"...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

Monday, May 25, 2020

A Moment of Madness: Murder at the Villa Madeira

Neenah "News Record," April 23, 1935, via Newspapers.com


“Giving it all up for love” is probably the most shopworn of melodramatic clichés. However, like all clichés, such things are to be found in real life, as well. One notable example is found in the life of one man who went from prosperous upper-class respectability to sad, squalid death, all thanks to his infatuation with an alluring woman.

Francis Rattenbury was born in England in 1867. When he was 18, he apprenticed at an architectural firm. By 1892, he decided that Canada had greater opportunities for a talented and ambitious young man, so he relocated to Vancouver, where he was an almost immediate success. When Victoria was planning a new provincial legislature, a contest was held to pick an architect. Rattenbury’s bold, striking style won, ensuring that he would become one of Canada’s most influential building designers.

Rattenbury could be said to have practically built the city of Victoria. He was a brilliant architect whose work, such as the Parliament Buildings, the Empress Hotel, and his own home (now Glenlyon Norfolk School) still adorn the area. He was also prominent as a town planner, businessman, politician and philanthropist. He was not popular personally--he had a reputation for being ruthless, tight-fisted, and not overly scrupulous--but no one questioned his ability or his successes.

Rattenbury at the height of his fame.  The "Victoria Times Colonist," June 18, 2000


In 1898, the now renowned architect married a young woman named Florence Nunn. Everyone who knew Rattenbury thought it was an odd match. Francis was a handsome, dynamic sort who thrived on mingling in society and getting ahead. Florence was just the opposite. Of humble background, she was quiet, dowdy, and retiring. She rarely left their grand house, and had no taste for the elegant entertainments her husband enjoyed.

Florence and their daughter Mary. The "Victoria Times Colonist," June 18, 2000


Inevitably, the two began leading separate lives. Although they continued to live under the same roof, by the time WWI dawned, relations between the Rattenburys were so bad they rarely even spoke.

During this period, Rattenbury’s professional life was little better than his personal one. His style of architecture had gone out of fashion, and several disastrous investments left him nearly broke. Like so many people who fail to find happiness either at home or at work, he sought consolation in a bottle. He soon became constantly depressed, and nearly constantly drunk.

However, in 1923, it looked like his depleted fortunes would be revived. Victoria’s city leaders hired him to design a new amusement palace, which eventually was named the Crystal Gardens. To celebrate, a dinner was held in his honor at the Empress Hotel. After this event, he met another guest at the hotel, a pianist named Alma Pakenham, who was in Victoria as part of a concert tour. And with this meeting, Rattenbury’s life began to take its final, irreversible decline.

28-year-old Alma was a gifted musician, beautiful, vivacious, and seductive. In short, she was everything Rattenbury’s wife was not. Alma and Francis were immediately strongly attracted to each other, and were soon embarked on a very public affair.

Alma at about the time she met Francis



For some time now, Francis had disliked his wife. Now that he decided he wanted to marry another woman, he hated her. When Florence refused to give him a divorce, he treated her with a cold brutality that shocked and scandalized Victoria. When Florence declined to move out of their house, he responded by shutting off the utilities and moving out all the furniture. When even that did not make her budge, he essentially moved Alma into the residence, forcing his wife to live upstairs. Finally, the increasingly harassed Florence agreed to legally end their marriage.

For Francis, this was the classic Pyrrhic victory. His children (who loathed Alma) rejected him. Victoria society, disgusted by his cruelty towards a wife who had been guilty of nothing more than being dull, ostracized him. By 1929, the Rattenburys realized that regaining their former standing in Victoria was impossible, and they resolved to start anew in England. By the beginning of 1930, the pair had settled in Bournemouth, in a home named Villa Madeira. With them were their young son John, and Christopher, Alma’s child from a previous marriage.

"New York Daily News," July 14, 1935


The move failed to solve their problems. Although she found some success as a songwriter, Alma, who was used to a glamorous, busy life, was out-of-place in a sleepy resort town. She was a heavy cocaine user, which led her to experience wild mood swings--from hyperactive to deep torpor. Francis was even unhappier. No one knew or cared that back in Canada, he had been Somebody. Bored and unfulfilled, he again retreated into drunkenness and deep depression. Looking at this pitiful figure, no one would ever have guessed that he was once a powerful and successful man.

Francis’ decay had an even more alarming aspect for Alma personally: he became impotent. Unsurprisingly, Alma--still reasonably young, attractive, and now sexually frustrated--took a lover. That alone would not have necessarily led to disaster. It was her choice of paramours that turned this merely drab story into Greek tragedy.

18-year-old George Percy Stoner worked for the Rattenburys as a chauffeur and general odd-job man. He was good-looking, shy, and, even for his young age, markedly naive and inexperienced. It is no wonder that when the much-older, sophisticated Alma seduced him, he quickly became completely under her spell. He was obsessed with her.

"New York Daily News," July 14, 1935


Unfortunately, this obsession took a dark turn. Stoner became violently jealous of Alma’s husband. (Although it is unclear whether or not Francis was aware of his wife’s affair with their handyman, it seems probable that he was, and simply passively accepted the situation.) Although Alma assured her lover that she and Francis no longer slept together, he didn’t believe her. When Stoner learned that Alma and Francis were planning to go on an overnight trip, he interpreted that as the two renewing their physical relationship. He seethed over it, and nothing Alma could say eased his mind.

On the night of March 28, 1935, something dreadful happened in the Rattenbury home. Exactly who did what is fated to remain a mystery. All we know for certain is that at 10:30 p.m., Alma’s maid, Irene Riggs, phoned for doctors to come to the house immediately. The physicians found Francis sprawled on his chair, covered in blood. The stricken man, unconscious but still alive, was rushed to a hospital. And since the doctors immediately saw that he was injured as the result of a brutal attack, (later shown to have been by someone wielding a carpenter’s mallet,) the police were called in.

When officers arrived on the scene, the first thing they saw was Alma, very hysterical and very drunk. It was impossible to get a coherent story out of her, but under prolonged questioning, she finally blurted out that she had assaulted her husband. The next morning, a somewhat calmer Alma again asserted her guilt to the police. She said she and Francis had been playing cards when he told her he wanted to die, and begged her to kill him. She picked up the mallet, and, when she hesitated, her husband taunted her that she didn’t “have the guts to do it.” With that, she obliged Francis by bashing him over the head. However, Stoner told Irene Riggs that he was actually the guilty party. He couldn’t bear seeing Alma with another man, even if that man was her husband.

After Francis died of his injuries, his wife was arrested for murder. “That’s right,” Alma responded. “I did it deliberately and I’d do it again.” After Riggs told police what she knew, Stoner was charged as well. When he was arrested, Stoner repeated essentially the same story he told to Irene Riggs: after seeing Alma kiss her husband goodnight, he became so enraged that he crept in through the unlocked windows and hit Rattenbury--who was then dozing in his chair--with a mallet. Alma, he emphasized, was completely innocent.

Their trial was one of the most highly-publicized in Old Bailey history. Every day, the courtroom was crowded with journalists and the public, eager to hear every scandalous word. Alma, despite her original confession, pleaded “not guilty.” (She was persuaded to change her plea when it was pointed out to her that she would not want her sons to live with the taint of having their mother hanged for murder.) She made a good impression on the stand, giving her testimony with dignity and seeming credibility. Now her story was that when she went to her bedroom on the fatal night, Stoner came in. He seemed “a little queer.” When she asked, “What is the matter, darling?” He replied that he was in trouble, but could not tell her what it was. “Then he said I was not going to Bridport next day because he had hurt ‘Rats.’ It did not penetrate my head what he had said until I heard ‘Rats’ groan. Then my brain became alive. I jumped out of bed. I ran downstairs.”

Stoner--who also pleaded “not guilty”--did not take the stand. In his defense, it was suggested that the young man--who had, under Alma’s influence, also become a regular cocaine user--was simply not in his right mind at the time of the murder. His counsel argued that Stoner was guilty of nothing more than manslaughter--that although he had been in “an insane fit of jealousy,” he had not really intended to kill Francis.

It was obvious that if Alma did not beat Francis to death, her lover must have. It was up to the jury to decide which one was responsible. In the end, they chose to acquit Alma. Of murder, at least. The lurid details of the unconventional Rattenbury household had been laid bare for all the world to see. Even Alma’s own defense attorney condemned her morals, stating, “She will bear the brand of reprobation to her grave.”  As Alma left the courtroom, the crowd outside booed her.

Stoner was found guilty, and sentenced to hang. When the judge asked him if he had anything to say, the young man said calmly, “Nothing at all, sir.” Stoner later told his father that as long as Alma was free, he cared little about his own fate.

Alma was shattered by the verdict. She was so distraught that it was felt necessary to place her in a nursing home. She constantly bewailed Stoner’s imminent end, and talked frequently of killing herself. Then, one night, she was visited by a woman whose identity remains unknown. What the two spoke about is equally mysterious. All we know is that this meeting probably led to what happened next.

The following morning, Alma borrowed money from a nurse. She used it to buy a knife. Later that day, she was seen on the bank of the River Avon. She was swinging her arms wildly, after which she fell into the river. When her body was recovered, it was found that she had not drowned. She had stabbed herself six times in the chest. She left behind a note saying, “If I thought it would help Stoner, I would stay on, but it has been pointed out all too vividly to me that I cannot help him. That is my death sentence.” She asked God to look after her children, adding, “Thank God for peace at last!”

When Stoner heard of Alma’s death, he broke down and sobbed. Then, he wrote to his attorney saying that he was now free to tell the truth about Francis’ murder.

Alma’s gruesome suicide created a change in public opinion. Alive, she was seen as the embodiment of wicked sexual passion, a heartless seductress who had led a poor boy astray. By killing herself in such a dramatic fashion, she became a tragic, even noble figure.  There had always been much sympathy for Stoner, which now intensified. A campaign was launched to commute his death sentence, which ultimately proved successful. The Home Secretary announced that Stoner’s sentence would now be life imprisonment.

Stoner wound up serving only seven years. He fought bravely in World War II, (he took part in the D-Day invasion,) and subsequently married. He lived a quiet life until his death from Alzheimer’s in 2000. Eerily, he died on the 65th anniversary of Francis Rattenbury’s murder.

Stoner in later life.  The "National Post," November 30, 2002


George Stoner never spoke publicly about the murder. But in 2002, his wife of fifty years, Christine Stoner, gave an interview to Canada’s “National Post.” She described George as “a good father and husband. Nothing fazed him. He went the same gentle pace all the time.”

When asked if she thought her husband was guilty, she said quietly, “I think he was overcome by a moment of madness.” Christine added bitterly, “And this woman [Alma] really made a fuss of him and he pandered to her every demand.” When asked about the theory that George had taken the blame for Alma’s crime, Mrs. Stoner replied, “I’ve always thought that may be true, though I never broached the subject with my husband.”

Christine felt that her husband was forever haunted by what had happened. “Sometimes, he’d go very quiet and you’d see tears rolling down his cheeks. You just wanted to leave him alone and let him get over it. I didn’t like to keep on about it.”

At the time of the murder, many thought Stoner was indeed “covering up” for Alma. On the other hand, Alma’s former sister-in-law, a Mrs. Kingham, named Stoner as the murderer. According to her, Stoner overheard Rattenbury urging his wife to have an affair with a Bridport man named Jenks, in the hope that this would persuade Jenks to invest in one of Francis’ business projects. Stoner was so infuriated that Francis would urge Alma to essentially prostitute herself that he was driven into violence. The question of which of these star-crossed lovers actually did the brutal deed is fated to remain uncertain.

