Sisi and the Stupid One

It was a calm Saturday morning, and her duties were thankfully limited. Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was relieved of that. For as long as she could remember in the majority of her sixty one years she had always abhorred ceremonial duties. Today she had to travel, which was one of the things that Elisabeth (commonly called Sisi by some members of the press) enjoyed in her advancing years; and had been denied her for much of her life. Far from the first flush of youth, Sisi still maintained a vigorous and exacting beauty regimen that saw her having to peel a leather mask from her face in her bedroom of the suite of the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. Throughout the night in had held in place the crushed strawberries she used to soften her skin. Following her morning wash, Sisi as was typical would spend the next several hours with her hairdresser, styling her floor length hair. She would not eat this morning, preferring instead to endure her fast that had seen her so famed for the nineteen inch waist of her youth. Although she had stopped sitting for the steady procession of portrait artists when she was thirty, and rarely appeared at public formal occasions, Sisi still possessed a streak of vanity that regularly saw her suffering for her looks.

Although a famed beauty when younger, Elisabeth had a life touched by tragedy. Born on December 25, 1837, Sisis was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria. Regarded as eccentric in his own lifetime, her father would go on to sire ten children including Sisi, popularise Bavarian folk music, and in a trip to Egypt and Palestine a year following the birth of Elisabeth purchase and liberate slave children in a Cairo market. For his daughter however, he was an aloof figure, and also responsible for many of the problems of her later life. Aged twenty, Elisabeth had entered an arranged marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Although this marriage made her both the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary, it was far from happy. Franz Joseph was a rigid, unimaginative, and sober man, who although he indulged his new wifes’ retreat from court duties and obligations, and her introverted hyperactivity was far from her ideal (indeed it has been suggested by some historians that his youthful philandering may have resulted in her contracting syphilis). Far from a regular sleeper in her youth, the emotional distance of the couple grew as Sisi barely slept. As Franz Joseph slept, Sisi would sit up through the night, reading, writing, and most shockingly of all for the age, smoking liberally. All of her nocturnal activities resulted at her attempts at poetry. Although not particularly gifted, Sisi writing under the alias of Titania (the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) expressed her longing for both travel and the adventurous life that her rank had denied her.

Portrait of Elisabeth as a young woman in 1864, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Not publicly displayed in her lifetime it was purportedly a favourite of Emperor Franz Joseph

As befitting and expected of her rank, Sisi soon gave birth to four children. Two of her daughters, Sophie and Gisela were all but abducted by Sisis’ mother in law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, with their mother refused access to even wet nurse the infants. This was not to be the last of the problems Elisabeth was to have with her children. Following the death of the younger Sophie of typhus in 1857, Sisi was denounced for not producing a male heir, with her domineering mother in law composing and printing an anonymous pamphlet. In 1858, Sisi was to give birth to Crown Prince Rudolf who was later to further add to her woes. In 1889, the Mayerling incident was to occur which was to have a momentous impact on nineteenth European history, but on a personal scale, was to devastate Elisabeth.

By 1889, Rudolf was a married man to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. By all available accounts this marriage like the one of his mother before him was an arranged and largely loveless affair. Although an unhappy marriage, the couple became parents to Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria (known as Erzsi) in 1883. The birth of a child failed to repair the relationship however, and by 1889 it was common knowledge amongst the court, to his wife, and his mother Elisabeth that Rudolf had been engaged in a number of affairs, most recently with the seventeen year old, Baroness Mary Vetsera whom he had met several months earlier in November 1888.  On the evening of 29 January 1888, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph held a formal family dinner at which Rudolf was present. At some point during the dinner he left citing ill health and travelled to the Imperial hunting lodge in Mayerling, Austria some fifteen miles from the capital. Here he was due to go shooting with Count Joseph Hoyos on the morning of 30 January.

When the morning came there was no answer from the room of the Crown Prince. After repeated attempts from the royal valet, Loschek he called on Hoyos, and together they broke down the thick and immobile bedroom door with an axe. The scene that greeted them was far from pleasant. Laid on top of Rudolfs’ bed was the motionless, rigid, and lifeless body of Mary. Next to her was the slumped body of the Crown Prince, who was bleeding profusely from his mouth. The first thought of the valet and the Count is that Rudolf had murdered his young mistress and then poisoned himself by drinking strychnine. Royal protocol dictated that the death of the heir be reported first to Sisi, before she informed the Emperor of their loss. This was followed, and it by all available accounts impacted on her heavily. As so did the later reporting and very brief police investigation, of the incidents in Mayerling. The story that soon took hold is that Rudolf had been involved in a murder and suicide pact with his mistress. In the initial conjecture it was surmised that the Crown Prince had suffered a fatal heart attack and Mary overwhelmed by grief had committed suicide. This quickly changed to Rudolf having murdered his vivacious young mistress and then committing suicide himself following protracted arguments with his father about the affair. On 31 July 2015, the National Library of Austria finally solved the mystery of the Mayerling incident when it revealed a series of letters that Mary had sent to her mother and had been stored in an Austrian bank safe deposit box since 1926. Given the reaction of Franz Joseph to their affair, the couple had decided upon a suicide pact, and had ended their lives by mutual agreement. Thought by many to be a murder suicide, the evidence from the letters shows instead that it was merely a tragic suicide caused by the demands of family, position, and adherence to immobile nineteenth century morality. The death of Rudolf was to fracture the line of succession for Austro-Hungarian Empire which ultimately led to the son of the emperor’s brother, Karl Ludwig, Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 was a precipitating factor into plunging the world into a bloody and fruitless conflict that led to the death of millions.

Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and Baroness Mary Vetsera (Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera)

Following the death of her son, Elisabeth began to wear the long black gowns associated with mourning. These were to remain the sole staple of her wardrobe for the rest of her life. A marriage that had been strained before the death a child, all but fractured following it. Elisabeth found refuge in a constant cycle of travel including to such locations as Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt, and was an infrequent visitor at best at court in Vienna. Although Sisi and the Emperor frequently corresponded, they led separate lives with the Emperor residing in Austria, and his wife residing in a succession on international hotels, often incognito so as to avoid the pomp and ceremony she had come to despise. It was in such a manner that she found herself staying in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage in Geneva Switzerland during September 1898.

After her morning beauty routine, the Empress and her travelling companion, the Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály left the hotel at 1:35pm on 10 September 1898. Although they were travelling incognito as was Elisabeths’ standard of the period, earlier a thief had attempted to rob their suite following information leaking out about the identity of the slim elderly female guest who always dressed in mourning clothes and finding its way into the pages of the Tribune de Genève a few days prior. As such the Empress had been warned by the local police about public appearances, but as had become typical, such warnings went unheeded. She and the Countess had a ship to catch, namely the steamship Genève bound for Montreux. Foregoing a procession with her entourage, the Empress and the Countess decided to walk the short distance to the ship along the fashionable Genevan promenade. As the ship bell announced its imminent departure and the empress hurried towards the gangway, a moustachioed young man appeared to stumble into the Empress. In reality he was driving a four inch sharpened needle file into her left breast that would ultimately result in her death only moments later. The twenty five year old responsible for the death of the black clad Empress was Luigi Lucheni.

The life of Elisabeth had been tinged with the loss of children, however in her assassin she found someone who had lost parents, a factor that was later to play a part in her death. Luigia Lucchini was a young woman from the town of Albareto situated in the Montana Valley of Taro and Ceno, Italy. Employed as a laborer by a local land owning family, at a young age she began a clandestine relationship with the son of the landowner, Luigia Lacchini di Tombeto. Falling pregnant, she was forced to travel to France to give birth to the child on 22 April 1873 in Paris. Following the birth, Luigia abandoned the child at the Hospice des enfants assistés, a Parisian hospice for abandoned children before eventually emigrating to the United States, possibly ending up in San Francisco where she worked as a bartender, never to be seen again. Thanks to a clerical error when the child was registered, Luigi Lucchini was to become forever known as Luigi Lucheni. Following his arrival at the Parisian hospice and the rapid departure of his young mother, Luigi was transferred to the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvé for foundlings, abandoned children, and orphans. Although accidentally French by birth Luigi soon found himself, in an unsolved mystery of history, back in his mothers’ native Albareto. It may have been that his mother left details of relatives in Italy, and typically authorities were always keen to find relatives however distant as it furnished them with one less mouth to feed. Whilst still an infant Luigi found himself being returned to Italy, to the mercies of distant relatives. Rural life in Italy during the nineteenth century was bleak in all but scenery. Employment was precipitous and for the most part subject to effectively feudal whim. Hunger and privation and death were common. For a bastard such as Luigi in a staunchly Catholic environment, life may have been even bleaker. According to all available records (of which there are few), Luigi was regularly shuffled around the Albareto area from one distant relative to orphanages and back again. With no parental support, Luigi experienced some of the worst of rural life of the period. He regularly experienced bouts of hunger resulting malnutrition, and was forced to work from a young age for what scant provisions he received. Although evidence suggests much of the work he was forced to engage in there in also some that suggests that he may have been forced to act as a child beggar appealing to the charity on behalf of a temporarily adopted family. After spending his formative years in penury and privation, quite in opposition to the dazzling opulence of the childhood of his later victim, Luigi left Albareto aged fourteen in search of employment, and a chance at a life that had thus far been denied him.

