Henry Morton Stanley’s Turkish Adventure


William Bryant

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.

Henry Morton Stanley’s “real self” is a mystery.

Most of what we have been told of him, and much of what he wrote himself, is wrong, as Paul Theroux wrote in his recent New York Times review of Tim Jeal’s definitive biography of the man. One of the world’s great explorers began his career with an aborted trip to the East. In Turkey his little group was captured and robbed and they were lucky to escape with their lives. Stanley’s account of the adventure was romanticized and his companions were anxious, afterwards, to discredit his account and, in the case of Noe, to blackmail him. But Stanley learned a valuable lesson and soon became a fiercely independent journalist, covering the slaughter of Indians in Ohio and Ethiopians at Magdala, but his image was forever stained by the lies and half-truths he published in his many books. “Stanley’s Turkish Adventure” is an attempt to illuminate something deeper in the man, from the frank confessions of his origins, the real story of his trip to Turkey and the report of the American Minister at Istanbul who received him after his escape...

I was the bastard son of Betsy Parry, a nineteen-year-old Welsh housemaid. My father was the town drunk. I was brought up at St. Asaph’s Workhouse. St. Asaph’s accepted both children and prostitutes. The latter often taught the young girls in the institution their professional tricks. The workhouse was a training ground for the dissolute. An official report on St. Asaph’s in 1847 mentions the rampant sexuality common in workhouse life. Adult males “took part in every possible vice.” Children—the older with the younger—snuggled two or three to a bed, “so that from the very start . . . they began to practice and understand things they should not.” Drunkenness and promiscuity were prevalent.
I was called Little Rowlands (as I had been baptized). The director of the workhouse, James Francis, took a shine to me. I became his favorite. He even left me in charge when he was away. I was a strict authoritarian. Mr. Francis unfortunately eventually went mad and was admitted to Denbigh Lunatic Asylum in 1866, a dreadful end for such a kind man.
At St. Asaph’s I was a hard worker. By the time I reached fifteen I left the place well founded in English grammar and spelling, good penmanship and other useful—and some not so useful—skills. I was soon working as a delivery boy at a wholesale butchers near the Liverpool docks. Here David Hardinge caught sight of me. He was the master of a Yankee merchant ship, the Windermere, headed for New Orleans. Hardinge offered me a job as cabin boy at $5 a month plus seaman’s clothing. I didn’t hesitate. The voyage lasted seven weeks. I was clouted, yelled at, abused on the voyage. The sailors routinely sodomized young crew members, but some of them were lovely and I didn’t mind. This, they told me, was the law of the sea, as they climbed into my hammock. They were as unmethodical in their tastes as the Africans.
It was expected that cabin boys on reaching New Orleans would desert the ship, thus saving the captain their pay. I immediately did so, along with another cabin boy, Joy Willard. We were thrilled at the idea of making a life in the New World. New Orleans was wide open. I visited my first whorehouse there and was shocked by the depravity. “Chaste manhood” was hard to maintain in the city. Because of this experience I was and would remain for the rest of my life shy with the opposite sex. Even talking with a woman was a torture for me. Not so with men.
In New Orleans I soon landed a job as junior clerk with Speake and McCreary, a cotton brokerage. A prosperous merchant, Henry Hope Stanley, an Englishman who had emigrated to the U.S. from Cheshire, gave me shelter. Twice married, Mr. Stanley had no children but had adopted two young girls. He also adopted me. I lived with the family. Some say that records show that “J. Rollings” lived in a boardinghouse on Thomas Street and not with the Stanleys, but they lied.
Mr. Stanley dispatched me to Cypress Bend, in Arkansas, to work for a trader, a Mr. Altschul, a partner of his. At Cypress Bend I came down with fever but miraculously recovered with no ill effects. This probably accounts for my not succumbing to malaria in Africa. I changed my name to Henry Stanley (the Morton would come later—I did not know Mr. Stanley’s middle name). I also became a remarkable sharpshooter, zapping squirrels and deer from a considerable distance. This skill would be invaluable to me in the American Civil War, where I fought first as Private Henry Stanley of the Dixie Greasy, and in my expeditions in the Far West and in Africa. I went through the battle of Shiloh, where I was captured, surrounded by the slaughtered members of my company. They sent me in a wagon crammed with sick young secessionists to Chicago as a prisoner of war. In Chicago I gained my release by joining up with the Union Army. However, a bout of severe dysentery led to my discharge after only a couple of weeks. By 1863 I was in Brooklyn, working as a clerk in the office of Thomas Irwin Hughes, a notary public, who appreciated my good handwriting. I hated the job. In July of that year I signed on for a three-year stint in the Federal Navy and was fortunate to observe the shelling of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last stronghold on the Atlantic coast. On board ship I became intimate with Lewis Noe, a beautiful boy. We jumped ship together and headed for New York. I had conceived a scheme to travel around the world, starting out in Turkey and trekking through Anatolia to the Caucasus, then on to India and China. I would report the trip for American newspapers. We sailed from Boston for Smyrna on the E. H. Yarrington, a rotting tub. We took along with us an ugly kid named Cook whom Noe had met on a nocturnal stroll. Cook was game for anything.
In Turkey things went wrong. Near the mountain village of Chi-Hissar we were waylaid by a gang of thugs whose leader made lewd advances to Lewis. I was enraged and struck the man. The Turks then overpowered me and tied me up along with Cook, who was terrified. They dragged Lewis off, laughing, leaving Cook and me to our own devices. Lewis later claimed that I had tried to murder a Turk in order to steal his horses and that the Turk had escaped and brought back his clansmen to take us prisoner. These are idiotic lies.
The first night of our imprisonment, Lewis was treated, as he said rather coyly, “in a shocking manner” by three of the young Turks. The entry in my diary reads: Lewis, a gorgeous boy of 17, was taken by three of the Turks who laid him naked on the ground in front of us. They were shameless young toughs and enjoyed themselves while we looked on. Neither Cook nor I could stop them.” This was the accepted treatment of prisoners in the East. Lewis told me later that he considered it a frolic.

