Snakes on a Train, 1926
You know those lives that people used to have – like Boy’s Own Annuals come to life, with adventure being one of the essential criteria of their job description? The kind of people who had far more than their fair share of interesting positions, somehow, with their CV ranging from such things as grave-digging, to publishing books of poetry, making millions by inventing a new type of radio communication, discovering Ancient Egyptian tombs, running the Ministry of Food in the Second World War, and taking in a peership along the way.
Mr Frank Mitchell Hedges was once of those kind of people. He was said to be the template for Indiana Jones, although this is denied by everyone actually involved in Indiana Jones. It doesn’t matter – he was that kind of guy anyway, although his career ended up not quite as glorious as he would have liked.
He was born in London and started off as a stockbroker in his father’s company, but soon decided to become an explorer, in the days when that was a valid job title. He travelled around the world, and amongst other things was captured by Mexican Revolutionary general Pancho Villa while in Mexico and worked as a spy.
He hunted giant whip rays in Jamaica in 1922 – “It is the finest sport in the world, this chasing of sea monsters,” he said.
Alongside Lady Richmond Brown (because no adventurous expedition was allowed to take place without an aristocratic lady leading the way), he explored British Honduras (now Belize) in 1924. He found a 300 foot Mayan pyramid which somehow had been lost, and also discovered “some of the earliest life forms of primordial protoplasm.” Fossils, I suppose? The thing that interests and utterly confounds me is the description of some specimens he brought back to England – “Bocateros” – “half alligator and half turtle – powerful creatures, with sufficient strength of jaw to sever a human finger. Rising on their hind legs, they can spring forward a distance of 6ft.” OK, what?
It was on returning from another trip with Lady Richmond Brown, that they were the cause of a commotion at Paddington Station, when it was discovered that one of their specimens for the Zoological Gardens, a Boa Constrictor, had escaped from its cage. Some derring-do later, and they managed to re-cage it on the platform. Also being transported were “two armadillos, a baby lion and a marmoset”. I’d like to see you try and get a baby lion on the Plymouth to London train now.
Mitchell-Hedges was a great one for finding lost cities, cradles of civilisation and evidence for long lost creatures, and he was also a great promoter of himself and these discoveries. The problem was, that sometimes the things he claimed to have discovered had actually been found long before he was on the scene. In the 1930s he had his own radio show in New York, telling his tales of adventure and narrow escapes from wild animals. He wrote books called things like “Battles With Giant Fish“, “Danger, My Ally” and “Land of Wonder and Fear“. His questionable reliability was rather brilliantly summed up by archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson, who said of his last book – “To me the wonder was how he could write such nonsense and the fear how much taller the next yarn would be“.
That might explain the Bocateros, and his fatal flaws of invention and exaggeration would catch up with him later.
He was fascinated by the legend of Atlantis and was convinced that it had been located in Honduras. It was in Honduras, he claimed, that he found the Crystal Skull made famous by appearing on the cover of Arthur C Clarke’s “Mysterious World” book, and in the opening credits of the TV series.
Mitchell-Hedges said his daughter found the skull on a dig in Honduras in the 1920s, although he didn’t mention this to anyone until the 1940s. Coincidentally, his skull appeared just after a very similar skull owned by Sydney Burnley had been auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 1943. The measurements of the Sotheby’s skull and the Mitchell-Hedges skull were later compared and were found to be exactly the same, which rather implies that there were indeed the same item. Despite his claim that this was an ancient Mayan artefact, thousands of years old, after close examination, it appeared that the skull had been made from modern tools, not those found at Mayan sites. He hadn’t written about the skull in his descriptions of his discoveries on the site in the 1920s, and indeed no-one remembered his daughter being there at the time either. It remains the most famous mystery connected with his name, as his daughter continued to show the skull until her death a few years ago, and maintained that it had healing powers.
More information about the story of the Crystal Skull can be found in a great post on Strange Mag.
He had rather definite ideas about how men and women should act. In this piece from the Hull Daily Mail in 1925, Mitchell-Hedges bemoans what he considers to be the “male weakness” spreading through the middle classes, caused by “a saturation of femininity and female dominance.” He claimed that there were “hundreds of thousands of homes where today the right type of man and woman deplores the current state of affairs.” The “right type” is obviously people that agree with Mitchell-Hedges. The plague of “uncontrollable daughters and lazy, effeminate, extravagant sons” was sweeping the country with their coloured bedsheets and knee powder. It doesn’t seem that he was a fan of the flappers and the move towards freeing up women’s place in society. There was only one thing for it – “All real men and women should ostracise them. Public ridicule will accomplish what no legislation can.”
He was lightly ridiculed for these views in the Yorkshire Evening Post – “Mr Mitchell-Hedges has fallen into the error which seems to have trapped several of our ultra-modern dramatists, who judge society by what goes on in one ten-thousandth part of it.”
His primitive civilisation stories are a bit questionable, but here he describes various marriage ceremonies he had apparently witnessed. The first seems to be a kind of legally-binding kiss-chase, with the girls running away and getting married to the boy who catches them. The second gave the power of choice to the women and was therefore “utterly degenerate.” The husband then, “for the rest of his life…had no will of his own, and did nothing until first ordered by the woman.” I feel like there should be some kind of satire at this point.
Despite all this, one of the most peculiar things in Mitchell-Hedges’ life was an event that happened when Mitchell-Hedges and a friend were being driven down the Portsmouth Road, Wisley, in Surrey, in the January of 1927. A man standing in the road flagged them down and asked them to help take an ill man to hospital. The driver left with this man, leaving Mitchell-Hedges and friend in the car. After a while, when the driver hadn’t returned, they set off in the direction they had gone. They found the driver by the side of the road, with his hands tied behind his back, and as they attempted to free him, they were set on by five or six men. The Mitchell-Hedges party eventually overcame the men, who ran away. But on returning to the car, they discovered a case was missing. The contents of this case, in true Mitchell-Hedges’ style, contained not only business papers, but also “five or six specimens of the exceedingly rare human heads, which had been shrunk by Indians in the interior by a process of which they alone possessed the secret.”
Always one for a bit of hyperbole, in the morning he told the Press Association “I don’t want any publicity, and I’ve asked the police not to make anything public. What happened was so serious that every motor-car was stopped throughout the whole of southern England. It’s all I have to say.”
Every car in southern England was stopped? Wow. That would be a hell of a police operation, if it had happened.
The next night he gave a talk to Bank of England officials, and as part of his “political correctness/health and safety gone mad” talk, he bemoaned the loss of the spirit of adventure in the English youth. He was queried about his attack of the night before and asked if this could have been carried out by youths playing a prank on him, having been inspired by his talks of adventure. Impossible, said Mitchell-Hedges “Believe me, this was no prank, and I tell you honestly I would give £5000 to undo what happened last night. You know me, and you can see that a prank would not upset me as this has done. Honestly, it would be better to say nothing. After all, when you think of my adventures and experiences during revolutions in Central America, to experience such an occurrence in England would appear to the public perfectly ludicrous.”
Or was it a prank? The next day Mitchell-Hedges received a letter which indicated that it was.
Mr C. Bagot Gray wrote “I have every admiration for you as a man, and after hearing you speak to us at the National Liberal Club on the 6th inst., I have confidence in your future as a politician. But five other young Liberals besides myself took sincere exception to your remarks about the lack of “guts” in the British youth of to-day, and we made up our mind that we would prove the opposite to be true in a striking way. Well, we have done it. You did not suspect that the six ruffians who attacked you in Cobham Woods were six of these very young weaklings whom you were reviling with their lack of enterprise and pluck. Your bag is in our possession. It has not been opened. I shall be pleased to restore it on withdrawal of your accusations – you must come and speak to us again.”
It was all getting a bit confusing, and newspapers reported on the “Fake Hold-Up” that Mitchell-Hedges had been part of. He issued writs of libel against the Daily Express and the Liverpool Post and Echo for reporting on the Express story. It seems there was a suggestion that his friend in the car that night, Mr Colin Edgell, the hon. Secretary of the London Young Liberals Federation, had been party to this plot. And possibly also that Mitchell-Hedges was aware of it as well.
Issuing these writs turned out to be a disastrous move for him.
The Lord Chief Justice was confused as well – in settling the case against the Echo in June 1927 he said “The whole matter seems to be extremely mysterious. I shall say nothing about it except that the record is withdrawn.”
A week after issuing his writs, Mitchell-Hedges suddenly came down with a bout of malaria and influenza.
Although a few days later he was much better.
In February 1928, his libel trial began against the Express.
The Defence were immediately on the attack, querying his reputation for romancing.
Mr Jowitt asked “Are you an adventurer?”
“In the sense that I go abroad,” replied Mr Hedges.
In the sense that you experience and enjoy real adventure you are an adventurer? – Oh! yes.
In the sense that you take advantage of the credulity of other people by pretending to have had adventures which you have not had, or by exaggerating adventures you have had, you are not an adventurer? -No.
Do you hesitate about that? -Every man in his life is an adventurer.
But not in that sense? -No.
That would be a contemptible thing wouldn’t it? -To deceive, yes.
The strange contents of his attaché-case were discussed. He was asked if he always carried shrunken heads with him. He replied “Yes, I always have them with me and I had them with me on that occasion.” Lord Hewart: “What were these heads?” Plaintiff: “The heads of human beings, which are pressed by a device.” At this point it was four “pressed heads” in the case, not the five or six in the contemporary reports.
His past was dissected – he admitted that he was once bankrupt, that he once owed his father £12,000 but denied being part of a “bucket shop” (a boiler room-type scam). He said that he had been rejected when attempting to sign up for the First World War and that he had never said that the war was no affair of his. His reputation was starting to be dragged through the mud.
The trial was a sensation, with a full public gallery of “fashionably-dressed women in fur coats”. Mitchell-Hedges knew it wasn’t going well for him, stating that “he was fighting for his life.” The confusing events of who knew what were covered, including a previous attempt that had apparently gone wrong, and Hedges was accused of saying that his stolen case had contained “all the most sensational documents and things you could collect in order that their disappearance might create a great press sensation.”
The veracity of his adventures and his books was a matter of discussion. His book “Battles with Giant Fish” was said to contain “a lot of untrue statements,” and his claim to have discovered the city of Lubaantun in British Honduras was rubbished, as it had actually been known about for years, and mentioned in the Colonial Reports for British Honduras. Hedges said he hadn’t known that other people had known about Lubaantun. His claim that fish rained from the skies every June in Honduras was also queried, but he stuck by it.
The damning testimony of the witness Mr William Shaw meant the game was up. He was one of the plotters, and explained what had happened. In his story, all parties had been well aware of the scheme, including Mitchell-Hedges, who had roughed the grass up on the night to look like a convincing tussle had taken place. Mr Shaw said he had written a letter, at Mitchell-Hedges’ request, to say that Hedges had known nothing about the plot, in order to help his case in the libel trial. Finally, a clue as to what it was all about – Shaw said he thought it was “a prank got up for advertising purposes.” The idea was to promote a company called Monomark, who made marks on belongings in order to identify them again. Hedges’ bag was to be found and identified using this system. The four (or five, or six) shrunken heads within it were not identifying enough, obviously.
The Lord Chief Justice summed up the case in as damning a way as can be imagined. There could be no doubt as to the conclusion he had come to, and his irritation at those organisations that would sell fabricated qualifications, which Mitchell-Hedges had evidently purchased.
“It would not have been surprising had the jury intimated when they heard all the evidence Mr Hedges could give in the box that they were satisfied he was in the hoax……You may think it deplorable that there are societies in existence which on payment of a modest sum are prepared to confer upon anybody what ought to be an honorific title of Fellow. The thing becomes grotesque when you see an enumeration of letters like that on a title page of a book or on a menu at a dinner and makes one think that the man must be an imposter or he would not do it….At the end of the case of the plaintiff I thought he had not put it a bit too high when he called the plaintiff an imposter.”
Unsurprisingly, he lost the libel case.
Mitchell-Hedges tried to scrape the mud off his reputation and attempted to prove he wasn’t an imposter. He wrote to all the societies he was connected with and asked them to examine his claims to see if they were true. I’m not sure if anyone took him up on this. His was a rather toxic name to be associated with at this point.
Following the trial, two men were subsequently convicted of attempting to defraud Hedges, having claimed that they could influence the jury in his favour.
Two years later, his name was attached to another scandal – he was named as a co-respondent in Lady Richmond Brown’s divorce case. The pair had apparently been having an affair since 1921. To be fair, her marriage sounds to be have been dead in the water, as her husband Sir Richmond Brown had “since May 1910 been under the control of a Master of Lunacy”. Lady R-B would get an allowance after the divorce “subject to the consent of the lunacy authorities.”
In 1935, with the affair apparently over, Mitchell-Hedges married a dancer called Dorothy Copp. Four years later, their marriage was annulled, although the unusual acceptance of an annulment after so many years was not explained. Mrs Mitchell-Hedges said of their marriage “My honeymoon lasted three years and was one continuous nightmare. Jungles are no place for a white woman.”
At the time of the annulment, she was already engaged to her attorney and Mitchell-Hedges had settled down in Cornwall – he “told the Daily Mirror that he does not intend to do any more exploring.”
But by 1950 he had the taste for it again. He was planning to lead an expedition from Kenya “to find out whether any weird monsters live in the depths of the Indian Ocean.” Brilliantly, his partner in this venture was his neighbour Adrian Conan-Doyle, son of Sir Arthur. However, Conan-Doyle later related that the shipping company wouldn’t transport his pet dog any further than Mombasa, and so he left the expedition. Mitchell-Hedges continued alone, and the Conan Doyles stayed behind with their “10 tons of shark hooks, tinned food, ropes, wire traces, rods, reels, rifles, tools, cameras, ammunition and medicines heaped on the wharfside”.
I don’t know if Hedges ever found his sea monsters. But he kept travelling in his later years, up until 1959 when he died of a heart attack at the age of 76.