Sunday, 11 December 2011

Mitchell Siegel Murder – Mystery of the Origins of Superman

Superman is possibly the best known and most iconic action comic superhero of our time, and this bullet-proof hero from the planet Krypton dressed in his distinctive bright blue and red costume has appeared in many films, TV shows, action comics, books and on a huge array of Superman merchandise.  The accepted story is that Superman was created by two shy and friendless high school students to make some money and help them to get girlfriends, but could the true story of Superman’s creation be a lot darker than that?  Could the character of Superman have been created because a young teenage boy had lost his father in shocking and tragic circumstances, causing him to create a fantasy world where good always prevails over evil and where there is an indestructible Man of Steel who will fly to your aid at your time of peril? Did this young, grieving boy wish that his father had been bullet-proof and that one day there would be justice done for a horrendous crime?


Superman was the creation of two teenagers called Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and was destined to be the first of the celebrated American comic book superheroes.  Jerry Siegel was born in 1914 and was the youngest son of Mitchell Siegel, a Lithuanian immigrant who had opened a clothing and haberdashery store in Cleveland. Jerry was a shy child, who was not good at making friends, and whose greatest love was drawing.  His father Mitchell encouraged his son’s artistic talent, but on one tragic night in 1932 the young teenager’s life would be changed forever.  On the 2nd June in 1932 Mitchell Siegel’s store was robbed at around 8.30 in the evening.  During the course of the robbery Siegel slumped to the floor and died; the robbers fleeing and they were never being brought to justice.  The Siegel family and the coroner stated that Mitchell had died of a heart attack, but police reports stated that gunshots had been reported during the robbery.  So had Mitchell Siegel really been murdered by being shot to death, and if so, why the cover up and why was there no murder enquiry?

Whether this was a murder or a tragic natural death brought on by the robbery, the impact on the shy teenager Jerry Siegel who loved and admired his father must have been devastating.  Also the fact that nobody was ever arrested for the robbery must have seemed highly unjust to the idealistic teenager, who would have naturally wanted justice for his father and to see his assailants brought to trial.  But was this tragic event the catalyst for the creation of the bullet-proof superhero whose mission was to destroy evil so that justice could be done and good prevail?  It could be said that making Superman bullet-proof was a way of admitting to the world that he knew that his father had really been shot to death, although we will never really know. Did Spiegel wish that his father had been bullet-proof and invincible, and that there had been a superhero that could swoop down from the skies to protect his father from being killed and destroy the evil villains, restoring justice to the world?

Immediately after his father’s death Jerry and Joe Shuster seemed to be driven to create a comic book world where there was a strong sense of good and evil, and where there would always be a superhero on hand that fought tirelessly for good and justice for the wronged.  Was this because the young Siegel could not believe that there would be any real justice for his dead father in this world? Which then led him to create a world of his own where his father’s death would have been avenged? The character of Superman also had other correlations with the young Jerry Spiegel’s life, as Superman had also lost his family, his familiar home environment and was an outsider in a strange land. As well as having to deal with the loss of his father, Jerry had to cope with being  bullied at school, where he was shy, had no interests other than reading magazines and books, and did not excel academically. Practically the only friend he had made at high school was Joe Shuster, who was his collaborator on the comic book strips, and Shuster was a shy and introverted character like himself. In fact, they were so similar that both he and Shuster had to repeat their final year of High School. Ironically, even though many of the characters they would go on to create would be physically strong with superhuman abilities, Spiegel was also not much of an athlete or team sport player, and displayed none of his action comic characters physical prowess.

Since his early childhood years, the young Siegel had been a huge fan of comic strips, films and science fiction pulp magazines.  His career started around 1929, when Jerry published a SF fanzine called Cosmic Stories, which he had created on a manual typewriter and advertised in the classified section of the Science Wonder Stories.  He was active over the next few years and produced several other comic strips and magazines. After he met Joe Shuster they would both spend hours, day and night, creating their comic strip stories and action heroes, to the detriment of their education and social lives. The creative duo broke into comics when they made their debut with Henri Duval, a swashbuckling musketeer and the supernatural crime fighter Dr Occult in the publication New Fun.

