"...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, October 31, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


Halloween is going to the dogs.




And, of course, the cats.

On to this week's tricks and treats:

What the hell is the Phaistos Disc? Now we...sort of know?

Where the hell is Amelia Earhart?  Now we...sort of know?

What the hell is the Rock Ship of Masuda?

What the hell is buzzing the International Space Station?

What the hell stopped this 1954 soccer match?

What the hell was depicted in this 16th century Romanian painting?

Who the hell was the first person killed by a machine gun?

Where the hell is Thomas Paine's corpse?

Where the hell is Star Dust?

Watch out for those horrible hand dinosaurs!

Watch out for the Devil's Tower!

Watch out for Leonardo's gaze!

Watch out for Grandma!

Watch out for Nan Tuck's ghost!

Watch out for those haunted beds!

Are you an actor?  Watch out for Fridays!

An accused witch countersues.

Helpful hints from the 18th century.  Make your own thunder and lightning!

The sad tale of a woman who bequeathed her cats to Theodore Roosevelt.

This one is so many degrees of The Crazy, I don't even know where to begin.

Carl Tanzler, meet "worthy old salt."

Starvation as "medicine":  a hungry chapter in the deadly history of quackery.

That time England plotted to kidnap Nessie.

The Witch of Eye, royal scapegoat.

An account of an 18th century NDE.

Why 19th century mourning etiquette could make you feel you'd be better off dead.

Assassinating Pan.

What's Halloween without a little Jack Parsons?

What's Halloween without a little anti-witchcraft medicine?

What's Halloween without being spooked by rocking corpses?

What's Halloween without Things in cemeteries?

What's Halloween without Samhain?

Call these "haunted houses in training."

World War I era quack cures.

Spicing things up in Early Modern England.  In every sense.

The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants.  I need say no more, I'm sure.

"Lines to a Boarding House Egg."  I need say no more about that, either.

Lorenzo de Medici's galley slaves.

Let's all go to Bedlam, shall we?

What it was like to dine with a 13th century wizard.

Paper cuts as portraiture.

Meet Ireland's most haunted castle.

Why you should be glad you weren't in Sweden 458 million years ago.

Roadtripping with Alice Huyler Ramsey, 1909.

Going over Niagara Falls with Annie Edson Taylor, 1901.

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of ghosts, you see...

Cornering the Ghost Market.

Pye Corner: Fire, Bodysnatcher, and Poltergeist Central.  Now, that's what I call a tourist trap.

And, finally, a man and his hummingbird friend.



Have a great time tonight, everyone, even though as far as I'm concerned it's just another day.  Every October, it occurs to me that I seem to be the only person online who does not celebrate Halloween.

I have never cared for the holiday, at least in the way it is celebrated in modern times. I suppose my aversion goes back to when I was nearly three years old. I had heard all about the practice of dressing up in costume and trick-or-treating, so I decided I wanted to give it a whirl. I didn't have any particular costume in mind. All I knew was that it had to make me completely unrecognizable. I had somehow gotten it into my head that if anyone could tell who it was under the costume, the whole thing was shot. The way I saw it, what's the point of a disguise if it doesn't disguise you?

An aunt of mine who is very good at sewing worked up a costume for me. I have no memory of what it was, just that I thought it made me suitably mysterious. No one, I was sure, would be able to tell it was me under the thing.

There was just one flaw to my plan: At that stage in my history, I had a pair of bunny slippers that I loved more than life itself. I insisted on wearing them everywhere I went. So, of course, they became part of my Halloween outfit. It never occurred to me that this might cause problems.

Anyway, on Halloween evening, my grandmother and I set out to make the rounds of the neighbors and astound everyone with my brilliant success at cloaking my identity. I pictured everyone on the block asking themselves, "Who was that masked stranger?"

Our first stop was the couple who lived next door. I walked up to the door alone (I insisted that my grandmother wait on the sidewalk, because I knew that would instantly give the game away.) The lady of the house answered the door and immediately chirped, "Hi, Lisa!"

I was devastated. My incognito was destroyed the first crack out of the box. "How did you know who I am?" I wailed.

"Why," she replied, "you've got your bunny slippers on!"

I was so disgusted by this debacle, I've never worn a costume since.

Not to mention bunny slippers.

Anyway, I'll be back on Monday, with another story from the Creepy Unsolved Murders File.  In the meantime, what is Halloween without Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



Unlike most people, I pay little attention to Halloween, at least as it is generally practiced today. The more it becomes just a showcase for faux-grotesque tat and adults prancing around in Sexy Vampire or Sexy Werewolf or Sexy Ebola Virus costumes, the more I do my best to just ignore the holiday.  Which ain't easy when my next door neighbors cover their front yard with cardboard tombstones, spray-on cobwebs and plastic disemboweled torsos.  And the giant black rat across the street damn near gave me a seizure the first time I saw it.

However, I do like ghosts. I like spooky black cats even more. What better for our Halloween-week Newspaper Clipping than a timely story that combines both?

From the Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 31, 1916:

Picture awakening at 2 a.m. and seeing a corpse-like looking individual with long hair and glassy eyes staring at his reflection in the mirror of the dresser with a sardonic grin twisting his thin, bluish lips. You arise from your bed shivering and turn on the gas, and the ghastly looking thing beside the dresser fades away with a rattling cough that awakens the echoes of the bedroom.

