"...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 24, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's nearly the weekend!  Keep your chin up!

Or out, as the case may be.

On to the links:

What the hell are Fafrotskis?

What the hell was this?

What the hell is the Cerne Giant?

Who the hell killed Delia Adriano?

Why the hell couldn't they hang John Lee?

That eternal question:  What the hell is the Shroud of Turin?

Watch out for the Medusa Lake!

Live in North Carolina?  Watch out for those egg-shaped flying creatures!

Watch out for the elves living in your basement!

Watch out for those Nazi-eating catfish!

Soon, we may have to watch out for those brain-controlled drones!

The world is really humming!

Minnie, speakeasy cat mascot.

Things are getting even weirder in Siberia.

The man who guards Napoleon.

The beetle-gowned Ellen Terry.

The many varieties of Georgian Era hysteria.

The 1,900-year-old hangover cure.

Why it's rarely a good idea to move a ghost's chair.

The bishop, the ghost, and the book.

How the Belvoir Witches got their revenge.

The curious case of the Presidential UFO.

A bit old, but I love this story of the sea captain who played Richard III.

I find it extremely depressing that some need reminding that the Soviets were not sweethearts.

Speaking of depressing, here's more examples of archaeological vandalism.

A man with a metal detector finds a Roman grave.

More pushing back human history.

Animals as earthquake predictors.

Googling Nessie.

How to quell a mutiny, 1816.

Everyone's a critic.  Even the dogs.

Warding off witches with bearded men bottles.

Why you should never set the hounds on your ghost spies.

The strange abduction of Thomas Dellow.

The dog who may--or may not--lie in Greenwood Cemetery.

A love letter that is also a delightful piece of art.

Praying for a cure in the 17th century.

The famed painter who was a footnoted cannibal.  Or something.

Shorter answer:  Probably not.

Life on Mars in 1900.

It turns out you really can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

My guess is that this comparison is an insult to the ravens.

The amazing Alexandra David-Neel.  (My own look at her life is here.)

The Vikings besiege 9th century Paris.

Leonardo da Vinci's resume.  Obviously destined to be just another burger-flipper.

The curious tale of the Loch Ness Monster and the fired scientist.

Compost in Peace; or, Aunt Tilly Makes Wonderful Zucchini.

The ever-enigmatic Chevalier d'Eon.

A selection of dragon and unicorn burials.

The first known cremation.

Canonbury Besse, a sort of 17th century Belle Gunness.

A memorial to a "most cruel murder."

A 2,300 year old coin found in England.

A wonderfully well preserved English castle.

Portraits of 19th century London beggars.

Date night in Manhattan, 1916.

Some fun with Recipe Archaeology, featuring Mesopotamian "Kukkis!"

And finally, I found this book via Public Domain Review:  a delightful diary of a teenage girl describing her visit to France in 1821.  (Spoiler:  She wasn't impressed.)

And we're done!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a mysterious woman from 18th century England. In the meantime, let's celebrate spring with a little Vivaldi:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

IPN, July 9, 1870, via British Newspaper Archive

I came across this story while compiling wedding disasters for that post I did some weeks ago, but I thought this one deserved to stand alone. Enjoy some romantic bliss, "Illustrated Police News" style.

The Times of Friday last contained the following humorous account of a violent assault committed by an infuriated and indignant wife upon her faithless husband.--A French paper relates a thrilling scene which lately occurred in a Parisian mairie. A couple presented themselves to be married, the bride about eighteen years of age, and possessed of considerable personal attractions; the bridegroom an extremely small titan, aged forty-five. When the ceremony was concluded the door of the hall was burst open, and a woman of gigantic stature, accompanied by a thin damsel of fifteen, burst into the room and elbowed her way through the semicircle of guests.

"Wretch, scoundrel, thief!" she cried, addressing the husband, who turned as white as a sheet; "this is how you leave me in the lurch, who have sighed during fifteen years for the day when I might call myself your wife!" Saying this she seized the unhappy man by the collar and jerked him up under her left arm as though he were a crush-hat, taking no notice of his struggles.

