The Spine-Chilling Tale of the Chase Vault

What terrifying secret is sealed within an old family tomb in Oistins, Barbados?

Nestling in the idyllic range of islands making up the Caribbean is the island of Barbados. The most easterly of them, Barbados is also the newest, having been created a mere million years ago when the oceanic plates of the Atlantic and Caribbean collided and a volcanic eruption formed new land in the clear blue sea. First discovered in 1492 by the Portuguese, who were on their way to Brazil, the island was named Isla de Los Barbados (‘island of the bearded ones’) by explorer Pedro a Campos after noting that the fig trees along the coastline gave it a beard-like appearance.

The island was first settled in 1511 by the Spanish, who enslaved the natives. But when outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis – the European diseases they had brought with them – led to the Caribs dying out completely, the Spaniards abandoned the island. The English then arrived, on 14 May 1625, in the shape of one Captain John Powell, who claimed the land in the name of King James I, and a few years later Captain Henry Powell (no relation) landed with a group of eighty settlers and ten slaves. The island then remained under British rule until its declaration of independence in 1966.

From the seventeenth century onwards, the nobles of England who had been awarded land on the island began importing thousands of African slaves to work the newly formed tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. Over the next century, Barbados dominated the world’s sugar industry and the plantation owners became powerful and successful figures throughout the British Empire.

It was one of these landowners, the Honourable Thomas Waldron, who in 1724 built an elegant family burial vault in the cemetery of the parish church in the town of Oistins. It was intended for his married daughter and her family. Seven feet wide and twelve feet deep, and made out of carved coral, the vault was large enough to accommodate the entire Waldron family. The first person to be buried in it was Richard Elliot, the husband of Elizabeth Waldron. He was also the last of the family to be interred there.

Nobody has since been able to explain why Elizabeth failed to join her husband in his final resting place, and nor why the next occupant, Mrs Thomasina Goddard, was a non-family member (unless she was a descendent of the Elliots or the Waldrons by marriage), but what is known is that when the tomb was opened on 31 July 1807 to bury Mrs Goddard, it was found to be empty. The absence of Richard Elliot’s body  was not considered particularly odd at the time, being put down to the work of grave robbers and looters. Rather more unusual was that, soon after Thomasina’s death, the Elliot vault passed into the hands of yet another family after being purchased by Colonel Thomas Chase, one of the most hated men on the island

A plantation owner of unstable mind and volatile temperament, Chase wasn’t popular even with his own family. Within a year of the purchase of the vault tragedy befell the Chase family with the death of the youngest daughter, two-year-old Mary Anna Maria Chase – the result, or so rumour had it, of a fit of violent temper by her father. Nothing, however, was proven, and islanders were left to draw their own conclusions about how the baby had died. On 22 February 1808, the vault was reopened and her tiny lead coffin gently placed on the shelf below the wooden coffin of Thomasina Goddard. Once the funeral was over, Chase ordered his slaves to seal the tomb with a large marble slab set in concrete.

Four years later, on 6 July 1812, the family were back at the crypt for the burial of their teenage daughter, Dorcas Chase, who had died of starvation. While some suggested the young girl had committed suicide to be free of her unpleasant father, others claimed he had locked her in an outbuilding and starved her to death himself. Either way, the marble was cut away and Dorcas’s heavy leaden casket was placed alongside that of her sister inside the family vault.

Just over a month later, Thomas Chase himself committed suicide – although there were claims that his slaves had carried out their often repeated threat to murder him. In a land of cruel employers, Chase had been particularly notorious, and there was no shortage of offers to carry his heavy lead coffin, which would have weighed about 500 pounds, to its final resting place. Presumably people wanted to make sure he had actually gone for good.

Eight slaves carried the casket down the steps of the Chase family vault. As they stepped inside, the men suddenly froze with fear. By the flickering light of their candles they could see that little Mary Anna’s coffin was now upside down, standing on end at the opposite side of the chamber from where it had originally been placed. Dorcas’s had also moved to the opposite side of the vault and only Thomasina’s coffin remained in its former location. The men inspected the vault and could find no sign of forced entry or any other disturbance. The coffins of the two girls were replaced in their previous positions and their father’s casket was settled on the opposite side of the vault. Once the service was over, the men checked for secret passages or other means of entrance before cementing the heavy marble slab back into place, this time using double-strength concrete lest the colonel himself should rise from the dead.

The disturbance was blamed on slaves with a strong grudge against the Chase family. Plantation and slave owners on the islands particularly feared revenge attacks upon their dead, which is why such strong family vaults were built in the first place. In fact, the reverse would have been true: fearing that the evil spirits they called ‘duppies’ might be at work, slaves would stay a long way from cemeteries and graveyards, especially one housing the Chase tomb.

Four more years passed before the next death, a young Chase relative, Samuel Brewster Ames, who died just before his first birthday. On 25 September 1816, workman once again broke open the marble seal, but this time they were unable to push open the wooden doors at the vault entrance. A group of the strongest men on the island were called for and after much effort they managed to force the door open. Thomas Chase’s 500-pound lead coffin had been standing on one end with the top resting against the doors, blocking them. The girls had also been disturbed again while only Thomasina remained peacefully in place.

When the tomb was re-opened a month later, for the funeral of the earlier boy’s namesake, another Samuel Brewster – killed by slaves during an uprising – it was, once again, in complete disarray, with no obvious signs as to how the disruption had been caused.

The next time the tomb was opened was during in 1819 to receive the body of Thomasina Clark, Mrs Goddard’s daughter. By now the mystery of the Chase Vault had spread far and wide, and a crowd of nigh on a thousand curious onlookers were squeezed into the churchyard. The presiding clergyman, the Reverend Thomas Orderson, was accompanied by Viscount Combermere, the governor of Barbados, who was keen to solve the mystery of the disrupted vault, and by island dignitaries such as Major J. Finch, the Honourable Nathan Lucas, Mr Rowland Cotton (a trusted relative of Combermere) and Mr Robert Boucher Clarke. The viscount ordered a thorough inspection of the exterior of the tomb until all present were satisfied it had not been breached. Two masons were then ordered to remove the concrete seal of the marble slab and, accompanied by eight pallbearers, the dignitaries descended the steps.

As the door was pushed open, there was a loud grating sound from inside. This time Dorcas’s coffin was found wedged into the doorway. Little Mary Anna Maria’s casket had been thrown so violently against the wall it had gashed a chunk from the smooth surface. The other lead caskets had been so chaotically disturbed that Thomasina’s wooden coffin appeared to have been smashed in the process and bits of her skeleton lay strewn around the vault.

Chase Vault

It was a horrifying sight: some of the slaves fainted while others were violently sick. Combermere and his shocked party were determined to solve the mystery, however. Lady Combermere recorded the subsequent events in her diary:

In my husband’s presence, every part of the floor was sounded to ascertain that no subterranean passage or entrance was concealed. It was found to be perfectly firm and solid and not even a crack was apparent. The walls, when examined, proved to be perfectly secure. No fracture was visible and the sides, together with the roof and flooring, presented a structure so solid as if formed of entire slabs of stone. The displaced coffins were rearranged, the new tenant of that dreary abode was deposited and when the mourners retired with the funeral procession, the floor was sanded with fine white sand in the presence of Lord Combermere and the assembled crowd. The door was slid into its wonted position and, with the utmost care, the new mortar was laid on so as to secure it. When the masons had completed their task, the Governor made several impressions in the mixture with his own seal, and many of those others attending added various private marks in the wet mortar.

Lord Combermere reasoned that anything disturbing the coffins, even flooding, would leave telltale signs in the layer of sand on the floor. Then a few months later, a woman who had been visiting the cemetery reported a loud cracking noise coming from within the Chase Vault, accompanied by an audible moaning. Her horse became so distressed that it began foaming at the mouth, later needing sedation. Other horses tethered in the churchyard broke free and galloped away in fear, straight into the sea, where they were drowned.

On 18 April 1820, Viscount Combermere and his witnesses all returned to inspect the vault. The ground had not been disturbed in any way. The seals they had made in the cement remained intact and there was no sign of any foul play. But when the marble slab was removed and the heavy vault door slowly pushed open, a scene of complete devastation was revealed.

This time even the lead casket of Dorcas Chase had been smashed and her bony arm hung out through a gash in the side. Once again there was no sign of forced entry, or of someone having gained access via a secret passage, nor had the sand scattered on the floor not been disturbed in any way. There were no footprints.

Combermere wisely decided to give up trying to solve the mystery, such was the hysteria building up across the island and throughout the empire This time he ordered that all the bodies be removed and reburied in separate sites in different churchyards. At the same time, a thorough search was made for the coffin of James Elliot, the first inhabitant of the Chase Vault nearly a century earlier, but it was never found. The tomb has remained empty ever since.

Later on that evening of 18 June, one of the members of the funeral party, Nathan Lucas, was – like Lady Combermere before him – moved to record the events of the afternoon:

… and so I examined the walls, the arch and every part of the Vault, to find every part old and similar. A mason in my presence struck every part of the bottom with his hammer and all was solid. I confess myself at a loss to account for the movements of these leaden coffins. Thieves certainly had no hand in it; and as for any practical wit or hoax, too many were requisite to be trusted with the secret for it to remain unknown; and as for negroes having anything to do with it, their superstitious fear of the dead and everything belonging to them precludes any idea of the kind. All I know is that it happened and that I was an eye-witness …

Over the following two centuries, much has been made of the events at the Chase Vault: every possible reason has been considered. At first it was thought to have been straight vandalism, such was the dislike among the community of Thomas Chase, but as the heavy coffins would take at least six men to move them around, let alone throw them about, and the vault simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate that many people, this was ruled out. The absence of footprints or any signs of entry, forced or otherwise, also appears to rule out human interference.

Earthquakes have been considered, especially as Barbados sits on a seismic fault line, but no quakes had been reported during the period in which the vault was disturbed and there was no evidence of any other damage caused, either in nearby vaults or elsewhere on the island. Some prefer the idea that unseen magnetic forces were at work, especially as the coffins were usually found to be facing in the opposite direction to the one in which they were placed, suggesting they had rotated on their own axis. This may also explain why the wooden casket of Thomasina Goddard remained unaffected until it was smashed to pieces by the others. But lead is not a magnetic material. Furthermore, if such forces had been at work, locals would have noticed its effect on other metals in the graveyard such as iron headstones or steel plaques. The church bell would surely have kept ringing too.

The wildest theory about what had caused the disturbances in the Chase Vault actually came from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, maybe unsurprisingly appears to crop up in a number of mystery stories (including two in this book – ‘Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’, page 000, and ‘Whatever Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?’, page 000). Conan Doyle believed supernatural forces had been at work but was unable to offer any further explanation except to suggest that the coffins had been moved by the spirits of the two family members who had apparently committed suicide and were therefore ‘cursed and restless’ and in conflict with each other. Indeed, since Dorcas and her father have been separated, there have been no other signs of disturbance at any of the new grave locations.

