Sunday, February 26, 2012

Murder in Carson City (1862)

Andrew Jackson Marsh
The period during which my Western Mysteries are set was a particularly rich one in Nevada history. Between Tuesday November 11th and Sunday December 21st 1862 over thirty legislators were hammering out new laws for Nevada Territory. There were at least three clever reporters in the provisional capital, Carson City. These included the 26-year-old Sam Clemens – soon-to-be-but-not-yet Mark Twain – who was on his first assignment from the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Thanks to the abundance of journalists, not only were the lawmaking sessions well-covered, but we also have an unusually complete record of background events during those forty days. These include weather, dances, weddings, bar-room brawls, bonfires and even murders, of which there were no fewer than five. This is the account of just one of the murders. It is taken directly from the Sacramento Daily Union and was probably written by that newspaper's drily witty correspondent in Carson City, Andrew Jackson Marsh.  

Carson City,  N. T. , Monday, Nov. 24, 1862

my husband Richard, not Con Mason
The good people of Carson are enjoying the sensation of a first class murder, which came off here about one o'clock this morning. A full grown, cold-blooded murder, with thrilling accompaniments, had not happened right here in Carson for upward of a fortnight previously. Consequently this affair has all the charm of novelty! The victim was a young man known by the name of Con. Mason, and is reported to have borne one or two aliases, and to have come to this coast overland from the Pike's Peak region. The murderer is — nobody knows who for a certainty, and probably the law never will ascertain. Several parties have been arrested, and the wildest and most contradictory reports are circulated, as if to mislead.

These facts I do know, however: That about one o'clock this morning a pistol shot was fired in the street; that a few minutes later a man came into the Ormsby House and stated that he had just stumbled over a dead man; that in company with several men and a lantern I went to the spot, three or four squares west of the Ormsby House, and there found a well-dressed, youngish looking man lying stiff and stark on his back, his hat on his breast, his chestnut hair dabbling in a large pool of blood, and his glazed eyes staring upward at the stars of heaven. He was lying in front of a small wooden house with "to let" on the door, and a porch which may have afforded concealment to the lurking assassin. The man appeared to have been shot dead in his tracks, without a word of warning, and to have fallen just as he was found. There was a round hole under his left ear, and a corresponding hole nearly opposite under the right ear, which probably marked the passage of the leaden messenger of death into and out of his head.

You can read the full account HERE; it includes a French love interest, a couple of suspects and a possible motive for the murder.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Omen of the Crows

“Dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas.” – Juvenal

If one is of a superstitious nature like many a Roman, then one has beliefs governed by luck. A woman combing her hair with the spear of a dead man gives good luck; the left-side creates extremely bad luck. Most of all, crows bring terrible bad luck and are ultimately a curséd omen. Take this famous example: Sejanus the rebel had been warned of his impending doom by the crows perched on a prison roof that he was later taken to and executed at for his base treachery. But why should he have been so surprised by this when the crows had surrounded him? If only our good friend Sestillius had heeded the same warning before it was too late for him. The consequence of this has left me, Revocatus, to pen his tale for him.

It was little more than a week ago when my excellent companion, Argus, and I were to attend a most exquisite banquet that Sestillius had planned to put on, courtesy of his slaves of course; in celebration of his having another estate added to his collection.

When we arrived, well, what a surprise met us. Instead of being greeted by the slave-porter as is custom, the door was answered by none other than Sestillius’s wife Fortunata who then proceeded to tell us that she was exceedingly sorry that the banquet was off for Sestillius was dead! No sooner than we had received word of his successful bargaining had he apparently dropped down dead from a heart attack. She shed numerous tears while telling us all of this of and while I could at first only think of the rudeness for not having informed us immediately; Argus later imparted some wise words to me and Fortunata appeared considerably cheered up when telling us that Sestillius would be cremated the next night though he had wished for burial.

“Struit insidias lacrimis cum femina plorat,” he said gravely as we half-watched a  Coliseum gladiator match. I took my eyes off the game fought between a pair of Retiarii and a pair of Laqueatores and listened.  “Is it not odd that Sestillius appeared healthy to us only a short time ago? She has never been close to Sestillius in affection. ”

I frowned, musing over his words. “Are you proposing that the death of Sestillius was not in fact an accident? But something of a far more devious nature? A woman who has murdered her husband must be justly punished by the gods.”

Upon this, I left with Argus as soon as the Laqueatores triumphed over their opponents although the battle wasn’t quite as bloody as I was expecting. This is just as well perhaps as my mind was already concocting a murderous, most disgusting scene of Sestillius left to rot in a grave without the correct rituals made; the slaves sworn to secrecy. We made our way back to that wonderful abode at night hoping that we could enter the mausoleum undisturbed by Fortunata.

Thankfully, Fortunata was not there. Men can be blinded by love as well their own faults for Sestillius to have liked Fortunata. By the entrance, we came across a young Egyptian slave, trembling as he stood before us, refusing us admission since he was on the orders of his mistress (and no doubt she was his mistress).

“Should I box your ears?” cried Argus. “Have you not been taught respect for your social superiors? Insolent dog! Stand aside you filthy cur ere I chop off your ears and throw them to the gladiatorial crocodiles!”

Fearing that his wroth would attract attention, I spoke quickly: “Slave, we wish for admission inside the mausoleum. You do not want to upset my friend for he is a retired gladiator of notorious skill and as you can see, he has not lost his wits. You need not impart this information to your mistress. Say you were overpowered if you must say anything at all.”

I suppose I cannot truly appreciate the position of a slave since I have been fortunate enough to have never been one. But our words certainly had the appropriate effect for the Egyptian stood aside and sank to the floor cowering in case his face invoked anger again for Argus.

The inside of the mausoleum was lit by many burning torches which illuminated the flowers, the trees, the cisterns, it seemed less of a resting place for the dead and more of a place for recreation. There on the bier at the end of the glorious tomb rested Sestillius, robed and decorated, looking quite healthy for someone gripped by death apart from pallid skin. We approached the body and were relieved to discover that no brute force had been used upon it. Though a man is naturally stronger than a woman; a man can be easily overpowered when under the strong influence of alcohol. No such signs of weaponry had been used on Sestillius.

Suddenly, we both heard a tumultuous racket outside and we fearfully looked at each other. Had our presence been discovered? Had the foolish slave blabbed? We heard a flurry of footsteps coming our way through that maze of a tomb suggesting that a company was coming to seize us. Without much further thought, I grabbed Argus and taking advantage of the mini-forest planted here; we hid amongst its branches and kept our breathing to a minimum.

A number of guards; the ones previously belonging to Sestillius I noted, surrounded the bier and scanned their surroundings looking for the intruders and there stood Fortunata wearing a gleaming ring that seemed rather familiar. Her countenance was frightening and we dared not move. Part of her tunic seemed splattered with ink and in one hand did she clutch a rolled-up scroll. Finally, after what seemed like a century, the guards shuffled off upon the orders of Fortunata and presently left us alone.
We climbed down and noticed that Sestillius had been disturbed by the guards as if hoping to catch one of us hiding beside him. His eyes were now open and I could not help but shudder at this sight as I saw that the pupils were widely dilated as if he had taken some sort of drug. Or…

“Belladonna,” I murmured. “Poison is a woman’s weapon.” Argus looked at me intrigued. “It is easy to conceal part of the plant inside of a meal and his death could be attributed to natural causes. Do you remember Socrates and the hemlock?”

Argus contemplated this and nodded. “But we need further proof. This sort of method takes time; what if he wrote a letter?”

“Are you suggesting that we should break into the house?” I cried. “That is madness!”

But my words were to have little effect and as we left, I saw that the slave had gone. We knew where Sestillius’s room was and we went towards it though we had to scale the wall and slip in through the window. Thankfully, Fortunata was not there. On the table we saw another scroll. This we examined:
‘I should be most pleased upon my latest success as the gods have granted me and yet in myself, I feel less than joyous. The conditions of confusion, convulsions and constipation afflict me even now. Have my enemies reached me at last? I should have heeded the crows’ warnings. I praise my Christian God that I have seen the light, having left behind the paganism of Rome. Having written this, I know that they shall come for me very soon for having broken Roman law and yet…’

There the letter ended in little more than a scrawl. He was certainly describing the symptoms of belladonna and it seemed that Sestillius had been hiding a great secret; one that would shock the whole community and especially his rich companions. Having deciphered the cause of his death, we tried to gather our thoughts together when Fortunata stepped in…


The truth, it seems, has been uncovered. After demanding information from her, Fortunata eventually confessed that it was she who had fed her husband the poison Belladonna, arguing that it was a kinder death than the one that the Senate would give him. Perhaps so, but Sestillius would have broken his own ring and not have given it away to his wife for fear of fraudulent activities which Fortunata was prepared to undertake. The other scroll we found to be Sestillius’s will and she had planned to divert the money to herself rather than the original recipients that he had intended, his cousin I think.

We have done our part now and it is up to the courts to decide the fate of the murderess. Though our friend was taken from us untimely, we can be assured that he had had a good life and he is indeed free of all the perils that life has to offer and that we, of the living must yet suffer those perils still.

This superb short-story by 17-year-old Claire Worthington from Blackburn College, won second prize in the over 14 category of the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. Well done, Claire!

Monday, February 20, 2012

At the Setting of the Sun

They meet beneath the cover of darkness.

Her footsteps echo against the walls, the ghosts of her secrets whispering. She stands with her head bowed, just beyond the isolation of the moonlight behind the building. Her breath gasps in the air and she waits.

Soon, there’s someone hurrying along her path, and she withdraws further into the shadows. But then there’s a voice, something soft and female and unnervingly maternal.

“Locusta,” the voice breathes, “have you come?”

“Yes,” she replies, and steps out from her safety.

“I need your help. I can trust you implicitly?”

“Of course. You must know who I am to have called me here.”

“Good. Now listen, I need you to advise me on something.” The other woman pauses, takes a breath, and Locusta can’t tell whether it’s from anticipation of the next part, or for dramatic effect. “I need to kill the emperor.”


Of course she can help.

Of course she could consult, give advice, prepare anything needed.

But does that mean she should?

A slow sickness of uncertainty begins to spread through her.


It’s treason.

But you were trusted, were asked.

You could die.

You, or Claudius.

What if someone found out?

But if it all goes to plan…

Could it work?

It could work.

It has to work.


They consult again a few days later.

The woman comes into her workshop, head bowed once more, a pallium pulled over her face, masking half in uncertainty.

“Have you considered my proposition? Of course, I’d be very willing to offer a reward for your services. If you are successful, that is. However, I need your complete trust, your complicity. Will you help me?”

Locusta’s answer is softer than an exhale. “Yes.”

Suddenly, there’s a greater certainty, and an urgency, to the woman’s voice. “We must act quickly. I need you to help me decide how to do this. What are my options?”

“Many. How is it that you intend to poison him?”

“As discreetly as at all possible.”

“Then I would say that your most plausible option is to slip the poison in a place where it will be disguised; either in wine or in food would work well. And there are many types of toxins we could use in such case.”

“Will you give me time to consider?”

For the first time, the woman looks Locusta directly in the eye, who nods in response, before their connection is severed as her client turns away.

It’s only once she’s left the workshop that Locusta realises exactly who the woman is.

A procession – music and dancing and the flame of a red veil – a celebration – a public holiday – Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia…

A single name on her lips.



“I have a plan,” she states upon returning, drawn back by promise. “If I slip the poison into his food, he won’t notice it. And if I was to ensure he drank a good deal of wine beforehand, the dish would not need to be tasted. Would this work?”

“Yes, I think so. Have you thought about what type of poison you wish to use? Or a second plan in the event your first does not work?”

“This is where I require your help. I intend for my son, Lucius, to succeed him, and, as it currently stands, this is what will happen. However, if I was to choose a poison that worked too slowly, I fear he may understand my intentions and, even on the border of death, make it so that his own son would take over his reign. On the other hand, however, if it was to work too quickly, who knows where the suspicion will fall? What do you suggest?”

“I have a poison in mind that will work in a matter of hours, but, during that time, will also induce delirium and confuse his mind. It could easily be applied to a dish, and, if you succeed in inducing drunkenness before serving him, will be completely inconspicuous.”

Agrippina’s face falters for a moment as she eyes Locusta, her expression unreadable. Then she breaks into a smile, more sickly than honey.

“That sounds perfect. But wait – your second plan.”

“Yes. Do you have accomplices? Others assisting you beside myself?”

“I do. I have Halotus, a freedman at the palace, and I also intend to speak to Xenophon.”

“A doctor?”


“Speak to him. What I will do is provide you with everything you need. If it becomes known that the emperor has consumed poison, and it will, they will try everything they can to force the poison to leave his body. By which time, it will be too late. However, one thing they may do is to stimulate the back of the throat with a feather. If you were to tip one with a fast-acting poison, and hand this to the doctor to use, it will hasten death under the guise of hoping to prevent it.”

“When would you be able to do this by?”

“Do you have a set date?”

“As soon as possible. Narcissus is away – the only one who could stop me – and it must be done before he returns.”

“I can do it within two days if I have all the right components.” It isn’t a question, but appears as such. Whether it’s the power radiating from Agrippina, or the anticipation and disbelief of what she intends to do, she doesn’t know. But there’s a detachment there, too. It’s not like this is any different from anything else she’s done in a professional capacity. The end result is the same. A victim, cut from the world easily. It doesn’t matter who that is in the end, does it?


She mixes with an expert hand, selects only the best of ingredients, and fixes it under the dusty light of a crescent moon.

Her art may be in causing the death of another person, but at least there’s a twisted beauty in the fact she can care about making sure it’s done in the best way possible, isn’t there?


The final time she and Agrippina meet, they exchange no words except for a simple “Thank you” and “Good luck” and the poison slips between folds of fabric.


She’s a victim of the city.

Greed runs though the veins of the streets and a need to drain the cup of power burns through all, and whatever they need, she can give them.

News flies like quicksilver, whispers floating between the gossipers like the burnt feathers of a raven, and words will soon twist into bonds of poison ivy.

And as the city stands, the collection of heads bowed, the first threads of the web are already beginning to spin, and the rumours are just starting to take flight.


I heard Agrippina wanted her son to have power. That’s why she did it. That’s why she killed her uncle.

I heard Britannicus is in danger. I hope that he can stay safe.

I heard Xenophon has been given a large amount of money. We can be sure he was there. Maybe he killed the emperor.

I heard Locusta had something to do with it. She’s been meeting them secretly at the palace. She even had a private audience with the emperor to fully devise her plan.

I heard Halotus wanted to start a revolt with the others at the palace against the emperor. I don’t know why, but when no one would join him, he took matters into his own hands. He was the one who slipped him the poison.


The words flicker from person to person faster than a breath, and steadily become more and more absurd.

But when she catches her name, she knows it’s only a matter of time.


They arrest her at sunset.

It’s quick. It’s easy. She goes quietly, just as she has done all other times before.


The first thing the guards do is tell Agrippina.

“We’ve captured Locusta. The poisoner responsible for your husband’s death.”

“May I speak with her?”

“Do you want to consult with such a woman?”

“Yes. I have something I must tell her. In confidence.”


It’s dark.

The cold is biting.

She shivers.

“Agrippina wishes to speak to you.”


They’ve come full-circle, back again to meeting beneath moonlight.

“Thank you,” Agrippina whispers to her, one hand on her shoulder. She then slips a small bag of aurei into her hands, which clatters like a phantom in their grasp.

“You are to let this woman go,” she tells the guards. “I am satisfied beyond doubt now that this woman had nothing to do with the honourable emperor’s tragic death. She is free to leave.”


Locusta thinks nothing of it again.

After all, the death of the emperor is just the same as the death of a beggar, is it not?

Death is un-judging, simple, equal for everyone.


A guest visits her workshop a few months later, his head bowed.

“Locusta, my mother recommended your services. I need to kill Britannicus. I need your help.”


Inspired by Tacitus, Annals 12.65

This marvellous short-story by 16-year-old Rosie Hodson from The Abbey School, Reading, was the first prize winning entry for the over 14s in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. Well done, Rosie!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Golden Sponge-Stick Winners '11

Jeremy "Jerry" Pine has just sent me this notice, announcing the winners of the Burgess Hill School for Girls Golden Sponge Stick Competition for 2011! I would like to offer my congratulations to the winners and indeed to everyone who entered, a wonderful accomplishment in its own right! I will be posting excerpts over the next few days. Watch this space or subscribe to this blog!

The Prestigious Prize!
‘Natural Evolution’

 The competition attracted a record 357 entries this year, including 11 international stories (10 from USA, 1 from Australia).

 Again a pleasingly eclectic mix of schools and colleges participated. The general standard of entries was high, with some superb winning pieces. The backdrop of amorous slaves and feisty gladiators is always popular but in the fourth year of the contest the inspirational imagination of the writers has never been more effervescent. 

The destructive  force of nature was one of the major highlights with macabre tales of poisonous yew and humorous portions of stolen figs. Mushrooms were the next deadly delicacy to flourish as meticulous historical scholarship underpinned ‘At the setting of the sun’, based on Tacitus’ account of Agrippina’s plot. 

The prophetic power of portent was skilfully observed in ‘Omen of the Crows’, appositely summarised in Juvenal’s satirical observation ‘dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas’ (‘Censure acquits the crow, condemns the dove.’) 

One of the finest technical entries reviewed Pliny’s letters regarding Vesuvius in a highly articulate and original way.

Overall, there was an avalanche of creative energy from the 11-13 age group in particular. It would be gratifying to receive some responses from students under the age of 9 in 2012, as interest from  this quarter has not been sustained this year.

 The winners and placings are posted below. In recognition of the robust support of schools and colleges this year, three have been awarded prizes for a particularly outstanding contribution. Many others were distinguished and supportive, including the following : Berkhamsted, Cheadle Hulme, Emanuel, Ellesmere College,James Allen’s Girls, Oakham , Sancton Wood  and the exotically named Mountain High View from USA.

 Many thanks to all schools/colleges and students who participated in the competition. Let us hope that the contest continues to evolve in 2012, illustrating the positive dynamics of nature!

PRIZE WINNERS for 2011: 

 Over age 14 category: 

1. Rosie Hodsdon, The Abbey School, Reading
2. Claire Worthington, Blackburn College.
3. Adam Cunnane, Cheadle Hulme School.

11-13 age category:

1. Diana Luc, James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich
2. Anna Hindmarsh, Stamford High School
3. Isabella Morris, James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich. 

9-11 age category: 

1. Arabella Vickers, Godolphin and Latymer School, Hammersmith. 
2. Kathryn Warburton, Berkhamsted School.
3. Nirali Patel, North London Collegiate School

USA winner: 

Marina Macklin, Highland School, Warrenton, VA 20186, USA. 

Outstanding contributions for schools/colleges: 
Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School.
Harrow School.
Merchant Taylor’s Boys’ School, Crosby.

Full list of participating schools and colleges.

(Note that some of the entries were home educated or did not indicate their school/college).
The Abbey School, Reading,  Berkhamsted School, Blackburn College, Cambridge International School, Abington, Cheadle Hulme School, Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School, Ellesmere College, Emanuel School, Battersea, Farlington School, Godolphin and Latymer School, Hammersmith, Harrow School, Highland School, Warrenton, USA, James Allen’s Girls’  School, Dulwich, Merchant Taylor’s Boys’ School, Crosby, Merchant Taylor’s Girls’ School, Crosby, Mountain View High School, USA, Nonsuch High School for Girls, North London Collegiate School, Oakham School, Old Palace School, Croydon, Redland High School for Girls, Red Maids’ School, Bristol, Sancton Wood School, Cambridge, Sir Joseph Williamson Mathematics School, St Gabriel’s School, Newbury, St James’ Senior Girls’ School, London, St Pauls’s Girls’ School, London, Stamford High School, The Maynard School, Exeter, The Read School, Selby, Warwick School and Wycombe Abbey School.

Special thanks : 

the artefact that started it all
As ever, my family, Burgess Hill School for Girls for its continued support with the project, particularly all the entertaining Burgess Hill School girls, my Classics supremo, Barbara Johns, Lorna Coward, Yudi Lowe and Judith Edey. Also for helping with publicity; the Association for Latin Teaching,  Cambridge School Classics Project, Classical Association (for sponsoring all the prizes), Classics Outreach, University of Oxford, Claire Davenport, Daisy Dunn (JACT), Friends of Classics, iris project, Graham Kirby, Lorna Robinson, Dr Cressida Ryan and David Swift.  A big thank you to Caroline Lawrence, who inspired the competition and Adrian Wink from armamentaria, who manufactured the Golden Sponge Sticks!

 Jerry Pine

Burgess Hill School for Girls 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romance in Ancient Rome - a Quiz

Cupid on a crab

I) St Valentine was most probably
a) a Jewish priest
b) a Roman soldier
c) a Greek freedman
d) a Byzantine emperor

II) The Lupercalia was a mid-February Roman fertility festival. Which of these was NOT a feature?
a) setting doves free
b) half-naked youths
c) goat sacrifice
d) striking people with leather thongs

III) In first century Rome, the most popular month for marriage was
a) April
b) May
c) June
d) July

14 yr old Miriam the bride
IV) Who was Cupid's mother?
a) Minerva (Athena)
b) Venus (Aphrodite)
c) Juno (Hera)
d) Helen of Troy

V) When Pliny the 'Younger' was older he married
a) a besotted 14-year-old girl
b) his niece
c) the Emperor Domitian's niece
d) Cleopatra's niece

VI) The Romans believed the best finger for a wedding ring was
a) the middle finger of the left hand
b) the middle finger of the right hand (the left was unlucky)
c) the fourth finger of the left hand (like today)
d) the fourth finger of the right hand (the left was unlucky)

VII) The legal age for a girl to marry in first century Rome was
a) 10
b) 12
c) 14
d) 16

The Sirens of Surrentum
VIII) The legal age for a girl to become betrothed (engaged) in first century Rome was
a) any age
b) not younger than 6
c) not younger than 8
d) not younger than 10 (decreed Augustus)

IX) The most common cause of death among young women in ancient Rome was
a) malaria
b) measles
c) Latin
d) childbirth

X) The word 'genuine' comes from the Latin
a) genu 'knee' - because the father took his newborn on his knee to acknowledge it was his.
b) genus 'noble birth' - because if you were of noble birth you were a genuine aristocrat.
c) gens 'family' - because only the genuine members of the family could inherit.
d) genius 'guardian spirit' - because this spirit only protected the genuine family members.

Flaccus gives Flavia a love-poem
Bonus fact: Did you know the words 'Roman' and 'Romance' are linked? Also, Roma backwards is amor!

[If you want to learn more about Roman romance, read The Roman Mysteries, especially The Sirens of Surrentum, which has kissing from the very first line. You might also want to check out a blog I wrote about Romantic Roman Artefacts. Some of the pictures in this blog are from the Roman Mysteries TV series, available on iTunesUKCarrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

P.S. The answers: 1 (b); 2 (a); 3 (c); 4 (b); 5 (a); 6 (c); 7 (b); 8 (d); 9 (d); 10 (a)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tinker Tailor Votive Willies

Caroline Lawrence with the artefact
It is a snapping cold day in February and I am hot on the trail of a Roman artefact from Rome's ancient port of Ostia, the setting of most of my Roman Mysteries series of books. The artefact – a small marble relief of four women and a baby – first came to my attention when someone posted it on an Ostia Facebook Group. We were all very excited because none of us had ever seen it before! A few quick emails told us that it was part of the Wellcome Trust Collection with the Science Museum. It was in storage at a museum repository in West London. As the only member of the Ostia Group based there, I volunteered to go and have a look. My motive was not unselfish: as an author of historical detective stories this is exactly the sort of object that can give me an entire plot line!

East Wing of Blythe House 1924
So on 2 February 2012, I take the train from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia, then walk to 23 Blythe Road. I've been to this part of London many times, (and even done a couple of book signings at Brook Green Books), but I never knew about the Victorian treasure box that is Blythe House. Built around the year 1900, its original purpose was to house the Post Office Savings Bank. At one time over a thousand female clerks worked here, segregated from their male counterparts for propriety's sake. They all used to enter via the East (i.e. back) Wing.

East Wing of Blythe House 2012
In 1979 the British Government bought part of Blythe House to use as extra storage space for the British Museum, the Victorian & Albert, and the Science Museum with the Wellcome Trust. The late Sir Roy Strong, director of the V&A called Blythe House "a marvellous building" and said it "should be not just a dumping ground but an exciting new complex for the public." It is a marvellous building. Still attached to the West Kensington Postal sorting office and minus the smokestacks visible in earlier photos, the distinctive red and white brickwork makes it look like a glorious confection of Lego blocks.

Shivering in my down parka, I arrive at the east wing of Blythe House, the same entrance used by all those female clerks. I go to a turnstile called Gate A and press the call button. Anyone can visit, but you have to make an appointment first. I have been put in touch with Ms. Katie Maggs and she has kindly agreed to meet me and show me the artefact. The place is maze-like even before I get inside, but I manage to find reception up some outside stairs. I check in with a porter behind a window. He gives me a yellow plastic pass. Katie meets me a few minutes later. She is young, warm, friendly and informative. With a degree in Classics from the University of Warwick followed by two MAs from University College London, one in Museum Studies and one in History of Medicine, she is the perfect person to tell me about the unusual artefact I'm about to examine.

