Turn Up the Jazz: Murder and Mayhem in Prohibition New York City

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It was July 1929, and ex-convict Simon Walker walked into a speakeasy. He came with friends William “Red” Cassidy and Peter Cassidy, a couple of guys known as waterfront street fighters, and the bar was the Hotsy-Totsy Club at Broadway and Fifty-fourth Street. The speakeasy was owned by the gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and his partner, Charles Entratta. Alcohol mixed with high tensions resulted in an argument between the Cassidy boys and Legs. Guns were drawn and shooting commenced. The orchestra played on, covering up the sounds of gunfire as Simon Walker was killed.

The murder of Simon Walker in the Hotsy-Totsy Club in 1929 was a common occurrence in the Prohibition days of New York City. Bootlegged liquor, speakeasies, and gangsters ruled the city, and the changing ideas of sexuality, class structure, and views on drinking turned the city upside down.

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Jack “Legs” Diamond

The Volstead Act went into effect January 1920, outlawing alcohol. It was the first time the government had attempted to control a moral principle in the citizens of the nation with the passage of law. Deemed the “noble experiment,” Prohibition sought to improve the lives of the poor by removing the vice of drinking. The noble experiment would be a colossal failure, and in no place would it be more spectacular than New York City.

Before Prohibition, saloons were the heartbeat of neighborhoods. Saloon owners were the first to raise money for patrons when an emergency happened or give loans until a patron could get back on his feet. Saloons were meeting places for unions and neighborhood groups. During the day when men were at work, mothers and their children would come to the saloons or children alone would be sent to pick up growlers for dinner, as the beer was safer than water to drink. The saloon was the first place an immigrant would learn how to manage the new world from those who had come before. Prohibition would end the idea of the saloon as a cultural center when drinking alcohol earned the glitter of being outlawed.

With the loosening of ideals around sexuality and drinking, speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs flourished in a city that might not have even known of the Volstead Act if one just looked at the actions of its citizens. So enamored were the citizens of New York with this new, loose lifestyle, drinking became a sort of sport. While before Prohibition, it would damage one’s reputation to be arrested, being arrested for the violation of the Volstead Act became the cat’s pajamas. Members of high society would flaunt the fact that they had gone to jail for consuming alcohol, so neat was it to be caught drinking.

The nightclub evolved from the saloon as a way for establishments to slip under the radar of Prohibition agents. Such establishments would promote dancing as its main entertainment and not alcohol, just like cabarets. Using walnut or mahogany screens to shield windows, hidden doors inside other establishments, and even going so far as to move frequently, nightclubs and cabarets could offer the much sought-after alcohol while avoiding the scrutiny of the Prohibition Bureau. Even when speakeasies were padlocked for selling alcohol, the business would keep operating out of a back door, leaving the padlock in place as if the owners were abiding by the law.

Speakeasies became the place to see and be seen. They were often outrageously decorated with rich woods, glittering brass rails, and dazzling lights. The Aquarium even housed a giant fish tank. The Country Club had a mini golf course. The 21 Club became the exclusive haunt of midtown. Drinking was no longer a moral taboo. It was the center of nightlife in New York. People who had never drunk before were suddenly taking up the drink because it was the thing to do.

But this glamorous, carefree life came at a price. As liquor was outlawed, it was illegal to manufacture it, sell it, and consume it. Alcohol used in manufacturing was even poisoned to deter people from consuming it. They did anyway to dire consequences. But the speakeasies, cabarets and nightclubs had to find some way of getting alcohol for their patrons. This led to the extraordinary rise in organized crime in the 1920s. Bootleggers constructed elaborate rings to bring liquor into the city. The importers would hide their bootlegging businesses behind legitimate businesses like olive oil importing. The Menorah Wine Company even attempted to import over $100,000 in liquor on forged permits from the Prohibition Bureau under the guise of sacramental wine importation.