She addressed the mayor in a voice of thunder, "Do I arrive too late?" "The marriage is concluded," replied the mayor, "and I request you to release M. Augustin and to retire." "Not," said the giantess, "without giving his deserts to the villain who leaves me with this girl here." "No no, that girl is not mine," howled the little man.

He had better have remained silent. The giantess frantically raised him in the air, and whirled him round her head. "Repeat what you have said," she shrieked; "this child, who is as like you as one pea is another--is she yours or not?" M. Augustin did not open his mouth. His executioner then seized his nose with her left hand and wrung it violently.

About this time two of the guests, moved by the entreaties of the bride, attempted to interfere, but the enraged woman, using the bridegroom as a weapon and brandishing him at arm's length, charged her opponents with such fury that she put them speedily to flight.

"Call the police," cried the mayor. "You need not give yourself the trouble," hoarsely ejaculated the giantess; "I will let go the rascal of my own accord. Here, my beauty," addressing the bride, "is your little bit of a man, I have not broken him. We have no further business here. Follow me, Baptistine," and so saying she flung down her victim at the feet of two agents of police, who at that moment appeared at the door.

"I go," she added; "but let him ever appear before me on his wife's arm, and I will take him between my thumb and forefinger and make but one mouthful of him."

This little incident cast quite a gloom over the assembled guests, and no one dared even to pick the fainting bridegroom from the floor until the last echo of the heavy footsteps of the injured fair one had died away in the distance, when they raised him to his feet, and in solemn silence took their departure.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Great Trinity Church Hoax; or, Dix Picked For Slick Tricks

Morgan Dix, via Wikipedia

In the late 19th century, Dr. Morgan Dix was one of America's most active and respected churchmen. For over fifty years, he was associated with New York's Trinity Church, first as minister, and then as rector. He also wrote a number of religious works. He was a genuinely godly man: kindly and tolerant, if somewhat on the stodgy side.

What makes this otherwise uncontroversial man of God relevant to this blog is that he was also once the victim of a bizarre and long-drawn-out hoax that was a considerably more sinister variation of the famous "Berner Street Hoax" of 1810.

Rev. Dix's ordeal began on the morning of February 18,1880, when he answered a doorbell ring at his rectory. Standing outside was a respectable-looking man in clerical garb, who presented himself as a head of an academy for young ladies. He was there in response to Dix's letter asking them to take three little girls into their establishment.

Dix politely explained that there was some strange mistake: He had never sent such a letter, and for the matter of that, did not even know three girls who needed to be placed in a school. The man went on his way. Dix brooded over the matter for a moment, shrugged it off, and returned to his breakfast.

It was a breakfast he was fated to leave unfinished. In fact, he would not have a peaceful meal again for quite some time. Scarcely had he sat down again when another representative from another girls' school arrived. He had gotten a similar letter, purportedly from Rev. Dix. By the time the day was over, about 20 such gentlemen had turned up on Dix's door. That is, they turned up when Dix's front door wasn't being besieged by emissaries from Bible societies, publishing houses, and merchants of all varieties.  Each and every one of them was clutching letters signed with Dix's name, saying he wished to make large purchases from them for various charitable organizations.  Then came the safe manufacturers, wig makers, horse dealers, dancing instructors...all of them also believing that the reverend had requested their services.

To Dix's increasing horror, on the following day he was confronted by a similar parade of callers, augmented by a flood of puzzled letters from clergymen across the entire East Coast, responding to notes they had received from "Dix," chiding them for not answering his letters to them--letters, of course, which Dix had never written. Some of these letters, we are told, not-so-tactfully suggested that Dix had been working too hard and needed a good long rest.

On February 21, Dix received an unsigned letter informing him that the writer had arranged for some dealers in used clothing to come by that day to pick up Mrs. Dix's entire wardrobe. Sure enough, soon after reading this letter Dix saw a parade of these merchants driving their wagons up to his house, loudly demanding the clothing they had been promised. Dix barricaded himself inside his home, but the dealers, increasingly angry at how--in their eyes--the rector was trying to swindle them, caused such a riot outside that the police had to be called in to drive them away.