If there is anything positive to say about this grim tale, it is that Alma’s two sons managed to overcome their family tragedy and go on to lead happy and productive lives. John followed in his father’s footsteps and became a successful architect. In 1998, John Rattenbury was invited to Victoria to participate in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the legislative building designed by his father. He was able to see Francis as not reviled, but honored. John later called it a “closing of a circle, and the highlight of my life.”

Time does indeed heal all things. Even the reputation of the once-disgraced Francis Rattenbury.

Victoria "Times-Colonist," February 11, 1998

Friday, May 22, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn


This week's Link Dump features a pool party!




Who the hell owns English swans?

Why the hell do we see lights before we die?

Ancient coffins and black goo.

George Cruikshank and the Tower of London.

Archival sacrifices for love.

Trieste, city of exiles.

The strange case of Lurancy Vennum.

The birth of the English actress.

The language of Cairo goldsmiths.

Raphael, the architect.

Thomas Bewick on cats.

1918 advice about combating flu.

This would explain a lot about 2020.

Those ever-popular stone throwing poltergeists.

The bizarre--and somewhat murky--disappearance of Terrence Woods.

The first pocket record player.

The mystery of the Guadeloupe Woman.

A heroic London hygienist.

How one family came to be addicted to the name "Seringa."

The latest in the world of science: penguin poop is driving researchers crazy.

Hidden text in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

An important discovery of an ancient city.

Sweden's last public beheadings.

This week in Russian Weird: in which doll collecting meets Ed Gein.

The Devil in a diving suit.

Endangered languages.

A Paris bookshop's legendary clientele.

The real "Real McCoy."

Exorcism at an Irish grotto.

The first Englishman to visit Japan.

A family is murdered by a mob.

The disputed link between rats and the Black Death.

The female prisoners of Newgate.

A father/daughter relationship goes really bad.

Lesser-known photos of the Titanic.

Fortean fogs.

King John's illegitimate son.

Strange doings involving an Oxford scholar.

The life story of a 19th century refugee in London.

The legendary Firebird.

The mysteriously disappearing tanker.

Want to combine budget travel with a crime spree?  You've come to the right link.

What do you get when you mix LSD, prostitutes, the CIA, and aliens?  This story.

Why Catherine was The Great.

The sons of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

And, finally: dawn at the Moon's North Pole is a hell of a spooky sight.


And yet another Link Dump comes to a close.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a scandalous and particularly sad murder.  In the meantime, what's a pool party without Water Music?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com


Some strange doings in Northern California were reported in the “San Francisco Examiner” for September 18, 1893:
The people of Eureka valley are not sleeping well o' nights just now. Their rest is disturbed by the vision of a figure with long black hair and robed in garments of flowing white that wanders about without a keeper.

James Hoar, who resides at Eureka and Nineteenth streets, is responsible for the wakefulness of this neighborhood. He affirms with all the fervor of a man convinced of his own veracity that a queer thing from another realm is abroad in the land. He Is backed up by the members of his family and cannot be silenced by the jeers of an unbelieving set of young men who make the grocery store of Henry Holman,on Market and Seventeenth streets, their headquarters.

When spoken to yesterday Mr. Hoar said: “I first saw the thing, whatever it is, about two weeks ago. It was drifting along the street below here, keeping in the shadow and not making a sound. I wondered why I could not hear the footstep and looked at it closely. It was six feet high I thought, with long black hair falling on the white robe that reached close to the sidewalk. I could see the face and hands distinctly. When I first saw the thing a chill ran through me and my inclination was to run. But I could not move.

“For the first time in my life my feet seemed glued to the ground. Then my hair began to rise and I felt a dreadful sinking, although I was not sure I was frightened. As I looked at the thing in white it suddenly moved off at a right angle to the direction in which it was walking and ran down the street. I was seized with a desire to fly at that same moment and did some swift moving to my home."

