The Battle For Richard III’s Bones

Richard III
University of Leicester

King Richard III just can’t rest in peace. He was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty, and after being killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the rival Tudor dynasty, his body was mutilated, stabbed in the ass and buried in a hastily dug grave in the local friary in Leicester. The friary was later destroyed and his grave lost. For a while there was an outhouse right next to it. Eventually his burial site was paved over and became a parking lot.

His luck was looking better when he was rediscovered by archaeologists and his bones became a television sensation. With great fanfare Leicester Cathedral announced that it would spend £1 million ($1.6 million) on a new tomb and a museum about his life and death.

But now it looks like poor Richard won’t rest in peace quite yet. The Daily Telegraph reports that a group called the Plantagenet Alliance, which includes 15 of the king’s descendants, is challenging the decision to bury him in Leicester. The king, they say, had a long relationship with the city of York and had stated that he wanted to be buried in York Minster with the rest of his family.

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester who dug up the king had already received a court’s permission to decide where he should be reinterred and chose Leicester Cathedral. Another judge has decided to allow the Plantagenet Alliance’s complaint to go to court, however, because of the unprecedented nature of the case.

The judge, Mr. Justice Haddon-Cave, has warned both sides to keep the dispute from descending into a “War of the Roses Part Two…It would be unseemly, undignified and unedifying to have a legal tussle over these royal remains.”

Of course, the court’s decision will determine where millions of pounds in potential tourism revenue will go. There’s more than a medieval political rivalry at stake in this case.

Search Is On For Another Lost Medieval English King

medievalIn the wake of the media blitz around the discovery of King Richard III’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester, England, archaeologists have announced they’re looking for another medieval English king.

The Times reports that archaeologists are seeking permission to exhume an unmarked grave at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hyde, Winchester, that they think contains the remains of King Alfred the Great.

Alfred ruled from 871-899 and helped consolidate the patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into a unified country. He spent much of his reign fighting off the Vikings and establishing a legal code.

Alfred’s remains were buried in Winchester Cathedral and later moved to nearby Hyde Abbey. In the 19th century, an amateur archaeologist explored the altar of this abbey and dug up what he thought were Alfred’s bones. The vicar of St. Bartholomew’s later bought them for ten shillings and reburied them.

Records show there are five skulls and various other bones in the grave. While radiocarbon dating them and determining the age and sex is a simple affair, proving that one of them is Alfred will be a lot more difficult. In the dig in Leicester, the archaeologists were able to find direct descendants of Richard III to supply DNA for testing. Alfred lived centuries before Richard, however, and this makes it tricky to find a direct descendant.

The Diocese of Winchester said in a statement that the matter is being looked into.

Alfred left an enduring mark on the English consciousness. Many places bear his name, including places he probably never visited such as Alfred’s Castle on the Ridgeway Trail. It’s said Alfred defeated the Vikings nearby in 871. In fact the “castle” is a hill fort dating to about the sixth century B.C. If you’re in Oxford, go to the Ashmolean Museum and check out the Alfred jewel, made by order of the king himself and shown here courtesy John W. Schulze.

Five places to see shrunken heads

srunken head, shrunken heads
Call me sick, but I’ve always been fascinated with shrunken heads.

“OK, you’re sick!”

Fine, but you’re still reading this, aren’t you?

Throughout history many cultures took heads as trophies, including the ancestors of many Gadling readers–the Celts. Celtic warriors used to cut the heads off of enemies and attach them to their chariots to look extra intimidating in battle. Japanese samurai, Maori warriors, and angry peasants in the French Revolution all took enemy heads as trophies.

Yet only one culture, the Jivaro of South America, actually shrank heads. Living in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Peru, the Jivaro people developed the strange custom of cutting off an enemy’s head and shrinking it down to the size of a man’s fist. Called tsantsa, these shrunken heads served not only as proof of a warrior’s valor but also as a way to destroy the victim’s spirit, which might otherwise take revenge.

The process was gruesome but simple. Different sources give different recipes. This one comes from the well-researched site Head Hunter. Once you get a head, cut open the back so the skin and hair can be peeled from the skull. Throw the skull into a river as an offering to the anaconda. Sew the eyes shut, and close the mouth with wooden spikes or thorns. Boil the head for no more than two hours, then turn the skin inside out to clean off any nasty residue. Turn the skin right side out and sew up the slit you cut in the back.

%Gallery-126587%To shrink further, drop hot stones through the neck hole. Roll them around to ensure even heating and prevent any unsightly burn marks. The head will continue to shrink until the neck hole is too small to allow stones to enter. Now use hot sand to shrink the head even more. Press hot stones against the face to singe off any excess hair and shape the face to look nice, and use a hot machete to dry the lips, which will not have shrunk as much as the rest of the head.

Now put three chonta, or palm thorns, through the lips and tie them together with long, decorative string. Hang it over a fire to harden. You may also want to blacken the skin with charcoal to avoid the man’s spirit from seeing out. Pierce a hole through the top of the head so you can put a string through and wear your trophy around your neck.

The whole process takes about a week but with a bit of patience and practice, you’ll have a keepsake of your favorite battle and a surefire icebreaker at parties.

Shrunken heads fascinated early European explorers. They became a hot commodity and warfare increased in order to meet the demand. Often tribesmen found it easier and safer to make a fake head by using an animal head or making one out of leather. Some researchers estimate that up to 80% of all heads on display in museums are actually fake. This week a study was released of a DNA analysis of a shrunken head in an Israeli museum that turned out to be genuine. Researchers are hoping to test more heads to determine if they’re legit.

Some fake heads are actually real, in a sense. When a warrior killed an enemy but couldn’t get the head for whatever reason, or killed an enemy who was a blood relative and therefore wasn’t allowed to take the head, he could make a head from that of a sloth as a stand-in. Magically this was considered a real tsantsa.

Controversy over displaying human remains and the demands by some tribes to have them back has meant that many museums have removed their displays of shrunken heads. So where can you still see these little darlings?

Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia. This branch of Ripley’s fun chain of museums has several shrunken heads on display.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, Seattle, Washington. Forget the Space Needle, this is the coolest attraction in Seattle. Once you’ve seen the real shrunken heads, head over the the gift shop to buy a cruelty-free replica.

Lightner Museum, Saint Augustine, Florida. This huge collection of nineteenth century bric-a-brac housed in an old mansion is an odd place to find a shrunken head collection, but people collected all sorts of things back then.

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, England. Britain’s favorite museum has artifacts from all the world’s cultures, including a display case full of shrunken heads and trophy heads.

Madrid, Spain. Get a double dose of headhunting here at the Museo de América and the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

If you’d rather do some armchair traveling, check out the shrunken heads flickr group and Doc Bwana’s Shrunken Head Museum online.

Do you know of any other places still exhibiting shrunken heads? Tell us about it in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Joe Mabel. In my opinion these are fakes, mostly made from monkeys, but they do look cool]

The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Leather Man, Leatherman, Old Leather Man, The Old Leather ManInvestigators in Connecticut are planning to uncover a local legend, but they’re facing a backlash of public sentiment.

An archaeological team will open the grave of The Old Leather Man, a mysterious wanderer who from 1883 to 1889 walked a 365 mile loop from the lower Hudson River Valley into Connecticut and back. It took him 34 days to make the journey and he was so punctual that well-wishers used to to have meals ready for him when he showed up. He spoke French but little English, slept only in caves and rock shelters, and never revealed information about himself. He got his name from his homemade, 60 lb. suit of leather.

His grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery brings a regular flow of the curious, but local officials are afraid it’s too close to the street and is a safety hazard. They plan to dig up The Old Leather Man and move him to a different part of the cemetery. They also want to take a DNA sample. Legend claims he was a heartbroken Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, but Leather Man biographer Dan W. DeLuca says this is an invention of a newspaper of the time.

The DNA might prove a clue to who he really was and that’s where the controversy starts. History teacher Don Johnson has set up a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone, saying that his privacy should be respected. Judging from all the comments on his site, he seems to have a fair amount of backing.

As a former archaeologist I love unraveling a good mystery but I have to agree with Mr. Johnson on this one. The Old Leather Man obviously wanted his identity to remain unknown, and just because he was a homeless man why should his wishes be ignored? He never committed any crime besides vagrancy, he died of natural causes, and there are no known inheritance issues, so what’s the need?

As a teenager growing up in the Hudson Valley, I loved the mysteries of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–the strange rock constructions, the Revolutionary War ghosts, Mystery Hill, and, of course, The Old Leather Man. Most of this is the stuff of imagination, but The Old Leather Man was real, living person.

And because of that, we should let his mystery remain buried.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The unquiet grave of Jesse James

Jesse James, Frank James, Old West, Wild West, outlaws, Missouri
Jesse James never got any peace. He grew up in western Missouri in the 1850s, where a bitter border war with Kansas was the background to his childhood. He was a teenager when the Civil War started and got beaten up by a Union militia. Eventually he joined a group of Confederate guerrillas, and when the war was lost he was unable or unwilling to return to civilian life. His years as an outlaw were ones of constant struggle, and even after he got assassinated by Robert Ford in St. Joseph, Missouri, he didn’t rest easy.

After his death rumors started circulating that he wasn’t really dead. Some claimed he had murdered someone so he could get away from the police, but Jesse craved publicity and often sent boasting letters to the press. Giving all that up for a life of anonymity doesn’t fit with his character. Some say Robert Ford had in fact killed Wood Hite, Jesse’s cousin. There’s good evidence that he did, but this was a year before he shot Jesse James. In fact, fear over Jesse’s finding out who killed his cousin became one of the main reasons Ford betrayed him.

Other stories claim Ford killed a different man. Both versions would have us believe that Ford was part of a conspiracy to hide Jesse from the law, something Jesse had been doing successfully for almost twenty years. They would also have us believe that all of Jesse’s friends, family, and associates were in on the conspiracy and took the truth to their graves. Jesse’s body was on display in an open casket both in St. Joseph and Kearney and nobody at the time voiced any doubt that the dead man was Jesse.

This didn’t stop a steady string of impostors from hitting the carnival trail looking to make a quick buck. This infuriated Jesse’s surviving relatives and if any of the impostors dared come through Missouri they’d end up face to face with a real member of the James family, and an angry one at that.

%Gallery-108698%Over time these impostors reduced in number, but even as late as the 1930s old men were puttering around telling anyone who’d listen that they were Jesse James. In 1931 a fellow named John James claimed to be Jesse, but when questioned by family members couldn’t answer basic questions about the family, such as the name of Archie, the half-brother killed in the Pinkerton raid on the James farm. Frank James’ wife Annie brought him Jesse’s boots and challenged him to try them on. Jesse had had unusually small feet, and like O.J.’s gloves, the boots didn’t fit.

But John James continued to claim he was Jesse. It only ended when his brother signed an affidavit that John was lying and put him in a mental institution. It turns out John James really had been a an outlaw. Back in 1926, at the age of 79, he’d killed a man who tried to collect a loan of 50 cents!

Then another impersonator appeared. J. Frank Dalton was first brought to the public’s attention in the 1940s by Ray Palmer, editor of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and perpetrator of the famous Shaver Mystery, which got thousands of Americans believing that malevolent underground robots were zapping people with mind control rays and sleeping with Earth women. Compared with that, Dalton’s story is almost believable. Well, not really. Dalton played the rodeo circuit claiming to be Jesse and told wild tales of how he was a fighter pilot in World War One at the age of 69. Stretching credibility even further, two of his gang members toured with him. All three claimed to be over 100 years old. Dalton spent his last years doing promotional work for Meramec Caverns in Missouri, celebrating his (alleged) 103rd birthday there along with a Billy the Kid impostor.

In 1950 Dalton went to court to change his name back to Jesse James. The judge made the wise ruling that: “There is no evidence here to show that this gentleman, if he ever was Jesse James, has ever changed his name. If his name has never been changed, he is still Jesse James in name and there is nothing for this court to pass on. . .If he isn’t what he professes to be, then he is trying to perpetrate a fraud upon this court.” Dalton died the next year.

Jesse James wasn’t the only person who attracted impostors. His wife Zee and brother Frank had their share of impostors too. It didn’t take much to get a media frenzy going, and there was easy cash to be taken from the gullible. This is common with important historical figures. Everyone from Bloody Bill Anderson to Hitler have accumulated stories of their survival. It seems we don’t want to let these people go, even if we actually want them dead.

All these stories caused no end of headaches for the James family. At first Jesse was buried at the James Farm in order to keep the grave safe from relic hunters. Eventually he was moved to the family plot at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney, Missouri. Doubts about who was really in the grave lingered, however, until in 1995 his remains were exhumed and subjected to DNA testing. When compared with the DNA living descendants, it was found that the body was, indeed, Jesse James. Descendants of some of the hoaxers were on hand for the results, and they insist the DNA tests don’t prove anything. Stories continue to circulate about how Jesse James survived his assassination.

The legend lives on. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.