"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



This tale of a medium who "saw" a murder comes from the "Illustrated Police News" for August 22, 1896:

Last month a man named David Thomas, who had for a short time been employed by Lord Winidsor as his estate carpenter, was found shot dead in a lonely spot on the roadside near Fairwater, a village not far from Cardiff. No trace of the murderer could he found, and no motive has been supplied for the foul deed.

David Thomas was, from all accounts, a quiet, peaceable fellow, well liked by his intimates, and happy in his domestic relations. He was a native of the little fishing village of Aberavon, in Cardiganshire, but he had lived in Glamorganshire for some years, and had married a respectable woman, a native of the Vale of Glamorgan. A few months ago he received the appointment of carpenter on Lord Windsor's estate. He then removed with his family to live in the little village of St. Pagan's, a few miles out of Cardiff. He had hardly settled down there when the tragedy took place. It happened on a Saturday night. He had given up work early and had come home to cut the grass in the little green in front of his cottage, and to tidy up his new home. Early in the afternoon he seems to have grown tired of the work, and went indoors. His wife asked him to take the children out for a stroll. He made no reply, and his wife, busy in another part of the house, did not pay much attention to his subsequent movements. She knows, however, that he washed and went upstairs to put himself tidy, and then went out--without the children.

He seems to have met a friend on the road, and went for a walk with him. They called at a public-house, and had a glass or two of beer. Then, about ten o'clock, they parted. Thomas was quite cheerful, and started for home at a brisk pace. He came presently to a lonely part of the road. A wayfarer heard a pistol shot and a scream, and presently he met a man who was hurrying away from the direction of the scream, and who wished him a gruff good night. Two hundred yards further on the traveler saw in the dim night the body of a man stretched out on the side of the road. He fetched assistance; the body was that of David Thomas. He had been shot about 100 yards behind, but he had not been killed outright. He had run in terror up the road, spouting blood as he went, and leaving a ghastly trail behind him.

But a weird story which is told in the Western Mail of Cardiff serves to lend that touch of horror to the tale which renders it more thrilling than any story which the most daring novelist would venture to create.

A young girl, who is not yet 20, has been in the habit for some time past of attending seances held by the Cardiff Psychological Society. One night at a seance, while in a state of trance, she was seized with a strange convulsion. Through her lips came the words:--

" I--WILL--have--my--revenge.''

"Who are you, friend?" asked the interlocutor.

"David Thomas. I--was--shot."

This entirely unexpected answer was followed by sensational statements concerning the murder and the identity of the murderer. Some days after she was taken out to Fairwater--which she had never before visited--and re-enacted in a trance the scene of the murder. The story leaked out, and came to the ears of the Western Mail. Doubts were cast at once on the bona fides of the girl and the whole story. An offer was made to repeat the experiment in the presence of two Mail representatives. The offer was accepted, and one night this week, at ten o'clock, the little party met outside the Railway Inn, where poor David Thomas had had his last drink.

A start was made. The medium walked at an easy pace between a male and female friend, whose arms were linked. The night was very dark. The faint outline of the road ahead led always on towards a wall of blackness.

At last they came near Fairwater. Suddenly the medium spoke:-

"I see a pistol right in front of me--held towards me--it is a shiny one--there it is, held up--it has a large mouth."

Forty yards further on the medium spoke again. "Hark! I hear footsteps! I see a man!"

"Where?

"Right in front of us. There he is, creeping along under the hedge. He is keeping out of sight."

"What is he like? How is he dressed ?"

The medium described her vision very minutely. Her pace increased suddenly; she dragged her linked companions on with a lurch forward. The farmhouse where she first saw the phantom stranger was well passed. She was following him eagerly now.

A piercing scream came from the girl. A pressman sprang to her side and helped to prevent her body pitching headlong forward.

This was at the spot where David Thomas fell at the first shot.

"O--o--oh !"' moaned the medium, twisting her left arm round to the back, to a spot immediately below the shoulder-blade, as if in intense agony. Then, supported on either side, she staggered forward.

A light was struck to see her face. It was the hue of death. Her eyes were turned until the whites alone were visible.

"Let her go down! " Moaning, she was allowed to sink, and lay there prone. Her means expressed intense agony, and were like those of a man dying; blood gurgling in the sound; it was scarce conceivable a woman actually lay there.

"Speak, friend," said the interlocutor, and presently came the slow answer, a whisper: "David--T--T--Thomas."

"What do you want of us, friend ?"

"I--was-SHOT!" The tones of the voice were those of a man's.

"Who shot you ? "

A name was given.

"What do you want us to do, my friend?"

Slowly, distinctly, with relentless purpose came the answer. "I--will--have--my--revenge. He shot me."

Then the medium told them where the pistol had been bought by the murderer a year ago under an assumed name, and where the pistol would be found. All this while the poor girl lay prone on the roadside under the thin sinister telegraph pole.

Gradually she revived. "Look, look!" she cried, in a voice of horror, "look at the blood!"

"'Where?"

"Here--look! Look here!" indicating spots invisible to anyone else.

"Take me away," she shuddered, but before her frightened exclamation could be obeyed, her body suddenly stiffened. " He is there!" she said; with pitiful horror in her tone, but with her face expressionless and her eyes still white.

"What do you see?"

"The ghost."

Then the party returned, shaken in mind and surfeited with horrors.

Sadly, despite this spectral recreation of the crime, Thomas' seemingly inexplicable killing--which had a certain amount of contemporary fame as the "Fairwater Murder"--was never solved. In this world, at least. Perhaps his ghost managed to get his own vengeance.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The "Servant Girl Annihilator"



Jack the Ripper is an enduring monument to the powers of a good press agent. The anonymous fiend's lingering, and likely eternal, stature as history's most famous serial killer obscures the fact that he was hardly unique in his era. Just four years before Jack began his murderous spree in the East End, the women of Austin, Texas suffered through an equally brutal and mystifying reign of terror. And yet, this string of unsolved murders is relatively unknown.

On the night of December 30, 1884, a cook named Mollie Smith was lying asleep next to her common-law husband, Walter Spenser. Someone broke into their bedroom and knocked Spenser unconscious with an ax blow. When he finally, painfully came to, he saw that Mollie was gone. Her body was found lying in the snow behind the home of her employers. She had been raped, after which some heavy implement had been used to bash her head in. On May 6, Eliza Shelly, who was also a cook for a prominent Austin family, was found on the floor of her home. She had probably been raped, and an ax had nearly split her head in two.

On May 23, Irene Cross, another domestic servant, was attacked with a large knife which nearly scalped her. She briefly survived the attack, but was unable to give any information about her assailant.

In September 1885, another servant named Rebecca Ramey was sleeping quietly with her eleven-year-old daughter Mary. During that night, someone broke into her home, knocked her unconscious, and dragged Mary to a washhouse in the backyard, where the girl was raped and fatally stabbed in the head.

This crime was soon followed by a multiple attack, on Gracie Vance, her boyfriend Orange Washington, and Lucinda Boddy, a friend of Vance's who was unlucky enough to be a houseguest of the couple. As the trio were sleeping in a shanty on the property of Gracie's employer, someone came in and smashed Washington's head in with an ax. Boddy was then struck in the head and raped, but she survived the attack. The killer then forced Vance to her employer's stable, where she was raped and beaten on the head with a brick until she was dead.

Austin was naturally horrified by this series of baffling, gruesome killings, but as the victims had all been working-class African-Americans, the white elites felt little sense of personal peril. As if to mock this attitude, the killer soon shook them out of their complacency. On Christmas Eve 1885, Susan Hancock, a white woman who moved in Austin's most elegant society, was discovered by her husband in their backyard. As was the case with most of the earlier victims, she had been sexually assaulted, and then her skull had been crushed by an ax. Just one hour later, the naked body of a beautiful young socialite named Eula Phillips was found in the alley behind the home of her father-in-law, in Austin's most expensive neighborhood. Someone had dragged her from the house to this dark spot, raped her, and split open her head with an ax. Inside the home, her husband, Jimmy Phillips Jr., was found knocked unconscious. Their little boy, who had been in the bedroom with them at the time of the attack, was unharmed.

This slaughter of two of the city's most prominent citizens made all of Austin half unhinged. People gathered together in panic, scanning the headlines that screamed of this "horrible butchery." Men and women armed themselves to the teeth. Others, in the belief that such a savage and mysterious murderer must be some sort of demonic entity, spent their nights lighting candles and praying for divine protection.

The day after Hancock and Phillips were killed, over five hundred of Austin's leading citizens gathered together to find some way to fight back against their invisible tormentor. Many plans were suggested, from using large lamps to light the city at night, to putting all Austin under lockdown, but no one could really agree on what to do. It was many years before the phrase "serial killer" would even be invented. Such an unprecedented, almost supernatural series of motiveless killings was beyond their comprehension.

As it happened, any action would be irrelevant. After the killings of the two high society women, the butcher of Austin vanished. It seemed as if having made his point that no one in the city was safe from him, he felt his work was done. However, the climate of fear and anger that was his legacy took years to fully dissipate.

Investigators continued to do their utmost to find the murderer, but the Austin police force of the day was clearly out of their league in dealing with a murder spree of this magnitude. Unfortunately, they were fixated on the theory that a black man must have committed the killings, which led to a long persecution of the city's African-American males. Virtually every black man in Austin was treated like a suspect. Race relations in Austin, which had, before the murders, been relatively progressive, quickly deteriorated, as many whites convinced themselves the bloodbath was proof that blacks were hopelessly uncivilized.

In January 1886, the hunt for the killer took a startling turn. The husbands of the last two victims, Jimmy Phillips Jr. and Moses Hancock, were arrested for the murders of their wives. The theory was that the two men had--utterly coincidentally--chosen the same night to kill their spouses in a way that would look like they had been victims of the murderer of the black servants.

Although the victim's spouse is traditionally the first prime suspect, the case against the men was ridiculously weak. The closest thing to hard evidence brought against Moses Hancock was a letter Susan had written him months before her death. It said that she loved him, but could no longer tolerate his drinking. The DA argued--with absolutely nothing to back it up--that on Christmas Eve, Moses got drunk, and in a rage butchered his wife to prevent her from leaving him.

As for Jimmy Phillips, the 23-year-old was quite the local playboy, a dissipated sort who enjoyed drink, playing the violin, and the company of the ladies. On a far darker note, he was said to be a mean drunk who abused his wife when he was under the influence. Eula--who had married Phillips in 1883, when she was only fifteen--was so miserable with her husband that she reportedly tried to induce an abortion when she was pregnant with their second child.

Eula Phillips

Another detail emerged about the Phillips marriage that must have really made Austin society gasp and reach for the smelling salts: In the months before her death, Eula had taken to regularly visiting Austin's most high-class house of assignation. The home, operated by a May Tobin, was a meeting place for expensive prostitutes and their clients, as well as adulterous lovers. The last time Eula visited Tobin's was on the very night she had been killed. It is not clear whether Eula visited the house because she was carrying on illicit love affairs, or if she had turned to prostitution to make some money independent of her husband's allowance.

May Tobin--no doubt to the secret horror of many of Austin's upper-crust--was said to have told nearly all she knew to the authorities, including the names of Eula's visitors. Among those names was William J. Swain, who was no less than Texas' state comptroller and a favorite to become the state's next governor. According to Tobin, several other prominent Texas politicians were among Eula's lovers. Rumor had it that Tobin was blackmailing many other influential men in exchange for her silence about their visits to her house.

Despite the scandalous revelations, the evidence presented against Phillips at his trial was, to say the least, weak. The prosecution argued that Eula, realizing that her husband had learned of her many infidelities, had armed herself with an ax for self-protection. Phillips raped her, after which she struck him on the head with her weapon. He seized the ax and used it to kill her. He then hauled the body into the alley, in the hope that it would be seen as the work of the servant murderer. The defense countered this theory by demonstrating that a bloody footprint found on the Phillips back porch could not have been made by their client.

Despite the dubiousness of the case against Phillips, the combination of powerful motive and his history of brutal behavior was enough to cause the jury to find him guilty of Eula's murder. However, six months after his conviction, the state's Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, citing lack of evidence. They ordered a new trial, but the DA evidently decided it was fruitless to pursue the case against Phillips, and he was released.

The trial of Moses Hancock was no more successful. After his daughter testified that her mother had never even shown him the letter that was, according to the prosecution, his main motive for murder, the case against him collapsed. There was a hung jury, and he too was set free.

Although various other men--most notably William Swain--were suspected of involvement in the killings, no one else was ever charged with perpetrating these singularly ugly and incomprehensible deaths.

Swain's once-invincible political career, unsurprisingly, came to an abrupt end as a result of the Eula Phillips murder. Moses Hancock and Jimmy Phillips both moved out of Austin and started new lives for themselves. The investigation into the crimes, as well as public interest in the string of deaths, eventually came to an inconclusive end. To this day, there are many researchers in Austin who are as obsessed with trying to solve their city's ghastliest crime as "Ripperologists" are with the Whitechapel killings. (Some have even argued--unconvincingly, in my opinion--that the two sets of murders were committed by the same person.)  The latest "solution" to the mystery came in 2014, when the television show "History Detectives" used modern forensic and psychological techniques to suggest the murders were committed by a young African-American cook named Nathan Elgin. In February 1886--shortly after the last of the murders--he was shot and killed by police while he was attempting to attack a woman with a knife. While Elgin is a plausible suspect, unfortunately, we will probably never know for certain if he was one of the 19th century most horrific killers.

We remain as baffled as our ancestors were in those grim days in the mid-1880s.

[Note: Contemporary news reports generally called the killings "The Servant Girl Murders."  However, writer William Sidney Porter--aka "O. Henry"--who was living in Austin at the time of the crimes, referred to the "Servant Girl Annihilators" in an 1885 letter.  In modern times, his more colorful name for the serial killer has stuck.]

Friday, March 27, 2015

Weekend Link Dump



Ever wonder what is more unsettling than having one cat just sit and stare at you?


Well, yes.  Exactly.

Let's go stare down some links:

Who the hell legally owned this goat?

What the hell happened to Michael Rockefeller?

What the hell is in the Russian sky?

What the hell are the Tjipetir blocks?

Watch out for those haunted furnaces!

Watch out for those gay deceivers!

Watch out for the Empress Josephine's shawls!

Gandhi's historic Salt March.

The still-puzzling Babes in the Woods murder.

If you were having a big night out in Manhattan in 1951, this is what you'd be doing.

A wonderful photo gallery featuring the dogs of WWI.

Varna Man, who really managed to take it all with him.

Thecla, who took chastity to whole new levels.

19th century actress stars in her own romantic comedy.

Iceland goes to Hell.

A defense of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's most disparaged wife.

Let's face it, we'll never stop arguing about Richard III.

A witch has second thoughts about a curse, 1877.

A post combining two of my favorite things:  Cats and P.G. Wodehouse.

An Arkansas fairy alliance against the Bakka Bird.  And things got only weirder from there.

On the hazards of humanizing dolls, yesterday and today.

A Tudor poisoning mystery.

The dos and don'ts of a Regency masquerade ball.

Avoiding "the crafty, the wicked, and the designing" while visiting Regency London.

A pagan's guide to celebrating spring.

And there we go for this week!  See you on Monday, with the tale of a still-mysterious, and relatively little known, Jack the Ripper of 19th century America.  In the meantime, here's a bit of Bach:


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Clipping of the Day



This account of the world's longest nap comes from Sabine Baring-Gould's "Yorkshire Oddities":
At Laycock, two miles west of Keighley, at a farm called "The Worlds," lived a close-fisted yeoman named Sharp, at the end of last century and the beginning of this. He carried on a small weaving business in addition to his farm, and amassed a considerable sum of money. The story goes that on one occasion old Sharp brought a piece of cloth to the Keighley tailor and told him to make a coat for him out of it. The tailor on measuring the farmer pronounced the cloth to be insufficient to allow of tails to the coat, and asked what he was to do under the circumstances. "Tho' mun make it three laps,"—i.e., any way. The expression stuck to him, and till the day of his death the name of "Three Laps" adhered to him, when it passed to his still more eccentric son.

This son, William Sharp, for a while followed the trade of a weaver, but was more inclined to range the moors with his gun than stick to his loom; and the evenings generally found him in the bar of the " Devonshire Inn " at Keighley, the landlord of which was a Mr. Morgan. Young Three Laps was fond of chaffing his boon companions. On one occasion he encountered a commercial traveller in the timber trade, and began his banter by asking him the price of a pair of mahogany "laithe" (barn) doors. The traveller, prompted by Mr. Morgan, drew him out, and booked his order. After some weeks the invoice of mahogany barn-doors, price upwards of £30, was forwarded to William Sharp. Young Three Laps was beside his wits with dismay, and had recourse to Mr. Morgan, and through his intervention the imaginary mahogany barn-doors were not sent. 
The barmaid of the "Devonshire" was a comely, respectable young woman, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer named Smith. William Sharp fell desperately in love with the girl, proposed, and was accepted. The day for the wedding was fixed, and the young man went to Keighley Church at the appointed hour to be married. But the bride was not there. At the last moment a difficulty had arisen about the settlements. Mr. Smith could not induce Old Three Laps to bestow on his son sufficient money to support him in a married condition, and the two old men had quarrelled and torn up the settlements.

The blow was more than the mind of William Sharp could bear. He returned to "The Worlds" sulky, went to bed, and never rose from it again. For forty-nine years he kept to his bed, and refused to speak to anyone. He was just thirty years old when he thus isolated himself from society and active life, and he died in his bed at the age of seventy-nine, on March 3rd, 1856. 
The room he occupied measured nine feet long and was about the same breadth. The floor was covered with stone flags, and was generally damp. In one corner was a fireplace which could be used only when the wind blew from one or two points of the compass ; the window was permanently fastened, and where some of the squares had been broken, was carefully patched with wood. At the time of his death, this window had not been opened for thirty-eight years. The sole furniture comprised an antique clock, minus weight and pendulum, the hands and face covered with a network of cobwebs; a small round table of dark oak, and a plain unvarnished four-post bedstead, entirely without hangings. In this dreary cell, whose only inlet for fresh air during thirty-eight years was the door occasionally left open, did this strange being immure himself. He obstinately refused to speak to anyone, and if spoken to even by his attendants would not answer. All trace of intelligence gradually faded away; the only faculties which remained in active exercise were those he shared with the beasts. 
His father by his will made provision for the temporal wants of his eccentric son, and so secured him a constant attendant. He ate his meals regularly when brought to him, and latterly in a very singular manner, for in process of time his legs became contracted and drawn towards his body, and when about to eat his food he used to roll himself over and take his meals in a kneeling posture. He was generally cleanly in his habits. During the whole period of his self-imposed confinement he never had any serious illness, the only case of indisposition those connected with him could remember being a slight loss of appetite, caused apparently by indigestion, for two or three days—and this, notwithstanding that he ate on an average as much as any farm labourer. He certainly, physically speaking, did credit to his food, for though arrived at the age of seventy-nine years, his flesh was firm, fair and unwrinkled, save with fat, and he weighed about 240 lbs. He showed great repugnance to being seen, and whenever a stranger entered his den he immediately buried his head in the bed-clothes. About a week before his death his appetite began to fail; his limbs became partially benumbed, so that he could not roll himself over to take his food in his accustomed posture. 
From this attack he seemed to rally, and no apprehensions were entertained that the attack would prove fatal, till the evening before his death. 
However, during the night he rapidly became worse, and expired at four a.m. on Monday, March 3rd, 1856. 
Shortly before he expired he was heard to exclaim— "Poor Bill! poor Bill! poor Bill Sharp! "—the most connected sentence he had been known to utter for forty-nine years.

He was buried in Keighley Churchyard on the 7th of March, amidst crowds who had come from all parts of the neighbourhood to witness the scene. The coffin excited considerable attention from its extraordinary shape, as his body could not be straightened, the muscles of the knees and thighs being contracted. It was an oak chest, two feet four inches in depth. The weight was so great that it required eight men with strong ropes to lower it into the grave. It was thought to weigh with its contents 480 lbs. 
A gentleman who visited Old Three Laps before his death has given the following account of what he saw :— 
"If you chance to go a-skating 'to the Tarn,' and want a fine bracing walk, keep on the Sutton road about a mile, and you will come to an avenue of larch, not in a very thriving state, but sufficient to indicate that some one had an idea of the picturesque who planted the trees, although the house at the top of the avenue has not a very attractive appearance. You have now reached 'World's End,' and save here and there a solitary farm, with its cold stone buildings and treeless fields, there are few signs of life between you and the wide and boundless moors of Yorkshire and Lancashire. On the opposite hill, right up in the clouds, is 'Tewett Hall,' the residence of a Bradford Town Councillor. He alone, in this part, seems to follow Three Laps' ancestors' plan of planting, and in a few years we may expect to see a fine belt of timber on the verge of the horizon, a sight that will cheer the heart of some future Dr. Syntax when in search of the picturesque. At this place Three Laps 'took his bed,' and in a little parlour, with a northern light, the sill of which is level with the field, the floor cold and damp, and meanly furnished, it was my privilege to see Three Laps some twenty-five years ago. To gain admission we had some difficulty; but with the assistance of the farmer and a tin of tobacco to the nurse, who was an inveterate smoker, we were shown into his bedroom. As soon as he heard strangers, he pulled the bed-clothes over his head, which the nurse with considerable force removed, and uncovered his body, which was devoid of every vestige of body-linen. A more startling and sickening sight I never saw. Nebuchadnezzar rushed into my mind. Three Laps covered his face with his hands, his fingers being like birds' claws, while, with his legs drawn under his body, he had the appearance of a huge beast. He had white hair, and a very handsome head, well set on a strong chest. His body and all about him was scrupulously clean, and his condition healthy, as his nurse proudly pointed out, digging her fist furiously into his ribs. He gave no signs of joy or pain, but lay like a mass of inanimate matter. It struck me at the time that his limbs were stiff; but a neighbour of his, who after his dinner stole a peep into his bedroom window, told me that he found him playing with his plate in the manner of a Chinese juggler, and with considerable ability. On my informant tapping the window, he vanished under the bedclothes.

"Such was the life of the strange man who for love of a woman never left this obscure room for nearly half a century."
Old Three Laps: Heartbroken lover, or simply England's laziest SOB? Your call.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Morristown Ghost; or, Beware of Goblins Bearing Gifts


"Her figure ’fore me. Now I ha’ ’t--how strong
Imagination works! how she can frame
Things which are not! methinks she stands afore me,
And by the quick idea of my mind,
Were my skill pregnant, I could draw her picture.
Thought, as a subtle juggler, makes us deem
Things supernatural, which have cause
Common as sickness."
-John Webster, "The White Devil"

Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have a deep-seated yearning to believe there are such things as ghosts. Many people have an even more fervent desire to believe there is such a thing as easy money. Put those two wishes together, and you're almost guaranteed to have the public flocking at your door. One of the best illustrations of this is the curious case of Ransford (or Rainsford) Rogers and the Morristown Ghost. Rogers, a native of Connecticut, was a schoolteacher in New York state. He was poor and only semi-literate, but he had, in the words of a later biographer, "the power of inspiring confidence...very affable in his manners and had a genius adequate to prepossess people in his favor...very ambitious to maintain an appearance of possessing profound knowledge"--a polite way of saying he was a born grifter.

Our story had its origins in a legend Morristown, New Jersey residents had long cherished regarding nearby Schooley's Mountain. It was said that during the Revolutionary War, Tories had buried for safekeeping large sums of money in the mountain, which had never been reclaimed. Over the years, a number of efforts had been made to find this treasure, but they all failed due to the "hobgoblins and apparitions" who were guarding the horde. This area of New Jersey was notable for a fervent belief in witches, ghosts, fairies and the like. Rogers, as we shall see, found a novel way to make use of both these local traditions.

In 1788, he "providentially" made the acquaintance of two men from New Jersey who were hoping to find someone to help them uncover this lost Tory treasure. What was needed, they said, was someone who could negotiate with these troublesome hobgoblins, someone "whose knowledge descended into the bowels of the earth, and who could reveal the secret things of darkness."

Rogers promptly assured them that he was just the man they were looking for. In short, he proposed to lead the good citizens of New Jersey on a supernatural treasure hunt.

By August of that year, he had relocated to Morristown. He brought with him a crony (named, with a nice touch of irony, Goodenough,) to help him with this elaborate plot. As many locals had for years been dreaming of finding the Tory gold, Rogers had no difficulty gathering together a band of about forty suckers like-minded gold-seekers, who became known as the "Fire Club," or simply "The Company." These were, we are told, Morristown's most honorable citizens, "honest, judicious simple church members." The Company included an "eminent jurist," two justices of the peace, two doctors, and a retired colonel.

Rogers gathered his comrades together and "communicated to them the solemnity of the business and the intricacy of the undertaking and the fact that there had been several persons murdered and buried with the money in order to retain it in the earth." He likewise informed them that those spirits must be raised and conversed with before the money could be obtained. He declared he could by his art and power raise these apparitions and that the whole company might hear him converse with them and satisfy themselves there was no deception. This was received with belief and admiration by the whole company without every investigating whether it was probable or possible." When Goodenough secretly accentuated Rogers' oration with some spooky rappings on the walls and ceilings and a sepulchral cry of "Push forward!" everyone was convinced that in this humble New England pedagogue, they had found themselves a genuine sorcerer.

Despite his lack of education, Rogers had somehow obtained some basic knowledge of "chymistry," which allowed him to convincingly pass himself off as someone gifted with deep supernatural powers. He concocted a chemical brew which he buried in the earth. After a few hours, the mixture--apparently some sort of crude gunpowder--would "break and cause great explosions which appeared dismal in the night and would cause great timidity." One night, Rogers and Goodenough secretly laid out in a field a design showing "a great variety of paths--circular, elliptical, square, and serpentine...That evening, when the dupes themselves saw these fanciful paths, they were convinced that a thousand men could not have performed the task...and they unhesitatingly ascribed it to demoniac power." These "uncommon curiosities" convinced even the most skeptical that Rogers was in communication with the Dark Side, and made his group "anxious to proceed."

One night in November 1788, the group convened in some local woods reputed to be haunted. They gathered in a circle, the scene lit only by some candles that cast "a ghastly, melancholy, direful gloom through the woods." Suddenly, they heard "a most impetuous explosion from the earth" nearby. Flames rose from the blast site, "presenting to the eye many dreadful objects." Hideous groans, presumably from ghosts, could be heard. Rogers declared that although these restless spirits were invisible to the rest of the group, they were speaking to him of the immense treasure they were guarding.

The ghosts, he related, were willing to reveal the hiding places of the money...if the price was right. Before the Company would be allowed to see the treasure, they would each have to pay the spirits £12 in silver or gold. It apparently did not occur to anyone to ask what use incorporeal beings would have for cold cash, because, we are told, members of the group positively fought over "who should be the first in delivering the money to the spirits." A number of these worthies went into debt in order to pay their ghostly bribes. The spirits also declared that the group must "acknowledge Rogers as their conductor, and adhere to his precepts; and as they knew all things, they would detect the man that attempted to defraud his neighbor."

This spectacular demonstration of ghostly power so cowed the assembly that they looked to their leader "for protection to defend them from the raging spirits; and after several ceremonies Rogers dispelled the apparitions, and they all returned from the field wondering at the miraculous things that happened, being fully persuaded of the existence of hobgoblins and apparitions. By this time they could revere Rogers, and thought him something more than man."

The bundle of money was left under the stump of a tree, where the "spirits" instantly scooped it up, lest their pigeons have second thoughts about being plucked.

By March 1789, Rogers' flock was naturally impatient to see a return on their investment, and they became increasingly insistent that the treasure of Schooley's Mountain should be excavated. In reply, the ghosts advised them to simply put all their trust in Rogers, and to follow him implicitly in all things.

Delays, however, could only be made for so long, and Rogers finally was forced to name May 1st as the great day when the ghosts of Schooley's Mountain would lead them to the treasure. On the night of April 30, the Company assembled in an open field outside of town to await instructions from the Great Beyond. Two "ghosts" appeared some distance away, in a very angry temper. They delivered a sharp lecture to the group, accusing them of bad conduct and violating their vows of secrecy. They closed their furious harangue by declaring that as punishment, they were delaying--perhaps indefinitely--permission for the Company to excavate the loot.

The Company was understandably disappointed by this setback, but their faith in their leader was unshaken. Perhaps they felt they had gone too far to turn back now.

Encouraged by his success, Rogers began to cast his ghostly web farther. With the help of two friends, he pulled much the same stunt in another town near Morristown, this time relying on "spirit writing" to communicate with the ghosts. Late one night in June of 1789, Rogers wrapped himself up in a white sheet and rode over to one of his candidates for Company II. He summoned the man by rapping on his doors and windows, announcing that he was a ghost come not to haunt the man, but to enrich him. He explained that he was "in charge of an immense treasure." He would like to give this wealth to some local organization, but he could not do so until certain upstanding church members banded together to take charge of the money.

The gentleman he visited ate his story up. The man gathered together all the other men the "ghost" had named as suitable guardians of the treasure, and all twenty-six of them happily forked over their twelve pounds each. After all, they told themselves, it was an investment that would soon pay off big. Rogers led them in a series of seances where they received many encouraging "notes" from the spirit world.

It did not end well, however. The menfolk were entirely under Rogers' spell, but their wives were a good deal more skeptical.

As part of Rogers' rituals designed to fill his flock with the proper fear and respect of the ghosts, he had pulverized some animal bones, and gave them to one of his new Company, "declaring that it was the dust of their bodies, and each man must have some of the powder in a paper sealed, as a token of the spirits’ approbation, and that he was one of the company. This powder was to be kept secret, and no one touch it upon his peril." One of the group, Alexander Carmichael, accidentally left his paper in his house, where it was discovered by his wife. She opened it, and when she saw the contents she "feared to touch it supposing it to be witchcraft: She went immediately to the priest for advice--he, not knowing its composition was unwilling to touch it for fear it might have some operation upon him.

“When her husband discovered what she had done, he was much terrified, declaring she had ruined him forever, in breaking open that paper. This made her more solicitous to know the contents; and she declaring not to divulge anything, he told he: the whole proceedings; she insisted on it they were serving the devil, and thought it her duty to put an end to such proceedings."

This setback should have inspired Rogers and his co-conspirators to just take their ill-gotten gains and run. However, by now they were thoroughly drunk with power and had an arrogant confidence in their continued success, and they carried on as before.

Alas, even the best scams must one day come to an end, and the Morristown Ghost was no exception. As it happened, it was Rogers' own careless stupidity that caused the downfall of his little enterprise. One night when he performed his ghost impersonation for the benefit of one of his followers, he made the mistake of having too much to drink beforehand. His "spirit costume" was put on more carelessly than usual, and he made a few unghostly sort of errors in his conversation. The lady of the house grew suspicious of their spirit visitor, and spied on him through one of the windows, and saw enough to confirm her worst suspicions.

After the "ghost" had left, she asked her husband "My dear, do spirits wear shoe buckles? Those were very like Ransford Rogers' buckles!"

The couple traced Rogers' footprints to the fence where he had tied his horse, and then traced the animal's hoofprints to the schoolteacher's home, and then to the stable of the horse's owner, where they found a discomfited Ransford Rogers. The game was well and truly up.

Rogers was arrested and thrown in prison. However, like any good con man, he asserted his complete innocence so vehemently and convincingly that one of his True Believers put up his bail money. Rogers rewarded this confidence in his probity by immediately fleeing town. After being arrested a second time, we are told he "acknowledged his faults and confessed." After unburdening his conscience, Rogers "absconded, and under the auspices of Fortune saved himself by flight from the malice of a host." His cohorts in fraud seem to have gotten away completely. The two Companies had between them given Rogers some $1300, "none of which was ever recovered by the unfortunate and humbugged company."

Despite this narrow escape, our hero had developed an irresistible taste for crime. The next we hear from him was nine years later. In York County, Pennsylvania, a man named John Dady was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for swindling a number of people through various faux-supernatural means. Among his accomplices was a man calling himself "Rice Williams," who turned out to be none other than Ransford Rogers. True to form, this slipperiest of fish somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law, and subsequently disappeared from history. Although his ultimate fate is unrecorded, it seems virtually certain that he continued to pull different swindles, in different towns, under different false names.

It's hard to keep a good ghost down.

[Note: The tale of the Morristown Ghost is preserved in several contemporary pamphlets. The most famous account was written in 1826 by a prominent almanac maker named David Young. However, the earliest, most detailed exposé was published by an anonymous author in 1792. It is an extremely rare pamphlet, as most of the copies were bought up and destroyed by the son of one of Rogers' dupes, who was understandably anxious to bury this embarrassing proof of his father's gullibility. Many students of this case believe this pamphlet was written by Ransford Rogers himself, squeezing one last bit of fun and profit out of his most famous escapade.

I'd like to think this was the case.]


Friday, March 20, 2015

Weekend Link Dump



A reminder that Sphinxes are not only found in Egypt.


Let's Walk Like an Egyptian over to this week's links:

What the hell are all these faces in the window?

What the hell is this piece of jade?

How the hell old is the Giza Plateau?

Where the hell is this Irish island?

Watch out for the ghost of La Corriveau!

The horrible story of Topsy the elephant shows human nature at its worst.

Speaking of human nature at its worst, meet Dr. Geza de Kaplany, who made an excellent argument for the death penalty.

Some wonderful images of Newgrange over the years.

Scotland's terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.  Or at least one of them.  The Scots have had quite a few of those.

The time the police tried to set up Arthur Conan Doyle.

Taking near-death experiences seriously.

Christian X and the yellow star:  When a myth is not really a lie.

An Arabic ring in a Viking grave.

Maria Owen, bogus doctor.

A real-life fairy tale from 18th century Sussex.

A real-life Dr. Frankenstein finds his monster.

Dr. Parkman rests in pieces.

Saying good-bye to the drive-in theater.

Irish football-playing fairies.  No, really.

Going Badminton Mad in 1873 India.

Gervase Thompson learns that no good deed goes unpunished.

How to be a dishonest valet.

A Russian general gets fair warning.

The "Bermuda Triangle of New Jersey."

How to hit the town in 1922 Manhattan.

Stand up straight! 18th century style.

Marie Antoinette's last opera.

Jamaica's first serial killer.

A witch runs out of luck, 1579.

The Barbarians at Hatra's Gate.

Neanderthal bling.

Is this a relic of the first North Americans?

That's the end of the line for this Friday. See you all on Monday, when I'll be talking ghosts, gold, and grifters. In the meantime, here's Judee Sill:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Close-up of Trolls, by John Bauer, 1915


News of strange goings on in a Pennsylvania huckleberry patch--caused by what were variously described as "spirits" "elves," or "fairies"--appeared in a few newspapers during August 1873. Because I realize the blog has been short on berry-loving, stone-throwing elves lately, here's this account from the "Savannah Morning News," August 30, 1873:
All Cumru township, over in Berks county, is agitated from the fact that a spirit settlement has taken up its abode in a narrow strip of wood about five miles from the city of Reading, on the road leading out to Kohl's mill.

It was a raw, damp night when your correspondent alighted at the roadside inn, about a half mile from the above place. The wind howled, and the swaying of the heavy branches of sturdy oaks creaked and sighed, and gave echo to the croaking owl away over on the mountain side.

I need not describe one of these quaint old revolutionary relics--these Pennsylvania country wayside inns. In the barroom sat seven men, whose sun-browned features and shaggy whiskers told of long years of toil on the farm and wood-chopping on the hills. A coal-oil lamp swung from a pendant, and a faint light shone out from a greasy and smoked chimney. The landlord, a large-headed, quiet personage, sat smoking a pipe, and occasionally peering over his glasses toward the corner I occupied. These men were earnestly discussing the visitation of spirits in their neighborhood. They were men of fair average intelligence and were persons of good standing in the neighborhood. One of the men gave his name as J.M. white, and stated that he was constable of the township. The remaining men were Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Henry Grimes, Abraham Miller, and Daniel White. They are all engaged in agricultural pursuits in this township.

I remarked to them that I had come a long distance to ascertain what truth there was in the report that spirit carnivals had been witnessed at night, and that stones and missiles had been heard to whiz and seem to whirl in all directions.

The constable turned in his chair, and with a look of deep earnestness told me that there was too much truth in it. "Have you heard anything definite about it?" he asked.

In answer to my negative reply, he delivered himself about as follows:

"We people here in this neighborhood are neither sceptics nor fools. I have not been constable of this town for six years without knowing and learning something. A ghost never trod shoe leather that would make me whistle. But the night that me and the rest of us went down past old Kohl's on to the huckleberry strip, and saw and heard what we did see and hear, has made me a better and wiser man, and a devilish perplexed one at that. There sits Abe Miller; he can tell you how the thing commenced."

It seemed an important matter to Mr. Miller, who emptied his mouth of a huge quid of masticated tobacco. He said: "Last Tuesday, Mrs. Daniel White, her daughter, Susan White, and Mary Hartz, three in number, went down to the huckleberry strip on Miller's farm for the purpose of gathering berries. They were there but a short time when they were startled by stones and clubs being thrown in the bushes. There was no person to be seen. After the first throwing everything was quiet. The women folks then heard strange screeching and unearthly noises resembling the hum of a steam engine. They were frightened almost to death, and stood riveted on the spot white with fear and trembling. Then of a sudden the air seemed filled with light and transparent shadows, that flitted about under the trees and above the heads of the frightened females. Then came slaps, quick and sharp, and the young ladies frequently received smacks on the sides of their faces, while Mrs. White received a hard blow on the back with a large piece of bark. The folks could not run, but were obliged to stand still and take it. They were with the spirits for nearly an hour before they could get out of the woods and hurry on towards home. They came back terribly alarmed and frightened. Miss White was considerably bruised about the sides, she having been struck several times."

I inquired whether the women had so stated the case. "Yes," answered several men in the bar-room, "this comes directly from Mrs. White, who would not tell a lie for the world."

A friend of Miss Hartz said: "I know Miss Hartz very well; she is a very sensible young lady. She returned from the berrying party very much frightened. She did not receive any injuries, but she saw spirits running about through the bushes, screaming and making other unearthly noises."

"What did she say a spirit resembled?" I inquired.

The young man continued: "She says that the objects she saw had human faces, white flowing gowns and wore long hair. They were comparatively small and very indistinct; so much so that she could not make out who they resembled. Certain she was, however, that they were spirits of human people. One kissed her on her left hand, which still bears the mark. It is red, and a dark streak is on the outside of it."

The landlord at this laid away his pipe, and with much consciousness of importance, nodded his head and remarked, "It's queerest case I ever heard of, and I know these people too well to think they would try to humbug anybody. Mrs. White is an honest and respectable woman, and her eyes are open; and when she tells of such a thing you can rely on it."

Mrs. White's husband owns the haunted huckleberry patch. He was a witness to the throwing of missiles. He is positively certain that no human hands did the throwing.

The constable at last said: "It's a good thing that you city people are never bothered with these strange affairs."

I asked him whether an investigation of the matter had been made, and he replied that there had. This was his story:

"The following day after the women had been so terribly frightened by the visitation, fourteen people were appointed to make an investigation. They were: J.M. White, Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Samuel Sweitzer, John Marks, Henry Grieves, Daniel White, Abraham Miller, James Schaeffer, Priscilla Marks, Catherine Good, Mrs. Daniel White, Susan White, and Mary Hartz. The women folks were not afraid when the men went with them. I, as constable of the township, led the party. We marched in a body down to the patch, and stopped just before going in to examine the points around the haunted place.

"The spot is a very lonely one, and very few people go there unless it is to gather berries. When we got ready we took hold of hands, and formed a circle around the spot where the women saw the spirits. Four of the women were then in the circle. Before I knew what I was about I was struck about the face, on the cheeks, and my hat was knocked off. The missiles came from a heavy clump of bushes, and we could see them plainly shoot up and over towards where we were standing. Four of us men made a dash through the bushes, but when we arrived there was nothing to be found. As soon as we got to the place where the stuff was first thrown from stones and sticks came from another direction, and to save our lives we could not see who it was that was doing. By this time the females became terribly alarmed; and, when a singular humming noise was heard and a strange smell pervaded the atmosphere, they almost fainted away, their hearts beating and thumping fearfully. My wife was in my arms, which explains my last remark. We could discover no traces of the invisible hands that threw the stones, but saw them come, and knew where they came from--but that was all."

The constable's story was corroborated by the remainder of those present. But the hour hand had swung around, and the old clock in the corner had struck eleven; the rain was comparatively over, and the men pulled down their slouch hats, buttoned up their coats, and sallied out in the darkness for home.

I turned to the landlord and enquired whether he really believed those men.

"Young man," he replied, "they are earnest in every word they say, depend upon it."

The next morning I talked with Mrs. Daniel White on the subject. She corroborated all I had heard, and stated that her back was yet painful from the effects of a blow she had received.

Miss Hartz, upon whom I also called, was positive that she had seen spirits. "Why," she continued, "there were so many of them that I really imagined the very air was full of them." But she was excused from further conversation, as she stated that it was extremely distasteful to her. She seemed to tremble as she described the appearance of one of the alleged spirits.

Miss Hartz, by the way, is a very prepossessing young lady, and I ventured to remark that it was no wonder the spirits were attracted to her. This did not even cause her to smile.

I then visited the haunted huckleberry ground. It is situated on the right of the road, on a gentle declivity. There are some undergrowth, large trees, and thick clumps of bushes. When I arrived a jolly old crow flapped his black pinions and cawed as he flew over through the mist toward the hills beyond. Taking down the bars I jogged along through some bottom and, and entered the supposed spirit and fairy circle. All about lay sticks and stones, and the berry bushes were tramped down in many places. Upon a twig hung a calico shred that had been torn from the apron of one of the frightened females, while near by lay a gaiter that had been dropped in their hurry and flight. The rain soon came down, and I was obliged to turn back toward the hotel.

When I reported my visit to the landlord, he remarked, "Can't help it; those people are sensible people, and know what they talk about. They were there also and saw just exactly what they told you they did. I believe they saw spirits, and I would not go near that place at midnight for the best horse in the country."

So. Either this was a very nutty hoax on the part of the good people of Cumru township, or something mighty weird was going on in those huckleberry bushes. As is usual with this type of alleged incident, I have been unable to find any follow-up stories to the mystery. I can only add as a footnote that historically, Pennsylvania has been a particular hotbed for odd tales involving witchcraft, ghosts, and all manner of sinister folklore. Readers of David Paulides' "Missing 411" books may also recall that he has observed that berry fields are, for God knows what reason, associated with many particularly bizarre disappearances.

That's about all I can say on the matter.