Friday, August 30, 2013

The Erdington Murders Coincidences

On 27 May 1817, the body of a murder victim - 20-year-old Mary Ashford was found in a flooded sandpit at Erdington, a village lying five miles outside of Birmingham in England. Exactly 157 years afterwards to the very day and hour of the Ashford murder, history repeated itself in a most brutal and chilling way when 20-year-old Barbara Forrest was strangled and left in the long grass near to the children's home in Erdington where she was employed as a nurse. This may seem nothing more than a coincidence, but more intriguing similarities and parallels between the two murders came to light when the police were investigating the Barbara Forrest murder. As a police archivist officer read through the Ashford murder of 1817 he shook his head in disbelief. Whit Monday had been on 26 May both in 1817 and 1975 - the year of the Barbara Forrest murder. Like Ashford, Barbara Forrest had been raped before being murdered and both victims were found within 300 yards of one another. Ashford and Forrest shared the same birth date, and the coincidences didn't stop there. Both girls had visited their best friend on the evening of the Whit Monday to change into a new dress for a local dance party. After each murder a suspect was arrested whose name was Thornton, and in both instances, this Mr Thornton was charged with murder but subsequently acquitted.

Mary Ashford
Abraham Thornton
Barbara Forest

Let us take a closer look at these uncanny coincidences. At 6.30 a.m. on 27 May, 1817, a labourer on his way to work in Erdington came upon a heap of bloodstained clothes belonging to a woman, near to Penn's Mill. He informed the police and during a search of the area around the suspicious find, they saw two tracks of footprints made by a man and a woman which led towards a flooded sandpit.

The police followed the two sets of footprints and saw that they ended at the edge of the water around the pit. The pit was searched and the corpse of a well-known and well-loved local girl named Mary Ashford was recovered. Her arms were heavily bruised and her clothing was bloodstained. Police made enquiries with the locals and soon established Miss Ashford's last movements on the previous day. On Whit Monday - the 26 May - Mary had travelled from Erdington to Birmingham to sell dairy produce at the local market. She had then made arrangements to visit a friend's house where she would change into a new dress. Then she and her friend - Hannah Cox - would go to the Whitsuntide dance at the Tyburn House Inn in the evening. Mary had arrived at her friend's house at six in the evening. She changed into the new dress and then went to the dance with Hannah, and the two girls seemed to have enjoyed themselves, and they'd had no shortage of male admirers, although for a majority of the evening, Mary had been in the company of a young bricklayer named Abraham Thornton, while her friend had been dancing with a boy named Benjamin Carter. The dance ended around midnight, and the foursome headed towards their respective homes as far as a place known as the Old Cuckoo, which lay just a short distance from Erdington village. Hannah and Benjamin then separated from Mary and Abraham and went off in another direction.

Later on, about 3.30 a.m., Mary Ashford was seen walking towards the home of Hannah Cox's mother. A witness mentioned that the girl was 'walking very slowly and alone'. At the house of Hannah's mother, Mary took of her new dress and changed into her working clothes. She told Hannah she was going home then said goodbye to her friend and left the house at 4 a.m. On two more occasions that morning Mary Ashford was seen. A Joseph Dawson testified that he had set eyes on the girl in Bell Lane around 4.15 a.m., and about ten minutes after that, Mary had been seen again in that same lane by Thomas Broadhurst. Both witnesses noted that Mary had been alone in Bell Lane.

Not long after these inquiries into Mary Ashford's last movements, the police interviewed Abraham Thornton, who seemed in a state of shock after being told that Mary had been murdered, probably by strangulation - after being raped.

Thornton told detectives: 'I cannot believe she is murdered; why, I was with her until four o'clock this morning.'

Thornton seemed sincere enough and apparently didn't understand that he was the chief suspect in the murder investigation. However, he soon understood the situation when he was taken into custody later that day and searched. Detectives grilled him about every detail of events which unfolded after he had left Tyburn House Inn with Mary. Thornton admitted that he'd had sexual intercourse with Mary, but he denied he had raped and murdered the girl. In a deposition the bricklayer stated that when his friend Benjamin Carter and Mary's friend Hannah Cox had left them, he and Mary had strolled hand in hand over a field to a stile. The couple sat talking for about fifteen minutes then went to the Green at Erdington where Mary went into her friend's house to change her dress. Abraham had waited for quite some time but Mary did not come out so he went home alone. Thornton's statement was backed up by three other witnesses who had seen him at that time. One witness, a gamekeeper named John Haydon, had even chatted to the young man for over quarter of an hour. The police continued their investigation into the murder of Mary Ashford, but came up against a brick wall. No one had seen the murder victim and Abraham Thornton together after they had been sighted at the stile at the top of Bell Lane at three in the morning, a fact which provided the police with a real headache.

Thornton was brought to trial in August that year at the Warwick Assize Court before Mr Justice Holroyd. Hundreds of people who believed Thornton had killed Mary Ashford had waited outside the courthouse from six in the morning. All of them hoped they'd be the first to hear that a verdict of guilty had been reached, but they were to be disappointed. After just six minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of 'not guilty'. In modern English law, that verdict would have been final but in the early 19th century an ancient law existed which enabled Mary Ashford's brother William to appeal against the jury's verdict and thus demand a second trial. This was duly done and upon 17 November 1817, Abraham Thornton once again stood in the dock, this time before Lord Ellenborough at the Court of the King's Bench. By now, interest in the Mary Ashford murder had reached fever pitch in every corner of Britain, and the Fleet Street news hounds were delighted at a dramatic turn in the case. Legal history was made when Lord Ellenborough allowed Thornton to take advantage of an archaic law called 'Trial by Battel'. This ancient right necessitated Thornton renewing his plea of 'not guilty' before throwing down a gauntlet from the dock. This signified a challenge to William Ashford for a fight to the death, unless one of them surrendered or was incapacitated during the fight.

There were objections to the Trial by Battel option, but Lord Ellenborough proudly enunciated to the court: 'It is the law of England!'

If Ashford accepted the challenge and won, Thornton would be executed immediately, but if Thornton won, he would have to be freed and would no longer have to appear in court in connection with the Ashford murder.

Abraham Thornton held what resembled a heavy leather mitten with a trailing feather attached, and invoked the ancient English law. He declared he was innocent and that he was ready to defend his innocence with his body. He then lifted the gauntlet above his head, then hurled it down from the dock as the pressmen scribbled furiously.

William Ashford's counsel disputed Thornton's right to Trail by Battel and criticised Lord Ellenborough for allowing such an alternative to a proper second trial, but the protestations came to nothing. Because William Ashford had not responded to Abraham Thornton's challenge by 21 April in the following year, the latter was thoroughly discharged. He would no longer have to stand trial for Mary Ashford's murder, but because of the adverse publicity, no one would employ the bricklayer, so he later emigrated to the United States.

To this day, criminologists have tried in vain to determine who murdered Mary Ashford. Now for the facts of the eerie case which has strange echoes of the Ashford murder.

On 27 May, 1975, 20-year-old Barbara Forrest was found dead in the long grass of a ditch near Erdington. She had been strangled and raped, and her body, which was partly clothed, had lain undetected for over a week. Barbara had worked at the nearby Pype Hayes Children's Home. Her facial features bore an almost identical similarity to Mary Ashford, and like Mary, Barbara had also been strangled after being raped. The police made inquiries and later arrested Michael Thornton, a Birmingham child care officer who worked at the home where Barbara had also worked. Like the Thornton who stood accused of murdering Mary Ashford in 1817, Michael Thornton was tried for the murder of Barbara Forrest, and he too was later acquitted. Both murders had taken place around the same time of day, and, furthermore, both victims had been to a friend's house to change into a new dress before going out on the evening of Whit Monday to a dance.

Stranger still, days before each victim was murdered, they made prophetic remarks about their impending fate. The week before Mary Ashford was murdered, she told Hannah Cox's mother that she had 'bad feelings about the week to come', but was unable to elaborate on her unfounded sense of dread, and ten days before Barbara Forrest was raped and then strangled to death, she told a colleague at work of a strange premonition. Barbara's words had been: 'This is going to be my unlucky month. I just know it. Don't ask me why.'

Were the 'twin' Erdington murders just a spate of uncanny coincidences, or were more sinister forces at work?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Sator square

The Sator square is a square that reads the same forwards, backwards, upwards and downwards:

The square has been found at many places around the world: on amulets, carved into walls or stones, written on disks used for extinguishing fire, and so on. Its first known appearance is in the ruins of Pompeii. The square was found in a building that was decorated in a style that became popular since the year 50. Pompeii was covered in ash from the Vesuvius in the year 79, and it follows that this example is almost 2000 years old. This makes the square one of the oldest known palindromes.

What does the Sator square mean? Except for `Arepo', scholars mostly agree on the meaning of the individual words. `Sator' is the seeder, sower, or begetter. It is also used as a metaphor for God, not necessarily Christian, but also Roman. `Tenet' is a verb, and means it, he or she holds. `Opera' is often considered to mean with effort. It is related to opus or opera, which means work. Finally, `Rotas' is generally considered a noun, meaning the wheels. But it might also be a verb meaning turn. Nobody has ever found a word in Roman, Greek, Etruscan, or any Indo-European language that explains `Arepo'. Some people think that it is a name, others that it stands for plough, misspelled to fit the palindrome, and yet others that it is just nonsense. For a long period, people thought the square had a Christian meaning by rearranging the letters into two Pater Nosters in the form of a cross. The Pre-Christian Pompeii find crushed this theory. If Arepo is a name, the Sator square might read: `The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort', and if it stands for plough, you might get: `God holds the plough, but you turn the furrows'. According to John Cullen, this could have been a motto for farmers in Roman times. Most explanations I have read call the Sator square an ancient meme, with as much meaning as the sentence `all your base are belong to us'. In 1937, the Italian Antonio Ferrua probably gives the best explanation for what the square means: `Esattamente quello che si vuole'(!) E basta di questo argumento (it means exactly what you want it to mean. And so much for that argument!). The Sator square is an example of a meme that went viral long before the internet.

Here is an instance of the square I found in the library in Skara, Sweden, written by an unknown author probably in Stockholm, Sweden, in the year 1722. It starts with Rotas instead of Sator, just as the first appearances of the square. For some reason the version starting with Sator has become more popular.

Because it is a palindrome, the Sator square was thought to have many healing effects, curing snake-bites, headaches, jaundice, and many other illnesses. Medieval books mention the square as a cure for fever and insanity. Interestingly, although we now know that using words to cure an illness is of little help, we humans do use palindromes to repair our body. I will say more about this in a later blog post on palindromes in DNA.

The amount of human effort gone into explaining the meaning of the Sator square is unbelievable. Since 1889, when Francis John Haverfield described a find of the square in a Romano-Bristish building in Cirencester, there has been a steady stream of articles on the Sator square, and the total number of articles easily surpasses a hundred. Rose Mary Sheldon recently published a 54-page annotated biography of the literature on the Sator square: The Sator rebus: An unsolved cryptogram? Charles Douglas Gunn wrote his PhD thesis on the square at Yale in 1969. He suggests that the square was written by a Roman who wanted to take palindromic squares one step further from the misformed four-letter word square Roma tibi subito montibus ibit amor, meaning `For by my efforts you are about to reach Rome, the object of your travel'. He wrote software to generate all possible five-letter Latin word squares. These squares take up more than a hundred pages in his thesis. He concludes that the Sator square is the best.

Cheng I Sao

The most successful pirate of all time controlled a fleet of more than 1,500 ships and upwards of 80,000 sailors — and she did it all without the help of facial hair.
To start with, Ching Shih (1775–1844) was only her stage name; it simply means “Widow of Zheng”.  Her real name and her history prior to 1801 are completely unknown except for the fact that she was a prostitute in one of the famous floating brothels of Canton.  She was captured in a raid by the powerful pirate Zheng Yi, commander of six pirate fleets, who appears to have known her professionally before the raid because his men were specifically instructed to bring the 26-year-old beauty to him.  He had fallen deeply in love with her and proposed marriage, and she agreed on the condition that Zheng Yi grant her 50% of his profits and command of one of his fleets.
Artist’s conception of Ching Shih (origin unknown)
Ching I Sao (“Wife of Zheng”), as she was then known, quickly won the respect of her men and her husband drew upon her shrewd advice to increase his power; his family had been noted pirates since at least the mid-17th century and the cunning former whore advised him to use that reputation in combination with intimidation to build an alliance of pirate fleets which until that time had engaged in self-defeating competition.  By 1804 this alliance, known as the Red Flag Fleet, was the most powerful pirate force in China; it was comprised of over 1500 ships and ranged all the way from Korea to Malaysia.  In 1807 Zheng Yi was killed in a typhoon, and his widow (now called Ching Shih) quickly made a pact with Chang Pao, the late commander’s chief lieutenant, which placed her in absolute command of the fleet with him as her executive officer.  The deal appears to have been leveraged by her sex appeal, because they became lovers and later married (though sources vary as to whether this was before or after her retirement).
Ching Shih realized that in order to maintain control she had to establish strict discipline lest the men believe that a female commander could be defied with impunity.  She therefore imposed a code of behavior far more severe than the pirate “articles” common in the Spanish Main:  disobedience, theft, desertion, dereliction of duty, cowardice and rape of female prisoners were all punishable by beheading.  Her power grew at a frightening pace, and within a year the Red Flag Fleet boasted two hundred oceangoing junks of twenty guns each, eight hundred small ships, dozens of riverboats and over 17,000 men; it was one of the largest navies in the world and nothing could stand against it.  She extorted tribute from merchants all over the China Seas and from coastal towns from Macau to Canton, and became a de facto government in her own right; soon she began to impose taxes and levies and enforced her own laws.
This sketch from 1836 imagines what Ching Shih might have looked like in battle.
Clearly, the Chinese government could not ignore this, so in 1808 it sent a fleet against Ching Shih; she easily defeated it, capturing 63 ships and impressing hundreds of sailors into her navy (those who remained loyal to the Emperor were beaten to death with clubs).  Further attacks were equally unsuccessful, as were the attempts at rebellion by subject villages (which were burned to the ground and saw all their men slaughtered).  In desperation, the Chinese government asked for help from the British and Portuguese; their forces, too, were defeated by the harlot admiral.  By 1810 the government was forced to admit defeat and offered a general amnesty to all pirates who would give up their ships and arms.  Ching Shih was no fool, and saw her opportunity to quit while she was ahead; accordingly, she appeared unannounced at the official home of the Governor-general of Canton and negotiated an incredible deal:  she and all her men were given full amnesty and allowed to keep all of their loot, any of her men who wished to join the Imperial Navy would be allowed to do so, and Chang Pao received a lieutenant’s commission.  Ching Shih thus retired from piracy at 35 and opened a combination casino and brothel which she operated until her death at the age of 69, survived by at least one son.
Ching Shih was quite probably the most successful pirate who ever lived; not only did she defeat all attempts to stop her and make staggering sums of money, but she also managed to keep all her profits and transition into a respectable business when she was still quite young.  And considering that the half-share in the pirate fleet which set the stage for her eventual control of the whole was essentially a price for her favors, I think it’s fair to say she was among the most successful prostitutes of all time as well.  She didn’t become an empress as Theodora did, but she essentially made herself a queen, foiled the efforts of the three greatest navies in the world and died a peaceful death as a wealthy, successful, respected businesswoman at a ripe old age.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Executioner: His Pride and His Shame

In 1553, a wood-cutter named Heinrich Schmidt was standing amongst a crowd in the Bavarian town of Hof, listening to the Margrave detail a plot to assassinate him. The Margrave had arrested three men and accused them of the crime. Now it was time to execute them. There was no official executioner handy, so the Margrave invoked a local custom: he pointed at Heinrich and ordered him to do the deed. The wood-cutter was reluctant but was told that if he refused to carry out the order, then he would be executed instead as well as the men standing on either side of him. So Heinrich Schmidt picked up a sword and cut the heads off the three men.

Having killed these men, Schmidt became a social outcast, like a gravedigger or a slaughterhouse worker, the kind of workers that are called burakumin in Japan and shunned to this day. So Schmidt turned to the only job opening available for a man like himself — he became an official executioner. Two years later, his son, Frantz, was born and, when he was old enough, became his father’s apprentice.

“Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” So begins the diary of Frantz Schmidt which details his life’s work as an executioner and torturer, first under his father, then in Nuremburg. Over the course of forty-five years, Frantz Schmidt executed 361 people and tortured hundreds more. These acts were all noted in his diary. He was proficient in using the noose, the wheel, fire, and drowning besides the sword, which was considered the most merciful of execution methods.

The only known picture of Schmidt. "Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591". This drawing was made in the marguns of a court record book. Note Schmidt's collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]
The only known picture of Schmidt. “Execution of Hans Fröschel, 1591″. This drawing was made in the margins of a court record book. Note Schmidt’s collar and curved moustache. [WikiMedia Commons]
Each of the methods required a certain knowledge of the human body and its capacity for injury. Executioners had to know how to break a prisoner’s limbs on the wheel in such a way that he would survive for a time. They had to know how to torture without killing. They had to be able to cut out a tongue or perform other judicial maimings without having the prisoner bleed to death. They had to know the proper angle for a waterboard (yes, they had them then.) Sometimes executioners had to heal their prisoner’s broken limbs or other wounds before they could participate in the ritual of public execution. So Schmidt operated as a healer on the side, a trade he found much more congenial and one that he studied. In order to learn more about the human body, he dissected quite a few. Schmidt later estimated that he had treated over 35,000 patients and he was proud of the fact.

Five years after hanging his first man, Schmidt took up work in Nuremburg. He first served as assistant to Nuremburg’s chief executioner, then succeeded him. He also married his master’s daughter — both husband and wife being tainted by association with one of the nastier trades, they would have had difficulty finding a spouse elsewhere. But the post of chief executioner was well-paid and the Schmidt family lived in an upscale part of the city.

A public execution was staged as a morality play. In the first act, the prisoner — whose guilt had already been determined — was allowed a last meal, including alcohol, then was dressed in a white blouse. The executioner then entered and asked the prisoner’s forgiveness before sharing a traditional drink with him. During this time the executioner would be assessing the prisoner’s state of mind and health, judging when he was ready to proceed.

Dungeon under Nuremburg's Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it's a tourist destination.
Dungeon under Nuremburg’s Old City Hall. Here is where prisoners were held before their execution. Now it’s a tourist destination.
Now the prisoner was brought before a “blood court” consisting of a robed judge holding a rod and a sword, and twelve jurors. The judge would read out the death sentence, including the method of execution, then poll the jurors for their assent. “What is legal and just pleases me,” each would reply. Next the judge asked if the prisoner wished to speak. This was an opportunity for the prisoner to forgive those who had condemned him to death and possibly express his thanks, especially if the sentence was for a merciful beheading. Some prisoners might curse the court, others were too dumb with fear or stupefied by drink to make a coherent speech. When the prisoner was finished speaking, the judge would order the executioner to carry out the sentence and snap in two the white rod he was holding.

The second act of this drama was a procession to the place of execution, which might be a mile or two away. The judge led the way, followed by the prisoner, a couple of soldiers, a chaplain or two, and the executioner and his assistants. Sometimes, if the prisoner was violent or was sentenced to be tortured on the way, he would be carried in a cart. Tortures might include having pieces of flesh torn out with red-hot tongs. The number of these “nips” were spelled out in the sentence. Sometimes the prisoner would have a few more drinks along the way.

The procession route would be lined by crowds of people, who might themselves be drunk and unruly and sometimes threw things at the prisoner. If he could, Schmidt would hurry the prisoner along to avoid problems. The prisoner might pray along with the chaplains and bless the crowd or he might curse his audience or break down in tears.

Execution by wheel. The man's limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.
Execution by wheel. The man’s limbs are being broken with heavy wheels. This is opposed to execution on a wheel, where the limbs were broken by a rod or weight after the victim was strapped to a wheel.
The final act was the execution itself. The condemned prisoner would mount a scaffold or a platform. There, it was expected that a final prayer would issue from his lips as the noose was placed around his neck or as he sunk to his knees and awaited the executioner’s sword. The executioner would perform the deed then turn to the judge:

“Lord Judge, have I executed well?”

“You have executed as judgment and law have required.”

“For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.”

Then the executioner and his assistants would clean up and dispose of the remains.

No executioner wanted to make a mistake that would sully the grand pageant of death. Though messy executions were frequent at this time, Frantz Schmidt seldom took more than one stroke of the sword to remove a head. Out of 187 decapitations, only four needed more than a single blow. Schmidt was unforgiving to himself for these four, writing in his diary that he had botched the job and did not try to excuse himself. He was proud to practice his trade well. His headsman skill was at least partly due to the fact that he did not drink — at this time executioners were often as drunk as their prisoners when they wielded their sword.

German executioner's sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]
German executioner’s sword. The inscription: “I have to punish crime as the law and judge tell me”. [Weapons Universe]
Traditionally, the executioner was allowed three sword blows to remove a head. If he needed more, the audience might turn into a mob that attacked him. Only once did Schmidt require three strokes with his sword. This was the execution of a woman who was calm before the blood court and said she was happy to leave this world of woe, but on the way to the place of execution her happiness turned to fear and she had to be restrained. Prisoners who were unable to stand were strapped into chairs before being hanged or beheaded, now this prisoner was carried in the procession strapped to a chair. Instead of holding her head steady, so that her death might be quick, she wobbled it around on her neck making it difficult for Schmidt to properly behead her.

Women were not executed as often as men but repeated offenses might well wind up with a capital sentence. So, Marie Kurschnerin, a prostitute, was pilloried in the stocks and driven out of town. Further offenses brought the punishment of having her ears cropped. Finally, in 1584, Schmidt’s wrote in his diary:

the thief and whore Marie Kurschnerin, together with thievish youths and fellows, had climbed and broken into citizens’ houses and stole a mighty quantity of things. It was an unheard of thing for a woman to be hanged in this city and it had never happened before. Such a dreadful crowd ran out to see this, that several people were crushed to death.

An entry from Schmidt’s diary for 1617:

November 13th. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine. Because he and his brother, with the help of others, practiced coining and counterfeiting money and clipping coins fraudulently. He also had a working knowledge of magic… This miller, who worked in the town mills here three years ago, fell into the town moat on Whitsunday. It would have been better for him if he had been drowned, but it turned out according to the proverb that “What belongs to the gallows cannot drown in water.” This was the last person whom I, Master Frantz, executed.

Frantz Schmidt served the city of Nuremburg for forty years. He successfully petitioned the emperor to allow his children to have the executioner stigma removed from their names so that they could pursue other trades. After his retirement in 1617, Schmidt served as a healer for the last seventeen years of his life. Ironically, during that period most of his children and grand-children, that he had saved from practicing his deadly craft, died. When Frantz Schmidt himself followed them in 1634, Nuremburg honored him with a grand funeral. Social outcast though he was, Schmidt was also well-respected.


The main source for all the above is Joel Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, a really interesting book.
Some odd points were picked up from an interview with Harrington and a few items from this article on medieval executions of women which includes an interesting account of the execution by Schmidt of Elizabeth Aurhaltin, aka Scabby Beth.

Schmidt’s original diary long ago disappeared but at least four copies of it were made. Harrington used the earliest copy known as the basis for his book. A 1928 English translation from another copy is a prime candidate for the Internet Archive or Somebody out there hear me.

Also, in this context, I can’t help recommending Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy featuring Severian, apprentice to the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, which is to say, the Torturers’ Guild.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Child Soldiers

President Abraham Lincoln had recently signed the act of Congress creating the Medal of Honor.  Secretary of War William Stanton personally awarded the first medals.  On September 16, 1863, it was received by Willie Johnston,  He was 13 years old and only 5 feet tall.  He had enlisted in the army at the age of 11, and was awarded the highest medal for his bravery during the Peninsula Campaign when he was 12.
Most of us have been shocked by the documentation of Child Soldiers with modern automatic weapons fighting in some of the most bitter and brutal wars on our planet.  The notion that children, who by the legal and ethical standards of our society, could not be held responsible for a crime because of their immaturity, are put in a situation of killing hundreds of fellow humans and making all the moral and ethical decisions we expect soldiers in war to make is very had to digest.  People are shocked, and also ask how did this happen?  What can be done to prevent it?
However, the photographs below give us a historical picture that is surprising to many of us.  The left hand child soldier is typical of what we have seen in the Western media for a few years now.  The Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda was prototypical of large parts of Africa, Asia, and some of the Arab nations of the Middle East.
The picture to the right–the other young b2 Boy Soldiiersoy with the latest automatic weapon of the time was a Russian boy who fought Germany in WWII.
However an inquiry into the history  of child soldiers provides us with a reality that most of us do not welcome.  Child soldiers have been the norm throughout history and have been accepted in almost all societies until relatively recently.
So many of American norms and perceptions of war have been formed by World War I and II, that we tend to perceive our behavior in these wars as normal and other wars as aberrant.  Perhaps, it was those wars that were the unusual ones and the others more typical.
During the two World Wars, the United States had formal age requirements for military service.  There were instances where these regulations were evaded by youngsters lying about their age, but these were not very frequent.  The American armed forces in the two World Wars was composed of young men, 17 and over with a strong representation of middle-aged men 30-40,  This however was not the case for our other nations.
German Child War Prisoners
These German children were captured soldiers who had been fighting fiercely.
The Germans equipped an entire SS Panzer Tank Division and manned it with 16 and 17-year-old boys from the Hitler Youth brigades.  As Germany suffered more casualties, more teenagers volunteered and were accepted, initially as reserve troops but then as regulars.  The German ethic of the boy soldier not only encouraged such service but towards the end of the war, the Germans even drafted boys as young as 12 into military service.  These children saw extensive action and were among the fiercest and effective German defenders in the Battle of Berlin.  American older teens and especially American men were horrified as they fought and killed–and sometimes were killed–by boys who were barely old enough to graduate from elementary school.
Most of the soldiers opposing the German Child Soldiers were Russians.  That Russian invading army had many boy soldiers.  The brutal German invasion of Russia killed 22 million Russians.  Many of the boy soldiers had not only been orphaned but had seen their own parents killed,  Many wanted vengeance; others had nothing else to do; others were excited, as young males have been, by the “glory: of war.
Polish Boys WWII
Polish young boys played an important part in the WWII Warsaw Uprising. These boys' facial expression could be the same as before a soccer game. Many child soldiers enjoy their service.
Polish boys fought the Germans as well.  For many of them it was kill or be killed, but others were motivated by patriotism or excitement.
The Europeans were not the only militaries which used boy soldiers in WWII.  The Japanese made extensive use of boy soldiers when their losses started mounting.  Many young boys volunteered to be Kamikaze suicide pilots.  Many of the kamikaze pilots believed their death would pay the debt they owed and show the love they had for their families, friends, and emperor.  The Chinese fighting against them also used boys.  The photo below is a classic of a 10-year-old boy soldier fighting against the Japanese as part of the Nationalist Chinese Forces.

Most Asian armies used young boys throughout history.  Recently, the Tamil Tigers terrorist revolutionaries Sri Lanka used boys. sometimes volunteers and sometimes forced, not only as soldiers but also as suicide bombers,  It was the Tamil Tigers that who were the models for the Palestinian and other Arab terrorist’s using boys (and girls) as suicide bombers and of course, it was the young children that the terrorists sent against the Israeli mature soldiers in the Indefadas.  Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously told Anwar Sadat of Egypt, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”  Using boys was a very effective tactic against the Israelis as those mature soldiers were very reluctant to and never did use their major weapons against the children although many were killed even with rubber bullets tear gas grenades.
Iran Boy
14 year-old Iranian soldier. He as killed in battle shortly after this picture was taken.
In the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq brutally invaded Iran.  Both sides used boy soldiers.  Iran, to clear minefields for the more mature soldiers to advance, actually send young boys in waves to “martyr” themselves.  In many attacks waves of young children and women were sent in advance of the regular troops.  The Iraqis however, did not have the reluctance of the Israelis to use heavy weapons against the unarmed children.  Machine guns, artillery, hand grenades, and rockets mowed the women and children down but used up ammunition.
The Ancient Roman Army would not knowingly allow boys under 16 to enlist in the army.  They had military and philosophical reasons for this.  The Roman soldiers were not just fighters, but each was also a specialized technician.  A blacksmith, carpenter, concrete specialist, hunter, physician, cook, engineer, etc.  The Roman Army required mature men, educated in the technologies of the times.  However almost all the other armies of the ancient world included male children.  However before them, the Greeks used child soldiers.  The Spartans started military training at age 7 and from then on boys were soldiers.
In Jewish law and tradition, boys of 13 go through the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.  Even today, 13 year old Jewish boys recite the famous statement, “Today I am a man!”  King David started his career as a shepherd and then joined King Saul as a boy soldier which he was serving as when he killed Goliath.  The ritual is just that, and in Israel today, children are not allowed to serve in the Defense Forces.  However there is a strong ancient tradition in modern memory.
The Ottoman Turkish Empire made extensive use of child soldiers who were drafted from all over the empire to form the Sultan’s Personal Elite Corps.  Initially, the children selected were all Christians and Jews.  The theory was that they would be the personal slaves of the Sultan.  Islamic law prohibited enslaving a fellow Moslem, hence only the heathens were brought to Istanbul for training.  They were called the Jannisary Corps and they not only became the elite fighting forces of the empire but they became the managers and administrators for the Sultan’s empire.  The non-Moslems would, it was thought, not be so easy to assist the Sultan’s rivals as they were not related to any by blood or tribe.  Later, Moslems were included in the first military and administrative meritocracy outside of Asia.  However, young boys were always the recruits and they grew up as Jannisaries.  Theoretically, induction was at 14 but there is much documentation of children as young as 8 entering the Corps.
Christianity not only maintained the practice of child soldiers but took it to a new extreme.  Almost every knight had young boys in service as squires and other staff.  There is an unverified tale of a “Children’s Crusade” where European Children went to the Holy Land to fight for Christ.
At the start of the Civil war boys under 18 could enlist with their parents’ consent.  Many however ran away for a variety reasons ranging from ending the evil of slavery to getting away from doing chores on the farm.  There was one young boy who reminisced about his first experience in battle.  Elisha Stockwell, after the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee in 1862, said:
“As we lay there and the shells were flying over us, my thoughts went back to my home, and I thought what a foolish boy I was to run away to get into such a mess I was in. I would have been glad to have seen my father coming after me.”
In Africa boys had traditionally been used as soldiers but Shaka, the great Zulu warrior king, organized the practice.  At the age of 6, boys joined Shaka’s army as apprentice soldiers.  Initially they carried spare weapons and did other chores but as their skills developed they took their places as regular soldiers whenever they merited promotion.
So child soldiers has generally been the norm throughout human history,  This is why it is so difficult to stop the practice worldwide.  International law today makes it illegal, but it is very hard to enforce and is considered normal, effective and/or necessary by those who so exploit the children
President George W. Bush in 2007 signed into law the Child Soldiers Accountability Act. The law was approved unanimously by both houses of the U.S. Congress, and makes it a federal crime to recruit or use soldiers under the age of 15 — anyplace in the world.  Any American or foreigner who has recruited child soldiers anywhere in the world are subject to United States justice.  Many other countries have similar laws.
The problem still lies in enforcement.  Probably the most terrible use of child soldiers was made by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia in the late 1970′s.  They used child soldiers, both boys and girls,  Their genocide executed about 1 million people, but perhaps the worst thing about their crimes was the fact that they used children as executioners, often of their own parents as well as others the adults decided were not fit to live.
Despite the solid documentation of these crimes against humanity, it took over 25 years for anyone to be tried in Cambodia and then it was just a few middle level functionaries.  Khmer Rouge Cambodians had traveled to the United States, Europe, Asia–virtually every continent and yet no country has yet seen fit to bring any to justice.  When Hezbollah sends children out as suicide bombers, the world is preoccupied with whether the attacks on innocent civilians are justified, and the fact that children have been convinced by their elders to blow themselves to bits to achieve some political objectves of the adults gets lost.  In Uganda and neighboring countries, the world knows where the thousands of abducted children of both genders now serving in the Lord’s Resistance Army are.  Yet the crime has not produced sufficient outrage in any country so that the nation will send law enforcement and military forces to free the children and stop the crimes.  Human progress is unfortunately often very slow.  We can only speculate how many more children will suffer before world public opinion can be translated into law enforcement and military action.
There is some progress however.  The picture below shows a young Ugandan boy enjoying his newly developed skill of reading.  At his young age however, he is a already a seasoned military veteran and victim of kidnapping when he was much younger.  He was freed and is in the process of being rehabilitated.  Would that there could be more like him.
Lords Children

Kate Warne Never Sleeps

Kate Warne was the nation’s first female detective. She died at 38 of congestion of the lungs and is buried in the Pinkerton family plot in Graceland Cemetery Chicago.
Kate Warne
Kate Warne

Where every October she gets a visitor who comes to say “Thank you.”

I’m Kate.

My last name? The gravestone says Warn. No “e” at the end. But I’ve had lots of names. I can tell you that when the tall, thin man dressed in black with the sad, haunted eyes comes to visit, comes here to Graceland Cemetery in Chicago each October, he just calls me Kate.

I rest now and forever near Mr. Pinkerton. And it should be that way. Without Mr. Pinkerton,
I would never have met the tall sad man. Without Mr. Pinkerton, they would never have said, “Kay Warne, she never sleeps.”

After I came here to Graceland, people wrote, “Kay Warne, the first lady detective.” I never understood why being first was important. What was important, was that I was good.

I was only 23 when I first stepped in to Mr. Pinkerton’s Detective Office in Chicago. But I hadn’t been a little girl in a very long time. My husband had passed. So it was just me, and I needed a job.

I knew I could find out things about people that no one else could. I knew I could find secrets. So, at ten o’clock in the morning of August 23rd, 1856, Mr. Pinkerton gave me the job. I was a detective now.

Wives and girlfriends would tell me the things they would never tell a man. Like Mr. Maroney, in Montgomery Alabama. He embezzled $50,000 from his company, the Adams Express Company. And I got the true story from his wife. The true story and $39,515 back to the company.

Mr. Pinkerton was pleased. He said I was one of the best he’d ever known. Bank robbers and killers. I found their secrets. I stopped their evil deeds. And when I walk these golden brown grounds of autumn, I am pleased with my life’s work. My years were few. I passed soon after the war between the states. I was 38. But I am pleased with my life’s work.

In October, I remember my best work; it’s in October when the sad eyed man who had just been elected to be President comes back to visit me.

My work with the President-elect began with the tips we got out of the secessionist plots in Baltimore. The cry to crack open the Union was echoing across the land in those times. Splitting up what America had become. But it was what I found out next that could have ripped open the very fabric of these United States and left it to bleed and die.

There was a plot to kill the new President. Kill him before he even took office. I pieced together the evildoers plan.

It was to happen when the President-elect changed trains in Baltimore. There was a 1-mile carriage ride between the two train stations. The secessionists would cause a diversion. The President-elect’s guards would respond to the diversion. And a crowd would swarm the unprotected carriage and kill the soon-to-be President. He would never complete  the trip from his home in Springfield, Illinois to the muddy streets of Washington. He would never take office. He would die in Baltimore.

But with Mr. Pinkerton by my side, I was able to make the case for what I had found. I convinced the President-elect that there really was danger. So after the President-elect’s last speech of the evening in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, we changed the travel schedule for the last leg of the trip into Washington DC. Mr. Pinkerton had the telegraph lines interrupted so no one would know of the change. And then we dressed the President elect in the suit of a traveling common man. We put a soft felt hat on his head and told him to carry a shawl as if he was an invalid. When he got on his new train I cried out a greeting as if he were a long lost brother. And throughout that long dark night, as the train pulled into an empty Baltimore at 3:30 a.m., as opposed to the much earlier hour that had been planned, even then, I sat next to him. Kept him safe.

I got him to the White House alive. Because throughout that night I never slept.

He was inaugurated. Became the President. And he saved the union. He kept alive the great American dream.

Which is why he comes to see me each October. He comes to say thanks.

President Abraham Lincoln. The tall, thin man with the haunted sad eyes. He comes here to Graceland. Offers me his arm. And we walk. Through the orange, red and brown scattered leaves of time. He is known by so many as the centuries pass, this President Abraham Lincoln. And few remember my name.

Pinkerton had no trouble being innovative. He'd started the first private detective agency in America, after all, and he knew it was certainly true that women had access to places where men were not allowed. The real issue for him, perhaps, was whether those exclusive areas actually offered substantial potential for developing intelligence. Pinkerton reportedly wrestled with the pros and cons all that day and half the night. His brother, with an investment in the agency (probably a co-founder), was set against it. But Pinkerton had been impressed by the fire he'd seen in Mrs. Warne's eye and had little doubt she'd work hard to prove herself. And if the arrangement didn't work out, he wasn't committed to keeping her. Certainly, hiring a female detective would startle people, perhaps even disturb them including his other operatives. He'd have to convince them as well. But it was his agency; the decision was his, as were the consequences.

The next morning, Pinkerton contacted Kate and offered her a job as an operative-in-training. As the first female detective in America, she'd be paving the way for others, some of whom Pinkerton himself hired within that same decade, but no formal police agency would follow his lead for nearly half a century. New York City's first female investigator would be employed as late as 1903, and policewomen would not become part of the street force until 1920.
It was Pinkerton's opinion that detectives with "considerable intellectual power and knowledge of human nature as will give him a quick insight into character" would do an effective job. Apparently Kate had these qualities, as he once wrote later in life that she had never disappointed him. He'd probably taught her his techniques of shadowing suspects and assuming roles to deceive people and put them off their guard. Much as Pinkerton despised the pretense of friendship in order to eventually betray, he knew that his chosen line of work often called for it. He also developed sources among the criminal underground to facilitate his work, and made many friends among law enforcement. Kate apparently was a natural for the job, able to play both a female and a young male, a society lady and a mystic some even believe she dressed as a Union soldier - and she went to work right away. Unfortunately, she left behind no memoir of her own, not even a letter, so how she liked her work was never made public. However, she stayed with the agency until her death. It appears that she was both competent and satisfied perhaps for more reasons than just the work involved.

A Wife's Best Friend

While the following incident reportedly occurred in 1855, the year before Kate was hired, Mackay (and others) includes her as an operative. Either he did not spot the inconsistency or he was wrong about the date, but here's how he tells it:
As various express mail companies began to form to compete with the U.S. Postal Service, some engaged Pinkerton for security and for the investigation of financial crimes. Adams Express operated out of Chicago. They asked Pinkerton to investigate the theft of $40,000 that had been kept in a pouch, now missing. Pinkerton studied the details provided by one of the company executives and identified the likely culprit as Nathan Maroney, the manager of an office in Alabama. He advised surveillance. Later that year, on the slightest evidence, Maroney was arrested. Since he was a popular figure in the area, he'd easily made the minor bail imposed and it seemed likely the company would lose its case. Desperate about the message this would send to other employees, they asked Pinkerton to assist.
He arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, with Kate and three male operatives, all of whom adopted disguises in order to move freely among the townspeople. One shadowed Maroney's pretty young wife, while Kate posed as the wife of a wealthy businessman and soon got an introduction to Mrs. Maroney. It wasn't long before Kate was able to win her trust and get her to confide that her husband had grown wealthy by forging bank bills. This disclosure put Kate in a good position to learn more.
Another agent turned up an address in New York of a locksmith who had copied a key for Maroney that proved to be the property of Adams Express. Pinkerton advised Adams Express to get Maroney re-arrested for conspiracy, as it was unlikely by this time he'd be able to make bail. Once Maroney was ensconced in a jail cell, Pinkerton sent in an agent to share it, posing as a clever forger. Pinkerton also sent anonymous letters to Maroney to the effect that another man was moving in on his wife (another agent was in fact "courting" her). This pressured Maroney, and when he confronted her she admitted to seeing this man. Maroney was so disturbed he began to confide in his cellmate, who had made a show of having a corrupt lawyer (another agent) who knew how to bribe officials. Maroney requested his help. He then sent word to his wife to get the stolen money ready to hand over.
Mrs. Maroney was uncertain about this move, so she talked it over with her new friend, Kate. As they discussed the matter, Kate agreed that presenting the money to the attorney was probably the best course of action. Mrs. Maroney handed over the Adams Express pouch, which proved to contain all of the stolen money except for $400. That was all the evidence the prosecution team needed.
At the trial, when Maroney saw his former cellmate come in to testify, he realized he'd been set up, so he changed his plea to guilty. He received a ten-year sentence and his wife was arrested as an accomplice (but got a suspended sentence). Pinkerton, in the meantime, received a handsome annual retainer from Adams Express for his professional services. The teamwork had paid off, and its success inspired them to refine their act.
However, the case in which Kate's contribution is most renowned, and for which there are clear records, is the infamous Baltimore Plot. Let's return to that event.

Hotbed of Conspiracy

Barnum Hotel on Howard Street
Barnum Hotel on Howard Street
Pinkerton was the one who developed the first lead about the anti-Lincoln conspiracy from his undercover work at Baltimore's classy Barnum Hotel on Howard Street, says researcher Lynn Levy, also a PI. The Barnum was a hotbed of conspiracy. Using an alias, Pinkerton opened an office, hung out in the bar, and got his hair trimmed in the hotel's barber shop. He talked with many people who came to the hotel to learn what they were saying about Lincoln's scheduled stop in the city. One of the best connections he made was the barber, an Italian who knew quite a lot from his many clients about the secessionist meetings held there. In fact, the barber had the same inclination, with no qualms about stating his certainty that Lincoln would never get the chance to serve as president. Levy indicates that this man cried out, "Lincoln shall die in Baltimore!"
At Pinkerton's request, several more operatives went into the city to gather the details of a possible assassination plot. Kate was among them, dressing as a wealthy Southern woman visiting Baltimore. She infiltrated the hotel's social gatherings, moving easily from one circle to another as she listened for details or confirmed what she'd already heard. Soon she was not only able to report to Pinkerton that a plot was indeed afoot, but she also offered key details as to just how and where it would likely occur.
President-elect Lincoln
President-elect Lincoln
Pinkerton now believed that a group of assassins would attack the president-elect in an area of town where he would be most vulnerable: the mile-and-a-half stretch required for changing trains while riding in a carriage. If not there, the ambush would take place at a planned reception where Lincoln would be exposed to thousands of boisterous people. To make matters worse, Lincoln could expect no extra protection from the local police force, as the chief himself sympathized with the South.

Foiled Assassination

Pinkerton requested an interview with Mr. Lincoln to inform him of the risk he was taking with a public appearance. They had met before, when Lincoln was an attorney, so he was familiar with Pinkerton's intensity and reputation. According to Pinkerton, he told Lincoln, "We have come to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there exists a plot to assassinate you." He then explained his supporting evidence.
Lincoln asked many questions until he was satisfied that the risk to his life outweighed the disappointment he'd cause many people by not showing up. He placed himself in Pinkerton's hands, who was so careful as to advise that the telegraph lines out of Harrisburg be severed to prevent messages about Lincoln's departure from passing to his enemies.
Kate was involved in coordinating the operatives' reports and in devising a scheme to get Lincoln safely to Washington. She reserved four sleeping berths close together at the end of a night train out of Philadelphia, under the pretext that she and several family members were escorting her invalid brother, and he'd need them close. She also organized a disguise for Lincoln, wrapping him in a traveling shawl with collar turned up and a Scotch cap, and urging him to stoop to seem ill and to undercut his signature height. Carrying a worn bag, he boarded through a rear door left unlocked for his convenience, with no one the wiser save a close friend, his wife, and the Pinkerton operatives.
Kate, in the next berth, stayed that night between him and the rear door, armed and ready to act. She remained awake until Lincoln was safely in the Capital. Also on board were three other men, Pinkerton among them. He stood on the rear platform, despite the frigid air. In fact, writes Richard Rowan, Pinkerton agents were posted at every crossroad and bridge along the way, using lanterns to signal their presence and to offer a code that all was well...or otherwise.
Lincoln's entourage, which included his family, remained on the original train so that no one would suspect the covert operation. Only when he failed to step off that train in Baltimore as expected did people realize he wasn't going to show. He'd passed through the city that night, with a layover of half an hour for pulling the train to the next depot, but without incident. By the time would-be assassins, mingling with the crowds, were aware that he'd foiled their plan, Lincoln was preparing to accept his new office on March 4.
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
Journalists later revealed that the assassination plot had consisted of a plan to derail the train, with a back-up strategy involving a lone shooter. In any event, thanks to Pinkerton and Kate, Lincoln gained four more years before John Wilkes Booth succeeded in ending his life. Those four years involved a pivotal presidency and a great many historic decisions made during the country's darkest era.