“Misery loved company, but damnation needed it” – John Connolly
Here’s a little known legal fact – condemning someone to hell can land you in court, or at least it could in merry old 17th Century England. This is unfortunate, as a popular theological pursuit has always been determining who gets spit-roasted at a barbecue on the Lake of Fire, and who gets to ecstatically harp jam on a cloud surrounded by seventy-two virgins. Of course, a word of warning is in order should you be considering pursuing civil action against slanderous accusations of eternal damnation. Without a well-documented history of saintly righteousness (and that’s difficult because they keep adjusting the qualifications), it’s darned hard to conclusively prove the facts about one’s dispensation in the afterlife. Thus discovered a certain Mrs. Booty, when she brought a case before James II’s Court of the King’s Bench at Westminster in 1687 for slander by one Captain Barnaby, who claimed to have observed the ghost of her husband, affectionately known as “Old Booty”, being driven into the fires of hell on the volcanic Tyrrhenian Sea island of Stromboli off Sicily.
Captain Barnaby, native to Gravesend in northwest Kent, England was a merchant captain plying the Mediterranean trade routes, and bore no ill will that anyone could discern to the hometown brewer Old Booty. Quite the contrary, he was surprised by the fact that Old Booty made an appearance on the sparsely populated island of Stromboli, rather than making beer in Kent, for he was completely unaware that at the same time he was sighting Booty being shepherded towards a volcano by a grim reaper figure, Booty was busy dying in Gravesend some 1600 miles away. The 17th Century Mediterranean was a busy place, being a major commercial thoroughfare, which meant pirates, from Barbary Corsairs to whomever you happened to be at war with that decade. It’s no surprise that savvy captains liked to travel in packs. There is safety in numbers, plus you get to swap war stories over rum and get the latest news from home. This nautical socialization would figure prominently in the subsequent trial of Barnaby v. Booty. Captain’s logs read into the official record during the trial outline the events preceding the fateful encounter on Stromboli. A certain Captain Spinks encountered three other British merchantmen moored in a safe anchorage near the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, and all were bound for Lessaria, all four vessels opting to sail together to their destination. His log entries (which would be produced as evidence before the King’s Bench during Barnaby’s slander trial) were read into the record, along with those of the other three Captains.
Tuesday 12th, 1687 – This day the weather came S.W. a little about three o’clock, p.m., and about four we anchored in Manson Road, and there found on the road Captain Barnaby, Captain Bristow, and Captain Brown, all of them bound for Lessaria to load.
13th May – This day, about ten o’clock in the forenoon, I went on board of Captain Barnaby’s ship, and about two o’clock in the afternoon we weighed anchor and sailed all of us for the island of Lessaria the wind was W.N.W. and better weather (Baker, 1882, p453).
Thursday, May 14, 1687 – Saw the island of Lipari, and came to an anchor off the same island, and then we were at W. S. W.
Friday, May 15 – Captain Barnaby, Captain Bristow, Captain Brown, I, and a Mr. Ball, merchant, went on shore to shoot rabbits on Stromboli (Cockburn, 1815, p336).
Now, the small island of Stromboli has the distinction of hosting one of three active volcanos in Italy (the other two are Etna and Vesuvius). Mount Stromboli has been erupting continuously (every few hours) for the past 2000 years. This is why relatively few people choose to call Stromboli their permanent home, although even today there are a few small villages. Presumably real estate values are low, given the prospect of imminent death, or at the very least horrific scalding looming over them. Stromboli gave its name to an entire class of volcanos distinguished by their “Strombolian Eruptions”, that is rather than inundating everything down slope with hot lava, they tend to just go on exploding all the time, pitching incandescent cinder, lapilli and lava bombs to varying heights. Kind of a hellish decor (Here’s a video of what it’s been doing for a couple millennia – Stromboli June 2014). Medieval Christians had a few contenders for the “Gateway to Hell” designation including Mt. Hekla in Iceland and Italy’s Mt. Etna, but Mt. Stromboli was certainly considered an option. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that our intrepid sea captains, on the hunt for Strombolian rabbits might espy an unfortunate soul being herded into hell. And this is of course, exactly what they reported.
We called all our men together by us, and about half an hour and fourteen minutes after three in the afternoon, to our great surprise, we all of us saw two men come running towards us with such swiftness that no living man could run half so fast as they did run; when all of us heard Captain Barnaby say, ‘Lord bless me, the foremost is old Booty, my next door neighbor; but he said he did not know the other that ran behind; he was in black clothes, and the foremost was in grey; then Captain Barnaby desired all of us to take an account of the time, and put it down in our pocket books, and when we got on board we wrote it in our journals, for we none of us ever saw or heard the like before; Captain Barnaby said, he was certain it was old Booty whom he saw running over Stromboli, and into the flames of Hell” (Curk, 1808, p58-59).
Captain Barnaby found this an odd enough circumstance to ask the other captains to record it in their logs. He was pretty sure he wasn’t hallucinating, as all the other sea captains, as well as a sizable chunk of the crew (some of who were from Gravesend and knew “Old Booty”) saw the same thing. Certainly, he interpreted the event in his own cultural context, that is a grim-reaperish figure chasing a Gravesend brewer across Stromboli and into the fiery volcano fit thematically with the notion that he was watching a soul being ushered to the flames of hell, although what a Kentish brewer was doing puttering about on a remote Italian island pursued by the devil was a matter of some puzzlement. 17th Century seafaring was a dangerous affair to begin with, so I guess they all took it in stride as they were busy not sinking and trying to make a buck. By October 6th, 1687 everybody had returned to Gravesend.
After they arrived in England, and were lying at Gravesend, Capt. Barnaby’s wife came on board the 6th of October, at which time Capt. B. and Capt. Brown, sent for Capt. Bristow, and Mr. Ball, merchant, to congratulate them on their arrival also, and, after some discourse, Capt. Barnaby’s wife started up and said, ‘my dear, I will tell you some news; old Booty is dead.’ Capt. Barnaby directly made answer, ‘we all of us saw him running into Hell’ (Hulbert, 1827, p39).
Roughly figured, it seems that poor Old Booty had expired at the same time and in the same clothes that he was spotted in on Stromboli. Remember, this was 17th Century Europe where witch burning was still a thing, so the whole episode might just have been written off and passed into folklore as a quaint tradition (default for historians when there aren’t any authoritative documents around written by some learned pencil-neck), but Old Booty’s widow caught wind of the tale and was a tad miffed at the suggestion that her husband had been condemned to Hell.
Sometime afterwards, Mrs. Barnaby met with a lady of her acquaintance in London, and told her what her husband had seen concerning Mr. Booty; it came to Mrs. Booty’s ears; she arrested Captain Barnaby in a 1000 Pound action. He gave bail, and it came to trial at the Court of King’s Bench, where Mr. Booty’s clothes were brought into court. The sexton of the parish, and the people that were with him when he died, swore to the time when he died, and we swore to our journals, and they agreed within two minutes: twelve of our men swore that the buttons of his coat were covered with the same grey cloth as his coat, and it appeared to be so: the jury asked Mr. Spinks if he knew Mr. Booty in his lifetime: he said he never saw him till he saw him run by him into the burning mountain. The judge then said, ‘Lord grant that I may never see the sight that you have seen: one, two, or three may be mistaken, but twenty or thirty cannot’ (Jennings, 1870, p212-213).
Captain Barnaby was vindicated, and the widow Booty lost her case, and the unfortunate soul Old Booty was thereby relegated to the pits of hell by both celestial and temporal courts. It seems that perhaps Mrs. Booty could have been on the right track with her legal action, given she knew her husband to be a decent enough guy to merit a little more than fire and brimstone. She just chose the wrong plaintiff, eloquently expressed by Richard Kadrey in Aloha from Hell when he said, “This is where you first failed us. You gave us minds and told us not to think. You gave us curiosity and put a booby-trapped tree right in front of us. You gave us sex and told us not to do it. You played three-card monte with our souls from day one, and when we couldn’t find the queen, you sent us to Hell to be tortured for eternity. That was your great plan for humanity? All you gave us here was daisies and fairy tales and you acted like that was enough. How were we supposed to resist evil when you didn’t even tell us about it?” I’m thinking it could be the mother of all class action lawsuits.
Baker, Sherston, Sir. “Investigation of a Strange Ghost Story”. The United Service Magazine: With Which Are Incorporated the Army And Navy Magazine And Naval And Military Journal (Sep-Dec). London: H. Colburn, 1882.
Curk, William. The Fiery Museum, Or, The Burning Mountains: Containing Authentic Accounts of Those Dreadful Eruptions Which Have So Frequently Broke Out At Mounts Vesuvius And Aetna: With a Circumstantial Narrative of Their Eruptions In One of Which, (at Vesuvius) the Town of Ottaiano Was Nearly Reduced to Ashes: With Every Particular Relative to Those Great Volcanoes Which Have So Astonished the Surrounding Nations, And the World. Lewes: Sussex Press, 1808.
Cockburn, George, Sir, 1763-1847. A Voyage to Cadiz And Gibraltar, Up the Mediterranean to Sicily And Malta, In 1810 & II, Including a Description of Sicily And the Lipari Islands, And an Excursion In Portugal. London: J. Harding, 1815.
Jennings, Hargrave, 1817?-1890. One of the Thirty: a Strange History Now for the First Time Told. London: J. C. Hotten, 1870.
Hulbert Charles, 1778-1857. Volcanic Wonders, And Scenes of Astonishment: Being Historic And Scientific Descriptions of the Volcanoes of the Azores, And a General View of Burning Mountains, In Various Parts of the Glove. 2d. ed. Shrewsbury: C. Hulbert, 1827.