Portrait of an angry young man: Luigi Luchenis’ Swiss mug shot

As with his younger years, Luigi found gaining meaningful employment difficult, and for a period drifted through Italy in a succession of manual jobs which included brief stints as a chimney sweep and labourer in the Parma-La Spezia railway yard. These were precarious at best, and there must have been spells of loneliness and the hunger that was common for many of the time. Eventually after a period of drifting from job to job and town to town, Luigi was conscripted into the Italian army whilst in Naples. Perhaps surprisingly given his background, Luigi found himself still barely out of his teens as a mounted cavalry soldier in the Horseback Regiment of Monferrato. Although he was to serve in Eastern Africa during the first Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-96 which was an imperialist attempt distract from the problems back in Risorgimento Italy and indeed was awarded an African Campaign Medal much of his employment in the army was as a valet to the squadron commander Prince Raniero de Vera d’Aragona. Following the conclusion of the Italians rampaging around Ethopia, Luigi found himself back on Italian soil, jobless again. He continued to drift, and seek employment unfortunately he was less successful in the second of these activities. Remembering his days with de Vera d’Aragona, he managed to track down his ex-commander in Naples and found employment briefly as his man servant and valet. Indirectly, Luigi was exposed to the environs and excesses of Bourbon society which contrasted bitterly with his earlier privations. Seeing the glittering society of his current employer, and remembering the grime of much of his past, Luigi requested a raise on his small salary. The Prince refused, and Luigi soon found himself again jobless. According to some accounts, Luigi was briefly considered for the role of a prison director probably due to his new connections, but this was refused. Either as a result of this refusal, or annoyance at the economic constrictions of serving in the Princes’ household, Luigi for whatever reason found himself unemployed and wandering again. His earlier experiences of finding employment repeated themselves and as noted by Luigi in his later memoirs, “most of the time I suffered hunger and cold”.

As well as suffering from the cold, it was during this period that Luigi first came into contact with anarchists in Milan, most probably Pozzi and Borbotti (however he somewhat unsurprisingly is not referenced in Living Like Nomads: The Milanese Anarchist Movement Before Fascism by Fausto Butta). Through his associations with Milanese internationalists, Luigi was able to make contact with comrades in Switzerland such as Gualducci and Silva when he moved to Lausanne in his continuing search for a steady income after briefly considering following the path of his mother to the United States, and being unable to afford his passage. Luigi was able to briefly find employment in the construction of the new town post office. Like with all his previous jobs; it was not to last.

Luigi was at best a peripheral figure in the Italian and Swiss Anarchist movements. For much of his youth he had been forced to constantly wander in search of employment. After being abandoned by his mother, he endured a childhood wherein meaningful education was denied him (accounts highlight that Luigi may have been expelled from education at an early age, ironically because he threw a hat, that inadvertently caused a portrait of the then King to fall and shatter) and abuse and hunger became the norm. Involved in a bloody foreign conflict, he was briefly exposed to a world of wealth and indolence he had never known. All too briefly, he found himself unemployed however this world being snatched back from him. Many people in nineteenth century Europe had endured similar backgrounds and experiences as Luigi. Many workers were forced to endure conditions that were brutal, and wages that were both pitiful and scarce. The disparity between the rich and the poor was a vast gulf, and for many, including the Anarchists, Socialists, and Internationalists one that desperately needed to be addressed (the same sadly holds true in our own age). With these like minds, Luigi may have found a community and connections he had not known since his army days, but he was never embedded as an overt political figure, organizer, writer, or even particularly vocal supporter regardless of what has been conventionally claimed. Indeed, some writers (amongst them Brigitte Hamann) have posited Luigi barely understood much at all about Anarchism, and that many of his peers referred to him as “the stupid one”. At some point however, Luigi seized on the idea of the propaganda of the deed. By action, however criminal, he could potentially enact change, and better yet, exact revenge. It was probably during his time in Switzerland, that Luigi, whom Cesare Lombroso was later to classify in 1902 as hysterically depressed, formulated the idea of committing an assassination.

Initially considered for assassination was King Umberto of Italy and Prince Philippe of Orléans, Count of Paris. The former was to prove too distant a target for Luigi, and the latter was known to be visiting Switzerland, specifically Geneva. By the time Luigi had arrived however, the Duke of Orleans had returned to Paris. Regardless of his departure, Geneva of the period was a favourite of European monarchies, and Luigi knew it would only be a matter of time before he could enact his homicidal plan against someone of import. According to accounts that were to emerge later, he did not have long to wait. After a few weeks spent wandering the streets of Geneva, Luigi made contact with Giuseppe Abis della Clara. This individual was from an Italian noble family, and was in Geneva in charge of horses for a transport company. Possibly through Abis della Clara or one of the many chauffeurs that he knew, Luigi found out that Empress Elisabeth was staying at the Hôtel Beau Rivage before the local papers published this news. An Empress seemed as good a target to Luigi as anyone else on his mental list.

Before he could murder anyone however, Luigi first needed to acquire a weapon. His initial plan was to purchase a stiletto blade for his purposes, but he lacked the twelve francs that its purchase required. He was able to fabricate a cheap implement of death by sharpening a file to a point and attaching it to a piece of firewood. Although crude in its construction, it was to prove devastating in its use.

The triangular sharpened file used by Luigi Lucheni from the Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H collection

Luigi watched closely on the afternoon of 10 September 1898 as the Empress and her solitary female escort left the Hôtel Beau Rivage and hurriedly made their way across the promenade to the waiting paddle steamer, Genève. As the elderly women neared the ship, it sounded out a horn of departure, and the women increased their pace, so as to make it on board in time for their trip to Montreux across the expanse of Lake Geneva. Luigi saw his chance, and lurched forward towards the Empress, plunging the sharpened file into her breast, and in the process breaking off its tip. Initially, Sisi thought a mere accident had occurred, and owing to the tightness of her corsets which she always wore to retain her youthful slimness, hurried up the gangway before collapsing on board as the ship as it steamed across the lake. Uncertain if his efforts at assassination had met with any success, Luigi quickly fled the scene of his attempt. His route took him down the along the fashionable promenade and along the Rue des Alpes, where he discarded his home made weapon in the doorway of number 3. Meanwhile, Sisi had collapsed into unconsciousness and after having her corset removed by a doctor on board ship, the Genève had returned to port, and her body had been carried by stretcher back to the Hôtel Beau Rivage. Doctors were immediately summoned to try and revive the stricken Empress, however their efforts were to prove fruitless and Sisi was declared dead at 2:10pm. A commotion had been caused owing to Luigis’ attack and as the screams of Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray punctuated the Swiss afternoon, Luigi was pursued by some nearby cab drivers. The chase was eventually joined by a gendarme and a passing sailor, and eventually the group caught up with Luigi who had already discarded the blade and his was unceremoniously detained.

Following the death of the Empress, the local police had the murderer in custody, but as yet no motive, and no weapon. The latter of these was soon to be addressed when a concierge recovered the home made blade when cleaning number 3 Rue des Alpes the following morning. Initially he assumed that the file potentially belonged to a labourer who had recently moved from the premises, however reading the news of the assassination and the missing murder weapon deposited it with the police two days after the attack. As to the motivation of Luigi, initially it was assumed that he was an Anarchist (and indeed this remains the popular conception) something he was later to confirm by his own purported statements during police interview in which he allegedly stated that he had committed the attack “because I’m anarchist. Because I’m poor. Because I love the workers and I want the death of the rich”.

