The Fool’s Way Part II – God’s Orchid

I’ve been translating Nils Asther’s memoir from Swedish because I apparently have nothing better to do. Catch part one here.

It’s fair to wonder what would have happened to Nils Asther had he not attracted the attention of Mauritz Stiller that evening. The teen had no money, no qualifications, no home to go to, and in his mind at least, no family.

Mauritz Stiller

Stiller was born in Helsinki in 1883, and fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted into Czar Nicholas II’s army. He was a pioneer of silent films, writing and directing more than thirty-five features in his lifetime. The night he laid eyes on Nils, Stiller was eating out with a fellow screenwriter, Sam Ask. Stiller ushered Nils and his companion over to Ask. “Doesn’t this one look like an actor?”

(Nils’ friend was ignored for the rest of the evening. Poor boy, he was lovely, but he had a face like the back of a tram.)

Soon they were joined by a hefty gentleman with thick curly hair. He looked out of place in the noisy eatery, standoffish and over-eager at the same time. This was Hjalmar Bergman, a respected author. Having established himself as highly literary and intellectual, the death of his father brought about huge debt, and Bergman was forced to write more crowd-pleasing works. This required research, such as drinking, snorting cocaine, and fraternising with gorgeous young men.

Tonight was Bergman’s lucky night.

“He looked at me as if I were an angel fallen from the skies,” Nils wrote. “It took a while before he sobered up. He asked me my name and what I did. I told him that I was kicked out of my adoptive parents’ house and from the Spyken school in Lund. Now I had decided to become an artist. Hjalmar Bergman reacted negatively. Not many artists could live on their jobs. Such fancies! Movie actors made big money. I was assured that all the artist dreams would be beaten out of my mind.”

Hjalmar Bergman

Debt be damned, Bergman was besotted. He rented an apartment for Nils, with a little kitchenette and a big bed with red curtains. Unaccustomed to older men being kind to him, Nils wondered if Bergman was his true father. When he asked him this, the writer became tearful. He only wished it were so! Trying to shrug off the emotion, he said if he were Nils’ father, he would pack him off back to school – even if he had to bribe the teachers to put up with him. From now, on Nils would be Bergman’s ‘foster son’, along with a young German lad who was coincidentally also an actor, gorgeous, and like to do uppers on trains. Bergman had a type.

Nils at 22-years-old, by Einar Jolin, 1918.

Bergman isn’t widely known outside of Sweden, but in 1919 he published a drama based on his relationship with Nils: God’s Orchid. In it, an oafish father watches his beautiful son grow up and wonders how anything so perfect could have been created by him. The boy is compared to Christ, but he’s full of guile, always with his eye on the next opportunity to escape his low upbringing. They bicker and make up and bicker again, with the father’s obsessive love always verging on something more unhealthy.

In Bergman’s letters, he says of Nils, “It’s not his fault he’s a degenerate, nor mine”. But they encouraged each other. Nils doesn’t talk about cocaine in his memoirs, but Bergman joked that if he ever wanted anyone killed, he’d just send them out to party with his foster son.

After drinks, Bergman sometimes liked to arrange Nils where he could sit and stare at him, which isn’t at all skin-crawlingly weird. “You are Jesus to me,” he said on one such occasion. “I will love you as long as I live.” He dared to kiss his cheek. Another time, he gifted his ‘foster son’ with a copy of Death In Venice, which is a bit like handing someone a neon sign blinking “RUN AWAY”.

Aschenbach Off, Hjalmar

But Nils had nothing to run away to. His behaviour seems deliberately coquettish – at one point, he describes undressing in front of Bergman before inviting him to stay over. He always protested their relationship was never more than platonic. “He never tried to rape me,” he wrote, nevertheless describing all the awkward caressing as if that’s just what writers are like. It seems his need for a father figure meant he was willing to put up with almost anything.

Strange men started coming up to the apartment, seeking Nils’ company. That some of these men were publishing professionals makes me suspect Bergman deliberately fed rumours that he was getting more for his money than he really was. Everyone knew what was going on. Or thought they did. The artist Nils von Dardel teased Asther about it. “I know very well Bergman likes you, the pederast.”

Mauritz Stiller paid close attention. In 1916, he got Nils into the Royal Dramatic Theatre for tuition. “Try not to get expelled,” he said. Next came a film role, in Stiller’s The Wings. It’s a strangely post-modern piece, a film within a film, and you can see what remains of it here.

The Wings was a film about gay desire. At 19, Nils was too young for the lead, but Stiller couldn’t resist writing him a part to keep him close.

“He opened me to the art of loving and enjoying my own sex,” Nils wrote. Again, their relationship was one of power imbalance. Stiller was liable to fly into rages if his demands were not instantly obeyed. “The man had a demonic power over us actors. If he said that we must obtain and drink a teaspoon of piss every day […] I assure you that we would have done it.”

But threats and tantrums were nothing new to Nils. He was getting small film and stage roles, and as soon as he had enough money, he could quit and become the artist he longed to be. Acting was like worshipping a monstrous pagan god, he thought. Fame and decadence were fun, but he was astute enough to see they wouldn’t lead to happiness.

Speaking of unhappiness, Hjalmar Bergman’s wife was less than pleased with her husband’s obsession with this wayward boy. To comfort her, he suggested they have a baby. Isn’t that nice? But Nils had to be the father. Hjalmar only wanted a pretty baby.

Her reaction? “Get some class, deadbeat!” and a slap in the face. Not for Hjalmar. For Nils. Which seems slightly unfair.

Drug use and hectic living eventually killed Bergman. But jealousy put pay to his relationship with Nils, at least in Bergman’s eyes.

A Love Triangle Pyramid Dodecahedron

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Augusta Lindberg in 1906

Augusta Lindberg was Bergman’s mother-in-law. She was in her fifties when she first encountered Nils. As a veteran actor and mother of the director Per Lindberg, Bergman and Stiller thought she was a suitable mentor for their new discovery.

Sigh.

He was deposited in front of her with the script for Ibsen’s Ghosts. The play is a typically Norwegian nightmare about syphilis and incest, but Nils flipped through it and remarked Ibsen could have had the decency to throw some actual ghosts in. Like, yawn, am I right?

Augusta was tickled. Surprise-surprise, their weekly private acting classes didn’t involve much acting. Augusta had a taste for exhibitionism. A neighbour complained she had to pour herself a large brandy whenever Nils showed up at the door. At a party, Augusta decided to show Bergman he didn’t own Nils by dragging him into an adjacent room. Nevertheless, Augusta saw the wounded child in Nils and could always sense his anxiety. She mothered him, made sure he ate properly, and helped to keep him in school despite the cocaine and the all-night adventures with Bergman.

Nils saw all this in his unique and adorable fashion: “It has been claimed that there was a tug of war between him and his mother, Augusta Lindberg, and that she emerged victorious. It’s not true. He was merely amused to hear me talk about our games.”

Amused, devastated? One of those.

“Hello. I have an opening for a Tuesday afternoon girlfriend.” Solen Der Dræbte, 1918

Stiller also had opinions on Nils’ love life. As well as Augusta Lindberg, there were the actresses Linde Klinckowström and Lutzy Doraine, another fellow student, and a set of twins he could just about tell apart. Over dinner one night, Nils confided in Stiller that he was worried one of the twins might be pregnant. Stiller went ballistic.

“You fucking idiot. Is it not enough that you’re riding that hag Augusta?”

No one would ever buy into a movie star who was saddled with a wife and kids. Was that what he wanted? To be domesticated? If he went ahead with these relationships, Stiller would dump him completely. Worse still, Bergman was withdrawing his affection. It came as no surprise when Nils had a breakdown.

The Real Reason Visiting Hours Are Restricted

“I was an ambitious hunchback not worthy of anyone’s love. No one has ever loved me, and it’s certainly my hideous failure. Why was I such a vindictive and obnoxious person? Was it perhaps my hideous childhood filled with hymns, beating and screams that characterised me?”

Woe is me

Woe is me, Himmelskibet, 1918.

Nils retreated to a sanatorium at Saltsjöbaden where he was the youngest by about seventy years. Whether he was off the magic fairy dust at this time was unclear, but he still managed to make another of his trademark disastrous decisions by having a girlfriend over to visit. They conceived a child on the ward.

She miscarried, much to their mutual relief, and they celebrated… by getting pregnant again. They fell out and she went to Switzerland to give birth alone. If he was remotely interested in his child, he doesn’t let on.

If you’re thinking it’s about time his mother gets involved, you’d be right. He arranged to meet with Hilda Asther for the first time since running away. The poor woman looked broken. Anton had set up with another lady and was raising a new family. Nils urged Hilda to divorce him, and promised to support her for the rest of her days. To prove it, he handed her a wad of banknotes. Probably Hjalmar Bergman’s banknotes, but the sentiment was sound. He still couldn’t bring himself to ask her about his adoption. In his mind, she was his foster mother, and she loved him in a distant way that was the best he could hope for. With all his relationships, Nils seemed to have seen himself as someone merely passing through. He never imagined anyone could truly become attached to him.

But where could Hilda go? The Asther house in Malmö wasn’t hers. And Nils surely couldn’t put her up in his sugar daddy’s apartment.

Nils knew just the place.

[Cut to the freshly-divorced Hilda Asther setting up home with Augusta Lindberg.]

Okay…?


TBC.

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The Fool’s Way

I translated Nils Asther’s autobiography from Swedish so you don’t have to.

IMG_0738Why, Verity? Why?

Because I love a gorgeous tragic dead boy, and people who’ve read it say it’s a car crash from start to finish.

How?

I can’t read Swedish. But I downloaded a translation app and know a couple of Swedes who helped me when Swedish idioms came out garbled and hilarious. The majority of the book was perfectly readable, even when I needed to make some leaps of logic to complete sentences.

And yes, it’s a scream from beginning to end.

Who?

Nils Asther is probably best known for his titular role in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen. He had a long career, stretching from the First World War up to the 1960s, though his talent was mainly wasted on flimsy romantic roles. “I quit because I couldn’t stand making those ‘pretty boys’ films in uniform any more,” as he put it. His Swedish accent made him difficult to cast when the talkies came along, but his unusual beauty meant he stayed in demand for a long time, despite his open disdain for the film industry. Women were wild about him. Men, too. One male fan left the actor a fabulously expensive ring in his Will, a posthumous declaration of desire.

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I mean, it’s little wonder.

Hollywood marketed Nils as a mysterious Scandinavian, an intellectual, an adventurer, and friend of Lenin for some reason. But in his memoirs, Narrens Väg (meaning ‘The Fool’s Way’), Nils looks back at the truth of his life (and I’m using ‘truth’ very loosely here) with bitterness, hilarity, and a ridiculously long list of lovers. How he found time for filming is beyond me.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun for other silent film fans if I summarised the fun bits in English.

Strap In, This Is Going To Get Bumpy

IMG_0736Once upon a time in Denmark, on a cold and dreary day in 1897, a boy was born to parents unknown. He spent his first few months in a notorious orphanage until he was adopted by a beautiful Swedish lady and her evil husband who took him home to their big house in Malmö.

Or not. Once upon a time, a boy was born to Hilda and Anton, Swedish lovers who coincidentally despised each other. To save shame, Hilda gave birth in Denmark and left her son in an orphanage temporarily to give her and Anton time to arrange a ‘colossal’ wedding that neither of them wanted.

They didn’t tell their son any of this. That would have taken the fun out of the next eighty years.

Despite his timid, bookish demeanour, little Nils was branded The Bad Child from the start. His half brother, Gunnar, was favoured in all things, and Nils and Hilda were largely left to their own devices, eating alone, vacationing alone, and trying to smile when Anton’s business partners came over, boasting about their money and their mistresses.

It seems everyone knew Nils’ shameful origins except him. The parish priest harboured a special dislike for the boy, making Sundays an ordeal he would later turn into gruesome art. (I’ll be sharing this painting later. It’s… something.)

Anton and Hilda’s marriage was poison. Neighbours whispered about the couple’s wedding night, when Hilda was seen trying to hurl herself out of a window. Relatives were concerned when she named her baby boy after her brother who brought shame on the family for sleeping with a maid. Hilda’s father beat the teen so badly – in front of the other children – he later killed himself.

So far, so horrifying.

Nils recounts his early memories like a series of battles. As a small boy, he walked in on his father violently assaulting his mother. She proceeded to use Nils as a human shield, which cemented in Anton’s paranoid brain that his wife and youngest son were in cahoots against him. Another night, Nils and Hilda barricaded themselves into a bedroom while Anton beat on the door with a gun.

It sounds like a melodrama from the silent films. And yes, Nils is probably embellishing. But decades before writing his memoirs, Nils gave interviews in Hollywood, telling of how his main memories of Sweden were his mother crying alone in large rooms, and of being stunned when strangers treated them with kindness. The little details, like hardly daring to breathe, ring true for survivors of abuse. After leaving Sweden, Nils never spoke to his father or half-brother again.

nils

The domestic power-balance changed when Nils hit his teens. He shot past six foot, way above his father, and the physical difference made him realise he wouldn’t always be under Anton’s tyranny. Hollywood would later work hard to promote the shy, romantic teenage Nils over the real one who was breaking windows and discovering boys.

Expulsion Number One – The Pekinese

We all had that one teacher we wanted to murder. For Nils, this was The Pekinese, a history teacher nicknamed for his unfortunate face and love of ‘biting’ boys with his cane. Nils liked the concept of history, but couldn’t absorb the names-and-dates nuts and bolts. It didn’t matter how hard Nils worked, The Pekinese just wouldn’t give him a break. His feelings for his teacher festered away along with the helplessness and frustration of his home life, evolving into a slightly manic hatred that would rear up again and again in later life.

One day in class, Nils was caught playing with a knife. That wasn’t a problem – all boys had knives – but he was using his to carve a willy into his desk. Inspecting the damage, The Pekinese discovered Nils’ cartoons – which, admittedly, were quite good – all depicting the teacher as an angry lapdog.

He was up against the board with his pants down in no time. The Pekinese got out his cane and delivered several sharp whacks. Refusing to show any pain, Nils waited until the final blow, peeped over his shoulder and said, with a smile: “Was that nice?”

The boys howled with laughter. Nils was mad with adrenaline. When this got back to Anton, he might actually die of rage. However, the headmaster showed an annoying amount of leniency. You’re a smart boy, usually so well-behaved, you’re about to begin your leaving exams, etc, etc. He didn’t want to suspend him for something so silly as graffiti and cheek.

So Nils sawed two legs off The Pekinese’s chair and gave him concussion, just to make sure.

nils asther great dane

 

Expulsion Number Two – This Time, It’s Musical

When the yelling died down, Nils was sent away to the Spyken school in Lund. The school still exists, and is probably lovely, but in the early 1900s, it was where rich men sent their terrible children when no one else would put up with them.

Things went well for a while. Then a new PE teacher turned up, a short man with a chinstrap beard and dandy pretentions. That manic hatred boiled up again. Poor guy was doomed.

The PE room was in the basement, and the boys had to file down a flight of stairs to get there. There was plenty of larking about on the way, so Mr Chinstrap told them all to shut up and get in line. Nils decided it would be more fun to boot him down the stairs.

While the teacher lay clutching his broken ribs, Nils stood at the top of the stairs singing ‘Liten Karin’, a cheery Swedish folk song about a king who puts a maid into a barrel full of spikes and rolls her around until she dies.

Eesh.

Have A Screaming Match With Your Vicar In The Gym, Why Not

When you have a demon child on the premises, the only option is to call a priest.

Anton Asther stormed into the school, “roaring like a lion”. The headmaster called Nils’ childhood parish priest, the one who thought he was the physical manifestation of sin, and although the cleric’s presence stopped Anton from murdering his son, it was a life-changingly bad idea.

Most of Nil Asther’s memoir is about life-changingly bad ideas, honestly.

So they’re locked in a room together, just yelling at each other. Father Soandso attempted reason; words to the effect of “Why did you break your teacher’s bones again, you utter lunatic?” Nils stuck to his guns with “You lie, priest bastard!”, which is a great response to just about anything. This went back and forth until the priest gave up any pretence of Christian compassion or priestly discretion:

“How I wish my friend Anton had never let that woman persuade him into adopting you. We have reason to believe that you are the son of a whore and an adulterer in Copenhagen.”

Oh.

Now, if you’d just been told you were adopted, wouldn’t you go to your parents and maybe… ask them?

Or would you rather burst out of the room, grab your things and get the train to Stockholm without saying a word to anyone?

IMG_0735That’s the spirit!

There was a little bit of reasoning behind this move. Not much. But a bit. To summarise:

I am not related to awful Anton.
I am also not related to my beautiful, sad mother.
But she probably doesn’t love me either.
So I’m going to become an artist.
Anton will hate that.

This all turned out to be another life-changingly bad idea.

What do artists do all day? Well, they hang around in cafes looking interesting. In Stockholm, Nils found a floor to sleep on and an old school friend to hang out with. The pair became a regular fixture in the murkier end of Stockholm nightlife. One evening, going out to eat, the teenagers were approached by man with gigantic hands and even bigger feet. The boys must join him for dinner, he said, definitely not leering. Had Nils ever thought about acting? Did he like films?

Nils had never seen a film. He certainly didn’t know he was talking to Mauritz Stiller, the man who discovered Greta Garbo. According to Anton Asther, actors were degenerate idiots who disgraced their families and died penniless.

So yes. Yes, he was interested…

TBC. Read part II here.

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Patronise me

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 22.39.47I’ve got a limited number of signed Pseudotooth bookmarks for all new Patreon supporters (including the $1 tier folks). As a patron, you’ll see patron-only poems, stories, and blogs while I embark on this new novel. Maybe even a few cute dog pictures, too.

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The Con Is On (again) – Nine Worlds and Not The Booker

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I’ll be talking cityscapes in SFF with Amy Butt, Jared Shurin, and Al Robertson at Nine Worlds on Saturday. I’ll have a bundle of Pseudotooth bookmarks with me, so if you see me, say hi, and I’ll hand some out.

You find us from 11:45 – 12:45 in the Bordeaux Suite.

Panellists discuss the architecture of SFF – how cities are represented and how they can flavour a story. The discussion will range from the dystopian feel of cyberpunk urban jungle to the various flavours of fantasy as well as examining how real world cities are seen in fiction.

While I’ve got you, something cool has happened – Pseudotooth has been longlisted for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize! If you’re feeling benevolent, all you need to do to vote is go here and leave a comment in this format:

[yourusername] – Vote # 1 – [Book title only]
[yourusername] – Vote # 2 – [Book title only]
[A short review of one of the two books.]

You have until the 8th of August to vote. Remember to vote for two books on the list, or your vote won’t be counted.

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Enter not into the path of the wicked – The Fatal Evidence of Professor Taylor

I’ve been talking to author Helen Barrell about her new book Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor & the Dawn of Forensic Science out now from Pen & Sword.

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Professor Taylor appears in your last book, Poison Panic, to deal with some murderous Essex wives. How did he capture your imagination sufficiently to make you devote a whole book to him?

Taylor was the expert witness in the 1840s arsenic poisoning cases which involved Sarah Chesham, Mary May and Hannah Southgate. He was called in to work on all of the cases, and the papers were calling him “the eminent professor”, so I wondered – who on earth is this man? Then when I discovered he’d been summoned by the police to analyse bloodstains during the investigation of Thomas Drory, the Doddinghurst murderer,– and that’s as early as 1850 – I was surprised and intrigued.

I quickly found out that he’d been involved in a huge number of cases, and not always as a toxicologist, although that’s how he’s best remembered. Coupled with this was his massive output of books and journal articles, and his own editorship of the London Medical Gazette. His personality comes out in everything he writes; he’ll start in scholarly tone, but he just cannot resist injecting something of himself. It might be an unscholarly expression of amazement, it might be a sarcastic aside at an enemy, it might be a jibe at how stupid some criminals can be.

So not only are there fascinating cases involving a vast cast of Victorians, you’ve got a clever, sarcastic professor and the evolution of a science. Writing Taylor’s biography was utterly irresistible.


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Victorian true crime enthusiasts will probably know Professor Taylor from the particularly nasty Rugeley Poisoner case. William Palmer, or ‘The Prince of Poisoners’, was a surgeon, and went to the gallows for his crimes. But that wasn’t the only time Taylor took down a fellow medical man for murder…

The Palmer and Smethurst trials are the only ones which Taylor worked on to be included in the famous red-bound volumes of the Notable British Trials Series. This is perhaps why Taylor is remembered almost exclusively for them, which means that nowadays his career is seen through a Palmer/Smethurst-tinged prism. But they were difficult cases, and Taylor himself harped on about them for years afterwards.

I have to say that researching and writing the 1856 Palmer cases gave me nightmares! I don’t live far from Rugeley, so my partner and I popped over on the train. We saw the pub where John Parsons Cook died, and I even went into the pet shop which occupies half of what was once Palmer’s house (I bought cat treats for my furry chums at home!). We saw the house where Palmer was born, and went to the church where Cook is buried and saw his grave. The stone was paid for by the priest who was the vicar at the time because so many people were visiting Rugeley purely thanks to the notorious Palmer, and along one side, almost buried now by grass and rising soil, is a line from Proverbs:

Enter not into the path of the wicked. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.

That night, I had a terrifying nightmare. I was in the churchyard at Rugeley in the twilight, and there was a horrible sense of evil in the air. I heard someone chant, over and over again, a line from the Lord’s Prayer: Deliver us from evil, deliver us from evil, deliver us from evil….

I managed to develop anaemia at the time, too, and so it felt like William Palmer was trying to finish me off as well! But it has to be said – when you’re writing about crime, real people died sometimes horrible deaths, by “unfair means”, as the Victorians used to phrase it. Although I found the Palmer chapter emotionally hard, I was relieved in a way because it meant that I hadn’t become desensitised.

But to move on to the other medical man who Taylor found himself toe-to-toe with, that would be Dr Thomas Smethurst.

These days, the jury is very much out on the 1859 Smethurst case, as some people think that Isabella, his “wife” whom he was accused of murdering, could have died from Crohn’s disease, or a similar intestinal complaint, aggravated by pregnancy. It was thought at the time that Smethurst used his medical knowledge to bump Isabella off.

