“The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” Bessie Stringfield

16406668_409542266054528_4183621756802391740_nTo say she was an amazing woman would be an understatement. She was the first African-American woman to ride across the United States solo, and during World War II she served as one of the few motorcycle dispatch riders for the United States military.

Stringfield was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911 to a black Jamaican father and a white Dutch mother. The family migrated to Boston when she was still young. Her parents died when Stringfield was five and she was adopted and raised by an Irish woman.

At the age of 16 Stringfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle, a 1928 Indian Scout. In 1930, at the age of 19, she commenced traveling across the United States. She made seven more long-distance trips in the US, and eventually rode through the 48 lower states, Europe, Brazil and Haiti. During this time, she earned money from performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. Due to her skin color, Stringfield was often denied accommodation while traveling, so she would sleep on her motorcycle at filling stations. As a woman she was refused prizes in flat track races she entered.

During WWII Stringfield served as a civilian courier for the US Army, carrying documents between domestic army bases. She completed the rigorous training and rode her own blue 61 cubic inch Harley-Davidson. During the four years she worked for the Army, she crossed the United States eight times.

In the 1950s Stringfield moved to Miami, Florida, where at first she was repeatedly pulled over and harassed by officers due to her color. She decided to visit the police captain and they went to a nearby park to prove her riding abilities. She gained the captain’s approval to ride and didn’t have any more trouble with the police.

She qualified as a nurse there and founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She married and divorced six times, losing three babies with her first husband. She ended up keeping the last name of her third husband, Arthur Stringfield, since she had made it famous.16403434_409542252721196_6165113916667638356_o

In 1990 the AMA paid tribute to her in their inaugural “Heroes of Harley-Davidson” exhibition she having owned 27 of their motorcycles. Stringfield was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame the award bestowed by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) for “Superior Achievement by a Female Motorcyclist” is named in her honor.

She suffered from complications from an enlarged heart. It was a condition that she had been diagnosed with years earlier. Her doctors advised her not ride but she told him that she would not live long if she was unable to ride.
Stringfield died in 1993 at the age of 82 from that very same condition but she kept riding right up until the time of her death.


The St. Pierre Snake Invasion – The Eruption of Mt. Pelee

16142189_399279040414184_3529615096620384967_nIn the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, St. Pierre, Martinique was known as the “Paris of the West Indies”. It was renown for its red-tiled cottage, beautiful tropical plants and charming streets. Although most of the population of 20,000 were native Martiniquans, most of the wealthy were Creoles or French colonial officials. The only thing marring this paradise was the volcano looming over its picturesque streets. Citizens of the area were so use to the volcanic activity on the ‘bald mountain’, that no one took it seriously when the fresh steaming vent-holes and earth tremors stared during April 1902.

On April 23, 1902, minor explosions began at the summit of the volcano. By early May, ash began to rain down continuously, and the nauseating stench of sulfur filled the air. The homes on the mountainside were made uninhabitable. Even worse, more than 100 snakes slithered down and invaded the mulatto quarter of St Pierre. The 6-ft long serpents killed 50 people, mostly children, and many animals. There are reports of horses, pigs and dogs screaming as red ants and foot long centipedes crawled up their legs and bit them.

Things came to a head when on May 5, a landslide of boiling mud and water from the Etang Sec crater lake spilled into the River Blanche. Near the mouth of the river, 23 workman were killed in a rum distillery. This was followed by a tsunami that killed hundreds.

