The murders on the Andalucía Express

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I’ve already written a blog post about the Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba. Time, then, to write about a crime that was discovered in that city: “El Crimen del Expreso de Andalucía.” That is, the Crime of the Andalucía Express.

It was 1924. The Andalucía Express was a train service that ran from Madrid, in the centre of Spain, to Andalucía in the south. Some of the route is now covered by the high-speed AVE service but in 1924 things were vastly different. The train service was slow but important.

The mail car of the train was important in its own right. Spain’s post office had a banking branch and the mail car carried cash and valuables in addition to letters. At each stop of the train’s journey, one of the workers in the carriage would open a door to exchange sacks with a colleague on the platform. This would continue all the way to Córdoba. There, one worker would change trains and continue to Málaga. The other would stay on the original train and finish in Cádiz.

On the evening of 11 April, train 92 left Madrid’s Atocha Station at about 8:20pm. In addition to the mail car there was a locomotive, passenger carriages and a dining car. The mail car was off-limits to everyone but the two postal workers.

It is recorded that on this trip, after Aranjuez Station there was no response at each stop when officials tried knocking on the door of the mail car. Nor were any lights on inside.

Were the men inside drunk? It wouldn’t be the first time. But just in case, at least one of the stations telegrammed ahead to Córdoba remarking on the fact that no response had been received.

The train arrived in Córdoba at 6am. There was again no response to repeated shouting and knocking but action was now unavoidable. Someone broke a window to access the carriage to find out what was going on. And that’s when they discovered that the train had been robbed and both workers murdered.

So what had happened after Aranjuez Station?

The planning and botched execution of a robbery

The idea of robbing the Andalucía Express was the brainchild of 36 year old José María Sánchez Navarrete, an employee of the banking arm of the post office. The son of a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Guard, he was nonetheless something of a black sheep. In the past he’d worked the Andalucía Express and other routes but had taken the opportunity to become involved in tobacco smuggling.

He was also gay, circulated in high society and loved gambling. And he was deeply in debt, owing money to a man named Honorio Sánchez Molina.

Molina likewise circulated in high society and was fond of gambling, but unlike Navarrete he was wealthy in his own right. He owned several properties including a boarding house.

In order to pay off his gambling debts, Navarrete made Molina a suggestion. The mail car of the Andalucía Express would carry cash and jewellery worth 250,000 to 500,000 pesetas. With Molina’s assistance and that of a friend, José Donday, he would rob the train.

The plan was simple. Thanks to his position he had access to the details of all the trains and the personnel working on them. He also knew the security protocols for accessing the mail car. Because it was off limits and there were two civil guards protecting every train, it was widely believed that a robbery was impossible.

However this belief was probably based on a scenario where a train is forced to stop and is then assaulted. The presence of the two civil guards meant that such an attempt would indeed be difficult.

Navarette had a different plan. He knew that the civil guards would ride in a different part of the train. He also knew that any postal worker with a valid permit was allowed to access and ride in the mail car. He was confident that he could get himself and his accomplices inside.

Here he would make use of his friend Donday’s expertise. José Donday was probably his lover, but was also an expert in drugs. He could prepare a bottle of cognac laced with sedative to make both workers fall asleep. Once they were unconscious a robbery would be easy. They could get down at the next stop and make a clean getaway. There would be no need for violence.

Molina agreed to the robbery but soon realised they would need assistance. Donday in particular was a weak link. He was a well-travelled, highly cultured man who spoke English, French and German, and like Molina and Navarrete he mixed in high society. But he was a timid man and no one’s idea of a natural train robber.

As the owner of a boarding house, Molina knew people from all sections of society. To get assistance he therefore invited a career criminal, Antonio Teruel López, aged 35, to participate in the robbery. Teruel in turn recruited Francisco de Dios Piqueras, aged 34. Teruel and Piqueras became the fourth and fifth members of the gang.