Gee, but wouldn't it get your nerve, and then some? Mr. and Mrs. Frank Ramagano, and Mr, and Mrs. Salvatore Pascale think so, and that Is why they moved away in haste today from 2008 South Fifteenth street. They had occupied the dwelling for three weeks, and every night for three weeks they declare that the aforesaid thing with the graveyard face and sixty centimeter cough has visited their respective bedrooms. Yesterday the nervous systems of
Mrs. Ramagano and Mrs. Pascale gave away under the strain and they told their husbands that they couldn't stand it any more. So at 7 o'clock this morning two big moving vans backed up to the front door and the business of moving began.

Neighbors said today they were surprised that the Ramaganos and the Pascales stood it as long as they did. They stated that no one stays at 2001 South Fifteenth street very long because the place has been haunted since a young man died in the house several years ago from tuberculosis. Emmanuel C. Kolb, the agent in charge of the house, admitted today that two families had removed from the place without giving any reasons, but on the other hand, he said another family had occupied the house over a period of years without seeing ghosts.

Mrs. Pascale told the story of her experience while movers were placing her goods in a van.

"I am go glad to leave," she said, looking apprehensively at the house. "Both my sister and myself are nervous wrecks from what we have seen.

"The very first night we slept there the thing appeared. It looked just as though it hod stepped out of a coffin. I awakened about 3 a.m. I should say feeling very chilly. Then I saw the awful thing standing by the dresser. I was paralyzed with terror and it was fully ten minutes before I had the courage to nudge my husband. He woke up and saw it, too. He jumped out of bed and lit the gas. The thing faded away, coughing. We sat up for the rest of the night and so did my sister and her husband, for they had seen it, too.

"After that we saw the ghost every night, and sometimes we could hear it prowling around in the daytime, too. Often when I was working in the kitchen I could hear a rattling cough in the upper part of the house. I would knock on the wall and the ghost would laugh at me mockingly. Frequently my sister and I could hear the thing dragging his feet along the upper hallway. Both my sister and I became so nervous that we started at every sound. The ghost appeared more frequently as Halloween approached, and we shivered at the thought of what might happen on Halloween night. We decided not to chance staying in the house over Halloween."

Hearing of the ghost stories, Mr. Kolb sent a man to inspect the property. When this man opened the cellar door a black cat scurried through the kitchen and out of the house. Mrs. Pascale nearly had hysterics when she saw the cat.

"I feared as much," she said. "How could a cat have gotten into that cellar with all of the windows locked tight?"

The appearance of the cat startled the neighborhood, too.

"I am not surprised," said the woman next door, shaking her head knowingly. "I tell you that place is haunted."

Monday, October 27, 2014

"People's Court" meets "Ghostbusters"



It seems oddly fitting that the crowd who gave the world Necropants should also have pioneered the art of suing ghosts.

Our story comes from the "Eyrbyggja Saga," an ancient Icelandic history that's full to the brim with tasty medieval weirdness. The "Saga" tells us that in the summer of 1000, a ship from Dublin paused along the coast at Snowfell Ness, waiting for a favorable breeze that would take it to its destination of Dogvertharness. During this break in the voyage, many Icelanders went down to the ship to trade with them.

One of the passengers on the ship was a woman from the Hebrides named Thorgunna. According to some of the sailors, she had with her a magnificent wardrobe, unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

This claim immediately aroused the excited curiosity of a local lady named Thurida. Thurida was what we today would call a Fashionista: a flashy type obsessed with looking her best. As shopping malls and mail-order catalogs were scarce in 11th century Iceland, she did not have many opportunities to indulge this passion. When she heard of the sumptuous clothing of this Hebridean visitor, she knew she must see these treasures for herself.

Thurida rowed out to the ship, sought out Thorgunna, and excitedly asked her if she indeed had this remarkable array of finery. Thorgunna answered that she certainly did, but--anticipating the other woman's unspoken question--she had no intention of parting with any of it.

Thorgunna did, however, agree to let her caller see this prized wardrobe. When Thurida examined the clothes, she was puzzled and disappointed to find that while the dresses were nice enough, they were nowhere near as outstanding as she had been led to believe. Despite this, she still made an offer to purchase the goods. Thorgunna flatly refused. Undaunted, Thurida invited the traveler to come ashore and live at Thurida's household at Froda. She may have thought that a little Icelandic hospitality might make Thorgunna relent. The traveler, by now quite weary with shipboard life, readily accepted the invitation.

In her guest room at Froda, Thorgunna unpacked her trunk. Thurida was fascinated to see that she had bed-clothes lovelier and more valuable than anything she had ever imagined--sheets of the finest linen and silk coverlets, elegant bed tapestries and curtains, all of the most exquisite workmanship.

Thurida contained her drooling long enough to ask Thorgunna to share some of these bedazzling beddings. Her guest told her to forget it, adding rudely that "I'm not going to pig it in the rushes for you, madam!"

We are told that Thurida did not take this rebuff well, and one can't really blame her.

Thorgunna--described as a tall, stout, black-eyebrowed woman of about sixty--soon settled into life at Froda. The quiet, reserved visitor went to church every morning, worked at her loom, and helped harvest the hay. She was not a friendly woman--the only member of the household she seemed to take to was Thurida's adolescent son, Kiartan--but she was a hard worker who caused no trouble.

One bright, sunny day, Thurida's husband Thorodd took advantage of the fine weather by ordering everyone to turn out for haymaking. Thorgunna worked along with the rest until afternoon, when a thick black cloud appeared, obscuring the sun so completely that it was nearly impossible to see. The workers raked their cut hay into piles, except for Thorgunna, who for unknown reasons, left hers spread out on the ground. They finished just before a massive thunderstorm hit the area. The rain, though harsh, was a brief one, being over by evening.

When the haymakers returned to the fields, they discovered that this was no normal storm. It had rained blood. Thorgunna solemnly informed Thurida that this was a bad omen for her home and everyone in it. When everyone returned home, Thorgunna stripped off her bloodied clothes and lay in her richly-appareled bed. It soon became obvious that she was seriously ill.

The next morning, when Thorodd visited Thorgunna's bedside, his guest told him she was dying, and asked him to take down her will. She warned him that any failure to follow her instructions to the letter would have the gravest consequences. "This affair has so begun," she sighed, "that it will not pass smoothly off, unless strong measures are taken in dealing with it."

She told him that she wanted to be buried at Skalholt, because she had a presentiment that that spot would soon become the most sacred in the land, with priests there who would chant prayers for her soul. Thurida could have her scarlet gown, "so that she may readily consent to my disposing of all the rest as I please." Her gold ring was bequeathed to the church. Her magnificent bedding, however, was all to be burned. "This I desire," she said, "not because I grudge the use of these handsome articles to anybody, but because I foresee that the possession of them would be the cause of innumerable quarrels and heart-burnings."

Thorodd promised her that all these conditions would be fulfilled. Thorgunna died a few days later.

After his guest had been placed in her coffin, Thorodd, as she had wished, brought all her bed-clothes outside and prepared to make a bonfire out of them. However, before he could start the blaze, Thurida saw what he was doing. Ashen with horror, she rushed to his side and demanded to know what in the world he was thinking in wanting to destroy these lovely valuables.

It was, he pointed out, the dead woman's final request.

Thurida was disgusted by her husband's obtuseness. "Nonsense!" she snapped. "Thorgunna only desired this to be done because she was full of envy lest others should enjoy these incomparable treasures."

"But," Thorodd protested, "she threatened all kinds of misfortunes unless I strictly obeyed her injunctions!"

Thurida was not the superstitious type. "That is all fancy! What misfortunes can these articles possibly bring upon us?"

Thorodd argued with his wife for a while, but in the end, all he could obtain was a compromise. In return for being allowed to burn Thorgunna's pillow and sheets in peace, he gave in and let his wife have the beauteous hangings and bedcovers she so coveted. As is usually the case with compromises, neither of them was entirely happy with the deal.

Even if you're not big on reading medieval Icelandic sagas, you can probably guess what happened next.

The following day, men began the job of transporting Thorgunna's body to Skalholt. The journey was uneventful until they reached the plain of Valbjarnar. It was swampy, unsteady ground, and periodically Thorgunna's coffin fell into the mire.

When it became nightfall, the party stopped at Stafholt, at a farm called Lower Ness. They asked the owner of the farm to give them shelter for the night. The man bluntly refused, presumably because he disliked the idea of having a corpse under his roof. The men carried the coffin into a small outbuilding, after which they were able to persuade the farmer to let them sleep in his hall. He declined to give them dinner, however.

Scarcely had they settled down before they heard strange noises coming from the larder. One of the farm's servants, assuming thieves were breaking in, went to investigate. When he peeked into the room, he was startled to see a tall, strongly-built, completely naked woman cooking a meal. He fled, trembling in horror. A few moments later, the nude apparition marched into the hall carrying plates of food. The men immediately recognized the cook as Thorgunna. She had, it seems, so taken offense at the farmer's lack of hospitality that she temporarily left her coffin to rectify the insult. When the farmer and his wife saw that they were being put in their place by a ghost, they quickly changed their attitude. They provided their guests with dry clothes, a warm fire, and beer to go with their dinner.

No one can teach manners quite like a ghost.

The rest of the trip went without incident. Whenever they stopped anywhere, the travelers told of what had happened at Stafholt. This always ensured them a warm welcome and the most gracious service. At Skalholt, they delivered the body and the gold ring; Thorgunna received a suitably reverent burial, and the men returned home, congratulating themselves on a good job well done.

Skalholt, via Wikipedia


Froda had a large hall, with a closed bedroom at one end. On each side of the hall were closets, one holding dried fish, the other flour. Every night before bed, a large fire would be lit in this hall, and the household would sit around it, warming themselves before retiring. On the night the funeral party returned, the men were clustered in front of the fire as usual, when they saw something very peculiar. A phosphorescent ball appeared on the wall, and slowly floated down the hall. It appeared every evening after that. It was believed this was a portent of someone's death.

A few days after the ball of light first materialized, a shepherd came into the farm. He seemed distraught, and kept muttering strangely. A few days later, he died without ever recovering his wits.

Not long after the shepherd was buried, a member of Thorodd's household named Thorir Stumpleg was walking out the front door when someone suddenly marched past him. It was the dead shepherd. The revenant grabbed Thorir and threw him back into the house. This left Thorir so badly injured that he died a short time later. After that, Thorir was seen walking with the shepherd.

It was as if a plague had struck Froda. Within a few days, six more people mysteriously sickened and died. Other strange things happened at the farm. The stacks of dried fish kept by the hall fell over for no evident reason. Shortly before Christmas, Thorodd left with seven of his men for a fishing trip. While they were gone, a seal's head was seen to emerge out of the floor of the farmhouse hall. A servant girl struck at it with a bludgeon. The apparition ignored this attack, rising higher from the ground to gaze at Thorgunna's bed-curtains. All efforts to beat the seal down failed until young Kiartan was able to smash it back into the earth with an iron mallet.

The next morning, the household received the grim news that Thorodd and his men were all lost at sea. Their bodies were never found.

Thurida hosted a lavish funeral feast for all their friends and neighbors. As they gathered around the table, the seats of the dead men were left empty, as was the custom in those days. When the banquet began, the guests saw Thorodd and his fellow dead fishermen enter the hall. The ghosts walked through the room silently and sat down by the fire. They remained there until the fire went out, after which they left as noiselessly as they left. This happened for several consecutive evenings. Then, they were joined by Thorir Stumpleg and the others who had recently died.

The flesh-and-blood residents of Froda opted to light their nightly fire in another room, hoping to enjoy it without these ghostly interlopers.

They really should have known better. All that happened was that the spirits followed them in, and continued their strange, silent ritual. The household had to resort to lighting two fires--one in the hall for the living, and one in the other room for the dead.

One day, a servant noticed a bizarre sight in the fish closet. It was a tail, shaped like that of a cow, but covered in what looked like seal hair. The man grabbed the tail and tried pulling it out of the stacks of fish, but to no avail. Other members of the household had no better luck with yanking it out. They took down the stack of fish, but no trace of the tail could be found.

Not long after this latest episode of The Weird, Thorir Stumpleg's widow, Thorgrima, fell ill and died. On the evening of her burial, she was seen strolling with Thorir and company. Everyone who had seen the tail now also quickly perished.

At the time of Thorgunna's death, Froda had thirty servants. Now, eighteen of them were dead, and five others had fled in terror. Extreme measures had to be taken before the entire household became extinct.

In our modern era, someone in this position would probably hire an exorcist. These medieval Icelanders were far more sensible and sophisticated. Thorodd's son Kiartan went screaming for a lawyer. He wanted to file the mother of all private nuisance suits.

Kiartan consulted his uncle, Snorri the Lawman, renowned as Iceland's greatest legal expert. Snorri recommended that Kiartan burn all of Thorgunna's bed-clothes, and then hold a court of law at Froda, bringing formal action against these troublesome ghosts. Then, he was to have a priest anoint the home with holy water and shrive all the surviving residents. Snorri sent his own son Thord to act as process server.  It was felt that it would be a bit unseemly to have Kiartan himself issue a summons against his own father.

By the time Kiartan and his party returned to Froda, it was evening. The fires had just been lighted, and the ghosts were at their usual post. Thurida was lying in bed, dying of the same mysterious illness that had befallen the others. Kiartan quickly gathered up Thorgunna's bedding, and set it on fire. Then, the court was held. Kiartan summoned Thorir Stumpleg to appear, while Thord summoned Thorodd. The ghosts were formally charged with entering a house without permission, and bringing trouble and death to the inhabitants. The plaintiffs made their arguments against the defendants. Witnesses gave their testimony. The defendants were then ordered to make their case. When the court received nothing but silence in response, the verdicts were announced for each ghost.

Thorir Stumpleg was the first to be sentenced. He was told to leave Froda immediately. The ghost obediently rose from his place near the fire, sighed, "I sat whilst sit I might," and departed.

The shepherd received the same order. He uttered the words, "I go; better had I been dismissed before," and vanished.

And so on through the list. The last to receive his sentence was Thorodd. He too left, intoning, "There is no peace for us here; we are flitting one by one."

After all the ghosts had departed, the priest sprinkled the walls of the house with holy water, and held a mass.

The ghosts were never seen again. Thurida soon recovered, and life at Froda returned to normal. A happy ending, with smiles, flowers, and Necropants all around.

It's a lucky thing the defendants didn't think to file a counter-suit alleging malicious prosecution inspired by anti-ghost prejudice.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weekend Link Dump



Strange Company asks everyone to sit back, relax, and enjoy the links.


The cats need no such urging.

What the hell happened to the Kissing Bandit?

What the hell happened in Lahinch in 1833?

What the hell is shining in Mooloolaba?

What the hell is in the Baltic Sea?

What the hell is the Mystery Stone of Lake Winnipesaukee?

What the hell was the "Wow" signal?

What the hell is the Shigir Idol?

What the hell caused the Great Chicago Fire?  Don't blame the cow!

What the hell caused the Great Stock Market Crash of 1987? Don't blame the cow for that one, either!

Where the hell is the cursed Treasure of Urquhart Castle?

What the hell is the animal in this manuscript?

Who the hell were the Hobbit Humans?

Watch out for those 17th century remedies!

Watch out for those Serbian vampires!

Watch out for those fraudulent Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths!

Watch out for those Copycat Creepy Clowns!

Watch out for those succubi!

Sicily is really a hot place!

Louisiana is really booming!

The House of Correction for Bad Wives.

A handy guide to the Dudes of the Dutch Republic.

Another case where the "unwritten law" prevailed.

Getting hysterical about hysteria.  Nuts about nuttiness!  Loony about lunacy!

I'll stop now.

A genealogist looks at the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe.

Is life here on earth the universe's "last man standing?"

Was Stonehenge mentioned in an 8th century poem?

How to make dainty sport with your cat.

Telephony Music.

Ah, what might have been:  The unwritten canon of M.R. James.

The Guardian gets really silly over Tutankhamun.

Dueling over Newfoundland dogs, 1803.

Was Dorothy Kilgallen the woman who knew too much?

Tea:  What can't it do?

Nigel de Brulier:  a long-forgotten, but interesting character actor from Hollywood's early days.

Catherine Macaulay, England's "first female historian."

Greatest celebrity endorsement ad ever?

Music that's to die for.

The Great Fake Butter Swindle.

Palmerston Island:  For those who just can't get enough frenetic activity and constant crowds of people.

Speaking of famously remote places, it turns out Easter Island wasn't as lonely as we thought.

Anyone want to rebuild a haunted house?

Superman is buzzing planes now.

Because who doesn't need their own Vampire Hunting Kit?

The conjoined Hungarian Sisters.

A tribute to an amazing mynah bird.

The murderer who inspired Oscar Wilde.

Ursula Le Guin talks dogs and cats.

Teaching atomic theory...2600 years ago.

The hanging of Maggie Houghtaling: Were there reasonable doubts?

A treasure trove for anomalists:  Charles Fort's "small glow-worms of strangeness" will soon be made publicly available.

Some ancient cursing tablets.

The witches of Cornwall--right in someone's front yard!

A medieval Russian shopping list.

The many lives of Winchester Castle's Great Hall.  With some wonderful photos.

Sarah Bernhardt sees spirits, raises hell.

Forget Andy Kaufman.  I'm looking forward to the Ambrose Bierce comeback.

Oh, those Mitfords!

The rat-fighting cats of the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

The real history of mermaids.

So I'm wrong.  So there are times when it's possible to have too much beer.

Before there were drones, there were carrier pigeons.

A look at horse racing's Great Mares.

That's it for this week's Friday links.  See you all on Monday, when we'll be suing ghosts in medieval Iceland.  Until then, it's quitting time!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

"I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."
~ Edgar Allan Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"

via British Newspaper Archive


This Poe-like tale of an abused elephant's long-delayed but fatal revenge appeared in the "Illustrated Police News" on January 23, 1897. It is one more piece of evidence for what I have felt to be true for as long as I can remember: Animals have hearts, minds, souls--and memories--that are at least equal to our own.

A man named Alan Alfred Baker, who was formerly connected with Mr. George Sanger's travelling circus, whilst on a visit to the stables on Sunday afternoon, was attacked and killed by one of the performing elephants. From the circumstances surrounding the affair, it would seem that the creature had a grudge of old standing against Baker, for the instant the poor fellow appeared the elephant lunged at him, and pinned his victim against a brick wall, inflicting wounds that were speedily fatal. Indeed, when the keeper and trainer Mr. John Tottenham, or "Killinbach," who was present at the moment, feeding the animals, intervened to drag the unfortunate man beyond the animal's reach, the elephant strained upon the shackles to again transfix his victim.

The stables referred to, where Mr. Sanger keeps a portion of his menagerie, are in a building in Bentley Street, off Kingsland Road, Dalston. Baker, who was a tall, handsome man, of about twenty-seven years of age, and a native of Hastings, was conveyed upon an ambulance to the Metropolitan Hospital, where he died shortly after being admitted. The case was pronounced hopeless from the first by the police-surgeon of the district, Dr. Jackman, who was called into the stables. The elephant had driven his right tusk into poor Baker's head, causing the brain to protrude. The man never regained consciousness, though it is stated he tried to speak when a friend named Mr. Catling saw him immediately after the occurrence.

For some weeks Mr. George Sanger's menagerie and circus has been attracting overflowing houses in a turning off Dalston Lane. near the railway station. Baker, who like most sawdust-ring showmen, had a nom de guerre, or nickname, was known among his friends as "Belgium." Others there are of the craft dignified by the less complimentary names of "Moucher," "Tea Leaves," "Short Pipe," &c. Baker practically learned his business at Sanger's, beginning as a stable-hand, and rising through the grades of performer to trainer. It is said he was at times brusque in manner to the animals under his care, and that he lacked the patience and perseverance in kindness so indispensable in dealing with dumb brutes. However that may be, he was discharged from Sanger's last March, when they were at Bedford. After filling a somewhat similar situation elsewhere, he applied for a re-engagement with Mr. Sanger, and on Sunday last was told that he could start at his old job on Monday, there being a temporary vacancy. Later in the day Baker proceeded to the stables to call on Tottenham, who was an old acquaintance and a fellow-lodger, to go with him and have tea. In this wintry weather, three elephants belonging to the menagerie and several camels are stalled in part of a stout brick building used as workshops, whilst the other animals needing quarters snugger than under canvas are bestowed in the neighbourhood in like manner. According to "Killinbach," otherwise Tottenham, he was carrying hay to the elephants and spreading it out for them--for "Charlie, "Mary," and "Jenny" when "Belgium" entered by the small wicket door, and sauntering up with his hands in his overcoat pocket, called to him, "Ain't you coming to tea?" Before Tottenham had time to reply, the elephant "Charlie," apparently recognising Baker by the sound of his voice, for it was nearly dusk in the stable, thrust forward violently at his old keeper. Baker must have been taken unawares, for, fettered as the animal was to a strong peg driven into the ground, he could only lean far enough forward by straining upon the few links of chain to get at the wall where his victim stood unconscious of danger. The walls are about 11ft apart in the building, and Baker was standing nearly opposite, whilst Tottenham was bending down close to the animal's feet. Seeing his comrade fall, Tottenham realised in a moment what had happened. He sprang and grabbed Baker away, at the same time roaring "Get back, Charlie." He placed the wounded trainer upon a truss of hay, but even then the elephant tried to reach him, and Tottenham seized a spade and drove the brute back to his place. The other two elephants kept quiet, Tottenham says, but "Charlie" trumpeted angrily. As for "Mary," who is nearer sixty than fifty years of age, and therefore no lamb, at the sight of the blood on Baker's face and body, she looked, and then turned her head away.

