This week I made my own odd pilgrimage to Canterbury, hoping to meet up with a couple of charismatic figures from the 1830s. I hadn’t particularly intended to see the famed cathedral, but I must admit it’s most impressive! So even though I typically avoid the must-see sights (see last post), I must show you the cathedral at night:
But back to business. I came to Canterbury because I had record of Isaac Edrehi being there in late 1832, and I was wondering whether he had encountered another notorious character of that period, John Nicholls Tom (alias Sir William Courtenay, alias Jesus Christ arisen), leader of the very short-term peasant revolt that terminated disastrously in the Battle of Bosenden Wood (1838)–known as the last armed uprising on British soil.
These two have a surprising amount in common: a variety of grandiose identities, charisma, mystique, a penchant for public appearances, and irresistible good looks. In fact, rather similar good looks–tall, imposing build, dark beard. And they both appeared on the Canterbury scene in Fall 1832. Could that town have been big enough for both of them? Or were they the same person?
Well, they were definitively not the same person: John Nicholls Tom, who was a dozen years older than Isaac Edrehi, was killed in that 1838 battle, and his surviving followers were so devoted that the British government kept his body on public display to prove that the putative messiah would not arise on the third day. Thousands came from miles to view the body of the formerly flamboyant leader. When it was abundantly clear that his corpse was going the way of all flesh, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a local cemetery. And Isaac Edrehi lived for nearly half a century more.
Their backgrounds were much different as well. John Nicholls Tom was a well-off dealer in spirits and malt from Cornwall (southwest England). Tom arrived in Canterbury five months after he disappeared from Liverpool, England while on a business trip. He was a well-educated Christian with a passionate interest in politics and religion–and a sporadic history of mental illness. Apparently his memory took a long-term vacation while he was away from home, and he would never answer to the name John Nicholls Tom again, nor would he ever recognize his wife or family. In modern terms, this might be termed “dissociative fugue”–a rare severe type of amnesia involving loss of identity and change of location. Eventually he insisted he was Sir William Courtenay, with claim to a variety of castles and estates. Years later religious delusions predominated and he became a supposedly invulnerable messiah.
But in 1832 he had just arrived in Canterbury, and history records that Tom was first known as Count Moses Rothschild. He had come from Jerusalem, or so he said, and had lately been living among the Jews of London, raising money from them to give (supposedly) to the destitute Jews of the Holy Land. He looked like an eastern potentate, with exotic garb right down to his Turkish slippers. He was rumored to be fabulously wealthy, liberally distributing coins and peppermints to his admirers–but he had actually borrowed funds from the hotel staff on promises of repaying handsomely out of future wealth. And then weeks later he became known as Sir Courtenay.
Those of you who know Isaac Edrehi might recognize his modus operandi–the eastern persona, the faux wealth, the Jewish (sometimes) backstory, the petty swindles. I did, and that’s what brought me to Canterbury–a suspicion that the historical description of John Nicholls Tom was somehow caught up with Isaac Edrehi’s life. I suspected this further because it seemed to me that the portraits of John Nicholls Tom showed some ethnic variety, from Middle Eastern to Anglo:
Well, after three days of examining numerous archives and period accounts, I can add the following:
- When the mysterious stranger arrived, he had a foreign accent, which is not mentioned later.
- In his first weeks in Canterbury, he attended synagogue; in later weeks he went to church.
- By December there was a controversy in town: Was the stranger a young man or one in middle age? People’s observations varied. Once, a number of his supporters were invited to his hotel room, and they marveled how young and handsome he was. As a speaker addressing the crowds from the balcony, he sometimes seemed older.
Therefore, at a distance of 180 years, I believe I can make an observation that occurred to nobody at the time: that two men were sharing names and most likely exotic garb as well. The elder was an amnesiac in search of an identity; the younger, a serial impostor with identities to spare.
When historians reconstructed Tom’s life following his well-publicized rebellion and death, they noted many inconsistencies in his early Canterbury years. He changed name several times, first curried favor with the rich and then devoted his attention to the poor, and did many inexplicable, self-contradictory acts. That he was a madman seemed explanation enough. That there were two people was too unlikely to be considered.
I don’t know which man used which name when in those weeks, but one or both of them ran for Parliament in Dec. 1832 and garnered several hundred votes! Then one or both of them was accused of swindling and perjury and came to trial. But it was certainly John Nicholls Tom who served three months in prison and four years in a lunatic asylum for those crimes. He repeatedly denied doing them, but his denials were treated as the lies of a charlatan or the ravings of a madman. It could be that he was simply telling the truth.
What an odd relationship they must have had, these two strong and bizarre personalities. Presumably they shared identities to play to their strengths–Edrehi the young and handsome, Tom the talented speaker full of political ideas and Christian inspiration. Perhaps at first Edrehi inspired the older man by providing vivid identities and backgrounds; later the relationship was symbiotic as they both inhabited the same identities for mutual gain; then Edrehi used Tom to take the blame for his own misdeeds.
By the summer Tom’s wife came into town and identified her husband. By then Isaac Edrehi was off to other times and other crimes. And though most often, in history as in the sciences, the simplest theory is the best, those previous few months are best explained by something wildly improbable–that two very peculiar men with aberrant identities and similar appearances not only crossed paths but for some weeks shared a very public road lined with adoring followers. A Canterbury tale indeed.