"...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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by these cats immortalized by Goya.  I'm sure you'll agree they make perfect mascots for this blog.

What the hell happened at Masada?

What the hell happened to Greenland's Vikings?

What the hell was the "Tully Monster?"

Why the hell do we have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

Where the hell is Zerzura?

Watch out for the Monster of Swatara Creek!

Watch out for the Monster of Osage River!

Watch out for the Sasquatch of Sunnyslope!

Watch out for the Sea Serpents of Cork!

Watch out for the Whyos!

Watch out for those tooth ants!

Watch out for those ghost planes!

The notorious Countess of Blessington.

How Lady Jane Franklin boosted polar exploration.

One of my favorites from this week:  Tasteless funeral wreaths.

A look at Napoleon's son.

The hazards of pretending to be a ghost.

18th century nighties.

Some strange ancient animal burials.

The princess who wrote military history.

The dreadful lives of Georgian chimney sweeps.

How about a self-opening coffin?

Old English "spell books."

We are not alone!  Well, maybe.

Science: "Hey, you know something? The Universe is really freaking weird."  Me: "Well, duh."

Georgian-era female misers.

Some wills that rhymed.

A scandalous bachelor's ball.

A British soldier photographs 1930s India.

A famed 1903 road trip.

Medical folklore and public executions.

Wheelbarrows full of tripe, anyone?

Ale, sodomy, the noose, and a gravestone.

That time one Pope executed another.

Early 19th century child care tips.

An avoidable tragedy at sea.

The "Plymouth Hum" is upping its game.

The minister and the marquise.

Victorian Paris ballerinas had to do a lot more than dance.

A police station with a haunted painting.

Photographing a death's head.

An Egyptian sacred cat rug.

A civilian's view of the Napoleonic Wars.

A how-to guide for witch bottles.

What we can learn from an ancient cauldron.

Indian soldiers in WWII.

A brief history of the tooth fairy.

1940s Americans loved their ghosts.

So now I need another excuse.

Mary, the saddest Tudor.

A particularly pesky ghost.

A tragic Icelandic witchcraft case.

That time people listened to radio on their telephones.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quarrel.

Here.  Just in case you're looking for one more thing to worry about.

This week in Russian Weird: that time they shot down a UFO.

And that's that for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll visit the world of opera.  Here's a musical preview:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Clipping of the Day

I love a supernatural tale with a long pedigree, and you don't get much more august than the ill-fated Witch of Berkeley. The famed demonic legend was recorded by the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury in his "Chronicle of the Kings of England."  It is filled with the sort of choice language one rarely sees in the drier witch tales of more recent vintage. And you have to love the crowd-pleaser of an ending.

A woman used to reside in Berkeley accustomed, as it afterwards appeared, to crimes, not ignorant of the ancient auguries, a patroness of the palate, arbitress of petulance, putting no moderation to her sins, because she was as yet on this side of old age, although beating on the door of it with a near foot. When this woman was on a certain day holding a feast, a raven, which she kept as a pet, croaked something louder than usual. Upon hearing this, the knife fell from her hand, her countenance became pale, and, groaning, she exclaimed, "To-day my plough has come to its last furrow; to-day I shall hear and receive a great misfortune." 
While speaking the words, the messenger of miseries entered. Being asked why he came with a face so full of expression, "I bring news to you," he said, "from that town," and named the place, "of the death of your son, and destruction of all the family, by a sudden ruin." At these words the woman, wounded in her mind with grief, immediately swooned away, and feeling the disease creep to her vitals, invited her surviving children, a monk and nun, with speedy letters, and addressed them, upon their arrival, with a sobbing voice. "I, my sons, by my miserable fate, have always used daemoniac arts; I have been the sink of all vices, the mistress of enticements. There was, however, among these evils, a hope of your religion, which might soothe my miserable soul. Despairing of myself, 1 reclined upon you; I proposed you to be my defenders against daemons, protectors against the most cruel enemies. Now therefore, because I have reached the end of my life, and shall have those exactors of the punishment whom I had advisers in my sin, I ask you, by the maternal bosom which you have sucked, if you have any faith, any piety, that you at least attempt to alleviate my sufferings; and though you will not recall the sentence issued concerning my soul, yet perhaps you will preserve my body by this means. Sew it in a stag's hide, afterwards recline it in a stone sarcophagus, fasten the cover with lead and iron; besides this, surround the stone with three iron chains, viz. of great weight; let there be psalmsingers for fifty nights, and the same number of masses in the days, which may mitigate the ferocious attacks of my enemies. So, if I should lie securely for three nights, on the fourth day bury your mother in the ground, although I fear that the Earth, which I have so often burthened with my vices, will not receive me in her bosom." 
Her desires were complied with in the most attentive form. But oh! her wickedness: pious tears, vows, prayers, availed nothing; so great was the wickedness of the woman, so great was the violence of the devil. For, on the first two nights, when choirs of clerks were singing psalms around the body, certain devils, breaking with the greatest ease the door of the church fastened with a huge bolt, burst asunder the two chains at the extremities. The middle one, which was more elaborately wrought, remained entire. On the third night, about cock-crowing, the whole monastery seemed to be overturned from its foundations by the noise of the approaching enemies. One more terrible than the rest in look, and taller in stature, shaking the doors with greater force, dashed them into fragments. The clerks stood stiff with terror, their hair on end, and bereft of speech. He advancing with a proud step to the coffin, and calling the woman by name, ordered her to arise. Upon her answering that she could not on account of the chains, "You shall be loosed," said he, "and to your evil;" and immediately broke the chain, which had eluded the ferocity of the rest, with as much ease as packthread. He also kicked off the lid of the coffin with his foot, and having taken her by the hand, drew her out of the church in the sight of them all. Before the doors stood a proud black horse neighing, with iron hooks projecting over his whole back. The woman was put upon it, and soon disappeared from the eyes of the spectators, with the whole company. The cries of the woman, supplicating for help, were heard for nearly four miles.