This naturally caused concern in the town, and many wanted to leave for Fort-de-France, Martinique’s second most important city. Unfortunately, this all coincided with a national election and public officials wanted to keep people in town to cast their ballots. They convened a committee to assess the danger, with the only scientist involved being a high school science teacher. The report they sent to Governor Louis Mouttet said “there is nothing in the activity of Mt. Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre.” It concluded that “the safety of St. Pierre is completely assured.” On the assurance of that report, people from the countryside flocked into St. Pierre for safety. They could not have been more wrong.16114838_399280073747414_7318282042199790981_n

Three days later, May 8, Mt Pelee finally exploded, sending a murderous avalanche of white-hot lava straight toward the town. Within three minutes, St Pierre was completely obliterated. There was a V shaped notched cut through the cliffs surrounding the summit crater. This acted as a gun sight pointing down at the town sending super-heated gas, ash and rock down at more than 100 miles per hour. The onslaught was enough to move a three ton statue sixteen meters from its base, and blow one meter thick masonry walls to smithereens. It continued down to the shore and hit the ships in the harbor with hurricane force, capsizing several ships killing their crews. The heat set rum warehouses and distilleries ablaze and sent rivers of flaming liquid through the streets.

Of its 30,000 population, there were only two people survived. Louis-Auguste Cyparis survived because he was in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like jail cell. Léon Compère-Léandre lived on the edge of the city and escaped with severe burns. Havivra Da Ifrile, a young girl, reportedly escaped with injuries during the eruption by taking a small boat to a cave down shore, and was later found adrift two miles from the island, unconscious. The event marked the only major volcanic disaster in the history of France and its overseas territories.


Fidel Castro

  15219505_373294583012630_3794604011135677008_nIn 2006, President George W. Bush said, “One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away.” On November 25, 2016, to the delight of Cubans both on the beautiful island nation and all over the world, Raul Castro announced the death of his brother, 90-year old dictator and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926, in Birán, a village in the province of Holguín to a wealthy family. His father was a well-respected and successful farmer – in fact, he owned a 23,000 acre plantation in the village. Castro then went on to study law at the University of Havana in 1945, where he was a classmate of my grandmother. While studying at the University of Havana, he began to develop leftist ideals and began to rebel against the imperialist notions of his family and the Cuban government, led by then-President Fulgencio Batista.
After developing more and more left-leaning policies and notions, Castro did not immediately rebel against his own country. He first led rebellions against right-leaning governments in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, honing his strategies for the day he would overthrow his own country’s government. Castro had always been a charismatic man, and he did not have much trouble gaining followers and convincing others to join his militia. In 1953, Castro returned to Cuba and attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, an attempt that failed miserably. He was imprisoned for a year.

Upon his release from prison, Castro traveled to Mexico and joined forces with his brother Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The trio called their group the 26th of July Movement. As more and more Cubans were tiring of the imperialistic rule of Fulgencio Batista, his rag-tag group gained more and more members. My great-uncle was one of those members. He later told me that he felt that the ideals Castro first espoused to his followers would be good for the nation, and would finally give the Cuban people the freedoms and independence they craved. The group hid in the Sierra Maestras and waged guerilla warfare upon Batista’s troops. While hiding in the Sierra Maestras, Castro and his leaders would summarily shoot any of their own men who showed any dissent or doubt about their leader’s true intentions. Che Guevara proved himself to be quite enthusiastic about permanently silencing any of those with doubts. Thus began Castro’s habit of murdering those who did not agree with him or completely support him.
After several battles and skirmishes, Castro and his men were ultimately successful, and on January 1, 1959 former President Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba. The nation was officially in the hands of Fidel Castro.

Following his decisive victory, Fidel Castro named himself Prime Minister of Cuba. Slowly but surely, Castro turned Cuba into a Communist nation, which would be the first in the Western Hemisphere. He began to limit freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and turned to a socialist form of government. As my great-uncle saw that his former hero had no intention of fulfilling his promises to aid the Cuban people and become a better, more empathetic leader to his countrymen, he began to fight against his former friend. My great-uncle and several other brave men and women formed the Contra-Revolución (Counter-Revolution) in an attempt to force Castro to live up the promises that had led so many to support Castro’s overthrow of Batista. He had seen too many of his friends and relatives killed because they had voiced a simple opinion, and he knew that Castro’s government would not be any different. Dissidents would be dealt with harshly. However, Castro had gained too much power by then, and a bounty was put on my great-uncle’s head. Castro wanted him dead, and he was hunted, his family threatened, and he was eventually forced to flee to the Brazilian Embassy and seek asylum there. Through the gates of the Embassy, he was able to kiss his wife and young children good-bye, and was given safe passage to the United States. It was a harrowing nightmare, fought by a brave man who had the foresight to see that Castro would become a dictator like his predecessor. He was not the only one who fought against Castro – however, he was one of just a few who survived speaking out against Castro. Others who were not so lucky were led to el paredón – a wall where they would face a firing squad for voicing their dissent or displeasing their leader in any other way.15181656_373294576345964_8870135671016597505_n

The members of the Contra-Revolución were not the only ones who did not have faith in the future of Castro’s leadership. The United States began to grow more and more worried about a Marxist leader only ninety miles to the south of Florida. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were not going to allow such a government to exist in such close proximity. In 1961, the United States government began to gather Cuban exiles who opposed Castro’s rule and barely escaped with their lives to the United States, in order to plan an invasion and overthrow Castro’s regime. These Cuban exiles were poorly trained, poorly instructed, and poorly armed, and the Bay of Pigs invasion was a stunning loss of life and an incredible failure on the part of the United States government.

Meanwhile, Castro began to reorganize the country and place an emphasis on the social aspect of the nation, while mostly ignoring the economic needs of the people and the country at large. While Castro did build many schools and expand and nationalize health care, which led to a drastic drop in the infant mortality rate, the country was still reliant on its allies for any economic support. At the same time, Castro quickly began to deny his citizens their basic human and civil rights, and many innocent Cubans were jailed and even killed for showing any political dissent. The notion of free speech was quickly cast aside, and religion was soon to follow. Cubans were not allowed to celebrate Christmas and any who did were thrown in jail. He also instituted a network wherein neighbors would spy on one another. In every neighborhood, a designated “watcher” would walk around, covertly listen in on conversations, watch their friends and loved ones, and report any “anti-government” behavior. Cubans would be sent to prison for owning a television when they were not supposed to, making a comment that could be construed as an insult towards their exalted leader, or even complaining that they did not have enough food to feed their family that week.

In retaliation for the Bay of Pigs, Castro began to ally himself with the Soviet Union. Of course, this made the United States government quite nervous, and thus began several decades of Cold War, with Cuba squarely in the middle. Throughout his alliance with the Soviet Union, Castro survived assassination attempt after assassination attempt, from an exploding cigar to a sniper attack. Somehow they were all bungled and Castro continued to reign.

In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, asked Castro to store Soviet missiles in Cuba. While at first nervous at the thought of having these missiles on his lands, Castro eventually agreed, as he thought it would enhance his country’s safety against his mortal enemy, the United States. The storage of these missiles led to the Cuban Missile Crisis from 1962 through 1968, a time of great fear and anxiety throughout the world.

Although the Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully enough, the United States eventually instituted an embargo against Cuba. Americans were forbidden to buy Cuban goods, and any trade between the two nations completely ceased (if it had even existed before).

The Cuban people lived on a system of rations, and because they lived in a Communist society, where a doctor would earn as much as a store clerk, many Cubans lost the incentive and drive to work. Why work hard (or work at all) when you would receive a check no matter how many hours you worked? Cubans who had been doctors would leave their jobs to become taxi drivers, because their fares and customers would pay in the currency of their home nations, which were worth more than Cuban pesos any day and would buy much on the black market. Cubans would stand in line for hours at a rations depot, and certain foods were reserved for certain members of society. For example, only new mothers and the elderly were granted access to milk. If a Cuban waited in line and the rations store was out of any item on their shopping list, they were out of luck until the next month. As I was told by Cubans who had come to the United States within recent years, many Cubans turned to eating stray cats or other animals because there was not enough meat.