The trial of Luigi began days following the assassination of Sisi, and was like many of the period a quick affair. Testimony indicated that he had attempted to purchase both a revolver and a knife from someone by the name of Pozzo (presumably the supplier of the overpriced stiletto blade). Throughout the trial Luigi also frequently made appeals for the death penalty so as to achieve the martyrdom he wished for. He also used to it as an opportunity to expound on his reasons for the attack, namely that those who did not work did not deserve to live, and the victim far from being a frail and neurotic elderly woman, was symbolic only of a crown. Despite his protestations to be tried in Lucerne which still retained the death penalty, Luigi was tried in Geneva which did not. Unsurprisingly he was to receive the longest available sentence for his actions, life imprisonment, with the first six months of it to be spent in solitary confinement.

Lucheni in Prison (Image from

The actions of Luigi Lucheni were one of a long line of supposedly Anarchist outrages that rocked Europe during the nineteenth century (as discussed in my forthcoming book). Facing growing pressure from the media concerning the wave of politically inspired attacks (that were often resultant of egregious state actions themselves) various nations used the pointless death of Sisi to commence the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists in November 1898. The Conference gathered representatives from the governments of twenty one countries and resulted in a swathe of measures in an attempt to combat the supposed insurrectionary threat posed by Anarchists. From it was also born an agreed definition of Anarchism as being “any act that used violent means to destroy the organization of society”. As well as providing an incorrect definition, the conference also resulted in measures such as blanket surveillance of supposed or alleged Anarchists, and making illegal membership of Anarchist organisations, and possession of Anarchist literature. Various states rapidly adopted identification of Anarchists across borders, and sought to share information between national police forces. The wave of repression that followed the Rome Conference did little to address the simmering resentment of many of the urban poor, and thousands soon found themselves convicted and imprisoned often on the flimsiest of evidence, which further exacerbated social conflicts. Far from being a success in countering terrorist threat, the Conference resulted in continued attacks in response to increasingly aggressive and belligerent nation states.

As for the fate of Luigi Lucheni, whilst in prison, he taught himself to read French and began working on his memoirs, ‘Mémoires de l’assassin de Sissi’. According to some accounts, in October 1910 after twelve years in prison, this manuscript was confiscated by the prison authorities, and on 19 October 1910 was found hanging dead in his cell, having committed suicide by attaching his belt to the bars. As remains standard in our own time, upon being incarcerated all belts were confiscated from prisoners upon internment, which does prompt the questions as to where Luigi obtained the belt upon which he ended his days. Murder or suicide, the result was the same, and his end was inglorious. Following a forensic examination, his head was removed from his body, the former being preserved in a jar of formaldehyde which was stored in the Institute of Forensic Science of the University of Geneva until 1985. It was only in 2000 that this grisly artifact was finally buried in Vienna.

When discussing Anarchist propaganda of the deed, the assassination of Sisi is often cited as one of the most egregious examples. Although the monarchy were utterly divorced from the grinding poverty that blighted much of nineteenth century Europe, and responsible for all manner of outrages often against their own unarmed civilians, the elderly Empress arguably did not fall into this latter camp. As such her assassination was particularly damaging for the positive social change desired by the Anarchists. Many rapidly turned against the actions of the assassin, particularly Emma Goldman who was appalled that the victim regardless of social status was a woman. Thanks to the missing memoirs which were recovered in 1938 by Santo Cappon following years of historical detective work, the motivations of Luigi seem to be less inspired by Anarchist thought, but more about making a name for himself. Seeking to redress the injustice he felt following the abandonment of his mother, and a life of almost constant poverty and insecurity, Luigi Lucheni sought to strike out at the established social order of his time. By doing so, he was perhaps seeking to bring attention to social conditions but also to make himself a martyr. Additionally, as posited by Cappon, he was by driving a knife into the heart of an Empress seeking to punish the mother than had abandoned him to his largely joyless and isolated fate. As with many supposed Anarchist proponents of propaganda of the deed, an examination of Luigi Lucheni obscures more than it reveals in terms of certainty. Whether his motives were political or pathological will perhaps never be known. What can be established is that they resulted in the death of an elderly woman whose own life had been touched with tragedy and the establishment of a wave of repressive measures that resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of thousands. Ultimately his actions were as futile and brutish and as much of his life. For a would-be martyr; there can be no worse epitaph.

A Night at the Opera

The evening of 14 January 1858 was bustling in Paris. The crowds were present and packed for a procession from Napoleon III, the then Emperor of the Second French Empire and the nephew and direct heir of Napoleon I. This evening he was due to attend, alongside his cousin and fiancée, Princess Mathilde Bonaparte a performance of Rossini’s William Tell at the Opéra Le Peletier. His arrival was scheduled for half past eight in the evening and the crowds were eager to witness the procession as it passed. For some the mounted cavalry stirred deep rooted feelings of patriotic fervor, for others the crowds provided an excellent mechanism for petty thefts and larcenies. For others still, the crowd served to provide excellent cover. A few hours before the Emperor was due to arrive with his retinue the Parisian police had spotted an individual in the crowd they had been searching for some time. Shortly after 7pm a police inspector by the name of Hérbert spotted Giovanni Andrea Pieri lurking amongst the gathered crowds near the opera house on the Rue Le Peletier. Acting swiftly, he and some constables moved behind the angular frame of the Italian, and roughly held his arms to his side, before taking him into custody. Only a few years prior on 28 April 1855, there had been an assassination attempt on the Emperor by another Italian by the name of Giovanni Pianori who had managed to unleash a few shots from the revolvers he had carried which had ultimately failed to find their mark. Pieri was well known to the police having immigrated to France as a youth, served in the French Foreign Legion, and been resident in Paris for years. In 1848, Pieri had taken part in the Paris Revolution, and had returned to his native Italy to take part in the first Italian War of Independence. A noted and known radical, he was aggressive in his demands for Italian independence, and his distinctive features were easily identified by the sharp eyed Parisian police inspector. When arrested, Pieri was found to be in possession of a loaded six shot revolver, a German passport in another name, and an explosive device the likes of which the police had never seen. Staying silent on the threat so as not to create alarm, the police assumed that the radical was acting alone, and that no other threats were present. As it transpired, Pieri was not alone in his plans, and the actions that were to occur later that evening would lead to an international crisis, the downfall of a government, and unleash onto the global stage a device designed and delivered from Birmingham, UK.

At 8:30pm the Imperial procession appeared on the Boulevard des Italiens heading towards the opera house. At its head was a company of lancers, the tricolour wafting from their steel. Behind them came the Emperor in his steel walled carriage, with his fiancée bringing up the rear, some thirty feet behind. As the group turned left onto the Rue Le Peletier where Pieri had earlier been detained, and came to a stop in front of the opera house, an explosion ripped through the evening, felling both horses and riders. Shortly afterwards a second explosion rang out. This was quickly followed by a third. Shouts and screams filled the streets as above the crowd windows broke and glass shards exploded outwards. As the smoke cleared, it was found that over one hundred people had been injured, and eventually between eight and twelve would die. Although Princess Mathilde had been thrown from her carriage, she was found on the street covered in blood, but unharmed. As too was the Emperor save for a small cut to his nose, who was able to step out of his carriage unaided. In the panic, and smoke, and chaos, the would be assassins had managed to slip away. For some it was not their first escape.

