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Interactivity: The New ‘Jungle Music’

By J.T.O.

Movie critic Roger Ebert once (or twice, really) infamously declared that video games aren’t art because they’re interactive.1 To Ebert, anything that descends so low as to actively involve the peasants in its own audience lacks the magic stamp of “authorial control.” (Who exactly is the author of a movie, which is typically made by a cast, crew, studio staff, outside production house staff and test-marketing teams collectively numbering in the hundreds, is a mystery we can leave Rog to answer.)

What’s fascinating—and frightening—is that would-be censors have been making exactly the same argument in legal terms. Interactivity means that video games aren’t art, they say, so they’re not protected by the First Amendment. This is all the more ironic considering that interactivity arguably is the core art-within-the-art of video games, as editing is in films.2

It’s no coincidence that Ebert’s aesthetic argument and the censors’ legal argument are essentially the same. Media censorship is always a reactionary aesthetic freak-out over the lower-class rabble getting too noisy (particularly if the children can hear them). And the censorship always specifically attacks and attempts to devalue the aspect of the art that is seen as the most proletarian. As the African-American creators of jazz and rock were once targeted by the racist firestorm over “jungle music,” so the (perceived) social-misfit players of video games are now targeted by a disparaging usage of “interactive.”

Courts have given the legal assaults an Ebertian thumbs-down, usually while expressing surprise that nobody’s heard of the First Amendment. But such claims will continue until all the old people die and the video game generation is fully in control of presidencies, governorships and legislatures as the rock ’n’ roll generation is now. That’s the pattern of all pop-culture-era censorship frenzies.

Indeed, so clear is this pattern that we should be legislating against it, not against video games. Any time an elected official promulgates an art censorship law that is patently in violation of the First Amendment (including sales bans and rating systems), they should be automatically impeached for breaking their oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Sure, freedom of speech usually wins out in the end, but always at great personal cost to artists and significant financial cost to taxpayers.

Shooting down an obviously unconstitutional video game sales ban in Louisiana in 2006 (ESA v. Foti), District Court Judge James Brady declared himself “dumbfounded that the Attorney General and the State are in the position of having to pay taxpayer money [to the tune of $91,900] as attorney’s fees and costs in this lawsuit.” Noting that the legislature is full of lawyers who should have known better, he said, “The Court wonders why nobody objected to the enactment of this statute. In this court’s view, the taxpayers deserve more from their elected officials.”

While painting video games as crime-creating cabinets of Dr. Caligari, the elected officials behind these laws are the real criminals, knowingly breaking one of our democracy’s most sacred precepts and freely wasting government funds for short-term personal political gain. There should be a video game about them called “Grand Theft Autocrat,” and it should be bloody.

Of course, what actually tends to happen is that they carry on merrily like would-be 1980s rock censors Al and Tipper Gore did, wrapped in the glory of protecting the youth that has sheltered politicians ever since they executed Socrates.

So, despite nine censorship laws shot down from 2001 to 2007, the assault on video games in general and their “interactivity” in particular continue, right up to the Obama administration and the NRA gunning for video-game makers after the Newtown school shooting.3 Thus, let us know our enemy.

The interactivity of video games has been generally demonized as a force uniquely suited to turn children into lust murderers. Video game interactivity certainly is new and has a rich array of psychological effects and curiosities. But censors, as they always do, seize on it solely for its novelty, which to them is synonymous with threatening. And yet, there’s nothing new about their pseudoscientific arguments; they now say that the new powers of video games will make kids kill, just like they used to say the new powers of movies will make kids kill, or the unique powers of comic books will turn kids into juvenile delinquents, or the unique powers of heavy metal records will turn kids into suicidal Satanists. The “threat” is always new; the mistrust of our own kids is always old.

In 2000, Indianapolis attempted to ban kids from playing some video games in public arcades, an unbelievable bit of idiocy that cost the city $318,000 in court costs. Demolishing the ban in the case American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, Seventh Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner considered the new bogeyman of interactivity.

“Maybe video games are different. They are, after all, interactive,” Posner wrote. “But this point is superficial, in fact erroneous. All literature (here broadly defined to include movies, television, and the other photographic media, and popular as well as highbrow literature) is interactive; the better it is, the more interactive. Literature when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own. Protests from readers caused Dickens to revise ‘Great Expectations’ to give it a happy ending, and tourists visit sites in Dublin and its environs in which the fictitious events of ‘Ulysses’ are imagined to have occurred. The cult of Sherlock Holmes is well known.”

OK, so it’s not great as art theory and makes it pretty clear that Posner never actually played a video game. But it’s a great legal argument: If you want to demonize interactivity, good luck doing so in a way that isn’t unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

In 2005, the state of Michigan attempted to ban the sale of certain video games to minors and got successfully sued into “game over” mode by the industry (ESA v. Granholm). The state made a big huffy noise about appealing but never has, and meanwhile forked over $182,000 in court costs that Gov. Jennifer Granholm should have repaid out of her own pocket.

The suit was founded on the same old superstition that interactivity is a homicide-maker. But it also apparently pioneered the legal version of Ebert’s argument that interactivity means games aren’t art, and thus aren’t speech, and thus can be censored.

District Court Judge George Steeh was kind enough to articulate the defendants’ own argument: “The defendant concedes that the First Amendment fully protects the expressive element in video games [the story, art, music and other traditionally accepted artistic elements] but argues that the interactive functional element, which is not present in other forms of electronic media, can be distinguished and should not be considered protected speech.”

In other words, the state argued that interactivity—the ability to play the game—is not part of the artform, but more like a TV remote control. It can therefore be regulated like a tool. Of course, if that is so, then interactivity has no psychological content or effect, and there’s no reason for the ban in the first place. Whoopsie!

But Steeh didn’t make that argument. He did much better. He said that not only is interactivity art, but it may in fact privilege the video game medium above others rather than denigrate it into something worthless and evil.

“The interactive, or functional aspect, in video games can be said to enhance the expressive elements even more than other media by drawing the player closer to the characters and becoming more involved in the plot of the game than by simply watching a movie or television show,” Steeh wrote. “In video games, it is the player who controls the actions of the character and often determines the outcome of the game. With the rapid advancements of video game technology and new innovations, such as online gaming, video games are becoming more open ended with more possibilities to interact with other players and control the fate of the characters and the worlds they inhabit. It would be impossible to separate the functional aspects of a video game from the expressive, inasmuch as they are so closely intertwined and dependent on each other in creating the virtual experience.”

That a jurist is a better art critic than one of our most famous movie reviewers is a symptom of a culture that greets all exciting new artforms with superstitious hostility and legal bullying. Steeh pegged that, too, emphasizing that the Michigan ban “appears to discriminate against a disfavored ‘newcomer’ in the world of entertainment media.”

So it always is. “Jungle music” went from bans and riots to a semi-hallowed Hall of Fame. Video games will follow a similar path, and these court cases ironically prove they’re well on their way.

2 I would add, to further Roger Ebert’s dismay, that film editing is essentially interactive as well, requiring its meaning on the screen to be mentally distilled and created by the viewer from both physical/optical and cultural cues.

3 Information about the court cases involving video game ban attempts, including some excerpts from the language of the decisions, was provided by Dan Hewitt, director of media relations for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), an industry lobby.

The original version of this essay was written in 2007.


Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Knowledge: Scientific Anomalies Reported in the Works of Byron

By J.T.O.

I previously catalogued the wealth of scientific anomalies recorded in the works of Henry David Thoreau, an author so connected with Transcendental Nature that fans and scholars forget that he carefully observed materialistic little-n nature, too—and found it full of weirdness.

And Thoreau was writing non-fiction. Still more easily overlooked are the Fortean facts in anomaly-heavy poetry and creative prose such as that of Poe, frequently glossed over as wholly imaginary tropes. Such authors are squeezed between the tongs of opposite prejudices: that creative writers are out of touch with the “real world,” or alternatively that they should be; either way, the presumption being that poets never really know what they’re talking about. Our understanding of science ends up impoverished because our understanding of art already is.

Remarkably, this myopia produces misreadings even of Lord Byron (1788-1824), that most worldly of poets, that infamous stateless grappler with the real, that turbocharged experience machine, to whom “ivory tower” likely would be an archly crass euphemism for something witnessed at the court of Ali Pasha.

Granted, Byron was all about personality and ultimately was his own work of art (and artifice). Invoking his name rightly evokes images of drunken lust, harems, revolutionary guerrillas. “Nature poet,” for most readers, would be far down that list. Famed as Byron is for adventurous realism, for epitomizing the strange-but-true, his personal heat singes perceptions of his frequent treatments of the (super)natural. Trying to recall the natural world in Byron, one inevitably thinks of lightning-wracked mountaintops, tempests at sea, rippling muscles of beasts. It is easy to think of Byron’s works as a property-box inventory of Gothic stage-dressing—the sort of reductionist formula he despised. But that is how we are trained to think about canonical poetry: that it treats of grand themes, rather than recording particulars.

Byron, however, was a great collector of specifics; and as a social and physical anomaly himself (he suffered from a congenitally deformed foot), he had an eye for the same in human culture and the natural world. His works are loaded with Forteana, many personally witnessed; and if his presentation is not scientific, it is nonetheless that of an observant, skeptical, highly educated and well-informed layperson. Where he does use standard Gothic imagery, he frequently links it to Fortean reality. For example, the rapid graying of hair caused by fright described in the opening of “The Prisoner of Chillon: A Fable and Sonnet on Chillon” (1816) is accompanied by a footnote in which he gives historical examples of the phenomenon. (The entire poem is itself based on a historical person and circumstance.)

Cataloguing scientific anomalies means spoiling the drama of pat answers and tossing bombs at consensus reality. If a reader is perceptive enough to note the Forteana, he or she may be so upset that they dismiss it anyway.

An early example of such a reaction came, coincidentally, from Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his 1840 essay on the new Romantics, “Thoughts on Modern Literature,” Emerson began with perceptive thoughts about the nexus of art and nature: “There is no better illustration of the laws by which the world is governed than Literature….Nature mixes facts with thoughts to yield a poem.”1 But of course, what he meant was capital-N Nature—“metaphysical nature”—which equates with beauty, personal morality and “infinite good.” It follows that Byron, that very physical poet with a feel for jagged edges and flaws, was no good: “His will is perverted, he worships the accidents of society, and his praise of Nature is thieving and selfish.”

There’s one claw of that pinching tong: Byron understood the real world too well. Strip away the moral approbation, and he stands accused of detailing freaks and recording garish particulars. That is to say, he is a Fortean, a collector of data that is, as was said approvingly of Byron himself, “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”2

With passing years, careers built on analyzing the “Byronic hero” and the Westminsterization of Byron, the opposite view has dominated: like all Romantics, Byron knew plenty about his own passions and something about realities that inspired them—predominately, outdated political disputes, European travel and innovative sexual practices—and little else. That is to say, there is wide acknowledgement that he was obviously autobiographical, with the emphasis on that personal “auto.” But that Byron paid attention to scientists and frequently observed nature and customs like one? That doesn’t come up very much. One can only suspect that literature majors are not disposed to link science and the Romantic.

The result is that we are now in an era when a major biography of Byron can claim that “unlike Shelley, he had little curiosity about the great scientific discoveries of his day,” a statement strongly at odds with his poems, which he personally vandalized with heaps of scientific footnotes.3

Biographer Fiona MacCarthy was more perceptive, even if she wasn’t esoteric enough to recognize Forteana. She noted that Byron was well-versed in scientific matters, frequently discussing them with a medical-student friend; the subjects of interest included astronomy, phrenology, “animal magnetism” and electricity (particularly galvanic experiments on corpses)—much of which now is considered Fortean, pseudoscience or both. He even half-jokingly speculated on the possibilities of air travel and voyages to the Moon.4

Most importantly, MacCarthy sussed out an attitudinal truth: “Byron himself was a disciplined observer. His great poem ‘Don Juan’ is built upon a quasi-scientific analysis of the human condition, rejecting the half truths of sentimentality and cant.”5

And indeed, Byron was skilled at collecting anomalies of human nature as well—customs, traditions and supposed paranormal abilities. As another biographer said, “Byron defined himself as a romantic in his intellectual enthusiasm for folkloric archaeology; he was always fascinated by surviving evidence of ancient popular culture.”6

That included nearly lost Hebrew songs and the like. But Byron, well-read in history, was also interested in literal archaeology. Indeed, one of his passions was the then-controversial idea of a historical, as opposed to merely literary, Troy. Schliemann’s Homer-guided homing in on the Troy site a half-century later, of course, is the ultimate example of knowledge lost for centuries solely because of the presumption that poets are just brilliant idiots.

Let us avoid repeating that mistake and look at some examples of scientific anomalies recorded in the works of Byron.

“The Corsair: A Tale” (1814):


Then to his boat with haughty gesture sprung.

Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,

Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke….


Lest you not get this allusion, Byron explains it in a footnote: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

This glowing of the subtropical ocean was unexplained in Byron’s day and the province of Fortean tomes until very recently. Now, tens of thousands of web links will tell you that it is produced by self-illuminating plankton. However, still unexplained are the dozens of reports of patterns—whirling spirals, shifting bands—of this phosphorescence.

“The Giaour: A Fragment of a Turkish Tale” (1813): He refers to the supposed self-stinging suicide of a scorpion entrapped within a circle of flame—a strange folklore belief of the era that Byron may have popularized. Byron considered the reality of the scorpion suicide as “dubious,” archly commenting in a footnote about scientific investigations of it: “The scorpions are surely interested in a speedy decision of the question; as, if once fairly established as insect Catos, they will probably be allowed to live as long as they think proper, without being martyred for the sake of an hypothesis.”

As it happened, the question was not settled for at least several more decades of burning scorpions illuminating the pages of journals up to and including “Nature.” The best early debunking I found was from a scientist who, somewhat to his chagrin, tortured scores of scorpions to death in an array of bizarre experiments to determine that a) they simply run through any wall of flame or hot coals to escape; b) they may touch themselves with their tail if burned or tormented, but not sting themselves; c) they survive their own lab-induced stings easily, as evinced by a still living self-stung scorpion he displayed on a table during his revelation of his findings.7

It is aesthetically fascinating, and illustrative of Byron’s love for anomalies, that he would use this supposed arthropod behavior for striking, robust symbolism while also doubting and wondering about its reality:


So do the dark in soul expire,

Or live like Scorpion girt by fire;

So writhes the mind Remorse hath riven,

Unfit for earth, undoom’d for heaven,

Darkness above, despair beneath,

Around it flame, within it death!


“Manfred: A Dramatic Poem” (1816-17): This famously supernatural closet drama refers to the fairly common phenomenon of a “sunbow” at the base of a waterfall. Byron elaborates in a footnote: “This iris is formed by the rays of the sun over the lower part of the Alpine torrents: it is exactly like a rainbow come down to pay a visit, and so close that you may walk into it: this effect lasts till noon.” (He saw this first-hand at Staubbach Falls in Switzerland in 1816.8) The phenomenon is not an anomaly per se, but it clearly was one in Byron’s experience; and stranger yet similar optical displays such as “moonbows” are certainly in the realms of the Fortean. Byron’s sensitive interest in the phenomenon—so strong that he included it in a particularly sublime work—is quintessential Forteanism.

His reference to “galvanism upon the dead” in Canto VIII of “Don Juan” (1819-24) reflects a long interest in the then-new subject of electricity and electrophysiology that by that time had already found its most famous fictional expression in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Byron famously was an indirect cause of “Frankenstein” with his suggestion of a night of ghost-story writing; and “Frankenstein” is the paragon of Romantic anti-science that clearly has deeply influenced the overlooking and misreading of the scientific in the literary canon, including Byron’s works. Byron always acted like everything revolved around him, and sometimes he was right.

In Canto XIII of “Don Juan,” we find a reference to the supposedly singing statue of Memnon in Egypt, a popular topic of the era’s supernatural lore. But here it is likened to a sound produced at a certain time of night in an old abbey—apparently based on the one that long served as the Byron family home. The cause of this moaning architecture is not divulged, but the poem does not discount a possible acoustic anomaly involving sounds of a distant waterfall. Likewise, the Memnon statue itself is bestowed with a possible rational explanation: the warming action of sunlight.

This mingling of the wondrously paranormal and the pragmatically skeptical is typical of Byron and the essence of Forteanism. And yet, this scientific skepticism toward natural phenomena is often overlooked in Byron as it is in Thoreau.

This skepticism is most striking in the Byronic appearances of ghosts. Apparitions seem fundamental to the Gothic-Romantic image of Byron, and it is easy to take his ghosts at credulous face value. But Byron is often more arch and coy than that.

“I say I do believe a haunted spot/Exists—and where? That shall I not recall,/Because I’d rather it should be forgot,” says Byron in “Don Juan” Canto XV. A manifesto of supernatural belief? No. As a thinly veiled reference to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the canto suggests, it is a materialist allusion to being haunted by one’s own psychology—one’s depression and fear.

The tone is lighter, but the attitude the same, in Don Juan’s ghost sighting in Canto XVI. The hero lying abed hears, “A supernatural agent or a mouse,” Byron jests. He reveals his own skepticism while pretending to mock that of Don Juan, who had


thought like most men there was nothing in’t [in ghost beliefs]

Beyond the rumour which such spots unfold,

Coined from surviving superstition’s mint,

Which passes ghosts in currency like gold,

But rarely seen, like gold compared with paper.


The ghost later reappears—as an outrageously comedic would-be lover in Halloween-style disguise.

In these scenes, dark or light, we can see the quasi-scientific observer of humanity that MacCarthy detected. We can also see the essentially scientific attitude that skepticism, far from destroying wonder, enhances it by filtering out delusion and stunning us with truth. Surely the ghosts of one’s own mind are more astonishing than those of children’s tales.

It is thus no surprise that Byron was an astute collector of human anomalies along with natural ones. A compiler of legend and lore encountered in his travels, Byron famously introduced the vampire to modern European/American consciousness. Years before his fragmentary attempts at a vampire story—the product of the same parlor-game session that bore “Frankenstein”—were appropriated by another author into “The Vampyre,” he explained in a footnote to “The Giaour” that the vampire “superstition” was widespread in the Levant. He also provided some historical, etymological and personal background.9

Like many modern Forteans and paranormalists, Byron was far more credulous about supposed powers of precognition. In “Don Juan” Canto VI, he speaks favorably of prophetic dreams:


I’ve known some odd ones which seemed really planned

Prophetically, or that which one deems

‘A strange coincidence,’ to use a phrase

By which such things are settled nowadays.


And in a lengthy footnote in “The Giaour,” he explains the meaning of “second hearing”—clairaudience—by recounting a remarkable, if incredible, personal story. A fellow rider one day reported hearing a phantom gunshot, a precognitive warning of impending attack. Seeing no sign of danger, Byron dismissed the warning as delusion, but said he later learned an attack was indeed planned that day and failed. It is not clear that Byron truly believed this was more than coincidence, but he evidently found it remarkable. He also notes in nearly scholarly fashion that, while running into this form of ESP, he never encountered the presumably more commonplace superstition of “second sight” in “the East.”

In the realm of the philosophical rather than the observational, the conclusion of “Don Juan” features an extended defense of free thought that could serve as an epitaph for Fort. Neither deep nor original, it is nonetheless stirring praise for innovation; it can be primarily read as the protest of a frequently censored poet, but is overtly science-minded, citing such paradigm shifts as the end of witch-burning and the vindication of Galileo:


There is a commonplace book argument,

Which glibly glides from every vulgar tongue

When any dare a new light to present:

‘If you are right, then everybody’s wrong.’

Suppose the converse of this precedent

So often urged, so loudly and so long:

‘If you are wrong, then everybody’s right.’

Was ever everybody yet so quite?


Therefore I would solicit free discussion

Upon all points, no matter what or whose,

Because as ages upon ages push on,

The last is apt the former to accuse

Of pillowing its head on a pincushion,

Heedless of pricks because it was obtuse.

What was a paradox becomes a truth or

A something like it….


That is simple Forteanism. Byron could also be complex, combining his prodigious book-learning, love of anomalies and satirical skepticism—as in his allusion to Georges Cuvier in “Don Juan” Canto IX. Cuvier was a great proponent of catastrophism, the idea of rapid, global catastrophes dramatically affecting Earth’s geology and biology. Catastrophism fell out of favor and as recently as 20 years ago was considered Fortean material, only now finding favor once again as it drops the Biblical posturing and worries us about meteorites. Musing about mental chaos, Byron alludes to Cuvierian catastrophism, suggesting the same may happen with human thoughts:


So Cuvier says. And then shall come again

Unto the new creation, rising out

From our old crash, some mystic, ancient strain

Of things destroyed and left in airy doubt,

Like to the notions we now entertain

Of Titans, giants, fellows of about

Some hundred feet in height, not to say miles,

And mammoths and your wingèd crocodiles.


He goes on to ponder that one day we shall be fossil freaks ourselves: “I say, will these great relics, when they see ’em,/Look like the monsters of a new museum?”

If it didn’t rhyme, it could be mistaken for a page of Fort. Using mainstream science of the day to fruitfully blur or entwine perceptions of physical and psychological freaks—to reconsider the very definition of “freak”—is highly sophisticated stuff.

Maybe part of the problem is that Byron is often so funny he doesn’t seem sophisticated. “Don Juan” Canto XI gleams with his hilarious distillation of one of the great archaeological enigmas: “The Druid’s groves are gone—so much the better./Stonehenge is not, but what the devil is it?”

Poets are supposed to heave shovelfuls of numinosity to fill a round hole like Stonehenge with tales of ancient moonlit rites or similarly fertile mental soils; the humor, of course, is that Byron declines to dig. His wit is so quick that our reading may be as well, failing to realize that he is ultimately quite serious about his Socratic ignorance, and that he actually possessed thorough lay knowledge of popular archaeological mysteries of his day.

In fact, a still-significant archaeological anomaly appears repeatedly in Byron, yet appears to have been overlooked by scholars—probably because they had no idea what he was talking about and presumed he didn’t, either.

Byron lived in an era of European Egyptomania stirred by the archaeology that followed Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and his works are replete with pyramids.10 Pyramids are, of course, tombs. For Byron they are symbolic of mortal vanity—so impressive, yet so totally burglarized and decayed, the bodies within them lost to time.

However, in at least two cases Byron sharpens this criticism with cryptic suggestions that the pyramids had a different actual function that is now forgotten.

In “Don Juan” Canto VIII, he refers obscurely to “Guessing at what shall happily be hid/As the real purpose of a pyramid.”

In “Sardanapalus: A Tragedy” (1821), he elaborates on his pyramid doubts without really clarifying them:


We leave a nobler monument than Egypt

Hath piled in her brick mountains, o’er dead kings

Or kine, for none know whether those proud piles

Be for their monarch, or their ox-god Apis:

So much for monuments that have forgotten

Their very record!


Why is Bryon suggesting that the pyramids were some type of ox-worship shrines, let alone with such dripping sarcasm? Surely it is, and always has been, well-known that Egyptian pyramids were fundamentally tombs for pharaohs, whatever lingering mysteries and subsidiary significances they may have had. Byron himself elsewhere admits as much.