After pausing a moment or two to reflect on his queer experience Mr. Hoar resumed: "The next night I saw the thing on the doorstep of ex-Supervisor's Barry's home. It was in such plain view that I could see the folds in the robe and the contour of the human figure. Now, I don't want to say it was a ghost, because I don't believe in such things. It may be that it is some person who is in a scheme to lower real estate values in the neighborhood or perhaps some one lying in wait for a fellow to do him harm. All that I want to volunteer it that it is a queer thing that causes you to feel very strange."

James Hoar and his brother John, who believes his relative's story, are men of muscle and courage, regarded as truthful and intelligent by their numerous friends. Neither seeks to exaggerate the incident related, although it is evident they think there is something uncanny about the pale specter. The story has been told in every home of the vicinity, and has occasioned a great deal of excitement.

On Thursday evening last quite a number of young fellows assembled, led by Charles Kufman, Charles Duvernick and Henry Holman, and went on a hunt for the disturbing spirit of the valley. The crowd patrolled Nineteenth street for several blocks, but were not favored with a glimpse of the strange thing in the flowing robes. Three men, led by John Hennessey, made a second trip on Friday night without result. Patrick Joiner, a hard-headed person who has taken quite an interest in the specter and accompanied both the exploring parlies, is skeptical.

"From all that I have heard," he said, "I would not be the least surprised if some person sent a bullet into the leg of the spook and that there would be an immediate call for the police ambulance. It's no somnambulist, I'm sure, but a fake of the worst kind."

Despite Mr. Joiner's skepticism, however, the people living within a mile of the Hoar residence are determined to continue the investigation, and if it is a joke the perpetrator will be roughly handled. Residents of the district who are compelled to be out late carry firearms, and several gentlemen have secured keys to the police patrol box on Seventeenth and Market streets. From all accounts the favorite time for the vision in white to materialize is between 10 and 11 o'clock. It is significant that the wanderings of the apparition have been somewhat circumscribed since the search parties have been organized, and the Hoar brothers have declared their intention of testing its substance the moment an opportunity presents.
I was unable to find any sequels to this story.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Mysterious Death of David Glen Lewis

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 27, 1993, via Newspapers.com


When I wrote about the disappearance and death of Judy Smith a while back, I thought I would probably never come across another missing-persons case that strange and illogical. However, it turns out that in 1993, a Texas man met a somewhat similar fate. And unfortunately, it remains to date equally unresolved.

39-year-old David Glen Lewis was an Amarillo attorney and former court-at-law judge. He was described as a kind, generous, deeply religious man involved in charity work. On January 28, 1993, Lewis’ wife Karen and their young daughter Lauren went to Dallas for some shopping. When they returned home on the 31st, they found David’s wedding ring and watch on the kitchen counter. The VHS player was set up to tape the Super Bowl. There were two freshly-made turkey sandwiches in the refrigerator, and laundry in the dryer. The house looked normal and undisturbed. Nothing appeared to be missing...except David.

At first, Karen assumed David had gone to a friend’s house to watch the game. But when she failed to hear from him the following day, Karen contacted the police.

Investigators were able to establish at least a partial timeline of David’s activities right before his disappearance. On January 28, he left his law firm at around noon. He told coworkers that he was feeling unwell, and was returning home. That afternoon, his credit card was used to buy gas. That night, he taught a government class at Amarillo College. The next day, a friend saw him hurrying through Amarillo’s airport. He was not carrying any luggage. On January 30, someone deposited $5,000 in the Lewis’ joint bank account. A neighbor saw Lewis’ car parked outside his home. On February 1, a sheriff’s deputy saw a man resembling Lewis outside downtown Amarillo’s Potter County Courts Building. That same day, a cab driver drove someone whom he believed was Lewis from a hotel to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. The driver said the man seemed very nervous, and paid in cash.

On February 2, Amarillo police found David’s car parked in front of the court building. The keys for his house and car were under a floor mat. His checkbook, credit cards, and driver’s license were also inside. (David normally kept those items in the car.) Karen confirmed that none of his personal possessions were missing from their home. As strange as all this was, police found no evidence of foul play. Then, they learned that someone had bought two plane tickets in David’s name. One, for a flight from Dallas to Amarillo, had been purchased on January 31. The other ticket, from Los Angeles to Dallas, was bought the following day. (It is not clear if these tickets were ever used.)