L’attentat de Felice Orsini contre Napoléon III by H. Vittori Romano, 1862

One of those involved that fateful January night was Felice Orsini (or Orso Teobaldo Felice Orsini to give his full name). Born in Mendola in the Papal States (which were later to become Italy) on 10 December 1819, Orsini was the son of an Italian nationalist, and was to become an ardent nationalist revolutionary himself. Giacomo Andrea Orsini was originally from Lugo and had been an officer in the Napoleonic Russian campaign of 1812, and following the conflict found employment as a member of the papal police, whilst at the same time continuing as a Carboneria, or member of the Carbonari, who were active in Italy between 1800 and 1831 and sought Italian unification and independence. Originally from Florence, Orsinis’ mother Francesca Ricci was to die when he was only twelve years old in 1831. Following the death of his mother, the young Felice was moved to the home of his uncle Orso Orsini in Imola in Northern Italy. Far more conservative than his brother, Orso had been made wealthy by the cultivation and trade of hemp for use in ropes, and raised his nephew in both an orthodox and strict environment. It seems that the way in which Orsini was raised was not strict enough however. At the age of 16, on 5 July 1836, Orsini was involved in a fatal shooting. The family cook, Domenico Spada had come across a teenage Orsini playing with a revolver that belonged to his uncle Orso. According to the record of the events as described by Orsini in his later memoirs, he had been so surprised by Spada that he accidentally discharged the revolver at close range resulting in the death of the unfortunate cook. Whatever the truth of this, Orisini soon gathered enough of his wits to flee both the scene and the home of his uncle. Initially charged in absentia with voluntary homicide, luckily for Orsini his uptight uncle was friends with the then Bishop of Imola, Mastai Ferretti. Ferretti as well as being the local bishop was highly enough regarded by the Catholic church that he would later go on to become Pope Pius IX. Perhaps because of the ministrations of uncle Orso, or the high standing of Giacomo in the papal police force, Felice was able to return to the home of his uncle and face a sentence of six months in prison for the accidental murder of the family cook. Following proclamation of the sentence, the Orsini family sent a plea to Pope Gregory XVI requesting clemency on the proviso that the troublesome Felice entered the seminary. Clemency was granted, and although Orsini completed some religious training, he did not become a priest. After a few years in the seminary Orsini first returned to his fathers’ home in Mendola, before again returning to the home of his uncle Orso.

Following the completion of both school and university studies, Orsini graduated and began to practice as a lawyer and became involved in the Italian nationalist movement. At the time of Orsini, Italy as we know it today did not exist. It was not until the Risorgimento that Italy as a country came to be. Before the unification, Italy consisted of a collection of independent states, including those controlled by the papacy. With the end of direct Napoleonic rule in 1815, Italy would be occupied by a variety of foreign nation states, including the Austrians, before it became a nation state in 1861. Orsini was involved in the radical Carbonari movement which consisted primarily of the middle classes and intellectuals who inspired by the French Revolution sought to enact Italian unification by the violent overthrow of all foreign occupiers, including Napoleon III. Whilst still practicing as a lawyer, Orsini founded a secret society by the name of Congiura Italiana dei Figli della Morte (Italian Conjuration of the Sons of Death). Although vaguely sinister in tone, the society probably served as little more than a debating shop, however this did not prevent his arrest. After spending several years in custody, Orsini was released under a general amnesty for political prisoners, which was declared by the bishop who had interceded in his earlier shooting, who had now become Pope Pius IX.

Following his release from Civita Castellana in Lazio in 1846, Orsini moved to Florence which was the birth place of his mother. Here Orsini continued with his earlier Carbonari activities as well as operating a legal practice and in 1848 joined Livio Zambeccari in the first Italian War of Independence. Lasting from March 1848 until August 1849, the First War of Independence saw Sicily first rebel against the rule of the Bourbon Empire before spiraling out from Milan, with Italian nationalists engaged in strikes, rabble rousing, and armed conflict with the Austrian authorities. During this period of tumult, Orsini found time to return to Florence, and marry Assunta Laurenzi on June 28 1848. Following the lead of Giuseppe Mazzini and seeking to bring about the unification of the Italian state by Republican means, Orsini, carried out revolutionary activities and attacks both within the Papal States and throughout the Tuscan region in which he was resident. Following the establishment of the Roman Republic in February 1849 where the rebels were able to temporarily (very temporarily it transpired as the Roman Republic lasted only five months in total) seize power from the Austrians, Orsini was elected as a deputy to the short lived Constituent Assembly. Following armed French interference at the behest of the Pope, the Assembly was disbanded and the short lived experiment in an Italian Republic fell apart, leaving Orsini and many of his peers to flee from invading French troops.

In March 1850, Orsini and his wife settled in Nice. Here he opened a business ostensibly to supply the hemp ropes supplied by his uncle Orso, however he still kept in contact with other Republicans and was in regular contact with Mazzini during this period. His revolutionary and mercantile activities did not impact upon the family growing however, and in 1851, Orsinis’ first daughter Ernestina was born. She was joined in early 1853 by her sister, Ida. Life as a small time merchant was frustrating for Orsini who like many of his generation longed for an Italian that was administered and controlled by the people of Italy rather than aggressive foreign powers. In September of 1853, Orsisin attempted to stage armed revolts in both Sarzana and Massa. Both of these resulted in failure and attracted the attentions of local legal enforcement agencies. Following this debacle, Orsini was forced to leave both his small business and small family behind, and escaped from Italy with the police close at heel, finally finding refuge in London. Life in the British capital was not particularly unpleasant (apart from the grey skies) for Orsini as he was still acting as an agent on behalf of Mazzini and was in frequent contact with other revolutionaries. Although exiled from both his country and his family, Orsini was not isolated, as England at the time had a wide variety of political exiles, including numerous Italian Republicans. Orsini was also not in England long. In 1854 on orders of Mazzini he travelled to Austria where he attempted to start a rebellion amongst troops and in doing so influence their actions within Italy. His attempts did not meet with success, and again Orsini was forced to flee to Hungary with the Austrian police and military in hot pursuit. Here his luck ran out and he was arrested in 17 December 1854. Orsini soon found himself detained for life in the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua, Lombardy.

The imposing fortress prison of Castello di San Giorgio, where Orsini was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1854.

Although imprisoned for life, Orsini was far from bereft. He was still in regular communication with the outside world, including friends and acquaintances in the United Kingdom, and fellow followers of Mazzini in Italy. As well as communication with the outside world, Orsini was also able to have goods smuggled to him whilst imprisoned, and it was thanks to these that he was able to make a series of increasingly ludicrous escape bids. Initially, Orsini was able to get opium smuggled into his cell. This he used to drug the guard on duty. Unfortunately the small quantity of opium with which he was able to drug the guard with failed to have a particularly soporific effect and when the guards changed duty it was assumed that their drugged up colleague was merely drunk. Not to be disheartened, Orsini then had morphine smuggled in. Unfortunately the quantity provided was insufficient to drug all the prison guards and turnkeys on duty and so this plan too was aborted. Finally on 29 March 1854, in scenes reminiscent of low grade prison movies, Orsini was able to saw through the bars of his cell with a smuggled blade, and after constructing a rope from torn up bedding, shimmy down the 100 feet of the exterior walls of the Castello di San Giorgio. Somehow reaching the ground without breaking his neck, Orsini was met by his contacts, and after quickly changing into peasant clothing made off into the night. Eventually with the support of both friends in the UK and followers of Mazzini in Italy, Orsini was able to make his way back to London using false documents.

Despite the ease with which Orsini was able to make his escape, the fortress of Castello di San Giorgio had a reputation for being impregnable. A physical manifestation of the Austrian state, it was assumed that escape was impossible for those detained within. Much to the chagrin of the Austrians, and the delight of international members of the press, its defenses had been trivially bypassed using a saw, some torn up bedding, and possibly a small bribe to ensure the relevant guards looked the wrong way. Orsinis’ escape was the topping of much conversation, and he quickly exploited it producing two volumes concerning his adventures with Austrian jurisprudence, ‘The Austrian Dungeons in Italy’ (1856) and ‘Memoirs and Adventures of F. Orsini Written by Himself’ (1857) which were widely and enthusiastically read by an amused British public. Orsinis’ time in the United Kingdom was not just spent churning out epistles of his escape, and he was able to contact many fellow Italian nationalists. Included in their number was Giovanni Andrea Pieri who had been a resident of Birmingham since 1853, and Carlo de Rudio (about more later) was living nearby in Nottingham. As well as being in regular contact with those Italian Republicans in the Midlands, Orsini was also briefly a member of the ‘Muswell Hill brigade’ which centered around the radical English solicitor, William Henry Ashurst.  Opposed to capital punishment, and slavery, Ashurst was a proponent of the political and social equivalency of the sexes, and established the ‘Friends of Italy’ which welcomed refugees to the fold such as Orsini. Following a acrimonious dispute with another member of the Friends of Italy, James Stansfeld (who would later go on to be Sir James Stansfeld, MP for Halifax and President of the Local Government Board) and the issuance of an invitation to duel by Orsini, the latter fractured his long held association with Mazzini.

It seems odd, on first glance that Orsini would cease his adherence to the cause of Mazzini. He had after all, acted as an agent, an instigator, revolutionist, and briefly member of the Constituent Assembly and for years had adhered to both the cause and strategies outlined by Mazzini. The rift is possibly to do with the acrimony he encountered from the Friends of Italy, the influence of the French exile Simon François Bernard, or merely because Orsini perceived that the current strategy had resulted in little more than privation and exile. Simon François Bernard was like Orsini and exile in London, having taking flight from his native France, and was a committed revolutionary. Although at one point a military doctor in the French navy, by the time of Orisinis’ arrival in England, Bernard was very much associated with European radical movements and was perceived by many to be a martyr in search of a cause, and may have discussed with Orsini the plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise wherein a small group had plotted to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte by use of explosives in 1800. Although he was not to find a cause in Italian Republicanism, the fatalism of Bernard may have proved contagious to Orsini especially considering the latters displacement from many supposed radical circles in London. It was following his break with Mazzini, that Orsini first formulated a somewhat convoluted plan. If he could successfully assassinate the French head of state, the French armed forces would be temporarily rudderless. The death of the French Emperor could perhaps lead to widespread revolt in France, which would spill into the rest of Europe, which could result in the formation of an Italian state as neither the French nor Austrians would be in a position to provide resistance having troubles of their own to consider and address. Fully convinced in the logic of his cause, Orsini sought out both supplies and co-conspirators who could help him enact his plan.

Orsini found likeminded radicals who supported his aspiration in Giovanni Andrea Pieri, Carlo de Rudio and another Italian nationalist, Antonio Gomez who was at the time also a resident of Birmingham. As well as being home to both Gomez and Pieri, Birmingham at the time was also a major manufacturing hub, and it was upon this expertise that Orsini was to draw. In his travels, Orsini had attempted to learn as much as he could with regards both improvised explosives and chemistry and it was a Birmingham gun maker to which he was to turn to develop his invention. Conventional explosives of the period relied upon a fuse or a timer, and it was Orsini who was to provide the world with an alternative. By appending pins filled with mercury fulminate to a casing filled with explosives and shrapnel, the device could be detonated by merely throwing it and causing the pins to come into contact with a solid object.

Orsinis’ Infernal Machine

Birmingham as highlighted was a hub of heavy industry and had a thriving market for gun makers who were at the time of Orsinis’ visit famed throughout the Empire and beyond. Taking the designs of his improvised ordinance around the city, Orsini was able to find a Birmingham gunsmith and manufacturer by the name of Joseph Taylor. According to Graces’ Guide to British Industrial History a likely suspect for the original maker of the Orsini bomb could be found at the time on 49 Lawley Street (which presently in known as Lawley Middleway) or later working as an engineer in an Iron Foundry situated on Broad Street  Following construction and testing of the device, Joseph Taylor provided several working devices to the conspirators who smuggled them into France under the auspices of medical equipment.

49 Lawley Street Birmingham, known today as Lawley Middleway. Where the Orsini bomb was fabricated is now the site of a Volkswagen car dealership.

With newly created fragmentation explosives in tow, the band of assassins arrived in Paris in 1858. On the evening of 14 January 1858, Pieri found himself detained, however Orsini, Gomez and de Rudio were able to detonate their Birmingham made devices with devastating effect. As a result of the explosions that shattered the Parisian evening, Orsini was injured himself by shrapnel and bleeding copiously from a jagged wound to his cheek made his way laboriously back the lodgings of the group after first seeking treatment from a local pharmacy. Although the suspicions of the pharmacist may have been raised, ultimately the group was undone by their youngest member Gomez, who prior to the attack had sought to steady his nerve in a nearby Italian restaurant and was questioned by the police who noticed his nervousness. They could hardly not, as his behavior in the restaurant had what was prompted the police to be called in the first instance. After running around the restaurant in a highly agitated state, Gomez had eventually slammed himself down at a table and ordered meal after meal in rapid succession, failing to finish any of them. When questioned by the police prior to the attack, he helpfully provided the address of the hotel he was staying at for his tenure in Paris. Within hours of the attack, the Parisian police had gathered descriptions of the suspects, and Gomez, de Rudio, and Orsini soon found themselves woken from their hotel beds and marched into police custody to face justice for an attack that left eight people dead, and one hundred and fifty eight injured, and the Emperor of France with a grazed nose.

French justice was swift, and the group was bought to trial on 25 February 1858. Following a two day trial in which the defendants all shifted culpability to Orsini, the judgements were handed down. Although their cause has created some sympathies in French radical circles, Orsini, Pieri, and de Rudio were all sentenced to death, with only Gomez (who was considered largely idiotic) was condemned to a life of penal servitude at the prison of Cayenne in French Guyana. Following the trial, de Rudio was also sentence to a life of penal servitude a decision that may have been as a direct result of his noble birth as he was in actuality the errant son of the Italian nobles, Count and Countess Aquila di Rudio. During his brief detention Orisini composed a number of eloquent letters, however for all his eloquence, sentence was carried out and on 13 March 1858, both he and Pieri were executed by guillotine in Roquette Square. Although Orsini had left a will and requested that his body be buried in Chiswick cemetery in London that was also the resting place of the Italian poet, Ugo Foscolo, the French state was in no mood to honor his request and his remains, along with those of Pieri were dumped in a common pit at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

And here, the story of a Birmingham bomb designed by an Italian radical and thrown at a French Emperor that sadly resulted in civilian carnage would end, were it not for the oddities of history. One of these can ultimately be found in the life of Orsinis’ co-defendant de Rudio. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio (commonly called de Rudio) has a life that has unsurprisingly failed to attract either serious historical research outside of Italy, or the attentions of a Hollywood screenwriter. Born on 26 August 1832, Carlo was the son of Italian nobility, the Count Ercole Placido and Countess Elisabetta de Domini. He enlisted in the Italian military at the tender age of fifteen, and during the Milan uprising referenced earlier in this article was responsible for killing an Austrian soldier who had himself killed and raped two local women. Inspired by the injustice he saw around him, he took part in a number of failed rebellions and met Mazzini and Garibaldi before like Orsini having to seek refuge in the United Kingdom. Following his involvement in the Orsini plot, de Rudio was sentenced to a life of penal servitude in French Guyana. Within a year he had managed to escape from a seemingly inescapable tropical hell, and after surviving a storm which battered his raft as he floated free of Devils Island found his way eventually to England. To escape the diplomatic pressures that the French were bringing to bear on the UK authorities, de Rudio then immigrated to the United States, arriving just as the civil war broke out. Enlisting on the Union side was wounded on multiple occasions and rose to the rank of Captain. Following the civil war, de Rudio stayed in the military and was sent to the Western frontier joining the command of the 7th Cavalry and a certain George Armstrong Custer. On 25 June 1876, de Rudio was present for the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn. One of the few survivors of this seminal event in the history of the American West, de Rudio was transferred subsequently to Texas where he got to know Geronimo. Eventually in 1896 he retired before becoming a successful and prosperous vineyard owner producing wines grown from grapes he had imported from his native Italy.

The somewhat implausible life of de Rudio aside, the Orsini bomb was to live on owing to the later actions not of nationalists and Republicans, but of European Anarchists. On the evening of 7 November 1893, the Spanish Anarchist, Santiago Salvador hurled two Orsini bombs from the balcony at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona which ironically was also staging a performance of Rossini’s William Tell (the same opera the French Emperor had been on his way to observe). The attack by Salavdor left 22 dead and 35 wounded and resulted in a crackdown by Spanish legal authorities that led to the detention, brutal torture, and death of hundreds of Spanish Anarchists. Rather than prompt a revolution against the bourgeoisie, the bloody attack by Salavador led to a bloody reprisal by the Spanish state.

Salvador was not alone in his use of the fragmentation grenade designed by Orsini, and its malignant spread resounded around Europe for decades after its creation in a Birmingham workshop. It remains perhaps one of the most barbarous and bloody exports from Birmingham, and its origins are arguably of interest to not only historians of political violence and terrorism, but those concerned with local history and its impact on the world as a whole. Although Joseph Taylor could not have known at the time, the ordinance he created was to leave a bloody stain on the pages of history, that are now for the most part neglected, however relevant to our own disappointingly fractured and bloody age.

