Friday, 6 April 2012

Good - it's Friday

                 Today is Good Friday, which, in the Christian tradition, marks the death of Jesus Christ. According to the synoptic gospels, (synoptic comes from the Greek syn - 'together' and optic - 'seen', these gospels are considered to be eye-witness accounts), when Jesus died there was "a darkness over the whole land", which is these days thought to refer to an eclipse. Prof. Sir Colin Humphreys and W G Waddington recreated the Jewish calendar for the First Century CE and, on the evidence of a lunar eclipse, place to first Good Friday as April 3rd 33 CE. During a lunar eclipse the moon takes on a dark red colour, due to the dispersion of light through atmospheric dust, and St Peter's reference to '... a moon of blood', in the Acts of the Apostles, is thought to be a reference to this phenomena.

On Good Friday 1865, (April 14th), President Abraham Lincoln went with his wife to Ford's Theatre, Washington, to see the play Our American Cousin. During Act II, Scene III of the farce, at about 10.15 pm, just as the actor Harry Hawk was delivering what was considered to be the funniest line of the piece, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal; you sockdologizing old man-trap!", the famous actor and confederate sympathiser, John Wilkes Booth, approached the President from behind and shot him once in the head. Booth, as an actor, knew the play and therefore knew Hawk was alone on stage, and after also stabbing Major Henry Rathbone, who was accompanying the Lincolns to the play with his fiancee, jumped from the presidential box but caught his riding spur in a banner. Falling badly, he broke his left leg as he hit the stage about twelve feet below, but managed to limp out of a side door of the theatre and escaped on a waiting horse. The fatally wounded Lincoln was moved across the street to the Petersen Boarding House, where he died the following morning. A reward of $100,000 was posted for the capture of Booth.

Booth, meanwhile, had an escape plan. He met a fellow conspirator, David Herold, and the two rode to the house of Dr Samuel Mudd, in Southern Maryland. At about 4 am on the following morning they arrived at Mudd's, who set, banadaged and splinted Booth's leg and arranged for some crutches to be made. They left the following day and hid in various farms and houses until April 24th, when they were led by William Storke Jett to Richard H Garrett's tobacco farm. The magnificently named detective Everton Judson Conger hunted down and questioned Jett, and two days later Conger accompanied 25 Union Soldiers from the 16th New York Cavalry to the farm, and surrounded the barn where Booth and Herold were hiding. Herold surrendered, but Booth declared he would not be taken alive, so the soldiers set fire to the barn, and as Booth tried to escape, Sergeant 'Boston' Corbett crept round the back, and firing through a crack in the barn wall shot Booth in the neck, shattering his spine. He died from the wound three hours later. Everton Conger received $15,000 from the reward for tracking down Booth. Corbett received $1,653.84 as his share of the reward.

Thomas P 'Boston' Corbett was born in London, England. His family emigrated to America and he worked as a hatter in Troy, New York. After his wife died during childbirth, Thomas moved to Boston, where he continued to work as a hatter and joined the Methodist church, renaming himself 'Boston' in celebration of the place of his conversion. He began to wear his hair very long, in emulation of Jesus Christ, and in July 1858 'Boston' castrated himself with a pair of scissors, to free himself from the temptation of prostitutes. Corbett was a hatter, and at this time hatters used mercury in the making of felt hats. Mercury is a poison that gives rise to madness, so widespread and well-known that the expression 'Mad as a Hatter' became common - witness The Mad Hatter character in  Alice in Wonderland. After serving in the Union army, Corbett's life was troubled with periods of erratic behaviour, and he was sent to Topeka Insane Asylum, from which he escaped and went to live in a hole in the ground in Concordia, Kansas. It is presumed he died in the Great Hinkley Fire of 1894.

David Herold, who surrendered, had, in 1864, worked for Dr Francis Tumblety. Tumblety was an Irishman who emigrated to America at an early age. He was a quack doctor, selling such patent medicines as Tumblety's Pimple Destroyer and Dr Morses's Indian Root Pills, and escaped prosecution after the death of one of his patients. He was arrested for complicity in Lincoln's assassination, but was released without charge. Tumblety visited Europe many times and in 1888 he was arrested in London for acts of 'gross indecency', released on £300 bail, which he skipped and fled to France. He then returned to America, where the New York Police kept him under surveillance. 'Gross indecency' was a misdemeanour, not a felony, and so outside extradition laws, but Tumblety had happened to have been in Whitechapel, London, in 1888, and so had fallen under suspicion of being involved in the Jack the Ripper murders. Tumblety was notoriously misogynistic, and the Ripper was suspected, amongst other things, to be a woman-hating physician. The self-publicist in Tumblety could not resist playing up to the rumours - he self-published a pamphlet entitled Dr. Francis Tumblety – Sketch of the Life of the Gifted, Eccentric and World Famed Physician, which is a remarkable exercise in self-aggrandisment and vanity publishing. In 1913, the so-called Littlechild letter, written by former Chief Inspector J G Littlechild to the journalist G R Sims, revealed that Tumblety had indeed been seriously considered to be the Ripper, although most modern Ripperologists reject him as a serious suspect.

After Booth's death, his co-conspirators were variously rounded up and arrested. The trial of these eight began on May 10th 1865, 366 witnesses were called, and on June 29th all were pronounced guilty. Mary Surrat, David Herold, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt were hanged on July 7th 1865. Three of the remaining four - Samuel Mudd, Michael O'Laughlen, and Samuel Arnold - were sentenced to life imprisonment, with Edmund Spangler receiving a six year sentence. They were sent to Fort Jefferson, Florida, where, in 1867, an outbreak of Yellow fever killed O'Laughlen. The prison doctor also died in the outbreak, and as the only medical man there, Mudd took over as prison doctor. He was able to stem the spread of the disease, and the guards wrote to President Andrew Johnson, asking him to recognise Mudd's work. In 1869, the three remaining conspirators were pardoned and released.

The expression "Your name is mud" is often said to derive from Dr. Mudd. This is yet another of those things-people-think-are-true-but-aren't that I love. Quite apart from the mud/Mudd spelling, the phrase falls into a long list of 'mud' idioms - 'mud in your eye', 'clear as mud', 'mud sticks', 'dragged through the mud' and so on, and is first recorded in 1823, years before Lincoln's assassination, in John Badcock's Slang - A Dictionary of the Turf etc., "Mud - a stupid twaddling fellow. ‘And his name is mud!’ ejaculated upon the conclusion of a silly oration, or of a leader in the Courier."

And 'assassin' is another word of dubious etymology. The common story is that it derives from the Arabic hashishiyyin "hashish-users," used from the 1530s in French and Italian to describe the fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect of the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the "Old Man of the Mountains" (translates Arabic shaik-al-jibal, name applied to Hasan ibu-al-Sabbah). Muslims are divided into two broad camps - the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. In the 1090s the Shi'ite Ismaili muslims again divided into two sects, the Musta'lians and the Nizaris. The Nizaris settled mainly in Persia and Syria, and their reputation as killers spread, together with rumours that their leader fed them a certain magic potion, which transported them to the Garden of Paradise. The main ingredient of the potion was said to hashish. The only way to earn a return to the Garden was to do the bidding of The Old Man, which often included murder. Now it seems unlikely that a bunch of doped-up Arabs would make effective killers, especially as Hasan was also known to be an adherent to the Koranic ban on all intoxicants and was a hashish prohibitionist, but it did the Nizari's reputation no harm, and Hasan ibu-al-Sabbah became known as the 'Killer of Kings'. A select group of Nizaris called the Fida'is, often described as 'the first terrorists' targeted Sunni princes and priests, although it is thought they also attacked no more than eight Europeans. In the 13th Century Nizari power waned, and in the 19th Century the main body moved to India, where their missionaries had founded colonies, under the leadership of the Aga Khan. Some Arabic scholars have noted that 'assassin' comes ultimately from the Arabic 'Hassa' - to slaughter or exterminate, whilst other have said that The Old Man liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asas, that is "foundation" of the faith.Yet another thought is the word was used in a pejorative sense of 'enemies' or 'disreputable people'. This sense of the term survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply 'noisy or riotous'. I think it's unlikely it will ever be settled.

I've been wondering, whilst writing this, how it all links to the study. There is plenty to go on - Jesus, eclipses, Abraham Lincoln, murder, self-mutilation, madness, Jack the Ripper, quack medicine, assassins, rumours and misinformation, and hashish. But the only thing I can come up with are these American Million dollar bills. It would be nice if they were legal tender.

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