However, the character of Superman did not make his appearance until just after Mitchell Siegel’s tragic death, when the younger Siegel and Shuster unveiled a bald villain with telepathic powers whose mission was to dominate the world, that they called ‘The Superman’. This version of the character did not take off, and after a sleepless night spent tossing and turning, Spiegel came up with the idea for the Superman character that we are now all familiar with. However it would take years for them to find a publisher for their new comic strip character, Superman, and after one more rejection by Consolidated Book Publishing, Shuster was so enraged that he burned all the Superman material. Siegel managed to save the front cover from the flames, and in 1938 the publisher of Action Comics decided to use an illustration of Superman lifting a car with his bare hands as a cover for his new action comic.  He contacted Spiegel and Shuster and asked them to create a 13 page Superman story for Action Comics#1 and the legend of Superman was born.  By the time that ActionComics#4 hit the newsstands, the comic was selling in huge numbers and all because Superman was featured in its pages.

 You might think that this would have been a turning point in the lives of Jerry Spiegel and Joe Shuster, and that their futures were destined to be rosy from then on.  However, misfortune never seemed to be lurking too far away from the talented pair. When Superman had been first published in Action Comics in June 1938, they sold all the rights to Superman for only $130 and a contract to supply ongoing Superman material to the publishers.  DC Comics were making a fortune from publishing Superman, but the creators Spiegel and Shuster were still being paid relatively little for their work. They eventually got so frustrated with the situation that they sued DC Comics in 1946. They were promptly fired and the fight went on until in 1948 they accepted $200,000 to sign away all the rights to Superman and any character that was a spin off from Superman, and their names were even removed from the Superman byline. It wasn’t until newspaper reports began to surface in the 1970s of the duo’s impoverished circumstances, that Warner Communications, who were not happy about the bad PR they were receiving, started giving Spiegel and Shuster a $35,000 annual pension and health care benefits. Also they ensured that any material they produced containing the Superman character had to contain the credit ‘Superman created by Jerry Spiegel and Joe Shuster’.

So was Superman really created because a teenage boy had lost his father in a tragic and shocking way, and who wished that his father could have been bullet-proof and have a superhero to save him? It is unlikely that we will never find out what was really going on in their minds as Joe Shuster passed away in 1992 and Jerry Spiegel in 1996 and during his life Jerry never once mentioned the Cleveland robbery that led to his father’s death in an interview.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Want To Be a Treasure Hunter? – The Lessons of the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard

Staffordshire Hoard – Buried Anglo-Saxon Treasure

Have you ever heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, the amazing Anglo-Saxon gold and silver treasure found by a lone man with a metal detector in an English field?  Many of us have been brought up on tales of buried treasure and maps where X marks the spot, so the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard must have seemed like a dream come true to that lucky treasure hunter.  Finding an ancient treasure or chest full of gold coins may seem like a bit of a pipe dream, but it is one that many people hope to fulfil as they scour the countryside with their metal detectors hoping to strike it rich. 

But just as many lottery winners have discovered to their cost, hitting the jackpot and finding a unique, golden treasure does not always lead to happiness ever after and can even cause the people involved to regret ever having been part of their remarkable discovery. So was finding the Staffordshire Hoard a wonderful, life-changing event for those involved or merely the precursor to arguing, bitterness and remorse?

The Finding of the Staffordshire Hoard

Back in 2009 Terry Herbert was just an amateur metal detector enthusiast, who was living on disability allowance in a council flat. He had found some small archaeological artefacts in the past, but could have had no idea of was he was about to unearth in a muddy field near Lichfield in Staffordshire. For what he pulled out of the mud that day in Fred Johnson’s field were the very first pieces of what would turn out to be a fabulous Anglo-Saxon treasure, comprising of over 1500 items in gold and silver, some studded with precious stones that dated from the 7th century AD. 