The Bonny Doon Bombers

Excerpt from NWLF communique published in Dragon, No. 5, December 1975

In 1941 Orson Welles unleashed his vision of William Randolph Hearst upon a largely disinterested cinema going public. Now rightfully considered one of the finest films ever made, the fictionalised biography Citizen Kane sees the titular character seeking eventual refuge in his Xanadu. In Kane, Welles mirrored the reality of much of the life of Hearst including the eventual retreat of the yellow journalist and press magnate to the extravagant property that cost $40 million to construct and that he called La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill) and that was known more colloquially to friends, and enemies alike as Hearst Castle. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, invitations to the sprawling one hundred room Mediterranean revival castle and grounds were sought after by the great, the good, and the Hollywood elite. Following the death of Hearst in 1951, the estate became a California State Park in 1954 before being opened to members of the public in 1958. Nearly twenty years later in February 1976 a bomb that had been planted on the veranda of the three story castle blew a three foot hole through a six inch thick concrete wall. Shortly after the explosion ripped through the estate causing an estimated million dollars’ worth of damage (at least according to the estimates provided by the San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune) a female caller telephoned a nearby San Francisco television station, and claimed responsibility for the bombing on behalf of one of the most prodigious left wing radical groups of the period, the NWLF.

Largely unknown today, the NWLF (or New World Liberation Front) were one of many radical groups of the sixties and seventies. Unlike the Symbionese Liberation Army who would go on to kidnap the granddaughter of Hearst, Patricia (known to the SLA as Tania, but to everyone else as Patty) and the Weatherman / Weather Underground about whom numerous books and documentaries have been created, the NWLF have largely faded into obscurity. This is surprising given not only the fate and history of the group, but also because it was one of the most prolific exponents of domestic terrorism in the United States, and responsible for more explosions on US soil than any of its more well-known peers. To date there has been little investigation of the group, its motivations, and its downfall, and beyond a few rogue historians, their story remains largely obscured.

It is arguably not possible to discuss the NWLF or their actions without first putting them into historical and social context. The nineteen sixties and seventies were a politically tempestuous time in the United States. In Indo-China, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon oversaw a conflict that was raging beyond their control. On the home front, a generation of young people was becoming politically aware and engaged. Starting with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) that formed in Ann Arbor in 1960, the “new left” emerged as a force to be reckoned with. The reaction of the state in sending more young men to their almost certain demise in Vietnam, the international televised coverage of the horrors of war, and the illegal actions of government programs such as COINTELPRO, as well as the chasm of both experiences and understanding that existed between the young and the old, did nothing to reduce tensions. As a direct response to the war in Vietnam, as well as the disparities and inequalities of life in Capitalist America, a range of groups sprang up. Many were non-violent in form however many were to be radicalised by the constant harassment and violence of the police and federal authorities. Some groups eventually resorted to violent mechanisms in an attempt to overthrow the machinery of the state and the wider society. Both the East and West coast (most notably New York and San Francisco respectively) were hotbeds of revolution, with all points in between being impacted.

Donald DeFreeze was a one time car thief who joined the revolution when in 1970 he met visiting students from the University of California Berkeley who established the Black Cultural Association in Vacaville prison where he had been imprisoned a year earlier for a short gun battle outside a bank he had been attempting to rob. The association sought to assist prisoners with tuition and also impress upon them the widely held left leaning political beliefs of the period. The student volunteers found a welcome convert in DeFreeze who sought an economic explanation for his frequent brushes with the law. In 1972, DeFreeze was transferred to the Soledad Prison in California, where on March 5 1973 he escaped, before making his way to Oakland, and the homes of contacts he had made with the Vacaville BCA. Embracing the political tumult of the time, DeFreeze trading on a romanticised image of the black radical ex-convict and outlaw formed what was later to be known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Best remembered today as being behind the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst., the SLA mixed freely with other underground radicals of the period, and were suspects in at least one murder of a public official, namely the former Oakland Deputy School superintendent, Robert Blackburn. The SLA was far from the only urban guerrillas that were operating in the United States during the seventies, and were joined by groups as diverse as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN, and a host of others. One of the most prodigious in terms of sheer volume of incidents that they created was the NWLF.

Revolutionary Chic: Patty Hearst as SLA member ‘Tania’

It was in 1973 that the NWLF first emerged onto the radical stage in the United States. That year saw the SLA gaining all manner of negative coverage and criticism in the press, and in was also the year that one time actress turned urban revolutionary and active member of the SLA, Kathleen Ann Soliah started a study group in California by the name of the Bay Area Research Collective. Commencing in August 1975, BARC began publishing a mimeographed journal by the name of Dragon. Truly a product of its time, Dragon published news of bombings, communiques from predominantly West Coast radical groups, political cartoons, incomplete bomb making instructions, and occasional extracts of poetry. For both law enforcement officials and radicals of the period, Dragon was mostly associated with the SLA, but also the New World Liberation Front. For many it was assumed that this latter mysterious group was either a direct outgrowth of the SLA, or else existed purely on paper as many other supposed revolutionary organisations did during the period. Both of these theories were to be proven incorrect by history.

Dragon Number One published August 1975. The Canadian journal Arm The Spirit has made all issues of Dragon and a variety of other journals available via Issuu

The pages of Dragon in their first issue were to reveal the extent of the actions of the NWLF up until its publication, and the majority of these claims are further supported by one of the few writers to investigate the group with any depth, Bryan Burrough, whose book Days of Rage is rightfully considered the most comprehensive manuscript to address seventies left wing terrorist groups in the US. According to the NWLF themselves the chronology of some of their early actions is as follows:

“5/31/74: May 19th Combat Unit issues a greeting to the people and a statement of solidarity with the SLA.

9/3/74: Peoples Forces bomb the S.F. brokerage offices of Dean Witter & Co. and issue Communique 1 explaining the firm’s complicity with B of A, ITT and Standard Oil in the exploitation and oppression of the people. Solidarity expressed with the BLA, WUO, and SLA.

9/?/74: Peoples Forces Unit III bombs ITT Harper in San Leandro. Communique declares unity with the Chilean people and indicts ITT for its role in bringing the military junta to power.

10/2/74: Unit II bombs S.F. Sheraton Palace Hotel

10/5/74: Second Sheraton Hotel bombing. Communique names Sheraton chain as an ITT subsidiary and further indicts and documents the ITT role in the creation of the Chilean military government. Response is demanded.

10/30/74: Unit III bombs Los Altos home of ITT Jennings president Robert Hallock. Communique reiterates ITT role in Chile.

11/6/74: Unit I firebombs a Berkeley garage containing government cars. Communique discusses ITT in Chile and further explain Hallock bombing.

12/19/74: Unit I bombs S.F. office of General Motors’ Overseas Operation Division. Communique indicts GM’s labor practices and history of exploitation of the people. A general explanation of the NWLF is made by the Peoples Forces, Communication Division.

2/3/75: Unit III bombs GM office in San Jose, the Pillar Point Radar Station, and Chevron plant in Oakland. Communique ties in different aspects of the capitalist-imperialist system.

2/6/75: Unit III bombs KRON-TV in S.F. Communique indicts the station as a mouthpiece for the ruling class.

3/20/75: Units I & IV bomb an East Bay PG&E tower. Communique denounces PG&E as a “parasite corporation which feeds on the misery of the poor”.

3/27/75: Unit III bombs PG&E Hicks substation in San Jose. Communique makes further indictment of PG&E and salutes the CLF, FALN, SLA, BLA, WUO and locked down comrades.

4/7/75: Lucio Cabanas Unit bombs Hicks substation and issues another statement on PG&E.

5/1/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs Department of Corrections in Sacramento. Communique discusses Joe Remiro and Russ Little and includes educational material about clandestine activity.

5/9/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs PG&E offices in Berkeley. Communique briefly discusses PG&E attempts to raise rates.

5/18/75: Nat Turner and John Brown Unit bombs gun shack in San Quentin. Communique sends “warmest revolutionary love to Russ Little, Joe Remiro, Ruchell Magee, San Quentin Six, all comrades trapped behind enemy lines and to all our fallen comrades of Attica and the SLA”.

6/3/75: Peoples Forces issue an open letter to Popeye Jackson containing four criticisms of / questions about Popeye’s lifestyle, what the NWLF sees as his privileged treatment by the Adult Authority and his possibly provacateurish criticism of the underground. They ask for a response.

6/11/75: Peoples Front issue a communique denying responsibility for the murders of Popeye Jackson and Sally Voye; this is in response to a pig “NWLF” communique taking credit for the killings. Criticism of Popeye is restated.

(pub 6/27/75): Peoples Forces issue an open letter to the BARB criticizing the paper as basically a servant of the ruling class.

6/27/75: NWLF bombs the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Alameda and firebombs two houses in Piedmont. Communique expresses solidarity with the Indians of Pine Ridge.”

As their own statement reveals, the NWLF were responsible for a wave of bombings across the West Coast. According to the research conducted by Bryan Burrough however rather than being a well-oiled and practiced underground militia, their first device failed to detonate correctly when it was left outside the offices of General Motors Acceptance Company in Burlington, California. As well as expressing solidarity with popular causes of the period and other radical left wing groups, the NWLF also publicly decried Wilbert “Popeye” Jackson. The one time convict who had spent nineteen of his fourty four years in the US prison system was the leader of the California based United Prisoners Union and was suspected by some of being a police informer (including the NWLF), and was killed either by agents of the state or an individual or group on which he had informed. The UPU was active in seventies prison reform and were able in conjunction with the Weather Underground associated organisation Prairie Fire Organizing Committee able to lodge petitions for US prisoners to the UN during the period (the radical prison movement is covered in some detail in ‘The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement’ by Eric Cummin). The murder of a radical organizer and that of local teacher, Sally Voye  as they were sat in Johnson’s car at 2am in the morning, was a major talking point of in the West Coast of the period however, it was the NWLF who made front page news in the Berkeley Barb (who they were later to criticise) in June 1975.

Berkeley Barb Issue 513, June 13-19 1975

Although the NWLF was to be accused of the murder of a fellow California based radical, ultimately it seems according to Kohn and Weir (Howard Kohn, David Weir: Tania’s World: The Inside Story of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Part Two: People in Need, November 20, 1975) that it was the SLA that were responsible and sought to position blame on the NWLF who had unleashed a wave of bombings, and as a result were garnering far more coverage and sympathy from left leaning Californians. The explosions that were ripping through California were not to end with the death of a prison activist however, and estimates for the 1970 – 1978 period in which the NWLF was active range from 80 to 120 bombings (the accepted figure is typically somewhere around 85 as detailed in the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland). In an era tainted by regular politically inspired explosions on American soil, the NWLF were amongst the most active groups, and was responsible for a sheer volume of explosive attacks that had not been seen before or indeed since.

The targets of the NWLF were varied but all focused either upon broad political targets or those that could readily be associated with life in California. The group targeted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) sub stations and transformers, Safeway stores, TV stations, Court houses, military installations and the California department of corrections. Although these targets may at first glance appear to be arbitrary in nature, in their communiques, the NWLF either expressed solidarity with other radical groups or populist causes, or else focused on injustices in the local San Francisco area, such as the high price of utilities, poor housing conditions endorsed and supported by slum lords, or labour disputes that were taking place at the time. For residents of San Francisco, the bombings of the NWLF during the period they were active became as persistent and almost as reliable as the fog that frequently blanketed the streets.

Following the arrest of Patty Hearst and the televised pitched battle between the SLA and the Los Angeles Police Department, the NWLF escalated their campaign of bombings, and also altered their modus operandi. Up until 1975, the NWLF had distributed their communiques by mailing them to radio stations, newspapers (both of the above and underground variety) and friendly Californian / Bay Area journalists. However this altered in 1975 when the NWLF established an above ground communications platform. To head this up they needed public supporters that were not concerned with the media and law enforcement exposure that would result. They soon found a likely candidate. Following the death of Popeye Jackson, in which the NWLF was a prime suspect, a tall ex-convict using the name Jaques Rogiers convened a ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate. According to research conducted by Bryan Burrough, Rogiers’ real name was Jack Rogers and he had been imprisoned in San Quentin on drug related charges. Upon his release from jail in 1974 he moved to San Francisco, and after hearing of the death of Jackson and the impact it made on radical circles decided by way of his ‘Peoples Court’ to investigate.

On 17 May 1974, police and the SLA clashed in a televised shoot out on 1466 E. 54th street in Los Angeles. Lasting two hours, the gun battle resulted in the deaths of all six members of the SLA that were in the house as it burned to the ground including their leader, Donald DeFreeze (image from Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society)

The fourty four page document that Rogiers produced exonerated the NWLF of all involvement with the death of Popeye Jackson (the document itself is available via the Internet Archive) and the group clearly liked what they saw. According to statements provided to the Berkeley Barb and San Francisco Chronicle, the NWLF approached Rogiers following the publication of his investigation into the death of Popeye Jackson, and appointed him as their public facing courier, and the man in charge of Public Information Relay-1 (PIR-1). Working in tandem with an Oregon native by the name of Marlene Tobias, he initially opened a print shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco, before moving a year later to 423 Oak Street. Here the PIR-1 published TUG (The Urban Guerilla) a mimeographed journal in the same vein as the competing Dragon that was largely a platform for the NWLF and allowed for their communiques, observations, and rationalisations to be published.

“Jaques Rogiers” as pictured by the Berkeley Barb Issue 626, August 12-18, 1977

Law enforcement and federal investigators were largely baffled by the NWLF, having no idea about how large the group was, how they were being funded, how they were finding their explosives that were detonating with such regularity, and indeed what their next targets would be. This was largely due to the model of the NWLF itself. As would be revealed later, the group (such as it was) appealed to all members of the urban guerilla movement in the US of the period, allowing any and all actions to be attributed to it. Although some other groups did potentially brand themselves as the NWLF, the core group such as it was, was small in number. For both the media and law enforcement, Jaques Rogiers and other public members of PIR-1 such as Marlene Tobias (the editor of TUG), Kit Bowden, and Ande Lougher (the ex-wife of Jaques and the mother of his child) who also distributed communiques on behalf of the NWLF) made attractive targets for gathering information.

On 14 July 1976, the twenty five year old Ande Lougher headed from the Haight to the Grand Jury chambers of the City and County of San Francisco. With her she took a communique purporting to come direct from the NWLF and threatening retaliation should the Grand Jury continue investigating the group as the local rumour held that they were. Delivering what could be interpreted as a bomb threat to a government building was contentious even in the heady environment of the nineteen seventies West Coast, and Lougher soon found herself arrested. Held on a $100,000 bail, she was eventually bought to trial in October and following a defence from her court appointed lawyer, J. Tony Serra and a fifteen hour deliberation she was found not guilty of the charge of intimidation of a jury and released without charge.

Free Ande Lougher poster distributed by PIR-1 around the San Francisco Bay Area following her arrest in 1976 on charges of intimidating a jury

Just as the bombings of the NWLF failed to cease, so too did the legal troubles of the above ground cadre that made up the PIR-1. On 26 January 1977, Rogiers was arraigned on four counts of threatening public officials and one count of threatening for proposes of extortion in connection with his work distributing communiques on behalf of the NWLF. Held on a $100,000 bail like Lougher before him, the then thirty eight year old Rogiers did not initially enter a plea to the Municipal Court Judge, Judge Ollie Marie-Victoire having taken a vow of silence upon arrest on January 23 like one of his heroes Meher Baba (an Indian philosopher and mystic who publicly criticised the use of psychedelics as distracting from true spirituality in 1966). Again like Lougher, Rogiers found himself being represented by the public defender, J. Tony Serra.

According to accounts provided by Burrough, the defense strategy Serra and Rogiers utilised was an odd one. Before his court appearances, and during recesses throughout, the defendant and attorney would gather together and frequently and largely consistently engage in smoking marijuana. Although highly unusual, the strategy seems to have reaped dividends, in as much as on June 7, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. And this is where the story of Rogiers takes a very odd twist. On the day of his release from detention, a large party was planned at which the former defendant was to be the guest of honour. Although friends, acquaintances, comrades, and his lawyer waited for his appearance, it never came. Indeed following his release Rogiers disappeared from public view. To this date, his whereabouts are unknown, and what happened to the former leader of PIR-1 remains a mystery.

Despite the disappearance of their above ground courier, the attacks and explosions by the NWLF continued ceaselessly. Before the Patty Hearst trial commenced, the NWLF sent a package to a San Francisco city council member by the name of John Barbagelata. In it was a bomb. A few days late on January 25, 1977 four shots were fired into the windows of real estate office that he owned and operated. Over the course of the next few weeks, the NWLF also sent what were later to be referred to as “candy box” bombs to the homes of San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Supervisor Quentin Kopp and numerous other Bay Area politicians. As revealed by the San Francisco Chronicle, at the time “No messages accompanied the devices, but yesterday local newspapers and radio and television stations received copies of an ‘Open Letter to the Board of Supervisors’ ostensibly from the New World Liberation Front. The terrorist organization did not claim responsibility for sending the bombs but reiterated frequently expressed demands for improved health care at the county jail” (source: Berkeley Barb, January 16-22, 1976, Page 6). And still the attacks came.

Local law enforcement and the FBI finally caught a break in February 1976. Police were called to a house in Marin County in which as shoot out had been happening. Two members of the New Dawn Collective which ran a local bookshop and also published communiques for the Emiliano Zapata unit of the NWLF had been attempting to rob a local drug dealer. As drug dealers typically do not embrace expropriations of their profits, they resisted and a gun fight broke out. A search of those arrested, pointed the police and FBI at houses in Richmond and Oakland, where more NWLF literature was recovered and a 21 year old by the name of Anthony Joseph Baker and several other would be domestic guerillas were arrested (source: FBI find factory for bombs, The Stanford Daily, Volume 169, Issue 15, 23 February 1976, Page 1). The FBI thought they had finally broken the back of the NWLF and yet the bombings continued.

Up until March 1978, the NWLF continued with a wave of bombings throughout California and beyond. The exact composition of the group will perhaps never be known, but at least one source indicates that the SLA may well have played a part in the composition of the NWLF. According to a 1977 book (The Voices of Guns, Vin McLellan, Putnams) about the SLA, following her arrest by the FBI, Patty Hearst claimed that two members of the radical group, James Kilgore and Kathy Soliah had been involved. According to statements from Hearst to law enforcement the duo of Soliah and Kilgore had “used the NWLF signature for the dozens of bombings in 1974 and 1975”. This suited the agenda of the NWLF perfectly. One of the primary drivers of the group had been to make itself appear bigger than it was. Any radical guerilla operating on US soil was free to utilise the NWLF provided that its goals were in accord with those of the group. For modern historians it is impossible to determine how many attacks were conducted by the core group of the NWLF or by sympathisers such as the remnants of the SLA. Following a cessation of their attacks and explosions in 1978, the NWLF would have vanished back into obscurity were it not for a seemingly unrelated and shocking murder which again thrust their name back into the public and media consciousness.

James Kilgore and Kathy Soliah circa 1975

In either 1971 or 1972, a young woman by the name of Maureen Minton met a man by the name of Ronald Huffman. Born in Mountain View California, Maureen was the daughter of a lumber company owner who was later to attend and graduate from Berkley. At the time he met Maureen, Ronald was according to Burrough “a small time marijuana dealer in the San Jose area” (Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage, Page 385). At some point, the man known to all and sundry as ‘Revolutionary Ron’ met Maureen and after a brief spell they moved together to a small rented bungalow in the remote mountainous area of Bonny Doon some ten miles away from San Francisco. Although the bungalow at 350 Martin Road was small, it had a number of advantages, in as much as it came with land, and the neighbours did not pry into the lives of the young couple that had rented it. This suited Huffman and Minton perfectly. Although Maureen was later to become a nursing student at a nearby college, most of here interests and those of Ron, were centred on two key activities, namely the cultivation of marijuana and the construction of bombs.

According to evidence that was later to be gathered by the FBI and prosecution and detailed by Burrough, Minton and Huffman were the core of the NWLF. Although members of the SLA were involved and there was a scattering of other cells throughout California, this young couple was liable for over seventy explosions during the seventies. And they would have probably remained unknown were it not for tragic actions that were to unfold in the backyard of their bungalow. According to later testimony, either due to mental illness or his frequent and consistent marijuana use, Huffman was to become convinced that Minton was possessed by the spirits of “demon dogs” (source: April 25, 1983, Santa Cruz Sentinel, California, Page 2). At the time, Bonny Doon was overrun with both coyotes and feral dogs which frequently howled long into the night, their cries echoing around the hilly community. Prior to her possession, Huffman had already developed a long string of complaints against Minton. According to a local man and long-time acquaintance of Huffman by the name of Dennis Morgan, Maureen was responsible for running his crop, or failing to medicate his dog, Che. Morgan was also involved in the tending of the thousands of marijuana plants the couple were cultivating on their property and according to his later testimony would turn down and offer of $20,000 to help them bring in a harvest. According to Burrough, another reason for a growing sense of acrimony between the couple may have been because Minton had “had an abortion against his wishes” (Burrough, Page 358). Add to this the paranoia caused by long term drug use as well as being sought after because of their explosive antics throughout California, and there was an inevitability to what was to come later.

On the morning of September 23, 1979, Huffman dragged Minton into the rear of the property. After forcing her to kneel, he bought down an axe on her head. She died instantly. Not satisfied, Huffman beat her body with a nearby plank of wood, before removing a section of her brain. Packing quickly, Huffman dashed from the property in the car he had shared with Minton, taking with him $30,000 in cash, and a paper sack which held the portion of Maureen he had removed. After picking up a male hitchhiker from Germany he had found on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, Huffman continued his flight. After rambling at the confused and understandably terrified young German for some time, Huffman pulled the car to a stop and slashed at his passenger with a knife. Thankfully the young man escaped and sought refuse at a nearby market. Police were called.

Approximately an hour after the savage murder of his long term partner, Huffman was forced to stop by California highway patrol. Huffman emerged from his vehicle, swearing and sweating profusely, and as the police drew their revolvers, held aloft the paper bag containing the mortal remains of Maureen as if attempting to ward off the bullets that may have wended their way towards him. Huffman was subdued without being shot, and soon found himself in police custody. Initially set for trial in San Francisco, Huffman was defended by J. Tony Serra who had previously defended other members of the NWLF. At first Huffmans’ ties to the group were unknown but eventually the FBI were able to confirm that the fingerprints of both Huffman and Minton matched those that had previously been found on communiques distributed to the media throughout the course of NWLF activities. It was not until 1983, when the trial commenced in Monterey (Serra having forced the change in trial location owing to potentially prejudicial pre-trail reporting) that the links between Huffman, Minton, and the NWLF became known.

Although the crux of the defence offered by Serra was that his client was insane and thus not culpable for his actions either in the murder of his girlfriend, cultivating bales of marijuana, or causing multiple explosions around the Bay Area, the jury was not convinced. Huffman who was described by Serra as “stark raving mad” (Burrough, Page 360) was following a guilty plea sent to a Californian state prison, in which he was to die unknown and forgotten in 1999.

Between them, Huffman, Minton and various other Bay Area radicals (including the remains of the SLA) were to be responsible for a wave of attacks that caused widespread alarm during the nineteen seventies. They were one of the most successful domestic terrorist groups that operated in the United States, and many core members of the NWLF were utterly unknown to both local law enforcement and federal investigators. Outside of a few articles and references in local media, they were also largely forgotten until the publication of Days of Rage in 2015. Both the Weather Underground, and the SLA who were active in nineteen seventies California have had a wealth of books, films, and other reference materials produced since the days of their activities. The NWLF who were even at the time considered a fringe group of radicals, have like others in their milieu (such as Popeye Jackson) been largely ignored by social and political historians. Even stranger, their activities and the viciousness and pointlessness of the death of Minton, have been ignored by even true crime authors. The activities of the NWLF and their associated groups caused more explosions on American soil than any other terrorist organisation before or since. Using a loose network of affiliates operating under unified banner their actions confounded investigative authorities for years. Although the majority of their attacks were not deadly, they had devastating economic impacts, and the chilling effect of their actions impacted upon regional and national politics of the period. In a modern age that is fraught with the threat of terrorism by domestic radicals, the actions of the NWLF and their ilk should arguably be investigated closely. As our own age seems to drifting into a terrorist frenzy, consideration of earlier progenitors is arguably both vital and necessary if effective mechanisms are to be found in reducing the impact, reach, and dangers posed by the actions of those that put beliefs ahead of the safety of innocent civilians.