BewitchedThink about it for a moment: when the Leader of the Opposition can’t even define what a woman is, we have to accept we’re somewhere we haven’t been before. A war, by contrast, seems disturbingly familiar, something as regular as night following day; an instinctive revulsion towards conflict is as old and deep-rooted as conflict itself, so our collective response to it is a relatively universal one. Yet to have a prominent political figure with ambitions to be Prime Minister incapable of publicly admitting that men don’t have cervixes and don’t menstruate is the kind of development to which we have no prepared reaction on account of few anticipating we would get to this plateau of preposterousness. Even those of us who picked up on the genesis of the unhinged religion that is Identity Politics long before it seized control parodied it in the assumption a spoof would never be out-spoofed by real life. However, numerous satirical shorts of my own, produced back in the distant days of the 2010s – when we hadn’t quite scaled what Rod Liddle has referred to as ‘Peak Wank’ – are routinely discovered by newcomers to my YT channel, shocked and amazed that videos up to four or five years old can seem so relevant to the here and now.

The fact is I was satirising the embryonic Identity Politics of the era, exaggerating them beyond reality and knowing all the time my takes on them were deliberately ridiculous. Fast forward to 2022 and not only do we have the man who wants to rule the country struggling to own up to biological fact, but his increasingly deranged Caledonian comrade north of the border is surpassing satire once again. Anyone who remembers my ’25 Hour News’ series might recall a story in which the Met were poised to charge half-a-dozen dead Vikings with gang-raping a dead Saxon maiden, overlooking the fact all parties had been deceased for several centuries. Another video was a BBC1 trailer informing viewers of various virtue signalling acts in remembrance of events that occurred long before living memory – a minute’s silence for victims of the Black Death, a memorial service to honour the victims of the Battle of Waterloo, a tribute concert to the victims of the Thirty Years’ War, a charity football match raising money for the victims of the Battle of Agincourt and so on. All patently ludicrous, but parodying the contemporary vogue for wallowing in victimhood, misery and suffering, regardless of how irrelevant the pain of the past is to the present day.

Ah, yes – the present day, the day in which satire is rendered redundant (and, knowing the Scottish National Party’s penchant for criminalising humour, probably outlawed). Step forward once more, wee Ms Krankie. Considering the damage done to Scotland by the SNP’s pandemic policies – not to mention all the nation’s problems that were being summarily neglected with spectacular ineptitude even before the coronavirus exposed Nicola Sturgeon’s totalitarian tartan – the latest public announcement from the First Minister exceeds all expectations. Last week, Sturgeon decided now is the right time to issue a public apology on behalf of the Scottish Government for those unfortunate Scots tried and executed as witches. In case you’d forgotten – which is understandable, considering you had yet to be born – the last recorded evidence of a Scottish person being put to death for the crime of witchcraft was in the Year of Our Lord Seventeen Hundred and Six; just to clarify the urgency of the apology, that’s 316 years ago.

Well, witch-hunting was even more popular in Scotland than England back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with three times as many witchcraft prosecutions taking place there than south of the border; it’s estimated around 1,500 ‘witches’ were put to death by the State in Scotland, helped in no small part by the first sovereign to rule both kingdoms, James I of England (and VI of Scotland). Obsessed with the threat of the occult and the presence of necromancy in the country of his birth, James established royal commissions to hunt down witches, he supervised the torture of them when captured, and he even wrote a melodramatic book on the subject, ‘Daemonologie’; as kings were then viewed as God’s representatives on earth, his rant was taken by many as Gospel. The only positive legacy of the book is that it allegedly served as an inspiration for ‘Macbeth’; its more immediate impact was to further legitimise James’s beliefs and reinforce the barbaric punishments inflicted upon those suspected of supernatural practices that had been enshrined in law since the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 – an Act not finally repealed until 1736.

There’s no getting away from the fact that the fatal punishments inflicted upon those convicted of witchcraft were brutal – though it also has to be remembered that most executions at the time were not necessarily renowned for their humane manner: hanging, drawing and quartering, being burned alive at the stake, beheading – all featured in the executioner’s handbook and offered spectators a wide variety of blood-sports when they turned out in vast numbers come match-day. Torture was deemed a legitimate means of extracting a confession before the accused met his or her maker, usually achieved through employing sleep deprivation or the occasional tools of the torture chamber such as the crushing of feet in an instrument known as ‘the boots’ – a treatment memorably endured by Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’.

The unique Scottish approach to detecting witchcraft included a method known as ‘pricking’, whereby the belief that a witch could feel no physical pain enabled professional pricks – or prickers – to insert needles and pins into the accused’s flesh, although the sadistic fraudulence of this practice eventually played its part in bringing about the end of witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. Yes, it was a horrible and hysterical period of British – and particularly Scottish – history, characterised by waves of superstitious fervour such as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597, when around 200 people were executed over a period of seven months.

Although some men were tried and put to death as warlocks, most of the victims were women, and modern perception of the whole bloody escapade is to view it through the prism of the historical oppression of women by men. Yes, it is true that these incidents tended to take place during times of economic crises, the times when scapegoats are often sought by authorities as sacrificial lambs in order to deflect attention from their own failings; but the fact women suffered far more than men suggests a pervasive fear of women asserting any form of independence within communities, such as being midwives. The nature of the charges also implied a deep-rooted paranoia surrounding female sexuality, as many of the examples of ‘witchcraft’ cited were connected to sexual spells allegedly cast upon blameless men by the wicked accused.

In recent years historical witch-hunts have become inserted into the feminist narrative, and the religious-like fanaticism of extreme activists dedicated to the Identity Politics faith has been manifested in the targeting of blasphemous heathens, using tactics that are reminiscent of the way witch-finders pursued their victims; at the same time, the cult of victimhood so central to the Identity Politics philosophy has portrayed the pursuers as the victims rather than the pursued. In this respect, a revival of interest in ye olde witch-hunts is certainly timely. So deep were the scars left by this era that the term ‘witch-hunt’ remains one still used whenever the mob is stirred into illogical mania by an irresponsible individual or group of individuals with a vested personal interest in the persecution of innocents, though the continued use of the phrase doesn’t mean the age of the actual witch-hunts has any relevance to, or bearing on, the lives of anybody lived in the last three centuries. One would imagine there are more pressing issues pertinent to 2022, though someone forgot to inform Nicola Sturgeon.

© The Editor




ArbuckleA major celebrity is accused of rape; the media report on the accusation and subsequent trial with sensational relish, exhibiting the worst aspects of what was once called ‘yellow journalism’ by portraying the accused as a monster and preempting a verdict by assuming guilt; puritanical pressure groups call for his execution and colleagues are warned not to speak up on his behalf at the risk of damaging their own popularity and being implicated by association; the prosecutor at the celebrity’s trial has ulterior motives, pressurising witnesses to make false statements and concluding the accused is guilty after being fed lurid stories from a convicted fraudster, successfully blackening the accused’s character in the process; the end result is a mistrial and the case is drawn out into two further trials, almost as though the powers-that-be are more concerned with establishing guilt than accepting innocence in order to save face; the publicity causes the celebrity’s work to be censored and excised from circulation, in some cases destroyed completely; his career is ruined and his reputation permanently tarnished as a consequence, even though eventually cleared of all charges; the legal cost of the three trials forces him to sell his house and places him on the brink of bankruptcy without the means of earning a living from his former career.

Although this sorry story may seem uncomfortably prescient, it actually stems from over ninety years ago and the celebrity in question was silent movie star, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Learning nothing from history seems to be a contemporary curse and in the case of poor old Arbuckle, everything that has become commonplace in courtrooms over the past couple of years already had precedents stretching back to the early 1920s. Oscar Wilde is a name that is frequently evoked when describing some recent show trials involving accusations of historical sex crimes, but the closer one studies the case of Fatty Arbuckle, the closer the parallels with present day miscarriages of justice seem.

A century ago, silent cinema’s obvious absence of onscreen dialogue meant that it crossed all language barriers in a way that ‘talkies’ never have and the stars it produced became international household names with remarkable rapidity at a time when there was no comparable competition in terms of mass media. Someone such as Charlie Chaplin at the peak of his popularity was perhaps the most recognisable man on the planet, enjoying a level of worldwide fame that only The Beatles and Diana, Princess of Wales have experienced in recent decades.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was up there with Chaplin and Keaton in the 1910s, mentoring the former and discovering the latter (as well as giving an early break to a young comedian by the name of Bob Hope). A former child prodigy, ironically famed for his powerful singing voice, Arbuckle’s natural comedic talent saw him progress to the Vaudeville circuit whilst still in his teens. As a means of subsidising his stage career, he made extra cash appearing in the nascent Hollywood movie industry’s comedy shorts, including the famous Mack Sennett Keystone Cops series. He soon rose through the ranks, as was possible in those early days, to found his own film company and take complete control of his increasingly profitable output. Audiences responded favourably and by the turn of the 20s, ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was known and loved across the globe. Then it all came crashing down.

From all accounts, Arbuckle was a kindly gentleman whose shyness around the opposite sex maybe stemmed from his huge bulk; but he made his name in an industry that was attracting the attention of fanatical moral lobbyists that were finding examples of depravity and decadence in all aspects of popular culture, whether jazz, the movies or alcohol; they were already responsible for outlawing the latter and when a sordid story emerged from a San Francisco party in 1921, one at which Arbuckle was present, they viewed it as symptomatic of Hollywood’s corrupting influence on the nation. It was just the scandal they, and the newspapers of William Randolph Hurst (the Murdoch of his day), had been waiting for.

A minor actress named Virginia Rappe was also at the said party; when the illicit hooch being served had a dramatic effect on her, the doctor resident at the hotel at which the party was held dispensed morphine to calm her down; what the medical man was unaware of was that Rappe suffered from a condition that alcohol exacerbated. She already had a reputation for drinking too much and then ripping off her clothes when afflicted by the resulting pain and was also in poor physical health due to a series of botched abortions. She wasn’t hospitalised until two days after the San Francisco party, by which time it was too late. Rappe died of peritonitis courtesy of a ruptured bladder. Prior to her death, Rappe’s friend Bambina Maud Delmont claimed Rappe had been raped by Arbuckle, despite an examination revealing no evidence. The police came to the decision that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by the weight of Arbuckle and arrested him on charges of rape and manslaughter.

When the case went to trial, the world’s media reported it in a manner we’d find all-too familiar today. The prosecutor had ambitions to run for governor and derived most of his accusations against Arbuckle from Bambina Maud Delmont’s vivid imagination; that she had a track record of numerous dubious activities of an illegal nature perhaps prevented the prosecutor from allowing her to take the stand, which would have undoubtedly exposed her as an unreliable witness. After two weeks, the jury’s indecision was underlined by the presence of a juror connected to the DA’s office who had claimed she was determined to find Arbuckle guilty. Unsurprisingly, the jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.

Arbuckle had to endure a second trial whilst fantastically gruesome accounts of him raping Rappe with a bottle circulated in the Hearst press. One of the prosecution witnesses was an ex-studio security guard who it eventually transpired was in the middle of being charged with sexual abuse of a minor, yet even this revelation and the fact that Rappe’s history of drunken promiscuity was documented couldn’t alter the bias against Arbuckle after months of sensational headlines. The jury was again unable to decide and only after a third trial, by which time Bambina Maud Delmont was touring the country and exploiting her infamy, was Arbuckle finally acquitted.

Arbuckle left court a free man, but the legacy of the trial was something he couldn’t shake off. He was temporarily banned from making movies by the man who introduced the notorious Hays Code to clean-up Hollywood and received financial assistance from Buster Keaton until the ban was lifted. The effect of everything he’d been through led to Arbuckle to seek solace in the bottle and the little movie work he could find in the years after the trials couldn’t return him to the status he’d enjoyed before them. He died from a heart attack in 1933, aged just 46, unable to live down the scandal that had also resulted in the prints of many of his movies being incinerated, lost forever.

What Roscoe Arbuckle went through almost a hundred years ago has unnerving echoes in the present day. The inconsistencies and holes in the evidence against him, not to mention the unreliability of the witnesses and jurors as well as the ulterior motives of the prosecutor, the influence of moral crusaders, the deliberate destruction of his work and the biased reporting of the press, all appear to constitute a user manual for future witch-hunts. There are many lessons that could have been learned from the fate meted out to Fatty Arbuckle; unfortunately, the wrong side learned them.

© The Editor