Their home on the range


Riding some of the very trains they’d robbed, they rendezvoused in New York in February 1901 after Longabaugh visited his family’s new residence in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The trio bought stylish clothes (a priority for Sundance), attended the opera, experienced the kinetoscope (moving pictures) and sailed to Argentina.

The couple embarked as Mr. and Mrs. Harry A. Place. Cassidy became Mrs. Place’s brother, “James Ryan”, the same name as the sheriff who’d arrested young Longabaugh back in Wyoming.

In Buenos Aires they took rooms at the luxury Hotel Europa. Señor Place soon opened a bank account with US$12,000 (what the average white U.S. male earned in 27 years). They established themselves as people of substance, desirable additions to Argentina’s burgeoning population.

After scouting potential places to settle they visited the Land Department. 61 square km of pristine Patagonian grassland near the Chilean border fell into their laps. On behalf of the group the señora asked the Director, ¿Hay bandidos en esa zona? They were relieved to hear Cholila was bandit-free.

By June their cottage, resembling the Parker home back in Utah, boasted lace curtains, brass lamps and perfumed wash basins. A Cholila policeman named Humphreys befriended them, but came perilously close to risking Sundance’s vicious wrath by displaying an unseemly interest in the señora.

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Cholila can’t be beat for stockraising

On August 10, 1902 Cassidy/Ryan wrote to Matilda Davies in Ashley, Utah. She was the mother-in-law of Ellsworth (‘Elzy’) Lay, his closest friend. Lay was behind bars for killing two lawmen in a New Mexico shoot-out. Butch addressed her as my dear friend, but such affectionate terms were really meant for Elzy, who’d receive that letter himself in due course.

Cassidy and Lay were old pals/ brothers-in-crime. They’d both been romantically involved with the Bassett sisters. As we’ll see, Josie Bassett later swore she met Butch three times in the 1920’s in the States.

I was restless and … wanted to see more of the world, Cassidy wrote. [One] of my Uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of three … So I took my $10,000 share and I located to South A.

The death of his “Uncle” was actually the $33,000-haul from The Wild Bunch’s robbery of a Nevada bank in 1900. The “little family of three” was the ménage à trois with Etta and Longabaugh.

The homestead pleased Butch: I have 300 cattle, 1500 sheep and 28 good saddle horses, and 2 men to do my work, also a good 4 room house, a wearhouse [sic] … But he regretted having to cook for himself. He confessed to loneliness: I am alone all day, and … besides the only language spoken in this country is Spanish, and I don’t speak it well enough to converse on the latest scandals so dear to the hearts of all nations…

Cholila was good agricultural country … and it can’t be beat for [stockraising]. The new trans-Andes road to Puerto Montt opened up the lucrative Chilean beef market and easy access to cheaper Chilean products.

Patagonia’s climate pleased him: The summers are beautiful, never as warm as [Utah], and grass knee high everywhere and lots of good cold mountain water. But [in] winter… it rains most of the time…[S]ometimes we have lots of snow, but it don’t last long.

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Elzy Lay (1869-1934)

Butch’s letter was all I-me-my: “I took my $10,000…”. “I have 300 cattle”. “2 men do my work”. He never mentioned Longabaugh and Etta. They were currently away, leaving the naturally gregarious Cassidy bereft of company (and without a cook). Why didn’t he mention them? In case the letter was intercepted and the authorities put two and two together.

Their new lives assumed a patina of respectability. The Cholilans embraced the newcomers, even the throaty, rather standoffish husband with the made-to-order shirts, expensive vests and masses of silk handkerchiefs, Señor Enrique (“Clothes maketh the man”) Place. His charming señora‘s witty conversation and excellent Spanish put some  Cholila homesteaders – especially the well-off Brits – to shame.

The Places and Señor Ryan – the shorter, congenial fellow with the infectious laugh – were welcome additions to the community. So welcome, in fact, that nobody objected to the two men always carrying guns. Or to the elegant young señora displaying such masculine skills with horses (skills no Argentinian lady would ever wish for herself).

The territorial governor visited Cholila, and Enrique Place kindly entertained His Excellency on the guitar. The three norteamericanos made such positive impressions that nobody around Cholila suspected their dark secrets.

Life can be good. But it don’t last long.


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What most people “know” about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid derives from the 1969 film starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross. It depicts The Wild Bunch disintegrating when they accept that honest outlaws can no longer make a decent living. Butch, Sundance and Etta head to Bolivia, not Argentina. Etta’s unhappy there, predicts this will all end badly and returns to the States. Cassidy and Longabaugh resolve to stop robbing Bolivian banks. They’ll “go straight”.

While working as mining company security guards the Devil whispers in their ears. They revert to banditry. One day half the Bolivian Army corners them in the remote, godforsaken hamlet of San Vicente.

Wounded but undaunted, they discuss their next destination once this minor difficulty is resolved. Butch suggests Australia: no language barrier, Australian banks are bursting with money and there are unlimited spaces for outlaws to disappear into. They draw their weapons and make a dash for it, but they’re blasted to smithereens after only a few strides.

That scenario mined – and distorted – Arthur Chapman’s anonymously-sourced magazine article from 1930. Chapman had the pair heroically resisting the Bolivian troopers on their trail. In November 1908, they made a last stand in San Vicente (altitude 4,500 meters /15,000 feet). But far from planning an Australian crime spree they couldn’t even plan an escape. Both wounded and down to only two bullets, Butch shot Sundance in the head and then shot himself.

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Australia here we come!

Both versions are completely unsubstantiated.

Research on the San Vicente “siege” has unearthed so many wildly contradictory versions, all differing in every conceivable detail, that now only the most irredeemable fantasists cling to the idea that Butch and Sundance died in that Bolivian hamlet.

In any case, the Bolivians’ – and the outside world’s – willingness to believe they died had proven to be wonderfully convenient. What better cover for fugitives than to be assumed dead?

The trio definitely farmed in Cholila until 1905.  “Enrique and Etta Place” visited the U.S.A. three times. In 1902 they visited New York, Atlantic City – where Sundance introduced the Longabaughs to his “wife” –  and Buffalo before returning to Argentina.

Their detour to Buffalo, an unlikely destination for that couple, has been plausibly explained as a confidential visit to a renowned venereal disease clinic. They docked in Buenos Aires the day before Cassidy wrote his letter to Elzy Lay.

April 1904 saw their second trip. Ignoring the risk of Pinkerton agents detecting their presence, after Atlantic City they visited Fort Worth, Texas. Its brothels were always high on The Wild Bunch’s list. Etta probably had connections there. Then they nonchalantly took in The World’s Fair in St. Louis.

The third trip – arranged hurriedly – was in May 1905. Etta developed an intestinal problem. Claiming to distrust local doctors, she demanded treatment in the United States. They sailed from Chile to San Francisco.

Longabaugh soon returned to Cholila but Etta stayed on. One possible explanation for this concerns her “intestinal problem” being a pregnancy for which Longabaugh wasn’t the father. This had to remain secret from him at all costs. She needed to get away before her belly bump showed. Significantly, nearby homesteader John Gardiner simultaneously made a sudden unexplained departure to Britain.

Whatever the circumstances, a separation ensued.  Evidence suggests Etta returned later.

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Possibly warned by the local lawman Humphreys that the Pinkertons had discovered their whereaboutsthey suddenly sold their homestead to an Anglo-Chilean. They reverted to banditry, crisscrossing the border, robbing banks. This was late 1905.

Eyewitnesses reported a female accomplice: her impressive horsemanship and male disguise couldn’t conceal her feminine beauty.

Unless there was another beautiful yanqui expert horsewoman in cahoots with the bandidos, and unless these eyewitness reports were actually dozens of hallucinations, she must have been Etta. Meaning she must have returned by 1906 at the latest. Meaning Etta and Sundance must have rekindled their relationship and the ménage à trois.

But eventually Etta dropped completely out of sight, leaving Butch and Sundance to their fate.

But what was that fate?


Much of the mystery surrounding Butch and Sundance’s fate arises from them being not the only bandidos yanquis in Argentina. American outlaws found Argentina’s rich pickings, undistinguished police standards and lack of Pinkertons irresistible.

W. C. Jameson’s Butch Cassidy: Beyond the Grave (2014) explained:

To compound the identity problems, the number of North American outlaws … operating in … Argentina was increasing, and it is likely that several robberies committed by them were attributed to Cassidy and Longabaugh. The [outlaws] Robert Evans [from Montana] and William Wilson [from Texas] were committing crimes in the area in much the same manner as Cassidy and Longabaugh, and were often mistaken for the more famous duo. (p.103)

Actually, Evans and Wilson knew Butch and Sundance. They’d almost certainly visited their homestead. Their appearance and personalities were known to resemble Butch and Sundance’s. Evans, the shorter one, shared Cassidy’s gregarious nature. Wilson had Nordic features and shared Longabaugh’s taciturnity. (But not his catarrh.)