I raised Byron’s mysterious reference with Prof. Salima Ikram, chair of the Egyptology department at the American University in Cairo and a renowned expert in ancient Egyptian funerary practices.11 I did not provide her with Byron’s lines, but paraphrased them and asked whether there was some valid controversy about ox-worship or whether Byron was just mixing up the pyramids with other types of ancient Egyptian structures.

Probably just confusion, Ikram said, adding that “there was always debate as to the function of pyramids.” (The debate never really seriously questioned the pharaonic tomb uses, however, which remained the focus of cult worship into late Roman times, but rather, as today, involved mystic theories and forced mergers with Biblical lore.12)

And, she added: “Also poetic license…”

And here we go again. Poets are creative liars; Byron was likely yet another stumbler into the mumbo-jumbo imaginings of what eminent Egyptologist Mark Lehner—himself a former psychic-worshipping looney—calls “pyramidiots.”13

But I had learned to “believe Byron,” as his family motto said, and did some excavating of my own. It turns out that Byron was referring to an actual discovery and authentic mystery from the beginnings of modern pyramidology. That is to say, he knew exactly what he was talking about.

Between 1809 and 1818, France published the massive, multivolume “Description de l’Égypte”—the findings of the Napoleonic campaign. This set off a burst of artifact-grabbing proto-archaeology that makes Indiana Jones look like a patient grid-digger.14

Among the pioneers was the Italian Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a former circus strongman and hydraulic engineer who was a pretty Byronic character himself. He arrived at the great pyramids of Giza in 1818, a time when it was still debated whether all of the pyramids contained any internal chambers.

Belzoni discovered the lost and hidden original entrance to the pyramid of Khafre and became almost certainly the first European (and surely the first modern) to enter the burial chamber within. But to his disappointment, anything that once remained had been plundered—according to graffiti within the chamber—by Arab explorers, likely sometime between A.D. 1000 and 1200. The granite lid of the sunken sarcophagus was split.

As Belzoni himself later recounted, he first saw within the sarcophagus only “a great quantity of earth and stones”—or “rubbish,” as he considered it.15 But the next day, a young man visiting the site “rummaged [through] the rubbish inside the sarcophagus…[and] found a piece of bone, which we supposed to belong to a human skeleton. On searching farther, we found several pieces, which, having been sent to London, proved to be the bones of a bull.”

There you have it: bull bone fragments found within a sarcophagus of one of the great pyramids of Giza, wonders of the ancient world—and during a ground-breaking exploration, no less.

Writing about the find in 1820, Belzoni saw fit to correct popular misconceptions—corrections that indicate the bull-bone aspect made quite a splash at the time. (Indeed, he notes that part of the reason for writing his book is because his discoveries launched so many crazy rumors.)

For one thing, he didn’t think there was anything funny about it. “Some inconsequential persons, however, who would not scruple to sacrifice a point in history, rather than lose a bon mot, thought themselves mighty clever in baptizing the said bones those of a cow, merely to raise a joke. So much for their taste for antiquity.” Belzoni, himself a gigantic bull of a man, was not about to have bullishness feminized away.

More significantly, the bull-bone finding influenced some logical speculations about the giant Egyptian sarcophagi: “It has been stated also, that it might be supposed these large sarcophagi were made to contain the bones of bulls,” thus explaining their size. But he disagreed, noting that intact burials of ancient Egyptians often involved multiple coffins nested within one another (as we now so famously know from Tutankhamun), thus necessitating an oversized sarcophagus.

This still leaves us with the question of what bull bones were doing in Khafre’s sarcophagus. It remains a mystery, as do other anomalous remains found in other pyramids and mausoleums.

Lehner notes the case of another pyramid where the burial chamber clearly had been plundered, yet there were human bones dating to millennia later along with an apparently anachronistic coffin lid bearing the pharaoh’s name. That anomaly could reflect a cult’s ritual renovation or reuse of the pyramid’s tomb, Lehner notes. As for the bull bones, Lehner says the former director the German Institute of Archaeology in Cairo suggested that they “were probably an offering thrown into the sarcophagus at some unknown later date by intruders, long after the king’s body had been robbed and lost.”

Belzoni himself did not theorize about the bull bones, but he was a firm believer that the pyramids were pharaonic tombs and clearly considered the bones as some kind of trash, not an official burial and certainly not the original one.

Byron’s firmest reference to the bull bones came after the publication of Belzoni’s corrections. He clearly did not follow the controversy closely enough to have read Belzoni for the update. (Byron also would not have been in London that year to see Belzoni’s artifact exhibition at Egyptian Hall, where the burial chamber was modeled and the find possibly addressed.16) Likewise, Belzoni’s book came out before any of Byron’s bull-bone allusions (or at least, those that I detected) were published, so the poet was not a specific target of correction.

So the peripatetic Byron did not pursue the findings with the consistency of a scholar; and, as Ikram suggested, he undoubtedly flashed that poetic license in his casual assertion of total ambiguity about pyramid purposes. Nonetheless, his writing offers a wonderful freeze-frame of a scientific anomaly significant to the historiography of Egyptology.

Indeed, it remains a significant anomaly today, and indicative of how even experts can focus on the origins of the pyramids to the detriment of their other 4,500 years of use. As Lehner says, “These mysterious facts [including the bull-bone find]…hint that the history of the pyramids is not always as straightforward as Egyptologists may think.”

In turn, this only adds wisdom to the futility of monuments Byron persipaciously saw lurking in this anomaly. One of the first celebrities in the modern sense and a participant in that most immortalizing of arts, Byron was acutely aware that his pyramidical musings applied to himself. Right before one such pyramid allusion in “Don Juan,” he cynically jokes about modern forms of glory:


What is the end of fame? ’Tis but to fill

A certain portion of uncertain paper.

Some liken it to climbing up a hill,

Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour.

For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,

And bards burn what they call their midnight taper,

To have, when the original is dust,

A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.


Byron is still famous, and most pictures of him are actually pretty dashing. But in our narrow focus here, we can already see a significant aspect of Byron being forgotten, overlooked, miscomprehended—an entire monument of scientific anomalies regarded not as a lordly tomb, but as a different sort of bull.



1 Published in “The Dial,” October 1840, via; also excerpted in “Byron’s Poetry,” Frank D. McConnell, ed.

2 The words of his future lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, in her diary. For a typical citation with authentic punctuation, see “Byron: Life and Legend” by Fiona MacCarthy.

3 “Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame” by Benita Eisler.

4 MacCarthy, op. cit.

5 MacCarthy, op. cit.

6 Eisler, op. cit.

7 “Note on the (Alleged) Suicide of the Scorpion” by C. Lloyd Morgan, “The Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society” (1878-88), Vol. I, Part 1, pp. 19-23, via Google Books/University of Michigan.

8 MacCarthy, op. cit.

9 Similarly, in a footnote to “The Giaour,” he describes the Levantine superstition of the “evil eye,” “of which the imaginary effects are yet very singular on those who conceive themselves affected.”

10 On the Egyptology, “The Complete Pyramids” by Mark Lehner.

11 Ikram’s specialty is animal mummies. See her project’s web site:

12 Another Egyptologist, Prof. James Allen at Brown University, noted to me that most Egyptologists are not expert in early Egyptology. The history of history is, of course, rather rarified stuff.

13 Lehner, op. cit.

14 Most of the following third-person detail comes from Lehner, op. cit., as do the following quotes and observations attributed to him.

15 Belzoni’s own words here and following are from his “Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; And of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; And Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon,” via Google Books/Harvard University; also available through the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Belzoni’s book has at least a couple Fortean tidbits as well, including a description of a mirage.

16 “Gods, Graves, and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology” by C.W. Ceram (E.B. Garside, trans.).


The Byron texts used for this column are the Penguin Classics editions of “Don Juan” (T.G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W.W. Pratt, eds.) and “Selected Poems” (Susan J. Wolfson and Peter J. Manning, eds.). Significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,” Ted Honderich, ed.; and “The Reputed Suicide of Scorpions” by Alfred G. Bourne, “Proceedings of the Royal Society of London” (1887), Vol. 42, pp. 17-22, via JSTOR at For citations on Fort and his latter-day follower William Corliss, see my prior essay on “The Fortean Thoreau.” As in that essay, I follow Corliss in using “anomalous” (as well as “Fortean”) to refer to the rare as well as the unexplained. The original version of this essay was published in 2007.

The Fortean Thoreau: The Works of Henry David Thoreau as a Database of Anomalies in Natural Science

By J.T.O.

The practical value of science is arguably its “natural laws,” those formulae that render reality usefully predictable, or at least comfortably explicable.

The philosophical value of science is arguably that all those laws are statistical, not absolute, certainties; that matters are always open to question and revision, and in fact demand such scrutiny.

In a world of academic tenure and prestige, these values certainly do not always coexist happily. But in the broad sweep of things, science has historically and philosophically been driven by anomalies. In a system that rejects the concept of the supernatural and yet acknowledges the limits of observation, exceptions prove science’s rules—and sometimes find them lacking.

It follows that anyone who compiles anomalies is doing science a huge favor, whether it likes it or not. In this vein, one of the greatest popular scientists—though he would have bristled at the term—was the eccentric Charles Fort (1874-1932), a journalist who gathered an enormous collection of anomalous reports in virtually every field of science, but especially meteorology and astronomy. Strange lights, rains of ants and frogs, unidentified flying objects and unidentified stalking animals—all were grist for Fort.

He presented his findings in wild, raving books, spinning his own partly tongue-in-cheek philosophies of the universe and making caustic, insightful potshots at science at the same time. Fort was a reactionary who overly relied on newspaper reports (even less reliable then than now). But his books such as “The Book of the Damned”—so named for the anomalous data “damned” from mainstream science simply because they don’t fit—constitute some of the earliest modern critique of science (and especially of the mythos of positivist progress that often comes attached) while adding immensely to it.

Fort’s more rational modern successor, and an unsung hero of modern popular science, was William Corliss (1926-2011), a Maryland physicist by training who for decades compiled anomalistic reports almost exclusively from scientific journals new and old. Through his Sourcebook Project, he published compilations of these reports under such alluring titles as “Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation,” “Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature” and “Archeological Anomalies.” It’s impossible to read any of them without having a renewed sense of wonder—and fact-based wonder at that (the best kind).

Samplings from Corliss’s “Science Frontiers” newsletter include the “Plain of Jars” in Laos; supernovas resetting atomic clocks; a wild bear that reportedly learned to knock on doors so people would be tricked into letting it indoors; and the unreliability of the gravitational constant. (I follow Corliss in using “anomalous” to refer to the rare as well as to the unexplained.) Corliss gave ink to catastrophists before catastrophism was cool (again).  In his books, I first read about “rogue waves,” lakes that are actually meteor craters, and the thunderstorm-related luminous phenomena known as jets and sprites, all many years before they were welcomed into the fold of orthodox science.

The value and power of Fort’s and Corliss’ works lie in science’s own findings being thrown back at it. But literature is rich with references to natural anomalies—Emily Brontë, Poe and Byron are just a few anomaly-heavy authors who spring to mind—that are uncatalogued and too easily forgotten as fiction or dismissed as tropes. Such allusions bolster and illustrate the drier work of Corliss and Fort.

A classic overlooked example is an author who was somewhat of a living anomaly himself, Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). The author of “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” is known today predominantly as a natural philosopher, with the emphasis on “philosopher,” and even more emphasis on his role as one of the anti-materialist New England Transcendentalists. Widely overlooked is his Enlightenment-era interest in and skill at scientific observation—which led to a goldmine of anomalistic reports. Combing his books for such reports not only adds to anomaly lore, it offers a sharper understanding of Thoreau.

We may as well start with “Walden,” which, like all great books, is wildly misunderstood. The misconceptions about Thoreau’s pondside living experiment and related social critique are well-addressed by many others. What interests me is the focus on Thoreau as a Transcendentalist, when “Walden” also shows him to be a devoted empiricist and sharp skeptic—contradictions that show what depths his mind held, as well as provoking his fascination with the anomalous.

In the book, Thoreau recounts how he heard endless rumors that Walden Pond is bottomless. He not only tested the rumor by going out and sounding the pond, but he also made a topographic map of its bottom and attempted to extrapolate a scientific formula for determining the deepest point of any given body of water. “It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it,” he writes, adding that even those who make superficial attempts typically only “fathom their truly immeasurable capacity for marvelousness.”

“While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless,” he concludes.

A truism of Thoreau’s work is that wilderness can always be found nearby, and scientific anomalies bear the postscript message that mystery and wonder are right out there with it.

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous,” says Thoreau the skeptic in “Walden.” “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.”

It’s no wonder anomalies attracted Thoreau, because they offer exactly that. What could be more fairy-tale than, say, a winged cat?

“A few years before I lived in the woods there was what was called a ‘winged cat’ in one of the farm-houses in Lincoln [Massachusetts] nearest the pond, Mr. Gilian Baker’s,” Thoreau writes in “Walden.” He recounts his failed attempt to see this cat in 1842 and his conversation with its owner, who informed him “that in the winter the [cat’s] fur grew thick and flatted out along her sides, forming strips ten or twelve inches long by two and a half wide, and under her chin like a muff, the upper side loose, the under matted like felt, and in the spring these appendages dropped off.”

Thoreau didn’t see the cat, but he took home some kitty wings. “They gave me a pair of her ‘wings,’ which I keep still. There is no appearance of a membrane about them.” He then bizarrely speculates the cat could be the hybrid offspring of a flying squirrel.

Thoreau came across another natural curiosity at Flint’s or Sandy Pond in Lincoln. “There also I have found, in considerable quantity, curious balls, composed apparently of fine grass or roots, of pipewort perhaps, from half an inch to four inches in diameter, and perfectly spherical. These wash back and forth in shallow water on a sandy bottom, and are sometimes cast on the shore. They are either solid grass, or have a little sand in the middle. At first you would say that they were formed by the action of the waves, like a pebble; yet the smallest are made of equally coarse materials, half an inch long, and they are produced only at one season of the year. Moreover, the waves, I suspect, do not so much construct as wear down a material which has already acquired consistency. They preserve their form when dry for an indefinite period.”

Later in “Walden,” he describes his experiences with what sound like phenomena known as “Brocken specters” and “glories,” unusual effects of dew or fog in which an observer’s shadow is seen as capped with a halo of rainbow light. His account may also include an anomalous rainbow.

“Once it chanced that I stood in the very abutment of a rainbow’s arch, which filled the lower stratum of the atmosphere, tingeing the grass and leaves around, and dazzling me as if I looked through colored crystal. It was a lake of rainbow light, in which, for a short while, I lived like a dolphin….As I walked on the railroad causeway, I used to wonder at the halo of light around my shadow, and would fain fancy myself one of the elect.” He goes on to say the phenomenon “is especially observed in the morning, but also at other times, and even by moonlight.”

The unusual acoustic properties of frozen bodies of water drew Thoreau’s attention. He writes that he once hit the frozen surface of Flint’s Pond with an axe; “it resounded like a gong for many rods around, or as if I had struck on a tight drumhead.” He refers also to the booming frozen ponds can emit under the warming of the sun, and how surprisingly unpredictable the sounds are. He recounts the tale told to him by another man of the grandly swelling, resonant sound produced by a huge sheet of lake ice breaking loose and grinding away on the shore edge.

The odd and anomalous turn up in other Thoreau books as well. In “Cape Cod,” he describes hearing the “rut,” “a peculiar roar of the sea before the wind changes” known to locals but inexplicable to them.

While climbing a hill a quarter-mile from shore, he recounts, “I was startled by a sudden, loud sound from the sea, as if a large steamer were letting off steam by the shore, so that I caught my breath and felt my blood run cold for an instant….There was a low bank at the entrance of the Hollow, between me and the ocean, and suspecting that I might have risen into another stratum of air in ascending the hill,—which had wafted to me only the ordinary roar of the sea,—I immediately descended again, to see if I lost hearing of it; but, without regard to my ascending or descending, it died away in a minute or two, and yet there was scarcely any wind all the while.”

Musing on the rut, he suggests it involves wind-blown water piling up in one area, then crashing ashore just prior to the wind that drove it arriving. He recounts an anecdote a ship captain told him about occasionally meeting waves at sea that moved against the wind, presumably from a similar cause.

Elsewhere in “Cape Cod,” Thoreau describes various optical illusions produced by the flat surface and lack of scale on a beach, as well as a local mirage. Stones shaped “exactly” like bivalve clams are another oddity he comes across.

In “The Maine Woods,” Thoreau describes hearing an anomalous echo of the cry of a loon on a lake. The echo was louder than the original sound—“probably because, the loon being in a regularly curving bay under the mountain, we were exactly in the focus of many echoes, the sound being reflected like light from a concave mirror.”

He was also driven into nature-worshipping ecstasy by his discovery of the common, but striking and remarkable, phenomenon of phosphorescent wood.

As some of the above examples indicate, Thoreau collected anecdotes of other people’s anomalous experiences, too. In “Cape Cod,” he recounts a lighthouse-keeper’s remarkable report of having seen the upper edge of the sun for about 15 minutes before sunrise actually happened. No anomaly slouch, Thoreau; he speculates quite credibly that it was a known phenomenon in which refraction on high clouds of sunlight from below the horizon makes it appear as if the sun is rising early.

He also quotes from Francis Buckland’s “Curiosities of Natural History” (1837), which mentions many supposed anomalies (such as mermaids and mermen) with a dryly skeptical eye.

In “The Maine Woods,” he mentions his Native American guide’s knowledge of will-o’-wisp electrical phenomena.

In “Walden,” Thoreau alludes to reports of rains of flesh and blood—some of the wilder stuff later catalogued by Fort.

And for the penultimate metaphor in his grand summation at the end of his greatest book, he relies on yet another bizarrely anomalous anecdote.

“Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer’s kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts,—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn.”

Thoreau elaborates on the obvious Christian resurrection theme of this urban legend. Similar tales—most frequently, and even less believably, about toads somehow surviving entombment within stones cracked open by miners—were part of the anomaly lore of the day. (It should go without saying that not all reported anomalies are true.)

Indeed, it must be noted that Thoreau was by no means unusual in his love of the odd; natural history of the day was driven by the collection of curiosities, as much for romantic reasons as for scientific ones.

But Thoreau remains significant for his devotion to the anomalous, his wealth of first-hand experience with it, and its obviously profound influence on his natural philosophy—one that saw great value in wondering why, and even greater value in simply wondering.

Anomalies are key to his vision—and arguably, to ours, as a scientific generation. They tell us that what is really strange about the anomalous is our inability to see the complexities that connect it into the matrix of the natural.

“If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point,” Thoreau muses in “Walden.” “Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful.”

Or, as Fort put it simply, “One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”

Even from the wing of a cat, or the halo of a shadow.

The Thoreau editions used and quoted in this column are the Penguin Nature Classics edition of “Cape Cod” and the Quality Paperback Book Club editions of “Walden” and “The Maine Woods.” Significant sources not cited in the text include: “The Complete Books of Charles Fort” by Charles Fort; “Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena” by William R. Corliss; “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,” edited by Ted Honderich; and Buckley’s “Curiosities of Natural History” in scanned form at

Who Was the Original One-Man Wrecking Crew?

By J.T.O.

“One-man wrecking crew” is one of those slang terms that echo endlessly in the imitative caverns of sportswriting. The Pro Football Hall of Fame website uses it to describe no fewer than four different players.1

But who was the original one-man wrecking crew, the athlete or hero or demolition expert who inspired it all? The answer remains lost—for now—in the debris of history. But clues abound in the easier-to-trace ancestry of the general multi-person term “wrecking crew.”

“One-man wrecking crew” is a term for someone who single-handedly destroys obstacles or opponents, real or imagined. Ironically, the term is based on people who cleaned up wrecks rather than creating them.

“Wrecking crew” was invented in American slang by the late 1800s to refer to salvage teams that cleaned up shipwrecks or train crashes. (The British chose to call train salvagers “breakdown gangs.”2) The first known use, according to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” is from 1878 in a Bret Harte story, where it is used metaphorically to refer to a group of seabirds.3 The metaphorical use means that the term already was well-known earlier than Harte’s story. The general use of “wrecking” to mean salvaging a wreck is dated by the “OED” to 1804.

Railroad wrecking crews in particular must have been the big slang influence, because they were a popular topic of public curiosity for the first half of the 20th century, frequently written about in newspapers and magazines.4 Cleaning up the massive debris and mangled corpses of train wrecks was a major job. Wrecking crews had their own specialized trains that included a car loaded with tools and ropes as well as a train-mounted crane.5 They were on call all the time, like firefighters. A wrecking crew typically had eight to 12 men. So a one-man wrecking crew would be impressive indeed.

“Wrecking crew” quickly entered slang as a term for perceived troublemakers or tough guys. This metaphorical use first appeared in baseball sportswriting. Paul Dickson, author of “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” may have tracked it down to its moment of birth: an Aug. 17, 1912 report by famed sportswriter Irving Vaughan in the Chicago Record Herald.6 In the article, Vaughan wrote that the Chicago Cubs “‘wrecking crew’ was called forth repeatedly in an effort to turn the tide…” He used “wrecking crew” to refer to the team’s stable of top hitters. His placing of the term in quotes suggests it was an early usage of a novel term, and it bears more of the salvaging flavor—saving a game, in this case—than later usages. In any case, it is the earliest known use of “wrecking crew” in its group-of-tough-guys sense.

Sportswriters continued referring to various groups of star players on a team as a “wrecking crew.” The term spread into common parlance, often used negatively. By the 1950s, former President Harry Truman was using it prominently to criticize Republicans.7 The term has persisted in sports and broadened into other games, such as the term “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” applied to the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1980s and the New York Giants football team of today.8

We can assume that the solo variation “one-man wrecking crew” arose sometime after August 1912. But exactly when or where is a mystery. Dickson was unable to give me any immediate insights.9 The pro baseball and football halls of fame researchers did not respond to questions.

The earliest definite use of the term that I could find does not appear to be original or influential. In a 1928 Catholic organization magazine, a writer reminisced about a school team basketball player as “our one-man wrecking crew.”10 The term is not in quotes, as is usual for a new word, and it is doubtful that many people ever read the article.

The earliest mainstream usage I could find was in a 1933 Associated Press news story about the opening of baseball season.11 It referred to Hall of Famer Al Simmons as a “one-man wrecking crew” for the Chicago White Sox. It may be worth noting that Simmons previously played for the Philadelphia Athletics under manager Connie Mack. I found Mack’s Athletics teams frequently referred to as “wrecking crews” in newspaper coverage from the early 1900s.12

There is a tantalizing possibility that legendary football coach Pop Warner used the term “one-man wrecking crew” to refer to equally legendary athlete Jim Thorpe in 1911—even earlier than the currently first known use of the general “wrecking crew” term.

The reference comes from the book “Pop Warner: Football’s Greatest Teacher: The Epic Autobiography of Major College Football’s Winningest Coach.” The book quotes Warner as saying, following a 1911 football game, “Against Harvard on that memorable day, Jim was a one-man wrecking crew.”13

However, it is unclear whether that is a direct quote, a paraphrase or a pure invention, and it unclear when and where Warner is alleged to have said it. While it is styled as an “autobiography,” the book was actually collected and crafted 40 years after Warner’s death from various bits of his writings and other sources by author Mike Bynum. Bynum told me that he would check his files for the exact origin of the “one-man wrecking crew” quote, but has not yet responded.14

What is known with certainty is that, at the same time that “wrecking crew” became popular in sportswriting, so did slang terms using the form “one-man.”

“One-man show” first appeared in print in 1869, the “OED” tells us. “One-man band” appeared around 1931. It is like that “one-man wrecking crew” is a linguistic marriage between the existing sports term and the “one-man” trend.

For the sake of complete evidence and a shot in the dark, I must mention my discovery of a 1903 use of the variant term “wrecking crew of one.” This use appears to be idiosyncratic and not influential, but one never knows. It appears in the short story “When Peggy Took the Key” by Marjorie Stevens, published in the May 26, 1903 issue of the Boston Daily Globe newspaper. The story is about a railroad telegraph operator who is preoccupied by his recently broken engagement. Full of labored train metaphors, the story describes the hero as having “appointed himself a wrecking crew of one” in metaphorical terms of being determined to clean up the wreck of his engagement.

I suspect that somewhere in the reams of newspaper sportswriting between 1912 and 1928 is the first use of the term “one-man wrecking crew,” just waiting to be salvaged.


2 “The American Language: Supplement One” and “The American Language” (4th ed.) by H.L. Mencken, p. 487.

3 The “OED” citations generally refer to shipwreck salvaging. The earliest use of the railroad-specific “wrecking crew” term I could find was in the court case Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific R. Co. v. Hawk (1887), as published in “The American and English Railroad Cases,” Vol. XXXI, John Houston Merrill, ed., 1888. The court case was based on an 1882 incident.

4 “Minute Men of the Rails,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 89, No. 2, Aug. 1916.

5 “The Crane That Saves $2,000 a Minute” by Henry B. Comstock, Popular Science, Vol. 161, No. 4, Oct. 1952.

6 Information provided by Jacob Pomrenke, web content editor/producer at the Society for American Baseball Research, Phoenix, Arizona, personal communication, Nov. 28, 2012.

7 One example can be found in “Demo oratorical guns blast away at Republicans as session opens” by Douglas B. Cornell, Associated Press, in Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald, Sept. 15, 1953 (report dated Sept. 14).

8 Los Angeles Dodgers: “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” team fan forum at;  New York Giants: “The Big Blue Wrecking Crew Rolls On” by Josh Alper, NBC 4 New York TV news, Jan. 16, 2012, at

9 Paul Dickson, personal communication, Nov. 28, 2012.

10 “The Catholic Charities Review,” Vol. 12, 1928, p. 58.

11 “Big leagues baseball season opens today in many new surroundings” by Associated Press, Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun, April 12, 1933.

12 For examples, see: “Joe Jackson pulling away,” Boston Daily Globe, July 21, 1913; “Giants in batting rampage against Philadelphia pitchers,” New York Times, Oct. 5, 1913 (via; and “Matty could bear it, if the West won a pennant” by Christy Mathewson (syndicated column), Boston Daily Globe, Sept. 21, 1916, p. 6.

13 The quote appears on p. 128.

14 Mike Bynum, personal communication, Dec. 9, 2012.

Other significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include: “Jail ‘wrecking crew’ strikes,” Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), July 22, 1932, p. 3; and “Truman hits hard at Dewey for Taft-Hartley support” by Kermit McFarland, Pittsburgh Press, Oct. 24, 1948, p. 1. All books, newspapers and magazines accessed via Google Books and Google News Archives except for Bynum and Mencken or otherwise noted.

Murderers Who Have Served in the U.S. Military: A Database

By J.T.O.

America has a long history of blaming homicide and other violent crime on subcultural and/or cutting-edge art and stigmatized fans of it. Plays, novels, movies, rock music, comic books, TV, psychedelia, punk rock, heavy metal, role-playing games, rap, goth, video games–each in turn has been claimed, often by some of the highest officials in the land, to be turning children into criminals with depictions of sex, violence or the occult. As none of these artforms literally causes anyone to do anything, the claim typically involves some form of alleged brainwashing. In many cases, individual artworks have been blamed for specific crimes, by authorities and survivors, by perpetrators, or by both. Various forms of censorship and prohibition of art has resulted, particularly in the form of rating systems.

At the same time, American society is highly resistant to placing similar blame on cultural institutions that directly and openly promote physical violence. Football, for example, is well-known to produce significant amounts of violence from performers (both on- and off-field) and fans alike. Indeed, physical violence is one of the main goals and pleasures of the sport and is taught to young people by skilled coaches. Yet a rating system for football games, let alone an outright ban due to violence, would be considered virtually an act of treason in America.

Violence is clearly an ingrained humanity propensity that manifests in all cultures and eras. Mainstream American culture is conflicted about its expression of this fact of life, clearly enjoying violence in officially sanctioned arenas, while displacing guilt about the horrible consequences onto stigmatized minorities and their expressions.

In pondering this conflict, this author had two realizations. One is that authorities frequently regain a sense of power and control over fearsome, authority-threatening, outsider art by creating lists. The Legion of Decency had its list of “condemned” movies. The Parents Music Resource Center got a Congressional hearing about its “Filthy Fifteen” wish-list of pop and metal songs to ban.  Various fundamentalist Christian organizations maintain online lists of rock musicians who have committed suicide or fatally overdosed, purporting this as evidence of music’s corruption.

The second realization was that three prominent U.S. serial killers arrested around the same time in 2001, including the “Green River Killer,” one of the most lethal in history, all had served in the military, a biographical detail that was reported but not highlighted by major media. The military is one of mainstream America’s most admired and respected institutions. It is also one of the very few mainstream American institutions that literally trains people, physically and psychologically, to kill other people. It is the only mainstream American institution that legally forces its members to kill others on command.

It thus occurred to this author that it would be useful to compile a list of significant murderers who had served in the U.S. military. The premise was that such a list might well dwarf any authorities’ list of supposed art-linked crimes and tragedies, highlighting the cognitive dissonance that causes Americans to shift the blame from actually violent institutions onto non-violent ones. Further, it was assumed that such a list would be an addition to criminology because of mainstream America’s urge to suppress and overlook military connections to violent crime.

Since the author began compiling the list in 2005, these premises have proven accurate. The list of military-influenced killers is over 275 names long and growing. It is far longer than any extant list of allegedly art-inspired crimes. It features far more tragically lost victims and many nightmarish household names, including Jeffrey Dahmer, Lee Harvey Oswald, the “Son of Sam” and Timothy McVeigh. And, despite America’s obsession (unofficial and official alike) with serial killers and lurid crime, and despite the obviously lethal function of military training, it appears to be the first and only comprehensive attempt to catalog murderers with military backgrounds.

The list is maintained under some restrictions. It lists only people who have committed either a minimum of two murders or the assassination of a major political figure, as proven in court or  by reliable confession or other patently true evidence. This restriction is to ensure that the list includes only indisputably awful people with genuinely heinous murderous intent. The list also includes only members of the U.S. military. That is because a) the U.S. is the nation whose culture the author lives in and wishes to examine and b) it is one of the few nations where military service is voluntary, thus making the military-homicide link more meaningful, as killers in many other nations automatically would have been in the military. In virtually all of these cases, the killer served in the military prior to or during his crimes.

Many of these murderers have cited the psychological impact of their military training or wartime service as factors in their crimes. Some have committed their crimes while still in the services, or while clad in combat gear or while using military weapons. Some have talked about being attracted to the military by the opportunity to live out their fantasies of killing people.

The list continues to grow, both as the author uncovers overlooked references to the military backgrounds of known killers and as new murderers are captured. Indeed, on the very day of this essay’s publication, a newly discovered serial killer, Isaac Keyes, was announced to the world by authorities; through a quick review of dozens of news articles, the author found the unsurprising passing reference to his Army service.

The list is ad hoc, empirical and selective. It does not purport to be scientific. As with all selective lists, its omissions are also important; obviously, the vast majority of military veterans, despite being trained to kill and in many cases actually killing dozens of people in war, do not become multiple murderers.

However, the author feels comfortable in presenting the list as significant and using it as the basis for making two testable hypotheses.

First, the list will grow over the next five to 10 years to include several murder sprees committed by veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the United States, and the murderers will blame the post-traumatic stress and how-to-kill training of their military service for their crimes. This has already happened with criminal veterans of Vietnam and the Gulf War, and some murderers have already struck in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing civilians or their comrades. It is only a matter of time before similar criminals come home and set to work. In this respect, a notable footnote to the Afghanistan/Iraq war era was former President George W. Bush’s move to ban military-veteran murderers from burial in Arlington National Cemetery. Another is the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision Porter v. McCollum, which overturned the death sentence of a veteran who murdered two people on the basis that the trauma of his military service had not been properly considered.

Second, over the same period, there will be another moral panic blaming an artistic subculture for inspiring crime to deflect the sense of guilt and anxiety that such crimes will create.

There is one other possibility. The military and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are already taking post-traumatic stress and other service-related psychological disorders seriously in terms of suicide factors in a way that they did not following Vietnam. If American society can overcome its willful blindness to the military-murderer nexus, it is possible that the military will similarly embrace its responsibility as a factor in homicide and provide programming changes that may reduce its incidence as well as the need to blame music or movies instead.

The following is the list of murderers who have served in the U.S. military, by service branch, with relevant annotation, as updated Nov. 30, 2013. Hundreds of sources have been and will be used to compile the list, largely including contemporary news articles, “Murderpedia: The Encyclopedia of Murderers” ( and Wikipedia (


Robert James Acremant

Killed 3 people (1995)

William Andrews and Dale Selby Pierre

Killed 3 people (1974)

Committed their crimes while in the service. Pierre was suspected in another killing where the victim was a fellow airman.

Donald Jay Beardslee

Killed 3 people (1969-81)

Also went to a military school, where he was regularly humiliated, beaten and tortured by upperclassman as part of standard abuse and hazing.

Rudy Bladel (aka “The Railway Sniper”)

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 7 (1963-78)

William Bonin (aka “The Freeway Killer”)

Killed at least 21 people, possibly up to 43 (1979-80; some with accomplices)

Vietnam veteran gunner. Was awarded a good conduct medal.

Thomas Richard Bunday

Killed 5 people (1979-81)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes and was seeing a military psychologist. The psychologist committed a murder of his own, the hired killing of his own wife, which was done in a manner to look like part of Bunday’s then-unsolved string of killings, with the psychologist unaware that the killer was one of his own patients. Bunday hid at least one body on the base where he was stationed.

Peter C. Contos

Killed 3 people (1997)

Air National Guard. Committed his crime while in the service. Hid the bodies of two of his victims in a locker at the Air Force base where he served. According to a court appeal, he blamed his crimes on stress causing him to mentally go into “‘the zone,’ in which he reverted to his military training and eliminated anyone he perceived as a threat.”

James Michael DeBardelben

Killed at least 3 people, possibly 8 or more (1971-83)

Richard Eugene Dickens

Killed 2 people (1990)

Dennis Thurl Dowthitt

Killed 2 people (1990; with accomplice)

Robert Garrow

Killed 4 people (1973)

During service, was ridiculed for bed-wetting.

Donald Harvey

Killed at least 37 people, possibly 57 or more (1970-87)

Committed some of his crimes at a Veterans Affairs hospital while working there.

John Joseph Joubert IV (aka “The Woodford Slasher”)

Killed 3 people (1982-85)

Committed some of his crimes while living on a base. Also attended military college.

Patrick Wayne Kearney (aka “The Trash-Bag Killer,” “The Freeway Killer”)

Killed at least 21 people, possibly 28 or more (1975-77; possibly with accomplice)

His possible accomplice was an Army veteran.

Barton Kay Kirkham

Killed 2 people (1956)

Was discharged after committing a robbery while AWOL.

Randy Kraft (aka “The Freeway Killer,” “The Scorecard Killer”)

Killed at least 16 people, possibly up to 67 (1970-83)

Was entrusted with a “secret” security clearance. A former ROTC member who demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam War.

Gary Lewingdon

Killed at least 10 people, possibly up to 11 (1977-78; with an accomplice)

Vietnam veteran.

Dean A. Mellberg

Killed 4 people and unborn child (1994)

Committed his crimes at the base where he previously served.




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Joseph Naso (aka “The Alphabet Murderer”)

Killed at least 4 people, possibly 6 or more (1970s-1990s)

Simon Peter Nelson

Killed 6 people (1978)

John Leonard Orr (aka “The Pillow Pyro”)

Killed 4 people (1984)

Kelsey Patterson

Killed 2 people (1992)

Dennis Rader (aka “BTK”)

Killed 10 people (1974-91)

Larry Keith Robison

Killed 5 people (1982)

Had paranoid delusions of being hunted by various government authorities, including the Air Force.

Daniel Harold “Danny” Rolling (aka “The Gainesville Ripper”)

Killed at least 5 people, possibly up to 8 (1990-91)

Worked in the former Strategic Air Command and as base security police. Honorably discharged. Used a Marine Corps Ka-Bar combat knife in his crimes. Also attempted and failed to enlist in the Navy.

Pat Sherrill

(see Marines listing)

Michael Alan Silka

Killed at least 9 people (1984)

Ronald Gene Simmons

Killed 16 people (1987)

Decorated Vietnam veteran who earned a marksmanship medal and retired as a master sergeant after 22 years. Also served in the Navy.

John Floyd Thomas Jr. (aka “Westside Rapist”)

Killed at least 7 people, possibly up to 30 (1972-1986)

Richard Lee Tingler Jr.

Killed at least 6 people, possibly up to 7 (1968-69)

Began committing lesser crimes while in the service with a fellow airman as an accomplice.

Thomas Warren Whisenhant

Killed 3 people (1975-76)

While in the service, attempted to murder a member of the Air Force WAF.

Andrew Paul Witt

Killed 2 people (2004)

Committed his crimes on a base while in the service and while wearing full battle dress uniform worn for the purpose of the attack. Victims included a fellow airman. Later apologized for the impact of his crimes on the Air Force.

Yahweh ben Yahweh (aka Hulon Mitchell Jr.)

Killed at least 14 people (c. 1980s)

Edward J. Zakrzewski II

Killed 3 people (1994)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes.


Hasan Akbar

Killed 2 people (2003)

Victims were a U.S. Army captain and a U.S. Air Force major in Kuwait during invasion of Iraq. Claimed he preferred killing fellow soldiers to killing fellow Muslims. Prior to the attack, he wrote, “I may not have killed any Muslims, but being in the army is the same thing. I may have to make a choice very soon on who to kill.” And after being arrested, he said, “You guys are coming into our countries, and you’re going to rape our women and kill our children.”

Rodney Alcala (aka “The Dating Game Killer”)

Killed at least 5 people (1977-79)

Albert Anastasia (aka “The Mad Hatter,” “The Lord High Executioner”)

Killed at least 2 people, probably 9 or more (1921-57)

Was a known member of the Mafia’s “Murder, Inc.” when he was admitted into the service.

Joseph Ernest Atkins

Killed 3 people (1969-85)

Vietnam veteran who reportedly saw heavy combat in covert missions and on “Hamburg Hill” and the Tet Offensive; witnessed severely mutilated civilian corpses; and heard a fellow soldier who had been captured being tortured to death. Committed his last killings on the anniversary of the day of his arrival in Vietnam, and wore combat fatigues during them. Defense attorneys said post-traumatic stress flashbacks might have contributed to his crimes, during which he was “in his own mind…back in Vietnam.”

Robert Bales

Killed 16 people (2012)

Was a soldier serving in Afghanistan at the time of his crimes, which were committed on civilians. His attorneys said his crimes were affected by post-traumatic stress from combat, a brain injury suffered while serving in Iraq, and drugs and alcohol provided to him by Special Operations troops at his military outpost.

Joe Ball

Killed at least 2 people (1930s)

George Emil Banks

Killed 13 people (1982)

During his crimes, changed into military fatigues and a military T-shirt that read, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.”

Cesar Francesco Barone

Killed at least 4 people, possibly up to 5 (1979-1993)

Army Ranger and veteran of the 1989 invasion of Panama.

Earl Russell Behringer

Killed 2 people (1986; with accomplice)

Came out of the Army “infatuated with weaponry,” according to a friend. When entering his plea at trial, clicked his heels together military-style.

David Berkowitz (aka “Son of Sam”)

Killed 6 people (1976-77)

During service, became an expert rifle shot.

William Bradford Bishop Jr.

Killed 5 people (1976)

Served in a counterintelligence unit.

Christopher Black Sr.

Killed 3 people (1998)

Had retired with the rank of sergeant.

Clifford H. Boggess

Killed 2 people (1986)

John Wilkes Booth

Killed President Abraham Lincoln (1865)

Temporarily joined the militia to witness the execution of John Brown.

Joseph Bozicevich

Killed 2 people (2008)

Victims were fellow soldiers on an Army base in Iraq during the war who criticized his battlefield performance.

Kenneth Lee Boyd

Killed 2 people (1988)

Vietnam veteran who claimed to suffer blackouts and memory loss after service and during his crimes. In his confession, he said of his killings, “It was just like I was in Vietnam.”

Lamar Brooks

Killed 2 people (1996)

Gulf War veteran.

Charles Noel Brown

Killed 4 people (1961; with accomplice)

Robert Charles Browne

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 49 (1987-95)

Claims his first victim was a fellow soldier.

Jerome “Jerry” Brudos (aka “The Shoe Fetish Slayer,” “The Lust Killer”)

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 12 (1968-69)

Attempted to impress potential victims by fraudulently calling himself a Vietnam veteran.

James N. Burmeister and Malcolm Wright

Killed 2 people (1995; with accomplice)

At the time of their crimes, they were serving on a military base where joined fellow soldiers in white supremacy and neo-Nazism that fueled their killings.

Michael Burnett

Killed 2 people (2011; with accomplices)

Committed his crimes while in the service as part of a secret crime/terrorism gang called Forever Enduring Always Ready (FEAR). One victim was another soldier who had been a FEAR member.

Samuel Byck

Killed 2 people (1974)

Committed his crimes while attempting to assassinate President Richard Nixon. His assassination plot was inspired by the stunt landing of a stolen military helicopter on the White House lawn by another soldier.

Harvy Louis Carignan (aka “The Want-Ad Killer,” “Harv the Hammer”)

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 18 (1949-1975)

Committed one of his killings while in the service and living on an Army base.

Joseph Christopher (aka “.22-Caliber Killer,” “Midtown Slasher”)

Killed at least 5 people, possibly up to 13 (1980)

Committed his crimes while in the service. Also attacked a fellow soldier.

Christopher Bernard Coleman

Killed 3 people (1995)

Gary Bradford Cone

Killed 2 people (1980)

Vietnam veteran. Blamed his crimes on the influence of drugs, a habit he acquired in the service.

Craig Conkey

Killed 2 people (1992-94)

Richard Wade Cooey II

Killed 2 people (1986; with accomplices)

Michael Corbett

Killed at least 3 people (1975; with accomplices)

Committed his crimes while in the service. Inspired by his bayonet training, killed one victim—a fellow soldier—with a bayonet as an experiment. Accomplices included a fellow soldier and a civilian worker at their Army base.

Dean Corll

Killed at least 27 people (1970-73; with accomplices)

Frederick William Cowan

Killed 6 people (1977)

During his crimes, wore an Army field jacket and combat boots.

Donald Lavell Craig

Killed 2 people (1995-96)

Jeffrey Dahmer

Killed 17 people (1978-91)

James Floyd Davis

Killed 3 people (1995)

Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A military rifle used in Vietnam was among the weapons he used in his crime. Received a good conduct medal and a Purple Heart belatedly while in prison, in a ceremony where they were pinned to his chest.

Albert DeSalvo (aka “The Boston Strangler”)

Killed 11 people (1962-64)

Carl C. Drega

Killed 4 people (1997)

Wayne Eugene DuMond

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 3 (1972-2001; with accomplices)

Vietnam veteran. Claimed to have participated in the killing of civilians in the war.

Kevin Wayne Dunlap

Killed 3 people (2008)

Also served in Kentucky National Guard. Committed his crime on a street named Military Road.

Paul Durousseau (aka “The Killer Cabbie”)

Killed at least 5 people, probably 7 or more (1997-2003)

Committed one of his crimes while in the service.

William Henry Theodore Durrant (aka “The Demon of the Belfry”)

Killed 2 people (1895)

National Guard. Committed his crimes while in the service.

Leonard John Egland

Killed 4 people (2011)

Iraq and Afghanistan wars veteran. Had just returned from a tour of duty and was living on an Army base at the time of his crimes.

William Duane Elledge

Killed 3 people (1974)

Larry “Bill” Elliott

Killed 2 people (2001)

Former counterintelligence officer. Was working for the Army as a civilian at the time of his crimes.

Dwayne Elton

Killed 2 people (1984)

A sergeant in the service at the time. Dumped victims’ bodies near a military hospital.

Glennon E. Engleman

Killed at least 7 people (1958-80)

Stephen Flemmi (aka “The Rifleman”)

Killed at least 15 people (1960s-1995)

Professional hitman. Veteran of Korean War, where he earned Bronze and Silver Star medals, and honed sharpshooting skills he later used in at least one sniper killing. Donated money to a war memorial that still bears his name and was active with a military veteran parachuting group. Entered the military underage with the fraudulent connivance of his parents.

Robert Flores Jr.

Killed 3 people (2002)

Gulf War veteran. His 11-year military career included sniper training with an expert marksmanship rating and training in airborne and special forces units. Received three good-conduct medals, among other commendations. Was working for the Veteran Affairs health care system at the time of his crimes.

Cleve Foster and Sheldon Ward

Killed at least 1 person, probably 2 (2001-2002)

Foster was an Army recruiter. Ward was one of his recruits and joined the Army Reserve. Likely committed a murder while in the service. Foster’s defense included a claim that he suffered post-traumatic stress from his military service.

Kendall Francois

Killed 8 people (1997-98)

Kenneth Junior French

Killed 4 people (1993)

Was a sergeant in the service at the time of his crime. Described his crimes as a protest against women, gays and blacks gaining rights in general and in the military in particular, later saying, “If you’re introducing a minority group that’s frowned upon and looked upon as being weak, and your commander’s saying it’s fine for him to be here, guys are saying, ‘Guess the military isn’t really as tough and bad as we thought it was.’ Everybody’s wanting acceptance. It’s a one-world system—global unity. Well, at what cost? Our military going down the drain?” During his crimes, said, “I’ll show you, [President] Clinton, about letting gays into the army.”

Calvin Gibbs and Jeremy N. Morlock

Killed at least 3 people (with accomplices; 2010)

Part of a self-described “Kill Team” of five rogue soldiers who killed civilians for sport in the Afghanistan War. Members posed for photos with victims and clipped off victims’ fingers as trophies.

Sean Patrick Goble

Killed at least 3 people (1995)

Salvatore Gravano (aka “Sammy the Bull”)

Killed up to 19 people

Notorious New York City Mafia underboss. Honorably discharged.

Ronald Adrian Gray

Killed 4 people (1986-87)

Committed his crimes while in the service. One victim was a fellow soldier.

Harvey Lee Green

Killed 2 people (1983)

Committed an attempted rape while in the service. Attributed his crimes to a drug addiction while noting that the military, rather than getting him away from drugs, turned out to be an excellent place to get drugs.

Samuel Green

Killed at least 3 people (1817-21; with accomplice)

Steven D. Green

Killed 4 people (2006; with accomplices)

Committed his crimes in Iraq during the war. In his court sentencing statement, blamed Iraq-induced insanity for causing him to think that only Americans were truly human: “Before I was in the Army, I never thought I’d kill anyone….I see now that war is intrinsically evil, because killing is intrinsically evil. And, I am sorry I ever had anything to do with either.”

Lloyd Donald Greeson

Killed probably 2 people (1964)

Served in both the Army and the Marines, despite previous criminal behavior while serving in the Canadian Army.

Richard A. Hagelberger and John F. Vigneault

Killed 2 people (1952)

Committed their crimes while in the service.

William Henry Hance (aka “The Forces of Evil” case)

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 4 (1978)

Killed while serving at a military base, where he left one victim lying on a rifle range. One victim was a fellow soldier. Previously served in the Marines.

Robert Hansen

Killed at least 11 people (1980-83)

Army Reserves.

Nidal Malik Hasan

Killed 13 people (2009)

Victims were fellow soldiers on the base where he served. Attributed his crimes to his unwillingness to deploy to the Afghanistan War and potentially kill fellow Muslims, and described his crimes as “switching sides.” Previously had been harassed by a fellow soldier for his religion. Served as a military psychiatrist and, prior to his crimes, reported on his own disturbed feelings about hearing the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms of his patients.

Gary Heidnik

Killed at least 2 people (1986)

During service, received high marks. Also attended military school.

Timothy Hennis

Killed 3 people (1985)

Clarence Hill (aka “The Duck Island Killer”)

Killed 6 people (1938-40)

Appears that being drafted into the Army actually halted his serial killings.

Daryl Keith Holton

Killed 4 people (1997)

Gulf War veteran. Promoted to sergeant and honorably discharged. His lawyers partly blamed his crimes on trauma from the war.

Joshua Hunter

Killed 2 people (2009)

Iraq War veteran. Victims were fellow soldiers.

Ernest Ingenito

Killed 5 people (1950)

WWII veteran.

Phillip Carl Jablonski

Killed 5 people (1978-91)

Vietnam veteran. While still in the service, attempted to drown his wife and raped another woman. Blamed his crimes in part on traumas from his service in Vietnam.

Robert S. James (aka Major Raymond Lisenba, “Rattlesnake James,” “The Rattlesnake Murderer”)

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 3 (1932-35)

WWI veteran.

James Rodney Johnson

Killed 4 people (1991)

Vietnam veteran. Also served in the National Guard. Saw combat in the war and blamed his crimes on post-traumatic stress disorder. Wore military camouflage fatigues during his crimes. One group opposed to his execution wrote, “When Jim Johnson killed during the Vietnam War, the government supported him. But when his post-traumatic stress disorder led him to kill again 20 years later, he was sentenced to death.”

Willie Leroy Johnson

Killed 2 people (1983)

Honorably discharged.

Gordon Wendell Kahl

Killed 3 people (1983)

U.S. Army Air Corps veteran. Highly decorated, including the Presidential Unit Citation, two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.

Steven Kazmierczak

Killed 5 people (2008)

Israel Keyes

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 8 (c. 2001-12)

Honorably discharged.

Hamaas Abdul Khaalis (aka Ernest McGhee)

Killed 2 people (1977; with accomplices)

James Allen Kinney (aka Jerome Romano Porrovecchio)

Killed at least 1 person, probably 3 or more (1997-98)

Vietnam War veteran. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Showed signs of mental illness after returning home from the service.

James Douglas Latham and George Ronald York

Killed at least 1 person, probably 7, possibly up to 9 (1961)

Were in the service and AWOL at the time of their crimes.

Leonard Marvin Laws

Killed 2 people (1980; with accomplices)

Vietnam veteran. Honorably discharged. Defense attorneys argued he was psychologically damaged by his “Vietnam experience.”

Michael Leahy Jr.

Killed 4 people (2007)

Victims were military detainees in Iraq.

Edward Joseph Leonski (aka the “Brownout Strangler”)

Killed 3 people (1942)

Committed his crimes while serving in Australia during World War II.

John List

Killed 5 people (1971)

WWII veteran. Received an ROTC commission. During service, was introduced to firearms and acquired the handgun used in his crimes. Later likened his crimes to WWII combat, saying, “It’s just like D-Day. You go in. There’s no stopping after you start.”

Will Lockett (aka Petrie Kimbrough)

Killed up to 4 people (1912-19)

Confessed to committing one murder while in the service.

Bobby Joe Long (aka “The Classified Ad Rapist”)

Killed at least 8 people, probably 10 (1984)

Dwight J. Loving

Killed 2 people (1988)

Committed his crimes while in the service. One victim was a fellow servicemember, the other a veteran.

Jeffrey MacDonald

Killed 3 people (1970)

Green Beret. Committed his crimes in his home on an Army base while in the service.

Farley Charles Matchett

Killed 2 people (1991)

Courtney Matthews

Killed 4 people (1994)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes.

David Edward Maust (aka “Crazy Dave”)

Killed 5 people (1974-2003)

Committed his first crime while serving in Germany.

Jerry Lynn McCracken

Killed 4 people (1990; with accomplice)

Timothy McVeigh

Killed 168 people (1995)

Gulf War veteran gunner, awarded the Bronze Star (for heroism or meritorious conduct), excellent marksman, invited to try out for the Special Forces. Met his future accomplice Terry Nichols on the Army rifle range. After his arrest, he initially confessed to only two killings—of Iraqis during the war.

“I think because I was sent off to war, I think that helped me prepare for facing that prospect with or possibility with an objective view. OK, let’s step back and not overreact. What do we do about it? And that helped.”—McVeigh, before his trial, when asked about facing the death penalty if convicted.

“Additionally, borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective, what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment. (The bombing of the Murrah building was not personal, no more than when Air Force, Army, Navy, or Marine personnel bomb or launch cruise missiles against government installations and their personnel.)”—McVeigh in a post-conviction letter to FOX News.

Darrell Mease

Killed 3 people (1988)

Vietnam veteran. Blamed his crimes partly on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ervin Mercer

Killed 3 people (1967)

In service at the time of his crimes.

William Gerald Mitchell

Killed 2 people (1974-95)

Leon Jerome Moser

Killed 3 people (1985)

Reached the rank of lieutenant.

John Allen Muhammad (aka 1/2 of the “D.C. Snipers”)

Killed at least 10 people, possibly up to 13 (2002)

Gulf War veteran, where he became an expert marksman with the military rifle used in the crimes. Also served in the National Guard. Prior to Muhammad’s execution, his attorney claimed Muhammad suffered from Gulf War Syndrome and noted the execution was scheduled for the day before Veterans Day.

Jay Wesley Neill

Killed 4 people (1984; with accomplice)

Earle Leonard Nelson (aka “The Gorilla Killer,” “The Gorilla Murderer,” “The Gorilla Man,” “The Dark Strangler”)

Killed 22 people, possibly 25 or more (1926-27)

Also served in the Navy.

Louis Kenneth Neu

Killed 2 people (1933)

Michael Andrew Nicholaou

Killed at least 2 people, probably 3, possibly 8 or more (1978-2005)

Vietnam veteran helicopter pilot. Heavily decorated, including two Silver Stars, two Bronze stars and two Purple Hearts. During service, was known for once taking only a knife and exiting camp alone to “hunt” the enemy. He and other soldiers were tried and acquitted of murder charges for allegedly strafing civilians with helicopter gunship fire. After service, was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Darren Dee O’Neall

Killed at least 1 person, possibly up to 5 (1987-89)

Told lies about being in the Army’s Rangers and Green Berets programs.

Alfred Packer (aka Alferd Packer)

Killed 5 people (1874)

Wade Michael Page

Killed 6 people (2012)

Psychological warfare specialist. Honorably discharged. Introduced to the white supremacy and neo-Nazism that fueled his attack in the military at a time when his base was full of active hate groups and the “Military Law Review” wrote, “White supremacists have a natural attraction to the Army.” His stepmother said his family at first believed the military was good for him for providing direction in his life, but “Now I greatly question that direction. I don’t know if the military was good for him.”

Carl Panzram

Killed at least 22 people (1899-1929)

Recruited in a bar.

David Elliot Penton

Killed at least 5 people, possibly 9 or more (1984-88)

Committed one of his crimes while in the service. Was introduced to child prostitutes in the military and committed crimes against child victims. Was praised in military records, became an expert marksman and was honorably discharged.

James Edward Perry (aka the “Hit Man” book case)

Killed 3 people (1993; with accomplice)

Accomplice was Navy veteran Lawrence Horn (see Navy listing).

Drew Walter Peterson

Killed at least 1 person, possibly 2 (2004-2007).

Trained as a military police officer.

Andrew Pixley (aka Andrew Armandoz Benavidez)

Killed 2 people (1964)

Michael Lee Platt and William Russell Matix

Killed at least 3 people (1985-85)

Met in the Army. Matix was a former Marine and served in the military police.

George Porter Jr.

Killed 2 people (1986)

Korean war veteran who was heavily decorated, including two Purple Hearts. Saw combat and reportedly later attempted to climb his walls with knives as a result of post-traumatic stress. Won an influential U.S Supreme Court decision that overturned his death sentence due largely to improper considered of the impact of his military service on his crime. The court noted that his service left him a “traumatized, changed man” and added, “Our Nation has a long history of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service, especially for those who fought on the front lines as Porter did.”

Anton Probst

Killed 8 people (1866)

In a letter to his family confessing his crimes, he wrote, “Immediately upon my arrival in this country I became a soldier, in which position I heard nothing but cursing and swearing, and soon became a sharer in every wickedness.”

James Earl Ray

Killed Martin Luther King Jr. (1968)

James Earl Reed

Killed 2 people (1994)

Victims were parents of a girlfriend he met in the Army.

Jack Wayne Reeves

Killed at least 3 people, possibly 4 (1967-94)

Committed his first crime in the service and was released early due to intercession from the president of the United States; also committed his second crime while in the service. Had a successful military career, being promoted to master sergeant. Bragged to police about his sexual exploits with Korean women while he was in the service; his suspected fourth victim was a Korean woman he met while in the service.

Earl J. Richmond Jr.

Killed 4 people (1991)

Former drill sergeant. One of his victims was a soldier.

Leonard Uresti Rojas

Killed 2 people (1994)

Gary Lee Roll

Killed 3 people (1992; with accomplices)

Vietnam War veteran who volunteered to serve in the war. Honorably discharged. Blamed his crimes on drug addiction, which in turn he partly blamed on faulty dental surgery he received in the Army and for which he later sued a Veterans Administration hospital.

Eric Rudolph (aka “Olympic Park Bomber”)

Killed 3 people (1996-98)

Michael Rupe

Killed 2 people (1981)

Was a military “security officer.”

John Russell

Killed 5 people (2009)

Committed his crimes at a mental health clinic for combat-related psychological problems on his Army base in Iraq after being denied a discharge for mental disability. Blamed his crimes on combat-related post-traumatic stress. Victims were fellow soldiers.

Michael Wayne Ryan

Killed 2 people (1984)

Led a heavily armed, paramilitary religious cult in which all male members had a military-style rank.

Joseph Carl Shaw (aka J.C. Shaw)

Killed 3 people (1977; with accomplices)

Was a military police officer and committed his crimes while in the service.

Arthur Shawcross

Killed 12 people (1972-90)

Vietnam veteran known for recounting violent murder and cannibalism fantasies set during the war.

Jimmy Ray Slaughter

Killed 2 people (1991)

Army Reserve. At the time of his crimes, was on active duty for the Gulf War and was working as a psychiatric nurse in a VA hospital.

Perry Edward Smith (aka ½ of the “In Cold Blood” case duo)

Killed 4 people (1959; with accomplice)

Korean War veteran. Was jailed in the service for fighting with civilians, but was honorably discharged. Also served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.

Morris Solomon Jr.

Killed at least 6 people, possibly up to 7 (1986-87)

Vietnam veteran introduced to his favored class of victims, prostitutes, during his service with the active encouragement of his commanders. His attorneys titled a section of his appeal, “Vietnam: trauma, killing, prostitution, heroism.” It described the widespread use of child prostitutes on the base where he served and how they were both dehumanized and seen as a potential threat related to the Vietcong. It further described how his Army training taught him to dehumanize people as preparation for killing them, and that he participated in the dragging death of prisoners and the crushing death of enemy troops by an armored vehicle. The appeal included testimony that he returned from Vietnam with a negatively changed personality and symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “Vietnam…was thus a place in which trauma occurred every day, aggression was sanctioned, and women offering sex were debased,” said one expert in testimony. The report also quoted a veteran who had served at the base with him as saying, “If Harris had to go back to Vietnam, he’d want to go with someone like Morris.”

Steven Michael “Mike” Stagner

Killed 4 people (2001)

Aaron Stanley

Killed 2 people (2004)

Iraq War vet. Victims were fellow soldiers killed while visiting his drug-lab farmhouse near the base where they served.

James Edward Testerman

Killed an FBI agent (1942; with accomplice)

Was AWOL from Army base during his crime.

Abraham Thomas

Killed 4 people (1954)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes. Two of his victims were fellow soldiers.

Arturo Reyes Torres

Killed 4 people (1997)

Maury Troy Travis

Killed at least 12 people, possibly up to 17 (2001-02)

Army Reserve.

Howard Unruh

Killed 13 people (1949)

World War II veteran gunner, awarded several medals. Before enlisting, collected and memorized news clippings about the war. Kept a detailed record of every man he killed during the war, including details of the corpse, if possible. Later decorated his bedroom with military memorabilia and war souvenirs. After his crimes, his brother said that “since he came home from the service, he didn’t seem to be the same.”

Chai Soua Vang

Killed 6 people (2004)

National Guard. Earned a sharpshooter badge.

Russell Wayne Wagner

Killed 2 people (1994)

Vietnam veteran. His remains were removed from Arlington National Cemetery under a law banning murderers from being buried there.

Carl Otto Wanderer

Killed 2 people (1920)

Highly decorated WWI hero. Committed his crime with his service handgun.

Faryion Edward Wardrip

Killed at least 5 people (1984-86)

Army National Guard veteran.

Lesley Eugene Warren (aka “The Babyface Killer”)

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 10 (1987-1990)

Likely committed one killing while in the service.

Ward Weaver Jr.

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 24 (1981)

Vietnam veteran. Used prisoner-control techniques he learned in the military to control one of his victims. Declined to talk about his crimes in a prison interview, instead saying with a laugh, “I was in Vietnam. Battalion engineers. I blew things up, mostly towns and villages. I loved it. Always volunteered.” Father of murderer and military veteran Ward Weaver III (see Navy listing).

Marcus Wesson

Killed 9 people (2004)

Dan White

Killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk (1978)

Vietnam veteran. Buried with a military-provided headstone.

Robert Lee Yates Jr.

Killed at least 13 people (1975-98)

Gulf War and Somalia veteran helicopter pilot who had experienced enemy fire. Awarded at least 11 medals. Also served in the National Guard, rising high in the ranks. Bragged to a survivor of his crimes about his military service. Was introduced to prostitutes, his later favored group of victims, in the military.

Julius Ricardo Young

Killed 2 people (1993)

Honorably discharged.


Terry Michael Ratzmann

Killed 7 people (2005)

Committed suicide after committing his crimes, after which it was discovered he requested burial in a state veterans cemetery. He became one of the first denied such burial under a federal law banning murderers from burial in such cemeteries.


Edward Charles Allaway

Killed 7 people (1976)

Larry Gene Bell

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 3 (1984-85)

William J. Benirschke

Killed 2 people (1988)

David Bieber

Killed up to 2 people (1995-2004)

Marvin Bieghler

Killed 2 people (1981)

Vietnam veteran who saw combat. During a clemency hearing, said, “If I can’t get out and go fishing and hunting, the courts can kiss my Marine Corps ass.” Before his execution, issued a written statement to his “brother warriors” that read in part, “I believe in God, country, corps. Death before dishonor…Semper fi, Marv.”

Vincent Brothers

Killed 5 people (2003)

Billy Lee Chadd

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 4 (1974-78)

Committed one of his killings as well as other brutal crimes while in the service. One victim was a patient at a military hospital where he worked.

Oba Chandler

Killed at least 3 people (1989)

Honorably discharged.

Herbert James Coddington

Killed 3 people (1981-87)

Honorably discharged. As a child, made fun of anti-war protestors.

James Colman III

Killed 2 people (2002)

Was promoted to sergeant at US Central Command.

Paul David Crews

Killed at least 2 people, possibly up to 3 (1986-90)

While in the service, tried to kill himself.

Ronnie A. Curtis

Killed 2 people (1987)

Committed his crimes while in the service with a military knife.

Skylar Deleon

Killed 3 people (2003-04)

Bennie Eddie Demps (aka the “Smiling Killer”)

Killed 3 people (1971-76)

Robert Rubane Diaz

Killed 12 people (1981)

Edward Wayne Edwards

Killed at least 5 people (1977-96)

After being dishonorably discharged, was arrested for impersonating a Marine.

Donald Leroy Evans

Killed at least 3 people, possibly 12 or more (c. 1977-91)

Joseph J. Fischer

Killed at least 2 people, possibly 18 or more (1953 and 1978-79)

WWII combat veteran who claimed to have killed civilians during the war and said that “killing felt too good to stop” once he left the service. Also served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during the war after lying about his age to get in.

Zane Michael Floyd

Killed 4 people (1999)

Was honorably discharged. During his crimes, wore his Marines military camouflage and combat boots and noted he had been trained to kill. He later said, “I’ve always just wanted to go to war and kill people, and you know that’s why I joined the Marine Corps. That’s the only reason I joined the Marine Corps.” A former FBI profiler said that he was enacting his longtime fantasy of military killing, describing his mentality during the crimes as, “He is going to war.”

Wayne Adam Ford

Killed 4 people (1997-98)

Was wearing combat boots when he turned himself in.

David Livingstone Funchess

Killed 2 people (1974)

Vietnam veteran, the first to be executed for civilian crimes. Was decorated, including with Purple Heart. Defense attorneys blamed his crimes on post-traumatic stress disorder from his combat experience.

Nathan Gale

Killed 4 people (2004)

The handgun he used in his crimes was a gift from his mother marking his military service.

David Robert Garvin

Killed 3 people (2007)

Lloyd Donald Greeson

(see Army listing)

William Henry Hance

(see Army listing)

Tommie Collins Hughes

Killed 2 people (1997; with accomplices)

Martin James Kipp (aka “Dr. Crazy”)

Killed at least 1 person, probably 2, possibly up to 3 (1983-85)

Joined the Marines to emulate his “war hero” father. Was convicted of rape while serving. Got into drugs, use of which were widespread in the Marine Corps, during service, and showed personality changes after coming out.

John Charles Lesko

Killed 4 people (1979-80; with accomplice)

Eusebio Lopez

Killed 2 people (2013)

Iraq and Afghanistan veteran. Taught machine-gunning. Committed his crimes on a military base and victims were fellow Marines.

Rex Warren Mays (aka “Uh-Oh the Clown”)

Killed 2 people (1992)

Later said he committed his crimes using killing techniques he learned in the Marines.

Clifton McCree

Killed 5 people (1996)

Did well in the Marines, getting promoted to lance corporal, leading a team and becoming an expert marksman.

Thomas McIlvane

Killed 4 people (1991)

Michael McLendon

Killed 10 people (2009)

Fred Eugene McManus

Killed 5 people (1953)

Committed his crimes while in the service. Used his service weapon in at least one of his crimes and wore his uniform while committing at least one of the crimes.

William Mentzer

Killed 2 people (1983-84)

Vietnam veteran. Claimed to have killed 10 enemy troops in the war. Was trained in demolitions in the service; later used explosives in one of his crimes.

Hugh Bion Morse

Killed up to 4 people (1959-61)

Herbert William Mullin

Killed 13 people (1972-73)

A war-loving conservative who was ashamed and disturbed of registering as a conscientious objector during Vietnam. His WWII veteran father had regaled him with war stories and taught him how to use a gun. Joined the Marines in the midst of his killing spree and was rejected only after his criminal record was discovered. A recruiter wrote, “Herbert William Mullin is an intelligent and highly motivated young man, with an ultrazealous eagerness to enlist in the USMC…Because of Herb’s earnest desire to improve his lot and climb above his peers, as it were, I submit that Herbert William Mullin can, and most likely will, be a benefit to whatever unit he is assigned and a credit to his corps.” The rejection caused him to kill a “peace advocate” and to later remark, “If I was allowed to go into the Coast Guard or the Marine Corps, I would not have taken all those peoples’ lives.”  He later claimed his father telepathically controlled him, explaining, “Father was a Marine Corps sergeant and was used to ordering people to kill.”

Eric Ernest Napoletano Jr.

Killed at least 2 people, probably 3 (1984-90)

Charles Ng and Leonard Lake

Killed at least 12 people, probably 21 or more (1983-85)

Lake was a Vietnam veteran who earned two good conduct medals. Ng developed an early love of the military, and bragged of violence and of having committed an “assassination” to comrades and others while in the service; he was promoted to lance corporal. Ng previously had been arrested for stealing weapons from a military base. The pair was known for wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “Mercenaries do it for money.” The room in which they committed many of their crimes was stocked with military uniforms and weapons and used a specialized military scope to observe victims in the dark.




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Itzcoatl Ocampo

Killed 6 people (2011)

Iraq veteran. Rose to rank of corporal. Committed his crimes with a knife made by the company that made the original Marines combat knife.

Lee Harvey Oswald

Killed President John F. Kennedy (1963)

During service, qualified as a sharpshooter.

Manuel Pardo

Killed 9 people (1986)

Committed his crimes while serving in the Marine Reserve. Also served in the Navy. Told jurors at his trial, “I am a soldier, I accomplished my mission and I humbly ask you to give me the glory of ending my life and not send me to spend the rest of my days in state prison.” In prison, scammed pen-pals with fake love letters accompanied by a photo of him in his Marine Corps uniform. His last words at his execution included, “Airborne forever.”

Gerald Parker (aka “The Bedroom Basher”)

Killed at least 6 people (1978-79)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes.

John Patler

Killed American Nazi Party leader George Rockwell (1967)

Rockwell was also a veteran.

Edward Perreira

Killed 2 people (1981-95)

Christopher Dwayne Peterson (aka Obadayah Ben-Yisrayl, “The Shotgun Killer”)

Killed 7 people (1990)

Richard Poplawski

Killed 3 people (2009)

Sebastian Alexander Shaw (aka Chau Quong Ho)

Killed at least 3 people (1991-92)

Was honorably discharged for being overweight, which reportedly caused him psychological devastation.

Pat Sherrill

Killed 14 people (1986)

During service, was rated “expert” with rifles and handguns. Also served in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, acting as a firearms instructor in the latter. Used borrowed military handguns in his crime. Known for wearing military camouflage and talking of fictitious Vietnam service.

Daniel Lee Siebert

Killed 3 people, possibly up to 12 (1979-86)

Anthony Edward Sowell (aka “The Cleveland Strangler”)

Killed at least 11 people (c. 2005-09)

Received a good conduct medal and various commendations.

Michael Swango

Killed at least 4 people, possibly up to 60 (1983-97)

Joined the service after developing a combined fascination with the military and death.

Andrew Urdiales

Killed 8 people (c. 1987-96)

Was promoted to the rank of corporal. According to court psychiatrist, he joined the Marines out of interests in self-defense and destruction.

Larry Wayne White

Killed 2 people (1977)

Vietnam veteran. Blamed his crimes on a killing instinct and drug habit, both acquired during his combat service.

Charles Whitman (aka “The Texas Tower Sniper”)

Killed 16 people (1966)

During service, earned a good conduct medal, mastered the rifle and was awarded a competitive Navy scholarship. A captain in his division said, “I was impressed with him. I was certain he’d make a good citizen.” Was killed by police during his crimes and was buried in a coffin draped with a flag to signify his military service. Mentioned the Marine Corps in what he intended as his suicide note.

David Wayne Woodruff

Killed 2 people (1985-86; with accomplice)


Aaron Alexis

Killed at least 12 people (2013; possibly with accomplice)

Committed his crimes at the Washington Navy Yard. Reportedly wore military-style clothing during his crimes. Reportedly also worked as a military contractor. Described by an acquaintance as acting “like a soldier who has been at war.”

Gennaro “Jerry” Angiulo

Killed about 13 people (1960s-1983; with accomplices)

Headed the Boston Mafia and was said to have ordered more than a dozen killings, including one halted by the FBI after he was caught on tape saying, “Just hit him in the head and stab him, OK?” Received a military funeral with a flag-draped coffin. Local veterans told a Boston newspaper at the time of his death that he deserved a military funeral, with one saying, “He was a veteran before he was a gangster. The military used the Mafia in World War II.”

John Eric Armstrong

Killed at least 5 people, possibly 16 or more (1992-2000)

May have killed at stops around the world while serving aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. His chief petty officer said, “He was my sailor of the month at one time. This guy had an unblemished record aboard the ship when he was working for me.”

Larry Gene Ashbrook

Killed 7 people (1999)

Before his crimes, claimed to be targeted by a conspiracy trying to frame him as a serial killer conducted by members of the military.

Mark Wesley Bailey

Killed 2 people (1998)

Gulf War veteran. Committed his crimes while in the service. The veterans organization the National Gulf War Resource Center unsuccessfully sought clemency to prevent his execution.

Carl Robert Brown

Killed 8 people (1982)

Honorably discharged. Was known for being “militaristic” in his lifestyle and for waking up neighbors by walking into their yards and shouting, “United States!”

Joseph Francis Bryan Jr.

Killed 3 people (1964)

John Dwight Canaday

Killed 3 people (1968-69)

Vietnam veteran who saw combat. Honorably discharged.

Hadden Clark

Killed at least 2 people, possibly more than 12 (1986-92)

During service, was repeatedly and severely beaten for enjoying crossdressing. He hid evidence of one of his crimes in a Navy duffel bag.

Carole Edward Cole

Killed 16 people (1971-80)

Daniel Owen Conahan Jr. (aka “The Hog Trails Killer”)

Killed at least 1 person, probably 7 or more people (1994-96)

Charles Cullen

Killed at least 22 people, possibly up to 45 (1988-2003)

In the service, was on a submarine crew team that operated the sub’s nuclear missiles.

Westley Allan Dodd

Killed 3 people (1989)

Christopher Jordan Dorner

Killed 4 people (2013)

Navy Reserve. Iraq War veteran.  Earned a rifle marksman ribbon and a pistol expert medal. Led a security unit. Had “top secret” security clearance. Honorably discharged as a lieutenant two days before he began his crimes. Attributed his crimes in part to the loss of his military career in a dispute with his employers. In a manifesto, he repeatedly compared his crimes to U.S. military strategy and guerilla warfare; decried Americans’ ability to purchase military weapons and carry out mass killings; and thanked his drill instructor for “ma[king] sure the vicious and intense personality I possess was discovered.”

“You are aware that I have always been the top shot, highest score, an expert in rifle qualifications in every unit I’ve been in. I will utilize every bit of small arms training, demolition, ordnance, and survival training I’ve been given.

Do you know why we are unsuccessful in asymmetrical and guerrilla warfare in CENTCOM theatre of operations? I’ll tell you. It’s not the inefficiency of our combatant commanders, planning, readiness or training of troops. Much like the Vietnam war, ACM, AAF, foreign fighters, Jihadist, and JAM have nothing to lose. They embrace death as it is a way of life. I simply don’t fear it. I am the walking exigent circumstance you created…

I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty.”

—Dorner, in his manifesto

Mark Essex

Killed 7 people (1973)

Attributed his race-motivated crimes as a counterattack to the racism directed against him encountered extensively in the Navy.

Richard Marc Evonitz

Killed at least 3 people (1996-97)

Began committing child sex crimes while in the service. Received a Good Conduct medal and an honorable discharge.

Richard Wade Farley

Killed 7 people (1988)

Ten-year veteran who had a high security clearance and earned medals for good conduct and marksmanship. Victims worked at his former employer, a defense contractor.

John Joseph Fautenberry

Killed at least 3 people, probably 6 (1990-91)

His defense attorney in one of his trials blamed his crime in part on an injury he suffered in the service.

John “Jack” Gilbert Graham

Killed 44 people (1955)

A murderous bomber, he learned demolitions in the Navy.

Gary G. Grant

Killed 4 people (c. 1971)

James Waybern Hall

Killed 4 people (1944-45)

Joseph M. Harris

Killed 4 people (1991)

Was known for wearing military fatigues and combat boots, including during some of his crimes.

George Jo Hennard

Killed 22 people (1991)

Son of an Army surgeon and grew up on the White Sands Missile Range. Committed his crimes in a town known for its Army base.

Lawrence T. “L.T.” Horn

Killed at least 3 people, possibly up to 4 (c. 1958-93; some with accomplice)

Once claimed to one of his future victims that he had killed a fellow sailor while in the service. Accomplice in some of his crimes was Army veteran James Edward Perry (see Army listing).

Michael Hughes

Killed at least 4 people, possibly 8 or more (1992-93)

Clarence Jackson

Killed 2 people (2007)

Victims were fellow sailors on a Navy base in Bahrain during the Iraq War. The Navy reportedly allowed him to remain armed despite one of the victims having a restraining order against him.

David Knotek

Killed 3 people (1994-2003; with accomplice)

Vietnam veteran.

Timothy Wayne Krajcir

Killed at least 7 people, possibly up to 9 (c. 1978-82)

Jeffrey Don Lundgren

Killed 5 people (1989; with accomplices)

Vietnam veteran. Honorably discharged. Cult leader who formed a paramilitary organization with which he committed his crimes.

Michael McDermott (aka “Mucko,” “The Dot-Com Killer”)

Killed 7 people (2000)

Anthony McKnight

Killed at least 5 people, possibly up to 7 (1985)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes.

Earle Leonard Nelson (aka “The Gorilla Killer,” “The Gorilla Murderer,” “The Gorilla Man,” “The Dark Strangler”)

(see Army listing)

Roy Lewis Norris

Killed 5 people (1979; with an accomplice)

Vietnam veteran.

Manuel Pardo

(see Marines listing)

Cleophus Prince Jr.

Killed 6 people (1990-91)

Gary Leon Ridgway (aka “The Green River Killer”)

Killed at least 49 people (1982-2001)

Vietnam War veteran who saw combat. Introduced to his favorite class of victims, prostitutes, in the military.

Reinaldo Rivera

Killed at least 4 people (1999-2000)

Formerly employed in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Was rewarded with a Navy college scholarship.

David Keith Rogers

Killed at least 2 people, possibly 3 or more (c. 1983-87)

Gary Lee Schaefer

Killed 3 people (1979-83)

Marcus Shrader III

Killed at least 1 person, probably 4 (1974)

Was in the service at the time of his crimes.

Bruce Shreeves

Killed 4 people (1973)

Was in the service and AWOL at the time of his crimes.

Benjamin Adam Sifrit

Killed 2 people (2002; with accomplice)

Former Navy SEAL who finished first in his class in the elite military training course.

Ronald Gene Simmons

(see Air Force listing)

Newton Carlton Slawson

Killed 4 people and unborn baby (1989)

Claimed that a military psychologist encouraged him to continue his hobby of drawing slash wounds on magazine images of women.

David Frank Spanbauer

Killed 3 people (1992-94)

Richard Raymond Valenti

Killed 3 people (1973-74)

Committed his crimes while in the service.

Billy Ray Waldon (aka Nvwtohiyada Idehesdi Sequoyah)

Killed at least 4 people, possibly up to 5 (1985)

George Kent Wallace (aka the “Mad Paddler”)

Killed at least 4 people, possibly up to 6 (1976-90)

Henry Louis Wallace

Killed at least 10 people, possibly up to 20 (1992-94)

During service, was frequently promoted and reviewed very favorably. Arrested for U.S. crimes, but claims to have committed many more while in the service at various ports of call.

Ward Weaver III

Killed 2 people (2002)

Navy Reserves. Son of murderer and military veteran Ward Weaver Jr. (see Army listing).

Otto Stephen Wilson

Killed 2 people (1944)

While in the Navy, pulled a knife on his wife.

Charles William Yukl

Killed 2 people (1966-74)

Magic and Steel: Real-Life Swords with Names


From Excalibur to Glamdring, fantasy fiction is replete with named swords. In the post-Freudian era, it is easy to see something improper in those proper names and interpret them as a personification of phalluses of male authority and privilege.1

But swords were penetrating people’s brains long before Freud ever did. Swords are pre-psychological, forged and named in the era of magic. A century after swords had any practical use, shades of their earlier meanings are still with us.

We still know the tale of Alexander slashing the Gordian knot—the sword as a magical symbol for rationality, analysis and discrimination.

We know, too, an opposite meaning of the sword: a symbol of national or tribal holism and unity, a shish kebab skewer laden with entire traditions.

These meanings linger in the cultural eddies where blades remain relevant. Athames, the ritual daggers of Wicca, continue to represent the pre-rationalist “masculine principle” of authentically ancient magic. The bottomless murk of tradition explains the strange irony of U.S. Marines launching a new Crusade in the Middle East while their officers’ dress uniforms included the sword of the Mamelukes—the Muslim warrior caste comprised of slave boys forcibly converted to Islam, who eventually battled the original Crusaders.2

Names of swords are magical as well. This is best seen in those sword names that drift from legend into modernity and settle on a real-life blade. The names of Durendal, the sword of Roland, and Tizona, the sword of El Cid, adhere today to tourist-attraction blades that, while old, cannot possibly be the originals.3 In a sort of reverse-engineered magic spell, these swords are frequently cobbled together from scraps to match the ancient symbolic names, like jerry-rigged magnets drawing rare coins from the depths.

The medieval version of designer-label knock-offs, these magically named swords frequently end up in a country’s crown jewels, their nationalist and Christian symbolism floating in a richer broth of pagan magics. Joyeuse, the legendary sword of Charlemagne, is now the name applied to the coronation sword of imperial France on display in the Louvre. Szczerbiec, the sword of Polish King Bolesław I Chrobry, is now a chimaerical blade that was smuggled out of the country to escape seizure by the Nazis, only to become a neo-fascist symbol in modern Poland.

Descriptively named, magically enhanced swords are commonplace in both real and legendary armories around the world, from the royal blade Kusanagi in Japan to Zulfiqar, the two-pronged scimitar of the Muslim Caliph Ali.

Europe’s rich tradition of named swords comes from medieval poetry that was positively obsessed with them: the legends of Arthur, the “Chanson de Roland,” “Beowulf,” the “Nibelungenlied.” So thorough was this tradition, it even retconned magical named swords into the hands of classical figures; Julius Caesar became the wielder of a mythical blade called Crocea Mors (“Yellow Death”).

These romances come from an era when swords were still doing dirty work that honed the weapons’ symbolic significance. As Christianity wormed its way into the heart of pagan Europe and went to war against Islam, the cruciform symbolism of the sword’s blade and crossguard was not lost on the zealous.4 And as the carving knife serving up the earliest taste of European nation-states, the sword was a natural signifier of emergent nationalism.

But in the legendary swords’ names—typically bizarre, their meanings often occult even in their own time—there are less obvious cultural forces at work: pagan myth and magic, and the Gnostic religion that thrived in the era of the chansons de geste. So, too, can these influences be seen in the designs of these swords, which often bore slogans or signs engraved on their blades, like talismans or charms, or even contained holy relics within their hilts, as if Rambo got religion and put it in his survival knife.

In this magical sword-as-reliquary concept, we see a microcosm of how Christianity cleverly co-opted pagan traditions as vessels for itself. Durendal, the magically unbreakable sword of Roland, is a fine example. The sword bears an inscrutable name that suggests nothing about its stature as a reliquary for various remarkable items, including a piece of the robe of Mary, mother of Jesus; its final use comes in a battle Charlemagne actually fought against internal European foes, but which is recast in the “Chanson de Roland” (c. late 1100s) as an epic clash against the Saracens. In at least one legend, Durendal is a gift from a wizard.

Myths, legends and poems typically skip over the inherent strangeness of sword-naming. Along with our tendency to view the modern substitutes of Christianity and nationalism as unmysterious, unmagical modes of thought, the whole process of naming a sword frequently goes unremarked, or dismissed with pat explanations. One respected historian suggests that sword-naming originates with the stamping of armorers’ maker’s-marks on blades.5 But sword names are often odd, certainly not reflective of common working-men names. I’ve never seen a sword called “Smith and Sons” or “British Steel.”

The magazine-publisher son of Charles Dickens once took a crack at explaining the “fairy aureole of poetry” that is a sword name, specifically addressing Durendal.6 As with most such efforts, that consisted of amateur etymology—trawling a dictionary (Celtic, in this case; Roland is identified as coming from Brittany) for homophones with meanings that seem vaguely attributable to a sword. It is, Charles Dickens Jr. told us, “natural to bestow an endearing epithet upon the weapon that saved its owner’s life.” But these legendary swords tend to come pre-named, springing forth Athena-style, fully magical and already personified. He claims that “Durendal” comes from Celtic words for “hard” and “fierce”; but Roland did not know just how hard his sword was until he attempted, and failed, to destroy it in his dying moments, according to the “Chanson de Roland.”

Among the select group of scholars who have directly pondered sword-naming, it is popular to crown Norse legendry as the fount. That proves more intriguing than enlightening.

The Norse did do a remarkably consistent job of staffing European named-sword legendry with the sword-maker Weland (Norse “Völundr,” French “Galand,” modern English “Wayland,” with many variants).7 Weland is quite possibly the Teutonic form of the more familiar Greco-Roman deities Vulcan/Hephaestus, with a name like the former and physical attributes like the latter. In any case, he was a busy and long-lived guy. In various legends and stories, he is named as the maker of Joyeuse and Durendal, Beowulf’s armor and even old Julius’s Yellow Death. The ubiquitous smith is presented as the invisible pagan hand offering magical powers to the Christian chivalric knights, like a towel-dried Lady of the Lake.

Weland appeared in the earliest known poems in the very language with which I write, passing easily from Norse mythos into Anglo-Saxon, as he would later pass into the legends of other nations.

Why the Norse? For one thing, they had a penchant for naming swords and other weapons. In “Beowulf,” that great poetic baton-passing from Norse to Anglo-Saxon, from paganism to Christianity, the titular hero wields a sword named Hrunting. (One never looks to the Vikings for euphony.)

Another Norse influence on sword-naming is the kenning. A kenning is an Old Norse poetic device in which a normal word is replaced with a metaphorical compound word describing it.8 A literally textbook example happens to be a kenning for “sword”: “wound-hoe.”

The kenning urge surely has been an influence on sword names; I suggest it might even be an inspiration for the genre, as all that distinguishes a kenning from a name is capitalization. In the Germanic legends of Dietrich von Bern we find the sword Blutgang, a kenning-like compound name roughly meaning “Blood-Bringer” (literally, “Blood-Course”).9

In Seamus Heaney’s recent Modern English translation of “Beowulf,” we see a direct example of sword-naming instinctively returning to its spawning ground in kenning. Enthusiastically flashing his poetic license, Heaney transforms one of the poem’s kennings for “sword”—“hilde-lēoman” (“light of battle,” “gleam of battle,” “battle-light”)—into an extravagant proper name: “Dazzle-the-Duel.”

Most sword names, however, lack any clever-but-clear meaning, kenning-like or otherwise. And tracking the footprints of Weland and named swords back through the northern snows to Scandinavia does not tell us what they were doing there in the first place, nor why they made it so far into other national legends.

Fifty years ago, the eminent philologists Henry and Renée Kahane pointed out the futility of examining a specific sword name on its internal evidence alone; it is something like dissecting a frog in hopes of discovering the meaning of life.10 They listed off prevailing theories about the meaning of the sword name Durendal: an anthroponym here, an onomatopoeic there, and a welter of Dickens Jr.-style attempts to break it down into a sort of badly done heraldic motto. All such approaches, the Kahanes said, are artificial and trivial, because they ignore the essential context of sword-naming: magic.

“The earliest swords specifically named belong to the cultural field of magic,” they noted. Names do not attach to the common weapons carried by city watchmen. Named swords began as supernatural swords. Sword names, therefore, are actually magical incantations.

Scandinavia, they argued, is not the ultimate source of magical sword names; it is a transformer on an electrical circuit of cultural magical influences flowing northward from Egypt, Greece, the Levant and the Arab world (much like Norse mythology was clearly influenced by southern cultures). That molten mass of multicultural magic was forged into the solid literary device of the magical sword—and eventually, actual named swords in kingly collections.

Medieval Europe is easily stereotyped as thoroughly Christian, with a dollop of invasive Muslims and a dash of ethno-religious minorities. But outside the well-tended gardens of state religions were the usual riotous wildflower fields of magic, superstition, new religions and hybrid cults. (A major Crusade was fought within Europe against Gnostic Christians.)

In the ancient symbolism of magic, the Kahanes found swords everywhere, as “the magician’s wand” and “a metaphor for the efficiency and irresistibility of his magic charms.” Spells were sometimes inscribed on scrolls cut into the shape of a sword—a possible inspiration for the idea of an actual sword marked with magical sigils, the Kahanes suggest.

The sword name Durendal, the Kahanes speculated, could be a corruption of Dardanus (one of several variant spellings), the name of a magician of dubious materiality who is cited as author and authority regularly in ancient Greek and Coptic magical writings. Among the surviving spells of the era is one called the “Sword of Dardanos.” (As it happens, it’s a love spell.)11 By way of Arabic magical tracts, the wizard’s name might have transferred and generalized to mean any magical sword.

The Kahanes’ speculations were more intuitive than documentary; I find some of them as unconvincing and fragmentary as the run-of-the-mill pop etymology attempts the Kahanes were criticizing. But their general argument of a magical vector is persuasive. It is easy to see named (i.e., ensorcelled) swords as wands of battle-magic, with Weland as the wizard behind the throne.

That pagan or interreligious magics would become vehicles of Christian propaganda—for all of the heroes of medieval romances and epics were Christian—is no surprise. Christianity’s success was rooted in its willingness to adapt itself to the traditions of other belief systems. Why spread Christianity by the sword if you could spread it by the symbol of a sword?

Chivalric legends not only used the formulations and symbols of magic, but occupied a similar literary position: in chorus with dominant belief systems, but speaking in a lower register and a secular voice. The Bible is full of its own weapon-swinging adventurers; the stars of knightly romances battled on with the same sense of progressivist spiritual warfare, just running beneath and parallel to official church literature. Jesus said he went among us wielding a metaphorical sword; the heroes of the chansons followed suit.12

The Christianity-romance influence was not a one-way street. In medieval illustrated Bibles, such religious heroes as David are sometimes depicted wielding swords from contemporary romances, such as Joyeuse, with the sword name helpfully written right on the blade in editorial-cartoon fashion.13 Sprinkling in stage dressing from modern adventures made the Biblical ones more digestible, familiar and exciting for the common folk. (The most stunning surviving example is the so-called Morgan Picture Bible from the 1250s, a lurid comic-book version with Hebrews in chainmail, intestines spilling from wounds, and living-color renderings of such charming Biblical events as a frog plague and a tent-peg murder.14) For a similar effect today, such a Bible might show David blowing away Goliath with an Uzi.

As the quotidian sword became an arcane symbol in the legends of that tumultuous era, it seems only natural that the process reversed—another example of the transformative function of magic—to produce real-life named swords in a more settled time.

Typically, this meant applying the name of a legendary, supernatural sword to a modern, useless sword, a ceremonial royal object whose supposed identity with a sword of legend was meant to legitimize the current rulers by linking them with the mytho-historic past. Far from magical blades that hew through invaders, these weapons typically ended up seized by enemies or smuggled away from them in the night. Any sense of magic to them has faded—or has been replaced with the more pedestrian irrationalism of nationalism.

Familiarity kills magic. In the late medieval period, we can already see sword names being taken for granted. Scholars already had forgotten their magical nature and speculated rationally on etymologies for these nonsense words; artists and commoners clearly considered the names mere fungible exoticisms, as evidenced by their cartoonish use in the illustrated Bibles.

This banalization is complete in today’s real-life named swords, their weird monikers either ignored or dismissed with some pat, quickie explanation, treated the way one might a Band-Aid worn by necessity on an unfortunately conspicuous spot. I have just read scores of references to Joyeuse; the vast majority simply repeated the name without noting the remarkable oddity, not to say sadism, of a weapon called “Joyous” (the English version of the French original). Absolutely none of them noted the peculiarity that the name is the feminine form of the adjective.

The Joyeuse of the chansons was a wondrous weapon that gave off an incredible prismatic gleam, and its pommel contained a fragment of another holy weapon—the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during his crucifixion.15

It is safe to assume that “Joyeuse” is a term of Christian divine magic. “Joy” is used plentifully in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a term of spiritual ecstasy; in the Christian version, it is used several times by Jesus himself, and makes a prominent appearance in the Gospel of Luke’s tale of an angel announcing Jesus’ birth as “tidings of great joy.”

However, there is textual evidence of a more specific allusion. The battle cry of Charlemagne’s troops in the chansons is “Montjoie!”, a term that has perplexed many historians. It literally means “mount joy,” again with a feminine ending.

A convincing explanation is that this is an allusion to a famous spot in Crusader legendry, Mount Joy (Latin Mons Gaudi). In those legends, Mons Gaudi is a hill near Jerusalem, reputedly the site of the tomb of the Biblical prophet Samuel, from which the invading Crusaders first saw the holy city, the goal of their conquest.16 (The use of feminine words in the French versions may reflect the Western tendency to maternalize references to cities, vehicles and favored objects.17)

As Charlemagne battled Muslim armies in both fact and fiction, “Montjoie!” is a fitting battle cry and the probable root of his sword’s name.18 But that also means that the battle cry and the sword name cannot be truly historical. The Crusades began centuries after Charlemagne’s death. It is the romantic chansons about Charlemagne that coincide with the Crusades.

Whatever the origin of the name, Charlemagne certainly did not call his sword “Joyeuse.” He did not speak French. An ancient Frank, he spoke a Germanic dialect in a time when French as we know it did not exist. Indeed, while there is no doubt Charlemagne owned a sword, there is no historical evidence that he called it anything.

While the chansons are the source of the romantic image of Charlemagne, he passed into legend much earlier—quite notably, in a tale involving a magical sword. The “Visio Karoli Magni,” dating to c. A.D. 860, recounts a supposed dream of Charlemagne’s in which a mysterious apparition gave him a sword, its blade marked with four cryptic (i.e., magical) words.19 Decoded, these words proved to prophesy the future of his kingdom. As historian Patrick Geary noted, this tale situates Charlemagne amid some prime currents of magical-sword lore: the sword as an inherently magical item produced by otherworldly entities; and the sword as a transferrable symbol of imperial authority, whether that means their being handed off in coronation ceremonies or being plundered from royal graves, a tactic known even in medieval times.

Charlemagne essentially founded both Germany and France, which then divided up his lore the way a library triages literature into fact and fiction. Germany got the fact—Charlemagne’s chapel and tomb at Aachen. France got the fiction—the chansons of the chivalric king and his heroic paladins—which is always the more powerful option; that’s why English-speakers refer to him by the French version of his name.

The French invented Joyeuse, so they got that, too. A century or so after the “Chanson de Roland” began circulating, the symbolic sword used in coronating the French kings was rebranded as Joyeuse. Thus, contemporary romantic legend became the magic-symbolic vehicle for legitimizing imperial power by connecting it to the historical Charlemagne.

The Joyeuse in the Louvre (known there as La Joyeuse and l’épée de Charlemagne) is certainly a French coronation sword; possibly even the same one used in the first known reference to Joyeuse as a coronation ritual item in 1270. But it is of far too late a date to have belonged to the actual Charlemagne, despite the Louvre’s website’s misleading claim that it is the sword “already celebrated in the early medieval chansons de geste.”20

The sword is relatively attractive and suitably magical-looking, its white grip crosshatched with a net-like pattern, its golden crossguard decorated with dragon heads, its golden pommel engraved with bird designs. The blade does not gleam with rainbow hues, but you can’t have everything.

While symbolizing the whole of imperial France, the sword itself lacks inherent integrity. The museum dates the pommel to the 10th or 11th centuries; the crossguard to the 12th; the grip to the 13th or 14th. Its bejeweled scabbard is a 19th century invention.21 (No date is offered for the actual blade, but it is unlikely to have any connection to the historical Charlemagne, who died in 814.)

Joyeuse outlived the French monarchy, and thus its own meaning. Its magic dispelled by the French Revolution, it became an inert museum piece.

This may seem a modern fate for magical swords—rationalism and humanism wringing the last pitiful drops of enchantment from coronation weapons already scraping by on supernatural name-dropping. In truth, the banalizing of named swords was already happening in national legendry of the later Middle Ages, particularly tales that aped the richer French and German legends to produce a simpler, more directly politicized message.

Enter Szczerbiec. The national sword of Poland is typologically similar to the likes of Joyeuse: a named weapon used in heroic deeds of medieval lore, now identified with an antique but inauthentic coronation sword turned museum piece. But there was never really magic to it. It was always a straightforward piece of nationalist symbolism—less Excalibur and more Liberty Bell.22

The Liberty Bell comparison is apt for more than one reason. “Szczerbiec” looks like a wildly exotic name to an English-speaker. But in Polish, it’s a normal word meaning “notched” or “dented.”23 In turn, that refers unmysteriously and directly to a medieval legend of the sword being damaged in a great national victory.

Szczerbiec does share one magical property with Joyeuse—the invisibility of the oddity of its name to authors and researchers. Virtually any source that mentions Szczerbiec translates the name. So I was astonished to see that the sword, at least as it appears in official photographs, is obviously not dented or notched. Even more remarkably, I have found no sources that mention this amazing fact, nor have experts been able (or willing) to explain it.24

The sword obviously does not live up to its obvious name, yet no one sees it. Szczerbiec is not szczerbiec. The emperor wears no dents.

The story of Szczerbiec comes not from a romantic adventure, but from a proto-historical chronicle written in the late 1200s, the “Kronika Wielkopolska.”25 In recounting the achievements of Bolesław, the “Kronika” gilds the lily, but is otherwise historically recognizable.

Bolesław (c. 966-1025) was the first, self-declared king of Poland, later favored by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Otto was part of the early dynasty of German kings who ruled after Charlemagne. Symbolic legends tie Otto to Charlemagne, and, by the transitive property, Bolesław to Charlemagne. In the most fantastic legend, Otto supposedly opened Charlemagne’s tomb, finding the king’s corpse seated on an ivory throne, surrounded by various regalia, including Joyeuse. Further legendry claims that Otto gave this throne to Bolesław, an incredible tale that nonetheless reflects the Polish king’s historical relationship to the Empire.26

Bolesław might have preferred to receive Joyeuse. But he wound up with a famous sword of his own, as described simply in the “Kronika.” Following his successful 1018 campaign against the Rus—a historical fact—Bolesław supposedly banged his sword against the famous Golden Gate of Kiev as a sign of triumph, putting a dent in the blade and making it known as “Szczerbiec.”

The glaring problem with this tale is that the Golden Gate did not exist yet in 1018. Bolesław’s victory was also a short-lived one, with his territorial gains lost within about 15 years. But it was all true enough for the “Kronika’s” ulterior motive—stumping for Polish nationalism.

It worked beautifully. Within a few decades, we find an actual sword, identified as Szczerbiec, being used in the coronation of a Polish king (Wládisláw “Elbow-High,” who may have been too short to wield the two-handed sword). This is apparently the same Szczerbiec that exists today, on display in the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow.

The sword dates to the early 1200s, though, like all of its kind, it was assembled from parts of different swords. Its entire hilt is covered in Christian decoration, including images of the saints and angels, and Latin inscriptions invoking God’s protection and judicial authority. Affixed to the blade near the hilt is a small version of the heraldic shield of the Piasts, the first Polish royal dynasty. Between the tiny shield and the hilt, an odd slit pierces the center of the blade—perhaps a symbolic nod to the otherwise missing notch, or perhaps just a way to affix the Piast shield.27

It’s tough being the nationalist symbol of a nation that has spent most of its history struggling to exist. Szczerbiec has rarely been in one place for long, its movements tracing Polish upheavals like a seismograph needle.

The Prussians took it as loot in 1796, transporting it to Berlin. The sword was in private hands for nearly a century before turning up in the Hermitage. Russia gave the sword back in 1928, but Poland was, obviously, not a safe place for long.

As the Nazis invaded in 1939, with their infamous “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style hunger for strange relics, Polish officials began a remarkable rescue operation of the country’s cultural treasures. That’s how Szczerbiec ended up spending the war on a farm in Ottawa with a teenager giving its blade rubdowns with 3-In-One Oil.28

An array of treasures was smuggled out of Poland—medieval chronicles, a Gutenberg Bible, a collection of Chopin manuscripts, a trove of Flemish tapestries. Szczerbiec is arguably the most curious item among them—a weapon of war turned into a refugee victim of the cultural displacement that war always causes. And when the treasure was aboard a convoy on the Atlantic, under what seemed to be a doomsday Nazi attack, curators from Wawel chose Szczerbiec as the one item to take with them on lifeboats if they could.

Starting out on a river barge that at one point was camouflaged with reeds to look like an island, Szczerbiec traced an escape course that would thrill any Crusader-themed adventurer of the chansons: down the Vistula, past Istanbul, around the Levant, across the Mediterranean, touching on Italy, then across France, Britain, the ocean and half of Canada. The farther away the national sword got, the less Poland existed, literally and symbolically.29

Szczerbiec and other treasures found a secret safe haven on Ottawa’s Experimental Farm, a government agricultural facility. At the war’s end, with the Soviet takeover of Poland, the allegiances of the rescuers divided, and Szczberiec became just another pawn in the Cold War chess game. Moved into a vault at an Ottawa branch of the Bank of Montreal, it remained there until 1959 while various agents played cat-and-mouse with Poland’s cultural treasures.

Szczerbiec escaped the fascists literally, but has been captured by them symbolically. In a sad irony, Szczerbiec is now a commonly co-opted symbol of Poland’s far right.30 The word shows up in the names of political parties, even as the name of a white power band. Perhaps the most prominent evil example today is by National Rebirth of Poland, a neo-fascist party that publishes a magazine called “Szczerbiec” and whose logo is a stylized arm holding a sword.31 (Demonstrating that Freudianism is still relevant to sword discussions, this phallus-loving party is, among other hatreds, virulently homophobic.)

Szczerbiec was never as inherently magical as the named swords of classic legends. Yet it may be the only one that remains symbolically alive as a real-life blade. That it does so for mostly wrong reasons exemplifies how sword-naming has sunk to utilitarian, propagandist lows. Szczerbiec’s fraudulent name works a kind of inverse magic, one that lends the name no meaning at all. The Wawel museum calls it a gladius iustitiae, but it’s more like a tabula rasa. As a native of scam-loving America, I’m amazed that nobody has just whacked the thing against a wall and put a dent in it. But why bother, when you can pull the smoother Orwellian trick of calling it what it is not, while a public increasingly warming to right-wing extremism lets the nationalists define it?

Swords are still rich cultural symbols, but their names are not. The form, if not the function, of Szczerbeic-style naming continues in the named swords of contemporary fantasy fiction, our post-industrial, mass-market chansons. The names tend toward tin-eared, macho-cool mash-ups of obvious meaning, akin to the monikers of metal bands and snowboard manufacturers. Very commonly, they use the compound-word formula of a kenning, but with none of the poetic sense, much like the American plague of pop haiku.

“Dungeons & Dragons,” the highly influential pseudomedieval roleplaying game and fount of spin-off fantasy fiction, is full of pedestrian sword names. Its popular “Forgotten Realms” fantasy world includes such blah compound names as Magebane (a sword that kills wizards) and Icingdeath (a sword that is magically cold—not used to cut birthday cakes).32 As a postmodern systematization of fantasy fiction, “D&D” literally formulizes the naming of magical swords. “Nine Lives Stealer” and “Life-Drinker” might sound like obvious yet potent names for unique swords, but in “D&D” they are genera, not species—umbrella terms for magical properties that any number of swords may have.33 (However, as a highly creative game, “D&D” does not prevent its players from inventing their own magical swords and naming them whatever they like.)

Today, fantasy fans can go online and buy “Lord of the Rings” swords—the bourgeois version of a king slapping a legendary name on an inauthentic weapon. But it could be that the massive popularization of J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantasy world will lead our culture back to truly magical naming. Tolkein was a gifted linguist and literary expert with a thorough understanding of sword-naming. (In perhaps his greatest achievement, he personally rescued “Beowulf” from literary derision.) His works are replete with magical named swords, physically marked with arcane runes, metaphorically laden with cultural significance.

In poetic terms, his sword names are a mixed bag (and even at their best, still tended toward decipherable cultural meanings rather than truly magical complexity; like the “D&D” gaming he inspired, he was always a literary mechanic at heart). One “LOTR” sword is Gúthwinë, which translates in his fictional lingo as “Battle-Friend”—an actual Old English kenning for “sword.” Andúril, a significant magical sword in “LOTR,” is translated as “Flame of the West” in Tolkein’s artificial Elvish language (where it literally means “brilliant sunset.”)

On the other hand, Tolkein could offer faux kennings like “Foe-Hammer” (the translation of the prominent sword Glamdring) and such outright obviousness as the dagger Sting.34

Excalibur, the most famous named sword of legend, arguably is such largely because no one really knows what the name means. Perhaps some future minstrel will once again dub a sword with a name that circumlocutes rather than allocutes, that evokes rather than translates, that sings through history as a thing of magic rather than of steel.

                 1 Inevitably, “Excalibur” became the name of a brand of condoms.

            2 U.S. Marine Corps Web site at

            3 “‘Tizona’ es falsa,” 20 Minutos, May 25, 2007, at

            4 “The Emperor Charlemagne” by Russell Chamberlin.

            5 “The Image of Aristocracy in Britain, 1000-1300” by David Crouch, via Google Books.

            6 “Swords of Celtic Chivalry” by Charles Dickens Jr. in “All the Year Round: A Weekly Journal,” Vol. XXII, March 8, 1879, via Google Books/New York Public Library. More perspicaciously, Dickens praised what he saw as the modern lack of named weapons: “To be fond of implements and emblems of slaughter, and to talk of them affectionately, is to be fond of using them, and it is, as far as it goes, a hopeful sign that the weapons of modern warfare are not considered to have any romance or poetry about them….”

            7 “On the Legend of Weland the Smith” by Thomas Wright, “Archaeologia: Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity,” Vol. XXXII, 1847, via Google Books/Ashmolean Library, Oxford. In a strange coincidence, 1800s Belgium produced an actual weaponsmith named Galand—Charles-François Galand, a gunmaker whose inventions included the “Velo-Dog,” a cheap pistol that bicyclists could use to blow away offending dogs. (See the Eibar Museum of the Arms Industry, Eibar, Spain, Web site at

            8“Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia” (third ed.), Carol Cohen, ed.

            9 As cited in “Legends of the Middle Ages” by Hélène Adeline Guerber, via Google Books/Harvard University; translation of “Blutgang” provided by Sean Scheiderer, comparative literature expert, Columbus, Ohio (personal communication).

            10 All of the following material citing the Kahanes’ theories is from “Magic and Gnosticism in the ‘Chanson de Roland’” by Henry and Renée Kahane, “Romance Philology,” Vol. 12, Aug. 1958.

            11 “Ancient Greek Love Magic” by Christopher A. Faraone, via Google Books; and faculty site of Georgetown University Provost James O’Donnell at

            12 Christian Bible, Matthew 10:34.

            13 “Gothic Manuscript Illustration: The Case of France” by Anne D. Hedeman, in “A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe,” Conrad Rudolph, ed., via Google Books.

            14 Online at the Morgan Library & Museum site at

            15 It is possible the magical gleam has a root in reality, as Frankish swords were known in their time to be high-quality and possessing a mirror finish, probably due to polishing with the then-unusual natural resource of kieselguhr. (Chamberlin, op. cit.) The holy spear—somehow intact once again—itself became a later real-life object of Germanic imperial power, with various supposedly “real” versions appearing in various national treasuries.

            16 “Legends of Palestine” by Zev Vilnay, via Google Books; and “The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades,” Jonathan Riley-Smith, ed., via Google Books. Mount Gaudi also appears in at least one Gnostic treatise of the era, according to the Kahanes (Kahane, op. cit.).

            17 Indeed, “Joyeuse” is also the name of a town in France—which claims to have been founded by Charlemagne—and is a personal surname as well, as illustrated in literature by the name of a character in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Forty-Five Guardsmen,” who, as it happens, was a master of the longsword. (See the Joyeuse town Web site at

            18 “Joyeuse” and “Joyous” are perpetuated as the names of castles in other legends of Charlemagne and later Arthurian legend likely influenced by them. (“Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Chivalry and Legends of Charlemagne,” Thomas Bulfinch, ed.)

            19 “Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages” by Patrick J. Geary, via Google Books.

            20 The Louvre Web site at

            21 Ibid.

            22 The Liberty Bell comparison was made to me by Prof. Brian Porter-Szűcs, a specialist in modern Polish history at the University of Michigan (personal communication). “Even I have a letter opener that looks like a mini-Szczerbiec, which I picked up years ago at some tourist shop in Poland,” he said.

            23 Like “Joyeuse,” “Szczerbiec” even can be a surname; thus in the records of World War II, we see a Polish “Captain Szczerbiec” among the troops battling the Axis. (“Polish Review,” Polish Information Center, Vol. 4, 1944, via Google Books/University of Michigan.)

            24 The Wawel Royal Castle museum in Krakow, where Szczerbiec now resides, did not respond to my e-mail questions. Porter-Szűcs told me he has seen the sword in the museum, but cannot recall whether it was dented. He added: “I called a friend in Poland who is a historical trivia buff, and she insists that [the notch] is visible, but like you I can’t see it in any pictures.” There is no doubt that the sword long has been conceived as literally dented. John Kulczycki, professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted to me that Szczcerbiec is depicted as dented in a painting of Bolesław I by Marcello Bacciarelli (1731-1818); he also could not remember what the sword looked like when he last saw it.

            25“Historical Dictionary of Poland, 966-1945” by George J. Lerski, Jerzy Jan Lerski, Piotr Wróbel and Richard J. Kozicki, via Google Books.

            26 “Christianization and the Rise of the Christian Monarchy: Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900-1200” by Nora Berend, via Google Books; and “Legends of the Rhine” by Hélène Adeline Guerber, via Google Books.

                27 As seen on the Web site of the Wawel Royal Castle museum at

                28 All of the following details of Szczerbiec’s remarkable wartime voyage come from “The Strange Odyssey of Poland’s National Treasures, 1939-1961” by Gordon Swoger.

            29 There is an interesting historical and symbolic dynamic between swords such as Szczerbiec, decorated with its knightly heraldic crest, and Polish commercial trademarks. In Poland, trademarks were originally inspired by the “armorial bearings and emblems” of medieval knights. During post-invasion times when the country did not exist (or did exist fully), familiar commercial trademarks were one way the Polish identity persisted—much in the way the medieval insignias from which they sprung perpetuated the prophetic myths of Polish unification. (“American and Polish Trademarks: The Culture and Ethics Behind Them” by Agnieszka Ratajczyk-Zwierko, in “Business Students Focus on Ethics: Praxiology: The International Annual of Practical Philosophy and Methodology,” Vol. 8, Leo V. Ryan, Wojciech W. Gasparski and Georges Enderle, eds., via Google Books.)

            30 Porter-Szűcs notes that Szczerbiec retains “mainstream cultural resonance,” but also has been “appropriated by the radical right to symbolize an imagined past characterized by national might, social cohesion, and domination over all of Poland’s ‘enemies’….” He also notes that the “‘mainstream right’ and ‘far right’ are becoming difficult to distinguish in Poland” with the rise of extremism, but that the distinction is symbolically maintained by whether parties use such iconography as Szczerbiec. The sword was also an old-school fascist symbol in pre-Nazi-invasion Poland, where we find a fascist-party magazine of the 1930s called “Szczerbiec.” (“Why Didn’t the Press Shout?: American & International Journalism During the Holocaust” by Robert Moses Shapiro, via Google Books.)

            31 National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski) Web site at

            32 See the “D&D” game books “City of Splendors: Waterdeep” by Eric L. Boyd and “Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting” by Ed Greenwood, Sean K. Reynolds, Skip Williams and Robert Heinsoo.

            33 “Dungeon Master’s Guide: Core Rulebook II v. 3.5,” Wizards of the Coast. (“D&D” has since moved on to a fourth edition with a different game system, but generically similar content.)

            34 The main source for Tolkein sword etymologies is “The Thain’s Book: An Encyclopedia of of Middle-Earth and Numenor” Web site at



Significant sources not cited in the text or footnotes include: “The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry” by R. Ewart Oakeshott; “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” (classic edition), E. Cobham Brewer, ed.*; “Le Chanson de Roland,” Theodore Müller and J. Geddes, trans.; “Charlemagne and France: A Thousand Years of Mythology” by Robert Morrissey, Catherine Tihanyi, trans.*; “The Columbia Encyclopedia” (fifth ed.), Barbara A. Chernow and George Vallasi, eds.*;“Ethnologia Polona,” Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 15-19, 1991; “Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report” by Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen; “Frithjof, The Viking of Norway and Roland, The Paladin of France” by Zénaïde Alexeïeuna Ragozin and Esais Tegnér; “God’s Playground: The Origins to 1795” by Norman Davies; “The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation” by Jonathan Rose; “The Holy Bible” (King James Version), World Publishing*; “Master Thaddeus; or, The Last Foray in Lithuania” by Adam Mickiewicz, M.A. Briggs, trans.; “The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, And Instruction,” Vol. 17, 1831 (uncredited review of the book “History of Poland”); “National History as Cultural Process: A Survey of the Interpretations of Ukraine’s Past in Polish, Russian, And Ukranian Historical Writing from the Earliest Times to 1914” by Stephen Velychenko; “New Jerusalem Bible” (Reader’s Edition), Henry Wansbrough, ed.*; “Polish Arms: Side-Arms” by Andrzej Nadolski, Maria Abramowiczowa, trans.; “Polish Culture: An Historical Introduction” by Leszek Kolek; “The Song of Roland,” John O’Hagan, trans., in “Epic and Saga,” Charles W. Eliot, ed.; “White Noise: Inside the International Nazi Skinhead Scene” by Nick Lowes and Steve Silver; (Canadian government Web site featuring the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Canada). (All books/journals via Google Books unless otherwise noted with an asterisk.) Many thanks to Prof. Kulczycki and Prof. Porter-Szűcs for extraordinary assistance.

Saw You in the Funny Papers: Secrets of Fake News Articles in TV Shows



The fake newspapers used in movies and TV shows, with their frequently misspelled, World War III-size headlines on minor stories, wouldn’t make it past the copy desk at even the worst rag in America.

For the average viewer, such props are real enough to illustrate a point. And it used to be that no one could get more than a glimpse of a fake newspaper article’s actual text—the hardcore content that would make or break the suspension of disbelief.

In this era of crystal-clear freeze-frames on DVDs and computer video players, everything is different. Obsessive fans now catalogue the newsprint from their favorite shows, discovering that it is typically a gibberish mishmash of fake stories. I was able to spot the same fake article’s repeated use in various TV shows over the years, then track down its origins in a shadowy, jokey world of professional forgers.

Watching a 2003 episode of the detective show “Monk” on Netflix, I found an unusually long and clear close-up of a fake magazine article.1 Purporting to be “Bay Area Lawyers Rated Best & Worst,” it included several fake attorney names and a brief section of text about one of the episode’s characters. But, as easily read in a freeze-frame, the rest of the article was a repeating, 187-word fragment about a court case. Its first paragraph said:

“The idea that such a prominent figure, unjustly accused, would become a fugitive rather than fighting to clear her good name is simply ridiculous,” said attorney Greg Bilson. “This is election season and these people have shown that they are willing to sacrifice the good name of an upstanding citizen for their personal political gain.”

The rest of the fragment—featuring more blab from Bilson as well as from prosecution spokesperson “Abraham Spitz”—was so poorly written and punctuated that it clearly was not taken from a real news story.2

In double-checking its reality online, I found that the fictional article had a history in other TV shows.

In a 2002 episode of “The X-Files,” parts of the Bilson fragment appeared mixed in with other fragments in a fake newspaper clipping headlined “Prospector Slain In Mining Claim Dispute.”3 Despite supposedly dating to the early 1900s, the newspaper clipping included the Bilson fragment and its modern terminology, such as “news conference.” Another anachronistic text fragment filling out the clipping was about a man on Death Row for a “convenience store” murder.

A chunk of the Bilson fragment showed up again in a 2007 episode of “Heroes,” tucked into a fake newspaper article about a murder. Once again, it was just one of several discordant fragments. The others referred to a union dispute, immigrants seeking asylum, and a murderous sniper.4

It is unclear exactly why the Bilson fragment is so popular as to appear so frequently. But I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

It just so happens that a Gregg Bilson Jr.—sometimes credited as “Greg Bilson”—operates a prop company in California called Independent Studio Services, which was founded by his father. ISS’s services include creating fake newspapers and magazines.5

Bilson Jr. said in an email that he doesn’t know whether ISS created that particular “attorney Greg Bilson” article. But it wouldn’t surprise him.

“We use the names of employees and myself for many different articles to make up the space and diversity of a full page in newspapers and magazines,” he said.

ISS has provided props to “Heroes,” but it’s unclear what types of materials and which episodes. The company has supplied scores of TV and movie productions, including “24,” “The Office,” “The Dark Knight” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”6

Prop-makers’ propensity for in-jokes makes it possible to trace certain other connections. The fake newspaper article in “Heroes” that features the Bilson fragment is bylined to a Christina Haberkern. Haberkern is a real-life prop-maker who made that fake newspaper and has put her name on such artificial products as a brand of beer shown in an episode of “Desperate Housewives.”7 (She did not respond to my questions about the “Heroes” prop article.)

Haberkern’s prop credits include the TV show “Gray’s Anatomy.” Also working on that series was Tom Day, the longtime property master for “The X-Files”—including the episode featuring the Bilson fragment in the fake newspaper clipping.8 I was unable to locate Day for comment. But it seems likely that prop makers go from gig to gig with a file of fake article fragments that they use like clip art to conjure up newspapers and magazines.

Perhaps the deeper mystery is why prop makers aren’t more tidy and thorough in writing fake articles. After all, decent freeze-frame tech has been widespread for 15 years now. Yet in another episode of “Heroes,” I spotted a fake newspaper article that was padded out not with fictional gibberish, but rather with an actual L.A. Times piece—a possible copyright law violation.9

But motion pictures remain a species of stage magic; speed and misdirection still work their pleasant illusions on the majority who will never hit the pause button. And prop-makers are a species of forger (quite literally—ISS and Haberkern produce high-quality official documents and airplane tickets). Like their black-hat brethren, they rely not on total realism, but rather on something good enough to get you across the border—in this case, of your own imagination.

Attorney Greg Bilson and prop-maker Gregg Bilson Jr. share an illusive, elusive quality. It turns out that ISS has a branch office—a mini warehouse, really—in Cambridge, Mass., not far from AJAOR. I took a stroll last year past the 169 Rindge Ave. warehouse, itself a kind of buried fragment, hidden behind a row of houses. You’d have to know it was there, or get close enough to read a handwritten delivery notice on one house’s front door, which also refers to another mysterious company called Deep Background. I walked up a driveway and looked at the aging warehouse, its blank face hiding—what? Copies of the Greg Bilson article?

I looked close, and didn’t see a thing.

1 “Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect,” season 2, episode 7, airdate Aug. 31, 2003. All TV show episodes described in this column were viewed via Netflix’s online streaming service. The property master on this episode was Al Eisenmann, who did not respond to questions about the fake article.

            2 The remainder of the fragment reads:

Prosecutors have said little about the timing of the arrest, referring all questions to the Press Secretary for the Attorney General’s office. Press Secretary Abraham Spitz issued a brief statement saying that “the full list of charges is still being prepared and will be available after tomorrow’s hearing at 3:00 PM.”


A news conference has been scheduled for immediately following the hearing leading Bilson to further blast the prosecution for their “emphasis on showmanship over truth” and vows to hold his own news conference on the steps of the courthouse at the same time, hoping to draw some of the attention away from “the typical political three ring circus court of the selfish television media.”


The wheels of justice can move pretty slowly sometimes causing all kinds of unnecessary delays to the….


            3 “Hellbound,” season 9, episode 8, airdate Jan. 27, 2002. The fake article was first noted by the web site “X-Files: For the Detail-Obsessed X-Phile” at This is the earliest known use of the Bilson fragment, and the portion used is smaller than “Monk” later used. That suggests that the Bilson article was originally created for some earlier show or movie.

            4 “Lizards,” season 2, episode 2, airdate Oct. 1, 2007. The fake article was first noted by “kucharsk” in an Oct. 3, 2007 post on the “AV Science Forum” web site at It appears that the other fragments in the text are also fake.

            5 See I discovered Gregg Bilson Jr. through the “Internet Movie Database” web site at

            6 ISS web site, op. cit.

            7 See

            8 “Internet Movie Database,” op. cit.

            9 “Don’t Look Back,” season 1, episode 2, airdate Oct. 2, 2006. The copied article is a July 29, 2005 piece by John Johnson Jr. and Ralph Vartabedian about the space shuttle. The byline on the fake article is “Gerald Ulberg,” who may also be a prop-maker. The same name appears on a list of court witnesses in season 1, episode 12 of the 2006 TV series “Day Break,” as first noted by at I was unable to locate any real-life Gerald Ulberg in the industry.

King of the Assassins: How History’s Infamous Killer Cult Survives Under a Playboy Prince of Peace


The name of the Assassins, the infamous murder cult that terrorized the medieval East from mountain strongholds, lives on in our term for political or professional killers. Pretty common knowledge, that.

But the virtually secret truth is that the Assassins themselves live on as well, under the Islamic sect’s correct name of the Nizari Ismailis, led by the dramatically titled prince Aga Khan IV. A Harvard-educated billionaire better known as a racehorse breeder and yacht resort developer than as an imam, the Aga Khan nonetheless stays attuned to the past; he recently funded the restoration of the famous Assassin castle Masyaf.1

The historical status as the original Muslim terrorist organization is essentially hidden in plain sight by the religion’s drastic change in fortune, tactics and mission. Nizari Ismailism has evolved from a dagger-wielding scourge fighting for survival into a pragmatic, non-ideological, business-friendly humanitarian organization that is respected everywhere from the City of London to the United Nations. So complete was the turnaround that the Assassin connection was forgotten by Ismailis themselves until scholars puzzled it out in the 1950s.

That evolution is a striking contrast with the Ismailis’ Crusade-era foe, the Roman Catholic Church, which in the same period has retreated from things temporal and attempted to preserve medieval values and structures (albeit with a similar focus on nonviolence).

The early Nizari Ismailis didn’t get along any better with mainstream Islam and its greatest secular hero, Saladin, whom they attempted to assassinate. But here again, the contrast in destinies is striking. Centuries before September 11, the Assassins pioneered panic-inducing suicide-mission martyrdom for sociopolitical ends. Yet they are no inspiration to modern Muslim terrorists, who spring from cults and gurus within the majority Sunni branch of Islam—all of whom would consider the ancient Assassins and modern Ismailis as infidels. Were they still alive and killing, the Assassins of old quite likely would be assassinating Al-Qaeda guerillas (and American neo-Crusaders, too).

The Assassins did not call themselves Assassins. “Assassin” is a Western corruption of Arabic “Hashishi,” as in “hashish,” and essentially means “pothead.” It was not the Ismailis’ term; indeed, there is no evidence that they ever used drugs. It was a generic slur applied by rival Muslims during a medieval version of the War on Drugs.2 And the vast majority of medieval Ismailis were normal folks who did not assassinate anyone.

But the image of the Assassins as mind-controlled druggies has thrived for centuries, right up to the recent hit video game “Assassin’s Creed.” 3 Muslim rivals alleged that the Assassins initiated their followers into a series of secret teachings that culminated in atheism. Crusaders and Marco Polo elaborated that into an exotic legend wherein a mysterious Old Man of the Mountain instilled fanatical devotion by drugging young men and transporting them to a lavish hidden garden stocked with women and banquet tables, which he claimed was a vision of Paradise; by dying a martyr’s death, they were guaranteed to see it again. So convinced were the followers, they would leap to their deaths from the castle walls at the Old Man’s whim, a display of authority he would use to terrorize visiting ambassadors.

(For convenience and clarity, I will use the term “Assassins” to refer to the Crusades-era Nizari Ismailis in general and their terrorist organization specifically. Also, I will frequently use “Ismailis” and “Nizari Ismailis” as interchangeable terms, but note that the Nizaris originally were a distinct Ismaili sect that arose about 250 years after the founding of Ismailism, only in modern times becoming the main face of Ismailism.)

Secretive by design, the early Ismailis left scant evidence of their actual lifestyle and thus allowed their enemies to define (or caricature) them—a common fate of minorities. Minority status also can confer benefits that are the common theme between the Assassins and modern Ismailis: a practical, take-care-of-our-own-first mindset and a cosmopolitan knack for gliding among cultures without really belonging to any of them. Technically at war with both the mainstream Muslim empire and the European invaders in the era of the Crusades, the realpolitik Assassins frequently allied with one or the other or both, all the while remaining more or less untouched in their mountain fortresses for centuries. Modern Ismailism has more roots in France and India than in the traditional Arab Muslim world, its peripatetic imam’s considerable global influence seemingly based on the same sort of charm provided by a hard-to-place accent—an intriguing vagueness. It’s Islam, but not that sort of Islam. It is a great religion of the East led by someone who looks, sounds and acts European. The Aga Khan is more likely to put money in your pocket than quote scripture at you.

Birth of a religion 4

Pluralistic ease and religious discretion are also why virtually no one knows that the Ismailis have Assassin ancestors. The Ismaili leadership slunk off to India in the 1800s and essentially reinvented the religion, leaving its past conveniently foggy. The Aga Khans appear to have never apologized for the Assassins’ excesses, and indeed rarely mention them at all (usually only to debunk the wild legends originating with the Crusaders).

Nor does modern Ismailism mention that, even putting the Assassins aside, its ancient version was often trouble-making. Ismailism arose around A.D. 765 in Syria from the ever-factional world of the Shia branch of Islam. Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the last generally agreed-upon Shiite imam, had just died, setting off a succession controversy. The designated successor was his son, Isma‘il, who was inconveniently already dead. Isma‘il’s son, Muhammad, was driven into hiding.

Ismailism originated in those Muslims who supported Isma‘il’s succession as imam. Some claimed that Isma‘il was not actually dead and would reappear. Others made similar claims about his son Muhammad. Either way, the groups went underground and for over a century tended covert lines of imams. Thus Ismailism was imbued with some of its essential characteristics: secretive, messianic, esoteric, revolutionary. (“Ismailism” was originally an outsiders’ term; believers called the sect al-da‘wa—“The Mission”—or some variant thereof.)

The “revolutionary” part was opposition to the Abbasid caliphate, a Baghdad-based Sunni empire that was no pushover. So it was a big deal when, in 899, a secret Ismaili imam calling himself Abd Allah came out of the closet. The result was a burst of frenetic energy that would propel Ismailism to both its grandest expression of power and its basest crimes.

Abd Allah’s claim to be the rightful Shiite imam set Ismailism at war with the Abbasids while also causing internal schism.5 He was forced to flee to North Africa, where his followers established the future Fatimid dynasty. Marked initially by a tolerance and creativity born of minority status, the Fatimid empire became one of Islam’s greatest, founding the grand Egyptian city of Cairo and lasting 250 years. The Aga Khan claims to be a direct successor of the Fatimids, the only ancient version of Ismailism to which he frequently refers.

A rival group, the Qaramita, set up a different kind of Ismaili state in Arabia—a combination of mystic commune and bandit camp. Puritanical fervor inspired the Qaramita to such spectacular atrocities as massacring caravan-loads of Hajj pilgrims. Their most infamous crime was the theft of the Black Stone, Islam’s holiest relic, from the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The Stone was later returned, damaged, for a huge ransom.

Ismailism’s many foes used the outrages of the Qaramita cult as a brush to tar the entire sect. Propagandists cast the Fatimid empire as a vast atheist conspiracy. Thus was born what one author calls the “black legend” of Ismailism: that all of its followers were part of a killer cabal with evil rites and crazed gurus.6 The Qaramita-inspired fears would be elaborated in the later tales of the Assassins, who some authors have confused with the earlier cult.

Among less melodramatic Muslims, there was still general suspicion of Ismailism’s mystical, neoplatonic version of Islam versus a fundamentalist reading of religious law. One derogatory term for Ismailis was Batiniyya—“Esoterics.”7 The theological implication was that Ismailis were being led astray.

Legends and schisms aside, the fact remains that Ismailism did produce at least two major killer cults, with differing impacts on the Fatamids. The Qaramita objected to the Fatimids, but never warred against them, and eventually were absorbed into the empire. The Nizari Ismailis, aka the Assassins, came to prominence as defenders of the Fatimid dynasty, then later helped to destroy the empire in order to save it.

Rise of the Assassins

By the 1050s, the overextended Fatimid empire was on the decline. On the plus side, its old rivals, the Abbasids, had fallen under the hegemony of the Seljuq Turks. On the negative side, the Seljuqs were even more anti-Ismaili. It was a hothouse atmosphere in which the covert, revolutionary brand of Ismailism bloomed again.

The darkest flower was one Hasan Sabbeh, the founder of the Assassins. A Persian convert, Hasan was trained in Egypt to be a secret Ismaili d‘ai—a propagandist or missionary. But Hasan was not only interested in capturing hearts and minds. Capturing fortresses sounded pretty good, too, as he planned a pro-Fatamid revolution behind Seljuq enemy lines in Shia-friendly pockets of northern Persia.

In 1090, Hasan seized a remote mountain fortress called Alamut, which would go down in history as the capital of the Assassins. He soon captured other forts, which proved impregnable to vengeful Seljuq forces. Hasan’s successes inspired imitation from his followers in Syria, who later would seize the key urban castle of Masyaf, the nexus of Crusader-era Assassin legends.

Open defiance from untouchable strongholds was counterbalanced in Hasan’s strategy with secretive political assassination. In its mature form, the assassination method was a still-classic terror tactic: a spectacular public killing carried out by sleeper agents who may have lurked in their victims’ households for months. The killings may have been under way by 1092.

Hasan’s guerrilla war might have been forgotten, a hard-to-reach itch on the back of a gigantic empire, were it not for two twists of history.

The first was a religious and political schism that gaped open in 1094 upon the death of the Fatimid caliph-imam Al-Mustansir. In yet another instance of the factionalism that defined early Ismailism, there was a major succession controversy. The caliph’s own choice was his son, Abu Mansur Nizar. But, in a melodrama-style plot twist, the caliph’s power-hungry vizier proposed a much younger son, knowing that the vizier could control him as a puppet ruler. The vizier was successful. Nizar was forced to flee, and was executed after a brief revolt.

The many Ismailis who supported Nizar—soon known as Nizaris—were driven into hiding or secrecy. All but one, that is: Hasan, whose mountain fortress afforded him freedom of speech and religion. The group we know as the Assassins thus became the Nizaris—the self-proclaimed mouthpieces for undercover imams descended from Nizar and the true defenders of the Fatimid dynasty. The majority of modern Ismailism is still Nizari Ismailism. When the Aga Khan claims a Fatimid lineage, he traces it through the corridors of Assassin castles.8

For Hasan and his successors, there were more immediate challenges and opportunities. The Assassins were now pitted against the very Ismaili empire that had spawned them and that they had once promoted, becoming a religious/political subsect without a country. But they also now were backed by a network of Nizari schismatics, making them more powerful political players than they ever could have been alone.

The dust had barely settled on the Nizari schism when history pulled a much bigger surprise: the 1097 invasion of the Seljuqs by the first Crusaders. This vast clash between East and West changed the political calculus. The Assassins took advantage of their rogue status, surviving by force and by freely shifting alliances of convenience. By being in the right place at the right time with the right wiles, the Assassins ensured their lasting notoriety.

Outlandish Crusader myths granted the Assassins global infamy. But wipe all that fog away, and they still earn a place in the bloody annals of authentic history. The Assassins lie at the heart of their era’s great historical mystery, a Crusader assassination that was the JFK killing of its day, an event that continues to spawn conspiracy theories. And what is known of their historical impact must only be the tip of the iceberg (or mountain) for a quasi-state whose diplomacy was rooted in stealth and deception.

What the Crusaders found

Their blitzkrieg invasion a success, the first Crusaders established their first states in the Holy Land, and thus first encountered the Assassins as a Syrian organization. The Crusaders literally did not know who they were dealing with. The Europeans initially had no idea that the Assassins’ guru was based hundreds of miles away in Persia, letting alone grasping the political, cultural and religious motivations of the cult’s actions.

Because the Assassins apparently were content to be demonized, using hatred and fear to their advantage, scholars still have only a skeletal understanding of them today. But one trait that shines through is sophistication—not only in killing, but in philosophy and diplomacy.

Imagined today as masked killers, the Assassins were also intellectuals with a strong academic tradition. Several of their fortresses contained well-regarded libraries that were open to visiting scholars, including rival Sunnis and non-Muslims. Alamut is known to have had a particularly grand library; most of its contents were burned as heretical by a pious “historian” shortly after the Assassins’ fall.

It is unknown exactly what religious principles were preached in Assassin fortresses, but they were surely some version of the extant Ismaili doctrines that were already influential on such thinkers as Avicenna.9 The main principles include a neoplatonic vision of a god who transcends definition, and esoteric interpretation of scripture as holding hidden (or, at least, non-obvious) meanings.10 Like all Shia Islam, Ismailism required (and still requires) a human authority—the imam—for religious instruction and ultimately to hold reality itself together; in Nizari Ismailism of the time, that was either the head of the Assassins, or a hidden imam represented by him. In sum, the early Nizari Ismailis were philosophically liberal and organizationally authoritarian.

As with most cults, the Assassins also underwent some dramatic periods of philosophical shifts. The fourth leader of the Assassins, Hasan II, in 1164 proclaimed that qiyama—Judgment Day—had arrived. As Allah obviously did not make a dramatic appearance, what this actually meant was the Assassins had achieved enlightenment, everyone else was living in a benighted hell, and Hasan II was the messianic Ismaili imam. Outside critics read this decree as a license to ignore Islamic law, which a manifest Paradise would render irrelevant. These concerns came true to some extent among Syrian Nizaris, who indulged in “libertinism” and even armed rebellion that the local Assassin leader had to put down.11

This doctrine persisted for over 40 years until the sixth head of the Assassins, Jalal al-Din Hasan III (ruled 1210-21), not only quelled it, but declared the sect to be Sunni. It is unlikely that this sudden conversion was authentic. Instead, it likely illustrates to another Ismaili principle that served the Assassins well: taqiyya, or declaring a false religious belief to save your neck while keeping your fingers crossed. (The Syrian Nizaris reportedly voiced a similar false promise to the Crusaders, this time pledging a conversion to Christianity.) The Sunni pose gradually was dropped over the remaining decades of the Assassins’ reign.

The devoted killers

Most of the “Assassins” were thus not assassins. Some were scholars and religious authorities. Many of them were just regular people who lived in the villages and cities around Assassin fortresses. But it was that handful of killers who made the Assassins’ name, and made the organization more than just another wacky cult in a tumultuous age. The killers were real; they were vicious; they were infamous; they changed history, though not as much as they would have liked.

These Nizari assassins were known as fida’is, or “devotees.”12 While the legends about them are elaborate, very little is known of their actual lives and training. The scant information available reveals nothing more (or less) bizarre than is offered by history’s other suicide-mission “terrorists,” from the Jewish Zealots to the Japanese kamikazes to today’s fundamentalist jihadists. The fida’is appear to have been volunteers, with their murderous lifestyle choice sometimes supported by their mothers. The Assassins reportedly maintained “rolls of honour” listing the fida’is’ names and assassinations, though no such memorial is known to survive. There is some evidence that the Syrian Nizaris trained their fida’is as a separate, quasi-military group for at least part of their era, while the Persian Nizaris were not so formal.

The Assassins today are often conflated with Japanese ninja imagery as masters of kill-and-disappear stealth murder. But most Assassin assassinations were indeed suicide missions, apparently by choice. A standard Assassin plan involved planting multiple fida’is in the household of (or otherwise close to) a major enemy, with the killers waiting for months for the right moment to strike. The right moment was not when the enemy was asleep or in the bathtub or eating an easily poisoned dinner. The right moment usually was when the target was in a public place or ceremony, where his death by dagger would cause maximum horror. The likelihood of the assassins escaping such a scene alive was virtually nil.

Who the Assassins assassinated varied widely in concert with the sect’s ever-shifting allegiances and fortunes. And in a literally cloak-and-dagger age, it is likely that some murders were wrongly attributed to the Assassins, and likewise that they got away with other killings unsuspected.

The first killing attributed to the Assassins is that of Nizam al-Mulk, the Abbasid vizier to the Seljuq Turks, who was mysteriously murdered in 1092. In one of those decisions that looks monumentally bad in retrospect, Nizam had written a public denunciation of the Nizaris.

The Assassins’ last major hit was a 1254 attempt to kill the Great Khan of the Mongols—the empire that would finally succeed in invading Alamut and ending the Assassin era. If some later histories are accurate, the Assassins ended in irony, with the head of the cult fleeing his own assassins due to their outrage over his surrender to the Mongols.

The Syrian branch of the Assassins either promulgated most of the cult’s murders, or simply had its violence better recorded for being in the crucible of the Crusader revolution and nearer the declining Fatimid empire. (That is not to question Alamut’s ruthlessness; Hasan Sabbeh reportedly had his own son executed for violating Islamic law by drinking wine.) Hasan sent reinforcements to his Syrian followers specifically to oppose the First Crusade. But the early Assassin action involved internal Muslim politics.

The Assassins’ first killing in what would become their trademark spectacular style came in 1103, when fida’is stabbed the ruler of Homs, Syria, in the city’s main mosque during worship. The motive apparently was the ruler’s rivalry with the ruler of Aleppo, the city that originally provided shelter to the Syrian Nizaris.

In 1130, the Assassins took revenge on what they considered to be the illegitimate remains of the Fatimid empire by assassinating the puppet caliph Al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah. It was doubly personal; seven years before, Al-Amir had published (and perhaps authored) a denunciation of the Nizaris that, as it happens, contains the first known use of the word Hashishiyya, which would later morph into “Assassins.” The killing was part of the final destabilization of the Fatimids.

The Assassins’ two failed attempts to kill Saladin are a major element of their lore. Saladin was the great Muslim opponent of the Crusaders, but he was also an Abbasid vizier controlling the declining Fatimid dynasty (whose rule he would officially end in 1171) and an enemy of the Nizaris. The most spectacular attempt came around 1174, when three or four Assassins who had served as soldiers in Saladin’s army for months attacked him in his camp. Saladin fought the killers hand-to-hand, receiving slight wounds before the Assassins were killed.

Yet this did not stop Saladin from later allying temporarily with the Syrian Assassins against the Crusaders. Likewise, while the Assassins were nominal enemies of the Crusaders and killed many Christian leaders, they also frequently allied with the Europeans. Rashid al-Din Sinan, the most famous leader of the Syrian Assassins, held friendly meetings with France’s King Louis IX, now the Catholic Saint Louis. The Assassins generally had no friends, but only enemies of their enemies; their struggle against fellow Muslims explains part of their alliance with the Crusaders.             Another complexity is the internal struggles among the Crusaders themselves, who had competing states as well as independent—and often rogue—military orders in the Templars and Hospitallers. Both orders managed to exact tributes from the Assassins at various points. An indignant Pope Gregory IX in 1236 ordered the Hospitallers to end their association with “the Assassins, the enemies of God and the Christian name….”13

Thus, it is known that the Assassins in 1152 killed Raymond II, the Crusader king of Tripoli, but it is unclear why. Murky motivations have spawned conspiracy theories about the Assassins and the Crusaders, and quite appropriately, as there obviously was some kind of conspiracy to such well-planned yet inscrutable killings.

The ultimate head-scratching back-stabbing was the 1192 assassination of Conrad of Montferrat, the newly tapped Crusader king of Jerusalem. Conrad was murdered on the streets of Tyre by two killers who reputedly disguised themselves as Christian monks and stalked Conrad for months. The killing bore all the hallmarks of the Assassins, but no one could quite peg the motive, then or now. Suspects have included England’s Richard the Lionheart, who was no fan of Conrad; Saladin, who may have wanted a dual killing targeting Richard as well; the Assassins themselves for their own reasons; and various courtiers and family members of Conrad. It is a testament to the Assassins’ flexibile loyalties that any of these possibilities are plausible.

But focusing on the Assassins’ greatest hits can obscure the context of their actions. Their motives were not bewildering for the sake of bewilderment. A brief history of the rise of the Syrian Nizaris illustrates the matrix of violence and power that informed their decision-making.

The Syrian Assassins acquired their first fortress in 1106 by killing its ruler. But soon after, the Crusaders captured the fort and ransomed the Assassin leader. A wave of anti-Nizari repression from the government and general populace followed, including the execution of religious leaders and massacres of Nizari citizens. The Assassins then reorganized in Damascus, and actually sent troops to join the local army when the Crusaders invaded in 1125. As a reward, the local government granted them a fortress and allowed them to worship openly. But the peace was temporary, soon followed by more anti-Nizari repression and massacre. The Assassins then killed the leader of Damascus in a trademark suicide stabbing, then survived by nominally surrendering to the Crusaders and gaining asylum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The vicissitudes of the Assassins matched the vicissitudes of the times. And their motivations were often as much defensive as offensive. While Nizari leaders were often untouchable in those fortresses, their followers were often massacred in the streets and fields. The Assassins were sometimes killers, but always survivors.

The mythology of the ‘Potheads’

The Crusaders were profoundly ignorant of Islam and local culture. Exposure did not seem to improve the situation; instead, the Crusaders tended to elaborate their misunderstandings into myths. It is notable that many of the Assassin myths were propagated by Europeans who met their leaders face-to-face.

A small example is the “Old Man of the Mountain,” the shadowy Assassin overlord of Crusader legend who supposedly kicked off assassination missions by handing a golden dagger to the killer tapped for the job. Granted, the Assassins were shadowy and had an overlord. But he lived in a major urban castle and was in regular communication with Crusader kings, and he certainly did not call himself the Old Man of the Mountain. The term is simply a fanciful translation of the now-familiar Arabic word “sheihk,” which can literally mean “old man,” but in practice is an honorific akin to “sire” or “lord.”14 (Marco Polo later confused things further by transferring this title for the chief Syrian Assassin to the leader of Alamut in Persia.)

To Europeans who only vaguely comprehended Islam as a kind of Christian heresy, the Assassins were particularly inexplicable. Conducting diplomacy with the Assassins did not lessen their secrecy about their religious teachings (indeed, scholars were not certain that the Assassins were Nizari Ismailis until the last century), or reduce the terror inspired by their murder tactics. The Crusaders got most of their information from the Assassins’ ideological enemies, who freely mixed fact and slur. Crusader elaborations of Muslim polemics have left Assassin history doubly veiled: a myth built on a myth.

That’s why we call them “Assassins”—the eventual English corruption of Arabic Hashishiyya (singular, Hashishi). It roughly means “Potheads,” but there is no evidence, even from the Assassins’ enemies, that they were systematic drug users. Hashishiyya was just one of several generic terms of abuse applied to the Nizari Ismailis by mainstream Muslims. In fact, the use of hash—typically mixed with honey in a kind of medicinal candy—was widespread in the Arab world at the time. But marijuana was frowned upon by religious authorities of the 1100s and 1200s in what appears to be a miniature moral panic akin to our “War on Drugs.” Then, as now, “pothead” was a way to brand someone as lower-class and immoral, whether their actual drug use could be proven or not.15

The first known use of Hashishiyya was in an 1123 polemic by the aforementioned Assassin victim Al-Amir. He used the term without explanation, indicating that it was already in wide circulation. An Arabic word, it was largely applied only to the Syrian-based Nizaris and not to the Persian-speaking Nizaris around the Alamut headquarters. However, perhaps influentially, some Muslim critics did use the term Hashishiyya specifically when mocking Alamut’s fida’is subgroup.

European chroniclers adopted the term in a wide variety of butchered transliterations. William of Tyre was among the earliest to offer the version “Assassins,” which made its way into Romance language vernacular by the 1300s. While William had a relatively sophisticated understanding of the Nizari, he claimed that the origin of the term “Assassins” was unknown even among Muslims.

However hampered they were by their own misspellings, the Europeans eventually picked up the idea that the Assassins were on drugs. In the early 1200s, the German chronicler Arnold of Lübeck introduced the legend of the Assassins being drugged with a potion that duped them into murder with visions of Paradise. This legend proved so popular that it apparently recurved back into Muslim polemics and pop culture, where hashish was well known. The former general “Pothead” slur was now taken literally—never mind the obvious fact that marijuana doesn’t throw people into homicidal mania or hypnotize them into killing.

Drugged killers and a fake Paradise are always paired in these legends, continuing right up to modern culture’s conspiracy theories of mind-controlled assassins drugged by government agencies. It is probable that the false Paradise element had a grain of truth. Surely the fida’is, like modern jihadist terrorists, were promised heavenly rewards for their martyrdom. Hasan II’s declaration of Paradise on Earth may have influenced the legend. So might the gardens and fields of Alamut and other Assassin fortresses.

As the fantasy became more elaborate, other legends may have been plundered for detail. The image of fanatically loyal fida’is leaping to their deaths to impress a visitor may be borrowed from local myths about Alexander the Great.

Whatever the source of the legends, they shared the same purpose: helping Europeans to interpret, and local mainstream critics to mock, a bizarre, esoteric cult. To Crusaders driven by greed and glory, kidnapping and drugging seemed the only plausible explanation for suicide assassins. In their legends of an “Order of the Assassins,” described as a paramilitary organization with a hierarchy of perverse ritual indoctrination and conspiratorial aims, we can see curious echoes of the Crusaders’ own Templars and Hospitallers and the myths about them.

End of the Assassins

The Assassins were successfully in conserving their religion for more than 150 tumultuous years, staving off the new Sunni and Crusader empires that were the novel menaces of their chaotic era. But finally, the Assassins met their match in yet another new invader: the infamous Mongol hordes.

Political chaos swirled through Persia just as it had in the Levant, with the local Seljuq client state becoming quasi-independent, and then falling in turn to Mongol invasion in the early 1200s. Alamut remained literally above it all in the remote mountains. Like the Syrian Nizaris, the Persian Nizaris played all sides of the conflicts and sometimes suffered reprisal massacres, but remained politically stable in their fortresses.

However, it soon became clear that the overwhelming manpower and sheer brutality of the Mongols—who brooked no hint of independence from their underlings—posed a serious threat to the Assassins. Contrary to the myth of invincible killers, the Assassins first tried negotiation. In perhaps the ultimate example of Assassin pragmatism making for strange bedfellows, the master Assassin Ala al-Din Muhammad III joined Abbasid ambassadors on a 1246 trip to Mongolia to sue for peace. One struggles to imagine the campfire chats on that long voyage. The effort was unsuccessful, probably in part due to the Mongols having heard about the Assassins’ murderous tactics from the Seljuqs.

The Assassins and the Abbasids may next have attempted an even stranger alliance by sending ambassadors to Europe to seek mutual aid. Whether or not that effort actually happened, the alliance obviously did not.

So, if quasi-legendary history is to be believed, the Assassins reverted to what they did best: assassination. In 1254, the story goes, a band of Assassins attempted and failed to kill the Great Khan, Möngke, in his own palace. (This story is sometimes conflated with the Assassin leader’s visit to Mongolia.) Despite having earned a fearsome reputation, the Assassins were notably inept at killing truly powerful leaders, as in the case of Saladin.

What is certain is that Mongol pressure finally took out Alamut—not with a bang, but with a whimper. The last master of the Assassins, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, surrendered the castle to the Mongols in 1256, apparently under promises of protection. In typical Mongol style, Rukn was promptly executed and Nizaris were massacred.

The Syrian Assassins were left leaderless and weakened, but managed to hold onto power through yet another marriage of convenience. This time the unlikely partner was the new Mamluk Sultanate, with whom the Assassins allied against the Mongols. However, the Mamluks gradually sought to stamp out the fida’is while showing fitful tolerance for Ismaili worship. The last Assassin fortress fell into Mamluk hands in 1273.

The Mamluks may have sponsored assassinations by fida’is even during this period of suppression; one possibility is the attempted killing of the soon-to-be King Edward I of England in 1272. But the Assassins were finished as a rogue state and engine of terror. They were, at best, simply assassins; and soon, they were not even that.

The Aga Khans16

The power and the killings were gone, but Nizari Ismailism was not, and its worshippers continued daily life as best they could. (Even the term Hashishiyya appears to have fallen out of use by the 1300s, with other slurs being favored.) In Persia, some followers fled to India, while others remained but kept quiet about their religious beliefs. These Persian Ismailis allegedly maintained a secret line of imams for two centuries, which seems a bit too orderly for the factional history of Ismailism. Indeed, something about those times was so fractious that the religion’s leaders apparently forgot about their historical connection to the Assassins in the interim. In any case, Nizari Ismailism survived and eventually came out of the closet again. By the late 1700s, Nizaris had openly re-entered political life, holding regional governorships in Persia.

Among them was the 46th Nizari imam, Hasan Ali Shah, a violent character who would have fit right in with his Assassin ancestors. As recompense for the 1817 murder of his father in an apparent small-town religious dispute, Hasan received the grandiose title Aga Khan, a combination of military and political titles roughly meaning “Lord Chief.” (There is no direct relation to the Mongol khans who destroyed the Assassins.)

But the Aga Khan had his own official quarrels, which escalated into his 1837 armed rebellion against the local government. Defeated, he was embraced by the British as a warlord in their Afghanistan war. That position also lacked job security, and the Aga Khan eventually fled to India, which became the new headquarters of Ismailism. The British welcomed him there and recognized his foreign royal title. The sect that had once terrorized European invaders was now a client of one.

The war-prone Aga Khan reputedly assassinated dissenters as he began consolidating his religious authority. The 3,000 children he boasted of fathering in his sexual escapades perhaps compensated for his bloodletting. However crude his excesses, the Aga Khan laid the foundation upon which his dynasty is built: a prominent, singular Ismaili imam; a pan-national perspective; a comfortable role as a puppet of the British Empire; and a love of racehorses.

The title of Aga Khan and the Nizari imamate are technically not hereditary, but things initially worked that way. Hasan’s son Ali Shah became Aga Khan II upon his father’s 1881 death and proved to be just as bloodthirsty, though he expressed it in the form of incessant tiger-hunting. However, Aga Khan II, in his four-year reign, also established education and humanitarianism as Ismaili agendas. Schools and charities were organized for Ismaili self-help.

Under the first Aga Khans (and the earlier Assassins), Nizari Ismailism became internationalist by necessity. Under Aga Khan III (born Sultan Muhammad Shah), it became internationalist by taste and design—and with unprecedented influence. Aga Khan I served alongside Queen Victoria’s troops; Aga Khan III was served dinner at Queen Victoria’s table.

Thus began modern Ismailism’s talent for cultural chameleonics. Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was an Indian-born prince who consolidated control over Ismaili communities as far afield as Africa. Yet he was also an ardent Europhile, and able to pass among Western royalty thanks to his highly educated multilingualism and fortuitously light complexion. The obscurity of the religion of which he was head likely aided rather than detracted from his acceptance in the upper echelons. The British seem to have regarded him vaguely as an appurtenance of the Raj, able to rein in the nascent Muslim-Hindu tensions.

The third Aga Khan was often a buffoonish kinglet with an “Arabian Nights” air. At extravagant jubilees, he had his followers pay tribute with offerings of his very unhealthy weight in gold, platinum and diamonds; he perched on one pan of a giant scale while the treasures were stacked on the other. He married an Italian ballerina who called him “Aggy,” and later a former Miss France 30 years his junior whose love he is said to have literally bought with a suitcase containing 1 million francs. His last wish was to be entombed in Egypt in the express hope that he would be mummified like a pharaoh.

But such excesses were possible because Aga Khan III also was a shrewd investor who amassed a breathtaking fortune. And while he did not anticipate the pacifist and women’s rights movements after World War I, he supported them with a freedom his European peers lacked. (Characteristically, he nominated himself for a Nobel Peace Prize.) Aga Khan III became the de facto head of India’s Muslims, whatever their denomination, as president of the All-India Muslim League and later as a representative to the world peace organization League of Nations (where he served as president of the General Assembly). In those roles, and in the constitution he established for his global Ismaili organization, Aga Khan III relentlessly mandated the equal treatment of women, including in marriage and in education. The proceeds of his obscene jubilees went largely back into the welfare and education of the Ismaili community.

Yet he was a not-quite-enlightened despot—more an enthusiastic and good-natured one. He spent at least as much time on (and saw more success with) breeding racehorses as he did on forging world peace. He was an early supporter of Hitler. The high point of his relationship with his renowned countryman, Gandhi, was allowing the rabble-rouser to be imprisoned in luxury in one of the Aga Khan’s palaces.

But Aga Khan III appears to be the first Nizari imam on record to have a natural abhorrence of violence. Granted, there were nasty rumors early in his rule that he was behind the killings of some family members who might have challenged his power; one of the killings was conducted by a fanatic still known in Ismaili vernacular as one of the fida’is. But the only definite assassination plots in the life of Aga Khan III were attempts involving him as the target: Nazi agents in World War II tried to blow up his car and poison his coffee. The sect of the Assassins had undergone a total turnabout.

Aga Khan III was thus poised to pass along a kinder, gentler Nizari Ismailism. But his nominal successor, son Aly, was busy emulating other aspects of the Aga Khan’s lifestyle—drinking, adultery and horseracing. A playboy with a notorious appetite for sex, Aly drew embarrassing headlines in the 1930s-’50s with his scandalous affairs, including one with Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. Upon Aga Khan III’s death in 1957, it was revealed that Aly would be passed over as his successor in favor of young grandson Karim.

The disinheritance had a sobering effect on Aly, and perhaps the entire family, which rapidly rose into even greater influence via the United Nations. That same year, Aly became Pakistan’s U.N. representative, and soon was made a vice president of the U.N. General Assembly. (A fatal car crash a few years later prematurely ended his redeemed life.) And Aly’s half-brother, Sadruddin, became the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees in 1959.

Karim became Aga Khan IV while a student at Harvard, being schooled in the ways of the modern, Western world. The current Aga Khan has a bit of his father and grandfather in him: a talent with racehorses and a fashion-model wife, a private jet and vast estates. But he has taken the modern Ismaili tenets of humanitarian aid and self-improvement seriously, founding a gigantic, billion-dollar network of private development and cultural agencies that work closely with the U.N. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) works in dozens of countries that major powers will not, or do not understand if they do. Poverty, health and women’s rights remain the focal points.17

Aga Khan IV is not above crass opportunism; he took a ribbing 30 years ago for creating an entire luxury city and yacht port in Sardinia on cheaply bought land, dubbed “Agaland” by the press. It is a picture, as one author put it, of “imam as financial guru.”18

This Aga Khan indeed seems more interested in selling than in preaching, in the practical more than the spiritual. But that may be because he views as false the Western dichotomy between religion and business. Aga Khan III once wrote that “markets make peace,” a line that his grandson could use as a motto.19

While yacht resorts make headlines, the far more influential development work of AKDN does not. Offering aid to Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike, the network is often shrewdly precise in its efforts. For example, it does not simply pump money and supplies into a needy system; it may conduct market research to see what new industries might best suit a region and then work to establish them.

Like his grandfather, Aga Khan IV is a natural for this peripatetic, global work. Born in Switzerland, raised in Kenya, educated in America, and now based in France, he is a true internationalist. He looks and sounds like he could have come from just about anywhere besides East Asia or central Africa. He has a “Star Trek” aura of humane braininess—he talks a lot about “logic”—devoted to world-saving.20

The Aga Khan has used blunter instruments at times. In surely the most complete divestment from apartheid-era South Africa, he simply ordered all Ismailis to leave the racist state.21 But clearly, he prefers nuanced approaches. Pacifism now goes without saying; Ismailism preaches deference to local governments, and must be one of the few sects with millions of followers to go decades without producing violence. (However, it can still attract it; in 1983, the Irish Republican Army kidnapped and apparently killed one of the Aga Khan’s racehorses.22)

In 1994, Aga Khan IV gave the commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The crucial modern challenge, he said, is to synthesize the values and lessons of the Western world, the Muslim world and the “ex-Communist” world.23 This sweeping, syncretic vision is as characteristic of Aga Khan IV’s Ismailism as it is unusual of religions in general. Where the world sees conflicts, the Aga Khan IV sees collaborations.

But one thing is always left out of the Aga Khan’s big picture: the Assassins. The Assassin past is a taboo of modern Ismailism, even as the AKDN funds restoration of the killer cult’s castle.

The Assassin taboo

The AKDN website offers a brief history of the Nizari Ismailis at the time of the Crusades: a “cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds” that “collapsed only under the onslaught of the all-conquering Mongols.”24 Studiously avoided is any use of the term “Assassins.”

The AKDN certainly knows better. The history was written by Dr. Farhad Daftary, who also authored “The Assassin Legends,” a thorough investigation of myth and reality and one of the very few books on the subject that is not full of ignorant conspiracy theories. But Daftary, based at AKDN’s Institute for Ismaili Studies, is not an unbiased source himself. Preoccupied with debunking Assassin myths as the work of ideological enemies, Daftary underplays how the Assassins also earned their infamy by stabbing people to death in the street.

Aga Khan IV apparently simply never talks about the Assassins, though he dips back into the past for Fatimid dynasty references frequently enough. Neither the Aga Khan’s secretariat nor Dr. Daftary responded to questions about how the Assassins are viewed by modern Ismailism.

Aga Khan III was not so discreet in his memoirs. He refers to the Alamut cult as “my ancestors” before evasively reporting:

“They established a stronghold on the craggy peak of Alamut in the Elburz mountains…. Legend and history intertwine here in the strange tale of the Old Man of the Mountains [sic], and of those hereditary Grand Masters of the Order of the Assassins who held Alamut for nearly two hundred years.”26

He then does not explain either the legend or history, and judging from his mistakes, he may not have known much about them. The identity of the Assassins as the Nizari Ismailis had only recently been puzzled out at that time.

But the Aga Khan returned venomously to the subject in a later edition of the memoir, in a footnote to a reference of a sultan’s fear of assassination:

“It is interesting and not without irony to realize that the word ‘assassin,’ which has its special contemporary meaning, was first applied many centuries ago to my ancestors and their Ismaili followers. From time immemorial, small and oppressed minorities have had to be given a bad name—after all, you cannot kill a dog unless you give it a bad name—and in the Middle Ages the Ismailis were such a minority, fighting for their lives and their rights. Their oppressors had to give them a bad name; they associated the Ismailis with the manufacture and use of the drug hashish, and it was alleged that they were addicts. The bad name, thus invented, stuck.”27

It’s an interesting point that the belittling term “Assassin” may have made it easier for enemies to massacre Ismailis. But, like Daftary, Aga Khan III would have us forget that the Assassins did a lot of killing themselves to earn their reputation and their name. The mixture of dissembling defensiveness and pride in his statement probably tells us all we need to know about the Assassins’ place in modern Ismailism.

Perhaps it is time for Nizari Ismailism to embrace its past and reclaim the word “Assassin.” Aga Khan III was right that the Assassins were an oppressed minority putting up a long and successful fight, branded with an insulting name. Christians, Quakers and countless other oppressed groups have turned insulting names into vessels of pride about their virtuous struggles. The term “Assassin” cannot be assassinated, and could take on a richer meaning than it has today.

Admittedly, embracing a Muslim terrorist past could be problematic today. But that only highlights the changes in a sect that, once famed for taking lives, now has far more power by saving and improving them.

Nine hundred years ago, Nizaris were led in part by a supposed “Old Man of the Mountain” who ordered spectacular murders. Today, Nizaris are led by an old man who orders the rejuvenation of crumbling countries, his mountains now those around Geneva, where AKDN offices share a city with the Red Cross.

To avoid the word “Assassins” while rebuilding Assassin castles seems hypocritical at best. It is a missed opportunity to celebrate an impressive history while showing how dramatically a religion, and people, can change.



                1 “Secrets of Assassins’ fort unearthed in Syria” by Tom Perry, Reuters, July 13, 2007, at

                2 “The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma‘ilis” by Farhad Daftary. Many other etymologies for “assassin” have been proposed; some are entertaining, all are wrong.

                3 “Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut Edition” (PC edition), Ubisoft, Inc., 2008.

                4 All of the information on the ancient Nizari Ismailis and the etymology of “Assassins” that follows in this essay draws heavily and fundamentally from Daftary, op. cit.

                5 Abd Allah (sometimes transliterated as Ubaidallah) was originally known as Said ibn Husayn.

                6 Daftary, op. cit.

                7 Daftary, ibid.

                8 Daftary, ibid.; “The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time” by Aga Khan III; and “Assassin,” Columbia Encyclopedia (5th ed.).

                9 “Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī” by Paul E. Walker.

                10 Walker, ibid.

                11 Daftary, op. cit.

                12 Daftary, op. cit.

                13 Daftary, op. cit.

                14 Daftary, op. cit.

                15 It is intriguing to note that attempts to create drug-controlled assassins are not a reality of the Crusader era, but rather of our own time, with infamous experiments by various governments, including the U.S. CIA’s LSD experiments.

                16 My crucial and fundamental source on the Aga Khan dynasty is “Throne of Gold: The Lives of the Aga Khans” by Anne Edwards.


                18 Edwards, op. cit.

                19 Aga Khan III, op. cit. Aga Khan IV recently said, “If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair, and there is the possibility that any means out will be taken….[By offering business assistance] we are developing protection against extremism.” (Source: “The Aga Khan, a jet-setter who mixes business and Islam” by G. Pascal Zachary, New York Times, July 9, 2007, at

            On a much smaller scale of Ismaili political power, the city of Calgary, Canada, in 2010 elected an Ismaili man to be its mayor. Mayor Naheed Nenshi is also Harvard-educated and business-minded. (See


                21 Edwards, op. cit.

                22 Edwards, ibid. Without downplaying peace and pacifism, it is worth noting the shower of death threats that some Ismaili commenters rained upon the maker of a YouTube video depicting the Aga Khans, family members and Britain’s Prince Charles dancing suggestively. (“Agha Khan in DANCING With The STARS,”; the comments have since been removed.)

                23 Edwards, ibid.

                24 “Ismaili Community: History” at

                25 “Crusaders and Crusading in the Twelfth Century” by Giles Constable, via Google Books.

                26 Aga Khan III, op. cit.

                27 Aga Khan III, ibid. The publication year of the subsequent edition was unclear. The first edition was published in 1954. I accessed both editions at the Boston Public Library.