All this led investigators to conclude that, for whatever unknowable reason, David had disappeared voluntarily. However, Karen Lewis thought differently. She was adamant that he would never leave without taking at least some personal items and without contacting relatives. He had recently told her his life was in danger, although he refused to give any details. She told police that David vanished just before he was to testify in a malpractice suit filed against his former law firm. He apparently had a lot of information about the wrongdoings of his former partners, and he was not afraid to share it. Karen believed this lawsuit was directly tied to David’s disappearance, although she nervously told a reporter that she was afraid to say anything more. She added that David’s files regarding the lawsuit had vanished. Despite this ominous information, investigators, lacking any new leads, shelved the case. Unless David Lewis turned up--alive or dead--his whereabouts seemed fated to remain a mystery.

The years went by, without any clues to Lewis’ disappearance coming to light. Then in 2004, a Washington State Patrol Detective named Patrick Ditter read a newspaper story about unsolved missing-person cases, which inspired him to see what could be done using the internet. He focused on about a dozen local cold cases, including a very odd hit-and-run mystery.

On February 1, 1993, at about 10:30 p.m., a man was walking alongside Washington 24, just outside the small town of Moxee, Washington. He was fatally struck by a car which was never identified. The dead man had no identification on him, and efforts to learn who he was had failed. His case had languished in obscurity ever since. Ditter did Google searches on the man’s physical characteristics--height, weight, and so on--which led him to various missing-persons sites. When he came across a photo of David Glen Lewis, he noted the strong resemblance to a picture of the Moxee corpse. However, the hit-and-run victim was missing Lewis’ distinctive glasses. Ditter checked an evidence list of items recovered from the place where the man had been run over. Eyeglasses were on the list. Fortunately, the clothing the dead man had worn--military-style fatigues and work boots--had been preserved. Ditter found the glasses among these clothes. And they were identical to the ones worn by Lewis. DNA analysis confirmed the bizarre truth: The man killed outside of Moxee and the missing David Lewis were one and the same.

This revelation only partially solved this dual mystery. What was Lewis doing walking seemingly aimlessly along a highway 1,600 miles from where he was last seen, in an area where he had no known ties? How did he get there? His family was convinced he had been kidnapped, but by whom? And why? If such was the case, how did he escape? Was the hit-and-run merely a tragic accident, or something far more sinister?

Sadly, no one has answers for any of these questions.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn


This week's Link Dump is hosted by a beauty contest winner: Love in a Mist, 1910's Most Beautiful Cat in the World!


"The Sphere," March 19, 1910, via British Newspaper Archive


Murder within a religious sect.

In the year 1110, the Moon disappeared.  Blame volcanoes.

The truth behind the notorious "Philadelphia Experiment."

A New York cat walks the plank.  Don't worry, it ended happily.

The carouser and the astronomer: one of those odd historical "ships that pass in the night" stories.

The ghosts of the British Museum.

Telecommunication in the Napoleonic era.

How a plague changed 1896 Bombay.

The Space Animal Theory.

The Ten Minute Alibi.  (Spoiler: it didn't work.)

The legend of the "A3 ghost crash."

Some fairy tale heroines.

The 18th century Ladies of Covent Garden.

Drinking advice from the Renaissance.

Medicinal pears.

Antarctic UFOs.

The long history of trepanation.

Warning: if you don't want to read about an elephant's tragic death, skip to the next link.

Elizabeth Woodcock's snowy end.

A 19th century political scandal.

When Grandpa's ghost turns out to be the Devil.

In search of giants.

A haunted schoolhouse.

What Shakespeare had to say about plague.

Giant economy-sized UFOs.

A real-life "Lord of the Flies."

A mysterious mass grave of ancient sloths.

That time when Venus was habitable.