It’s very probable that the Montanan and Texan exploited these resemblances by sometimes posing as Cassidy and Longabaugh to confuse the police. It’s also very probable that Butch and Sundance posed as Evans and Wilson for the same reason.

The claim that Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance limped through the decades. Then in 1970 (following the movie’s release) a 104-year-old Argentinian – Pedro Peña – told interviewers he was in the Frontier Police patrol which killed Cassidy (Evans) and Longabaugh (Wilson) in 1911.

Now, said the death-in-Bolivia-fantasy doubters who yearned for something substantive about the outlaws’ fate, now we’re getting somewhere. And the Evans-Wilson narrative did seem credible.

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Where the Welsh were

It’s December, 1909 in Arroyo Pescado, southwest of Cholila. Two Welsh immigrants ran the local general store: Llwyd ApIwan, the owner, and Bobby, “a soft-headed religious maniac”.

“Evans” and “Wilson” entered the store, ostensibly as customers, but actually intent on stealing the gold sovereigns in the safe. The bandidos forced ApIwan to open the safe but found it virtually empty. The expected gold consignment was late.

Wilson covered the Welshmen as the bandits backed their way out. His spur caught on the rug and he fell backwards. ApIwan tried to wrestle the gun away but Wilson shot him in the chest. Then the pair escaped.

The local Police Commissioner, Milton Roberts, knowing the Pinkertons still maintained Butch and Sundance were in Argentina, sent detailed descriptions.

Evans was “about 35 years old, height 5 feet 7 inches [170cm]”. Stockily built, he had red hair, although Roberts surmised this was a wig or a dye job. The man known as Wilson, he wrote, was “about 25 years old”(!),  height 5 feet 11 inches (180cm). He was slim with fair hair.

Roberts never saw them himself, so the descriptions depended on Bobby’s observational powers. Their descriptions matched the outlaws’. The age discrepancy – Cassidy and Longabaugh were well past 40 in 1909 – was explained by Bobby being not too bright, the shock of it all and everything happening so quickly.

The Pinkertons sat on this information and did nothing. We’ll learn why in Part vii.

The scene moves south to their camp near Río Pico. It’s March 1911. A kidnapping now proves significant, leading to Peña’s story.

Luis Otero was an eccentric loner from a wealthy Buenos Aires family. He avoided women, dressed badly and loved Patagonia’s solitude. One day he and a servant were driving a buckboard to his farm. Two riders approached. One smiled and waved Otero on, giving his buckboard the right of way. The other rider suddenly grabbed the passing buckboard’s reins.

The horsemen – now identifiable as English-speakers – took them to their camp, tied them up and built a crude prison cell with tree trunks and rawhide. Otero noted the taller, fair-haired bandit left most of the heavy work to the shorter fellow.

The two bandidos had English-speaking sidekicks. They let the prisoners out twice a day for exercise and bodily functions. After two weeks of this routine one gringo accidentally dropped a match. Otero scooped it up, surreptitiously lit a small fire and burned through the rawhide.

That night the prisoners heaved aside a log, squeezed out and escaped. Otero made hysterical accusations, claiming his brothers had orchestrated the kidnapping to poison his affection for Patagonia. His family assured the police that mentally he was not a well young man. Nobody believed Otero’s story until the police investigated the site. Then the kidnapping scandalized Argentina.

The Ministry of the Interior took the heat.

We can imagine the Minister at his desk, bewailing all the negative publicity Otero’s kidnapping and other recent abominations had sprayed on Patagonia in general and on his ministry in particular.

Here he is, venting to an assistant after digesting the latest newspaper reports and editorials:

Minister: Fabris, this is outrageous! Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous! I’m … I’m …

Fabris: Outraged, Your Excellency?

Minister: Outraged! Yes! How did things in Patagonia get so bad? Just look at these headlines. Kidnappings! Marauding outlaws!Bandidos yanquis acting like they own the place! I mean, how did it get like this?

Fabris: Well, I hesitate to use the word misappropriation, but Your Excellency will recall those funds earlier allocated to the improvement of law enforcement in Patagonia…

Minister: Er … y…yes.

We have to do something, Fabris. Not only do something, but be seen to do something. I’m ordering a huge increase in police manpower down there. Let’s beef up the Frontier Police. With luck they’ll make some juicy arrests and embarrass those sons of whores who run the newspapers. I’ll rub their noses in it. See to it at once, will you?

So the funds earmarked for the suppression of Patagonia banditry magically rematerialized. Patrols were stepped up. Evans and Wilson laid low.

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Read all about it!

Old Peña’s story featured in Bruce Chatwin’s genre-bending book In Patagonia (1977):

In December, 1911 Evans and Wilson returned to Río Pico to buy supplies from the Hahn brothers, German immigrants on friendly terms with the bandidos. The Hahns warned them that the Frontier Police were uncomfortably close, and treated Wilson’s wounded hand. He explained a faulty cartridge had detonated while he was repacking it. After paying for the provisions they rode off into the nearby hills.

They rode into trouble. A local landowner named Solís suspected his wife of “carrying on” with Evans. Having a rough idea of their camp’s whereabouts, Solís directed a patrol there. They saw Evans taking shelter from the summer sun, eating lunch under a tree. Wilson was in his tent, feverish from his infected hand.

Taking cover, the patrol’s leader, Lieutenant Blanco, shouted “¡Arriba las manos!“. But instead of submitting to capture, Evans fired twice, killing one trooper and wounding Pedro Peña. The troopers returned fire, killing Evans. Wilson, fleeing barefoot through the underbrush, was an easy target.

Six decades later Peña told interviewers Blanco’s search of the corpses produced two gold watches and the photograph of “una mujer hermosísima” (a most beautiful woman).

We should assess this.

The discredited Bolivian shoot-out story means Cassidy and Longabaugh could have remained active in South America post-1908. Multiple yanqui gangs roamed Argentina-Chile, and Evans and Wilson often posed as Butch and Sundance. So it’s likely the Frontier Police weren’t always sure who their quarry was.

But in Peña’s story, researchers yearn for solid answers to:

  • (1) Were the corpses independently identified?
  • (2) Where were they buried? (Recent advances in DNA analysis compel this question.)
  • (3) Assuming it existed, what became of “the most beautiful woman” photo?

It’s highly unlikely but not impossible that the victims really were Butch and Sundance. However, those events occurred from 1909 to 1911. What about “the gap years”, 1906 to 1908?


Cassidy, Longabaugh and Etta meandered north, reaching Bolivia (without Etta) in 1906. From Cholila this was about the same distance as Miami to Montreal.

As “Santiago Maxwell” and “Enrique Brown”, they walked the straight and narrow – to some extent – as employees of the Concordia Tin Mine.

Their American boss, Percy Seibert, liked Butch, describing him as “a gentleman … pleasant … charming … Women invariably liked him”. Longabaugh, however, was “distant and difficult to befriend”. They became reliable workers, and Seibert was glad to have them.

Cassidy/Maxwell eventually revealed their true identity, but their recent excellent conduct gave Seibert no reason to make this an issue. While Sundance trained the company’s mules, Butch was entrusted with delivering valuable payrolls. His impeccable record made him Concordia’s golden boy.

(Seibert wrote Butch had told him about Etta. She was a great housekeeper. And what a cook!  But she had “the heart of a whore”. Cassidy didn’t elaborate, and Seibert thought it unwise to pursue the subject.)

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Sundance’s students.

Cassidy’s duties included detailed negotiations for the purchase of Concordia’s pack animals. His command of Spanish must have come a long way since 1902, when his letter to Elzy Lay lamented his linguistic inadequacies. allowed the pair considerable freedom. He figured if they were happy they’d be less likely to rob their employer and more likely to foil robberies by other outlaws.

There were reports that Cassidy and Longabaugh robbed other Bolivian mines themselves. This backfired on them: caucasians stood out in Bolivia’s largely indigenous population. Every robbery produced more eyewitnesses. Butch feared trouble was coming. And his partner became problematic.

During 1907 the tedium of training a tin mine’s mules unhinged Sundance. He hit the bottle.

Longabaugh’s drunken boasts of the robberies he and his amigo had pulled in Argentina and Chile prompted one cantina owner to summon the police. They made a speedy exit.

The crunch came on a visit to Santa Cruz. They saw a Spanish-language Pinkerton poster of themselves. Luckily, Cassidy now sported a beard and Longabaugh – no longer slim – had a booze-hound’s puffy face and double chin. Nobody connected them with the Wild Bunch-era faces on the posters.

Sundance sobered up and they quit the mine in 1908 to work as stagecoach drivers for a Scottish owner.