Smethurst had originally married a woman who was 22-years his senior. While she was still living, he and Isabella Bankes, an heiress with an annuity, were carrying on with each other in the genteel lodging house where Smethurst was living with his first wife. Isabella was asked to leave by the landlady, and Smethurst quickly followed her. They were bigamously married, and not long afterwards, Isabella fell ill.

She had several doctors, besides her husband, caring for her, and all of them thought that something was off. One Sunday, Taylor was visited at home by a doctor bearing Isabella’s stool samples. Taylor lived in a on well-to-do Regent’s Park – one wonders what his neighbours made of the police and medical men who would drop by with articles for him to examine. On analysing one of the samples, Taylor found arsenic, and declared that Isabella was, quite likely, being poisoned, so her “husband” was arrested. Soon afterwards, she died.

Smethurst was a quack. He had a large collection of homeopathic remedies, and he had run a hydrotherapy spa in Surrey, which Dr Lane bought from him – in case that sounds familiar, Dr Lane was embroiled in the scandalous divorce case of Mrs Robinson. It’s very clear from his time as editor of the London Medical Gazette that Taylor had zero patience with quackery, and he had to examine all the homeopathy bottles looking for arsenic, and also antimony, which he found in Isabella’s body. Antimony wasn’t unusual in medicines, and arsenic was found in some as a pick-me-up – the risk was that Isabella could have been poisoned by one of the many remedies that Smethurst had in his possession. Or indeed, that so many bottles were an excellent way to hide the source of the arsenic, if Smethurst hadn’t already jettisoned it.

One of the bottles was mysterious to Taylor. It was almost empty and he only just managed to perform his favourite arsenic test – the Reinsch test – on it. It tested positive for arsenic, and he said that this was the likely source. Unfortunately, just before the trial, Taylor realised that he had made an error. The arsenic had in fact come from the copper which was part of the Reinsch test, and the mystery bottle had contained a chlorate which dissolves that metal. The arsenic in the copper gauze was released because the chlorate had dissolved it.

Taylor owned up to this error, and tried to turn it to his own ends as a scientific discovery. Well, every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. The jury still found Smethurst guilty of murder, but he mounted an appeal. Newspapers groaned under the weight of people who had an opinion on the trial – it wasn’t only Taylor’s problem with the copper that some quarters of the public found fault with. Wilkie Collins lampoons this in his 1864 novel Armadale, concerning the trial of Lydia Gwilt, who was:

‘tried all over again, before an amateur court of justice, in the columns of the newspapers. All the people who had no personal experience whatever on the subject seized their pens, and rushed (by kind permission of the editor) into print. Doctors who had not attended the sick man, and who had not been present at the examination of the body, declared by dozens that he had died a natural death. Barristers without business, who had not heard the evidence, attacked the jury who had heard it, and judged the judge, who had sat on the bench before some of them were born.’

Smethurst’s sentence was overturned. However, he was tried for bigamy and sent to prison anyway.

V0028432 Alfred Swaine Taylor. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1868. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Alfred Swaine Taylor. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1868. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Alfred Swaine Taylor. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1868.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Alfred Swaine Taylor. Photograph by Ernest Edwards, 1868.
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


Professor Taylor had some fantastic interactions with the luminaries of the day. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were fans, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went so far as to base a character on him? 

I was very excited when I found a list of all the books in Wilkie Collins’ library (I’m a librarian, so this thrill should not come as a surprise) and was pleased to see that Collins had owned not one, but two editions of Taylor’s On Poisons. It’s safe to say that whenever you see any poison turn up in a Collins’ novel, he’s probably drawn on Taylor’s extensive research and compiled cases to inform his writing.

Charles Dickens was such a fan that Taylor gets mentioned several times in his magazines, and at one point Dickens even visited Taylor’s laboratory at Guy’s Hospital and was given a tour. Imagine Dickens, who seems so cosy now, gazing in amazement at flakes of human liver in a jar, and a stomach in a fume chamber.

And it’s entirely possible that Taylor is one of several men whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was thinking of when he created Sherlock Holmes. It’s well-known that Conan Doyle admitted to basing Holmes on one of his tutors at Edinburgh Medical School, Dr Joseph Bell, and he also said that Poe’s detective Dupin was an influence.

However, if you read Dr Watson’s first meeting of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet and you know about men like Robert Christison (another Edinburgh Medical School Man, and a near-contemporary of Taylor’s) and Taylor, then it seems like Conan Doyle is deliberately referencing them in the character of Holmes. Watson’s friend tells him that Holmes has been ‘beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick’ which is a clear reference to experiments Christison carried out during the trial of Burke and Hare in 1828. He talks about Holmes experimenting on himself and friends with poison, and Christison had written about how he and his scientific chums had put arsenic on their tongues to discover if it had a flavour.

When Watson first sees Holmes, he’s just that moment discovered ‘an infallible test for blood stains’. The famous amateur detective puts a plaster on his finger, where he had pricked it to draw his own blood, saying, ‘I have to be careful, for I dabble with poisons a good deal.’ Blood stain and poison analysis? This sounds rather a lot like Taylor.

And there’s also Taylor’s height, which was often commented on. His energy, and his biting sarcasm to anyone who had the temerity to disagree with him, all seem rather Holmesian. Conan Doyle mentions the Palmer trial in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, and refers to one of Taylor’s books in The Stark Munro Letters; Conan Doyle’s semi-autobiographical novel about a freshly qualified doctor trying to find his feet. Although Holmes might not use his test-tubes very often, they are often a feature in the background, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is partly Taylor’s influence.

Taylor almost knew of Conan Doyle. In 1879, the year before Taylor’s death, ‘ACD’ wrote a letter to the British Medical Journal about some self-experimentation with a flower used for curing headaches. Taylor was providing editorial for the BMJ at the time, and so he’s very likely to have read Conan Doyle’s letter. What he made of it we cannot, of course, now know.

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And he had a bit of a reputation for… well, losing his temper.

The article Taylor wrote after the Palmer trial is extraordinary piece of work; the toxicological equivalent of a schoolboy thumbing his nose and chanting “neener-neener”. It drips with sarcastic rage; he carefully collated other cases and provided a chart showing aspects of strychnine poisoning, but the footnotes are full of exclamation marks, barbed comments and even sarcastic schoolboy Latin.

He loathed Henry Letheby and William Herapath – expert witnesses hired by the defence at the Palmer trial – and to be honest, they loathed him in return. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the animosity began, although it could have started off as professional jealousy – they were working in a new field and were trying to convince the public of the import of their work. After the 1845 Tawell trial, when a woman had been murdered after drinking stout laced with cyanide, there were irate letters in The Lancet between Letheby and Taylor – Letheby was most annoyed that Taylor, who hadn’t been one of the expert witness at the trial, had conducted his own experiments (could you smell cyanide’s distinctive almond scent when mixed with alcohol?) and written about it in an article on cyanide poisoning. He was really very rude about Taylor; although he didn’t name names, he stated that some people were writing about cyanide ‘to gratify the cacoethes scribendi’ (insatiable desire to write), which is clearly a jibe aimed at Taylor.

The sniping that went on between Taylor and the men who ruffled his feathers is hilarious – it’s just like today when you see academics arguing on Twitter. If Taylor was alive now, that’s exactly what he’d do all the time, I’m sure of it!

He would fly into a fury over public health matters too – he appears to be the first scientist to go public with the surprising idea that arsenical wallpaper dyes might just be a bit dangerous. He was roundly disbelieved, and arsenical dyes continued to be used in the face of mounting evidence from scientists.

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I remember you telling me about having to gently explain saponification to your editor. You even have a section called ‘A Horror of Bad Smells’! Without ruining everyone’s dinner, what’s the single grossest thing you’ve come across in Professor Taylor’s career?

This is such a hard question to answer –there’s a heck of a lot of gross things in Fatal Evidence (I did try to avoid too many details though, but it’s possibly not a book to read over lunch), and it’s impossible to mention them without turning people’s stomach. Sorry chaps!

So move along, unless you would like him analysing tapeworms that he found in the intestines of an arsenic poisoning victim. Or would you like the theory one doctor had, that Mrs Wooler was being poisoned with arsenic up her bottom via enema syringe? How about his examination of people who had been dead for some while, whose bodies had turned to soap such that the individual organs were unrecognisable, and yet he was still tasked with analysing them? One of these saponified corpses took him a week to examine and he wrote a letter to the Coroner who had hired him, to complain of the terrible headache the analysis had given him – and the letter, which did not hold back on gory details, was deemed worthy of reproduction in the newspapers!


I imagine you yell at the TV when a Victorian detective squints at a corpse and whispers “Arsenic!”.

Let’s just say I had problems with Taboo and the twenty-minute arsenic test in 1815. In 1850, with the far more efficient Reinsch test, Taylor took half an hour at a trial to analyse a bag of white powder. Now – would it be at all plausible that several years earlier, with a less efficient test, someone was able to examine human organs for arsenic – in twenty minutes? I think not.

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This is your second book, and a natural progression from
Poison Panic. As a writer, what have you learned about the process from that first experience?

In terms of purely practical things, sort yourself out with a nice place to sit. I wrote Poison Panic on an ancient laptop at the dining table, and ended up hurting my shoulder because I was hunched over. As I knew Fatal Evidence would be a longer book, and would require lots of research, I treated myself to a desk and a PC. And I wrote Fatal Evidence on Scrivener – it made life a lot easier.

There was such a lot of research required for Fatal Evidence, so I used a couple of spreadsheets to keep track of it all. I’ve got a massive timeline showing all of the cases I could find in the British Newspaper Archive which involved Taylor, and ones that I spotted from other sources such as his books and articles – I didn’t use all of them in Fatal Evidence, and I’m certain there’s still cases that are out there somewhere which I wasn’t able to find. I felt very organised, although I’ve still got a massive storage box next to my desk filled with box files of research! I’m loathe to chuck it all out, but I’m not sure where to put it.

I have to say that while I was writing Poison Panic, I was beset with fear that I’d never actually finish it. I was almost frozen sometimes by Imposter syndrome, thinking that I was rubbish and incapable, and that surely someone somewhere had made a mistake because I just couldn’t do it. But I kept going. So when I came to write Fatal Evidence, whenever that feeling tried to raise its horrible head again, I could face it down by going, “I’ve finished one book, I’ll finish this one too!” I wasn’t panicking as much, which made the process less painful – anaemia and nightmares excepted!

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And I can’t really finish without saying you’ve upped your costuming game from last time. Nice tailoring.

Thank you! The irony is that my professor outfit is technically cross-dressing, seeing as I’m dashing about as a Victorian chap, but it’s much closer to what I wear on a day-to-day basis than the Victorian lady’s costume I had for Poison Panic last year! I wear a Walker Slater tweed waistcoat with trousers to work, and when the weather’s cooler, I’ll wear my tailcoat too. That said, I don’t wear a cravat or Mr Darcy shirt to work – perhaps I should.

Thank you, Helen!

Fatal Evidence is a worthy successor to Poison Panic, and a must for true crime fanatics. Don’t forget to follow Helen on Facebook for regular updates on her research.

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Tears For Fears – The Curse Of The Crying Boy

I have a recurring dream. I’m at my grandparents’ house, the one with the grotty pink shag carpet that enveloped my toes when I was small. I’m alone in the house, wandering through dark rooms with orange floral curtains and vases of papery Honesty, gathering dust. I touch the doorstopper that looks like a slab of chocolate but smells of burned things. The bath towels are scratchy with age.

In my dream, I never look up at the Crying Boy.

IMG_6299 (1)He disappeared from my life long before I was old enough to know his folklore, but even as a kid under ten, I could have told you that painting was cursed. The boy stands in a void, the ruffles of his infant blouse reminiscent of a Tudor prince awaiting the block. Something has made him cry. Not the tantrum of a little boy who’s just flushed his Lego down the toilet – there’s dread. We can’t see who or what he’s looking up at. And what is he pleading for? Comfort? Forgiveness? Mercy?

You’ll know The Crying Boy. Your own grandparents probably had one. Somehow, during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, context-free devastated children struck a chord with the British public. There are dozens of versions of the Crying Boy, and by 1985, an estimated 50,000 prints of one Crying Boy variant had been sold in Britain.

It isn’t the first time the British have flocked to purchase pictures of children they aren’t related to. Where nowadays you might have a calendar of Yorkshire Terriers in your kitchen, Victorians exhibited their softer side by collecting sentimental pictures of children. This gauze of innocence still applied if you were a single man, and even if said children were unclothed (looking at you, Lewis Carroll). Sentimental infants go in and out of fashion – look at those unspeakable Anne Geddes bumblebee babies, for instance – but the Crying Boy has an altogether more intriguing history.

cryingboy2In September 1985, Ron and May Hall lost their home in that most retro of household disasters – the chip pan fire – leaving them with nothing but an intact Crying Boy. Days earlier, the couple had laughed at Ron’s fireman brother as he warned them of all the times he had attended blazes where the child had hung weeping on the walls. “Peter told us he wouldn’t have the picture in his house,” May told The Sun, “and nor would his friends at the fire station.” Maybe Peter and his friends just weren’t tacky as all hell. Or maybe they were onto something.

cryingboy4Crying Boy disasters flowed steadily into The Sun’s mail room. Kevin and Julie of Rotherham lost their home to the flames. The couple were left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and the infernal child on the wall. More than one reader claimed their children mysteriously died following the purchase of the painting. Someone swore they saw their Crying Boy move. One of the Sun’s pin-up girls – Sexy Sandra, 21 – played a trick on a friend by giving her Crying Boy spiky red hair, only to find the house wrecked by floods the following day. The boy, of course, was fine.

For those who don’t know, if it’s printed in The Sun, it might as well be printed on Beelzebub’s toilet paper. ‘Enough is enough, folks’, they wrote, as if the Crying Boy were some kind of foreigner, leftie, or feminist. ‘If you are worried about a crying boy picture hanging in your home, send it to us immediately. We will destroy the painting for you, and that should see the back of any curse there may be.’

Soon enough, The Sun had a pile of Crying Boys, and Sexy Sandra was armed with a can of kerosene to sort them out. The paper’s fine arts correspondent, Paul Hooper, was relieved to report that no muffled cries were heard as the paintings turned to ash.

crying boy 2The South Yorkshire Fire Service were forced to issue a statement assuring the public their Crying Boys would not turn on them, but their chip pans might. The Boy was a running joke in the fire service for years afterwards. Prints became the retirement gift du jour, but the picture retained an aura of bad luck long after the tabloids ran out of fuel. I recently saw the Boy donated to a charity shop, only to be immediately thrown in a skip by the management for being ‘too spooky’.

The legend of Crying Boy lived on. Who was the model? Some say he was an Italian war orphan. Others said he was a runaway who disappeared after posing for his portrait; his anonymity played nicely into the cultural fascination with child murder victims. At school in the 1990s, we had The Boy Ghost who heralded your death if you caught a glimpse of him wandering the corridors. Children are inherently creepy. You can’t have innocence without acknowledging the threat of corruption and death.

The Crying Boy has entered urban legend, where he belongs. Thanks to the Internet, The Sun‘s campaign of burning can continue, despite a BBC documentary in which a leading expert in the field of cursed paintings explains that varnish can have fire retardant properties.

One of the final Crying Boy headlines read: ‘Tears for fears…the portrait that firemen claim is cursed.’ It’s an interesting choice of words. ‘Tears for fears’ relates to psychologist Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy. Janov argued that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. This pain could be brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident, expressing the resulting pain during therapy. The patient trades their repressed fears for cathartic tears. In short, the inner child screams.

What does therapy have to do with a spooky newspaper hoax? The victims of the boy – or at least the real people who were captivated by the curse – were working class, struggling to make ends meet. Power cuts, unemployment and strikes made the post-war decades grim. Parents and grandparents harboured traumatic memories of recession and war. Perhaps this mass desire to bring innocence and sentimentality into the home was a method of banishing the ghosts of the early twentieth century, putting all those sorrows in a frame and leaving them safely on the living room wall. Maybe that’s why the legend of the Crying Boy still holds the attention – old trauma, like a curse, has a way of bursting out into our cosy homes.

So what happened to my grandparents’ Crying Boy, hanging behind the kitchen door? Their house never burned down. There were no floods. But there was one incident…

Whenever we ate Edam cheese, my mum would roll the red wax between her fingers and tell me the story of a juvenile food fight she had with her siblings in the old house of my dreams. Cheese rind is a natural projectile, and as the five of them pelted each other with Edam wax, a blob of it flew over its target’s head and hit the Crying Boy right on the nose. Choking with laughter, they peeled it off the canvas to discover it had stained the nose clown red. It was permanent, and my nan went spare. Every dinner time became an exercise in not sniggering at the picture, red nosed and tragic forever.

It was around that time that my youngest uncle decided he was going to grow up to be a karate master. He practiced high kicks at the kitchen door beside the Crying Boy, gradually training his muscles until he could connect with the top of the door in one kick. Only one day he got his shoe stuck. Losing his balance, his whole body ended up suspended from his ankle, which broke instantly, leaving him dangling there under the tearful gaze of the red-nosed boy.

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For your listening pleasure (?), here’s yours truly reading from my novel Pseudotooth. I hope you like Chopin.

Read a free sample and get a copy at Unsung Stories.

And while I’ve got you, I was on Folklore Thursday this week talking about why you should never wander off with any strange pixies. It’s all fun and games until… well, ask Richard Dadd…

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The con is on

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Good morning, sweaty British people. Do you fancy spending tomorrow in a nice air-conditioned aircraft hanger with thousands of people dressed as Pyramid Head?

You do? Splendid. See you at ComicCon tomorrow! Here’s where you’ll find me…

Dream a little Dream – The Importance of Dream Worlds in genre fiction:

Dream logic and Dream Worlds have been a staple of genre fiction for years now, but they can be a very tricky thing to pull off right. Join authors Oliver Langmead (METRONOME) Verity Holloway (PSEUDOTOOTH) Claire North (THE END OF THE DAY) and Catriona Ward (RAWBLOOD) as they discuss the use of dreams in fiction.

Exact time: 10:00am – 11:15am
Day: Sunday 28th of May
Lower Platinum Suite – Author signings afterwards – Books available at Forbidden Planet Int.

Unsung Stories Presents: A Very British Scene

For a tiny island on a very large planet, the British turn out a lot of stories. Why is this, and how do they differ from the wider market? Join Unsung Stories authors Aliya Whiteley (THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES) Verity Holloway (PSEUDOTOOTH) and Oliver Langmead (METRONOME) as they discuss the role that Great Britain has played in influencing and expanding the staples found within speculative fiction.

Exact time: 12:30pm – 1:45pm
Day: Sunday 28th of May
Lower Platinum Suite – Author signing immediately afterwards – Books available from Forbidden Planet Int.

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New story: A Little Star

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Phew. Fresh off the train from Unsung Live #8. Met some lovely people, listened to some lovely (and scary and violent and hilarious) fiction, and got to share A Little Star, my story of an opium den, a convict, and a shiny little something. It’s online now, if you fancy reading it.

A lamp with a shade of red paper. No matter what draughty lodge or bawdy house Benjamin laid his head for the night, he saw that Lime Street crimson whenever he closed his eyes, the way another man might see the face of a girl he loved, or a child a ghost in the doorway.

Read more on Patreon…

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Pre-Raphs in Space

I’m surfacing for a brief moment as I haven’t blogged properly for yonks, and with Pseudotooth coming out next month I need to make it look like I’m alive.

Those who know me are well aware of my weakness for Beautiful Tragic Dead Boys. This means I frequently get gifts of antique photographs to hang on my wall where I can imagine the anonymous subjects were thwarted poets who died at sea. We all have our preferences.

Rejoice: I have a new Beautiful Tragic Dead Boy. Nils Asther was beamed down to earth in 1897 by the same aliens who gave us David Bowie. He grabbed my attention a few weeks ago for being the dead spit of my Az from Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs. I had in mind an androgynous silent film star look for Az, and Nils’ dark, unearthly prettiness, though rather too tall, is precisely how Az materialised in my head, stealing my silverware and hijacking the neighbours’ wifi.


Thank you, Outer Space, for loaning us your bisexual cheekbony creatures.

So I’ve been watching as many Asther films as I can find. Mostly, he was the romantic bad boy, which he hated, but there are a few surprising films. Himmelskibet (A Trip To Mars) featuring a twenty-one-year-old, rather skinny Nils as a citizen of Mars, which is probably where he came from in the first place. While lacking the whimsy of Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip To The MoonA Trip To Mars – made in 1918 – has a certain Pre-Raphaelite flavour that caught my eye.

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As unlikely as it may seem, the Pre-Raphaelite link to sci-fi is something that keeps popping up. (See the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood post on Princess Leia for some hair-talk.) Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were, by definition, interested in the naturalistic style of art before Raphael, they still interacted with the issues of their own Victorian age through a lens of medievalism and myth. Science, okay, not so much – Rossetti, famously, had no idea if the sun revolved around the Earth or vice versa, and argued it was unimportant anyway – but later disciples of the PRB did dip their toes into the world of modern technology. This 1910 Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale painting of an angel guarding a biplane has always fascinated me…

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The celestial meets the mechanical.


There’s something odd about watching a film about space exploration made during the First World War. And there’s a yearning quality to A Trip To Mars. While the Earth is tearing itself apart, Mars turns out to be populated by peace-loving vegetarians. We get to watch a rocket full of uniformed Earthmen barging onto the peaceful planet where everyone floats around like Grecian deities. It’s as if Man has found Eden again, and another way to ruin it all.

Are the Earthmen ready for the Martians’ message of peace and love, or will they give in to the temptation to hurl grenades for no good reason? Here’s their chance to go back in time and halt things before they go wrong – something the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were deeply concerned with.

Here are a few of my favourite rather Pre-Raphaelite moments. You can watch the whole film here.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast Denies Him Her Salutation

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Frank Dicksee – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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William Holman Hunt – Rienzi Vowing To Obtain Justice

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John Everett Millais: The Black Brunswicker.

John Everett Millais – The Black Brunswicker.

And finally, a spaceship decked in flowers. Just because.

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