Ancient methods for storing food.

Book recommendations from ghosts.

Some details about Madame Récamier.

A quarantine from 700 years ago.

Spring cleaning in the old days.

Ancient Egyptian wigs.

Call this one Revenge of the Virus.

This week in Russian Weird looks at the time Martians destroyed their space probe.

A teenage prank that took on a life of its own.

Found: the oldest evidence for modern humans in Europe.

The archival Florence Nightingale.

Another look at ol' Flo.

The nurse who brought death.

You want to know how much Covid has dominated the news?  The Pentagon essentially confirmed the existence of UFOs and nobody blinked an eye.

So, let's talk astral projecting witch hunters.

The execution of a slaveowner.

The mysterious sheep deaths of Skull Valley.

The water monsters of Wales.

That wraps things up for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a uniquely puzzling death.  In the meantime, here's a bit of Corelli:



Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com


There are many reports of such anomalous things as fish and frogs raining from the sky, but I’m guessing this one is unique. The “St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” June 24, 1919:
Alton, in times gone by, had fishes rained upon it from the sky, but--

It rained wedding rings at Chain of Rocks [a series of rocky rapids north of St. Louis] Sunday.

Nelson Pearsall, bookkeeper in the Post-Dispatch composing room, having been duly sworn, deposes: That he, with a party of eight picnickers, was walking to the Broadway car from Chain of Rocks when rain began to fall; and that, in the midst of this rain, whiz went a wedding ring, falling from the sky, past his head to the ground.

Pearsall further testifies that he has queried all his companions and that none of these lost a ring. He also says that the district they were passing through was barren of habitation and vegetation and that he neither heard nor saw an airplane wedding party in the clouds above. The ring, unengraved, is in his possession.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Only a Flesh Wound: The World's Longest Duel

General Fournier in 1812, by Antoine-Jean Gros


Enacting codified rules for attempted murder is a strange business, so it is no wonder that dueling has had a lot of odd moments in its long history. However, I doubt this lethal pastime had a stranger episode than one that played out in the Napoleonic Era. The entire affair reads like a “Monty Python” sketch, but the two soldiers at the heart of the story took the matter very, very seriously indeed.

Most of the blame for the whole mess can be laid at the feet of French officer François Louis Fournier-Sarlovèze, dubbed, not without reason, as “the worst subject of the Grande Armée.” He was a very, very good duelist, and, unfortunately, the pastime became a habit with him, or perhaps even a drug. Fournier would eagerly duel for the flimsiest of reasons. He was a hothead who handed out challenges the way normal people pass around their business cards.

In Strasbourg in 1794, Fournier got himself into serious trouble when he fought and killed a young man named Blum. This duel--which Fournier had instigated seemingly on a whim--turned public opinion firmly against him. Everyone had had enough of this pest. On the same evening as Blum’s funeral, Fournier’s superior, General Moreau, gave a public ball. He ordered his aide-de-camp, Pierre Dupont de l'Étang, to inform Fournier that he was banned from attending.

General Dupont


Fournier responded to this insult in just the way you’d think. As even he realized challenging Moreau to a duel was impossible, he took his wrath out on the General’s messenger, vowing to “pay him handsomely for the commission of doorkeeper which he had accepted.”

During the inevitable duel, Fournier got a disagreeable surprise: a sword-thrust through his body. As he lay in agony on the grass, he gasped. “That’s the first touch.”

“Then you want another bout do you?” Dupont replied.

“I certainly do, my dear fellow. And before long, I hope.”

Within a few weeks, Fournier had recovered from his wound, and the men had their rematch. This time, it was Dupont who was injured. “That’s the second,” he insisted as he fell. “Next time we shall have the finish.

Although there was indeed a “next time,” it was far, far from the “finish.” They both came out slightly wounded, so the duel was termed a draw.  It turned out that as swordsmen, the officers were equally matched, ensuring the unlikelihood of a clear winner. Fournier suggested they switch to pistols, but as Dupont was aware that his rival was a first-class shot (it was said that if his fellow officers rode past Fournier while they were smoking, he entertained himself by shooting their pipes,) he wisely refused. The officers decided that there was nothing for it but to keep dueling until one of them cried uncle. These two maniacs even drew up a formal contract, like businessmen sealing a property deal:
1. Every time that Dupont and Fournier shall be a hundred miles from each other, they will approach from a distance to meet sword in hand.
2. Should one of the contracting parties be prevented by service duties, he who is free must travel the entire distance, so as to reconcile the obligations of service with the demands of the present treaty.
3. No excuse whatever, excepting those resulting from military obligations, will be admitted.
4. The present being a bona fide treaty, no alteration can be made to the conditions agreed upon by the contracting parties.

Dupont and Fournier may have been barking mad, but they were gentlemen, so they both followed this singular contract to the letter. Before long, their duels became a regular part of their lives, like dining out or attending the theater. Their private battle caused an odd bond to form between them, even a love of a kind. When they were separated, both officers longed for their next meeting, like lovers forced against their will to spend time apart. Each duel was preceded by an affectionate handshake. Their letters to each other arranging their next duels read like old friends planning happy reunions. Every now and then, one of them would be promoted. This inequality of rank between them would force a temporary halt to their battles, something that chafed them both until the other was promoted as well, and their fun and games could continue. As Fournier once wrote, “My dear Dupont, I hear that the Emperor, doing justice to your merit, has just promoted you to the rank of Brigadier-General. Accept my sincere congratulations on a promotion which your ability and courage rendered inevitable, a mere matter of course. I have two reasons to be delighted at this appointment. First, the satisfaction afforded by your advancement; and secondly, the facility now vouchsafed to us to have a thrust at each other at the first opportunity.”

This curious--I’m tempted to say “love affair”--went on for nineteen years and at least thirty duels. It would certainly have gone on until one of the pair finally died, if Dupont had not announced an end to the contest. One day in Paris, he called on Fournier with the news that he was getting married, and matrimony and sword fights just did not mix. It was time, he said, to have one final, definitive duel. He proposed that they meet at a wood outside Neuilly. They would enter this wood, each with a pair of horse-pistols. They would stay out of each other’s sight, then “track each other as best we can, and fire at our convenience.” Fournier agreed, warning Dupont not to proceed too far with his wedding arrangements, as he would surely die a bachelor.

On the appointed day, the pair slunk around the wood, each trying to catch sight of the other. Dupont, knowing he was no match for Fournier as a gunman, resorted to trickery. When he knew his rival was hiding behind a tree in front of him, Dupont, from the cover of his own tree, let the flap of his long coat come into view. A bullet instantly went through it. A moment later, he cocked his pistol with one hand, and held out his hat with the other. Another bullet sent the hat flying into the bushes.

Dupont knew that, at long last, he had won. With both his pistols cocked, he marched up to Fournier. Dupont told his old rival that while Fournier’s life was at his disposal, he would not take it...yet. However, he retained his “rights” over it. He warned Fournier that if their paths ever crossed again, he would consider himself fully entitled to send two bullets into Fournier’s brain.

Thus ended the longest and most pointless duel in recorded history. The two men went on with their lives. As for Fournier, after a turbulent career (which included picking a fight with Napoleon, which does not surprise me in the least,) he rose to the rank of inspector-general of the cavalry under Louis XVIII. He died in 1827, aged 53. Dupont retired in 1832, where he wrote poems and military treatises. He also worked on his memoirs, which unfortunately were unfinished at the time of his death in 1840.

I like to think that the minute Dupont reached the afterlife, he and Fournier started up all over again.

[Note: Joseph Conrad’s story “The Duel”--which was the basis for the acclaimed movie “The Duellists”--was inspired by Dupont and Fournier’s real-life drama. Many thanks to John Bellen for alerting me to Robert Baldick’s “The Duel: a history of Duelling,” which gives a detailed account about this remarkable little tale.]