Then they vanished. November 1908 saw the San Vicente shoot-out involving two gringos.

Seibert did his ex-employees a kindness by identifying the corpses as Cassidy and Longabaugh.

That’s it, said the authorities. Case closed.

Butch and Sundance were now good to go.


The Pinkertons hadn’t forgotten them.

In 1902 an agent visited Argentina following reports that three yanquis in Patagonia matched the outlaws’ and Etta’s descriptions. He alerted the authorities and distributed Spanish-language wanted posters, reminding everyone of the generous rewards still available. But nothing happened.

In 1903 Agent Frank Dimaio arrived in Argentina with orders to get the ball rolling. In Patagonia falsely depicted Dimaio as a nervous fellow, endlessly delaying his search for the fugitives after somehow forming an image of Patagonia as a snake-infested jungle full of crocodiles and fevers.

In fact, Dimaio was an agency hero. One of the few Italian-American Pinkertons, he volunteered to infiltrate Sicilian gangs in a New Orleans prison. One slip-up and Dimaio was a goner. But he pulled off this perilous undercover mission with exemplary skill and courage.

Dimaio sent more Spanish-language wanted posters throughout Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile. Yet unexplained stalling by the Argentinian authorities and U.S. consular officials now confounded him. Then HQ suddenly informed Dimaio that this investigation was deprioritized.

The Union Pacific Railroad and the American Bankers Association, accepting the Pinkertons’ contention that these fugitives had relocated to Argentina, were now perfectly satisfied to let them be. Look, they said, if they’re down in South America they can’t rob our banks and trains. Reward money? Forget reward money. Repeat: forget reward money. Forget Cassidy and Longabaugh.

The case remained officially open. Then in 1911 the Uruguayan police reported killing three bandidos yanquis, two men and a woman, in a shoot-out. This was music to the Pinkertons’ ears. That’s it, they said after a decent interval. Case closed.

Frank Dimaio (1864-1954)

The word spread: Butch and Sundance were pushing up South American daisies. But not everyone was convinced.

Poppycock! said Cassidy’s old friends:

  • Butch dead in a South American shoot-out? A shoot-out? Butch? Never! 
  •  WhyI seen old Butch running guns for Pancho Villa in Mexico! (Possible but unlikely.)
  • A Mormon family named Bowman swore Cassidy skillfully negotiated them out of a serious jam with Mexican troops in Chihuahua in 1910. Years later Butch visited them in Texas. They sent his photo to his folks in Utah.
  • Butch went gold-prospecting in Alaska with Wyatt Earp. But the climate disagreed with Butch so he come on back. (Alaska: possible. Earp: nope.)
  •  I met Butch at a Wild West show in San Francisco. (Not impossible.)
  • After South America Butch went to Paris, France, Europe. He had surgery on his face. Now he looks real different. (C’est possible. But see Part viii.)
  • Old Butch? He got himself a Model T Ford and drove all around the West. (This was supposedly Cassidy’s sentimental journey to his preferred brothels from Nevada to Texas.) (Memories, memories.) And he’s gotten rather fat.

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So you’re the Butch Cassidy!?

Other return stories:

A Rock Springs, Wyoming bartender, Bert Kraft alleged that during the 1920’s Elzy Lay and Cassidy entered his saloon. Lay had been incarcerated in 1899, but was pardoned in 1906 for helping to end a prison riot. He straightened himself out, remarried and moved to California.

Kraft knew them both from the old days. He mentioned that Elzy’s old flame, Josie Bassett (whose sister was Butch’s old flame) lived nearby.

Butch, Elzy and Josie reminisced for hours. She later claimed she’d met Butch twice in Johnnie, Nevada. Josie added he’d worked for a mining company there, where he died “in the 1940’s”.

Then there’s Lula Parker Betenson, Cassidy’s youngest sister.

In her book Butch Cassidy, My Brother (1975), Betenson described the autumn day in 1925 when “Bob” – as the Parkers remembered him – appeared in Circleville, Utah.

A shiny Ford stopped on the road where Mark Parker was repairing a fence. After some hesitation Bob’s identity clicked and the brothers embraced. They took Bob’s car to the house where old Maximilian (“Maxi”) Parker – with his distinctive shock of white hair – and daughter Lula (aged 41) still lived.

“Bob” was 59 and hadn’t been home in over 40 years, but Maxi knew immediately his firstborn had returned. Lula – too young to remember him – observed the stranger had her mother Annie Parker’s face. She fixed an extra plate for her long lost brother.

Bob expressed grief at how his wicked ways had broken his dear mother’s heart. He described the day in ’84 when he left home. His mother packed some food in a blue blanket. She and the family dog, Dash, watched him ride past the poplar trees his mother had planted years earlier.

He declared he and Sundance had sincerely tried to “go straight” in Argentina and Bolivia. But he blamed corrupt local lawmen and Pinkertons for relentlessly hounding them, forcing them back into criminality. The family believed him.

Accepting they weren’t kids anymore and enough was enough, Cassidy and Longabaugh abandoned the outlaw life in 1909.

(If true, this casts fatal doubt on the outlaws in Bobby’s, Otero’s and Peña’s stories being Cassidy and Longabaugh.)

The ex-outlaws separated in 1909, arranging a future rendezvous and a return to America. A scorpion sting made Cassidy miss the rendezvous. He reached Mexico, finding employment here and there. In a cantina Butch suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze, fearing a zealous lawman had identified him. But the hand belonged to Etta.

Sundance was with her (!). The trio shared two convivial days. Later, Bob recounted, he prospected for gold. But Alaska’s climate aggravated his many old injuries and he settled in the Pacific Northwest (not – as Josie said – in Nevada). There he hoped to live out his days.

His family promised never to reveal his whereabouts, allow outsiders access to his letters or divulge his burial place.

Lots of Lula’s blueberry pie (but no coffee in that Mormon household) later, he departed. Lula – “forthright and energetic into her nineties” – wrote: “Bob died of pneumonia in the Pacific Northwest in 1937”.

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And on to the next cat house…


Lula’s memoir contains nothing impossible but much that’s unprovable. Did she massage the facts to protect Bob’s anonymity and reputation? Perhaps. But we must balance that against her religious scruples and her stated wish to set the record straight.

Another memoir exists. A never-published manuscript, The Bandit Invincible, surfaced in the mid-1930’s. It claimed to tell the truth about Cassidy, by Cassidy, under the pseudonym William T. Phillips.

What can be said about William T. Phillips (“WTP”)?

Nothing for certain before 1908 (when Butch and Sundance were still known to be in Bolivia). WTP died in 1937 – as Lula reported about Butch-  but his death certificate puts his birth in Michigan in June 1865, ten months before Butch was born in Utah.

Michigan’s 19th-century census records are intact, but no records exist for either WTP or his “father”, “L.J. Phillips”. The records for the “mother” show she was a 12-year-old in 1865.

The first appearance of WTP in any official record is his wedding certificate issued in Adrian, Michigan on May 14, 1908. He gave his age as 34 (wildly inaccurate for someone born in 1865). His profession was “mechanical engineer”. He took Gertrude (an asthmatic) to the healthier climate of Spokane, Washington (the Pacific Northwest), where he worked for a utility company and then a typewriter manufacturer. WTP quit temporarily to prospect for gold in Alaska.

Acquiring his own company, he took time off for a trip – alone – through Wyoming and Utah in 1925.

In 1930, as the Depression hit, WTP went to Wyoming to find some Wild Bunch money stashed decades earlier. He failed.

During another trip in 1934, WTP’s companion, a young Spokanite, heard WTP’s accounts of daring robberies, travels throughout the West, narrow escapes, brushes with death, adventures in South America and much more. WTP virtually admitted he was Butch Cassidy, complaining of decades-long harassment by lawmen. “When they get a man down they won’t let him up” was his constant refrain.

Urged to write his memoirs as soon as possible, WTP obliged by pouring out plodding prose in pencil.

He obviously wrote in haste. WTP was his own worst editor. The questionable chronology and frequent misspellings (emaculate; only heresay) attest to that. WTP wrote in the third person (Butch knew…; Cassidy was…) but occasionally slipped and used  I/me/my. Names, dates and places were changed, either because of memory lapses or to hide incriminating details. These “errors” led some researchers to dismiss The Bandit Invincible as a failed fraud.

But. The misspellings, idiosyncrasies, faulty grammar and quirky punctuation are close to what’s found in Cassidy’s early letters. While not a perfect match, the handwriting is too similar to be coincidental. The differences could be due to ageing.

The Bandit Invincible includes intimate details which its defenders claim only someone living in Cassidy’s shadowy world would know. It describes long forgotten saloons which subsequent research showed had briefly existed as the author portrays them. Obscure South American locales appear with details that you’d only know if you’d been there.

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Without editorial comment, here’s what The Bandit Invincible says:

Parker wasn’t Butch’s original surname. As a runaway he was adopted by a George Parker. WTP ignores his childhood experiences and goes straight to Butch’s nascent criminality. His petty crimes eventually escalate.

Cassidy’s unjustly imprisoned for a minor crime, resulting in a lifelong grudge against the judge responsible. A model prisoner, he’s released – with that judge’s official apology – after seven months of an 18-month sentence. He works various straight jobs, but frequently backslides into crime.

Butch’s increasing boldness leads to notoriety. He forms The Wild Bunch, a loose coalition dissolving and coalescing with the circumstances. With western lawmen on his tail, Cassidy heads east. In Chicago and Michigan he dispenses largesse, survives close calls, coincidentally encounters Western lawmen (even accidentally sharing accommodation with one), works for a circus and steers a Lake Michigan boat. He also visits Central America but is unimpressed.

Butch returns to Wyoming, associating more with Dick Maxwell – Harry Longabaugh – who’s never called The Sundance Kid. Maxwell and his girlfriend, Betty Price, maintain a fierce mutual loyalty.

The pressure surges, and after more narrow escapes Cassidy and Maxwell decide to “go straight” and become Patagonian beef farmers. They arrange to rendezvous in Montevideo, Uruguay in September 1901. Butch travels from Montreal to Liverpool, the Canary Islands, Madeira and Brazil. He arrives in Uruguay in July.

Maxwell arrives. Before Betty’s arrival they purchase a homestead near the Rio Negro, nowhere near Cholila. After an uneventful three years they encounter an ex-Wyoming lawman – now a Patagonian stock buyer – named Apfield. Alarm bells ring. Apfield knows them from “the days of your”. They abandon farming and revert to banditry.

Two yanquis – Fowler and Haines – join them. Betty tags along. In northern Argentina Butch spreads  the word they’re leaving Argentina forever. Respectable job offers arrive from Chile and Peru, but he declines: staying anchored to one spot increases his vulnerability. Entering Bolivia, they rob trains for chicken feed.

Their crimes become bolder. Betty’s unhappy. Maxwell sends her to Buenos Aires with all his money.

Bolivian troopers pursue them. In a vicious firefight Cassidy, Maxwell and an unexplained partner named Billings kill 17 troopers. Billings dies. Maxwell’s hit. Sinking fast, Maxwell’s last words are: Good-bye, Butch, my old pal. Don’t forget Betty. Take my [money] belt with you if you can get away and send it to little Betty and she will know I died fighting and thinking of her.

Butch skedaddles before the troopers realize he’s survived, heading to Brazil by horse, riverboat and foot. He sends Maxwell’s belt to Betty without an accompanying letter. She’ll understand. From a Brazilian port he sails to Liverpool, then heads straight to Paris for three weeks of facial surgery by an unnamed doctor in an unnamed hospital to alter his appearance.

Butch returns to the States. The Bandit Invincible ends.


Q:  What can we make of all this?

A:  Firstly, I believe Lula’s account is the more reliable, I’ll say that much.

Before we tackle Invincible itself, consider WTP’s timing.

There’s a signed letter from Cassidy to Concordia’s top management, sent from Tres Cruces, Bolivia on February 16, 1908.  It says nothing about leaving. Yet three months later WTP’s already abandoned Bolivia, has already settled in Michigan, has already courted Gertrude and is saying “I do” at the altar.

Either: (a) WTP wasn’t Cassidy but someone expertly hiding his true identity who knew Cassidy intimately. Or (b): He was Cassidy, and he left South America much earlier than we thought, making that letter a red herring.

My bet’s on (a).

Q:  And the similar handwriting, misspellings and grammar?

A:  Did a relative or close companion who’d seen his letters copy his style? But that does remain a nagging problem, as nagging as the WTP-first-appearance conundrum.

It’s like JFK-assassination studies: implausiblities can produce possible explanations, but plausible explanations often produce shaky conclusions.

QInvincible‘s defenders point to many details that only Cassidy could have known. For example, he refused to shake hands with the judge who imprisoned and later released him. Only Butch was there, so…

A: This episode’s recorded by that judge in Wyoming’s public records, so it wasn’t something only Butch could know.

What if the text said The night before, Cassidy had dreamed about his family? Would this be proof of the dream’s reality? Only Butch could remember Butch’s dreams, right? With these statements you can say pretty much anything because nobody can prove you wrong.

Anyway, even a cursory reading raises these issues:

Cassidy’s picaresque Michigan adventures were intended to create links between Cassidy and Michigan, to make WTP/Cassidy’s sudden presence there in 1908 less surprising.

Remember his weird sea-routes to and from South America? The first is explicable by a natural desire to conceal his true final destination. But the return-trip’s Paris episode was necessary to explain what WTP and Cassidy looked like:

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Also, how did he reach Europe and America after barely escaping with his life in Bolivia? How much money could he carry? Enough to cross Brazil, reach England, spend three weeks in Paris, pay for plastic surgery then sail to the States and start afresh?

Invincible ignores Cassidy’s spell in Mexico. Lula’s book didn’t. There’s nothing about the Bolivian mine. Invincible asserts Longabaugh died but Cassidy told the Parkers they met in Mexico. There’s nothing about Cassidy’s new life in America.

The similarities may certainly be striking but the discrepancies and omissions are glaring.

Plus, Invincible‘s depiction of Cassidy is questionable. Butch’s character combines Huckleberry Finn with Robin Hood and Indiana Jones.

Q:  What about the “Evans and Wilson were Butch and Sundance” idea?

A: Doubtful. The chronology’s problematic. Also: If Butch and Sundance left Bolivia around 1908, why would they return to Patagonia? They were still wanted by the Argentinian and Chilean police, remember.

Q:  Finally, Cassidy dominates the narrative. Longabaugh always played second fiddle. Why isn’t there more research on Longabaugh‘s post-Bolivia fate?

A:  It seems people just aren’t that interested in Sundance. Butch was charismatic. Sundance stayed a shadowy, silent figure, except in Bolivian cantinas. There was never much to say about him. And that’s probably how he wanted it.

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The nude dude and his attitude to food

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In one episode of The Simpsons Lisa developed a crush on an eco-warrior campaigning to save a local forest. She tried to ingratiate herself by stressing her commitment to vegetarianism. He was unimpressed, displaying a low opinion of mere vegetarians. He was a total vegan. And not just any total vegan, but a Level-5 vegan.

Lisa: What’s a Level-5 vegan?

Eco-warrior: It means I won’t eat anything that can cast a shadow.

Food often influences our beliefs. The ancient Pythagoreans avoided beans – something to do with the transmigration of souls –  and medieval French Cathars shunned any food resulting from sexual reproduction. Some Hindu sects refuse onions and garlic, believing these arouse sexual passions. And so on.

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If sex produced it, the Cathars ate it not


Fast forward to the late 1800’s and we see dietary gurus everywhere. Some folks now had the luxury of abstaining from meat altogether, like the inventor of corn flakes, John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943). Taking his ideas from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Kellogg advocated two meals a day (lots of nuts, no meat), avoidance of coffee (you’ll get diabetes) and tea (you’ll go  insane). Plus daily enemas.

He also urged mandatory circumcision – without anesthetic so the pain would be unforgettable – to decrease the pleasures of masturbation. Kellogg was a qualified physician and spoke with unbridled confidence when he decreed that masturbation could lead to “the victim” dying “by his own hand.” How many American lads were terrified into keeping their hands above their waists at all times? They probably looked wistfully at their peckers, saying I’d really like to keep doing that thing you enjoy, but it says here it might kill me. And then they must have looked at their right hands with fear and loathing.

Fin-de-siècle Europe – especially Germany – saw a swing to even stronger vegetarianism. In 1894 The New York Times described an ex-German Army officer named Wäthe and his Fruitarian Society. Their diet was limited to ripe, raw fruit. They embraced compulsory nudity. Wäthe visited San Francisco to arrange a colony of fruitarian nudists in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) . That was the plan, but it  never reached fruition.

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“…or you will go blind and/or die!”

The most radical food cult started with another German, a pharmacist’s assistant born in Nuremberg in 1875, named August Engelhardt. His family was omnivorous, with no interest in vegetarianism. Young August was a dreamy lad, given to fantasies about distant places. He pored over atlases. This was while Germany was catching up with France and Britain in the acquisition of colonies in Africa and the Pacific. One day, he told himself, I’ll live somewhere exotic, somewhere in the tropics.

By the age of 22 he’d already published a book – A Carefree Future – describing an imaginary society of frugivores living on fruit alone. They weren’t anarcho-primitivists, though. They just wanted a fruit-only diet. Their lives were healthy and blissful, their bodies sustained by the golden goodness of equatorial sunshine and tropical fruits, their digestive systems untainted by the flesh of dead animals. And they held the coconut in particular esteem.

Soon central Germany’s the Jungborn (Fountain of Youth) movement attracted Engelhardt’s eager attention. It demanded strict vegetarianism and nudism. Were they winter nudists? Reports are sketchy. In any case, the movement had a short life: the police demolished their compound, arresting the members for public indecency.

One Hundred Years of Nakedness in German Performance

August Engelhardt crisscrossed Germany lecturing on the benefits of nudism and a tropical-fruit diet. He preached that humans could actually lead lives of abundant health on a coconuts-only diet. How ordinary Germans at the turn of the 20th century could afford to adopt Kokovorismus (coconut diet) wasn’t Engelhardt’s problem. His mind was elsewhere. He planned to put his ideas into practice by leaving Europe and starting anew cocovoristic life in the deep tropics.

But where? Germany owned a colony in West Africa, Togoland (today’s Togo). That might do. Or how about Kamerun (today’s Cameroon) in Central Africa? No, too rainy and too cloudy, and volcanic to boot. German Southwest Africa (Namibia), then? Nein: it was a desert devoid of coconuts. German East Africa (Tanzania, as it later became)? Lots of coconuts, to be sure, but lots of Muslims too. A nudist would be asking for trouble. Yet throughout this period a little voice inside his head kept whispering  Südpazifik! Südpazifik! Yes, the South Pacific beckoned. That could be the place where a naked cocovore could live joyfully under the tropical sun.

Germany had recently purchased Micronesia from the Spanish Empire (Spain needed the money and Germany needed a bigger empire). But it also owned Samoa and a big chunk of what is now Papua New Guinea. Intrigued, Engelhardt checked the map. German New Guinea’s almost on the equator, he noted. Lots of coastline. Lots of coconuts. Das ist perfekt!

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The gods were kind: Engelhardt’s parents died at a wonderfully convenient juncture.  He inherited him a substantial sum. Nothing could stop him now. To German New Guinea! He’d forsake Europe and partake of  the wonders of cocovorism.

What supported his dietary ideas?

He believed early humans had made many wrong turns. They should never have wandered so far north from their African homeland. Europe was no place for Homo sapiens, he declared. Our natural home is the equatorial belt, with its fruit trees and warm climate. Clothes would be useless encumbrances in such conditions. Agriculture was another serious blunder, he told whoever would listen. Mankind was meant to live free eating wild plants and living outdoors. The sun was the source of all life, so humans needed to “get back to the sun”. They’d then reach their destiny – healthy, happy, frugivorous and as naked as the day they were born.

We must never block the sun’s influence on our bodies, he wrote. Abandon clothes! The head was the body-part closest to the sun, and was thus of special significance. Wearing hats was foolishness: it hindered the sun’s beneficial rays. Not only that, but the energy required by our brains isn’t supplied by the alimentary canal, that dark and dirty area full of Scheiße. No, said Engelhardt, the human brain receives energy directly from the sun. The hair follicles transform sunlight into nutrients.

Meat, grains and vegetables were less dependent on the sun and were therefore inferior to fruit. And what better fruit was there than the coconut? It grew at the top of tall palm trees, and was thus closest to the sun. Not only was it the most nutritious of all foods, he affirmed, but a lifelong adherence to Kokovorismus would inevitably result in a higher state of spiritual consciousness, approaching the divine.

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In 1902 August Engelhardt arrived in German New Guinea (the map’s green area). He brought 1,200 books and just enough clothes to avoid arrest. He purchased a 75-hectare coconut grove on a small island and built himself a hut.

Engelhardt was now a wealthy man with few material needs. He could bring in German disciples who wanted to partake of the cocovore experience. The first arrived in 1903. A few stayed for several months. Some left as soon as illness struck. And many left sooner than that, put off by the mosquitoes and sand flies, the mud and the enervating heat.

The European population fluctuated wildly. Engelhardt was often alone (alone if you ignore the 40 or so Melanesians on the island). He was occasionally surrounded by enthusiastic nudist vegetarians. Some adapted, others found the guru’s standards and practices hard to maintain.

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Dressed for the occasion (Engelhardt’s topless)


One story concerns a noted classical musician from Berlin, Max Lutzow. His enthusiasm for Engelhardt’s ideas was almost embarrassingly strong. Lutzow brought his violin to play tunes by his pet composers, Georges Bizet and Domenico Donizetti. Unfortunately, Engelhardt loathed Donizetti’s music and detested Bizet’s Carmen. He confronted Lutzow about this. A spirited exchange of opinions ensued. Lutzow stormed off to sleep in a boat moored in the lagoon.

During the night the boat slipped its moorings and drifted out to sea. Strong cross-currents prevented the boat’s return, and Lutzow was stranded for two days exposed to the equatorial sun without food or drink. The boat had food but no coconuts, so he abstained. After his rescue he developed a fever. Engelhardt’s medical treatment – based on coconuts – failed. Lutzow died.

Engelhardt himself was in poor health. After years of nothing but coconuts his weight plummeted to 39 kg. His skin was badly ulcerated. He could barely stand. A New York Times reporter from Manila covered Engelhardt’s story. In October 1905 he filed lurid – and bogus – reports of Engelhardt violently defying all attempts by German government doctors to restore his health and of his death while fighting against restraint.

But Engelhardt didn’t die. He remained on his island, usually in splendid isolation. Occasional visitors briefly stayed on, but he was mostly alone. It became “the done thing” for visitors to German New Guinea to have their photos taken with the naked local loony, the mad coconut king (although the conventions of the time obliged him to cover up for the photographer).

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The Germans held out for weeks

In  August 1914 the Great War broke out and at Britain’s behest Australian forces seized German New Guinea. August Engelhardt was interned as an enemy civilian, but his captors soon decided he was more of a threat to himself than to the British Empire. They released him.

Engelhardt faded into obscurity, dying in May, 1919. German New Guinea had ceased to exist in September, 1914, and the coconut king spent the war confined to his tiny island, sending botanical specimens to Australian scientists as his life petered out. Throughout the years he stuck rigidly to cocovorism, never yielding to temptation. He couldn’t even bring himself to eat bananas. But instead of attaining a long life, glorious health and higher consciousness, he died a lingering death aged 43.

His last thoughts were probably of coconuts.

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It’ll be coconuts for lunch, I think




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The Yaghan/Yámana lived in the lowlands, but spoke the Mount Everest of languages.

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Right down the bottom

The Yaghan people – or their remnants – are native to South America’s southernmost tip, the land of ice and fire called Tierra del Fuego. Research suggests they arrived about 6,000 years ago.

A 19th-century Anglican clergyman with the Patagonian Mission Society coined their name. He was the first to assume the herculean task of learning their language. (Defying all attempts to link it to other local languages, Yaghan is a language isolate: it has no demonstrable kinship with any other language, living or dead.)

The Yaghan called themselves Yámana, which as a noun meant human. Thus a hand with the suffix -yámana was a human hand, not an animal’s claw. Yámana as a verb meant to live, to breathe, to be happy, to recover from illness or to be sane.

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There’s more where this came from

Disease wreaked havoc as 19th-century immigrants – Slavs and Germans – displaced the natives and cleared their land for sheep-farming. Until then the Yaghan/Yámana had been incessant wanderers. A stationary Yaghan was an oxymoron: the men always hunting marine mammals from their canoes, the women relentlessly searching for crustaceans and fish . The Austrian missionary-anthropologist Martin Gusinde noted their restlessness, describing them as “fidgety birds of passage who feel happy … only when they are on the move”.

At first their language was assumed to be just as primitive as their lifestyle, for the Yaghan/Yámana people lived virtually naked, despite a chilly climate where summer snow flurries surprised nobody. Clothes just made you colder when they inevitably got wet. Smearing your body with seal fat was more effective. Their higher-than-average metabolisms and body temperatures did the rest.

Frequent cloud and fog prevented evaporation, keeping the ground permanently wet and intensifying the cold. Yet everyone slept in flimsy temporary seal-skin and sapling huts or behind rock shelters, or just in their canoes.

Fire was paramount. The Yaghan/Yámana could even start and maintain fires on rain-soaked bogs. Fire cooked their food and kept them warm when the seal fat needed help. They sent smoke signals warning of danger or alerting friends to sightings of marine mammals. Despite the risk, they even maintained fires in their canoes.

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Fire in the hole

The seasons governed their world. The appearance of the blue sea-anemones heralded spring. The first snipes brought in the canoe-building season. Their knowledge of nature was astonishing.

Two supernatural brothers with opposing views on everything dominated their religious practices. Their myths involved a powerful sea lion and his human wife and stories about a giant albatross and sacred humming birds. Spirits, malicious and kindly, crowded their everyday world. Any shaman could control the weather (if he so desired). Tradition held that women were once the ruling class, but lost that role after a male rebellion. The nearby Ona/Selk’nam had been their sworn enemies since, well, forever.

The first outsider to study their language was the British missionary Thomas Bridges (1842-1898). Abandoned as an infant and raised by a clergyman, Bridges was only 18 years old when he took over the Tierra del Fuego mission, beginning his life-long task of mastering their language for the transmission of Holy Scripture. At his death his dictionary-grammar of Yaghan/Yámana had over 30,000 definitions. But it was still nowhere near completion.


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Dressed for the occasion

British explorer, Captain James Weddell, had encountered the Yaghan/Yámana back in 1822. He surmised their language was a debased form of Hebrew. Wedell’s report fueled speculation in Europe about Noah’s descendants after the Flood and about the Lost Tribe of Israel.

Barely a decade later, Captain Robert FitzRoy – who later commanded HMS Beagle on which young Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking ideas germinated – abducted four young Yaghans to England. They were to be inculcated with the English language and some basic Scripture and returned to their desolate homeland to form the nucleus of a Christian community.

One soon succumbed to smallpox. The other three, El’leparu (“York Minster”), O’run-del’lico (“Jemmy [or Jimmy] Button”) and Yok’cushly (“Fuegia Basket”) survived the round trip, learning enough English to get by. They even met the King.

We know little of what eventually happened to “York” and “Fuegia”, but Jemmy Button’s experience is better documented. On their return to Tierra del Fuego Jemmy shocked everyone – especially himself – by discovering that he could no longer converse in Yaghan. Only English words came out. The British ship left them, promising to return in a year. But FitzRoy reluctantly conceded that Jemmy – the three survivors’ best English-speaker – would probably prove useless as an interpreter for future missionaries.

A year later the returning ship saw Jemmy had completely recovered his native language, married and reverted to the Yaghan/Yámana lifestyle. He refused to return to England. (He had, however, taught some English to a few Yaghan kids.)

Some 25 years later – his knowledge of English still robust despite sporadic chances to exercise it – Jemmy was implicated in a missionary’s murder. He emphatically denied involvement and escaped punishment.

He died in 1864, aged about 50. One of his sons, dubbed “Threeboy” by the missionaries, was whisked away to England, but probably soon returned to his people.

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Jemmy Button, before & after

Young Thomas Bridges firstly assumed – just like Charles Darwin who’d visited the region in HMS Beagle in the 1830’s – that these people occupied the bottom rung of humanity, along with the Tasmanian aborigines and the southern African Bushmen. So how difficult could their primitive language be? In any case, Christians are exhorted to gather all nations unto the Lord, so Bridges plunged into the Yaghan language.

His jaw dropped once he saw what this entailed.

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Looks aren’t everything

The language was so metaphor-dependent that finding the true meaning of a word was like peeling an onion.

“Monotony” was defined as the absence of male friends.

“Depression”  was represented by the single word describing the phase in a crab’s life-cycle between the time it sloughs off its old shell and the time its new shell has grown.

One spoke of adultery by using the name of a species of hawk able to hover over its intended victim.

The word for a fur seal could mean a fur seal, or could refer to the relatives of a murdered man.

The list was endless. But Bridges persisted.

He noticed the underlying logic of these metaphors was intimately bound up with the Yaghans’ lifestyle. For instance, “the thawing of snow” was synonymous with the word for scar and also for teaching. The connection was this: snow melts in patches and leaves a smooth, flat surface (a scar). And snow thaws in the spring, when the Yaghan/Yámana start a new wandering cycle and the children are taught the names of everything that swims, walks, crawls, floats, sprouts, flies, climbs and slithers.

They routinely applied observations of the natural  world to human affairs.

A hiccup was a tangle of fallen trees blocking the path forward.

Sleet (always a threat, the shaman’s powers notwithstanding) was the same word as fish scales.

Old age was easily identified by rough, wrinkly skin, or mussels out of season.

And the word for bog was the same as a mortal wound (or a mortally wounded man). The mossy, water-oozing bogs of Tierra del Fuego cover the valley floors, laid out flat like a wounded man. Their dull yellow and reddish-brown hues resemble the blood and pus from a suppurating wound.

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There was talk of the Lost Tribe of Israel


Interestingly, the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation envisaged a similar linguistic scenario. In Season 5, the Federation Starship Enterprise attempts contact with the remote Tamarian people. The Tamarians’ infrequent encounters with Federation starships in the previous century were mutually frustrating since even basic communication proved impossible. Despite the Federation’s arsenal of advanced linguistic software, Tamarian remained incomprehensible.

The Enterprise‘s captain is kidnapped and forced to cooperate with his Tamarian counterpart in fighting a monster on the planet’s surface. Gradually the captain deduces that the rules of Tamarian don’t allow straightforward declarative sentences. Every utterance is an allegory, simile or metaphor drawn from the Tamarians’ inexhaustible fund of mythology and folklore.

The name of a semi-mythical king combined with “on the ocean” means to be alone.

“His arms held wide” means friendship or cooperation. And so on.

As this fundamental feature of Tamarian becomes clearer, the Enterprise‘s officers explain it thus:

Imagine a linguistic community using English vocabulary and grammar but  communicating only in the Tamarian style. Somebody says Juliet on the balcony. If you didn’t know who this Juliet was, or why she was on the balcony, then this expression would be meaningless. Your ignorance of this image’s Shakespearean origin would prevent you understanding its reference to the first flushes of an ardent romance. It would still be English, of course, but its meaning would completely elude you.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men is another example. We understand this to describe a bad situation which cannot be remedied. But if you had no idea of who Humpty Dumpty was, what he sat on and what happened to him, then this utterance would confound you.

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His sails unfurled = Full speed ahead

It’s therefore apparent that understanding the Tamarian language depends on learning the culture – the mythology, history and folklore.

Thus the normal learning sequence is inverted.

Normally we assume that mastering the language must precede understanding the culture. But with the Tamarians and the Yaghan/Yámana, an intimate knowledge of the culture is an absolute prerequisite for coming to grips with the target language.

This is the paradox Bridges faced in mastering Yaghan. Making sense of even the basic language required an intimate knowledge of the culture. But that knowledge could only come from mastering the language.

It’s a wonder his brain didn’t explode.

In his genre-bending travel book In Patagonia (1977) – from which some of these details come – Bruce Chatwin wrote that verbs dominated the Yaghan/Yámana language. Its verbs were astonishingly specific, like aiapi (to bring a special kind of spear and put it in a canoe ready for hunting). Or a compound verb meaning to let someone you dislike enter a dangerous situation without warning or stopping [him].

Chatwin explained:

The Yaghans had a dramatic verb to capture every twitch of the muscles, every possible action of nature or man. The verb  îya means ‘to moor your canoe to a streamer of  kelp’; ôkon ‘to sleep in a floating canoe’ (and quite different from sleeping in a hut, on the beach or with your wife); ukômona ‘to hurl your spear into a shoal of fish without aiming for a particular one’; wejna ‘to be loose or easily moved as a broken bone or a blade in a knife’ – ‘to wander about, or roam, as a homeless or lost child’ – ‘to be attached yet loose, as an eye or bone in its socket’ – ‘to swing, move or travel’ – or simply ‘to exist or be’.

And so it went. Peeling the onion’s layers took decades. European diseases ripped through the indigenous population. The survivors lost their traditions. The language shrunk. By the late 1900’s it entered the critically endangered category of languages.

At the moment only one Yaghan/Yámana native-speaker is left alive. She’s a 90-year-old woman living near Puerto Williams, Chile.

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Italy’s most unusual city is nagged by lost circumstance.

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But why are you in Trieste?” the woman asked.                                                   

The scene was a popular cafe in an obscure northern Italian port. In a list of Italian cities, this place would probably be in the etcetera section.

That’s no exaggeration. So remote is Trieste from the minds of many Italians that they have real problems pinning down its location on maps. You’ll need to look closely when searching for this city. In my own atlas it’s located just on the crease separating two pages, with the Tri on one page and the este – slightly out of alignment – on the other.

That says something about this city of 205,000 people scrunched between the Adriatic Sea and the Slovenian border. It’s in Italy – just barely – but has one foot in the Latin world and one foot in the Slavic world. So it’s not postcard Italian in the way that Venice and Florence are. This is because until 1918 Trieste was the main port of Austria-Hungary.

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The main port of landlocked Austria and even more landlocked Hungary. Landlocked now, of course, but until its defeat in the First World War Austria-Hungary/the Austro-Hungarian Empire/the Habsburg Empire (they’re all the same) owned big chunks of the Adriatic coast, meaning a slab of northeastern Italy and all of Slovenia and Croatia. Plus Bosnia was somewhere in there, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, some Romanian territory, bits of Poland, a slice of the Ukraine….

Some of the empire’s peoples (“nationalities”) were happy to be ruled by Vienna or Budapest (the actual distribution of power tended to complexity). But some – notably the Czechs and Bosnian Serbs – kept butting their heads against imperial rule, daubing pro-independence graffiti on the walls, agitating for this and demonstrating for that, all the while shaking their fists in the general direction of Vienna.

This was to be expected in a ramshackle empire with two capital cities, its population comprising Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Muslims, Germans, Magyars, Latins, Roma and Slavs speaking about a dozen languages, broken down into beer drinkers, slivovitz lovers, Muslim teetotalers, wine heads and vodka hounds. And for all of them Trieste was their gateway to the sea.

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Space? We have space.


The woman in this bar was mousy and middle-aged, a faded beauty with faded blonde hair. She wore a faded overcoat despite the mild weather. She must have already had a wine or three and was well into this glass which she wafted riskily in the air as she spoke. Emboldened by the wine she approached our table a little unsteadily and started speaking a kind of English whose grasp never quite matched its reach.

“Sorry to disturb…would like to take this…er…opportunity…cannot…could not identify your English…not American…not Irish…interesting accents moreover…seldom have the opportunity to speak English…would you…er… be so kind…” We obliged her by explaining ourselves, carefully avoiding the tedious details likely to challenge a drunk person’s attention span.

After more small talk she suddenly leaned forward with the urgent sincerity of the drinker who’s passed that evening’s point of no return, and asked: “But why are you in Trieste?”

The clear inference was that nobody visits Trieste without a pressing reason to do so. you pass through Trieste to and from Austria and the Balkans. You visit Trieste on business. But who spends hours and hours on planes to visit Trieste and nowhere else?

Before we could answer she announced she was a coroner, and that she was also a typical Triestina. In her case this meant she was half-Italian, a quarter Austrian and a quarter Slovenian.


How right she was about being typical. The ethnic mix in this city means that a civil marriage ceremony might be conducted by a magistrate named Emilio Brabich, who would intone something like, “Do you, Fabrizio Horvat, take Giovanna Plunck to be your lawfully wedded wife…?”

You might swing by the Museo Carlo Schmidl on the Piazza Gopcevich. Or you might pay a respectful visit to Italy’s only Nazi extermination camp for Jews, gays and leftists at Risiera di San Babba. Its commandant was a local boy, Trieste-born Odilo Lotario Globocnik (1904-1945).

At first this ethnic salad – all these hybridized, hyphenated Italians – surprises you. But with Google as your friend you find that where you’re sitting the next day – a table in the stately Caffè Tommaseo –  is closer by road to Salzburg than to Florence, closer to Zagreb than to Milan, closer to Budapest than to Rome and closer to Ljubljana than to Venice. So this isn’t the northern fringe of southern Europe. It’s the southern fringe of central Europe.

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Globocnik was no ordinary Triestino


You know you’re in Italy, but the city keeps reminding that it almost isn’t. It swings your attention this way and that, from plus to minus and back again. You ponder what kind of Italy produces people with names like Globocnik, Horvat and Plunck, and you figure this place isn’t really all that Italian. Then a motor scooter zips past. It has all the automotive power of a sewing machine but emits the noise volume of a chainsaw and you think,  This is Italy all right.

You remember reading how Trieste rivals Buenos Aires in the per capita number of psychoanalysts, but then you reflect on how uptight the people are not, with their pleasant manners and their easy charm. You recall the fact that your average Triestino consumes twice as much rocket-fuel coffee as your average Italian, but nobody seems wired up. Some people actually doze over their rocket-fuel coffee.

So why am I in Trieste?

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The wheels started to turn with a reading of Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris (2001). As an 18-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, James Morris – she used to be a he – entered Trieste in the chaotic last days of World War Two. Knowing what kind of treatment they could expect, the remaining German troops refused to surrender to the snarling Yugoslav partisans surrounding them. So the Western Allies moved in. Since then Morris has had a fond relationship with the city. She even speaks its distinctive dialect.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere opens with:

I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye. Who can? It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination. It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single name that everyone knows. It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all.

Who could resist such a description? As for her claims:

  • No unforgettable landmark. Check. No Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House or anything resembling the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
  • No universally familiar melody. Check. The composer Antonio Smareglia (1854-1929). No, I haven’t heard of him either. Going to Trieste for the music would be like going to Spain for the beer.
  • No unmistakable cuisine. Here I must take issue with Morris. Trieste has a unique and wickedly rich seafood dish, too thick to be a soup, too digestible to be a stew. But what was its name again?

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  • Hardly a single name that everyone knows. Check. James Joyce was an adopted Triestino when he taught for years at the local Berlitz School. He supposedly based the character of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses on a local Jewish student, also a novelist, Italo Svevo (born Aron Ettore Schmitz). But apart from Joyce, who else can we identify with Trieste?
  • Ethnically ambivalent. Check. This is clear when you walk its streets and look at all the blue eyes and Melania-Trump-cheekbones, and read the names on the signs in the shop windows…
  •  Historically confused. Check. Imagine an elderly Triestino who has lived his whole life in the city:

As the centenarian reviews his life he says: “I was born in 1915, during the Great War, as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When I was a toddler Trieste became Italian, and so did I. When I was 28 it became Küstenland, an official part of Germany, so that made me German. Then it became independent, a so-called Free City under United Nations control, so I was nothing. Now Trieste and I are Italian again and everywhere you look there are Romanian immigrants and Chinese traders and Bulgarian hookers and whatnot. So who needs to travel?”

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Trieste is haunted by history, and the Great War (1914-1918) haunts it the most. The city is trapped between the sea and a looming ring of limestone ridges called the Karst (Italian: Carso, Slovenian: Kras), straddling the Slovenian border. It looks more inviting today, thanks to decades of tree-planting, but from 1915 to 1918 it was a bleak, forbidding plateau, like a petrified sponge five times the size of Manhattan.

One wartime reporter called it  “a howling wilderness of stone”.

Soldiers on WWI's Italian Front fought enemies, frostbite and ...

The Italians and the Austro-Hungarians battled over this ghastly landscape for three and a half years. Their armies were like two one-armed midgets in a fight to the death. The Italians repeatedly charged uphill into the enemy machine guns, while the Austro-Hungarians on the higher ground rolled boulders down on them whenever their ammunition ran out.

A constant flow of sick and wounded Austro-Hungarian soldiers streamed into Trieste, carried down by exhausted mules. World wars are inherently unhealthy but both sides endured horrific conditions. Water had to be heaved up from the lowlands by whatever means available. But it was never enough, so kidneys failed and livers rotted.

Vicious winter winds whipped through the canyons and froze the troops huddling in caves or in crude rock shelters (how do you dig trenches in limestone?). Artillery shells bounced and skidded among the Karst’s boulders, shattering them into millions of fragments and ripping the eyeballs of any nearby soldiers. Avalanches and rock slides buried thousands of them alive.

Men were deafened by the monstrously amplified boom of artillery reverberating in the caverns and among the cliffs. Sleep was impossible. The endless crashing and shaking could drive them insane. Some went mad from the all-pervading, nauseating stench of thousands of corpses because you simply can’t dig graves – or latrines – in limestone.

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Austro-Hungarian supply line

Neither army started the war in great shape. The Italian troops were often illiterate or semi-literate conscripts, poorly trained and under-equipped. They were there because Italian politicians were convinced that Trieste – most conscripts had never heard of the place – rightfully belonged to Italy. The politicians were also certain that once the Triestini saw how many brave Italian lads were shedding their blood for this noble cause everyone’s heart would swell with love for their true homeland and they’d rise up against their Austro-Hungarian masters. They could never understand why most Triestini – civilians and soldiers alike – stayed so  loyal to Vienna.

Italian soldiers endured sadistic discipline. Before an “advance” they were issued a cup or two of grappa to stiffen their resolve. Their officers usually ordered the first wave of attackers  – “the first line” – to charge straight at the enemy positions, always uphill. They’d order the second line to lay down a line of fire – aiming at the ground –  just behind to prevent retreat by anyone developing doubts about the wisdom of charging into a solid wall of machine gun fire.

When the Italian second line troops charged the enemy position – their job made harder by having to scramble over the dead and wounded from the first line – the third line also had to lay down a similar line of fire to the second line’s rear in case they tried to fall back to safety.

One time an Italian officer ordered the decimation (the execution of every tenth man, randomly chosen) of his second line because he saw them firing over the heads of the poor sons of bitches in the first line instead of firing at the ground just behind them. The men assigned to the firing squads then got good and drunk on army rotgut wine and deliberately missed their targets, so they too were sentenced to execution.

It’s no wonder, then, that by the autumn of 1917 most Italians fighting in the bloodsoaked wasteland above Trieste had had enough. During yet another poorly planned pre-winter “advance” about 300,000 of them threw down their weapons and surrendered en masse. They marched joyfully into Austro-Hungarian captivity, shouting Viva Austria!. The Austro-Hungarians, on semi-starvation rations themselves, groaned at the knowledge that they now had almost a third of a million more mouths to feed.    


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Por noi la guerra è finita!

                                                                                                                                                                         The Austro-Hungarian forces were no world-beaters themselves, and as the war dragged on they lost whatever punch they had. Their economy couldn’t sustain prolonged warfare. Everyone was exhausted and hungry. In the war’s last months all they could do was try desperately to hang on.

The Austro-Hungarian one-armed midget ran out of breath just slightly ahead of the Italian one-armed midget, and the Habsburg Empire fragmented. The half-starved and war-weary army disintegrated and the war effort collapsed. After half a millennium of rule from Vienna, Trieste was now Italian.

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For the Italians it was always uphill


What do you do if you’re on the losing side in a war and you’re now a citizen of the old enemy? This question faced the Triestini in November 1918. There was nowhere to run. The old empire was kaput. This new political order turned everything on its head.

Meanwhile, Italy’s generals and politicians were jubilant. They popped champagne and threw their hats in the air. But it soon became clear that Trieste was a place they wanted but not a place they needed. Sure it used to be Austria-Hungary’s main port, and a good one too, but Venice was just as good, as were Genoa and Naples. So what was the point of Trieste?

What was the point indeed? Trieste was a fine place for novelists to ensconce themselves in cafes and commune with their muses, and few cities could beat its coffee and decadent Viennese desserts and its wunderbahr sausages. But what else could it offer? Centuries of prestige, sure, but no one seriously thought it had much of a future. And, like the drunken coroner, it faded.

When the next world war ended in 1945 Trieste was a major question mark. Europe’s borders shifted yet again, and Yugoslavia tried a little expansion. Trieste’s historic ties with Slovenia were strong, weren’t they? Slovenes and Croats had lived in its suburbs for generations, hadn’t they? But Italy clung tenaciously to Trieste, and a standoff developed. The U.N. stepped in and took control.

The Free Territory of Trieste mentioned earlier by our centenarian Triestino lasted seven years. The city became an Adriatic version of Vienna, West Berlin and Helsinki: a useful base from which western intelligence agencies snooped on regimes they didn’t like, such as Yugoslavia. But then Italy got the city back again just as Yugoslavia obligingly distanced itself from the Soviet Bloc. So Trieste lost whatever Cold War usefulness it offered. By the late 1960’s it was where Yugoslavian day-trippers bought denim jeans and Rolling Stones albums for re-sale back home.

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So here it is, the 21st century. The city’s now over 2,000 years old, even more faded than the drunken coroner. These thoughts remind you how time is so easily lost.

Jan Morris captures the elusive mood of Trieste, a city that is somehow “reliably second-tier”, when she says:

If it were not a port Trieste would have been nothing much, and the sense that it is nothing much, now that its great days seem to be gone, is what has made it feel so wistfully unfulfilled. Trieste is not exactly rankled by its disappointments, as a surgeon might be embittered by unfair dismissal from his hospital, but for nearly a century it has been nagged by lost circumstance.

“Wistfully unfulfilled.”

“Nagged by lost circumstance.”

That’s the thing. Trieste – an unwitting victim of history and geography – never reached its full height and fell short of its potential. It’s now a mere dot in a remote corner of Italy and even many Italians are barely aware of it. How often can we reflect on how our own lives never reached their full height, and how we fell short of our own potential? Reflect on how we could have been, should have been, something bigger and better, with more to show for our lives than amusing anecdotes and deteriorating bodies and jumbled memories?

We recall blown chances, crucial moments when we took our eye off the ball. We reflect on people we mistrusted but who turned out to be more honest than the people we did trust. We regret the money we mindlessly pissed away and all the squandered opportunities we hardly even thought about at the time. We could’ve become this, we might’ve done that, we should’ve chosen something else. Like Trieste we could’ve reached greater heights. Where did it all go?

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The gruesome details of a gruesome practice produced by gruesome circumstances.

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James Meeks haunting novel The People’s Act of Love opens in 1919 with a bedraggled escapee from a Siberian prison camp stumbling into a remote village. He tells his interrogators he’d not only escaped from an Arctic hell hole, but he’d narrowly avoided being eaten by his accomplice.

Reports of inmates escaping from remote prison camps then killing and then eating their fellow escapees first appeared in a Russian medical journal in 1895, although the practice must have existed long before then. (In the 1820’s an outlaw in Tasmania named Alexander Pearce boasted of eating his fellow escapees, claiming to prefer human meat to pork.) The practice continued in Russia well into the 20th century, by which time Czarist despotism gave way to Stalinist despotism.

This Russian practice involved the following:

Experienced prisoners would plan an escape which always included a recently arrived inmate. The naive newcomer, ignorant of the dog-eat-dog culture of the camps, would count himself lucky to be included in the escape. He would also be relatively healthy, having not yet suffered years of privation. He had plenty of meat on his bones. This was crucial. He was to be the korova (cow).

Jacques Rossi’s Gulag Handbook  (quoted in The People’s Act of Love) defines korova as: A person designated to be eaten; suspecting nothing, any novice criminal, invited by his elders to join them in an escape, is fit for this role…if, during their flight, the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted, without prospect of renewal, the “cow” will be slaughtered…

Rossi, who despite his name was a Pole, spent many years in the Gulag (the Soviet prison camp network in Siberia and the Arctic). But his statement “if the escapees’ food supplies are exhausted…” was disingenuous. Prisoners were on semi-starvation rations. Even the most iron-willed inmate could never hope to put aside enough morsels to sustain him throughout an escape. So of course the korova was going to be eaten. That was the sole reason for including him.

A political prisoner made the best korova. A thief or murderer had probably done time before and had developed an instinct about these things. He’d be among the eaters, not the eaten. A “political” was almost certainly not guilty of any crime at all, but had merely been caught up in one of Stalin’s senseless waves of mass arrests. He’d never done the backbreaking toil that half-killed most prisoners. Chances were his idea of a hard day’s work was the endless signing of papers (including, in some cases, arrest orders).


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Shall we dine?

In The People’s Act of Love the escapee is named Samarin, a leftist agitator on the run from one of the Czar’s harshest and most isolated prison camps. In his testimony he claims he’d been “bought and sold” by a series of senior prisoners. As thieves and murderers  – not “politicals” – they were the camp’s aristocracy.

He’d become a camp aristocrat’s slave. The owner received food from other aristocrats in return for Samarin’s extra shifts working in the camp’s mine.

Samarin testified his final owner – a vile waste of carbon called The Mohican – suddenly started treating him humanely and used his considerable influence to reduce Samarin’s workload. And he suddenly started feeding Samarin.

One night a now healthier Samarin overhears a couple of aristocrats having a muffled argument with The Mohican. He’s too much for one. You’ve got to share him! he hears one of them whisper. Who is this him? And what does share mean? But all too soon the camp descends into chaos as the Civil War disrupts supplies.

The Mohican prepares an escape. But in Samarin’s testimony only he and The Mohican are in on the plan. Samarin soon discerns the evil fate in store for him and evades his partner. After months of wandering ever southward he arrives half dead at the Siberian village of Yazyk.

From here the novel’s plot unfolds. Things get complicated. All is not as it seems. There are murders and betrayals, lies within lies.

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The Mohican, said Samarin, had selected him and fattened him up for the escape. The supply of new prisoners had stopped as the Civil War raged, so there was no “new meat”. But by Stalin’s time this was never a problem. An endless stream of inmates entered the Gulag, so your average korova was already in good shape compared to the veteran prisoners. He looked good enough to eat.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps tells this grim story recounted by Edward Buca, another Polish survivor of the camps (from August 1939 many Soviet prison camps had no shortage of Poles):

Two prisoners arrested for murder and theft plotted an escape. They invited the obese camp cook to join them. A perfect plan: lots of meat, and it conveniently transports itself.

The two men duly killed and ate the cook. But their trek to freedom took longer than expected. Hunger set in and their korova had long been digested and excreted.

They now faced a dilemma. To split up and try to go it alone would be suicidal. But staying together was risky. Each escapee was under no illusions about the other’s intention. The first man to nod off would become several meals. Each tried desperately to stay awake. But finally one succumbed to sleep.

However, the last man standing never made it to freedom. He was caught two days later. Some of the survivor’s buddy was in his belly and the rest was still in his sack, waiting to be eaten. He wound up back in the Gulag system. There, we can be sure, his fellow prisoners treated him with a measure of respect, while never getting too close.

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