So, 14 February, the day when loving couples celebrate their relationship, has come around once more, which also means we get to see and sometimes experience the annual tradition of high street businesses fleecing willing customers of their cash in a bid to help them memorialise the day. Cards, bouquets of red roses and red hearts have become synonymous with this day, along with effusions of schmaltz and nauseatingly twee verses. In the annals of history and up to modern times, the day has turned into something less than a celebration of love and ended up soaked in blood.
One could say the beginnings of St Valentine’s Day originate in acts of love – or, rather, very tough love, specifically martyrdom. The Saints Valentine in question are Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni who were killed for their religious beliefs. The former was martyred in the year 268AD and Valentine of Terni found his end during the persecutions of the Emperor Aurelian (214/215 – 275AD). The specifics aren’t mentioned, but suffice to say that martyrdom for saints usually involved fairly gruesome ways of ending their lives.
The association with romantic love only came about during the poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s time – the high medieval period, when the concept of courtly love flourished throughout Western Europe. However, it was only in the 15th Century that people started exchanging gifts of flowers, cards and confectionery. And that, of course, evolved (or should that be devolved?) into the ultimate horror of all: the culture of commercially-driven romantic gestures that fill up the newsagents, card shops and shop-window displays of today.
The George ‘Bugs’ Moran Gang
As hinted above, not all Valentine’s Days end (or even start) in love and the longed-for happy-ever-after – there have been some notorious and murderous incidents that have taken place on the day itself. Revenge, for instance, could have been the motive in one of the most famous (some would say notorious) unsolved events that occurred on that day in 1929, in Chicago. Herbert Hoover was just about take the oath of office as the 31st President of the United States. Prohibition was in full swing and corruption was rife in all areas of the city’s authorities, as was endemic gangland violence precipitated by the illegal opportunities concomitant upon the restrictions created by the act. Seven men, all connected to the George ‘Bugs’ Moran gang, and all extremely well-dressed except for a mechanic, stood around in a rented garage, when a car pulled up outside and five men entered the building. What happened next was to shock America to its core and to instigate action to attempt to stem the tide of that violence.
The five men lined the others up against a wall, at gunpoint, and shot them in a hail of indiscriminate fire. All but one of them died instantly, while the seventh, one of the infamous Gusenberg brothers, managed to hang on long enough to be taken to hospital, but quickly died of his wounds there. According to one of the accounts I consulted, the last words uttered by the wounded man were “Cops did it”. In fact, a couple of eyewitness testimonies appear to corroborate this: the car that pulled up outside the building just before the shooting was described as a ‘police squad car’ and of the five men who got out of it two were in police uniform. Recently (according to the same source), evidence in the form of a letter to J. Edgar Hoover from an ‘Undercover Investigator’ agent (Frank T. Farrell) has come to light that suggests that this may have been the case. A policeman’s son was shot during a brawl at a well-known gangster speakeasy some time before, by one of the Gusenberg brothers. In the letter, it puts forward the case that the motive was pure revenge being enacted by the father, which would help to tie in the eyewitness accounts of cops and the squad car pulling up outside the garage that day. It could also possibly explain why the case has remained unsolved.
In any event it appears that the authorities, despite not having a shred of corroborative evidence, went gunning for notorious gangland leader Al Capone as the main instigator of the ‘hit’. His connection appears to have only been of the most tenuous character, leading one to suspect that he looks to have been used as an official scapegoat, as a way of making the authorities seen to be taking action and that justice was seen to be served. Necessarily, at this distance in time and with all the main players resting in their tombs, it’s more than probable that we will never know for sure exactly what happened on that day.
However, you don’t even have to go that far back or delve into the depths of the criminal underground for incidents of St Valentine’s Day ending bloodily. Examples of particularly gruesome and brutal murders perpetrated on this day in recent history. (The last one is particularly heartbreaking).
Bizarre Valentine’s Traditions
But let’s not forget that it isn’t all blood and guts – St. Valentine’s can be an excuse for some pretty bizarre shenanigans as well. Take, for instance, this ‘romantic tradition’ from 19th Century Taiwan: the method by which a male Taiwanese aboriginal suitor could attract the female equivalent – by presenting her with a severed head. According to archivists at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, in London, letters written in the latter half of the Victorian era describe this particular practise in some detail – and, if said suitor was successful, then the head was paraded around as a way of ‘celebrating’ the resulting marriage. If that’s how they woo a potential bride, then one wonders just what they’d come up with had either of them cheated on the other.
Another bizarre tradition was something known as Flasher’s Fancy – during Regency times (between the years 1811 and 1820) Maypole dancing took place not on May Day, but on St Valentine’s Day (the Mayday celebrations were introduced during the Victorian period). It would take place in the marketplace, with young girls dancing around the maypole. However, if there were any single males still unattached by the end of the day, they would henceforth set about exposing themselves to all and sundry – no doubt that experience was pretty horrific to some and scarred them for life.
And then there’s just the bizarre left – how about these unintentionally creepy Valentine’s cards. Or, perhaps oddest of all is Death Bear, a seven-foot tall man-in-a-mask figure who will haul away items that constantly remind you of your ex. If nothing else, as evinced in the article, Death Bear is somewhat intimidating. Read these resources:
Wherever and however you may find yourself on this Valentine’s Day, I hope it is at least a peaceful one.
[Thanks are due to Cayleigh Wills and Lady Lovecraft for help with this article.]