This organized crime had a little help from the inside. Prohibition agents were often unqualified for the job. Many were men returning from World War I and in need of a job. They would go into the bureau and start on the take from a gangster, earning more than they could ever dream. In return, the agent would tip off their gangster employer by calling from the bureau office the night of a raid. It got so bad the bureau turned off the phones in the office on raid nights. Agents would confiscate liquor from other bootleggers only to sell it to their gangster employers. A Prohibition agent was a great thing to be in the 1920s if you knew how to play your cards.

But it wasn’t just the gangsters of New York that were cashing in on this illegal trade. Ethnic groups, minorities, and new immigrants also found bootlegging as a way of just paying the bills and staying a breath above the poverty line. They would sell a shot of liquor out of a hip flask on the street, stand as guards in front of speakeasies to warn of raids, and set up shop as a “cordial,” where it was known liquor would be sold. In Harlem where unscrupulous landlords gouged rent prices, tenants staged rent parties near the end of the month, dishing out shots of liquor for high prices. They would collect enough to then pay the rent the next day.

But although the liquor was flowing and the jazz was roaring, the noble experiment caused a higher crime rate than ever before seen in New York City. Reputable businesses like the famed Delmonico’s were forced to close, and honest saloonkeepers forced out of business. It was with a reluctant heart that Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the wet movement in order to secure the democratic nomination in 1932. A dry from the beginning, FDR had no interest in repealing the Volstead Act, but popular consensus was against him. The noble experiment had failed. People were being killed for shots of liquor. Honest bartenders had been forced to carry out their trade in secret. Jobs were scarce, and the Great Depression loomed over it all. So when he took office in 1933, FDR stayed true to party platform and put into motion the steps that would end Prohibition. The roaring ‘20s were no more, and the sound of jazz faded into the night.

Sources:

Lerner, Michael A., Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Jessie Clever

jessieclever_tobeaspy_800pxIn the second grade, Jessie began a story about a duck and a lost ring. Two harrowing pages of wide ruled notebook paper later, the ring was found. And Jessie has been writing ever since.

Taking her history degree dangerously, Jessie tells the stories of courageous heroines, the men who dared to love them, and the world that tried to defeat them.

Jessie makes her home in the great state of New Hampshire where she lives with her husband and two very opinionated Basset Hounds.

Don’t miss To Be a Spy: A Spy Series Christmas Short Story. Find out more at jessieclever.com

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Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung

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Cleopatra. John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society. They had one of the first known written languages, the earliest form of paper, a 365-day calendar, toothpaste, and breath mints. Egyptians even invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 BC by combining soot and galena to create kohl. It was worn by both men and women for status as well to protect the wearer from the evil eye.

Preferring small families, they also invented enough different methods of contraception that you’d be forgiven for wondering if someone in a TARDIS gifted them with the secrets of the universe (or at least a modern health textbook).

For those who were really serious about avoiding pregnancy, hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommend castration for either gender. Surgeries such as the ovariotomy (the removal of the ovaries) were also available, if mercifully rare.

Most people depended on much less invasive forms of contraception. One of the most common was spermicide administered in a sort of tampon made of linen and soaked in acidic oils. Some minerals found in the water also had spermicidal properties when mixed with sour milk, which had the added benefit of making the vagina more acidic to make conception less likely.

Pessaries blocking the entrance to the cervix altogether could be made from the sap of the acacia tree, another natural substance with proven spermicidal properties. The modern equivalent of this would be using a diaphragm with nonoxynol-9. For a back-up method, certain plant extracts could be eaten to alter hormonal balance and inhibit ovulation, much like the birth control pills used today.

For the more adventurous woman, a medical papyrus from 1850 BCE assures us that: “Crocodile dung mixed with honey and placed in the vagina of a woman prevents contraception…”

I can only assume that this one worked by putting all parties off of sex altogether.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians had not yet invented statistics to help us to quantify the success rate of these methods, but in the event that they failed, the recipes for herbal abortificients were passed down from generation to generation.

If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, the Egyptians even had the first urine-based pregnancy test. Women were told to pee on some barley and emmer every day and if they grew, she was pregnant. Amazingly enough, modern tests have actually confirmed that this was a fairly accurate way to detect pregnancy.

Sadly, this kind of pregnancy test fell into disuse and the next one was not introduced until 1929.

Condoms even existed, but they were more for show than contraception. Many have been found in the tombs of aristocrats for use in the next world. Fully prepared for one crazy party, they were entombed with sheaths made of animal skin dyed bright colors and trimmed in fur.

Also strap-ons made of mother of pearl. You know, just in case.

 Jessica Cale

Bloody, Sexy Murder: Sexual Magic, Missing Evidence, and Jack the Ripper

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Whitechapel, 1888

Theories still abound about the identity of Jack the Ripper, a nineteenth-century serial killer who was never caught. Experts debate endlessly over the victim toll and the actual start/stop dates of the gory murder spree in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood (Odell, 2006). Officially, two prostitutes were murdered on August 31 and September 8, 1888, before two more were “ripped” in the “double event” on September 30. A fifth murder occurred during the early hours of November 9. Some victims were gutted, all had their throats slashed, and some body parts were taken. The spree drew international coverage and a massive police effort.

newsarticleDuring this period, hundreds of letters arrived to police and news outlets purporting to be from the killer (Evans & Skinner, 2001). One nasty note offered the grim moniker, “Jack the Ripper,” although there’s no proof that Red Jack sent any letter. If he (or she or they) did send one, some Ripperologists view the “From Hell” letter as the best candidate.

This mysterious missive arrived shortly after the double event to the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, enclosed with half of a preserved human kidney that had the appearance of a disorder from which victim #4, Catherine Eddowes, had suffered (and her kidney was missing). The note’s author claimed he’d consumed the rest before taunting, “Catch me when you can” (Evans & Skinner, 2001). Crime historian Donald Rumbelow (2004) discovered that the original note had gone missing from police files, and some experts think it ended up with a private collector.

This note’s potential provenance became the starting point for my fictional murder mystery. I linked it with a Ripper suspect whose background offers plenty of spooky detail.

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The “From Hell” letter

A circle of occult practitioners believed that their crony, Dr. Roslyn “D’Onston” Stephenson, was the Whitechapel killer (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987-8; Odell, 2006; O’Donnell, 1928). He was a former military surgeon who knew his way around knives and who’d studied magical practices in France and Africa. His wife had gone missing in 1887, possibly murdered, and he claimed to have killed a female shaman in Africa. He was unmoved by brutality. D’Onston associated with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical group, adding to his obsession with the occult. Some members said that they never saw him eat and whenever he appeared, he made no sound.

Despite being highly secretive, D’Onston openly shared his ideas about the identity and modus operandi of Jack the Ripper. He named a medical colleague. D’Onston was himself arrested but not detained. He sought out a sponsor to fund a private investigation, but D’Onston’s associates remained convinced that he was the killer. One of them reportedly discovered a box under his bed that held books on magic, along with several stained black ties. D’Onston’s friends thought the ties had been worn during the murders to hide body parts carried away, as blood would not show up on black material.

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The fourth victim

On December 1, 1888, D’Onston published a detailed article about the murders in the Pall Mall Gazette, offering a black magic angle (Edwards, 2003; Harris, 1987). He suggested that the killer had walked around Whitechapel to select specific locations for six murders that would mirror Christian symbolism, in order to pervert it. Sexual energy, released with “sacrifice” of a “harlot,” would tap into psychic energy for demonic ceremonies. Female body parts, he said, were essential, along with such items as strips of skin from a suicide, nails from a gallows, and the head of a black cat fed on human flesh for forty days.

“Yet, though the price is awful, horrible, unutterable,” he wrote, “the power is real!”

Intrigued with D’Onston’s description, surveyor Ivor Edwards (2003) measured the distances between murder sites and found them strikingly consistent. He mapped out two equilateral triangles and added an elliptical arc to form the Vesica Piscis, the almond-shaped intersection of two circles, a vaginal symbol. This aligned with D’Onston’s notions about erotic energy and his belief that triangles had supernatural power.

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Whitechapel’s London Hospital

In addition, throughout the spree, D’Onston had been a self-committed patient in Whitechapel’s London Hospital for a fatigue disorder (easily malingered). What a perfect hiding place! He could easily have eluded police after each murder. Although most Ripperologists dismiss D’Onston as a viable suspect (Dimolianis, 2001), Odell admits that “Edwards’ idea of murder by measurement produced some intriguing symmetry.”

I agree, and from such mysteries can one effectively form fiction.

theripperlettercoverKatherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and has published 58 books and hundreds of articles, mostly nonfiction devoted to crime, forensics, and serial murder. Lately, she has added paranormal murder mysteries with The Ripper Letter and it’s sequel, Track the Ripper, published by Riverdale Avenue Books. There’s romance, sure, and sex, but she has wrapped it all in Ripper lore, along with other figures from history that nicely fit. She doesn’t claim to be a Ripperologist, but she knows enough from extensive research (including trips to London and Paris) to realize that all of the theorists make assumptions and take some leaps to make their ideas work. Within the gaps and ambiguities she has found room to develop fictional plots that still retain historical accuracy.

Sources

Dimolianis, S. (2001) Jack the Ripper and Black Magic. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Edwards, I. (2003) Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals. London: John Blake.

Harris, M. (1987). Jack the Ripper: The Bloody Truth. London: Columbus Books.

Odell, R. (2006). Ripperology. Kent, OH: Kent State Press.

O’Donnell, E. (1928). Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. London: Thornton Butterworth.

Rumbelow, D. (1975, 2004). The Complete Jack the Ripper. London: W. H. Allen.

Evans, S. P., & Skinner, K. (2001). Jack the Ripper: Letters from Hell. Stroud: Sutton.

 

Mercury, Vinegar, and Cat-what?! Suffering for Beauty in the Regency Period

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Vanity. Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

The Regency period advocated the natural look for women. Heavy, artificial make-up was not the fashion, as it had been in decades previous. Instead, natural beauty was encouraged and good looks came from such admirable qualities like temperance and fresh air.

However, this penchant for the natural did not mean that women adhered to a strict no make up policy or did not seek miracle elixir. Freckles, tans and blemishes were of particularly concern to a lady in Regency times. Indeed, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes and upper class women would avoid sunburn, at all costs. While hiding under a parasol was a safe solution, ladies occasionally had to turn to other more dramatic remedies.

One such preparation was Gowland’s Lotion. Truthfully, this interesting concoction reached the height of its popularity before Regency times. One could suggest that its inventor, John Gowland, was ahead of his time by several hundred years. Gowland’s Lotion was likely one of the first ‘chemical peels’. It contained bitter almonds, sugar, water, and mercuric chloride. This last ingredient was a derivative of sulphuric acid and able to remove a layer of skin.

Mercury was not the only poisonous substance; lead was also used. One example is Bloom de Ninon which contained dangerous white lead. This was found not only in lotions and potions but also in face powder, although that was also made with less harmless ingredients like crushed pearl, rice powder and talc.

However, it was becoming recognized that lead and mercury may not be entirely healthy for one skin, although there were no laws to enforce this. Therefore, homemade cosmetics were becoming popular. A lady’s maid would usually be responsible for making the lotions and cosmetics for her mistress.

In addition to white powder, rouge was also used, although in small and natural amounts. No more bright circles of pink as had been fashionable in Georgian times. These were made from the toxic mineral cinnabar and carmine, derived from cochineal scale insects – okay – not toxic but not exactly pleasant.

The removal of hair was also popular in Regency times. This could be done by methods like sugaring or less pleasant techniques including a peculiar combination of cat feces and vinegar. Anything in the name of beauty.

Sources

The Art of Beauty: or, the Best Methods of Improving and Preserving the Shape, Carriage and Complexion. London, 1825.

Forsling, Yvonne. Regency Cosmetics and Makeup: Looking Your Best in 1811. 

marriedforhisconvenience-ewebsterEleanor Webster loves high-heels and sun, which is ironic as she lives in northern Canada, the land of snowhills and unflattering footwear. Various crafting experiences, including a nasty glue-gun episode, have proven that her creative soul is best expressed through the written word.

Eleanor is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology and holds an undergraduate degree in history and creative writing. She loves to use her writing to explore her fascination with the past. Her latest release, Married for His Convenience, is available now. Find out more at https://eleanorwebsterauthor.com/.

Interested in the history of cosmetics? Here are some more posts for you:

Nineteenth Century Skin Care: Ten Tips from the Ugly Girl Papers

Maybe She’s Born with It (Maybe it’s Lead!): Powder and Patch in the 17th Century

Bathing in the Age of Extravagance: How to Make Your Own 17th Century Washball (Recipe)

Cleopatra’s Eyeliner (Recipe)

Perfect Love and Sacred Sin: Sex and Rasputin

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Being a fan of both history and music, I’ve often wondered about the hypothesis presented by the great scholar, Boney M: Was Rasputin (Jan 21st 1869 – Dec. 30th, 1916) really Russia’s greatest love machine?

I’ve wondered about this for years. Over time, Rasputin’s life has become more legend than fact thanks to a campaign of propaganda so scathing that most people today have not only heard of him, but associate him with evil. Even now, his life is usually viewed through the lens of our own morality.

Rasputin’s views, like the man himself, are rather more complicated that you might expect, and cannot be reduced to simply good or evil. He was a monk with deeply held religious beliefs that developed out of Orthodox tradition as well as his experience with the Khlyst sect, a group that believed that true joy could only be achieved through forgiveness, and therefore the surest way to God is to sin for the purpose of being forgiven, usually through ritual orgies.

This is not a biography. Rasputin’s life and death are well-documented and will be revisited on this site in the future. Today, with the 100th anniversary of his assassination barely a month away, I am looking at Rasputin’s views on love and sex in order to see if Boney M was right.

The part about him being a love machine, that is. Not the part where he’s also “the lover of the Russian queen.”

That is a post for another day, I’m afraid.

rasputin_listovkaThe Man

During his lifetime, Rasputin was hated, feared, and revered in equal measure. In the last days of Imperial Russia, he was seen to have too much influence over the royal family and the government. He was a peasant with the ear of the Tsar; an untrustworthy figure at best, and at worst, a convenient scapegoat for the political unrest that plagued the empire. Because he was seen as undesirable or even dangerous, a campaign of misinformation and unflattering political cartoons was launched against him, the effects of which are still felt today.

Keep in mind that sources from this period are maddeningly unreliable: due in no small part to political upheaval and the subsequent revolution, records are full of omissions, contradictory accounts, and outright lies. This, coupled with the rumors widely circulated about Rasputin, makes it difficult to get a read on him. He was rumored to be an insatiable lecher, a filthy peasant who was at once so dumb he was barely coherent but at the same time, intelligent and calculating enough to single-handedly overthrow Russia. He’s said to have been hideous, stinking, and with food perpetually stuck in his beard, but women loved him. Because he hypnotized them, probably.

It’s a lot to live up to. It’s difficult to imagine someone being both a genius and complete idiot, repellent and irresistible. This view of him begins to unravel with the account of Filippov. Desperate to understand how he was so attractive to women, he checked him out in the public baths:

“His body was exceptionally firm, not flabby, and ruddy and well-proportioned, without the paunch and flaccid muscles usual at that age…and without the darkening of the pigment of the sexual organs, which at a certain age have a dark or brown hue.”

Filippov reports finding nothing unusual about Rasputin’s physical appearance, and further describes him as an exceptionally clean man who bathed and changed his clothes frequently, and ‘never smelled bad.’

For a man in his late thirties/early forties, Rasputin was in good shape. He was clean, “exceptionally firm,” and he had abs! It’s also worth noting he was 6’4” and had eyes so hypnotic they were described as “phosphorescent,” beautiful, and maniacal.

We begin to understand what Filippov missed: Rasputin was pretty hot.

Okay, I can hear you laughing from here, but bear with me: great body, ridiculous beard, eyes that are both crazy and beautiful, and the supernatural ability to drop panties at fifty paces?

Come on, he’s totally the Tom Hardy of Imperial Russia.

Theory and Practice

Rasputin himself was not as indiscriminately lustful as he was made out to be. His voracious sexual appetite plagued him, and he made it his mission not only to conquer it, but to use his experience to help others to do the same.

Many women acquainted with him reported that in spite of frequent advances, he did not seem to be overly interested in physical relations. During this same time, however, he was very fond of prostitutes, but his behavior with them is not what the tabloids would have led us to believe. According to ‘Peach,’ an ex-prostitute who in the 1970s still referred to him as Grishka, he was a little odd:

“He took her to the same cheap hotel where they all took her and ordered her to undress. He sat down across from her. And sat and watched in silence. His face suddenly turned very, very pale, as if all the blood had left it. She even got scared. Then he gave her the money and left. On his way out he said, “Your kidneys are bad.” He took her to the same hotel another time. And even lay down with her but did not touch her.”

Rasputin was right; years later, Peach had to have a kidney removed.

Why didn’t he touch her? It was an exercise in restraint. Rasputin believed the way to refine his nerves was by mastering his flesh, and so he would put himself in situations of great temptation and actively improve his spirit by resisting. In his words, as recounted by Filippov:

“(It) is something womenfolk do not understand…The saints would undress harlots, and look at them, and become more refined in their feelings, but would not allow any intimacy.”

The idea was that if one could refine their nerves and reach the highest Platonic states, they could literally float and even walk on water through the heightened ability of their soul.

That is not to say he was celibate.

To understand Rasputin’s view of sex, there are two key things you have to understand:

1. God is Love
2. Love > Marriage

Many of Rasputin’s devotees were married women, but he never slept with them if they were in love with their husbands. Love is sacred, while marriage is a social construct. If one had a loveless marriage, it would not be a sin to find love outside of it: rather, the sin would be to remain faithful within it and to never experience real love (God). None of his devotees who we’re reasonably certain did sleep with him ever admitted adultery. He advised them not to not only for his own protection, but because he did not believe it was adultery to have sex outside of a loveless marriage.

As Edvard Radzinsky explains: “Love was the chief thing for him. Love everywhere overflowing. The pagan Love of nature, of trees, grass, and rivers. Only Love was holy. And therefore if a married woman loved her husband, she was for Rasputin untouchable. But whatever was not love was a lie. (…) If a woman did not love her husband and remained in the marriage, she was sinful. Rasputin was against love’s being subordinated to the laws of marriage. It was for him something terrible that came from the official church. Everything that was not true love was to him criminal and subject to change.”

The relationship between sex and love was a little more complicated. Sex was still a sin, but the best way to be cleansed of it was to have it and thus be freed of the impulse.

Until it struck again, in which case he was only too happy to take that sin upon himself. For the spiritual well-being of the women, of course. At one point, he advised his coterie to visit him daily to be purged of any sinful impulses that might arise.

This practice is part of why people of a more traditionally religious persuasion dismiss him as “evil”: his understanding of the nature of God and the purpose of love and sex was different from that of mainstream Christianity. That is not to say he exploited it for his own purposes; he genuinely believed that his was the surest path to God. Like the Khlysty, he believed that true joy was obtained through forgiveness, so communion with God could be found on the other side of sin.

It’s worth noting that if we disassociate sex with sin in this case, it becomes something altogether more benign. If sex is not inherently sinful and is practiced as an expression of love, the only thing you can reasonably object to in this instance is the women’s marital status.

So was Rasputin really Russia’s greatest love machine? If we look at the love aspect outside of the euphemism here, maybe he was. After all, love was central to his spiritual mission and understanding of God. From what remains of his personal life, remembered conversations, and the evident swarms of female devotees, we can draw our own conclusions. It’s safe to say he was not as promiscuous as he was made out to be, and sex for him and with him was more than an expulsion of sinful impulse: it was a spiritual experience.

Jessica Cale

See also:
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Rasputin File. Anchor Books, 2000. New York.
Boney M: “Rasputin.” Nightflight to Venus (1978).