Everybody at Singer's gives ''Charlie" a good character. Never, they aver, was there a quieter or more tractable animal, except, perhaps, "Mary." He has never hurt anyone before. The animal was bought about thirty-one years ago, when a nine-year-old baby, being part of a batch of Indian elephants which at that period were sent over in large numbers. Tottenham believes the animal must have had an idea of paying back old scores, and Mr. Sanger, Mr. Olliver, the manager, and Mr. J. D. Humphreys, an old showman and trainer, all of whom have known ''Charlie" from his babyhood, hold to the same opinion. After his bloodthirsty outbreak of passion "Charlie" sulked, and refused to eat until late the following day. A representative of the Daily Telegraph saw the animal in the course of the day, patted him, and examined his tusks. Certainly the creature at that time seemed docile and tractable enough. "Charlie," although twenty-eight years old, is said to be not quite full-grown yet. He weighs over three tons, stands about 11ft in height, and yet has only short tusks, not much more than a foot in length. In a chat with Mr. Humphries, that gentleman said there were no trade secrets about training. He had taken in hand the education of all sorts of animals, domestic and wild horses, elephants, lions and tigers, and monkeys, which are troublesome. Now he was an advance agent, but he had a kindly feeling for all his dumb-brute pupils still, and sometimes went and called on old elephant friends. They always knew him, recognising his voice when he called. them, though they might not be in a position when at the moment they could not see him. Whatever an animal was, a quiet runner or a bolter, it would yield to treatment. The trainer had to know himself, and be firm, steadfast, patient, and kind. "Why," said Mr. Humphreys, "here's my secret as far as elephants and horses go. A little bit of carrot and more carrot, a pat and a pat and a 'bravo.' when they do their business correctly and show sense. Bless you, it's wonderful how they work to please you for these nice, well-washed carrots," and Mr. Humphreys produced an edible and tempting specimen of that humble root. "I trained 'Charlie' on them, and never had any trouble with him. Oh no, he is not in any state of must, and his temper all through has been as good as gold. Carrots and kindness is the way. But the trouble is, some keepers are rough and hasty, and try and drive them too hard. Now, I have noticed a dumb brute never forgets an injury, and keepers sometimes see too many friends lose their heads a bit, and, trying to show off, do things the poor creatures remember against them. 'Belgium' was away from us ten months, but there's lots of cases stranger than his. There was the elephant, 'Blind Bill,' that in Myers's Circus at the Alexandra Palace, fourteen years ago, killed his keeper, whom the brute had not seen for seven years previously. Then there was something of the sort happened with 'Big Jenny,' who died at Boulogne."

The deceased man was unmarried. Quite recently he was an inmate of St. Thomas's Hospital, where he was attended for an injury to the head, caused, as stated originally, from the kick of a horse. The deceased's parents are in poor circumstances. Mr. George Sanger has kindly notified that he will defray the necessary funeral expenses. Baker's father is a working coachsmith at Hastings, and is naturally terribly distressed at his son's death.

The inquiry into the circumstances attending the death of Alan Alfred Baker, aged twenty-seven years, an elephant trainer, late of Kingsland Road, was held by Dr. Wynn Westcott at the Hackney Coroner's Courts. The deceased, it will be remembered, was gored to death on Sunday evening last by an elephant named "Charlie," belonging to Sanger's Circus, now at Dalston.

John Killinbach, known as "Tottenham," an elephant trainer at the circus, stated that he had only held the position for the past ten months, having succeeded the deceased, who had had charge of "Charlie" and other elephants for some years. The animals were stabled in Bentley Road, Kingsland, and were there on the day of the occurrence. "Charlie" all the time he had been under the care of witness had been a very quiet and docile elephant. On Sunday. between five and six o'clock in the evening, witness was feeding the animals. He threw a quantity of hay to "Charlie," who was chained by two legs, when Baker entered the stable. He said to witness "Are you coming to tea? " and no sooner had he spoken than the animal rushed at him and jammed him against the wall with his tusks, one of which seemed to enter the head, near the ear.

The Coroner: How do you account for this sudden attack?

Witness: I am of opinion that the elephant recognised the voice of his old keeper, and having a grudge against him for some cruelty, gored him. Baker had not seen "Charlie" for ten months.

Have you ever heard that the elephant had attacked anyone else?--No, never; he was as quiet as a child.

"Lord " George Sanger, the proprietor of the circus, said that he had had the elephant for thirty-one years. He was of the Indian species, and was about nine years old when imported. The deceased had had charge of the elephants for about four years, and "Charlie" was one of the quietest animals ever shown. Witness agreed with the first witness as to the act being the result of antagonism.

The Coroner: Was the animal generally considered to be a good one, quiet and peaceable?--Witness: None better. Witness added that Baker got into the hands of the police at Bedford, and that was the reason he left the circus. Witness had promised to employ the deceased, but stipulated that he should have nothing to do with the elephants.

The Coroner: Do you think, then, that elephants remember how they are treated?

Witness: Most certainly, and I speak from forty-five years' experience. The animal was not properly treated by Baker, but I don't want to say any more of that. Elephants always remember kindness. I recollect once meeting an elephant I had not seen for about two years, and the animal was so pleased and affected that tears actually ran down its face. On one occasion my little nephew was playing round "Charlie's" legs, when the animal took him up with his trunk, shook him gently and then set him down. "Charlie" has been in five Lord Mayor shows, and was for years at the old Ampitheatre, Westminster Bridge Road, but has never before shown any bad temper.

In answer to the Coroner, the witness said that he could not remember an elephant being born in England, not even at the Zoo.

Without calling further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of death from misadventure.

The Coroner asked whether the jury wished to add any rider or recommendation to the verdict.

The Foreman: We do not think it is necessary.

In pace requiescat!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Victorian Book of the Dead," by Chris Woodyard

After reading this book, talking ravens just aren't good enough for Edgar anymore.
He wants a homicidal parrot.


Do you wake up in the morning saying, "Damn it, my life needs more undertakers who give out trading stamps!" Are you longing for stories about killer parrots? Post-mortem spontaneous combustion? Shrieking banshees, mourning bicycles, and, of course, corpse furniture?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, your answer is undoubtedly, "Hell, yes." Well, pine no more, my friends, because have I got the book for you.

As I have often said, no people on earth have ever done death quite like the Victorians. In "The Victorian Book of the Dead," long-time Strange Company favorite Chris Woodyard has done a masterful job in compiling from 19th-early 20th century newspapers, books, and journals an encyclopedic review of all the various ways our ancestors devised to turn bereavement into an epic trip down the rabbit hole.

This book is, in the author's words, "a historical look at the ephemera and material culture of mourning; a reflection of some popular Victorian attitudes towards death and the bereaved; and a macabre scrapbook." Perhaps only the ancient Egyptians rivaled the Victorians in ritualizing death--a practice that both fed and fed upon the simultaneous 19th century spritualism craze. Woodyard notes that "How we mourn our dead says something of who we are." What this book abundantly proves is that the Victorians, if nothing else, certainly "knew how to mourn." This trait, as Woodyard hints, could teach our modern death-phobic and materialist society a few lessons. Yes, the rituals of this bygone era were often silly or downright bizarre, but were such practices really necessarily stranger than modern day "happy funerals," with the ubiquitous "celebrations of life," and our habitual reluctance to confront the realities of death and mourning?

"Book of the Dead" begins, appropriately enough, with that popular staple of Victorian life, the Death Angel. Whether it took the form of an actual angel, a menacing skeleton, a little old lady, or a pigeon, Victorians loved their symbols of impending doom.

Harbingers of Death came in many forms. Woodyard examines the visions, banshees, Black Dogs, Women in Black, and other phenomena that tipped people off that it was time to break out the crape and yell for the undertaker. (Of particular note is the spiritualist who poisoned herself to ensure her prophecies of her own death came true--which certainly showed a rare sense of dedication.) My favorite in this category, however, is probably the Crumbling Phonograph Records of Doom. ("Your Hit Funeral Parade!") While most of the portents were ominous or frightening, there are also poignantly sentimental tales of the dead returning to tenderly escort dying loved ones to the Other Side.

The book's most macabre section deals not with the rituals of death, but the deaths themselves. As the old adage says, there are "a million ways to die," and by golly, the Victorians practiced all of them, and probably invented a few new methods along the way:

Death by growing a family of lizards in your innards.
Murdered at the hands...uh, beak...of an "evil-dispositioned" drug-addicted parrot.
Finished off by poisoned gloves.
Strangled by your own hair.
Eaten alive by rats.
Dispatched into eternity by a cow's moo.

Now, that's what I call really livening up the obituary column.

There is also a chapter dealing with those who made a living from the dead. Here we meet the Professional Mourners: Sometimes they were sable-clad ladies who advised newly-minted widows about the most chic all-black fashions, or, more commonly, they were literal funeral attendees-for-hire. Or perhaps jovial grave-diggers are more to your taste? Crazed cemetery guards? Tombstone Censors? Corpse barbers? Undertakers whose posh shops showcased coffins and headstones so dainty and elaborate that window-shoppers positively envied the dead?

The Victorian obsession with "correct mourning" inspired Woodyard's handy guide to "Crape: Its Uses and Abuses." Mourning wear, we learn, had an etiquette all its own that rivaled anything seen at the court of Louis XIV. Hanging that grim symbol of death outside your door had many possible uses besides the obvious: as a crude practical joke, a political protest, or simply a general display of disgust against the world. Or perhaps you would choose to display your sorrow with a black mourning bicycle? Hair jewelry? Wreaths from the dead person's clothes? Black cigarettes?

It was not just the living who had to concern themselves with the latest fashions: Elaborate burial clothing and swanky coffins for the dearly departed was a highly profitable business. Often, the deceased was buried showing considerably more style than they ever displayed while alive. Ladies sometimes made their own elaborate shrouds years before their death: a trousseau for their inevitable marriage with the Grim Reaper.

And woe be to the undertaker who neglected his trading stamps!
"Trading stamps with every funeral" is the placard that one may expect to see soon in the windows of up-to-date Chicago undertakers.

That two or three funeral directors on the Northwest Side of the city have adopted the trading stamp system to increase business was revealed yesterday when a bereaved widow cancelled an order at a downtown undertaker's because he would not give her some stamps.

Friends of hers, she said, who recently had deaths in their families were given trading stamps by the undertaker, and she insisted on getting the coupons or she would go elsewhere. 

The matter of trading stamps will be brought before the Chicago Undertakers Association at its next meeting. [page 243]

The above story was preceded by an anecdote about another new widow who demanded her stamps, declaring that "I've just lost my third and don't intend to lose a chance at a cuckoo clock into the bargain."

Despite all this careful preparation, Death has a way of spoiling even the most careful plans. "Book of the Dead" treats us to wakes where the "deceased" suddenly comes back to life to crash the party. Cats who attack the reverently laid-out corpse. And what would any collection of Funeral Horrors be without those cases where there were those irritating nagging doubts about whether or not the newly-buried had been well and truly dead?

But wait, there's more! Victorian publications were rife with exuberantly "grewsome" tales of funerals spoiled by exploding corpses, out-of-control hearses, mourners crushed by falling coffins, fatal illnesses caught from preparing the body for burial, and other unmannerly nuisances instigated by the dearly departed.

It is hard to top the spontaneously combusting corpse, though.

It was inevitable that all this post-mortem mayhem would result in some very uneasy spirits. There are many accounts of haunted cemeteries and morgues. Restless spirits would return to pester the living with wrongs they wanted to right, to avenge their murder, to give instructions about their burials (suitable burial clothes were a particular concern,) or simply because they were not ready to let go of this world. Such accounts appear throughout most of recorded history, but the Victorian era, predictably, brought forth a particularly weird and plentiful crop of such Gothic horrors.

Speaking of horrors, Victorian morbidity focused not merely on the spirits of the dead, but their corporeal remains. Stories abound of mourners refusing to allow the dead to be buried, preserving and petrifying them in various ghastly ways. Bones and various other body parts were kept as keepsakes. One enterprising widow "kept her family together" by eating her cremated husband's ashes. (Although "a little of him did perhaps go a long way.")

The high--or, if you prefer, low--point of this curious mania was devised by the Florentine professor Girolamo Segato, who developed a thankfully-lost method of petrifying human remains and turning them into furniture. Some of his handiwork still exists today.

Leave it to the Victorians to pair Ikea with Ed Gein.

"Book of the Dead" is, however, far from being a cheaply titillating assortment of ghoulish oddities. Woodyard's sober, respectful, and scholarly annotations make this volume an original look at a Golden Age in Death History. The stories dealing with the lonely, neglected burials of the poor and friendless, and the many pitiful descriptions of deathbed grief, remind us that the Victorian predilection for the outward trappings of mourning were often not mere show, but sincere demonstrations of profound sorrow.

Although most of us today do not relate to mourning bicycles or post-mortem photography, anyone who has ever experienced personal loss can empathize with the final entry in Woodyard's book: Reverend John Todd's description of the 1827 death of his nine-day-old son.
"I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!"

In short, this book is not just fascinating history, but an excellent training manual for The Weird. Buy it. Study it. Read it to your small children before bedtime to ensure you raise really, really interesting adults.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Weekend Link Dump



Don't let this week's collection of links bend you out of shape.


Leave that to the cats.

What the hell happened to Lake Waiau?

What the hell fell from the sky in New Jersey?

Where the hell is Philip of Macedon buried?  Now we know!

What the hell happened to MH 370?  Will we ever know?

Watch out for the Big Muddy Monster!

Watch out for Teddy Rowe's Band!

Watch out for miniature coffins!

Watch out for Bakersfield clowns!

Watch out for those Golems!

Watch out for those Victorian baths!

Watch out for Tecumseh's Great Spirit!

Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are really booming!

Look up in the sky!  It's a bird!  No, it's a plane!  No!  It's...Superman's ghost!!

Alternate headline:  "Sheep Dog Avenges Rat."

How a Confederate officer and some grave-robbers unwittingly revolutionized 20th century forensics.

"Jaws" goes to court:  The strange case of the Shark Papers.

Lord Byron:  the first Sexy Vampire?

It's a Dandy in Distress!

The long, painful death of a Siberian princess.

This guy is pretty diseased, all right.

Julia Pastrana, one of the most famous bearded ladies.

Distillery Cats:  "Personable, but with a killer's instinct."

A possible link between those mysterious Siberian craters and the Bermuda Triangle.

The Czech nurse who took "sleeping with the enemy" to a whole 'nother level.

What's even better than a poison duel?  A poison-pen duel!

The diary of a diplomat's wife.

The ghost of No. 281 Stuyvesant.

A great day for cats:  The birth of the catnip mouse.

A classic bit of historical weirdness:  The legend of the Ghoul of Glamis.

How Scotland came to be full of monuments to a crook.

How a piece of bread and an apple led to a witchcraft trial.

Just to get our weekend fun rolling, let's talk itching and scabbiness.

Uncovering Scottish Viking treasure.

The state of aqua archaeology.

Yellow fever: the proto-Ebola.

What is "masculinity?"  Depends on your era.

The latest on the Antikythera hunt.

Are these the oldest known cave paintings?

Ghost ships!  Treasure!  Tragedy!  Who could ask for anything more in a blog post?

Is this the first known recording of the human voice?

The history of wife-selling.

A Confederate soldier's gossipy coded diary.

Gods, barbarians, and Zerkon the Moorish Dwarf.  Dining with Attila the Hun sounds like something out of Douglas Adams.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term "ghostwriter."

Just for fun:  A delightful 18th century automaton clock.

Vikings: The first metrosexuals?

Waterloo, one of history's most famous "Oopsie!" moments.

A Danish 17th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A Chicago 19th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A princess does some illegal cycling.

The black cat of the Tombs.

Joan of Arc and the fairies.

Why becoming a 15th century royal necromancer was not always a great career move.

Because it's not often you get to come across the words "Ebola" "reincarnation" and "Buddhist" in the same headline.

If you want to rest in peace, it doesn't pay to tick off your undertaker.

Merry Andrew and the Ghost; or, Fun With Body-Snatchers!

19th century zombies.

The coded diplomacy of John Adams.

A wonderful assortment of medieval doodles.

The Case of the Haunted Kidneys.

Illustrations of 1893 London.

A witchcraft case from 1941.

Cleaning up the medieval era.

And finally...yes, I agree that this pretty much says it all:




We're done for this week. See you all on Monday, when I'll be turning book reviewer! In the meantime, here's a classic Welsh choral song: