Notable Historical Trials IV – Burke and Hare

English: Burke's execution in the Lawnmarket, ...

Another chapter down in the Folio Society series on Historical Trials.  This begins the fourth and final volume.

English: Description: Portraits of serial kill...

Serial killers William Hare and William Burke circa 1850 Source: Article: Burke and Hare murders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the study of medicine created an increasing demand of human cadavers for study that could not be fulfilled easily because it was more or less illegal.  As you might expect there soon was a black market trade in corpses set up to supply the need.

The scandal of grave robbers digging up the recently interred was bad enough.  The practice of finding indigent people and whisking them away was distasteful.  But when Burke and Hare were found to have been ‘cutting out the middle man’ by killing people and selling them to the medical trade it was too much.  The trial was a sensation.

The police had a bit of a problem, since the evidence of the bodies save the last one had been used up by the medical college.  They needed some sure-fire evidence, and decided to get it by giving Hare immunity in exchange for his testimony.  He testified, and Burke was hanged.

Hare had trouble after the trial in 1828, having to dodge mobs. He fled to England from Scotland but was recognized by some factory workers who blinded him with lime. He lived out his life after that as a beggar in London.  In 1832, the laws were changed to relax the restrictions on getting cadavers through legal means and these kind of practices were more or less eliminated.

The Lombard Invasion – Thomas Hodgkin

I just finished Book Five in Hodgkin’s series on the barbarian invasions of Rome and Italy, published by the Folio Society. As time goes on, the focus of the volumes concentrate primarily on events in Italy, with information on its neighbors only when it impinges on the situation in Italy.

Up until this point, the invasions have not changed the fact that Italy remained a single political unit – Odoacer replaced the West Empire, the Ostrogoths replaced Odoacer, and in the last book the Eastern Roman Empire crushed and replaced the Ostrogoths. But almost at once after that, the Lombards invaded Italy from the region of the Danube where the previous troubles had also come from.  The difference was that the Lombards were not able to totally eject the Byzantines, taking slabs of Italy for themselves and leaving a collection of enclaves along the coast,  This started the divided Italy that would persist until the 19th Century.

The Lombards themselves were more divided than previous invaders – their lands were separated into duchys that cooperated only fitfully with each other.  For a time the Lombard dispensed with a king altogether.

In the face of this invasion, the Byzantine exarch did little, and failed at most of what he did attempt.  One effect this had — the Papacy, technically loyal subjects of the Empre, came into increased prominence.  Under a particularly strong Pope, Gregory the Great, the Papacy became a stronger player in Italy with every passing year, ransoming captives from the ‘unspeakable Lombards’ as well as running its own properties across the country.  The schisms in the Church, where the Imperial government supported the other side also helped develop the independency of the Papacy from the East.  This would only grow as the reach of Constantinople faded and the religious differences grew leading up to the final separation of the Eastern Orthodox from the Catholics.

Related articles

Cryoburn – Lois McMaster Bujold


cryoburn (Photo credit: cdrummbks)

Cryoburn is the one of the latest Vorkosigan novels…well it is the latest I’ve read.  Years and Years ago I made a rule that I would wait for the small paperback versions of fiction books to save on cost, so new offerings are delayed considerably.

Is it a good book – absolutely.  The entire series is very good, mixing action, character, humor and some anguish in a way that makes the world seem real.  Things aren’t always easy and safe in this universe.

In this book, Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor – designated trouble sniffer and fixit man for the Emperor of Barrayar – is sent off to investigate a world that is heavily into cryogenics – freezing clients long-term until medicine can fix their problems.  They are expanding into Barrayar and the Empress smells something fishy.

Well, I’m not going to tell the story here – there’s some nifty figuring out to be done and some people in trouble to be helped out.  I actually like the fact that not all of the books in the series are about world-shattering clashes of armies and fleets – this series has avoided the ‘problem’ that the Harrington series has had where character growth has led the main character into a background position.  And this series has always been more about individual characters than about the actions even when the action is furious.

America’s Civil War – Brian Holden Reid

Subtitled “The Operational Battlefield 1861-1863”, this book was something of a disappointment.  I was expecting something more in-depth about the movement of armies or units – in military parlance, Operational is the level between Tactics and Strategy.

Instead this is just a high level history of the first two-thirds of the war, and is the center of a proposed three book set.  Not having read his first, and the last being unwritten, this left something to be desired.  As a devotee of the American Civil War, most general texts just don’t have enough meat in them to satisfy.  SInce this book doesn’t even reach the end, so much the worse.

The book does a fine job of detailing the overall campaigns.  I did get a bit weary of the reflexive defense of Lee in particular from ‘critics’ on his aggressiveness and the cost in casualties.  To aid in this he takes the line of trying to counter other ‘critics’ that say that the quest for a decisive battle in this war was mistaken.  This is hard to do, due to the facts that there were no decisive battles in the war in the classic sense.  This reduces to saying that everyone who fought in the war just stunk, and a good general would have done better.

Now if the book had really worked at this and made a good case, I might have enjoyed it more.  As it is, there isn’t enough space for a defense or to make a case, so it plays out as just an assertion without facts to back it up.  It probably would have been better to just leave it all out entirely.

As an overview, I guess I can recommend it, but I would get the first volume on the Origins and read it.  If you are looking for depth, though, you might want to go elsewhere.  Foote’s Civil War is still my recommendation, since it give you both depth and overview in a very readable format.  It is a classic, even at 50+ years.

The Imperial Restoration – Thomas Hodgkin

This is volume 4 of Hodgkin’s work on “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire”.  A better title for this series might be ‘The wars in Italy from 350 AD – 900 or so AD’.  The focus for the most part is on Italy itself, and the Western Empire fell at the end of Volume II.

In this volume, the Eastern Empire is making a comeback, first taking out the Vandals in North Africa.  General Belisarius, one of the most admired leaders in history, takes out the nation that had resisted attack from Rome for 50 years until Rome fell.  It is a tribute to how good a leader Gaiseric was that only a generation later the Vandals are almost helpless in defending their land.

The next step was the invasion of Italy. Belisarius took an absurdly small army, only a few thousand men, and took Naples and Rome before the Goths could manage to organize themselves.  The nasty King Theodahad was deposed and then killed, but the new King Witigis was not an effective leader.  He managed to besiege Rome, and cut the aqueducts that made a populous civilized city, but he could not take it.  Eventually disease reduced his army enough that Witigis retired to Ravenna.

But soon the cracks in the Imperial armor began to show.  Lesser officers began to disobey Belisarius, causing defeats and interfering with his campaign.  Belisarius managed to overcome this and take Ravenna and reduce Gothic resistance to a few cities in the north before his recall.

With Belisarius gone, and the Goths electing a new King – Totila, they made a comeback.  Imperial dissention did not end with Belisarus’ recall, and the individual forces were isolated and defeated one by one.  In just a few years the gains of the initial campaigns were lost and the Imperials were reduced to a few enclaves about the country.

Belisarius was sent back, but without any forces to fight with.  Partly this was due to Justinian’s peevishness, and partly due to the ravages of plague in the East.  Belisarius managed to retake Rome and withstand another siege, but he was not able to do more and was recalled a second time.

Finally, after 16 years of back and forth, Justinian finally sent a general and an army that could actually win.  The new general was Narses, a 75 year old eunuch, seems strange to say the least.  But he had skill, and better yet he had the backing of the Emperor, so that the disobedience of subordinate generals pretty much ends.  With a large army and a unified front, the Goths were in trouble.

Soon Totila and his army were met in battle and defeated, and Totila was killed.  With no leadership, many exhausted Goths gave in.  Soon the last fragments of Gothic resistance were crushed and the Imperials were masters of Italy, although it was a country devastated by twenty years of war.

In Fire Forged – David Weber et al.

This book is “Worlds of Honor #5”  which denotes that it is an anthology of stories by Weber and other authors set in the Honor Harrington universe.  The stories are all pretty good, and Weber’s own is especially welcome because it involves Honor in the past, before she became as high ranked as she is ‘now’ in the latest books.

As in real life, success brings promotion and you can’t be a ship captain or even admiral forever even if those make the best stories. The recent main books are strategic, with large casts and events taking place all over the place.  This is all well and good, but there’s still a need for the smaller stories with just a few characters facing problems that will not destroy the world.

Dividing the Spoils – Robin Waterfield

This is a pretty interesting book on the period just after the death of Alexander the Great, when his successors fought it out to see who, if anyone, could claim the his entire empire.

This is a period of history that I’m not all that familiar with, and this short but comprehensive treatment was rewarding if a bit confusing with the large number of players involved.  There are a dozen or so generals, two or three puppet-king heirs, a few conniving women powers behind the throne, and even a guest shot by Alexander the Great’s corpse, which gets stolen by one of the claimants on the way to Macedon to be buried.  It was an interesting time

I was a bit distracted with illness as I read this so a second reading might help with the cast of thousands.

An interesting take that the author has is how Alexander’s personal influence seemed to keep those that knew him tied to the dream of unification of the entire empire through war with the other successors.  When the next generation came to power, the contest was pretty much at once settled by dividing the land up between them.  But nobody who knew Alex was satisfied with half a loaf, even though many lost it all by reaching for the entire thing and ended up with nothing.

Wings of War – Peter Harclerode

Subtitled “Airborne Warfare  1918-1945, this fat 650 page tome details the growth and use of airborne troops by every nation and their use in detail.  Want to know all about the Russian use of airborne troops in 1941?  It’s in there!

I suppose the general lesson is that these kind of operations – mass air landings take a lot of resources and tend to have disappointing results.  So even if the original smaller scale drops seem to work, the translation up to dropping a brigade or division tends to fail.

The downside of having these forces at all is that you spend the time to make some elite infantry, then you have them sit about waiting to fight, drop them off with limited heavy weapons behind enemy lines and have them ground to powder.  Losses tend to be high even for successful operations – 30-50 percent.  Failed ones, such as the British 1st AB Division near Arnhem in 1944 are even worse, since airborne units are dedicated enough to fight and take losses longer than your average unit.

Almost every nation followed a similar trajectory of early small-scale use, followed by some big operations and then retrenchment for the rest of the war.  The Germans did virtually no operations after Crete.  The Russians did a lot of drops early in the war and trailed off later. The Allies in Europe ramped up to Market-Garden and then trailed off.  Their final drop, Varsity, was an almost comically limited operation,  Montgomery dropped a bunch of paratroopers just over the Rhine, within sight of his lines.  They still took a pounding, and you can’t help but wonder if they would have done just as well crossing in rubber rafts as dropping down.

Probably the best use in the war of airborne and air supported operations was the Chindits in Burma.  These troops were landed in the far rear to interrupt the Japanese supply lines so they did not have the usual problems of being surrounded and continually attacked by reserves that drops nearer a front line usually had.  They were supported by air and lived off the land, and kept continual pressure on the Japanese.  They were so useful that they were kept out there until disease and exhaustion wrecked the units about as severely as sustained combat would have.

Smaller scale operations, like we have Special Forces do today, seem like the best use.  These tend to be fast, so that the units get out before mass reaction can be made or the units exhausted.   The operations where large numbers of troops were expected to hold a front for long periods were much less successful and had a high cost for everyone.

Notable Historical Trials III – Queen Caroline

This is the last trial in Volume III of the Folio Society’s collection of historical Trials.

This one involves Queen Caroline, the wife of King George IV.  She had been married to the Prince Regent for some years, and she had her income and status.  Of late she had taken up living on the Continent to avoid him.   When George III died, the new king decided to cut off her allowance and revoke her title as Queen.

She decided to take him to court for it.  She had the sympathy of most, since George was so unpopular.  In the end she won the case, but died soon afterwards herself.  It reminds one a bit of the problems with Lady Diana and the Prince of Wales these days.

Notable Historical Trials III – Abraham Thornton


This chapter in the Folio Society’s series on Trials is a famous trial, if not about a famous person or event.  It is the last trial where “Trial by Combat” was requested – and the fellow got off because of it.

Aside from that, I knew little of the trial and assumed it was an attempt to get a guilty man off.  The real trial was more interesting and turned what I thought I knew on its head.

Thornton had caught the eye of Mary Ashford at a ball, and the two of them had gone off and had sex.  Around dawn she had gone to where she was staying and changed to work clothes, and later that morning she was found dead in a pond on the way.  Thornton had an alibi for the time of death, being noted miles off at the time of death.  There were shoe prints in the area, but the tryst was in the same place so this didn’t mean a lot.

The first trial ended in his acquittal – and that seemed to be the end of it.  But with time the people of the area became more upset with the verdict and prejudiced against the result.  Finally an ‘appeal of murder’ was lodged against Thornton.  This obsolete procedure allowed a second trial to be brought against him for the same crime.  He was then thrown in jail, to await a new trial even though no new evidence was brought forward and much of the old evidence was lost.  To await in jail a retrial that could probably only have the result of a conviction seemed a bad idea.

Thus the defense of trial by battle – a countering obsolete procedure!  Since Thornton was a young man and the opposing attorney no match for him, if the defense by battle was allowed by the court he would go free.  Because of the circumstances – Thornton was probably innocent, the court allowed the defense.  Thornton had to emigrate to the USA to escape the mob howling after him, but he was free.

After this, both the appeal of murder and trial by battle were stricken from the law books.

What happened to Mary Ashford?  The most likely scenario was that she was attempting to clean herself in the pond before work and fainted and fell in.  She had been out all night, and not eaten in a considerable time.