Gas emitted from the decomposing bodies was considered but soon ruled out as incapable of disturbing a heavy lead coffin. The only other suggestion that comes close to fitting the facts would be a flood. Natural flooding of an underground vault would disrupt the coffins, causing them to float around and come to rest in a different place as the water subsided. But that wouldn’t explain why the coffins were standing on end; nor was there any evidence of water damage each time the vault was re-opened. It seems that the mysteries of the Chase Vault have never been adequately explained, and probably never will be. I think we’re going to have to mark this one ‘unsolved’.

Albert Jack’s Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

 

 

Beware of USOs (Is God a Spaceman?)

If there are intelligent beings on planets so far away that we haven’t discovered them yet and they are watching us, then their technology must be far more advanced than ours. So forget those saucer-shaped tin cans people kept photographing during the 1950s and 60s, as they clearly couldn’t have travelled that kind of distance. Even so, it does lead you to wonder where minds immeasurably greater than our own would hide an observation post to keep a closer eye on us human beings. It occurred to me that, following the first lunar landing (assuming you believe Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969), we have a pretty good understanding of everything within 240,000 miles of our planet, and obviously, thanks to the Hubble Telescope, way beyond, but we still know very little about things that are right under our noses.

Consider the oceans, for example. The furthest-reaching submarine was the remote-controlled Japanese Kaiko surveillance sub, an unmanned craft designed for deep-sea observation. The Kaiko could reach depths of nearly 38,000 feet, which sounds impressive initially until you work out that comes to a grand total of just under six miles. So we can see, thanks to the Hubble Telescope, a distance of between thirteen and fourteen billion light years upwards, but only six miles downwards. Now, we already know that unless you are Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster there is nowhere on earth to escape the long reach of satellites or modern radar systems so, if I were an alien capable of travelling thirteen billion light years to come and spy on us, I would also be clever enough to set up home underwater, happy in the knowledge that nobody would find me. Better still, directly underneath one of the polar ice caps.

So that led me to research unidentified submersible objects, the deep-sea version of UFOs. My attention was quickly drawn to a small port on the southern coastline of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. But I’d like to point out that this had absolutely nothing to do with its name. Shag Harbor is normally a very quiet place but on 4 October 1967 it suddenly became a hive of activity. At 11.20 p.m. a group of eleven people watched as a low-flying object suddenly veered downwards at an angle of forty-five degrees and plunged into the water. Some reported a bright flash of light as it hit the surface, while others claimed they saw four or five glowing orange lights. Laurie Wickens, a Shag Harbor native, jumped on to the harbour wall to get a better view and said he saw the UFO floating on the surface with a strange orange light glowing on top of it.

Beware of USO's

Believing it was an aeroplane crash, residents immediately called in the Canadian Mounted Police who were then joined by the US military, suspiciously quickly. Within half an hour, local fishermen had put together a civilian rescue team and were already at the scene of the accident. But they were puzzled to see no signs of any debris, wreckage, oil or bodies – only a large patch of foaming yellow bubbles. When one of the men attempted to take a sample by dipping his net into the water, the bubbles failed to attach themselves and the net always came up clean.

By the following afternoon, the authorities were satisfied that no aircraft had been reported missing and the area was sealed off while divers combed the area for clues. The official report of the incident revealed nothing, although it was later leaked that a second, identical craft had soon joined the first under the water and that, after a short delay, they both rose to the surface and zoomed away. Thirty years later, one of the navy divers, interviewed for a television documentary, claimed the US military had monitored the two USOs for several days before losing contact with them. To this day nobody knows what happened at Shag Harbor, although the sheer number of witness statements – all consistent in timing and in their descriptions of the size, colour and speed of the craft, coupled with the evidence of the yellow foam observed by most of the initial rescue team – would appear to provide credible evidence of a kind of underwater USO activity that had never been seriously considered before.

And the events at Shag Harbor are by no means the only sightings. During the prolonged Cold War (which followed the very hot Second World War), many submarine commanders reported tracking mystery underwater vessels, often in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, that, when cornered in one of the fjords, would mysteriously vanish. On 4 September 1957, the Daily Telegraph reported that three uniformed police officers had witnessed a red, circular USO emerging from the depths of the Bristol Channel and taking a westerly route towards Wales. In the Lake District many sightings of USOs have been reported since the 1980s and on one occasion during 1994 twenty-two people reported observing two underwater craft at Derwent Water for five minutes before these disappeared without trace. The Lakes now receive as many as one sighting every year, the latest being in December 2004, leading to suggestions that beings from outer space have set up an observation post beneath their tranquil waters.

One sighting in 1977 was independently confirmed by no fewer than ten policemen. Soon after midnight, on 28 August, officers claim to have witnessed a large diamond- or triangular-shaped object close to Lake Windermere, the largest natural lake in England. PC David Wild was the first to spot the strange craft and he watched it hover above the A592 at 1,500 feet for twenty-five minutes before it vanished before his very eyes. Two other officers also witnessed the same phenomenon some distance away and John Platt described seeing what looked like a ‘massive sea-going catamaran with two hulls’, adding that the ‘surface was a dull, charcoal colour and giant lights were mounted on the front’. Which sounds exactly like a catamaran with headlights to me. But despite Windermere being such a vast body of water, it is only 220 feet deep – hardly the best place in the world to hide a colony of aliens.