Most of the precious objects were associated with warfare, such as parts of decorated helmets, sword pommels, and hilt collars. There were also three gold crosses discovered that had had the arms folded inwards, possibly so that they would not take up so much space when they were buried. Mr Herbert reported his amazing find to the local authorities and Birmingham archaeology undertook the full archaeological excavation between July and August 2009.

So What is the Staffordshire Hoard?

 The items recovered in the Staffordshire Hoard are of the most superb craftsmanship and show what expert metal workers the Anglo Saxons were. The huge quantities of gold and silver found also shows that these were once the possessions of very high status individuals, possibly even royalty. One of the more interesting facts is that none of the objects found would have belonged to women; they were all parts of the trappings of an Anglo-Saxon warrior, which had been ripped off the original swords and helmets.  

There has been fierce debate as to how this collection of treasure was originally accumulated and why, but it has been suggested that they are trophies collected from vanquished warriors after a battle, or that the gold and silver embellishments had been removed so that the sword blades or metal helmets could then be redecorated to reflect the new owner’s identity.  Also there have been various reasons put forward as to why the Staffordshire Hoard was buried in that field, ranging from the treasure being an offering to a pagan god to the artefacts being hastily concealed due to protect them from being pillaged during a battle.

Who Were The Anglo-Saxons?

The Anglo-Saxons were a group of Germanic tribesmen that invaded the south and east of England during the early 5th century AD. This period of British history is usually known as the Dark Ages, a time from which there are very few surviving written records and it used to be thought that any culture had fled the country with the retreating Romans and that the invading Anglo-Saxons were merely blood-thirsty savages. 

However, some of the archaeological finds from this period, such as the Sutton Hoo burial and now the Staffordshire Hoard, show that the Anglo-Saxons were exceptionally skilled at working precious metals, setting them with garnet gemstones. The field where the Staffordshire Hoard was found was in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, ruled by warrior kings such as Aethelred, Penda and Wulfhere. 

During the 7th century AD Mercia was trying to expand its territory and influence and was being militarily aggressive, so the booty of the Staffordshire Hoard could easily have been stripped from bodies on the battlefield. The Staffordshire Hoard also shows that at that time, Anglo-Saxon Britain was in transition from being a pagan country to a Christian one, as some of the objects show a mix between being decorated with pagan or Christian symbols.

Valuing the Staffordshire Hoard

The Staffordshire Hoard was valued by the Independent Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum at £3.28 million. This small fortune was divided equally between the farmer who owned the field, Fred Johnson, and the man who had made the discovery with his metal detector, Terry Herbert. You would have thought that becoming millionaires overnight would have been a cause for celebration, but instead it appears to have led to a souring of relations and bitter recriminations between these two men. 

The relationship has even deteriorated to the point where Mr Johnson has banned Terry Herbert from ever setting foot on his land again. It seems that both men have expressed regret that they ever had any part in discovering the Staffordshire Hoard. Fred Johnson has stated in the media that he believes that Terry Herbert is just a greedy, grasping man and that he has been incensed by Mr Johnson’s desire to search for more treasure on the farm. Mr Johnson says that he was never interested in gaining money from the find and was only ever interested in protecting the find for the country, and also that he did not welcome any of the publicity or media interest. 

Mr Herbert has riposted by saying that Fred Johnson was just unhappy that he had to share any of the payout and that he wanted to keep all the money for himself. So despite the fact that Fred Johnson has been able to build himself a new house on his farm and that Terry Herbert has moved from his council flat to a luxury bungalow, their new found wealth does not seem to have brought either man very much happiness or peace of mind.

So maybe we should all be a bit more careful of what we wish for, as even something as fabulous as discovering a buried hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure can bring stress and unhappiness with it. But perhaps the most important thing to have come out of all this is the Staffordshire Hoard itself. 

This fascinating piece of Anglo-Saxon history is now housed in several museums in the UK, including the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum and the British Museum, where visitors can wonder at their beauty and experts can continue to examine them and discover more about their history, how they were made and fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history.

Staffordshire Hoard Image Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic