Writer, poet, social activist, explorer, aviatrix, and 92-year-old pole vaulter: Emily Chesley played many roles in her long and remarkable life. This week I am posting abridged excerpts from her biography, Get Bent: Emily Chesley’s Life of Speculation, which recounts the humble beginnings and formative experiences of the Speculative Songstress Of The Southwest.
Emily Chutney Chesley was born in Ireland, on May 24, 1856, the daughter of an Irish Catholic girl named Molly Magdalene Catherine Mary (née) Flannigan and a bona fide British war hero, Johnny Charles Chesley. Johnny Chesley, forced into a life in the Army by poverty, was the youngest son of a failed merchant banker. Molly’s family had fled their hometown of Ennis, County Clare during the Potato Famine in 1848 and settled in London.
Though an indifferent marksman, Johnny Chesley was a famed drinker and ruffian. As such, he made perfect sergeant’s material, and met with some success in that role, though he never made it above the rank of sergeant, as he was constantly being demoted for public drunkenness. Johnny was famous for two things — month-long, sack-inspired benders, and a ferocity in battle not seen since the Magyars. He is said to have personally decapitated twelve Russian Uhlans at the Battle of Balaclava, some feat for an infantryman. Balaclava is best known for the ridiculous Charge of the Light Brigade, but Chesley’s feats of mindless savagery are comparable to atrocities throughout the ages and were sadly overlooked by talented poets of the era, though his officers appreciated Chesley’s “mettle.”  He was given an extended leave. Chesley returned to London where he met Molly, who was working as a charwoman, trying to keep her family alive. Molly was the honest female breadwinner of the family. Her younger sisters Mary, Catherine, Chelsea and Hope all fell into prostitution as soon as they were able. The patriarch of the family, six siblings, and an old aunt named Gertrude had all died since their move to London. Most of Molly’s brothers died in
London’s slums, but one, Michael, survived as an inventor and “locationist;”  he proved a lifelong companion for both Molly and her daughter Emily.
The remarkable life of Michael Flannigan is deserving of its own biographical sketch. We can say here, however, that Michael Flannigan’s life of invention was one of soaring achievement and disastrous failure, of brief spasms of opulent wealth connected by longer stretches of grinding poverty. Flannigan had already had more than a lifetime of success and failure, by 1850, when he produced what would become one of his most successful inventions, Flannigan’s Phanerogam Rendering Tube (commonly known as “The Nautch”).
Prostitution was rampant in 1850s London and the spirochete treponema was having a class-blind field day. Flannigan’s Phanerogam Rendering Tube was the answer to every English gent’s problem with syphilis. 
Some deviants swore by the Nautch, and wives were even known to buy their errant husbands Flannigan’s invention by the box load. Flannigan sold enough Phanerogam Rendering Tubes to finance an ill-fated mountain climbing expedition to Tibet in 1852 (recounted in the excellent monograph To Bardo and Back). Though he failed to conquer Mount XV — now well-known as Mount Everest — the trip did provide inspiration for more inventions, including the Particulate Breathing Apparatus and the Introspection Wheel. The latter device was the hit of the 1854 social season, though it would eventually be a cause of ridicule and exile for Flannigan and his family. But before the scandal, Flannigan’s celebrity translated into a small fortune — enough money to pay outright for the wedding of his sister Molly to the dashing and psychotic Sgt. Johnny Chesley.
A grand wedding was performed at Chapel Shercksbury-on-Whimsey for the couple. It would be, for poor hardworking Molly, one of the happiest days of her life. Hundreds came from all around for the nuptials: English, Irish, Protestants, Catholics, wealthy and dirt poor. Songs were sung. There was dancing and carousing. Draught and wine flowed in abundance. The wedding celebration would be long remembered not least for the carnage that ensued. For it is always only a matter of time, in keeping with such occasions, until somebody throws the first punch. For Molly it was all bliss. She and Johnny were well away from the action by the time of the Great Shercksbury Riot of 1854. Molly was convinced she saw firreworks, though the sky was merely lit by the burning of several downtown establishments, accompanied by the popping musketry of the local militia called out to quell the celebration.
Molly was impregnated after the nuptials, and two days later, Johnny was sent back to the Crimean War. Though Florence Nightingale was more famous, Johnny Chesley made his own mark during the Crimea and the reams of history of that sad and silly conflict do contain a few scant pages that speak of him. He was featured in several of William Howard Russell’s reports in The Times, most notably, the passage that describes Johnny’s greatest heroics and death:
Fighting continues at Sevastopol. While Nightingale moves amongst the casualties, British infantry makes assault after assault upon the mighty walls of the wily Nakhimov’s fortress defense. Meanwhile, fighting continues outside of the citadel. Yesterday, the 12th Line made three attempts to exploit a weakness caused by successive artillery barrages. Sergeant John C. Chesley distinguished himself in these actions on several occasions by hurling Russian corpses at the enemy. It had such a devastating effect on enemy morale that the Russian line collapsed twice before a Russian officer put a sabre through Chesley’s midriff. The enraged sergeant decapitated the officer before expiring of obvious causes. Army officers say the sergeant will be given posthumous decoration.
When news of the death of the brave and quite mad Johnny reached Molly, she returned to Ireland to be with her brother Michael, who had moved back home. Michael, having funded her trip back to Ireland,was something of a sensation in Ennis, Co. Clare, and Limerick, Co. Limerick for his Particulate Breathing Apparatus. Flannigan created the device during an 1852 trip to Hong Kong, while he scoured the town’s opium dens, looking for the dissolute Tyrolean mountaineer, Gunter Gruntz. Flannigan became fascinated with the hookah, an oriental water-cooled pipe. He made his first sketches of the ‘party brat’ during his search for Gruntz. (This episode is outlined in the excellent monograph, Feng Brat.)
Next chapter: A Legacy of War Heroics, Savagery & Alcohol Dependence
1. Though some not-so-talented poets such as William Thudworth St.John-Smith, the Poet Laureate of Spidgy-on-Thames, did write about his exploits, notably the poem: Ode to Johnny the Brave.
2. Locationism, as everyone in Chesley’s day knew, was the art of finding the perfect place. Be it as small as a chair or a painting, or as large as a farm, the services of a “locationist” were indispensable in putting things in the flawless spot. It was the Victorian version of Feng Shui — an art form “invented” by Flannigan, but more likely something he picked up during his ill-fated expedition to Everest in 1852.
3. INSTRUCTIONS: “Simply purchase “The Nautch”, conveniently pre-rendered for your enjoyment, light it on fire, and stick your John Thomas in the superheated mixture of tallow, lye and plaster. (After the fire had gone out of course.)” The cure rate was phenomenal virtually none died of syphilis, though many were driven mad by the intense burning that followed not only the first use of a Nautch, but the subsequent intense aftereffects of the lye application on their members. (Flannigan had presciently combined that base ingredient with both tallow and plaster, making it nearly impossible to remove the admixture before the Nautch could do its good work.)