You really can't beat medieval chronicles for cautionary tales.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Who Was Mary Doefour?

I commented on an earlier post that as eerie as unsolved disappearances may be, it is equally disturbing when a person--whether alive or dead--is found, with no clue as to their identity. They are each unwelcome reminders that we all stand on shakier ground than we would like to think.

Today's post, sadly, features examples of both these sort of cases.

In November 1926, Anna Myrle Sizer, a pretty 28-year-old elementary school teacher from Mt. Vernon, Iowa, got off a train in nearby Marion. She had been in poor health for some time, and was on her way to visit her doctor. Her family and friends never saw her again. Although there was a long and intensive search for her--Sizer's family even hired detectives who pursued possible leads for years--no clue to her fate could be found. She had simply vanished. No one believed she had disappeared voluntarily. Sizer was an intelligent, hard-working, responsible woman of "very high character," with no motive whatsoever to leave her life. In the words of her father, "She was not the kind of girl to take a sudden notion to go someplace." A few days after Anna disappeared, a policeman saw a woman matching her description walking aimlessly along Highway 30, between Cedar Rapids and Chicago. Unfortunately, he had not at that time heard of the Sizer disappearance, so he did not detain her. Sizer's family finally came to the conclusion that some psychotic stranger had murdered her and successfully hidden the body. Although they never really stopped looking for Anna--and certainly never forgot her--her loved ones eventually went on with their lives. Anna Sizer's story, however unresolved it may have been, was seen as permanently closed.

In March 1978, an elderly woman died of a heart attack in her bed at the Queenwood East Nursing Home in Morton, Illinois. She was called "Mary Doefour," but the only thing anyone could say for sure about her was that this was not her birth name. Over fifty years earlier, the then-attractive young woman had been found wandering dazedly along U.S. 30, just outside of Chicago. She had been beaten and raped. The traumatized woman was suffering from amnesia, so was unable to say who she was or where she lived. She could only say vaguely that she thought she was a schoolteacher.

The mystery woman received scant press coverage, and no one came forward to identify her. The authorities felt they had no choice but to place her in the Manteno State Hospital. She, literally, became "just another Doe." Chillingly, there were so many woman patients whose identities were unknown that they were all given the name "Mary Doe," with a number added to differentiate them. This proved to be the start of many long, nightmarish years for the woman in various state institutions. Although she was clearly not insane--and some nurses believed that if she had ever been given proper therapy, her memory would have returned--"Mary Doefour" was condemned to a bleak life imprisonment for the crime of being a victim. As a result of the rape, she gave birth to a child, who was immediately placed in an orphanage. She was terrified of men, although after she went blind late in life, that fear subsided. She was given electro-shock therapy and kept in a drugged stupor, thus ensuring that her mind and memory remained a permanent blank. She became one of the living dead, scarcely able to speak or function normally.

After her passing, "Mary" would have been quickly forgotten if her story hadn't caught the attention of Rick Baker, a reporter for the "Bloomington Pantagraph." He became intrigued by the grim mystery surrounding her, and wrote a story about the woman, hoping this bit of publicity might finally uncover the secret of her identity. It did not.

When Baker was later hired by the "Peoria Journal Star," he persuaded his new editor that the Doefour puzzle was worth pursuing. By this point, it had become a personal obsession with Baker to get to the bottom of this tragic woman's life. Although she was beyond all rescuing, perhaps he could at least give her the dignity of her real name.

Baker's follow-up story on Doefour inspired a reader in Iowa to send him a letter. She said the mystery reminded her of a Mt. Vernon, Iowa schoolteacher who had vanished around 1930. She thought the teacher's name had been "Alice Zaiser."

It wasn't much of a lead, but it was the best Baker had to work with. He made some calls to Mt. Vernon, and was eventually able to contact this missing schoolteacher's brother, Harold. He was able to inform Baker that his long-lost sister's name had been Anna Myrle Sizer. Her family had never heard from her again after she got off a train in the fall of 1926. "My parents died waiting to hear from her."

A mysteriously missing teacher in Iowa and a mysteriously found teacher in Illinois. Both had light brown hair and blue eyes. They were about the same age. Could these two women have been one and the same?

Baker had a personal meeting with Harold Sizer, who was understandably reluctant to believe that his sister spent the last fifty years of her life in asylums. There truly are worse fates than death. Although he told the reporter that he simply refused to accept that Anna could have been "Mary Doefour," he did provide a photograph of his sister.

Baker could only find people who had known the asylum patient in her old age. However, when these eyewitnesses were shown the photo of Anna Sizer, they believed they were looking at a young "Mary Doefour." Both women had similar physical characteristics, including a vaccination scar on the left upper arm. Unfortunately, "Mary" had been cremated, making any more scientific comparisons impossible.

Baker wanted to examine "Mary's" extant medical records, in the hope of finding more clues to her identity. However, they could not be unsealed unless one of her relatives petitioned a judge to force the state to turn them over.

Harold Sizer was presented with all the evidence Baker had collected suggesting that "Mary Doefour" was his missing sister. He was asked if he would give his consent to initiate legal proceedings to have Doefour's records revealed.

Harold refused. He stated that Baker had failed to convince him that "Mary" could possibly be his Anna. He claimed to see no resemblance between the two women. And he did not want Baker, or anyone else, pursuing the issue any longer. This belated investigation was, Sizer said plaintively, "just rubbing salt in the wounds." Although Baker's motives had been good, he realized he was merely forcing Anna's surviving family to relive the most painful episode of their lives, for no really useful purpose. After all, whatever the truth may have been about "Mary," she was long past the need for any human help. Baker was conducting a search that was over fifty years too late.

So that was that. Although Baker remained personally convinced that he had solved this twin riddle, his theory can never be proven.

Anna Sizer and Mary Doefour. May they--or she--rest in peace.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

Cats everywhere would like to interrupt this regularly scheduled Link Dump for a very special message.

What the hell is this Neolithic statuette?

What the hell were the Wollaton Park gnomes?

What the hell did Lincoln sound like?

Why the hell did rich young Englishmen go on the Grand Tour?

Watch out for those Irish meteors!  Or are they robots?

Watch out for those tree werewolves!

Nessie has a twin!

The remarkable Library of Congress card catalog.

The avant-garde artist hidden by the Iron Curtain.

Fiddling the expense books in Georgian England.

Norman Mailer's fatal mistake.

A novel way to become telepathic.

Fairies in 1930s Ireland.

The myth of the "German corpse factory."

The people who never forget.

The best article about magnetized cockroaches you'll read all week.

Why you wouldn't want to walk around 1820s Vienna.

Clara Coffin's Fortean road trip.

When fiction becomes fact.

Legendary 19th century murders.

The sad tale of "The Italian boy."

Some wicked medieval women.

How to fight magic with magic.

A colonial memoir.

Ancient Egyptian footprints.

Taking a poltergeist to court.

The woman who scooped the world about WWII.

The beginnings of the English Civil War.

The ever-popular cuckold's horns.

The ever-popular Abelard and Heloise.

Some romantic gravestones.

An 1871 UFO.

Sophie Dawes: smuggler's daughter, courtesan, aristocrat, and poisoner.  My kind of girl.

The search for King Tut's secret chamber.

Ancient Pueblo people and the Golden Ratio.

The strange case of the Welsh UFO.

Valentine's Day leads to a breach of promise case.

Valentine's Day can be the death of you.

A Valentine's Day love story.  Featuring syphilis.

Medieval love spells.

Some vintage poker anecdotes.

A California poltergeist.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Quails and beer.  Good for whatever ails you.

Interesting theory of how places can affect the mind--and vice versa.

A rather horrible way to make yourself invisible.

The Victorian art of Valentine's Day rejection.

A scandalous 1850s novel.

The ever-popular Vinegar Valentines.

Oh, okay.

The execution of Silly Mary and Country Kate.

That time Marcel Proust appeared in someone's home movie.

The birth of the King Arthur legends.

A how-to guide for Victorian hangmen.

A colorful French counter-revolutionary.

The above-average average man.

Winston Churchill writes about UFOs.

A brief history of spanking machines.

One of the Web's weirdest archives.

And...that's that for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a tragic case of lost identity. In the meantime, here's one of my all-time favorite newsreels.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The nineteenth of "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" profiles the talented and very well-groomed Leo:
The cat who gets his face washed dally with a face cloth; whose golden-brown coat is carefully brushed and combed dally, and who dons a rubber rain blanket whenever he goes out in the rain—that's Leo; who was bom in Rhode Island. Just at present Leo is stopping in Roxbury, for his mistress, Mrs. E. Wescott, corning to Boston to study voice culture, brought Leo along to enjoy the cultural advantages of Boston.

Next year, in all probability, Leo will go with his missy on a tour of the West. Since his birth, 14 years ago in Little Rhody, Leo has travelled extensively; having been in five states. To have killed barn rats in five states is a boast which Leo feels few other New England cats could make good on. This he has done--not only this, but mastered all sorts of begging; rolling over and being a dead cat tricks, and he feels it reflects especial credit upon him because when he first came to his mistress he was a very wee, lost, sick kitten.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Most Amazing Dog

...Because let's face it, smart-mouthed Nazi dachshunds are what this blog is all about.

In the 1930s, a dachshund named Kuno von Schwertberg--remembered in history by his nickname, "Kurwenal"--lived in Weimar, Germany with his owner, the equally impressively-named Baroness Mathilde Freiin von Freytag-Loringhoven.

The Baroness was a devotee of what was known as "New Animal Psychology"--essentially, the belief that animals had latent intellectual and communicative abilities equal to humans. This school of thought was highly fashionable in Nazi Germany, where they thought of dogs as more "human" than Jews or other non-Aryan races. The regime even created a special "dog college" where they hoped to train mastiffs to work as four-legged concentration camp guards.

Mathilde saw her dachshund as the perfect evidence for this theory. Kurwenal, she informed the world, was able to both read and carry on conversations. He communicated by barking the number of times necessary to correspond with a consecutively numbered alphabet. It was, for matters of convenience, a phonetic alphabet, but it got the job done. (Kurwenal once expressed frustration with the cumbersome system. He wished he could talk like a parrot.) He could also tell time.

Kurwenal displayed a sophisticated taste in literature. While one would assume his favorite reading would be "Lassie" stories or novels where cats meet a hideous fate, our hero showed an easy familiarity with Shakespeare and proclaimed that Goethe was superior to Schiller. He also had a taste for zoology books. (Sadly, the dachshund disliked music, which he decreed was "very disgusting." He could not bear singing, either. Something to keep in mind if you are in the habit of crooning lullabies to your dog.)

This was one opinionated dachshund. He was fond of pink roses and large cheeses, (Kurwenal was quite chubby,) and would chat about his desire to eat cats. He had an eye for pretty women that, curiously, did not extend to females of his own species. When he was once asked if he would like to become a father one day, he snapped, "No!" (One scientist suggested that the dog's superior intellect had caused his "private parts" to atrophy.)

Kurwenal never bothered to hide his impatience with what he considered to be silly questions or frivolous wastes of his valuable time. One one of his birthdays, he was treated to a visit from children belonging to the Nazi's animal protection organization. When the children began reading a long poem in his honor, Kurwenal quickly grew bored. After only a few stanzas, he interrupted by barking out "No more poetry!" The birthday boy was presented with a large teddy bear. The giver said placatingly, "Now, does this bear not look very nice?"

"No!" Kurwenal responded. "He looks horrible!"  He also advised the youngsters that he planned to vote for Paul von Hindenburg rather than Hitler, and, oh, to have seen the faces of everyone present when he did.

Kurwenal--who liked to describe himself as "intentionally witty"--was the dog world's first stand-up comedian. When he heard rumors that wartime economy might lead to sausages made of dog meat, he protested, "the Christian religion prohibits killing!" When one Swiss investigator tried to trick Kurwenal into showing himself to be a fraud, the dog yelped contemptuously, "I answer no doubters! Go bother the asses instead!"

One senses that Kurwenal was the canine Tobermory.

The loquacious hound was studied by several scientists, with predictably varying results. The zoologists Ludwig Plate and Max Muller declared that the little canine's talents were all completely genuine. Muller wrote, "The thought-communicating red dachshund...barks, in his number alphabet, utterances of a surprising, even weird, depth of thought. The constant association of the dog with his teacher enables him to display an answer to questions, sequences of thought which surprise us extremely. This dachshund lives in the intellectual sense, more in man's sphere than in the animal's." Physiologist Otto Renner, on the other hand, was convinced that Kurwenal was merely following subtle cues provided by his owner. [Cf. Lady the Wonder Horse.]

As was the case with Lady Wonder's owner, the Baroness was casual about her pet's talents. "There's nothing mysterious or freakish about the things these dogs do," she once commented. "The truth is that these dogs have an intelligence similar to humans, but much lower in degree. Except for the fact that they are given their first lessons at a very early age, there is no undue pressure put upon them to make them learn.

"I give Kurwenal dainties when he performs especially well, but that's all the encouragement he gets. I never try to force him to do things as circus dogs are forced. It's simply that I worked very hard training him and tried to be very patient."

Kurwenal died late in 1937. "I am not afraid of dying," he barked out on his deathbed. "Dogs have souls and they are like the souls of men." He was buried in the Baroness' Weimar town house. The residence is now an office building, but the grave of the dachshund once known as "the most amazing dog in the world" is still preserved. The epitaph on his tombstone (translated from the German) reads:

The wisest and noblest of all dogs.
The world-famous mathematician, thinker, and writer."

Friday, February 10, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

Normal people with normal lives have trees in their backyard that sprout beautiful leaves, tasty fruits, scented blossoms.

Here at Strange Company HQ, the trees sprout kittens.

Why the hell do we sleep?

Why the hell do whales leap in the air?  Now we know!

What the hell are the mystery walls of Bayers Lake?

What the hell happened to the sun in 5480 BC?

Watch out for those clog-wearing devils!

How Victorian boarding school students kept themselves...uh, entertained.

A French ballerina became richer than a queen.

A human dowsing rod who found corpses rather than water.  Or something.

The all-American Napoleon III.

Our galaxy has a strange supersonic cloud powered by a black hole bouncing around the place.  So, you know, duck.

And here we have giant Transylvanian dinosaur-eating monsters.   It's going to be quite a weekend.

The remarkable journeys of Alexander von Humboldt.  (My favorite detail about Humboldt's life: Poe dedicated "Eureka" to him.)

Two photogenic Staten Island dogs.

The lost city of the Monkey God.

Eat your heart out, Tom Brady.

When Louisa met Joseph.

The lost redheaded Spaniard.

The British Museum's oldest portrait.

The influential wife of William the Conqueror.

Why a raven's nest can be unexpectedly useful.

A miser comes to a sad end.  As they so often do.

The history of the Cretan Labyrinth.

A country music singer's busy ghost.

The complex relationship between cats and humans.

A new Dead Sea Scrolls cave has been discovered.

Why outer space now has a soccer ball.

A 16th century English merchant in Constantinople.

The case of the stolen moon rocks.

That time Charles Dickens served on a coroner's jury.

That time Abraham Lincoln turned true-crime writer.

That time George Washington was related to Odin.

The last surviving copy of a 17th century schoolbook.

Just a reminder that the law doesn't need a body to convict you of murder.

Georgian-era shopping.

Victorian electric rat-traps.

What it means when you dream about food.

In search of Haitian zombies.

Toronto's "most haunted" house.

Victorian fashion gets the blues.

Georgians, on the other hand, are in the pink.

The Icelandic Dracula.

The burning of a witch.

The first fatal submarine accident.

How to play Victorian monopoly.

WWII military slang.

The Broad Haven Triangle mystery.

A 17th century "alien encounter."

One of the last public uses of the guillotine.

A look at nautical superstitions.  Avoid those bananas!

The skeleton in the priest hole.

Two baby-farmers meet the noose.

Arsenic family values.

And here we come to the end of our latest WLD. See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at an unusually chatty dachshund. In the meantime, here's some Locatelli: