"...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, April 18, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company made the mistake of letting the cats read about ancient Egypt.

They're now using kitty litter to build a pyramid and Mac has decided he's the Sphinx.

On to this week's Link Festival:

What the hell is on Mars?

What the hell happened in Levelland, Texas, in 1957?

What the hell happened to Meriwether Lewis?

What the hell is Dighton Rock?

Who the hell were these copper-plated mummies?

Who the hell was Perkin Warbeck?

Watch out for those haunted cars!

Watch out for those New Mexico Subterranean Aliens!

Watch out for those UFO Djinns!

Watch out for those Hazel Grove Big Cats!

Watch out for those talking chickens!

Watch out for those Momos!

Watch out for those headless witch zombies!

Highgate is still really booming!

Kansas and Maryland are still really booming!

Moral: If you want to be Oscar Wilde's sister-in-law, you'd better like the sight of dentures as bric-a-brac.

Some ancient oral histories about Oregon's Crater Lake.

A beautiful, poignant, and disturbing 20th century mummy.

The story of a Panamanian pirate surgeon.

The story of the photographer and the giant.  Plus extempore poetry.

So, why has this castle been abandoned for 20 years, you ask?  I have the answer in three words:  Imagine the dusting.

Hamish McHamish, the Scottish cat with his very own statue.

The details of a fixed match from the 3rd century's WWE.

UFOs are a girl's best friend.

More Sailor Cats!

More Bookstore Cats!

In which the Victorians explain the health benefits of facial hair.

Some lesser-known Lincoln death predictions.

On the same subject:  Other than that, Mr. Munger, how was the play?

A Neanderthal childhood:  pretty good?  (Probably, yes, considering that schools and Saturday morning cartoons hadn't been invented yet.)

The demimonde and the 18th century NSA.

Looking for a weekend DIY project?  Here's how to make your own mermaid.  And here is a fine example of the finished product.

Nine Men's Morris: here, there, and everywhere!

The Titanic captain's predictably unhappy ghost.

Is Rome even older than we thought?

Are domesticated cats even older than we thought?

Satan turns real estate agent.

So, it seems there is such a thing as "Communist Chic."  I'm sure this is quite entertaining for anyone who has not had a taste of the real deal.

For all you Russian royals out there:  It's best not to name your daughters "Alexandra."

A look back at the glory days of New York's Postal Service feline police squad.

A tour of Britain's oldest Jewish cemetery.

Armchair archaeology, anyone?

How a book about Jesse James led to a murder.

Erotic Victorian shaving.  Or something like that.

16th century Clippers and Coiners.

Neon New York:  Wonderful color photos of 1946 Gotham at night.

Oh, for God's sake, leave Richard III alone, already!

How to be an obnoxious public nuisance, Regency Style.

A great mystery finally explained:  Why psychics don't win lotteries.

The story of an aristocratic Victorian elopement.

The Georgian Tripadvisor.

Lena Ashwell, the woman who brought culture to the World War I trenches.

Lorina Butler:  properly shaped, prolific seamstress, epic complainer, barking mad.

And, finally, Death provides our helpful advice for the week:

And there you have it! If we fail to meet over the weekend on Twitter or Facebook, I'll see you on Saturday, when I will present a special Easter-themed post, featuring criminal bunnies and the Eggs of Death.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here we have the "confounded cachinnations" of a laughing London...whatever-it-was. This comes from the "Australian," for August 24, 1827.
The neighbourhood of Limehouse, like the Highlands, in the good old days of the bogles, has, it seems, been haunted for, some months back, by a most refractory and incorrigible phantom. The facts of this afflicting visitation are simply these:---A Mr. and Mrs. Dickenson took a small house, in October last, at the upper end of Church-street; but scarcely had they passed the first half of the first night in it, when a sort of a loud chucking laugh (the very sound which, if you could fancy a grasshopper intoxicated, he would no doubt make,) was heard, proceeding as it seemed from the bed-room closet. Now, it so happened, that the bed-room of this worthy couple had no closet, whereupon being puzzled to account for the phenomenon they very naturally explored the whole house from top to bottom. Still no explanation was afforded. The next night at the same hour, the same fat chuckling laugh was heard, and as it appeared close to Mr. Dickenson's ear, that much injured individual jumped up, and throwing his inexpressibles indignantly, but with a due regard to decorum, around him, he rushed again into the adjoining room, where, however, nothing was found that could at all throw light upon the mystery. Meantime, the confounded cachinnations continued, first three short, broken winded laughs, then a halt, then a long asthmatic ululation, the whole wound up by a solemn midnight stillness. The affair now became truly distressing. To think that an attached couple, when absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments on which all married folks set so high a value—to think, we repeat, that an amiable pair thus engaged should be interrupted by the villainous laughter of a ghost; the bare idea is revolting, and fully justified Mr. Dickenson in his application to the parochial authorities. This he did on the third night, but alas! what can a beadle, or even a parish clerk avail against the evil one? Every night, albeit a brace of undaunted constables kept watch in Mr. Dickenson's apartment, the cacophonous interruption continued till the whole set were fairly laughed to scorn. This was some weeks back, but the noises, we should observe, are heard up to the present time, though, as they have appeared more asthmatic of late, it is to be hoped that their fiendish owner may one night break his wind and die. Meanwhile, the house, like Ossian's dwelling of Moina (only infinitely more touching), is desolate, for Mr: and Mrs. Dickenson have evaporated, and no one has since been found at all desirous of being laughed into fits every night, by an ungentlemanly good-for-nothing goblin. Here the affair rests at present.

Alas, I have not found any more about this spectral Peeping Tom.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Plumber and the Babe

On April 18, 1918, a plumber named William Wright was in the middle of a visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana. He desired a night of light, wholesome entertainment, so he patronized a local vaudeville house. The 45-year-old was a shy, solitary soul. He had never married, and spent his whole life living with his widowed mother until her death the previous year left him completely alone. He had a hunger for something beyond his dull, constrained existence, and perhaps he hoped to catch a glimpse of it in the glittering world of show business. He caught that glimpse, and it changed him forever.

In fact, this seemingly innocuous evening out on the town would eventually cause a great many people a great deal of inconvenience.

Blame all the trouble on one of the performers Mr. Wright saw that day, a little girl billed as “Miss Babe.” She came on stage, belted out “She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll,” took her bows to the no doubt thunderous applause, and exited. Wright never laid eyes on the child again, but this brief performance was enough to leave him permanently entranced.

Wright returned to his home in Toronto, Canada, and outwardly, his semi-reclusive life went on as before. The only noticeable difference was that neighbors often heard his record player blasting out one song, and one song only—“She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll.”

Ads for various shows, Fort Wayne Gazette, April 1918. We don't know which theater Wright visited on that momentous night, but perhaps it was one of these.

When Wright died in 1938, he left a posthumous surprise for everyone. His entire estate, valued at over $12,000, was left to “Miss Babe, Little Burlesque Girl.” The only other identification he could give was that her real name was “Willie Coughlin,” and she performed “an Indian burlesque.” His will stipulated that if “Miss Babe” was not found within three years, his money would go to the Sherbourne Methodist Church of Toronto—a church he had never attended in his life.

His executors, the Canada Trust Co., were left with the task of finding the now twentysomething girl. An international hunt was on. Newspapers and radio programs across Canada and the United States told the story of Wright’s curious bequest, and pleaded for “Miss Babe” to come forward.

This publicity worked rather too well. At least 240 women popped up claiming to be Wright’s heir. At times, it seemed that every young lady who had ever appeared on a vaudeville stage presented herself as the former “Miss Babe.” And everyone was frankly perplexed about how to tell which—if any—of them was the genuine article. In the meantime, a number of Wright’s relatives moved to contest the will on the not-completely-unreasonable grounds that the plumber was barking mad when the will was written. The Sherbourne Methodist Church also stepped into the fray. Although they did not take any direct legal steps to have the will overturned, the church elders could be heard quietly muttering that surely men and women of God deserved the money more than some vaudeville performer.

By 1941, the pack of would-be Miss Babes was winnowed down to three contenders: A New York woman named Edith Collins Stewart, who in her younger days had performed under the name, “Baby Edith,” a nightclub singer named Dorothy Olive Newman, (who once graced the vaudeville stage as “Little Dorothy Olive, the Four-Year-Old Child Wonder,”) and a Los Angeles woman, Dorothy Marguerite Willet, the former “Shimmy Baby Weymer.” The final touch of The Weird was achieved when it was revealed that none of these women had ever been known as “Miss Babe,” or “Willie Coughlin.” As a matter of fact, an exhaustive search of theatrical records found no mention at all of anyone by those names.

At the sanity hearing, a parade of witnesses told all sorts of curious tales about the late Plumber Wright. The court heard how he always kept a pistol by his side while he ate.   He fooled children into thinking lumps of brown rubber were chocolate candies. Once, while traveling in America, a porter asked Wright where his bags should be sent. On a whim, Wright said, “Oh, send them to Kalamazoo.” When he was taken at his word, Wright had to make a special journey to that city just to collect his luggage. He was also fond of sending remarkable telegrams and letters, which his relatives all happily produced in court. “Caw, caw, caw, saw, saw, saw,” read one message. “Dot dash dot dash dot dot dash,” read another. Perhaps Wright’s finest effort in the epistolary line was “Mother went to bed, one two three. Father went to your grandpa. Now I married your daughter. You know what he would say. He got a ton of coal and sold the stove.”

Personally, I think William Wright must have been a hell of a lot of fun.

After three days of testimony, the court ruled that while Wright had certainly been “peculiar and eccentric,” they found no evidence that he was actually insane.

The Wright relatives did not take this defeat in any sort of sporting spirit. They threatened to continue litigation over the will—litigation they vowed would go all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, if necessary. If they could not have the money, they would damn well see to it that nobody could.

Everyone accepted that if the spurned relatives carried out their threat, Wright’s entire estate would go to no one but the lawyers. A compromise was reached among all the contestants: The Sherbourne Methodist Church would get 40%, the sore-loser Wright relations 12 ½%, Dorothy Newman 17 ½%. The also-rans, Dorothy Willet and Edith Stewart, each received 15%. (Unfortunately, it is not recorded how these percentages were calculated, leaving history to forever wonder how Newman was judged to be 2 ½% more of a Babe than the other two women.) All this was minus court costs, of course, which amounted to about a third of Wright’s estate. Even by the standards of the day, the money everyone eventually received hardly seemed worth all the trouble. It was never determined who was really the light of William Wright’s life.  In fact, I find myself wondering if "Miss Babe" wasn't just a deliberate invention of Wright's, making this bizarre, and ultimately unenforceable, will one last practical joke of his from beyond the grave.  If so, it was a smashing success.

In the end, probably everyone involved devoutly wished that on that April night in Fort Wayne, plumber Wright had just stayed in his hotel room and played cards.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company reminds you:  Hey, it's Friday!  Relax!

The cats will show you how it's done.

On to this week's edition of Me Stealing Content From People Who Have Better Blogs Than I Do:

What the hell did this 18th century sea captain observe in the sky?

What the hell nearly collided with this Australian plane?

What the hell is this hammer?

What the hell is the Nebra Sky Disc?

What the hell is "bison self-abuse"  like?  And, no, I most assuredly do not want to know the answer to that.

Watch out for those British homes!

Watch out for those squirrel-torchers!

Watch out for those cherry trees from space!

Watch out for those foot fetish phantoms!

Highgate is really booming!

Berlin is really popping!

An 18th century girl loses her squirrel, sadly decides she'll have to settle for a husband instead.

This is pretty nice:  take a stroll through Marseilles without leaving your chair.

"You start here and then you move along, until you drop off the end."  A visit to London's Charterhouse priory.

Meet the Nazi Ginger Rogers.

Meet some libelous 17th century doctors.

The inside scoop on late 19th-early 20th century freak shows. Who's hot?  Who's not?

One of the prettiest--and most expensive--caterpillars you'll ever see.

The volcano that changed history.

More Voynich speculation, this time from a researcher who believes it's a forgery.

The Bear Lake Monster:  It was all for love!

"People from all over the world" applied to design Boston's Edgar Allan Poe statue, and this...object  was deemed the freaking best they could do.

Meet the Appomattox Rag Doll.

"From little acorns mighty oaks..."  Well, never mind.

An evocative first-person account of the Titanic disaster.

Return of the Necropants!

The inside scoop on Abraham Lincoln's facial hair.

The sad death of a too-inventive Victorian monkey.

Some evocative hand-tinted photos of 19th century Japan.

The life of an 18th century female forger.

Very nice: a historical New York lighthouse that's now a bed & breakfast.

Discovering World War I in an attic.

So, what is "intelligent life," anyway?

Whatever you do, don't give this post a big hand.

Mary Blandy: deliberate parricide or lovesick dupe?

Rosalie Goodman, Crazy Cat Lady Emeritus.  We salute you!

And, finally, this tweet has given me an idea for what would have to be the greatest TV series of all time: "CSI: Fortean."

And it's a wrap! I hope you'll join me on Monday, when I will present a tale dealing with one of my favorite historical topics: Weird Wills.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

On this blog, I have presented tales of homes plagued by Mystery Blood, Mystery Explosions, Mystery Doorbells, Mystery Shaking, Mystery Floods, and Mystery Satanic Garden Hoses.  This series of domestic Fortean horrors continues today with a Mystery Fire.  This account of a baby's peculiarly horrifying death comes from the (Mt. Vernon, Ohio) "Democratic Banner" for September 22, 1916:
Funeral services were held today for the seven-months-old child of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Nauman, north of here which was cremated yesterday while lying in its crib, by a fire of singular mystery.

The mother of the child was away from the house, leaving her children in charge of the baby. Charles Little, enroute to Fredericktown with a milk shipment, noticed smoke issuing from the Nauman home and rushed in. He proceeded to the room where the infant child lay and, seeing that the crib was the only thing afire, grasped the child therefrom and rushed out into the yard. The child died in his arms.

The origin of the fire is an utter mystery. The flames were confined entirely to the little crib.

I have not found anything more about the Nauman baby's death, so it is hard to even make a guess what happened. I would also like to know the ages of the other children who were left "in charge" of the infant, as well as where they were when the fire started.

From this little information we have, one of the first things that comes to mind is "spontaneous human combustion." Of course, there probably was a more "normal" explanation for the fire, but evidently everyone who was on the scene at the time had no idea what that explanation may have been.

As we like to say around this blog, make of it what you will.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Burton W. Gibson, Lethal Legal Eagle

“The first thing we do, let the lawyers kill them all.”
-Shakespeare, as allegedly interpreted by Burton W. Gibson

Burton W. Gibson was a lawyer who had a remarkable number of incredibly unlucky clients. People who hired him had a distressing habit of dying or disappearing in various mysterious ways. The list included:

Mrs. Alice Kinnan, who on June 6, 1906, was found lying on the porch of her home in the Bronx. Someone had smashed in her skull. Sometime earlier, Mrs. Kinnan’s mother, Louisa Stenton, had hired Gibson and another attorney to settle a complicated dispute involving the mortgage on some property she owned. She eventually established title to the home, but after two years of Gibson’s peculiar brand of litigation, she somehow wound up more in debt than when she started. At the time of her death, Mrs. Kinnan and her mother were suing their former lawyers in an effort to recover part of their money. Just hours before her murder, Alice Kinnan had been heard to say, “that devil of a lawyer [Gibson] put me to a lot of trouble.” On the recommendation of the coroner's jury, Gibson was arrested, but released on a habeas corpus writ the next day, and the investigation into the death was inexplicably dropped. Gibson later brought a suit for false arrest, but it seems to have been dismissed.  Kinnan's murder remains officially unsolved.

Five weeks before Kinnan died, a man named William Clinchy was also the victim of an unsolved murder. A few days before his death, he took out a life insurance policy on himself, in favor of Alice Kinnan. Burton Gibson had handled the matter for Clinchy.

George Malcolm, Mrs. Stenton’s nephew and the administrator of her estate, filed suit against Gibson to recovery property of hers he had allegedly obtained through fraud. And then Malcolm disappeared. Four days later, his body was discovered in Long Island Sound. The mystery of his death was never solved. In 1910, Gibson produced a previously-unknown “lost” will Mrs. Stenton had supposedly made out. It named Gibson as executor and a Percy McElroy as residuary legatee. Stenton’s relatives contested this mysterious document, and the will was eventually rejected for probate.

Michael Shippo, the caretaker of Mrs. Stenton’s estate, and his wife Marie lived on the Stenton property. They were the first to discover Kinnan after she had been attacked. The Shippos afterward testified that Kinnan’s last gasping words were “Lawyer--hit--me.” They also claimed that Gibson had offered them money to leave the country. Michael Shippo was attacked and nearly killed by an unknown assailant in 1907, and he and his wife both often said they feared for their lives after the Kinnan murder.

In 1909, Shippo was found dead in two feet of water in New York's Pelham Creek. The official verdict was that he drowned, but the exact circumstances of his death were never determined.

In 1911, Gibson represented John Rice O’Neil in a suit for damages against a railroad company, which netted a settlement of $10,000. O’Neil put Gibson in charge of investing this money. Not long afterwards, O’Neil left his home for a meeting with his lawyer. He was never seen again. When questioned, Gibson said blandly that he had paid his client some money he was owed, after which O’Neil left his office. That, he shrugged, was all he knew of his whereabouts.

Edward Minnicks, another Gibson client, was awarded some $5,500 from a lawsuit.  The day before this money was delivered to Gibson, Minnicks also disappeared, never to be seen again. Minnicks' wife complained that all she ever received from Gibson was $100.

Mary Walker asked the Legal Aid Society to help her gain control of her son's estate, which was then in Gibson's hands.  Before any action could be taken, Walker joined the list of vanished Gibson associates.

Early in 1912, Gibson placed a very curious advertisement in various newspapers:

“Daughter of Paul Dillon, also known as Paul Low, and in European circles as Paul D’ Ailau: Before his death your father left securities, vault keys, maps, full instructions with me. Communicate. European papers please copy. B. W. Gibson, attorney, 55 Liberty Street.”

Gibson told a reporter that Dillon was a European adventurer who left an estate of several hundred thousand dollars. He knew Dillon had a daughter living in Europe, but he had no idea of her first name, or how to contact her. I have been unable to find any more about this story, so I have no idea what this busy little lawyer was up to, but with his track record, one shudders to think what it may have been.

Rosa Szabo, via Library of Congress

In July of 1912, Rosa Szabo went boating in New York’s Greenwood Lake with her attorney, Burton W. Gibson. During this outing, Gibson later explained, she fell out of their boat and drowned. A few months earlier, Gibson had drawn up a will for her, naming her mother as heir to her estate of over $11,000. When Gibson brought the will for probate, he attached a waiver of citation signed by Szabo’s mother. The authorities began to show an interest in the proceedings when it was discovered that Szabo’s mother had died in Austria two years before she had supposedly signed Gibson’s document. They became even more interested when it became known that Szabo, who was illiterate, had told numerous people that she intended to leave her property to her five brothers and three sisters. The inference was that Szabo had had no idea of what sort of will she was really signing. And when she was exhumed, doctors who examined the corpse declared that she had not drowned, but died of strangulation. Then everyone became very interested indeed in Mr. Gibson’s doings.

Crowd awaiting Gibson's arrest for Szabo's murder. Via Library of Congress.

And a fat lot of good it did them.  He was tried twice for the killing of Rosa Szabo, but neither jury was able to reach an agreement. Subsequently, however, it was established that he had fraudulently obtained over seven thousand dollars from Szabo’s bank account. This time around, a jury had little difficulty in finding him guilty of grand larceny. He was sentenced to five to ten years in prison, plus a fine of $7800. (It was said that during his imprisonment, he gave “advice to the other prisoners which was not for the good of the community.”)

Every accused serial killer gets his fan club.  From the Syracuse Herald, Sept. 16, 1912.

Incidentally, the source of Rosa Szabo's wealth is one of the many unanswered questions about this extraordinarily murky story. During Gibson's first trial for her murder, an acquaintance of the dead woman named Anthony Gaytz came forward as a witness. Rosa's husband, Veila, had died suddenly in 1904, supposedly of pneumonia. A native Austrian, he had been unable to make a living in New York, leaving his wife virtually penniless. Gaytz described how, on the night Veila Szabo died, he went to visit Rosa. Gaytz found her in the company of Gibson and a well-to-do jeweler named William Schumann. After her husband's death, Mrs. Szabo went to work for Schumann--who was partially paralyzed--as his live-in housekeeper. After this, Mrs. Szabo somehow banked a great deal of money--nearly $10,000. Her bank books were kept in the vaults of Schumann's jewelry firm. Then, Schumann--as people in Gibson's orbit often did--abruptly dropped dead. His relatives--who were given no advance warning of any sort of illness--were told he died of...pneumonia.

Soon after Schumann's death, Mrs. Szabo and Gibson appeared at Schumann's bank, asking for her bank books. Gibson took them into custody. And Mrs. Szabo died not long afterward.

The newspapers reported that the police would be opening investigations into the deaths of Mr. Szabo and William Schumann, but if so, these inquiries evidently came to nothing.

Gibson was disbarred while he was in Sing Sing--an action one can hardly call unjustified--but I regret to say I have found nothing more about this remarkable man's subsequent history.  Once he was released from prison, he may no longer have been a lawyer, but I have the feeling he still managed to find himself many, many things to do.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

A word of warning:  Strange Company has now employed a big, tough, muscular, take-no-prisoners bouncer for when things get too rowdy around here.

You want to know what she does with spammers? She swallows them whole.

On to the links:

Who the hell was Beachy Head Lady?

What the hell were these WWII soldiers seeing?

What the hell killed William Henry Harrison?

What the hell is the Face on Mars?

Watch out for those money-grubbing aliens!

Watch out for those British Museum artifacts!

Watch out for the Wailing Wilga Waterhole!

Watch out for the Jinkenmen!

Watch out for those deadly phone calls!

Watch out for those deliberately dangerous beards!

Watch out for those Loch Ness Larval Longnecks!

Watch out for those Bay Area hotels!

Watch out for those combusting corpses!

Watch out for those Ladies of Learning!

No need to watch out for the rats?

Oklahoma is still really booming!

VE Day was even livelier than we think.

The "time capsule" of a British soldier killed in World War I.

Gordon Selby:  World War II's luckiest man?

Escape to a lovely dream world of early 20th century gardens.

Humans were not the only ones who suffered and died:  A guide to the dogs of the Titanic.

How old mug shots reveal the social history of one small American town.

Believe it or not, some people once thought trying to conjure up a ghost with their minds was a good idea.

Meet the Medicinal Plaister Papas.  And yes, that would make the greatest name for a rock band ever.

Meet Simon of Sudbury.  And yes, that would be the perfect name for the lead singer of the Medicinal Plaister Papas.

Redefining death.

Perhaps we should redefine death as this cave.

Don't be too anxious to explore other planets.  We're barely getting to know our own.

A useful guide to Vietnamese ghosts.

The strange, fascinating world of Immanuel Velikovsky.

In other words, archaeologists are full of...well, never mind.

More reasons why the "Cosmos" reboot is a travesty.

A look at Hogarth's oddly prescient March of Intellect.

Prince Charlie wasn't so Bonnie after all.

I'll bet this is the best chicken beauty pageant photo essay you'll see all day.

Good grooming, World War I style.

Egyptian glyphs found in Australia; historians hardest hit.

Ancient artifacts found in China; historians even harder hit.

Unmaking the Gloucester Sea Serpent.

Unwrapping mummies.  Fun for the whole family!

A charming pictorial look at a long-vanished London.

Some handy maps of Hell.

Clipping the Church.

The birth of a classic cliffhanger.

Meet Lady Meux.  And her zebras.

Why a dog is a composer's best friend.

Thus proving that even geniuses can qualify for the Darwin Award.

Oh, and it turns out Cthulhu was a Harvard man.  (Update:  Or not?)

And we're done!  I'll be back on Monday, with a look at one of the most remarkable lawyers of the early 20th century.  Picture a cross between Perry Mason and the Angel of Death.