Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

Gillesderais1835

Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “For the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour, [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

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Sex and the Asylum: Imprisoning Inconvenient Women

f95ddecebd8d712ca785b34b065d7231Nymphomania, masturbation, sexual derangement: just some of the reasons a nineteenth century—and indeed twentieth century—woman could find herself locked away in a lunatic asylum. In fact, many of the reasons women were incarcerated were related to their sex or sexuality. Around one third of female patients were diagnosed with nymphomania. Some had born illegitimate children, been engaged in prostitution, or been raped or sexually assaulted.

For others, being deemed promiscuous or flirtatious was enough to seal their fate. In both Great Britain and the United States, it was perfectly legal for a husband or father to have their wives or daughters committed to an asylum without any right of appeal. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, induced vomiting, leeches, straitjackets, and, in some cases clitorectomies.

In 1867, seventeen-year-old Alice Christina Abbot was accused of poisoning her stepfather after he threatened to send her to a reform school. At her trial, Abbot claimed that her stepfather had put her through years of sexual abuse, and that she had told other people, but they had mostly considered her mentally deranged. The court rejected her allegations as singular, and in August of that year she was committed to Taunton Insane Asylum, where she seems to have vanished into the dark realms of history. Whether or not Abbot really was a murderer, or whether she saw poisoning as the only way of freeing herself from her stepfather, we shall never know. The fact remains that she was treated neither as a victim of sexual abuse, nor a sane woman who had committed murder. Instead, she was labelled as insane, and her identity was effectively erased.

Edna Martin was fifteen when her grandfather saw her going to the pictures with a sixty-two-year-old married man. He called the police, and Edna was taken to juvenile court. The judge asked her whether they’d had intercourse, but she had no idea what that meant. Her grandfather said he never wanted to see her again, so she was taken to Parkside Approved School, where she was diagnosed as an imbecile, mentally defective, and feeble-minded, and transferred to Calderstones Asylum. Edna described twenty years of hell moving between various asylums:

They kicked the chamber pots into you . . . they also kicked in your food on a tin plate and you had to eat it off the floor. They used enemas for punishment . . . they thought nothing of giving you a cold-water bath, or they’d get a wet bath towel, put it under a cold tap, twist it, and hit you with it.

In the wider community, asylums were used as tools to control large numbers of women who were considered a threat to the status quo. Prostitution was seen as a social disease, and those fallen women associated with it needed to be shut away for the greater good, until such time as they were fixed. Correcting women who had taken the wrong path was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and lock hospitals.

Magdalen-asylum

A Magdalene Asylum in Ireland, early 20th century

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for sex workers, as well as other women who had deviated from sexual norms, for the sake of penitence and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

In London, any sex worker found to have a venereal disease could be forcibly put in a lock hospital for up to a year, while benevolent societies gave the women huge amounts of religious instruction, and then retained them as seamstresses and servants.

Many lesbian women were also labelled as mentally ill, with doctors claiming that life without continued male interaction could cause anemia, irritability, and tiredness. Women who had chosen alternative lifestyles and defied accepted gender norms were considered a threat to the patriarchal society. In asylums—supposedly places of safety— they could face sexual abuse under the care of doctors, who believed that repeated sexual activity with men could cure them.

This put women in an incredibly vulnerable position: those who refused to obey their husbands or fathers, behaved in a manner which was deemed immodest or unwomanly, or refused to submit to their husbands’ demands faced being torn away from their children and families, and were often subjected to the most brutal conditions.

Asylums became a convenient place to put society’s inconvenient women. These stories are more than just reminders that we’re lucky not to have been born two hundred years ago—they are also reminders of how much people in the past were entrenched in ideas of feminine norms, and the lengths they would go to in order to preserve patriarchal dominance.

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Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham—a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son. Emma left school at sixteen and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, will be published in 2018, also by Crooked Cat Books. It was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.

Follow Emma Rose Millar on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads. Her new book, Delirium, is out now.

Pervitin, The People’s Drug: How Methamphetamine Fueled the Third Reich

Pervitinampullen

Meth didn’t come out of nowhere. Like cocaine, heroin, and morphine, it has its origins in 19th century Germany. When Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu first synthesized amphetamine in 1887, he couldn’t have known that his creation would evolve into a substance that would one day help to fuel a world war. Nagai Nagayoshi took it a step closer when he synthesized methamphetamine in 1893. It was transformed into the crystalline form we know today by Japanese pharmacologist Akira Ogata in 1919, at which point it found its way back to Germany, where the conditions were just right for another pharmacological breakthrough.

Drugs and the Weimar Republic

Drugs were not unknown to Berlin. Okay, that’s an understatement. Weimar Berlin was soaked in them. Not only were drugs like morphine, heroin, and cocaine legal, but they could be purchased from every street corner and were all but issued to those attending the legendary nightclubs, where any kink or perversion up to an including BDSM, public orgies, and voyeurism happened on the regular.(1)

Anita Berber Cocaine by F.W. Koebner

Anita Berber by F. W. Koebner

Dancer Anita Berber, the It Girl of Weimar Berlin, was known to go about her business wearing nothing but a sable coat and an antique brooch stuffed with cocaine (pictured). She was such an exhibitionist, the local sex workers complained that they couldn’t keep up with the amount of skin she was showing. Of all the idiosyncratic breakfasts of history, Berber’s still stands out: she was said to start every day with a bowl of ether and chloroform she would stir with the petals of a white rose before sucking them dry.

She wasn’t the only one. Having lost its access to natural stimulants like tea and coffee along with its overseas colonies in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was in need of synthetic assistance. Norman Ohler explains:

“The war had inflicted deep wounds and caused the nation both physical and psychic pain. In the 1920s drugs became more and more important for the despondent population between the Baltic Sea and the Alps. The desire for sedation led to self-education and there soon emerged no shortage of know-how for the production of a remedy.”

Poster for an anti-drug film, 1927

Produce they did. Eighty percent of the global cocaine market was controlled by German pharmaceutical companies, and Merck’s was said to be the best in the world. Hamburg was the largest marketplace in Europe for cocaine with thousands of pounds of it passing through its port legally every year. The country of Peru sold its entire annual yield of raw cocaine to German companies. Heroin, opium, and morphine were also produced in staggering quantities, with ninety-eight percent of German heroin being exported to markets abroad.

How were drugs able to flourish to such an extent? For one thing, they were legal. Many veterans of the First World War were habitually prescribed morphine by doctors who were addicted to it themselves. It wasn’t viewed as a harmful drug but as a necessary medical treatment for chronic pain and shell shock. Further, the line between drug use and addiction was uncertain. In spite of countless people regularly indulging in everything from cocaine to heroin for medical as well as recreational purposes, few were considered to be addicts. Drug use was not a crime, and addiction was seen as a curable disease to be tolerated.

As historian Jonathan Lewy explains:

“Addicts stemmed from a higher class in society. Physicians were the most susceptible professional group to drug addiction. Instead of antagonizing this group, the regime tried to include physicians and pharmacists in their program to control drugs. In addition, German authorities agreed that the war produced addiction; in other words, the prized veterans of the First World War were susceptible, and none of the political parties in the Weimar Republic, least of all the National Socialist Party, wished to antagonize this group of men.”

Pervitin, The Miracle Pill

On Halloween 1937, Pervitin was patented by Temmler, a pharmaceutical company based in Berlin. When it hit the market in 1938, Temmler sent three milligrams to every doctor in the city. Many doctors got hooked on it, and, convinced of its efficacy, prescribed it as study aid, an appetite suppressant, and a treatment for depression.

Pervitin Landesarchiv BerlinTemmler based its ad campaign on Coca-Cola’s, and the drug quickly became popular across the board. Students used it to help them study, and it was sold to housewives in chocolate with the claim that would help them to finish their chores faster with the added benefit that it would make them lose weight (it did). By 1939, Pervitin was used to treat menopause, depression, seasickness, pains related to childbirth, vertigo, hay fever, schizophrenia, anxiety, and “disturbances of the brain.”

Army physiologist Otto Ranke immediately saw its potential. Testing it on university students in 1939, he found that the drug enabled them to be remarkably focused and productive on very little sleep. Pervitin increased performance and endurance. It dulled pain and produced feelings of euphoria, but unlike morphine and heroin, it kept the user awake. Ranke himself became addicted to it after discovering that the drug allowed him to work up to fifty hours straight without feeling tired.

Despite its popularity, Pervitin became prescription only in 1939, and was further regulated in 1941 under the Reich Opium Law. That didn’t slow down consumption, though. Even after the regulation came in, production increased by an additional 1.5 million pills per year. Prescriptions were easy to come by, and Pervitin became the accepted Volksdroge (People’s Drug) of Nazi Germany, as common as acetaminophen is today.

Although the side effects were serious and concerning, doctors continued to readily prescribe it. Doctors themselves were among the most serious drug abusers in the country at this time. An estimated forty percent of the doctors in Berlin were known to be addicted to morphine.

As medical officer Franz Wertheim wrote in 1940:

“To help pass the time, we doctors experimented on ourselves. We would begin the day by drinking a water glass of cognac and taking two injections of morphine. We found cocaine to be useful at midday, and in the evening we would occasionally take Hyoskin (an alkaloid derived from nightshade) … As a result, we were not always fully in command of our senses.”

Its main user base, however, was the army. In addition to the benefits shown during the test on the university students, Ranke found that Pervitin increased alertness, confidence, concentration, and willingness to take risks, while it dulled awareness of pain, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. It was the perfect drug for an army that needed to appear superhuman. An estimated one hundred million pills were consumed by the military in the pre-war period alone. Appropriately enough, one of the Nazis’ slogans was, “Germany, awake!”

Germany was awake, alright.

Military Use

After its first major test during the invasion of Poland, Pervitin was distributed to the army in shocking quantities. More than thirty-five million tablets of Pervitin and Isophan(2) were issued to the Wermacht and Luftwaffe between April and July of 1940 alone. They were aware that Pervitin was powerful and advised sparing use for stress and “to maintain sleeplessness” as needed, but as tolerance increased among the troops, more and more was needed to produce the same effects.

Pervitindose

Pervitin was a key ingredient to the success of the Blitzkrieg (lightning war). In these short bursts of intense violence, speed was everything.  In an interview with The Guardian, Ohler summarized:

“The invasion of France was made possible by the drugs. No drugs, no invasion. When Hitler heard about the plan to invade through Ardennes, he loved it. But the high command said: it’s not possible, at night we have to rest, and they [the allies] will retreat and we will be stuck in the mountains. But then the stimulant decree was released, and that enabled them to stay awake for three days and three nights. Rommel and all those tank commanders were high, and without the tanks, they certainly wouldn’t have won.”

Bomber pilots reported using Pervitin to stay alert throughout the Battle of Britain. Launches were often late at night, so German pilots would not make it to London until after midnight. As one bomber pilot wrote:

“You were over London or some other English city at about one or two in the morning, and of course then you’re tired. So you took one or two Pervitin tablets, and then you were all right again … The commander always has to have his wits about him, so I took Pervitin as a precautionary measure. One wouldn’t abstain from Pervitin because of a little health scare. Who cares when you’re doomed to come down at any moment anyway?”

Pervitin was issued to pilots to combat fatigue, and some of its nicknames—“pilot salt,” “Stuka pills,” “Göring pills”—hinted at its use. One commodore fighting in the Mediterranean described the feeling of using it while flying:

“The engine is running cleanly and calmly. I’m wide awake, my heartbeat thunders in my ears. Why is the sky suddenly so bright, my eyes hurt in the harsh light. I can hardly bear the brilliance; if I shield my eyes with my free hand it’s better. Now the engine is humming evenly and without vibration—far away, very far away. It’s almost like silence up here. Everything becomes immaterial and abstract. Remote, as if I were flying above my plane.”

As powerful as Pervitin was, it wasn’t enough. Still, whatever they needed was given to them. By 1944, Vice-Admiral Hellmuth Heye requested something stronger than would enable troops to fight even longer while boosting their self-esteem. Not long after, Kiel pharmacologist Gerhard Orzechowski answered with a newer, stronger pill called D-IX, the active ingredients of which were three milligrams of Pervitin, five milligrams of cocaine, and five milligrams of Eukodal, a painkiller derived from morphine.

Initially tested on prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (the victims were forced to walk until they dropped, regardless of how long it took), D-IX was given to the marines piloting one-man U-boats designed to attack the Thames estuary. It was issued as a kind of chewing gum that was to keep the marines awake and piloting the boats for days at a time before ultimately attacking the British. It did not have the intended effect, however. Trapped under water for days at a time, the marines suffered psychotic episodes and often got lost.

The Hangover

No “miracle pill” is perfect, and anything that can keep people awake for days is going to have side effects. Long-term use of Pervitin could result in addiction, hallucination, dizziness, psychotic phases, suicide, and heart failure. Many soldiers died of cardiac arrest. Recognizing the risks, the Third Reich’s top health official, Leonardo Conti, attempted to limit his forces’ use of the drug but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Temmler Werke continued supplying Pervitin to the armies of both East and West Germany until the 1960s. West Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, discontinued its use in the 1970s, but East Germany’s National People’s Army used it until 1988. Pervitin was eventually banned in Germany altogether, but methamphetamine was just getting started.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Cooke, Rachel. High Hitler: How Nazi Drug Abuse Steered the Course of History. The Guardian, September 25th, 2016.

Hurst, Fabienne. The German Granddaddy of Crystal Meth. Translated by Ella Ornstein. Spiegel Online, May 30th, 2013.

Lewy, Jonathan. The Drug Policy of the Third Reich. Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Volume 22, No 2, 2008

Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York, 2015.

Ulrich, Andreas. The Nazi Death Machine: Hitler’s Drugged Soldiers. Translated by Christopher Sultan. Spiegel Online, May 6th, 2005.

(1) Don’t worry. We’re definitely going to cover that.

(2) Isophan: a drug very similar to Pervitin produced by the Knoll pharmaceutical company

Voice, Votes, and Vibrators: Women’s Suffrage in England and the United States

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Women’s suffrage parade, March 3rd, 1913. Washington D.C. Actress Hedwiga Reicher is dressed as Columbia. During the pageant, Columbia summoned Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope to review the new crusade of women.

The Origins of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The idea of “waves” in feminism was first coined by Martha Weinman Lear in her March 1968 article for The New York Times Magazine, titled “The Second Feminist Wave.” In that article, she identified the first as well as the second wave: the first wave is the fight for legal enfranchisement—suffrage—and the second, concurrent with the “women’s liberation” movement of the 1960s, is the fight for social equality. Lear’s coinage has become the standard taxonomy of feminism, and we are arguably regarded to be experiencing the fourth wave now. Each wave builds on the progress of, and in some cases challenges the tenets of, the previous waves.

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Christine de Pizan lecturing men, 1413

The suffragettes (in England) and suffragists (in the United States) of the mid 19th and early 20th century are the vanguard of the first wave—but, of course, women were crying out for their rights from the first moment they were denied them, and writing manifestos against misogyny from the moment they could put quill to paper. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and poet, argued for women’s rights in the pre-Enlightenment 17th century. Christine de Pizan challenged misogyny even earlier, in the medieval era. Identified by Simone de Beauvoir in her important work The Second Sex as the first woman to write about women’s issues, Pizan’s work is now widely considered the origin point of the fight for women’s equality.

But Pizan is not considered the grandmother of feminism’s first wave. That would be Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, eventually catalyzed hundreds of years of women’s thought and struggle into a coherent movement for voting rights in both England and the United States. In the Vindication, Wollstonecraft takes Enlightenment ideas and expands them to include women, asserting a place for women in legal and social discourse.

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Mary Wollstonecraft. John Opie, 1797

Her work was, not surprisingly, enormously controversial and even scandalous in its time, and Wollstonecraft’s unconventional life (she openly had sexual relationships, and a child, outside of marriage) was used as fodder for widespread disapprobation of her writing. And yet the Vindication lives on, and the women who followed her carried her message into their fight, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Margaret Fuller, a noted American Transcendentalist thinker, and a woman who also lived an unconventional life, acknowledged Wollstonecraft’s influence on her own manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). And certainly Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, were channeling Wollstonecraft’s rethinking of Rousseau’s ideas when they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, an intentionally obvious revision of the Declaration of Independence to include women in that seminal document of the country’s formation. The Declaration of Sentiments is generally considered the inciting document of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

Supported by centuries of argument by brave women shouting into the void, the real fight for women’s suffrage, in both England and America, began in earnest in the middle of the nineteenth century. Suffrage was not won, however, in either country, until the end of the second decade of the twentieth.

Madwomen in the Attic: The His-story of Hysteria

We need to pause here in our discussion of the movement for women’s suffrage and focus on how very brave the women who resisted convention truly were, and what they truly risked to speak out against the patriarchy in a world in which women were denied autonomy, let alone representation. Women had virtually no rights that were not mediated through the men in their lives, not even the most basic rights to their own bodies.

Speaking out in such a world—openly, publicly, challenging the status quo—was more than an invitation to scandal and judgment. A woman without a man supporting her endeavors—a man who, in his social and legal responsibility for her, could serve as a shield—risked her freedom and her very sanity. A woman who claimed a voice of her own and demanded it be heard could, for no other reason than her resistance, be declared mentally ill and treated for such against her will—including commitment for insanity (Pouba and Tianen). In such a case, a woman’s body became the battlefield itself.

The hysteria diagnosis is as old as the medical profession, and deeply rooted in women’s sexuality and men’s appropriation of it. In fact, the “treatment” of hysteria is even coded into Greek mythology. When the virgins of Argos fled, Melampus, a healer, “cured” their “madness” by directing them to have sex with virile men. And thus was orgasm deemed the cure for hysteria, and a woman’s assertion of her autonomy was linked for many centuries to insanity and the need for (heterosexual/heteronormative) sex.

In the intervening millennia, women, with virtually no recognized rights, could be, and often were, diagnosed, by men, with mental illness and committed to asylums for nothing more than not conforming strictly to the narrow space of behaviors deemed permissible. And when they were diagnosed with hysteria, a catch-all term that in effect meant nothing more than “not behaving properly,” one of the accepted treatments, since the Greeks, was so-called “pelvic manipulation”—i.e., forced orgasm.

vibrator attachmentsComes the Vibrator: The Problematic Origin of B.O.B.

These days, the vibrator, in its vast array of interesting shapes and sizes, is a wonderful tool for sexual autonomy, play, and power, and modern discourse is full of memes and playful rhetoric about our “Battery Operated Boyfriends.” But its origin is not so full of pink sparkles.

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Doctor J. Mortimer Granville

The first vibrator was invented in 1880s England by Dr. J. Mortimer Granville, not for the pleasure of women but for his own ease. Manual pelvic manipulation was tiring for the doctor, and Granville was performing the “procedure” so often that it caused him chronic fatigue and pain in his hand and arm. He invented the device to save his time, strength, and energy.

Pelvic manipulation was frequently prescribed for women with a wide range of so-called maladies, and it’s true that the procedure was popular among many women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, for whom sexual pleasure was supposed to be beneath their interest. And so, we have developed a lighthearted attitude about this element of women’s history. There are myriad examples in media and literature that find comedy in the idea of doctors’ waiting rooms crowded with women avidly awaiting their chance for “treatment.”

But that droll nostalgia doesn’t take into account the women who were diagnosed against their will, and forcibly “treated” with mechanical rape. In fact, the procedure’s apparent popularity became conflated with the idea of its success as a treatment, which strengthened the concept both of hysteria as a valid diagnosis and of “pelvic manipulation” as a valid medical treatment.

The end of the 19th century, as women’s dissatisfaction with their lot in the world crystallized into protest and resistance, was the high mark of hysteria diagnoses and its “treatments.” The women who banded together and fought most fiercely for their enfranchisement, who gave over polite rhetorical argument and did battle instead, understood what they risked—not only incarceration but commitment. Not only the constraint of their bodies but the forcible penetration of them.

That was their bravery—to risk their lives and bodies and minds in the fight for their voice.

As a sympathetic psychiatrist pointed out at the commitment hearing for Alice Paul, a hero of the American suffrage movement, “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

Nasty Women: The Final Front in the Suffrage Fight: 1905-1920.

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Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

In Manchester, England, in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst changed the face of the fight for women’s suffrage. Frustrated with the lack of progress in the cause, she formed the Women’s Social and Political Union, with the express purpose to radicalize the movement. The days of asking to be heard were over; it was time to demand the floor. Pankhurst shaped the WSPU with an overtly militaristic strategy. Though women had individually engaged in civil disobedience in support of suffrage for years, on both sides of the Atlantic—Susan B. Anthony was famously arrested for voting illegally in the United States—Pankhurst’s WSPU was the first time a significant organization promoted an explicit strategy of disruption and disobedience. They chained themselves to fences, lobbed bricks and rocks through windows, and even stormed Parliament to demand their rightful place.

The women of the WSPU began being arrested for their small acts of civil disobedience in 1905, and in response, they adopted the militaristic tactics of exiles from oppressive regimes. They learned how to conduct and survive a hunger strike from Russian exiles from tsarism (Grant), and they learned jiu-jitsu from one of their own, Edith Garrud, using it to protect themselves from police brutality during protests. Marion Wallace Dunlop engaged in the first hunger strike, in 1909. Following her example, it quickly became standard for imprisoned suffragettes to hunger strike immediately upon arrest—and to be force-fed in response.

Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurst

Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Sylvia and Christabel, were both active in the movement, and all three experienced imprisonment, hunger striking, and force-feeding. Sylvia described in clear detail the torture of feeding, making it clear that it, too, is a form of rape, a forcible, violent penetration of a woman’s body.

This was the world in which suffragettes fought, where they were treated with less humanity than murderers, because they were women, considered less than, refused any autonomy, and entirely subject to the will and demands of men.

And yet, upon release from Holloway Prison, suffragettes turned right around and picked up the banner again, volunteering for another turn on the cycle, knowing they risked imprisonment yet again, knowing they risked their lives and even their children. Imprisoned suffragettes were awarded medals by their sisters upon their first release, with new bands to place on them with every subsequent incarceration. It wasn’t unusual for a suffragette to earn four or more bands commemorating different incarcerations and hunger strikes.

Emily Davison, a particularly passionate suffragette, so militant that even the WPSU eventually set her aside, was force-fed 49 times before she died in 1913, when she jumped onto the track on Derby Day and was run down by the King’s racehorse. She held a suffrage banner in her hands.

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Part of Emily Davison’s funeral procession. June 15th, 1913

A young American graduate student studying in England during the rise of the WPSU, Alice Paul was inspired to bring Pankhurst’s tactics to her own country. She faced resistance from the leaders of the American movement, women like Carrie Chapman Catt, who saw the events occurring in England, decided that militarism was doing more harm than good for the cause, and continued the strategy of diplomacy in the U.S.

But Paul had been on the ground in London and had seen the passion of the suffragettes there. She’d heard Pankhurst’s arguments for civil disobedience and militarism, she’d protested and been imprisoned there, and she argued that it was time for the same at home as well. Admiring Catt and the others who’d led the American movement for years, Paul tried to work within the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and Catt tried to accommodate the younger woman’s zeal, finding new ways for her to work within the organization. Finally, though, their visions were simply not compatible, and Paul broke with NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party.

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Program for the Women’s Suffrage Parade, 1913

The schism between the diplomatic and disobedient arms of the American suffrage movement began in earnest in March 1913, and the Woman’s Suffrage Parade that took place in Washington, D.C., on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration (see photo, top). Suffragists from around the globe participated in the spectacular event, thousands of women and men marching in support of the enfranchisement of women. Its significance transcended the spectacle, however. A crush of spectators, comprised mostly of men, reacted violently against the march, and it marked the first event of wide-scale violence in the American movement.

The shocking images of marchers being beaten, and police largely standing by and letting it happen, began to turn the tide of public opinion. And certainly, it turned the tide of suffragist strategy. After the Women’s Parade, Alice Paul and her like-minded sisters adopted Pankhurst’s strategies of disruption and disobedience. They began by simply standing outside the White House, on the sidewalk, wearing their sashes and holding banners calling out President Wilson. And they were arrested—for blocking the road.

American institutions of power reacted as the British had. American suffragists were imprisoned, beaten, tortured, force-fed, and threatened with commitment to asylums—and sometimes actually committed.

Fay Hubbard

Fay Hubbard. New York, 1910

However, word of their plight, described in heart-wrenching detail in illicit letters written from prison and sneaked out past those walls, worked on public sentiment the way the images and story of the Women’s Parade did. In both England and America, the notion of women beaten and abused conflicted with the patriarchal, patronizing image of, and sense of responsibility for, the “fairer sex,” and the public finally began to be shocked for the women, not at them. The women’s courage and passion found a new light, and the public opinion about their cause began to shift in their favor.

Conclusion: The Victory of Voice, for Voice

As is always the case, this kind of change comes slowly, and even faced with the horrors of the suffrage fight, public opinion didn’t shift dramatically all at once. The fight waged in all its horrors for years before true victory was achieved. In England, women aged 30 and over gained the right to an equal vote in 1918 (they have just recently celebrated the centennial). Women aged 21 did not gain their voice for another ten years. In America, a vaster, more various country, and a federal republic, the change came gradually at first, with states and territories giving women the right to vote individually, starting with Wyoming (as a territory, women had the right to vote in Wyoming from 1869, and as a state from 1890). The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified in August 1920, giving women aged 21 and older the right to an equal vote across all the United States.

If not for the brave, mighty warriors, the “iron jawed angels” who laid their bodies on the gears of the patriarchy, who risked their lives, their families, and their sanity, women might yet be silenced.

The right to vote should never be ignored or taken for granted, and should always be exercised with the weighty sense of all that was sacrificed for the chance to make our mark.

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“Woman’s Suffrage Timeline.” National Women’s History Museum. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. https://www.nwhm.org/resources/timeline/womans-suffrage-timeline

“Women’s Social & Political Union (Suffragettes).” Spartacus Educational. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. http://spartacus-educational.com/Wwspu.htm

“WSPU hunger strike force feeding medal.” A History of the World. Web. Accessed 5 February 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/SDveJgRgQy-U_MhY8bBlpA nothing on earth cover

Susan Fanetti is an English professor at California State University, Sacramento, and an independent author. Her novel Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven takes on the story of the fight for women’s suffrage in both England and the United States.

 

 

The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp

Night Witches, Nazi Hunters, Heroes: The Women of Aviation Group 122

Mariya_Dolina_with_Pe-2

Mariya Dolina with a Pe-2

Just two years ago, the US Army finally opened all combat positions to women. What seemed like an obvious and badly belated move to many of us nevertheless triggered a resurgence of the perennial argument about women’s fitness for combat. The tired arguments that always get trotted out for why women shouldn’t serve in combat — physical fitness, unit cohesion, dirty vaginas — are dubious in any case, but to anyone who has studied WWII Soviet history, they’re just plain hilarious. It turns out that there’s no question as to whether women can serve in combat. They already have. And they didn’t just serve: they kicked ass.

Unlike the other Allied nations where women were restricted to non-combat positions like nurses, the Soviet Union recruited thousands of women to serve in all kinds of positions both in and out of combat, from partisans to tank commanders. Women were especially prized as snipers, since they were believed to be more focused and patient than men; top sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko racked up over 300 kills. By the end of the war, women were estimated to make up about 10% of the Soviet military.

But I’m going to talk about some of the most fascinating women of World War II: the members of the all-female Aviation Group 122. Russian women had long been involved in aviation beginning with World War I recon pilot and fabulous hat-wearer Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya. Flying clubs were popular among Soviet youth of both genders. When Germany invaded, there were many women with pilot’s licenses eager to get into combat. And by eager, I mean very eager, as pilot Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recounts:

There were several girls who had asked to go to the front, and they were turned down. So they stole a fighter plane and flew off to the front. They just couldn’t wait. (Strebe 15)

Celebrated navigator Marina Raskova, famed for the record-setting long-distance flight that ended with her surviving alone for ten days in the Siberian taiga, approached Stalin with an idea: an aviation group composed entirely of women, from the pilots to the navigators to the command staff. The result was Aviation Group 122, which eventually became three regiments: the 586th Fighter Regiment, the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment, and most famous of all, the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

Lydia_Vladimirovna_Litvyak

Lydia Litvyak, the “White Rose of Stalingrad”

So how did they do? Did they prove as capable as the male regiments? As if you need to ask.

The fighter regiment produced both of the world’s only female fighter aces: 11-kill Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, the famed “White Rose of Stalingrad,” credited with 12 solo and four joint kills. Budanova and Litvyak operated as free hunters, pairs of elite pilots who prowled for enemy planes like total bosses. According to legend, Litvyak painted white flowers on her plane’s fuselage and German fighter pilots would flee when they saw them.

The dive bomber regiment, initially commanded by Raskova herself, faced a lot of skepticism about its airwomen’s ability to handle the high-tech Pe-2, a twin-tailed bomber feared by rookie pilots and beloved by talented ones. Flying the Pe-2 was demanding both mentally and physically. The pilot often had to brace against the navigator’s back in order to pull back the control stick with enough force to get the plane off the ground, and recharging the machine gun required 60 kilograms of force. But the 125th performed well and five of its airwomen were decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honor.

Then there were the night bombers. Flying small, antiquated wood-and-canvas biplanes that were designed to be trainers and equipped with no parachutes, no radios, and only the most rudimentary instruments, they didn’t exactly have success dropped in their laps, yet they became one of the most decorated Soviet air regiments, flying some 24,000 combat sorties and producing 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union. The Germans were terrified of them. According to one POW, “When the women started bombing our trenches…the radio stations on this line warned all the troops, ‘Attention, attention, the ladies are in the air, stay at your shelter'” (Noggle 46).

It was the Germans who gave them the name by which they were best known. Mechanic Nina Yegorova says:

The Germans called the crews night witches. They liked to sleep at night, and our aircraft made the Germans’ life not so easy; they disturbed their sleep. Sometimes, when our planes were throttled back gliding in over the target, the Germans would cry out, “Night witches!”, and our crews could hear them. (Noggle 64)

The three women’s regiments were not restricted to safe missions or assigned to less hot parts of the front; they flew similar missions to the male regiments and ended up with more than their share of stories. Two 586th pilots, Raisa Surnachevskaya and Tamara Pamyatnykh, received a surprise when they were scrambled to intercept two enemy aircraft, but discovered that there had been a miscommunication and there were actually forty-two enemy aircraft. Surnachevskaya recounts:

At first we thought they must be birds, there were so many of them. Then we realized they were German dive bombers, they were approaching the railroad station, and the station was full of trains. (Noggle 187)

When they radioed their commander for instructions, they received the order to attack. They dove through the formation twice, each shooting down a bomber on each pass, scattered the formation, and forced the bombers to drop their bombs in the fields and return without reaching their target. During the fight, Surnachevskaya saw Pamyatnykh hit:

My plane was not damaged by their gunfire, but Tamara’s plane was, and I was filled with despair when I saw her plane dropping away, spinning and on fire. (Noggle 187)

From Pamyatnykh’s perspective, the experience was even more dramatic:

I was being thrown about with so much force that my arms were flailing about, and I couldn’t even get hold of the seat belt. I had already opened the canopy. My life flew in front of my eyes. I wanted to jump, but I couldn’t open the belt. I didn’t feel fear, but I thought I was going to die. At last I got the belt open and I didn’t even jump—I was thrown out of the cockpit! I pulled the ring of my parachute, and it opened. When I landed, I started touching myself to see if I had injuries because I thought I had been severely wounded. I had blood on my face, and I felt very ill. My face was hurt, and the blood was running down. When my parachute opened, I was only 150 meters from the ground.

I looked up to the sky and saw that Raisa had circled around and was making another attack on the bombers. I thought, if she makes that attack she will never survive. I went to the telegraph station to report to my regiment that my aircraft was down and destroyed. Then I saw Raisa walking across a field, and it was wintertime, and there was snow, and we were in our fur boots. We came together and embraced each other and had the feeling that we had both been given birth again. (Noggle 160-161)

Pamyatnykh and Surnachevskaya would both survive the war, and Surnachevskaya also achieved the distinction of being probably the only person ever to fly in combat while pregnant.

Polikarpov_Po-2

Polikarpov Po-2

Of course it wasn’t all miraculous survivals and victories against the odds. The Eastern Front was the most dangerous place to be during World War II and the airwomen of Aviation Group 122 were in the thick of it. They suffered heavy casualties, especially the 46th Guards in their fragile, flammable biplanes, and had all kinds of harrowing experiences. While American pilots decorated their aircraft with cartoons and pin-ups, the planes of the 46th Guards bore vows of vengeance.

At the beginning of the war, pilot Yevdokiya Nosal had just delivered a baby when her maternity hospital was bombed. She was rescued unharmed from the rubble. Her baby was not. She joined the 46th Guards with a score to settle. Her navigator recalls, “My pilot strove to fly as many operational sorties as possible every night. She certainly had a good reason to want to square her account with the Nazis” (Cottam 134).

Nosal, one of the 46th Guards’ best pilots, was later shot in the head while on a sortie. Her navigator was forced to fly the plane back on her own (the Po-2 had dual controls because it was a trainer), holding Nosal’s body up by the collar to keep it from slumping forward onto the control stick. Nosal posthumously became the regiment’s first Hero of the Soviet Union.

Any Westerner studying Aviation Group 122 can’t help being struck by both the similarities and the differences between their experiences and the experiences of Western women in nontraditional fields. The USSR was established on a foundation of egalitarian Bolshevism, and while it had taken a sharp turn to the right under Stalin, it remained far more progressive on gender issues than the West in many ways, most notably in the presence of women in every sector of the workforce. Thus, while the resistance many of the women met in learning to fly may seem familiar, the reasons given by 46th Guards pilot Antonina Bondareva are not:

Father was dead against it, though. Until then all members of my family had been steelworkers, with several generations of blast-furnace workers. My father believed that a woman could be a steelworker but never a pilot. (Pennington 9)

586th_pilot_with_French_pilot

586th pilot with French pilot

The women faced a lot of belittling and skepticism, especially at the beginning. When the 46th Guards arrived at the front, their division commander asked the commander of their air army, “I’ve received 112 little princesses. Just what am I supposed to do with them?” (Pennington 77) Male fighter pilots often refused to let the female pilots fly with them as wingmen, ostensibly to protect them, but actually robbing the rookie pilots of the chance to fly alongside experienced veterans. And when Raskova brought in a male instructor to teach dive-bombing to the pilots of the 587th, he told her outright that it was ridiculous to think that women could learn dive-bombing. Once he had flown with them, he had to eat his words.

However, in many ways, the women’s air regiments were notable for the lack of special treatment they received. Valentin Markov, who commanded the 125th Guards, notes that “My superiors made no distinction between male and female units, of which the girls were very proud” (Cottam 22). They served in the same divisions with male regiments (the 586th and 125th both eventually incorporated some men), flew the same types of missions, and were issued men’s uniforms, right down to the underwear.

Although the selection process was stringent, they were never given a physical, not even the armorers, who were expected to wrangle 100-kilo bombs. Russians simply took the strength and hardiness of their women for granted. Meanwhile, across the pond, American WASPs were forbidden from flying while on their periods (an order that was, unsurprisingly, rarely followed, since their male superior officers didn’t want to ask).

The women of Aviation Group 122 were proud of their gender. 46th Guards chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya says, “The first slogan of the regiment was: You are a woman, and you should be proud of that” (Noggle 29). Their all-female status was a particular point of pride for the 46th Guards, who were adamant about maintaining it. Historian Reina Pennington describes a visit from Rokossovskii, the commander of the front, and Vershinin, the commander of the air army:

Before the assembled regiment, Rokossovskii turned to Vershinin and said, “It’s probably hard for the girls to do everything themselves. Maybe we should send them ten or twenty men to help hang bombs and do other heavy work?” But the women protested loudly, “We don’t need any helpers, we’re managing just fine on our own!” (Pennington 74)

There is a curious tension between this pride (and the great lengths to which the airwomen went in order to serve) and the general agreement amongst them that it was unnatural for women to fight. 46th Guards navigator Alexandra Akimova expresses a typical opinion:

The very nature of a woman rejects the idea of fighting. A woman is born to give birth to children, to nurture…To be in the army in crucial periods is one thing, but to want to be in the military is not quite natural for a woman.

I think American women have the idea of romanticism connected with being in the military, and it leads them to want to be a part of it. That is probably because they have not fought a battle in their own country for a hundred years and don’t know the nature of war. If the women of the world united, war would never happen! (Noggle 94)

Nearly all of the other airwomen echo this sentiment. 586th formation commander Klavdiya Pankratova, however, disagrees:

I have a strong belief that it doesn’t matter whether it is a woman or a man at the controls; a woman can be a military pilot, she can fulfill combat missions if a misfortune like war falls upon the heads of the people of a country.

And then it came to who should retire. It was not the men, of course; I was made to retire, and I didn’t want to. (Noggle 184)

All three women’s regiments were disbanded at the end of the war and nearly all the women had to stop flying. Yet few of them expressed Pankratova’s frustration. Most of them were simply so grateful for the war to be over that they were glad to leave their military careers behind them and return to civilian life.

Stamp_of_Russia_2012_No_1567_Marina_Raskova

Marina Raskova. Russian stamp, 2012

On an individual level, the airwomen ran the full spectrum of gender expression. On one end of the spectrum, some of them, especially those who had flown previously in male regiments or flight clubs, adopted traditionally masculine attitudes either through personal preference or as a way of legitimizing themselves as aviators. One such example is 46th Guards pilot Tatiana Makarova. Fellow pilot Natalya Melkin describes a teenaged Makarova this way:

Each morning, when everyone was still asleep, the thin girl in blue overalls rushed along her quiet street to the first streetcar…Always a little ashamed of looking too feminine and not at all like a pilot, Tanya, to make up for it, strove to put on a reckless and merry air, and purposely spoke in a somewhat rude tone, but she never succeeded in fooling anyone. (Cottam 159-160)

On the other hand, most of the women were unashamedly feminine in their gender presentation, none more so than Lydia Litvyak. According to a male pilot who flew with them, while Litvyak’s wingman and close friend, Katya Budanova, “hardly stood out from the fellows,” Litvyak was “a model of femininity and charm.” Her mechanic, Inna Pasportnikova, recounts:

Lilya [Lydia’s nickname] bleached her hair white, and she would send me to the hospital to get hydrogen peroxide liquid to do it. She took pieces of parachute, sewed them together, painted it different colors, and wrapped it around her neck.

Lilya was very fond of flowers, and whenever she saw them she picked them. She would arrive at the airfield early in the morning in the summer, pick a bucket of flowers, and spread them on the wings of her plane. (Noggle 196)

Rakobolskaya makes it clear that becoming soldiers did not mean that the airwomen had to become masculine:

Of course, we were not transformed overnight into a kind of pseudo-male soldiers. Girls stayed girls; they embroidered forget-me-nots on footcloths, flew kittens in their aircraft, danced on the airfield in non-operational weather and, at times, cried at the slightest provocation. However, most important, every day they fought better and better. (Cottam 117)

The individual stories of the women of Aviation Group 122 demonstrate the complete disconnect between gendered behaviors and combat performance. Litvyak and Budanova were complete opposites, but they both became aces. The women of all three regiments fought bravely, received many decorations, and earned the respect of all the men who had initially doubted them.

And, as far as I know, nobody ever had a problem with a dirty vagina.

Sources

Cottam, Kazimiera J., ed. Women in Air War: The Eastern Front of World War II. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1998.

Milanetti, Gian Piero. Soviet Airwomen of the Great Patriotic War: A Pictorial History. Rome: Instituto Bibliografico Napoleone, 2013.

Noggle, Anne. A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.

Pennington, Reina. Wings, Women, & War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Strebe, Amy Goodpaster. Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2011.

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Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, and retired mad scientist. Her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, tells the story of the 46th Guards through the eyes of impetuous teen pilot Valka and her shy childhood sweetheart as they fight on opposite ends of the Eastern Front. It comes out on October 3; you can pre-order it here. Find Gwen on Twitter @gwenckatz.

A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.