Their final, agreed-upon plan was that Teruel, Piqueras and Navarrete would travel to Aranjuez to wait for the train. Navarrate, having full access to crew details, would ensure that one of the postal workers would be someone he recognised. He would ask to be invited in. After gaining entry to the mail car and drugging the workers they would steal all the money and valuables and leave the train when it arrived at the next station, Alcázar de San Juan. There Donday would meet them with a car and they would return to Madrid. Molina, meanwhile, would remain in Madrid and ensure that he had an alibi.

The peculiar stupidity of Navarrete’s plan was that it involved him being recognised and invited into the mail car. How he thought he could get away with it remains a mystery.

The other detail that should be mentioned is that it was left to Donday to provide the car that would pick them up.

The plan having been agreed, Navarrete selected the night of 11/12 April for the robbery.

The mail car that night was staffed by Santos Lozano León, aged 45, and Ángel Ors Pérez, aged 30. The initial part of the plan at Aranjuez Station went as anticipated. Ors recognised Navarrate and was persuaded that he and his companions had permits to travel. They were allowed to enter the mail car and carried with them a suitcase.

One of the men produced the cognac from the suitcase and invited Lozano and Ors to have a drink. Both did so quite readily. Lozano then retreated to his office at the back of the carriage and resumed sorting the mail, his back turned to the office door.

What nobody knew was that Donday had made a mistake in preparing the cognac. It contained morphine, codeine and heroin. Each of these is a painkiller but none induces drowsiness. In other words, there was nothing in it to make Ors or Lozano fall asleep. Donday had never thought to check that his mixture actually worked.

Unaware of this, Navarrete engaged Ors in conversation. Were they carrying much of value?

Ors replied that they weren’t. On this trip they had only 12,000 pesetas.

Hearing this, Navarrete wanted to abort the plan. The amount was hardly worth the effort. However Teruel and Piqueras were both poor men to whom 12,000 pesetas was a lot of money.

Time passed. Neither Ors nor Lozano seemed the slightest bit drowsy. Navarrete’s plan had been that the robbery should not involve violence but it is unclear if this had ever been communicated to Teruel. Growing impatient, Teruel seized a pair of bolt cutters, entered Lozano’s office and struck him on the head. Lozano died almost instantly.

Teruel then turned on Ors. Ors was younger and more athletic than Lozano and had an unusually thick skull, a fact later discovered at post mortem. Repeated blows to his head did not disable him and of course he had been inadvertently given painkillers. He was actually getting the better of the fight with Teruel until Piqueras and Navarrete intervened. Teruel then pulled out a gun and shot him twice, fatally.

To make sure both men were dead, Teruel wrapped ligatures around their necks.

Their plan having gone so catastrophically wrong, the men did not carry out the rest of the robbery efficiently and left some of the more valuable items behind. However they left the train at Alcázar de San Juan Station as planned and remembered to climb down on the side away from the platform. They also had the presence of mind to extinguish the lamps in the carriage as they left.

What they hadn’t counted on was the sheer stupidity of José Donday. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to him to tell his accomplices that he couldn’t drive. Charged with the task of meeting them with a car and getting them back to Madrid, he’d hired a taxi for the purpose. Even more incredibly, his companions got into the taxi with him and none of them made any attempt to harm the driver.

When the crime was discovered it was publicised throughout Spain. Among the people who came forward as witnesses was the taxi driver. How could he forget the four strange men, two clearly wealthy and two clearly not, who’d caught a taxi together from Alcázar de San Juan to Madrid in the early hours of the morning?

It took police six days to visit Teruel’s address. He hid. They arrested his wife and he must have realised that he couldn’t get away with it.

Two days later he shot himself. He left a suicide note confessing to the crime and naming his accomplices.

The remaining four were soon arrested. Navarrete’s father pleaded for his son’s life but this was the era of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera and there would be no mercy. Navarrete, Piqueras and Molina were all executed less than a month after the crime had taken place.

And Donday? A month after the crime he was the sole survivor. He was spared execution but sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. During his time in prison he dedicated himself to translation and it’s still possible to buy his translation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”. After his release it is believed that he migrated to a South American country where he died in obscurity.

And that is the story of the murders on the Andalucía Express.

Links about the case (all in Spanish):

The Melancholy Roman

“Ink” and other things

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‘And every fair from fair sometimes declines, by chance, or nature’s changing course untrimm’d.’ (from Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare)

I went to see the play “Ink” on Monday night. It tells the story of The Sun newspaper and its transition from staid broadsheet to populist tabloid.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine The Sun as a staid broadsheet and indeed, hard to imagine the paper’s rise as heroic. Full credit, then, to playwright James Graham. It’s a seriously good play. The second half isn’t as good as the first but overall it’s a solid production. And it’s quite funny in places.

There are several other things worth saying. Some of the reviews have emphasised Bertie Carvel’s portrayal of Rupert Murdoch. This rather overshadows the fact that while Murdoch is a prominent character at the start of the play, he steps back and then the story is about how editor Larry Lamb remade the paper. Richard Coyle, playing Lamb, is in almost every scene.

Still, Murdoch’s character is the one who starts the whole plot rolling and as far as I know that’s historically accurate. Carvel plays him well.

I can’t vouch for the overall accuracy of the play. It’s implied that Stefanie Khan, the original topless page 3 girl, was renamed Stephanie Rahn as a deliberate editorial decision. Wikipedia suggests it was done literally by mistake. Now, I’m not one to necessarily trust in the verities of Wikipedia but on the other hand, the play implies at one stage that the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline appeared in The Sun.

That headline actually appeared in the New York Post and it was on 15 April 1983 that it appeared, rather than the 1969-1970 era of the play. Sure, by 1983 the New York Post had become a Murdoch paper but it’s still inaccurate.

The famous headline, taken from the newspaper’s website.

Now, the background for “Ink” is that when Murdoch bought The Sun, Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror was the biggest selling newspaper in Britain. Murdoch thought the British market needed an overhaul and that the Daily Mirror was vulnerable. History has shown that he was right. Heck, there wouldn’t have been a play otherwise.

Murdoch’s contention, in the play at least, is that the Establishment is too comfortable and needs a shake-up. He says there’s untapped potential in the market and that if the Establishment isn’t interested, someone should take it on. And at this point, perhaps 22 or 23 minutes into the play, I found myself agreeing.

And then it occurred to me: that explains Donald Trump. Forget about narratives about left-behind people and liberal elites. That stuff may be true. But from what I’ve read, people voted for Trump because they thought he’d mix things up. They wanted someone to rouse and reinvigorate the nation and to challenge vested interests. Hillary Clinton offered technocratic competence and I respect that. But Trump offered the possibility of something more.

A bit more about that famous headline:

The Melancholy Roman

The cathedral-mosque of Córdoba

The cathedral-mosque of Córdoba is one of the most famous buildings in all of Spain. It is quite literally a large former mosque with a cathedral built in the middle of it.

There’s a famous quote associated with the building. Carlos, the king of Spain, was the person who ordered the construction of the cathedral. On seeing the result he is said to have remarked,

‘Habéis destruido lo que era único en el mundo, y habéis puesto en su lugar lo que se puede ver en todas partes.’

You have destroyed something that was unique in the world, and have put in its place something you can see anywhere.

Whether or not the quote is accurate we can agree with the sentiment. However the cathedral’s builders were only obeying his orders. Moreover, if you actually visit the building it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they did the best possible job under the circumstances. The architecture of the mosque remains intact around the cathedral and the cathedral itself is magnificent.

I must confess, though, that I only recently realised how ignorant I was about Spanish history. I have been to Córdoba twice and always assumed that Carlos gave the order for the cathedral’s construction once the city had been captured from its Muslim rulers. It isn’t so.

In fact Córdoba was captured by Fernando III in 1236. And thanks to the two excellent RTVE series Isabel, and Carlos, I now know that Carlos was the grandson of the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Fernando. These were the same Isabel and Fernando who completed the Reconquista of Spain in 1492 and who financed Cristóbal Colón’s* first expedition the same year. Grandson Carlos came to power in 1516. In other words, the partial destruction of the mosque came about 300 years after the capture of Córdoba. That’s right: 300 years.

There are other points that are worth tidying up: the Fernando who captured Córdoba was Fernando III of Castilla; the Fernando who completed the Reconquista was Fernando II of Aragón. They were very different men: Fernando III of Castilla was considered a saint and has literally been canonised; Fernando II of Aragon was so cunning, devious and ruthless that he was one of Machiavelli’s inspirations for “The Prince.”

But back to the cathedral-mosque. Why did Córdoba have such a large mosque in the first place? The answer is that in 1000AD the city was one of the largest in the world. Its population has been estimated at 500,000. A large mosque was entirely warranted.

By the time Carlos ordered the cathedral’s construction the city’s glory had long vanished. Spain’s, on the other hand, was just beginning. Carlos wasn’t just the king of Spain; he was also Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. His was the first empire on which the sun did not set.

Still, he wasn’t very good at preserving the architectural legacy he inherited. The cathedral-mosque is only the second-best surviving example of Islamic architecture in Spain. The best is the Nasrid Palaces, part of the Alhambra complex in Granada. To get to them you have to walk past a not-especially interesting palace – one built on Carlos’ orders.

*Christopher Columbus is known as Cristóbal Colón in Spain.

The Melancholy Roman

Is Alex Honnold a genius?

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There was a not-very-good play called On the Ceiling that I saw at the Garrick Theatre on Charing Cross Road in London quite a few years ago. The play had transferred to the West End but didn’t really deserve it. This wasn’t obvious at first; I remember thinking in the interval that the scenario was intriguing enough that I wanted to see how the play would go. The woman sitting next to me was probably wiser and had already decided that the play was bad. I can’t remember if she left early or not.

The setting of the play was the scaffolding high up in the Sistine Chapel, in the early 16th century. The characters were two workers who were assisting Michelangelo to paint the chapel’s ceiling. I’ve forgotten 90% of the detail but I do remember that the play explained that in preparing to paint a fresco, the outlines of the preparatory drawings are stencilled onto the plaster so that the artist can use them as a guide.

There was also something about eggs. Town eggs are apparently better than country eggs when preparing some mixture. Were they talking about tempera? I really can’t remember.

But I digress. This post is actually about Alex Honnold.

For those not in the know, in the sport of climbing Alex Honnold is a superstar. He is, effectively, the greatest living free soloist.

I don’t pretend to know much about climbing but I do know that “free solo” is the term for climbing cliffs without ropes or other equipment apart from climbing shoes and a chalk bag. It is as dangerous as it sounds and as dangerous as it gets. If you make one wrong move when free soloing you generally fall to your death.

Quite a few people have done exactly that.

In 2008, Honnold free-soloed Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. America’s 60 Minutes did a story on him and how he’d conquered some other near-impossible routes, and then in June this year he completed his life’s ambition, a free-solo of El Capitan. This is a 900 metre rock face that was only climbed for the first time in 1958. For comparison, Half Dome was first climbed in the 19th century.

A picture of ‘El Capitan’ taken from the Los Angeles Times website,

Honnold’s El Capitan climb got him a lot of attention and he was interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel. The Kimmel interview is on YouTube at

This interview is striking for two things. Firstly, Kimmel doesn’t seem to have much of an idea of what Honnold actually does. Secondly, if you look at the comments section beneath the video, Kimmel gets slated by a lot of Honnold’s fans.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that Jimmy Kimmel is a highly paid entertainer because like Honnold, he’s very, very good at what he does.

I’m going to skip to another Honnold video, also on YouTube. This is one about him climbing El Sendero Luminoso. That translates as “The Shining Path” and it’s a rock formation in Mexico. I’ve embedded the video below.

What’s fascinating here is that we get a partial explanation of how Honnold is able to do what he does. He and his friend Cedar Wright actually cleaned the route beforehand.

Likewise, in the Kimmel interview Honnold is quite clear that he knew every move he was going to make in advance.

From what I can tell, Honnold goes over every bit of the rock face that he’s going to climb. And he learns it thoroughly and works out how to climb it. And only once he has the entire route memorised and cleaned, does he do his free-soloing.

Which sounds a bit like cheating. As the rest of us can climb a ladder, so Honnold can follow a route that he already has figured out.

Except that it’s not like a ladder at all, of course.

In the play On the Ceiling, the only real revelation comes in the second half. The workmen, accustomed as they are to artists following the stencilled outlines, are stunned when Michelangelo is able to paint without any guidelines or visible preparatory work at all. This level of artistry and technical proficiency is beyond their experience.

Now, to learn every detail of a route up a hard-to-climb 900m cliff, to possess the technical skills necessary to climb it, and to overcome the psychological barriers to doing so, is very, very impressive. Alex Honnold is literally the only person who has been able to free solo El Capitan.

Does that make Alex Honnold a genius, or merely a supremely talented technician?

I’m really not sure.

The Melancholy Roman

On evolution

evolution of man
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Creationists aren’t stupid.

Okay, so you never thought they were. You know that intelligent people can hold vastly different beliefs to your own. And you don’t have a problem with that.

I’m going to point out that their actual beliefs aren’t so crazy, either.

For the sake of clarity, I’m talking about biblical creationists. Also for the sake of clarity, I believe they’re wrong. I believe the theory of evolution is the correct explanation for how life evolved. But I don’t believe that believing life didn’t evolve, is itself illogical.

To see where I’m coming from, think about your own observations of the world. Paint peels. Weeds grow. Roads develop potholes. Buildings and infrastructure, if left unguarded, tend to break down. Painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a never-ending task, as is painting the Forth Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a thousand other bridges that have never been considered a metaphor for anything. The Pyramids of Giza will survive for thousands more years but no visitor ever believes they look as they did in their pomp.

Impressive, yes, but you should have seen it back in the day.

And what’s true for buildings is also true for more abstract entities. Every married couple I know tells me that marriage takes work. A friendship, if neglected, withers. Corporations, when left to drift, slowly lose competitiveness.

Even governments break down. There’s a reason why certain of the Roman emperors were said to have a gift for administration, or in the case of Caesar Augustus, a genius for it. In our own time, one of the under-recognised advantages of democracy is that governments can be peacefully ejected from power and new blood brought in.

Corrosion, or wear and tear, is everywhere. And none of this is news to you.

So how do you explain to a creationist that he or she is wrong?

Think about it. If your own natural observation is that things tend to rot and decay, and physics even has a special term and a law for this phenomenon – we refer to “entropy” and “the second law of thermodynamics” – then isn’t it natural to assume that the whole of the universe obeys the same natural law?

Of course, we know that decay can be checked. Peeling paint can be replaced, weeds can be pulled, potholes can be repaired, roads resurfaced. But each of these acts of repair or improvement, whether of infrastructure or relationships, has a guiding hand. Weeds don’t weed themselves. Houses don’t build themselves. Companies don’t spontaneously incorporate.

Which gets us to evolution. Anaximander, the Greek philosopher of the 6th century BC, who lived in what is now Turkey, observed that life seems to evolve. So did Ibn Khaldun, the 14th and 15th century Arab sociologist and historian. And in the 19th century, so did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

But how to explain resistance to decay? How to explain that life can get more complicated and more sophisticated when the observed processes of the universe tend to run the other way?

That’s not a trivial question. Darwin and Wallace were both baffled by it. Each man conceived of evolution but couldn’t figure out how it worked. Indeed, so hard was it to explain that both men eventually found the answer in exactly the same way – by reading Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population.

Malthus observed that more members of a species are born than can survive to reproduce. Wallace and Darwin both realised that this explained how evolution could take place. Any member of a species that had an advantage over other members, would be more likely to survive to reproduction.  Over time, the result would be a gradual accumulation of useful features. And the mechanism of growth, which is common to all life, is strong enough to overcome decay.

It remains a brilliant insight. For more than 150 years it has been tested and analysed more than any other idea in scientific history. There are books and scholarly papers on evolution itself, plus discoveries in other fields, all of which confirm its central thesis. Life evolves.

But I repeat, it isn’t obvious. And I repeat, in so many other ways the universe tends to decay. Given these realities, to believe that life was created and did not evolve is not irrational. Wrongheaded, perhaps, but not irrational.

The Melancholy Roman