As Katie leads me down a succession of corridors, stairs and passageways, I get a strong sense of deja vu. I've never been here before, but it seems terribly familiar. There is an odd 1970s institutional feel; it reminds me of the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

'This place has an odd 1970s institutional feel,' I say. 'It's like something out of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.'

'That's because they filmed it here,' says Katie. 'They spent four days here last September.'

Toby Jones (Alleline) & Ciarán Hinds (Bland) on the roof of Blythe House

As a film buff and big fan of the movie, this is an added bonus to my visit! I learn that other movies and TV series were filmed here, (e.g. Minder and The New Avengers). You can also see an atmospheric short film called The Phantom Museum set in the maze of corridors, stairwells and storerooms at Blythe House.

Katie points out the willies
Our first stop is a nondescript door in one of those corridors. Katie has taken me here to pick up gloves, but really - bless her generous heart - she wants to show me some of the ancient treasures stored here. Henry Wellcome, an American adventurer and medical archaeologist, collected over a million objects to do with ancient life and especially medicine. The cream of his collection is on show in a permanent collection called Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection near Euston, but there are plenty more goodies here in Blythe House. This particular room is full of shelves of clay body parts. These are the objects Romans dedicated to their gods if they wanted healing for a specific part of the body. I see dozens of heads, hands, feet, wombs, babies, breasts, & willies.

Yes, willies. If you couldn't wee or do other useful things with your dangly bits, or if you had some sort of boil or spot, you would dedicate a clay model of the appendage to the appropriate god. And you would pray very, very hard.

Votive eyes (& lead slingbullets?)
On the shelves I also see plaster casts of objects, e.g. a big bunch of votive intestines and the famous Babylonian divination liver in the British Museum. There are a couple of charming pigs. Why pigs? It was an agrarian society, deeply concerned with food and survival. If a farmer had a sick pig, he would offer a votive to the god. In addition to the large and medium objects on shelves, there are also drawers with smaller objects: grotesque faces, wooden nit combs, Etruscan false teeth, a flint knife, marbles, tiny votive statues and votive eyes, some of which look suspiciously like lead sling-bullets.

funeral slab with plug and hole
One funerary object in particular captures my attention: an inscribed slab with a plug over a carved hole into which the mourner could pour a libation of wine to refresh the ashes of the dead lying beneath. I knew about this custom but never realised that there was a special type of slab to make this easier. (I told my hairdresser about these libation slabs the day after my visit and she said a friend of hers often goes to his dad's grave with two beers. He drinks one himself and pours out the other in slurps for his father. I guess we're not so different from the Romans, after all.)

Henry Wellcome in Indian headdress
Henry Solomon Wellcome had a fascinating life. Born in a frontier log cabin in Almond, Wisconsin in the year 1853, his interest in archaeology was sparked by the find of an Indian arrowhead when he was only four. Five years later, his family moved west in a covered wagon and were caught up in a bloody Sioux uprising in Minnesota. Nine-year-old Henry helped his pharmacist uncle Jacob tend those wounded by arrows and tomahawks. These two incidents sparked his abiding interest in "primitive" peoples. Henry gained his love of medicine from working in his uncle's pharmacy. Later, he studied medicine, grew a moustache and went on an expedition to South America in search of quinine bark. In 1880 he moved to London to set up a pharmaceutical business with a friend. From then on, England was his base for travel all over the world. He met famous explorers, associated with cultured socialites and married the beautiful daughter of Dr. Barnardo. But his main fame is for all the artefacts he collected himself and through others, over a million during his lifetime. He was finally knighted and died at the ripe old age of 83, leaving his collection to the Wellcome Foundation, the Trust he himself established.

My three passions are the Romans, the Wild West and movies. In the oft-filmed Blythe House with its many Roman artefacts collected by an American born in the Wild West, those passions have come together in a delightful way. At the end of my hour with the charming and generous Katie, I am excited and enthused. And I haven't even told you about the object of my visit. That I must leave for another blog (which you can find HERE.)

P.S. You can find hundreds more fascinating objects on the Science Museum's great interactive website, Brought to Life. There is also a superb site devoted to Henry Wellcome. And, oh, all right! As you've made it to the end of this post, here is a picture of some votive willies. If you want to make your own investigation, start here.