The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out
The ones that crawl in are lean and thin
The ones that crawl out are fat and stout
Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out
Your brains come tumbling down your snout
Be merry my friends
OK, so, yeah, I have a bit of a skull-and-crossbones fetish. Aye, and what of it? I’m in good company, historically speaking. Over centuries, the symbol has served as an emblem of terror for high seas pirates, a macabre decoration on moss-covered tombs in creepy cemeteries — and as a bracing reminder that we have only so long on this mortal plain. The memento mori — “Remember that you must die” — has a long history, dating back at least to the Romans. In my highly biased view, it found its grandest expression in the 17th-19th century, in the heart of the era of the Frontier Partisans.
One of the most famous of mementos mori is The Seton Watch, given by Mary Queen of Scots to Mary Seton, one of the doomed queen’s attendants. The skull is engraved with a figure of death and a quote from Horace:
Pale death visits with impartial foot the cottages of the poor and the castles of the rich.
The skull flips open to read the dial. In Outlander, a member of the Black Watch show the watch to Jamie Fraser, apparently having lifted it in some reiving operation.
Of course, the symbol will always be closely associated with the pirates of the Golden Age, in the early 18th Century, and my beloved frontier epic Black Sails rolled gloriously with the motif.
In my own neck of the woods, The Prineville Vigilantes, originally a stockman’s association created to stop cattle thieves, took to slapping a skull and crossbones death notice on the doors of their enemies. Sometimes they killed them and hung them from bridges and juniper trees.
Now, some may find such doings macabre. And perhaps they are. Which, of course makes the subject all the more alluring, especially as a Halloween post. Who could deny the chilling creepiness of tombs like these?
The skull-and-crossbones — or a stylized skull alone — has often been used as a military symbol denoting ruthlessness. The Totenkopf Death’s Head is now inextricably tied to the evils of the Nazi SS — but the symbol long predates the Third Reich, which polluted every single thing it touched. It was once a menacing, yet honorable badge of Hussars, dating back to the wars of Prussia’s Frederick the Great in the 1730s. The remarkable German World War I General August von Mackensen wore it best…
The British Army’s 17th Lancers were known as “The Death or Glory Boys,” and they sported a Death’s Head cap badge. General Jan Smuts’ commando, including young Deneys Reitz, shot up the 17th Lancers at the Battle of Eland’s River during their raid into the Cape Colony in 1901 during the Boer War. Reitz kitted out, riding away with:
“…a handsome cavalry tunic, riding- breeches, etc., with a sporting Lee-Metford, full bandoliers and a superb mount, a little grey Arab, which his coloured groom said had been the property of Lieutenant Sheridan.”
He also pinned a cap badge to his hat. He had no way of knowing that the khaki coat and the hat badge would have sealed his doom if he’d been captured, because General Lord Horatio Kitchener had promulgated an order declaring no quarter for Boers caught wearing the khaki.
The skull motif and the “Death or Glory” motto goes back in the British Army at least to the American Revolution. In his magnificent tome The British Are Coming: The War For America, From Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Rick Atkinson describes a cavalry unit deployed to North America just before the war broke out:
Troops tramped toward the ports. A London newspaper reported that a light cavalry regiment preparing to deploy had inscribed DEATH OR GLORY on its caps, with an embroidered skull.
These days, the skull of choice for the badass military man is the Punisher skull. Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, is a Marvel comics character — Recon Marine and Vietnam veteran turned vigilante. The brilliant Garth Ennis had a magnificent run with the character — no “superhero” BS; it was dark, gritty and “realistic,” and featured cover art by the equally brilliant Tim Bradstreet. Accept no substitutes.
Predictably, the symbol has come to be frowned upon by the Pentagon brass, who need a new theme song: Wicked Sensitive Crew.
Now THAT is Continuity & Persistence.
The skull-and-crossbones is also VERY rock-and-roll.
Steve Earle went all-in on the skull-and-crossbones imagery when he released Copperhead Road. It suited his piratical, hell-bent persona at the time…
Shamrocks, Skallys and Skulls…
And does this even need an introduction?
Like I said, good company.