Human nature being as it is, otherwise intelligent and rational people often get caught in the ‘it could never happen here/ to me/ to us’ mindset. Yet, history is replete with examples of disasters, those both actual and barely averted, that were watersheds in their days and resulted from dumb luck, unforeseeable timing, sheer ineptitude, and hubris.

Think of Guy Fawkes. Think of John Wilkes Booth. Think of Titanic. Think of the July 20th Plot. Think of the fourth plane on 9-11.

In this November week 893 years ago, England found itself with just such a situation. Then was suffered a loss that could easily have been avoided, and one which a contemporary chronicler opined was unsurpassed in the misery it later inflicted on the kingdom.

White Ship Sinking

White Ship Sinking

At that time, Henry I ruled over both England and Normandy, a geographic patrimony reflective of the roots of his father, William the Conqueror, from only a generation earlier. Fairly or not, Henry was perceived as a degenerate libertine, and many looked to his only legitimate son, William Adelin, as one who could advance less his prurient interests and more those of the realm.

On 25 November 1120, King Henry, heir William, and the rest of the Anglo-Norman court were in Barfleur, in northwest France, preparing to return to England. The newest ship in Henry’s fleet was la Blanche-Nef, or the White Ship, a fast galley of the highest quality and newest materials. For reasons not entirely clear, King Henry had made other arrangements for his own voyage home, but allowed many in his retinue, including the heir, several of his illegitimate issue and extended family, and a number of nobles, to sail instead on the White Ship.

No sooner were the revelers, er, royals onboard that William Adelin broke open the wine casks for the three hundred passengers.

Unfortunately the crew partook of the libations as liberally as did the passengers.

To compound matters, the White Ship’s now-inebriated contingent demanded that Capt Thomas FitzStephen overtake the monarch’s ship which had sailed only shortly prior. FitzStephen was said to have been confident that his galley could do so.

Or was he merely afraid to speak truth to power?

In a hurry to depart, FitzStephen dispensed with the customary blessing of the ship by court priests before setting sail. Still it was not until dusk that the White Ship cleared the harbour’s sea-walls and entered the Channel. Almost immediately, its port side struck a submerged rock and quickly capsized. In the chaos that ensued, it is said that William Adelin was able to swim to a small boat. Foolishly, though, he demanded that his boat head not to shore, but back to the roiling open waters to search for his stricken half-siblings. Predictably, this rescue party did indeed locate desperate survivors bobbing in the black water… and they promptly swamped William’s skiff. All drowned.

Only two survived from the entire ship: the ship’s butcher and a minor noble, Geoffrey de l’Aigle.

Although Henry I remained on the throne for fifteen more years, the stage was set. He sired no more children, and on his death warring camps coalesced around the two contenders: Stephen of Blois, the King’s nephew, and the King’s own daughter, Matilda.

Matilda was disliked because she was female, and married to a continental nobleman of suspected hostility to the Anglo-Norman court.

Stephen was male, but not the King’s progeny.

Following Henry I’s death, the resulting period of strife is known today as the Anarchy. The lack of clear-cut succession yielded the breakdown of civil order and almost two decades of armed conflict between the factions, magnified by marauding Welsh and Scottish rebels, foreign mercenaries, and restive English barons. In this war of attrition, neither contender seemed able to land a knockout blow.

Finally, in 1153, after eighteen years and countless deaths and destruction, the two sides signed the Treaty of Winchester, a document that recognized Stephen as king but allowed for Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, to be Stephen’s heir.

A final note of serendipity: Stephen himself had barely missed passage on the White Ship – due to a bout of severe diarrhea.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Richard Pavlick

If the name Richard Pavlick doesn’t ring a bell, it’s understandable. We’ve been hearing a lot about Lee Harvey Oswald this past week, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. But if Pavlick had gotten his way, his name would be the one universally recognized, and Oswald’s that of a long-forgotten nobody.

You see, Pavlick was planning to assassinate JFK long before Oswald gave any serious thought to it. Pavlick was a retired mail carrier from New Hampshire, then in his early seventies. When President-elect Kennedy went to Palm Beach, Florida, for a vacation prior to the inauguration, Pavlick followed him there in his 1950 Buick sedan loaded with dynamite. His intent was to blow up the car, himself, and his few meager possessions after ramming into Kennedy’s limousine.

Luckily for the Kennedys, the December Sunday chosen for the attack saw JFK get in the limousine to head for mass… along with Jackie and the kids. Pavlick had second thoughts about killing those innocents, so he decided to wait for another opportunity to get JFK alone.

That opportunity never came. He was arrested four days later, on December 15th, on a tip provided to the U.S. Secret Service by his hometown’s police force. Apparently the postmaster in New Hampshire had learned of threatening postcards Pavlick had sent… and a large purchase of explosives he had made prior to leaving town.

Pavlick was committed to a federal mental facility in Springfield, Missouri, in January, 1961. He was formally indicted for threatening JFK’s life seven weeks later. But charges against him were dropped following JFK’s death, as by then it was apparent that he was incapable of proceeding to trial because of legal insanity. He was finally released from the hospital in 1966, and died back in New Hampshire, in relative obscurity, nine years later.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Witchy Woman

“Fire roared through a mental hospital [in Asheville, NC] early yesterday and snuffed out the lives of nine female patients. They died as 20 others, some screaming, some calm, were led to safety. Flames quickly engulfed the four-story central building of the Highland Hospital for Nervous Diseases. Wailing of some of the women echoed over the spacious grounds. Firemen, police, nurses, doctors and townspeople rushed to the rescue. But seven women were trapped on the upper floors. Two others removed by firemen died in a short while. It was the third fire in the hospital in less than a year…. [the ass’t supervisor] described how she and [the] supervisor … first went after the helpless patients: ‘we felt that the others were awake and would help themselves; as soon as we got the helpless ones out and safely put away elsewhere, we rushed back to help others. By then we knew some had been trapped. Some of them were awake, we know, and were rousing the others. It seemed no time at all until the entire building was like a furnace.’” ~Florence (SC) Morning News, 12 March 1948.

Highland Hospital Fire (courtesy of Asheville Historical Ass'n)

Highland Hospital Fire (courtesy of Asheville Historical Ass’n)

Highland Hospital, located in the fashionable Montford neighborhood of Asheville, was originally called “Dr Carroll’s Sanatorium” when opened by its namesake in 1909. In 1939, Dr Carroll gave the hospital to the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, over 200 miles away, and the university subsequently operated the facility from a distance. It became the destination for the wealthy and well-known who needed therapy, solitude, and privacy to escape their demons. Unlike many other mental hospitals of the day, Highland emphasized purposeful activities, healthy diet, fresh air and clean water, exercise, and the quiet beauty of the natural surroundings as being therapeutic. But over time they eventually offered the other accepted treatments of the day, including insulin shock, lobotomy, and electroconvulsive therapy.

And predictably, safety codes were not to 21st century standards. Fire escapes were made of wood, as were the dumbwaiter shafts that acted as conduits for fire. And oft-repeated rumors that patients were sedated and locked in their rooms at night were never fully quelled.

One of the victims of the 1948 fire was the former Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama. She was waiting to receive ECT when the fire ended her life. She is better known to the world by her married name – Fitzgerald – and her passing was a tragic final footnote to a fast-paced and illusory life of glamour that has captivated the public for almost a century.

Born into privilege in the Deep South – her father was on the Alabama Supreme Court, while her maternal grandfather and great uncle were both U.S. Senators – Zelda Sayre was a debutante whom her husband called ‘the first American flapper.’ She was a sexually liberated free spirit in an age when women were still largely expected to be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, the extroversion and tangentiality for which she was known were likely harbingers of the mental illness that would consume her – contemporaneous hospital records suggested a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia,’ whereas in retrospect a bipolar diathesis and borderline personality disorder are much more likely.

At first she was unimpressed with her suitor, F.Scott Fitzgerald. He was Catholic, a struggling writer living in penury who drank too much. She had many other romantic options… and exercised them regularly. But when Scott’s first novel, This Side Of Paradise, was published to acclaim in 1920, Zelda finally relented to marriage.

The newlyweds in public were the Jazz Age personified. In private, these darlings of the Roaring Twenties instead battled jealousy, infidelity, acrimony, and resentment. Their parties became less pleasurably hedonistic and more intensely self-destructive. Zelda felt that she had given up promising careers in art and ballet and was being smothered by her husband. After Zelda’s first admission to a mental asylum, Sheppard-Pratt outside Baltimore in 1930, Scott increasingly viewed her as an unstable financial and emotional burden.

Interestingly, Zelda, while hospitalized at Sheppard-Pratt, wrote the draft for what would become her first and only novel, Save Me The Waltz, a book that angered Scott because of the autobiographic information on the marriage it contained (an odd accusation when one realizes that Scott’s later Tender Is The Night is highly autobiographical of the marriage as well).

Zelda and Scott in 1935

Zelda and Scott in 1935

Zelda’s residence at Sheppard-Pratt was followed by times spent at asylums in both France and Switzerland during the expat years, at least one overdose on sleeping pills not followed by an inpatient commitment, a stay at another Baltimore-area hospital upon return to the U.S., and then her involvement with Highland, first in 1936. It was at Highland, on and off, where Zelda would spend the final dozen years of her life, rarely visited by Scott.

Following a disastrous trip to Cuba for the couple in 1938 – they fought constantly on what was billed as a therapeutic vacation, and Scott was beaten by angry locals when he tried to stop a cockfight – Zelda returned to Highland and Scott headed to Hollywood in an attempt to rejuvenate his career. When Scott died in California in 1940, he had not seen or communicated with Zelda for 18 months.

Zelda was eventually interred in Baltimore next to Scott.

Nothing was ever built on the site of the fatal fire. A grassy field remains as silent testimony to the lives lost.

The rest of the Highland campus, however, was sold by Duke in 1980 and now houses corporate offices of Genova Diagnostics.

The use of lithium salts to treat bipolar disorder – a treatment that might have made a substantial difference for Zelda’s stability – was rediscovered by John Cade, M.D. … the year after her death.

And this post’s title? It is said that Don Henley of the Eagles was so impressed with a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald that he co-wrote the song Witchy Woman in the 1970s with the seductive, uninhibited, reckless, tragic enchantress specifically in mind.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Homicide in the Good Ol’ Days

Because of the 24/ 7/ 365 news environment in which we live, it is easy to assume that the perceived deterioration of society in general, and the unfettered growth of psychopathy in particular, are modern phenoms. While there is no way to refute this unequivocally, I suspect that psychopaths have existed since time immemorial. We just do not realize the chronology and full extent of the rapacity because of the lack of extant records, questionable diagnostic skills of the day, and criminal investigations that were then primitive at best.

A personal case-in-point: I have visited Appley, the small town in Somerset, England, where my maternal grandparents and their parents lived in the 19th century. It is barely more than a wide spot in the road. It looks as though nothing dangerous could ever be found in those bucolic fields and forests. I doubt any resident ever locked the front door. But in 1901, my grandmother’s younger sister was accosted by an unknown assailant wielding a blunt object while on her way home one afternoon. In pre-antibiotic days, she developed peritonitis from the assault, and unfortunately prior to lapsing into coma was unable to identify the person responsible. She died shortly thereafter at the age of fourteen. Victoria was on the throne and Britannia ruled the waves. But no one was ever caught, and the hangman at Tyburn denied his due.

While not common, monsters did lurk, then as now. Anyone who has read the best-selling Devil in the White City knows this. The risk of untimely death, whether from disease and filth, incompetent medical care, accident, or the predations of the evil, was very real indeed. In the case of the lattermost, forensic science was not often able to catch the guilty.

The second case-in-point, and the topic of this post, comes from across the Pond, and is arguably worse than my great aunt’s demise if only because of the numbers involved. A family of German immigrants, the Benders, had moved west from Ohio to claim vacant lands in Labette County, Kansas, just after the American Civil War. The 160-acre property in question had been vacated by Osage Indians who were forcibly transported to their new ‘home’ on the reservation in Oklahoma. Patriarch John Bender, his wife ‘Ma’ (history does not record her given name), his son John Jr., and his daughter Kate established a small inn and general store near Cherryvale, amongst a community of likeminded spiritualists and homesteaders.

The Bender business and residence were situated directly adjacent to the Great Osage Trail, the most well-established route to points further west. The Benders became renowned, though not for their retail and hospitality endeavors. Widely distributed flyers and broadsides touted daughter Kate’s psychic skills and supernatural healing abilities, and her séances and lectures on free-love became big attractions for those passing through the area.

Unfortunately for some who stopped in Kansas on the way to California, the Benders developed renown for other reasons, especially as their inn became the final and eternal stop for many a weary traveler. Beginning in 1871, there were a series of disappearances of those heading west who seemingly never made it past Cherryvale. It took a while, but by 1873 suspicions began to circulate about the Benders themselves. A town meeting was held during which it was decided to confront John and his family… but when the townspeople arrived at the homestead, they found it deserted.

Upon entering the abandoned inn, the search party detected a horrible smell. A trap door on the first floor under a bed revealed a subterranean cavity dug into the ground, the soil of which was soaked with what appeared to be congealed blood. The men of the town then began to dig under the house, but no remains were there found. However, probing the garden and orchard next to the house was more productive, and soon produced the decomposed body of William York, a doctor who had recently been heading through town searching for family members who had themselves earlier disappeared.

searching the Bender property (courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society)

searching the Bender property (courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society)

York’s remains were not the last. Many more bodies were located in adjacent fields, a creek bed, and in the well. Eventually the number grew to over twenty. Further, there were limbs unearthed that did not match any of the intact corpses. All of the victims did have one thing in common, though – their heads had been crushed by a heavy club, and their throats were then slashed for good measure. Newspapers of the day additionally reported that the female dead had been “indecently mutilated.”

The (mostly) unclaimed remains were buried in a mass grave nearby, still known as “Bender Mound.” A sledgehammer and some cobbler’s tools found near the killing fields were felt to match the damage that had been inflicted to the crania of the dead; these implements, along with a bloodstained knife discovered in its hiding place under the mantle clock, are still on display at the Cherryvale Museum and the Kansas Museum of History (as the commercialization of Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, and the Donners can attest, nothing has the power of a lurid folktale to eventually whitewash the past and draw in the tourist bucks).

And while some locals were arrested as middlemen who fenced valuables taken from murdered guests, the Benders themselves did not answer for their alleged involvement, nor were they ever brought to justice in a court of law. While there were rumors of their deaths at the hands of vigilantes, as well as tales of their escape to the badlands of Mexico, no proof was offered and no one stepped forward to claim the substantial reward money put forth by the authorities.

In fact, the trail grew cold quickly. The Benders disappeared, and were never seen again.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Regia Aeronautica

My father, Raffaello (Ralph), was barely a first generation American, having been born only a matter of months after his parents arrived here by way of Ellis Island before WWI. His initial tongue was Italian, he was given a traditional christening by immigrant Catholic clergy, and his upbringing was by all measures one wholly Neapolitan.

Because of this, I’ve always found it odd that he was assigned to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force in Italy during WWII, only 30 years after his then-still-living parents had originally emigrated.

Civilian Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps back home, and those U.S. soldiers of Japanese descent were assigned to other (non-Pacific) theaters of the war, but no such proscription appears to have been directed at a majority of, if any, American servicemen with Italian antecedents. Quite the contrary, my father’s squadron appreciated his cultural familiarity and translation abilities in dealing with locals and any captured Italian soldiers.

Ralph was not one to talk about himself in his ninety-one years, so the few stories I know of his service, including his Bronze Star, have come from official dispatches, old letters, and the tales of his squadron-buddies at reunions. This includes the time when Ralph was roused from his tent in Telergma, Algeria, to see an emergency patient… which turned out to be one of the local Berber chieftain’s donkeys (and it lived despite its grievous injuries). But that’ll be a post for another day.

Despite being flight-surgeon for the unit, my father was known on occasion to accompany his pilot friends on sorties. This was because he enjoyed flying and the camaraderie, notwithstanding the obvious risks. Ralph was not a man to whom it was easy to feel close, and over later years his friends – his only friends – were those with whom he had served in the Mediterranean theater.

What follows is an interesting previously-unpublished story that was only recently related to me by one of the few surviving veterans of the squadron, a colleague of my father’s who is now in his nineties and who served as a gunner onboard the B-26s.

I’ll let this nonagenarian’s words speak for themselves:

“I am not certain of the exact date, but I remember that it was in August of 1943. On one mission, we encountered the only Italian fighters of the war. Up until that point, and afterwards, all of our intercepts had been by Luftwaffe planes. On this day, we had a dozen B-26s that had gone to bomb a port and rail facility guarded by the Wehrmacht, but cloud cover had prevented the bombing run, and the formation was headed back to base. Before long we saw fighters approaching us that looked differently than the usual interceptors. Once closer, we could see that they bore the tail, fuselage, and wing insignia of the Regia Aeronautica. At the time I didn’t recognize them, but later, reviewing photos and reading specs, I’m pretty sure these planes – about six of them – were the Macchi C200 Saetta (‘Thunderbolt’). The Saetta was a very maneuverable fighter with all-metal paneling, a powerful air-cooled engine, twin machine guns, and exceptional stability in high speed dives. Though Italy produced over 1000 of the Saetta during the war, we had never encountered any of them before.



When dealing with Germans, I usually waited until an approaching fighter was almost in range, and then fired a long burst in the hopes of discouraging him. As this was the first and only time we met the Italians – and we had no fighter escort of our own – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The planes of the Regia Aeronautica approached us, staying out of range and not coming any closer. I held my fire. They circled for a few minutes, but didn’t attack and didn’t make any overtly threatening moves. They were looking. The Italians then proceeded to put on a mid-air acrobatics show the likes of which I’d never seen. At first I thought they were trying to distract us so that another group of fighters could gain an element of surprise, but no, they were just showing off with impressive aerial dives and rolls. It was an excellent display of talent! Although it seemed to go on for a long time, it probably lasted less than five or six minutes. And then, as quickly as they had appeared, the Saettas turned and went home.

It was only a couple of weeks later, on 8 September 1943, that Italy pulled out of the war. I think those pilots might have known something that we didn’t.”

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

A Psychiatrist’s Bucket List

I read recently that Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis couch – the very same one that he brought with him from Vienna to London when escaping the Nazis and on which all of his seminal patients spilled their guts – was in urgent need of restoration. This high-Victorian fainting divan resides, covered with its accompanying antique Persian carpet since the late 19th century, in Sigmund’s untouched study in the erstwhile Freud homestead and museum north of the capital. It looks like you could just walk over and recline on it.

Which is exactly what I want to do.

And someone recently has, since the museum brochure describes the couch as “surprisingly comfortable.”

Freud's couch

Freud’s couch

So I wrote to the Freud museum and said that, as a forensic psychiatrist and admirer of the great thinker, I’d foot the bill for the couch’s restoration if they’d let me repose on it and get a few photos in the process the next time I’m in London.

Earlier this week I rec’d their reply:

29 October 2013
Dear Doctor: Thank you for your email. I’m afraid we do not let anyone sit on the couch. Although we have had many requests in the past – and will probably receive many more – we have a strict policy at the museum. The couch restoration took place in September and happily it is now in a much more stable state. A team of specialists were able to repair damage to the textiles and restore the physical stability of the couch; however it is still very much a museum piece and as such cannot be handled as could a normal piece of furniture. I hope this response is not too disappointing. All the best, [signature], assistant curator.

Restoration completed?!? Someone beat me to it!

Scratch this one off the bucket list… moving onward to being a guest voice actor on The Simpsons.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]