Archive for February, 2010

So imagine that you’re a member of one of the tribes of Native Americans that lived in the eastern part of North America when European settlers first landed. Further imagine that instead of fighting the encroaching Europeans, you embraced their technological advances, their way of life, their concepts of God, even of having your own alphabet.

What if, in other words, you did what few if any other tribes tried to do: you tried to straddle a middle ground between your own indigenous culture while adopting what you and the other members of your tribe judged to be the best aspects of European culture? Surely the Europeans, especially those so eager to convert the “heathens” native to the continent, would be pleased and accept you and be impressed by your efforts to both become part of the new country they were building and yet still not lose the distinctiveness of your native traditions, right?

Not if you were the Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

The Cherokees did it all: they dressed like the whites, they farmed like the whites, lived in frame clapboard houses like the whites, even bought and owned black slaves to help them bring in cash crops like the whites.

And in the end, none of it mattered.


Because the Cherokees had the bad grace to live on land where gold was discovered in the late 1820s. After that it was only a matter of time before the Cherokees, as had their neighbors the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws before them, were pushed off their land.

But the Cherokees had learned much in their study of the ins and outs of white culture. Like any good American who felt they were being treated unfairly, they got lawyers and filed law suits. When the state of Georgia tried to force a cession treaty on them where they “voluntarily” surrendered their lands in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Cherokees sued. The case, known as Worcester v. Georgia, contested the sovereignty of an individual state with regard to either policing or parceling out Cherokee land, which by treaty right was considered sovereign territory.

This was tied up in court for years, until the Supreme Court heard the case and in 1832 ruled against the state and established as settled law the matter of whether Indians had legal rights to both occupy and control their own land. Several other court victories reinforcing the legal rights of Indians to their treaty lands followed.

In the end it was all for naught. The United States government is separated into three branches, and while the court system has every obligation to rule on and establish the laws, it is the job of the Legislative branch (Congress) to make appropriate laws in the first place, and of the Executive to enforce said laws. Neither the Congress nor the President (in this case Andrew Jackson, a man who initially made his reputation fighting tribes such as the Creek Confederacy as a general of Tennessee volunteer troops) lifted a finger to halt Cherokee removal.

Jackson is reputed to have said: “Mr. [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice] Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” He said no such thing. Instead he noted that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.”

The end result was the forced removal of most of the Cherokee Nation from their ancestral lands beginning in 1838 (some residual tribal members still live in the region, including a group living on a special reservation in western North Carolina). The route these two large groups of Cherokees followed westward through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri into what is now Oklahoma became known in the Cherokee language as “nu na hi du na tlo hi lu i,” which translates as “the Trail Where They Cried.”

More than 4,000 of the 13,000 Cherokees who made the journey perished on the trail; some were infected with smallpox picked up from used blankets that were given to them by a Tennessee sanatorium that had recently suffered an outbreak of this disease against which the Indians had no immunity.
And who was the bastard in this story?

No single individual.

An entire nation was culpable.


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Read, — how there was a ghastly Trial once Of a dead man by a live man, and both, Popes

— Robert Burns, The Ring and the Book

Our initial foray into historical bastardry concerns the Papacy and a pope “convicted” of terrible crimes nearly a year after his death!

The late 9th and early 10th centuries marked a period of widespread political chaos in Italy dubbed the “Iron Age” of the Papacy.  For example, no less than twenty-five men served as pope between the years 872 and 972.  During this time the Papacy came to be viewed as the ultimate “plum job” by Rome’s wealthy families, many of whom vied with each other to see one of their number don the shoes of the fisherman and in turn dispense ridiculous amounts of patronage amongst his kinsmen.

Feuds developed, blood was spilled.  A pope was poisoned, and the reigns of his successors became successively shorter (many of them also meeting violent ends).  In the midst of all of this chaos, where a pope would change canon law by this or that decree, only to have his reforms overturned by an antagonistic successor, one pope took matters even further.

He ordered a predecessor’s corpse dug up and put on trial.

Enter Pope Stephen VII, who reigned as pontiff from May of 896 to August of 897.

These days people (Catholic or not) tend to view the Pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church as a benevolent, invariably elderly man dressed in clean white robes, apolitical, a living symbol of the Church’s stances on things such as social justice and mercy.

This was not always the case.

The Papacy has been around for millennia; it is one of the oldest institutions in the Christian Church.  It stands to reason that a position like this one, which has been occupied by any number of different men over the course of its existence, has been occupied by the occasional loose screw.  In the case of the Papacy, one could make the case that the law of averages has been stood on its head, and the office has seen enough loose screws, screaming rivets and outright nuts to fill a toolbox.

One such loose screw was Stephen VII, a churchman so off his rocker that he was given to toasting the health of the Devil and blaspheming against God.  Add in the fact that Stephen was politically beholden to the family that ruled the nearby Duchy of Spoleto, and things start to get interesting.

During the Middle Ages the idea went that if a Pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he ought to have actual territory to rule like any secular feudal lord.  This usually included the city of Rome and varying amounts of adjacent territory.

Since the Papacy at the time was scrambling for money and troops of its own, a succession of popes (including Stephen VII and many others) made outside alliances with powerful Italian families bent on adding the prestige of the Papacy to their own names.  The Popes of this period usually accomplished this end by offering to legitimize the rule of the ally in question with a formal papal coronation (literally having the Pope himself place the ruler’s crown on his blessed head) in exchange for military aid and protection.

One pope who had done this was a predecessor of Stephen’s named Formosus, whose reign lasted five years (891-896).  During that time Formosus (whose name in Latin means, “good looking”) had crowned the young Duke of Spoleto Holy Roman Emperor, then turned around and offered the same crown Arnulf, King of Germany.

Arnulf had answered Formosus’ invitation by invading Italy and taking Rome, where Formosus promptly crowned him Holy Roman Emperor as well.  Needless to say, this caused an uproar in Spoleto, especially with Angiltrude, Queen of Italy, Duchess of Spoleto, and erstwhile Holy Roman Empress, mother of the underaged Duke of Spoleto (who, lest we forget, had already been crowned Holy Roman Emperor himself).

Struck by a sudden mysterious paralysis, Arnulf withdrew from Italy, leaving Formosus to pick up the pieces.  Formosus responded by dying shortly afterward, to be initially succeeded by a couple of popes with ridiculously short reigns (one of them only lasted two weeks as pontiff!), and eventually by Stephen VII, the certifiably crazy political pawn of Spoleto’s ruling family.

About six months into his reign, Stephen had Formosus dug up and propped up in a chair in the Vatican, where he was then placed on trial with Pope Stephen himself sitting as judge.  Formosus (or rather his corpse) was accused of (among other things) being ambitious enough to actually want to be pope (the nerve!).  No one is sure of Stephen’s reasons for putting on this, the ultimate show trial, but historians speculate that he was feeling pressure from Angiltrude and her supporters to delegitimize Formosus’ reign (thereby also wiping out Arnulf’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor) and suffering from some well-documented psychosis.

The trial lasted for weeks, during which time Stephen would frequently interrupt his own papal prosecutor in order to rant at Formosus’ moldering corpse, calling it all manner of names, accusing it of murder, blasphemy and several other crimes with which it was not actually charged.  How the corpse responded is not recorded.

The trial’s outcome was a foregone conclusion.  The corpse was stripped of its expensive papal vestments, the first three fingers of its right hand (the three with which a pope blesses his subjects) were cut off, and the body was briefly reburied, this time in an unmarked grave in a graveyard reserved for foreigners.  Within a couple of days it had been dug up yet again and tossed in to the Tiber River, only to be pulled out by a monk loyal to the dead pope’s memory.

Called the “Synod Horrenda” in Church Latin, this “Cadaver Synod” resulted in riots throughout Rome which eventually cost Stephen first his papal throne and eventually his life.  He was strangled in prison less than six months after “condemning” the dead Formosus (once again, Formosus’ reaction, if any, to this news is not recorded).

A fitting end for one crazy bastard.

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Guess it’s time I dipped my toe into the deep end of the author-blogging pool.  My book The Book of Bastards: 101 Worst Scoundrels and Scandals from the World of Politics and Power is due out from Adams Media in August, 2010.  I’ll be posting teaser material (linked at least thematically, if not directly, to the content of the book itself) here during the coming months in the run-up to the book’s launch date.

Coming soon: our first entry in the canon: Pope Stephen VII and the “Cadaver Synod.”

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