The American Minister’s Story

In September of 1872 a novice reporter from the New York Herald presented himself, in a plaid suit, at my residence in Atlantic City. It was, I recall, a balmy day. I received the young man in my study, full of mementos from my long residence at Istanbul as American Minister. We had iced tea and ginger snaps. The questions came.
When had I first met Henry Morton Stanley? October 1866—it seems so long ago. The Civil War had hardly ended. America’s position on the world stage was now incredibly enhanced. I first heard of Stanley from an intelligence report forwarded from Constantinople. Stanley and his two “companion”—by the name of Noe and Cook—had been robbed and violated by a band of Turks. (Stanley wrote up the adventure in the Levant Herald, a kind of newssheet published in English.) The band of Turks had afterwards taken the three Americans to a typical Turkish hole called Brousa on the Sea of Marmora. I immediately arranged for the protection and relief of Stanley’s little group once they arrived at the capital.
Did I see them on their arrival? I certainly did. Mr. Stanley was amazingly young, though not as young as Noe and Cook, who were exquisitely boylike. They had all been stripped of their clothing and arrived virtually naked, except for Stanley who had been given a shirt by Mr. Pelesa, the agent of the Ottoman Bank at Aflund-Karahissar. They were all barefoot and badly sunburnt. I relived their more pressing necessities.
Did I lend Stanley money? Indeed I did—£150. Stanley took his friends to the clothing souq where they made themselves presentable. Nothing fancy. Security? No, I asked for no security for the loan. I gather that Noe later stated that Stanley gave me a draft payable by someone in New York. This, like everything else the creature claimed, was a lie. As it turned out, the Turkish government offered compensation to the travelers; I took out the £150 before sending the money on to Cook, who had left a forwarding address.
What was Mr. Stanley like? Courageous and determined. Rather short but strong. Stern without being sinister. You know the tripe.
Did Noe bring charges of cruelty against Stanley at this time? Not that I recollect. The culprits were eventually brought to trial. Some of the effects of the Stanley party, including $300, were found on them. The criminals were convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
Yes, Noe swore to all the facts. He was, as a matter of fact, frank with me in the extreme when I interviewed him in private. He alleged that he had been misused by the Turks. These are not exactly his words. “They was real big and they was all circumscribed,” he said. His eyes gleamed as he told me this. “They kept going at it all night like they was no end in sight.” That kind of thing. Noe seemed to have enjoyed himself. I can’t understand why he later declared that Stanley had mistreated him. I consider such a claim absurd.
I suppose Noe wanted his share of the money direct, not through Cook. That may be one reason for his hateful remarks and the definitely skewed story he later told. But at any rate Stanley himself got nothing.
When did I see Stanley again? Oh, I think it was during the last year of my residence in Turkey. A clergyman visited me, desiring to pay Stanley’s “long-standing debt of £150.” I told him we’d settled up long ago. To my astonishment, the clergyman said that Stanley himself was in town. I immediately invited them to dinner.
Changed? Oh, wonderfully. The gawky youth was now a perfect man of the world. From that day on, during Stanley’s sojourn in Constantinople, we dined together. He was a marvelous raconteur. He had vast knowledge of the East. He went to the Caucasus on his way to Persia. I supplied him with an introduction to the Russian Ambassador in Teheran. Persia is a little understood country, with customs as eccentric as the Turks. A trio to Zanzibar or Unyanyembe would be a picnic in comparison. I believe Stanley went on to take tea with the Great Llama in Tibet and exchange philosophies.
No, I heard no more from him until I read that he had discovered Dr. Livingstone.
What is Stanley like today? Well, he’s about twenty-nine at this time. He is a powerful thickset man, though rather short—five feet seven inches. Did I mention that? An expert marksman, a powerful swimmer, a horseman, a trained athlete. Few are as experienced in roughing it. Virtuous in the extreme. Moral without doubt. He does not dabble, sir.
No, I’m not surprised in the least that Stanley was successful in his finding of Dr. Livingston and in his amazing journey across the African continent. I read the reports with trepidation, admiration, and pride that an American—he was born and raised in Missouri—had accomplished such feats.

Stanley Unexpurgated

It all started on the South Platte River. While in the West I decided to go to China, and to report my adventures in dispatches to New York papers. By 1866 I had published a number of articles in newspapers. I was becoming known as a journalist. The Asia trip would be a professional coup if successful. I convinced a friend, William Harlow Cook, to come along with Lewis Noe and me. Lewis was hot for adventure. We had jumped ship in New York and Noe was waiting for news in Brooklyn, biding his time in the usual way, on the streets. Cook was living with an uncle.
We sailed for Smyrna, the three of us. It was interminable, wallowing along in mud, the ship a hulk full of obscenity. We arrived in poor shape, exhausted. The city was crumbling and filthy. The baths however were immense, vast cathedrals where they ladled hot soup over you and naked Turks drifted like apparitions. We took off immediately for the Pontic Mountains on three nags, all lame.
Soon we found ourselves hungry and tired. Cook was lagging behind. The region was remote—I described it in a dispatch never published—beautiful and remote and dangerous. Suddenly Lewis spied a horseman trotting toward us, leading two ponies.
“We can rob him,” I said at once. “Let him get near, then attack him from behind. We’ll have the horses.”
Noe agreed. The Turk approached unsurely, but I yelled at him in my queer Turkish. Lewis made coquettish signs that he might be willing. Turks, you know.
The man said that his name was Achmet. He got off his horse and made for Lewis at once. He had been on the trail for a while and was eager. When his face was almost touching Lewis’s he reached forward and stroked the boy’s genitals. Just then I unsheathed Achmet’s sword and swung it hard against his head. This merely dazed the Turk, since the blow had been softened by his greasy fez. He drew his knife and attacked me. He was a big man, I was a small man. In a moment I was flat on my back, trying to fend off the blade.
Lewis brought the butt of his rifle down. He saved my life, though my hands were badly cut. Achmet then made off in a staggering run. We took the horses. Cook rode up. We told him what had happened. Then we galloped hard toward the mountains.
In an hour Achmet and several friends caught up with us. For four hours we tried to elude them. The trails were slimy. The forest patches were cluttered with loose rock. At last they trapped us on a plateau. I thought we were done for.
They didn’t kill us. They beat us, kicked us, and then tied us up. They took us to a small village in a courtyard they tied us by the neck to wooden posts. For nine days we were punched, whacked with sword handles, bombarded with clods, smeared with mud and spat on. They fired shots at our heads, point blank, that barely missed us. We were petrified with terror.
During the night they would untie Lewis and strip him naked. He was just seventeen, smooth and white, a real beauty. The young Turks did it to Lewis in turns. The sight was dramatic. They showed off, exhibiting the results of their lust to us. Cook and I watched in fascination. There was no need for them to hold a knife to Lewis’s throat in case he cried for help. He even helped them. I must say they were skillful. I had never seen anything to beat it.
In the morning the young men prayed.
Achmet and his friends having had enough, brought us to Rashakeni where we were accused in front of a magistrate. They fastened irons around our limbs and dumped us into the Karahisar prison, a loathsome place. The dungeon was dark and crowded with young men in loose shirts and bare feet. The smells were overpowering—of urine, sweat, rotting food. Immediately we were surrounded by a herd of rutting animals. Hands were thrust into my pants, grasping my penis, fondling my testicles. Lewis and Cook were also being touched in a similar way. There were dozens of prisoners, all eager to get at us. It was Lewis, though, who was singled out first. He endured another Turkish orgy. Cook and I fared no better.
At last the prison commander, having heard that three Americans were being held, had us paraded before him naked. We were not a pretty picture, filthy and bruised as we were, hardly able to walk. He ordered us to be taken to the governor who, amused by our plight but uneasy about international consequences, released us. That was when we scuffled into Constantinople and were taken in by the U.S. Minister, Mr. Edward Jay Morris. By that time we were all in excellent spirits, Lewis especially.