More recently, the Dutch submarine Bruinvis (yes, the Dutch do have submarines) reported an underwater collision with a ‘solid object’ on 19 October 2001. Most of the crew clearly heard the noise and the sub limped back into port for emergency repairs. Navy divers later confirmed damage to the underside of the vessel. But it was in August of the previous year, in the same stretch of waters off the Norwegian coastline, that one of the world’s worst submarine disasters took place, the sinking of the Russian vessel the Kursk. Could it have been involved in a collision with a USO?

The Kursk, flagship submarine of the Russian Northern Fleet, was proudly launched in 1995. But less than five years later, the world held its breath when the Russian authorities announced that an accident had caused the submarine – with 118 men on board  – to sink to the bottom of the ocean. One team of rescuers reported that major damage to the front section had rendered the escape hatch useless, but that there were also deep gashes along the side to the fin at the rear, suggesting the cause of the accident had not been an explosion, as was first though, but a collision with an unidentified object. But neither the US nor the Royal Navy, who also had submarines in the area, were able to report a collision with any of their own craft.

Furthermore, the Kursk’s periscope and external masts were fully extended, suggesting that the submarine had been operating within ten metres of the surface when it was struck as these sections of the vessel are always fully retracted, even during emergency dives, in deeper water. Who can forget the rescue team’s harrowing reports of the hammering made by the surviving sailors as they tried in vain to save them? The subsequent salvage operation revealed that at least twenty-three men had remained alive for many days in the dark and cold, hoping for a rescue that never materialized. When the craft was eventually brought to the surface, it was revealed that a neat circular hole had been punched into the side, unlike the damage made by a torpedo or collision with another submarine, and the front section was almost completely torn away.

To this day nobody knows what collided with the Kursk, although the rescue teams later described some green and white marker buoys bobbing on the surface that then mysteriously disappeared. (The buoys are used for alerting passing vessels or aircraft that an accident has occurred; Russian vessels only use red and white rescue buoys, however.) Russian sources later confirmed that when the Kursk was eventually located there was a second, large, object lying next to it on the seabed, which slowly moved away and then disappeared altogether. For weeks afterwards, Russian attack submarines and warships of the Northern Fleet closely guarded the entire area. But whatever it was that sank the Kursk, with the loss of 118 lives, remains unknown to this day.

And it’s not just in northern waters. The Japanese deep-sea submersible the Kaiko mysteriously disappeared in May 2003 in the Pacific Ocean close to Japan after the steel cable attaching it the mother ship, the Kairei, inexplicably snapped, and it has never been seen since, leading to all kinds of speculation about mysterious forces lurking deep in our seas.

But I have the same problem with USOs that I have with all UFOs. If there are life forms from other galaxies that have found planet earth and discovered it inhabited by, in some areas, intelligent life, then why don’t they just land, shake hands and introduce themselves? If we were to discover life on Venus, for example, would we buzz around their planet scaring the crap out of everybody living there? I doubt it very much; I expect we would do what the great adventurers of the past centuries have done when they discovered new lands. And that is to introduce themselves politely to the natives and then steal all their diamonds and oil.They wouldn’t lurk around for decades first, would they? They’d wade straight in.

Unless of course, as I have long suspected, there is a vastly superior race out there somewhere who expelled the underclass of their own planet, (humans) onto another (earth) to stop us from breeding with their own kind. Casting humans out to a sort of penal colony for the stupid, on a faraway planet, may have been a good idea 100 million years ago. Whilst their own race continued to advance at a rate immeasurably more superior to our own, we humans were left to interbreed and suffer the consequences. And every once in a while they send observers to make sure we remain at least 100 million more years behind them.

What? Why is that such a bad idea? It would explain evolution and it would explain why we have a planet full of stupid people. It would also explain periodic UFO sightings and perhaps even crop circles. Unless, of course, you still believe in all that God nonsense. But even then my explanation is no more ludicrous than yours – Is God a Spaceman?  Still, instead of labouring too hard over this problem, I think it may be time to pay a visit to Shag Harbor. Not to investigate any ongoing USO activities, but to find out why it is called what it is.

Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

Robert Maxwell – The Bouncing Czech

Mystifying Death of a Media Mogul

Who finally stopped the bouncing Czech? The extraordinary life and death of Robert Maxwell.

In 1940, Jan Ludvik Hoch did what many young Jews in Eastern Europe were doing at that time, and ran away to England to fight the Nazis. The seventeen-year-old refugee then fought his way from the beaches of Normandy to the centre of Berlin. After the war he went on to become a publisher, a Labour MP, a football club owner, company chairman, owner of the Mirror Group Newspapers, owner of the New York Daily Times, embezzler and fraudster, before finally slipping from the back of his yacht and into oblivion. The official autopsy report concluded the cause of death had been ‘accidental drowning’, but, as in life, mystery shrouded the death of Jan Ludvik Hoch, a man who courted controversy from the moment he arrived in England and changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell joined the British army under a series of aliases, presumably because the War Office had suggested refugee soldiers should serve under invented names in case they should be captured. Because he went by the name of Jones and du Maurier, in addition to Maxwell, it is hard to find out much about what he got up to in the Second World War, although he did earn himself a medal. This was in January 1945 when his unit, the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, were based at the River Mass in Holland. He had recently been promoted to second lieutenant and his men were tasked with clearing a block of flats occupied by German soldiers. Maxwell led the assault and charged straight for the building, drawing heavy fire. Luckily for him, although not so luckily for his future employees, every bullet aimed at him missed. It was an act of bravery that won him the Military Cross.

But not all of his wartime exploits were quite as distinguished. His authorized biographer, Joe Haines, reveals how Maxwell’s unit attempted to capture a German town by calling for the mayor to meet with Maxwell in a neutral location. He then told the mayor that the German soldiers would have to surrender or face destruction by mortar bombardment. In a letter to his wife, published in Haines’s book Maxwell (1988), he wrote: ‘But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’ Maxwell showed no remorse at killing an unarmed man in cold blood, and it was a sign of things to come.

As the war drew to a close, Robert Maxwell found himself working for the Control Commission, an Allied organization formed to manage the economy, state industry and government of the defeated German people. His natural intelligence and gift for languages had been noticed by the High Command of the Allied forces, and he soon found himself organizing various sections of the West German services, including the national newspapers. Back in Britain, his entrepreneurial spirit was quickly in evidence and he became a shareholder in a London import and export company originally owned by a German, but Maxwell was soon in sole command.

Two years after the end of the war, Robert Maxwell’s company was distributing scientific literature and manuals to both Britain and America after a deal was hatched with the German publishing heavyweight Springer Verlag (later Axel Springer) that established Maxwell in the market place. Another two years would pass before he launched his own publishing company, Pergamon, after securing heavy investment from Springer. Such was his initial success he was able to buy Springer out of the contract and take over as sole owner, while settling into the business of becoming seriously wealthy during the 1950s.

In 1959 he became the Labour candidate for Buckingham and won the seat in 1964 as the new Labour government led by Harold Wilson swept into power. He remained an MP until 1970 when the Conservatives under Ted Heath defeated Wilson at the general election of that year. Maxwell also lost his seat but, by then, had already realized that true power lay in journalism: the pen really was mightier than the sword. In 1969 Maxwell had unsuccessfully tried to buy the News of the World, having been beaten to it by the Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. Maxwell did not take defeat well and accused Murdoch of ‘employing the laws of the jungle’, claiming he had made a ‘fair and bona fide offer which has been frustrated and defeated over three months of cynical manoeuvring’. In response Murdoch stated that News of the World shareholders had judged him on his record of newspaper ownership in Australia and were confident in his ability. This was a clear slight on Maxwell’s character as well as the start of a bitter and lifelong rivalry between both men.

In 1969 Maxwell had opened negotiations with American businessman Saul Steinberg, who had declared an interest in buying Pergamon Press Ltd (PPL) on the understanding that the company was making vast profits. Discovering this to be untrue, the American, despite months of negotiations, abruptly pulled out of the proposed purchase. An investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry followed, in which inspectors revealed how transactions between private Maxwell companies had been used to inflate the PPL share price. Steinberg issued legal proceedings against the former MP and in 1974 it was discreetly announced in New York that he had received a payment of $6.3 million from Maxwell and his investment bankers. In their 1970 report the DTI inspectors had concluded: ‘Notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged ability and energy, he is not, in our opinion, a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’

He lost control of Pergamon and so the company’s investment bankers appointed a new chairman in the shape of Sir Walter Coutts who, with three independent directors, reversed the fortunes of Pergamon spectacularly and returned control of the company to Maxwell in 1974. Naturally, the ‘bouncing Czech’ as he had become known due to his questionable integrity and to his ability to bounce back from adversity, claimed the credit for the successful turnaround of his company. Coutts was later quoted by a biographer as saying: ‘Maxwell has an ability to sublimate anything that stops him getting what he wants. He is so flexible he is like a grasshopper. There is no question of morality or conscience. Maxwell is Number One and what Maxwell wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else.’

Building on the success of Pergamon, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International for £113 million on 13 June 1984. Behind the scenes, he had already built up a mini empire consisting of, among other things, a record label, Nimbus Records, a printing company, a book publishing house, half of MTV Europe, 20 per cent of Central Television in Britain, a cable television company and two newspapers, the People and Sporting Life. As his empire, now called Maxwell Communications Corporation PLC, grew so did his interest and influence in politics, especially as one of his various companies published the speeches of Chernenko, Ceausescu, Brezhnev, Andropov, Kadar, Husak and other Eastern European leaders. He also published sycophantic biographies of world figures and used the opportunity to meet and interview them, which caused him to be ridiculed at home but strengthened his links with several totalitarian regimes.

Maxwell also claimed to have influence in Israel and during a magazine interview for Playboy he boasted that it was he who had been responsible for persuading Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to exercise restraint in the face of Scud missile attacks from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. What’s more, he also boasted of close ties with the Israeli secret service, Mossad; indeed after his death it was revealed that Maxwell had worked with the organization for many years and was known to a handful of elite Mossad agents by his codename ‘the Little Czech’.

Journalists would later point out how Maxwell’s companies would invariably take a downturn financially whenever Mossad was engaging in expensive covert operations, leading to speculation he was an important source of funds. Mossad was even rumoured to have funded Maxwell’s first big business venture, prompting suggestions that the whole of Maxwell’s business empire was in fact a Mossad fundraising venture. Stranger things have happened.

But in early 1991, the Little Czech was beginning to lose his bounce. A recent Panorama documentary for the BBC had drawn attention to the DTI’s conclusion in the 1970s and suggested Maxwell had been bolstering the MCC PLC share price through transactions with secretly owned companies in Lichtenstein and Gibraltar. The inevitable libel writs were issued but a number of biographers followed with similar accusations. During the summer of 1991, Maxwell’s relations with Israel soured when his repeated requests to Mossad to apply pressure on Israeli bankers to refinance his business were ignored. By now even the British Parliament were also keeping a close eye on Maxwell’s international business dealings.

Ministers had known for a long time about Maxwell’s influence with the various world leaders he had connections with. After all, it had been Maxwell who had liaised between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the August Coup of 1991, in which the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other hardline Communists had attempted to oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power. (Who can forget the images being broadcast live by satellite during the early days of Sky Television of Boris Yeltsin standing on his tank with a loudhailer, organizing the defence of the White House in Moscow.) Maxwell had been involved in arranging a meeting between the Israeli secret service and high-level KGB officials, including Kryuchkov, to discuss Mossad support for the plot to replace Gorbachev, the first Russian president to show any sign of being about to work closely with Western governments.

But then, according to the sworn testimony of former Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe, Maxwell had made the mistake of threatening Mossad with revealing information about the meeting unless they supported him financially. According to Ben-Menashe, both Maxwell and the Daily Mirror’s foreign editor were long-time Mossad agents, and it had been Maxwell who had informed the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had revealed details of Israel’s nuclear capability to the Sunday Times. Vanunu was immediately lured from his Sunday Times-provided safe house in London to Rome where he was snatched by Mossad agents. He was later returned to Israel, convicted of treason and spent the next eighteen years protesting his innocence from prison before finally being released in 2004.

On 21 October 1991, two members of Parliament, Labour’s George Galloway and Tory Rupert Allison, were persuaded to bring up the Vanunu affair, and Maxwell’s part in it, in the House of Commons. Protected by parliamentary privilege, in which they could make allegations without fear of litigation, newspapers began to report a wide range of Maxwell-related intrigues and mysteries.

The Israeli secret service were also concerned by the whole Robert Maxwell situation. And as soon as he began to threaten them, his fate was sealed. Agents quickly agreed to the meeting of ‘great urgency’ called for by a now cash-strapped Robert Maxwell. They were well aware that Israel’s reputation in the West, particularly with America on whom they were heavily reliant, would be severely tarnished should it become known that they were in any way connected with the attempt to prevent democracy in the Soviet Union. Mossad could not longer afford to take any further risks with the Little Czech.

According to Ben-Menashe, in his book The Profits of War published in 1992, Maxwell was instructed to travel to Spain the following day where arrangements for a money transfer could be made. His orders were to sail his yacht to Madeira and wait on it there to receive further instructions. Maxwell breathed a sigh of relief as he left England for Spain, believing his recent growing financial problems were about to be solved and, on 31 October, he boarded the Lady Ghislane at Gibraltar and berthed at Madeira, where he dined alone.

The following day a specialist Mossad team, in Spain to cover a series of Middle Eastern peace talks, were sent south. Maxwell then received a message instructing him to meet instead on the island of Tenerife on 5 April. It is then alleged that Mossad agents boarded the boat near the Canary Islands during the night of 3 April, removed Maxwell to another vessel, interrogated him throughout the following day and then killed him by injecting air into his veins, which would have induced a heart attack.

But that’s not the end of the story, because Ben-Manashe had also claimed that he personally delivered the CIA share of the profits from an earlier arms deal between Iran and Israel to Robert Maxwell in London who, in turn, was supposed to forward it on to America. Instead, the money disappeared into the gaping hole in Maxwell’s balance sheet. Ben-Manashe alleged that Maxwell threatened the CIA with ‘damaging disclosures’ should they press him for the return of the money. Now, I’m no expert in world politics but when it comes to the wrong groups to annoy, the CIA and Mossad are two key ones to avoid, let alone blackmail.

It later transpired that as Robert Maxwell left for the Canary Islands he had also been told he was under investigation by the police for war crimes connected to the revelation about shooting that unarmed mayor in 1945. In March 2001, it was revealed, under the Freedom of Information Act, that weeks before he died detectives had started questioning members of Maxwell’s former platoon but had yet to find any witnesses to the shooting. The former lieutenant was advised six months prior to his death that he faced a possible sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty. The Metropolitan Police file notes: ‘The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden on 30th October 1988.’ Quite clearly there had been two shootings: by boasting of his wartime exploits, Maxwell had shot himself straight in the foot.

Following his death, Maxwell’s body was released to the Israeli authorities, who performed a second autopsy, revealing that the injuries to the body were not consistent with falling off a yacht and that he ‘had probably been murdered’. He was then afforded the honour of a Mount of Olives funeral, the resting place of Israel’s most respected heroes. During the service televised worldwide, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir cryptically announced that Maxwell ‘had done more for Israel than can today be said’. A remark that could simply be seen as a nod towards his fundraising efforts for the Israeli secret service – or rather more.

Before the dust had, quite literally, settled on Maxwell’s grave, calls of foul play could be heard. Maxwell’s own daughter, Ghislane, announced on television that his death had ‘not been an accident’. Others insisted he had committed suicide to escape the shame of his collapsing empire, not to mention the jail sentence that would certainly have followed if he had been found guilty of fraud. But his life insurance company quickly paid out a thumping £20 million, indicating that they, at least, were certain Maxwell had not jumped. So, if his insurers had apparently ruled out suicide (and it was very much in their interests, after all, to prove that he had taken his own life), only two options are left to consider. Did Robert Maxwell have a heart attack and fall overboard, or was he murdered by the Israeli secret service? There is further suggestion – put forward by those ever-busy conspiracy theorists – that Maxwell did not die but quietly slipped away from his problems, leaving another poor soul in the water to be found, misidentified and then buried on the Mount of Olives.

Either way, his death was followed by repeated revelations into his controversial business methods and accusations were made with impunity. It began to emerge that Maxwell had used £1 billion from his companies’ pension funds in order to service his debt liability and fund his flamboyant lifestyle. MCC PLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and Maxwell’s two sons, Ian and Kevin, were declared the world’s largest bankrupts, with debts of in excess of £400 million. In 1995 they were charged with fraud but acquitted in 1996. No doubt neither man was too impressed with his father’s legacy.

Perhaps the final word should come from Lady Coutts, whose husband had rescued Maxwell all those years earlier. After dinner at Headington Hall, Maxwell’s country house and business headquarters near Oxford, the newspaper man was bidding his guests goodbye in some of the nine languages he, by then, boasted he could speak. When it came to Lady Coutts, she deliberately spoke to him in a language Maxwell had no knowledge of, Swahili: ‘Kwaheri ashante sana sitaki kukuona tena’, which means: ‘Goodbye and thank you very much. Now I never wish to see you again.’ And fortunately for her, she never did.

Albert Jack books available for download here

 

Gone Missing

Gone Missing is available as an ebook now

Gone Missingth

Contents

Mystery 1 – The Missing Lighthouse-Keepers of Eilean Mor
Mystery 2 – The Mary Celeste Mystery
Mystery 3 – What Happened to Glenn Miller?
Mystery 4 – The Lost King of France
Mystery 5 – The Missing Navy Diver – Buster Crabb
Mystery 6 – John Dillinger – The FBI Did Not Get Their Man
Mystery 7 –  Agatha Christie’s Real Life Mystery
Mystery 8 – The Invisible D.B. Cooper     
Mystery 9 – Who was the Real Mona Lisa
Mystery 10 – The World’s Strangest Unsolved Crimes

Albert Jack books available for download here

St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Who was really behind the notorious mass shooting in Prohibition era Chicago?

On the evening of 14 February 1929, Chicago police made a grisly discovery. Inside a garage complex at 2212 North Clark Street lay the bodies of seven well-dressed men, who had all been brutally executed.

The investigators were puzzled. The victims were all mobsters with violent reputations who worked for the Irish bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran. As Moran’s gang were known to be feuding with other gangsters, they should have been heavily armed and fully prepared for one of the shootouts that were becoming increasingly common in Prohibition era Chicago. How had so many of them ended up unarmed in a run-down warehouse in the back streets of the city? And why had none of them fought back – indeed, how could such experienced criminals have been led so tamely to their fate? It was a mystery to the police and a mystery to Bugs Moran. The American press and public wanted to know what could have possibly led to the horrific events of that bleak winter’s night.

The place to start in any murder investigation is motive: finding out who would benefit most from the killing. The motive in this instance was obvious, and the person likely to benefit most from the killing seemed pretty obvious too. It was the height of the Prohibition years and many mobs and gangs were competing for the lucrative (and illegal) trade in alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Bugs Moran had formed an impressive smuggling and supply racket in Chicago. He also had a small army of followers, mainly from the Irish community. Taking on the Irishman would be akin to going to war, which ruled out all the small-time operators. For a suspect, the investigators kept returning to one name and one name alone, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.

Capone’s gang of Italian mobsters were well known to the authorities. His network of prostitutes, gambling dens, smugglers, bootlegging of illegal alcohol and his protection rackets had created an impressive empire and he was estimated to be worth in the region of $65 million, a staggering sum of money in 1929, worth approximately $7.2 billion today. He was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago and his policy of expansion through killing his business rivals placed him top of the list of suspects. It seemed obvious that he was behind it. But he denied all knowledge. His rival, Moran, had neither been killed nor even threatened, and the men lying dead in that garage were mere foot soldiers whose death could not have benefited Capone in any way. He had also been in Florida on Valentine’s Day.

Even the single eyewitness to the shooting couldn’t shed any light on the identity of the perpetrators. The police had found Frank ‘Tight Lips’ Gusenberg lying amongst the carnage and choking on his own blood. He was rushed to hospital and, on finally regaining consciousness, was immediately asked who had shot him. Gusenberg carefully looked around the room before replying, ‘Shot? Nobody shot me!’ He died soon afterwards and the general belief was that he had recognized somebody in the room, although his silence hadn’t helped him survive.

The police returned to the scene and tried to piece together the events leading up to the shooting from what little evidence they had. It was statements from the inhabitants of North Clark Street that provided their first real breakthrough. Several residents confirmed they had heard gunfire but swore they had then seen two uniformed policemen leading two civilians away at gunpoint. The two ‘suspects’ had been handcuffed and bundled into a police car and then driven away. Reassured that the police were already present and everything appeared to be under control, no one made any effort to report the matter to the authorities. But the Chicago police had no record of any shootings or arrests made in North Clark Street on the night of 14 February. The investigators followed up every clue and lead they had, but they were all dead-ends and no convictions were ever secured for the brutal murders in the warehouse on that cold February night.

Despite the fact that there was no proof linking Capone to the massacre, Bugs Moran had got the message. He promptly moved his gang out of the North Side, leaving all business in that area for the Italians. But he had already made a major error by commenting publicly to a journalist, ‘Only Capone kills like that.’ These five short words were a serious breach of the gangster code of silence, after which even his own gang members began to lose respect for their boss.

Moran became an increasingly marginalized and desperate figure. In 1946 he was finally arrested for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a far cry from the high-level crime and luxurious lifestyle he had enjoyed during the Prohibition years. Moran was sentenced to ten years imprisonment but immediately rearrested on his release. He was given another ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he died of cancer in 1957. His body lies in a pauper’s grave within the prison walls.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre also led to the downfall of Al Capone himself because it brought his activities to the attention of the Federal government. Despite no evidence being found to connect him to the killings in North Clark Street, the gangster was soon convicted on charges of income tax evasion and, in 1931, sentenced to eleven years at the notorious high-security prison at Alcatraz.

While in prison, Capone’s mental health began to deteriorate: towards the end he was convinced that the ghost of James Clark, one of the St Valentine’s Day victims, was haunting him. It was the only clue he ever gave of any involvement in the killings. After his release, Capone spent the last five years of his life quietly in his luxury estate in Miami, Florida. On 25 January 1947, he died of a heart attack thought to have been caused by the third-stage complications of syphilis.

Meanwhile the garage on North Clark Street – the site of the infamous events – was demolished; the area is now a landscaped car park for a nursing home. The infamous wall Moran’s men were shot against was dismantled, sold at auction and shipped to Canada where it was rebuilt in the toilets of a Vancouver theme bar, the BanjoPalace. When that business closed down, each brick of the famous wall was sold off, as macabre souvenirs.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre itself remained a mystery until recently. The true events of that fateful night were discovered long after the deaths of everybody involved. In January 1929 Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn, one of the Capone mob, was making a telephone call on the street when Peter and Frank Gusenberg’s car drew alongside. When the two Moran mobsters recognized McGurn, they opened fire, but missed him, which was to prove to be a major error for the brothers. Both Capone and Bugs Moran were struggling for control of the bootlegging business in Chicago and the tension between them had begun to degenerate into street warfare. But with many other mobsters muscling in on the action, it was sometimes unclear who was responsible for which act of violence. This time there was no mistake; McGurn knew exactly who had tried to kill him.

Capone was already aware of the might of Moran’s army and a month or so earlier had secretly discussed with an associate how to eliminate the ‘Moran risk’. When he was allegedly warned he would ‘have to kill a lot of people to get to Bugs Moran’, Capone joked that he would send plenty of flowers. So when ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn approached his boss with a plan to avenge the phone-box shooting, Capone saw the perfect opportunity to start eliminating Moran’s gang, from the bottom upwards.

With the boss’s authorization, McGurn created a six-man team headed by Fred Burke with the intention of luring the Gusenbergs, with as many of Moran’s other henchmen as possible, into a trap. Burke, a little-known Capone man at the time, invited the brothers to a warehouse meeting, claiming to have many crates of hijacked bootleg whiskey for sale.

Both Capone and McGurn left town to make sure they had watertight alibis. The meeting was to take place on the night of 14 February and, with more of Capone’s men placed as strategic lookouts along the surrounding streets, the plan swung into action. Four of McGurn’s gang pulled up at the deserted garage, watched by Moran’s lookouts who, deciding the coast was clear, signalled for the seven-strong Gusenberg gang to approach. But after they were inside, two more of McGurn’s gang dressed as Chicago police officers approached in a stolen patrol car. Moran’s lookouts fled the scene, fearing a police bust, while Capone’s remained in place, on standby in case the real police should arrive.

Inside the garage, the fake patrolmen found the suspicious-looking group and ordered them to drop their weapons. All of the gangsters complied, McGurn’s men believing their captors were the relatively harmless police force, many of whom were already on the mob’s payroll anyway. However, as they lined up, Capone’s four men peeled away, leaving the seven Moran men alone against the wall. Within a split second the gangsters dressed as policemen had opened fire using two Thompson submachine guns. They were quickly joined by the remaining gangsters, who pumped bullets into their surprised and defenceless rivals. All seven – James Clark, Adam Heyer, Johnny May, Al Weinshank, Frank and Peter Gusenberg and Dr Reinhardt Schwimmer – were left either dead, or bleeding to death, on the garage floor. The gunfire had attracted the attention of other residents in the street, but they were soon comforted to see two uniformed policemen in a patrol car ‘arresting’ those responsible. But when neither of the policemen were ever seen again, it led to one of the bloodiest murder mysteries the world has known and, ultimately, not a single conviction was ever secured.

Extract from Mysterious World

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Weird and Wonderful World

Weird and Wonderful World is available as an ebook now

Weird & Wonderfulth

Contents

Mystery 1 – The Famous Aurora Spaceship Mystery
Mystery 2 – Beware of the USOs
Mystery 3 – Try to See It from My Angle: The Bermuda Triangle
M
ystery 4 – The Magnetic Strip
Mystery 5 – The Strange Case of Kaspar Hauser
Mystery 6 – The Piano Man
Mystery 7 – The Terrifying Affair of Spring-heeled Jack
M
ystery 8 – The Dover Demon
M
ystery 9 – It’s Raining Frogs
Mystery 10 – The Men Who Cheated Death

Albert Jack books available for download here

Mysterious World

Mysterious World is available as an ebook now

Mysterious Worldth

Contents

Mystery 1 – Bigfoot
Mystery 2 – Crop Circles
Mystery 3 – Who Killed Marilyn Monroe?
Mystery 4 – The Loch Ness Monster
Mystery 5 – The Death of Robert Maxwell
Mystery 6 – Will the Real Paul McCartney Please Stand Up
Mystery 7 – The Awful Fate of Edgar Allan Poe
Mystery 8 – The St Valentines Day Massacre
Mystery 9 – The Chilling Tale of The Chase Vault
Mystery 10 – Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

Albert Jack books available for download here