15179205_373294573012631_39285926675322933_nAs Castro grew older, he took a less active role in politics but continued to give hours-long speeches to his people. In 2006, he stepped down and designated his brother Raúl as the Cuban president. Although Raúl announced the death of his brother and called it a “sad day” for the Cuban people, instituting a nine-day period of mourning, no cause of death has been announced.
To end on a personal anecdote – my grandparents left Cuba with their children in the 1960s, when, in a deal with the United States, Castro “opened the door” and let out those Cubans with family members in the United States who were willing to sponsor them. Once a Cuban was granted permission to leave, a barrage of military would arrive at the Cuban’s home and take inventory of every item in the home – after all, it was property of the state, not of the individual. On the day before the family was to leave for the United States, that same group of military men would return to the home. If one item was missing – one spoon, one picture frame – their permission was rescinded and they would be jailed. Additionally, the children of the families were treated as outcasts at their schools once it was announced that they were leaving. My mother, who was 8 years old when they began the process of leaving Cuba, was called a gusano (worm) by her classmates and was not allowed to participate in any school activities. This behavior was encouraged by the teachers and administration of the schools, as anyone who wanted to leave was seen as unpatriotic and traitorous. On the day they were to leave, each individual was allowed one small suitcase with one change of clothing, and any jewelry worn would be surrendered to the military at their leisure. My grandparents and their children survived this harrowing experience, but have never been able to return to the beautiful country of their roots.


The bizarre case of Clarvius Narcisse

14910324_358796457795776_8876916620078186167_nNarcisse age 40, arrived at a Haitian hospital on April 30, 1962. He was suffering from a fever, and he felt like bugs where crawling on his skin. Doctors noted a general physical deterioration, and immediately gave Narcisse a room. On May 2, 1962, he was pronounced dead. His family laid his body to rest in a cemetery near his village, l’Estere. He was placed in a coffin, nailed shut, and set within the earth. This should have been the end of his story.

In 1980, sixteen years later, Narcisse reappeared with a strange and hard to believe tale. He tells that after his funeral, late at night, his body was dug up by a man that had cursed him. He claimed the man was a powerful Haitian vodou sorcerer. The sorcerer beat Narcisse, bound him, and gave him a strange potion. He took Narcisse to a sugar plantation where other zombie slaves awaited. There, he put Narcisse to work, continuously injecting him with doses of the potion to maintain his zombie-like state. He claimed that he had become a lifeless husk bound to the powerful man. When the sorcerer died two years later, Narcisse escaped and roamed around for sixteen years until he found his way home.

Narcisse’s death and reappearance, is well documented, but what happened within the sixteen year time span is where things gets complicated. Some researchers believe the strange concoction that caused Narcisse to enter into a death-like coma was a combination of tetrodotoxin and bufotoxin (toxins from the puffer fish and toad) that where administered through the skin. The single greatest advocate for this was a graduate student from Harvard University, Wade Davis, who published two popular books based on his travels to Haiti. Subsequent scientific examinations have failed to support the presence of tetrodotoxin, that was central to the claims reported by Wade.

We may never know what actually happened to Narcisse, he passed away for the second and final time in 1994.


FROM CONSTANTINOPLE TO BARBADOS (VIA CORNWALL) -The strange fate of the last Byzantines

Picture Credits  1. The Barbados Pocket Guide.Com 2. Notes on Old Landulph Church by The Rev J H Adams (pub. 1930) 3. Westminster Abbey Library
Picture Credits
1. The Barbados Pocket Guide.Com
2. Notes on Old Landulph Church by The Rev J H Adams (pub. 1930)
3. Westminster Abbey Library

On the 29th of May 1453 Constantine XI Palaeologus, last Emperor of the Byzantines, died fighting the Ottoman Turks besieging his capital. With his death, the 1,000 year history of the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end but not all the imperial family perished in the Fall of Constantinople.
Some of the surviving Palaeologus clan ended up in Italy and in the late 1570s, a young man calling himself Theodore Palaeologus was banished from the Adriatic city of Pesaro after becoming mixed up in a murderous vendetta. Theodore, who claimed descent from the last Byzantine emperor’s brother, then vanishes from sight for several years but he reappears on the Greek Island of Chios, where he married the Byzantine princess Eudoxia Comnenus. In 1594 a daughter (Theodora) was born to this royal couple but Eudoxia must have died soon afterwards because in the late 1590s Theodore pops up in the Netherlands.

Like many landless princes, Theodore often fought as a mercenary and on this occasion he’d sold his sword to the English army helping Dutch rebels overthrow their Spanish-Hapsburg overlords. There’s also strong evidence that Theodore was part of Elizabeth I’s highly effective spy network where the skills he’d learned as a Pesaresi bravo (the original Italian word ‘bravo’ could mean ‘paid assassin’) must have come in handy.

Despite the unsavoury nature of his work, life with the English must have suited Theodore because, on May 1st 1600, he married a wealthy Suffolk heiress named Mary Ball. He continued to serve his adopted country well into the 1620s but, as the years began to take their toll, he tried to find a post better suited to a man of his age. In a letter dated 9th March 1628, Theodore asks the Duke of Buckingham (a favourite of both James I and Charles I) to find him a position and reminds the noble duke of the ‘good service’ he’d performed for the Prince of Orange as well as his own royal pedigree.

Though Buckingham was himself assassinated in August 1628, Theodore found another patron in his old comrade-in-arms Sir Nicholas Lower and he spent a comfortable retirement in the Cornish village of Landulph near Saltash. He lived at Clifton, Sir Nicholas’ manor house, and died peacefully in 1636. Theodore was survived by three sons and three daughters: his daughter with Eudoxia married a Greek prince in 1614 but his sons with Mary (Theodore II, John and Ferdinand) soon became embroiled in the bitter struggle between Charles I and his parliament.

During the English Civil War [1642-1651] many brothers found themselves in opposing armies and Theodore II, John and Ferdinand Palaeologus were no exception. Despite the royal blood in his veins, Theodore II became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Parliamentarian Army and served under Oliver, Lord St John. He fought at the battle of Edgehill and, when he was killed in the spring of 1644, Oliver arranged to have his friend’s body interred in the St John family vault inside Westminster Abbey!

By contrast, Theodore II’s brothers joined the Royalist forces and fought with a regiment commanded by a relative of their late father’s benefactor. John was killed at the Battle of Naseby [1645] but, after Charles I’s defeat and execution, Ferdinand escaped to his maternal grandfather’s estates in Barbados. He arrived in 1649 and died thirty years later a prosperous and respected planter. Ferdinand was survived by his son, Theodore III, and he’d left his two sisters behind in England – so what became of them?

A plaque in Landulph’s parish church of St Leonard & St Dilpe chronicles the pedigree of Theodore’s family and records that ‘Maria’ died unmarried in 1674. Dorothy however married William Arundell of St Mellion and died in 1681 but, after this, the English Palaeologus begin to fade from history.

Following the death of his father Ferdinand, Theodore III served in the English navy as a privateer (a sort of licensed pirate) but he was lost at sea c.1694. A few years later, a grandson of Theodora (daughter of Theodore I and Eudoxia) had his claim to the throne of the Byzantine Emperors recognised by the British Government but despite this diplomatic success he died in obscurity.

In the 19th Century, during the Greek War of Independence [1821-1829], the Provisional Government in Athens sent representatives to Cornwall and the Caribbean to search for the descendants of Theodore I. Sadly they found no trace of the ancient Palaeologus bloodline, and the Crown of the Hellenes was offered to a Bavarian prince, but in 2007 a group of Greek Orthodox priests came to Landulph and celebrated Vespers in Theodore’s honour.


Sources available on request