No sooner had these outraged clothiers departed than a carriage came racing up to the rectory. It stopped, and a doctor leaped out and ran inside the house. He was quite indignant when he learned that, contrary to what an urgent message had told him, the reverend was not dying of an epileptic fit. He was soon joined by about thirty other physicians, all of whom had received that same frantic plea for medical help. It was not until midnight that Dix was finally rid of the lot of them.

Perhaps at least some of these doctors should have stuck around a bit. When, bright and early the next morning, Dix was awakened by half-a-dozen shoemakers who had been summoned to measure the rectory's residents for footwear, the reverend probably was close to having fits.

That was the reverend's breakfast. Dix spent his lunchtime dealing with fifty or so people answering "help wanted" ads placed in his name. Dinnertime saw him eying twenty of New York's most important clergymen, who had answered "his" invitation to come dine with him in order to meet the Bishops of York and Exeter.

The following morning was enlivened by visits from officials of some of the city's top business houses. They had all received letters signed with Dix's name, threatening legal action because of the insulting communications the reverend had received from them. These emissaries had no idea what this was all about--they had, of course, not sent Dix any letters at all--but they were nevertheless anxious to assure the reverend of their good will. In the meantime, word had spread about the lively doings at the Trinity rectory.  Crowds of New Yorkers were now surrounding the reverend's home, happily waiting to see who would show up at his door next.  It was a party atmosphere for everyone except the Dix family.

It was not until the end of that day that the understandably befuddled reverend got any clue about how and why his life had been turned into a nightmarish vaudeville skit. He received a letter from someone who gave his name only as "Gentleman Joe." "Joe" cheerfully informed Dix that this persecution would only end when the rector had paid him one thousand dollars. If Dix agreed, he was to place an ad in the "New York Herald" saying "Gentleman Joe: All right."

Dix naturally took this letter straight to the police. After scratching their heads a bit--even for New York City, this was a novel bit of weirdness--they told the reverend to follow the ungentlemanly Joe's instructions. Dix did so, but was baffled to find that when his ad was published, the newspaper contained two other identical ads, evidently placed by "Joe" himself.

By this point, Joe was bored with Reverend Dix. He ignored the rector's ad and instead turned his unwelcome attentions to a crowd of other New York religious leaders, all of whom received abusive letters signed with the names of various saloon-owners, demanding they settle their extensive bills for liquor.

Dix was left in an uneasy peace until March 17, when he received another letter from Joe. This one warned that unless Dix sent him fifteen hundred dollars, on the following Friday the rectory would see a sequel to the previous adventure.

When Friday rolled around, police surrounded the house and Dix locked himself in his office, but Joe was too much for them. First, a lawyer arrived at the house. He had received a letter supposedly signed by Mrs. Dix, stating that she wanted a divorce. Twenty other attorneys, who had all received identical letters, soon followed. Then came an agent from a steamship line with the tickets to Havana Dix had allegedly ordered. They were closely followed by a crowd of people who had advertised for lost or stolen property. They had received letters informing them that their goods could be retrieved at the rectory. Over the next few days, the stream of people continued, all of them answering various summonses. The dramatic climax came when an angry man pushed his way into the rectory, accused Dix of trying to seduce his wife, and threatened him with a beating unless the reverend made a public apology for his disgraceful conduct.

The day after his encounter with the enraged husband, Dix received another letter from Joe, gleefully saying how much he had enjoyed his visit with the reverend.

The police were not having much luck tracking down Dix's persecutor. They had never heard of any criminal called "Gentleman Joe," and although they set up a dragnet across the city in the hopes of capturing him at some mailbox or another, their efforts were futile. What finally broke the case was when another clergyman told them of a former Trinity Sunday-school teacher who had been expelled from the church. (He had taken a disquieting interest in the choir boys.) This ex-churchman had the appropriately melodramatic name of Eugene Edward Fairfax Williamson. The police obtained from the Post Office a card written by Williamson, requesting that his mail be forwarded to the Hotel Windsor. The handwriting was identical to the "Gentleman Joe" letters.

Detectives rushed to the Windsor, only to learn that their deranged bird had flown to Baltimore. He was traced to a boarding house in that city, where he was arrested. Newspapers described him as a small, balding, sickly-looking man of about forty.  Williamson readily admitted his culpability, explaining breezily that he had nothing against the Reverend Dix--it was "just a joke"--and the rector was only chosen as a target because his upstanding reputation made the prank all the sweeter.  "I really do not know why I did it," he sighed to a reporter from the "New York Sun."  "I have a soft spot in that direction.  It's a mania.  When I get a pen in my hand I have to write."

The rest of the tale is briefly told: Williamson was tried for attempted blackmail and forging a check which he had used to swindle a jewelry firm, found guilty, and imprisoned in Sing Sing, where he died only a few months into his three-and-a-half year sentence.

There was still a lingering mystery about this odd miscreant.  He first appeared in the historical record in 1868, when he traveled through Europe presenting himself as an aristocratic man of wealth. He came to New York in 1870, where he was caught stealing some pens and stationery from a shop. He then returned to Europe, where he served a brief term in London's Newgate for harassing a man in much the same way he would later bedevil Dr. Dix. He returned to America in 1875, where he briefly settled in Pittsburgh before returning to New York and his famed good times with the rector of Trinity.  That was about all we know for certain about him.

Williamson's source of income also remained unknown. He owned no property, and had no bank account. Although he apparently never worked a legitimate job--unless you count his ill-fated stint as a Sunday school teacher--and never committed more than a handful of petty crimes, he always seemed to have lots of money, and usually moved in high society. His little swindles were evidently something he did merely for his own warped amusement, not financial gain. He even published poetry and produced a successful play--although his literary glory was considerably dimmed when it was discovered that these works were actually written and previously published by a New Orleans nun.

Williamson himself claimed to be connected to the wealthy and powerful Fairfax clan of Virginia, and that during the Civil War he fought ably for the Confederacy. This has led to speculation that he was a "remittance man": the black sheep of a prominent family who paid him off to leave his country for his country's good. A sort of Bertie Wooster from Hell, you might say.

According to some contemporary newspapers, the truth about him was more prosaic.  These reports claimed he was from a well-to-do and respectable Baltimore family, who regarded him as "always flighty."  His sister, Mrs. G.F. Bailey, thought vaguely that Eugene had made money some years before "in the book business."  She said that she did not know the exact nature of this "book business," as he was "very reticent on such matters."

His mother was quoted as saying that her son "was not sound mentally, but was so eccentric that he frequently seemed demented."

For someone who made himself famous through his "jokes," Mr. Williamson's story turned out to be not very funny at all.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

The weekend is almost here!

Go out and have a ball.

Let's toss around a few links:

What the hell is in the middle of this Siberian lake?

What the hell is this Oregon cabin?

We're still wondering...What the hell is on Ceres?

We're still wondering...Where the hell is Jesus' tomb?

Watch out for the jitterbugging coal!

Watch out for the Worm of Linton!

Watch out for those female samurai warriors!

Watch out for those female vampires and their satanic yoga!

Watch out for Mad Meg!

John Phair's long road to the gallows.

A handy guide to DIY thunder and lightning.

Here's a fun thought for the weekend:  Some of the many ways we could wipe out our solar system.  And, knowing humans, one of these days we're probably going to do just that.

A haunted Victorian mansion is on the market.

Mary Morgan, overoptimistic child-killer.

Pietro d'Abano, dark magician and cheese hater.

Lozen, the warrior woman.

Finding ancient history in a sewer pipe.

Some unfairly overlooked ancient ruins.

The Mad Hypnotist's Tea Party.

The discovery of a 1000-year-old tunnel.

The fossil of "Lucy" contains a little something extra.

Science has determined that you should play your cats Beethoven instead of AC/DC.  No, I'm not making this up.

The Abraham Lincoln curse.

Campgrounds in Hell, anyone?

On fairy circles and skin cells.

Brief rant:  It freaking infuriates me to see the breeding of "designer" cats and dogs when the shelters are full of, let's say, "organic" pets who badly need homes.  Give those hundreds of dollars you were going to spend on a Frankenkitty to the animals who really need it.  Some people.  Argh.

Well, this definitely does not look good.

Renting a wife in Georgian England.

Marie Antoinette lost me at the pigeon water.

A saint on the Titanic?

I'm guessing this means Santa is really a dwarflike, misshapen fairy.

A real-life doppelganger tale.

Going out on the town in 1967 Manhattan.

A particularly sad case of "bride kidnapping."

A Roman villa in Yorkshire.

Why digging up ancient mounds is rarely a good idea.

Smacking the Chikor is not so great, either.

And don't even consider dreaming about John Wilkes Booth.

The sad case of Jiggs, epicurean Brooklyn fire dog.

Husband and wife battle it out in the 18th century newspapers.

Albert Bender and the Woman in Black.

The mysteries of a 17th century mummy.

That time Ben Franklin hoaxed a newspaper.

They're not just finding kings under parking lots.

The alleys of the East End.

The island of decomposing dolls.

And, finally, here's...well, I'm damned if I know what to call this.

And that's it!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a very unfunny practical joke.  In the meantime, one of my readers posted this song on my Facebook page. (Thanks, Carol!)  The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

As the old-timers around this blog have learned only too well, I like cats and I like ghosts, so any story combining the two is sure to win my favor. This tale of a "grey ghost cat" (with luminous eyes!) comes to us from the "Dundee, Perth, Forfar & Fife's People's Journal" for December 13, 1919:

A grey ghost cat is striking terror into the hearts of the inhabitants of Sevenoaks Weald, Kent. The first alarm was given by pedestrians from the railway station who fancied they saw a large grey cat, with glowering, green eyes creeping along a hedgerow.

Several people, lovers of cats, called to the animal. It stopped, turned, opened its luminous optics, then gave an ear-piercing yell, and disappeared from sight. One or two, puzzled by the appearance and sudden disappearance, stopped to find out where the cat had gone to. They waited some time, looked over the hedge—but no cat!

A day later passers-by at the other end of the road which leads down to the station saw the grey ghost cat again. They stopped, called to it. Again the cat turned, opened its green eyes, yelled an awful screech, and again disappeared in a moment.

Mrs. Herbert Vibart, a resident, told me she saw the grey ghost cat, but it was held by a form that looked like that of a man.

"I was walking from Sevenoaks, where I had gone to get my watch repaired and to buy a few things for the house,” she said, "when I heard a low, purring sound, and then the sound of scratching. I turned round.

"There to the left, beyond the hedge which lined the road, was a tall indistinct form, like that of a man in a light grey suit. He was very thin, and in every way ‘ghostly.’ His face seemed oddly familiar, though I cannot describe just what it was like, but it looked like the face of a hungry man.

"Under the arm I saw plainly the grey ghost cat. It looked just like a cat, only about three times as big. Its eyes were green, and glowed like lamps. It looked savage, and I could see its grey hairs, all on end, shimmering in the darkness.

"I felt frightened, and yet I did not cry out. I called out, 'Who are you?’ Then the cat opened its baleful eyes. Its mouth opened, showing long, white teeth, and it gave a most piercing and eerie cry. When 1 looked again the cat had disappeared, and the man with it.”

George Summerskill, a farm hand, said he saw the ghost cat as he left the village inn. “I was coming from the house,” he said, “and I saw the cat as plain as plain could be. Mind, I have never been drunk in my life, so don’t put it down to booze! I had had about two pints all the evening, so I knew quite well where I was and how I was.

"When I first saw the cat I could not believe my eyes. There it was sitting on the fence of George Braham’s orchard. I called Braham out to have a look at the ghost cat, and he saw it as well as me. It seemed to be staring at us without moving, and was so real like that I went towards it.

"As we advanced it seemed to go further off, though it never got up and walked away as a cat would do. It simply seemed to glide backwards from us.

Then Braham called it. At once its eyes seemed to get very large and shiny. Its mouth opened and showed its teeth, and it let off a yell that made me quite start. When I looked again it was gone. We waited half an hour for the thing to appear again, but no one saw it again that night.”

The grey ghost cat is the one topic of conversation in the Weald to-day. School children are telling wonderful tales about it, while local historians are looking up their old books, and are trying to find old associations with grey cats and Kent.

A number of amateur detectives have, of course, already made their appearance, each determined to prove preconceived theories.

Meanwhile worried mothers keep fractious children in order by threatening them with the ghost cat, and the village policeman finds it interesting and profitable to instruct local visitors as to the best way and method of attempting to lay the grey ghost should they be so fortunate enough to meet it.

Meh. Around my house, being stalked by eerie grey cats with loud yells and big glowing eyes is called "any day that ends with the letter 'Y.'"

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Matricidal Mr. Merrett

In Edinburgh in the year 1926, Mrs. Bertha Merrett lived in a West End flat with her seventeen-year-old son, John Donald. Her husband, an electrical engineer named John Alfred Merrett, was a bit of a mystery. The couple married in New Zealand about twenty years before. They subsequently moved to St. Petersburg. The Russian climate was deemed too harsh for their son, so Mrs. Merrett took little John to Switzerland, leaving her husband behind. Not long afterward, World War I broke out, and John Alfred disappeared from sight. After the war, Mrs. Merrett and son returned to New Zealand, but as far as we know, her husband was never heard from again. Bertha's story was that he was killed during the chaos of the Russian Revolution, although rumor had it that Mr. Merrett was alive and well and living in India, leaving open the possibility that Mrs. Merrett was merely giving out a genteel cover story for a failed marriage. In any case, in 1924, she brought her son to Britain to finish his education. She had ambitions for her only child to enter into the diplomatic service. As a stint at Malvern College had not worked well for John, largely because of his wayward conduct, Mrs. Merrett enrolled him in Edinburgh College, a non-resident institution. She rented nearby housing for the both of them, to ensure he would remain under a mother's watchful eye.

Bertha Merrett, we are told, was charming, upright, cultured, and clever, well-liked and admired by everyone who knew her. Although her son would, once he reached his majority, inherit a substantial sum from his late grandfather, Mrs. Merrett's own income was limited, but she managed her funds with typical self-discipline and sense.

Like many single parents of only children, her whole life revolved around her son, who was her pride and joy. She had reasons for this doting affection. Young John was physically mature for his age, well-mannered, and highly intelligent. Unfortunately, she was blinded to the fact that he was also spoiled, selfish, lazy, and shockingly callous and self-indulgent. It was the classic case of the adoring parent happily oblivious to the fact that she had raised a sociopathic little monster.

Although Mrs. Merrett believed her son was attending classes at the University every week day, John was actually doing no such thing. His real occupation was slipping out every night to attend the local nightclubs (he was romancing a "dance hostess" named Betty Christie,) and venturing out every day to get an education of a more unconventional sort on the seamier streets of Edinburgh. After his first month or so at the University, he ceased to attend classes at all. His mother, of course, continued to stretch her scanty income to pay his school fees.

There was another major secret John was hiding from his mother. For some weeks, he had been supplementing the small allowance she gave him by embezzling from her. He had stolen one of her checkbooks, and by forging her checks and letters to her banks, he had set up a complicated system of withdrawing funds from her accounts, while using other forged checks to make bogus deposits to them, so that--for the moment, at least--Mrs. Merrett was unaware that there was money missing.

This juggling act could not last forever, of course. By March 1926, both her accounts were nearly drained dry. Bertha Merrett's discovery of her son's fraud was not only inevitable, but imminent.

On the morning of March 17, the Merrett housekeeper, Henrietta Sutherland, arrived for work. All seemed normal. Mrs. Merrett was her usual cheerful, courteous self. She and John had just finished breakfast, so the maid first went to clear the table. By the time she finished and returned to the sitting- room, Mrs. Merrett was writing letters at a small table. Young John was sitting opposite his mother, reading. Mrs. Sutherland went into the kitchen.

Just a few minutes after the maid had entered the kitchen, she was startled to hear a pistol-shot, followed by a scream and a thud. Transfixed by shock, she stood still, unsure how to process what she had just heard. Before she could pull herself together enough to investigate, John rushed into the kitchen, exclaiming that his mother had just shot herself. When Mrs. Sutherland gasped her astonishment at the news, the boy said something about how "he had been wasting his mother's money, and he thought she was worried about that."

When they re-entered the sitting-room, the maid saw Mrs. Merrett lying on her back, bleeding heavily from the head. She was unconscious, but still breathing. There was a pistol on the top of the bureau. Mrs. Sutherland had never seen it in the flat before. They called police, who soon arrived on the scene with an ambulance, and the stricken woman was rushed to the hospital.

John told police that he had been reading while his mother was answering her mail. Everything was peaceful until he suddenly heard a shot. When he looked up, he saw his mother fall to the floor. When he was asked why Mrs. Merrett would wish to kill herself, he shrugged and replied, "Just money matters."

The position of the pistol at the time Mrs. Merrett collapsed was, unbelievably, never positively determined. Mrs. Sutherland said she had seen it on the bureau, where, according to John, he had placed it after his mother shot herself. On the other hand, one of the two policemen who were first on the scene later said he had seen his colleague lift the gun from the floor near the injured woman. The other policeman said he could not recall if he had picked up the gun from the floor or the bureau.

After his mother was settled in her hospital room, young John attended to what was, for him, more pressing matters: He bought a motorcycle, and visited his girlfriend's dance hall to take her out for a ride. She later said that Merrett had casually told her that his mother had shot herself "with his own pistol" while the maid was in the kitchen. Later in the day, while talking to a friend, he repeated this story.

So far, the two witnesses, Merrett and the maid, were telling a bizarre story, but at least a consistent one. However, that very day, Mrs. Sutherland--for reasons that have boggled the minds of all students of this case--changed her testimony entirely. According to a CID investigator, she told him that she was in the kitchen when she heard a shot. She then came running into the sitting-room, where she saw Mrs. Merrett fall from her chair, still clutching a pistol in her hand.

Unfortunately, the CID men were unaware at the time of her previous story, so they unquestioningly accepted this account. It was, they instantly decided, as clear a case of suicide as you could ever see.

They found a number of letters on Mrs. Merrett's desk, including two from one of her banks, informing her that her account was overdrawn. There was also a letter she had been in the middle of writing to a friend just at the moment when she was shot. It was a cheerful note, saying how she and her son were now comfortably settled in their flat. This letter was free of blood-stains.

One would think that it did not take a Hercule Poirot to think that there was something wrong with this scene. Surely one would think it odd that the lady would start to pen a breezy, happy note, and then suddenly interrupt it to grab a gun and shoot herself in the head, while miraculously getting no blood on the notepaper in front of her. But, no. The inspectors had decided it was a suicide, and they were damned if they would let any inconvenient facts spoil their nice, quick, tidy investigation. (Incidentally, when Mrs. Sutherland was later asked to explain the discrepancies in her accounts of the tragedy, she explained that she only claimed to have seen Mrs. Merrett holding a pistol because "she was excited at the time." She went back to her original story, saying she had seen nothing. Investigators were content to leave it at that.)

Meanwhile, Mrs. Merrett lay in her hospital room--in the ward reserved for suicidal patients--in very grave condition. X-rays showed a bullet lodged at the base of her skull. Doctors decided it could not be removed. When she regained consciousness, she had no memory of what had happened. All she could say was that "I was sitting writing...when suddenly a bang went off in my head like a pistol." When a nurse asked if there had been a pistol there, Mrs. Merrett responded in astonishment, "No. Was there?" She added that while she was writing, John was "standing beside me, waiting to post the letter." She gave one of her doctors a similar story, adding that she told her son, "Go away, Donald, and don't annoy me." The next thing she heard was "a kind of explosion, and I don't remember anything more." It was, she added in bewilderment, "as if Donald had shot me."

For whatever reason--possibly because everyone assumed she was a would-be suicide--no one gave the poor perplexed woman any hint of why she was in the hospital. Doctors and visitors only told her that she had "a little accident." The Inspector in charge of the case, when told that Mrs. Merrett was dying, but still conscious and capable of speech, did not even bother to interview her.

As for her loving son, when told by a doctor that his mother was very ill, but still had "a fighting chance," John replied with obvious unease, "So it's still on the cards that she will recover?" He did not bother to inform her two sisters or any of her many friends of her grave condition.

Mrs. Merrett lingered in physical pain and mental unease until March 27, when she sank into a coma. On the morning of April 1, she died.

Mrs. Merrett's sister, a Mrs. Penn, flatly refused to accept the official verdict of suicide, although she naturally shrunk from accepting the only possible alternative. She chose to convince herself that her sister's death was due to some dreadful freak accident. Before she died, Mrs. Merrett had begged her sister to "look after Donald," and Mrs. Penn tried to do just that. She and her husband moved into the Merrett flat with her now-orphaned nephew. A few days later, Mr. Penn found an empty cartridge case a few feet from where Mrs. Merrett had been sitting at the time when she was shot, and he informed police.

When questioned about this discovery, John told police that he had bought the gun to serve as protection. A couple of weeks before the shooting, his mother took the gun from him and put it in her bureau, and that was the last he saw of it. He added that after his mother was shot, he picked up the pistol and placed it on the bureau.

Mr. and Mrs. Penn remained in the Merritt flat until the lease expired. Meanwhile, John went back to his double life: ostensibly attending classes, in reality haunting the local dance-halls. In June, the Penns returned to their home. John was, according to the terms of his mother's will, left in the care of a Public Trustee until he reached his majority and came into his inheritance. This guardian sent him to a country vicarage in Buckinghamshire. The plan was that he would study under a private tutor to prepare him for another attempt at University life.

It was only when this Trustee took over Mrs. Merrett's estate that her son's exploits in forgery and embezzlement were uncovered. It began to dawn upon the police that perhaps they had just been a wee bit hasty in dismissing the lady's death as an obvious suicide. The CID did their own experiments with ballistics and handwriting analyses, and the result was that an arrest warrant was issued for John Donald Merrett. He stood trial for murder and forgery in January 1927.

As you may have already guessed, the case against young John looked very grave. Mrs. Merrett's doctors and nurses also testified that they had not seen any gunshot residue around her wound, indicating that she had not been shot at close range.

However, John Merrett did have some things in his favor. The particular horror attached to the crime of matricide, coupled with the defendant's youth, led many to find it unbelievable that this suave, articulate young man could commit such an unspeakable act. One woman on the jury was heard to say during the trial that "I'm so sorry for that poor boy!"

Merrett's counsel suggested that in the hospital, Mrs. Merrett was so mentally confused that she was simply unable to remember shooting herself. They made a great deal of the fact that the doctor who had autopsied Mrs. Merrett's corpse, and who was now testifying about the improbability that she had shot herself, originally called her injuries "consistent with suicide." They also emphasized the police's unbelievable negligence in not taking a dying deposition from Mrs. Merrett. If this had been done, the defense suggested, their client would never have been put on trial at all. With such contradictory and inconclusive evidence, they asserted, the jury had no choice but to rely on the presumption of innocence.

The jewel in the defense crown, however, was the testimony of Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury was the most famous pathologist of his day. At the time of the Merrett trial, he had acquired such a reputation--albeit one not always deserved--of infallibility that juries inevitably accepted his views without question, no matter what evidence there might be to contradict him.

He told the jury that he believed Mrs. Merrett's wound was not inconsistent with suicide. The heavy bleeding might have washed away any gunshot residue from the entry wound. (Although under cross-examination, he had to admit that the position of the wound was an unusual one for a suicide.)

The defense had less success explaining away those forged checks. Also, doubts were raised whether Mrs. Merrett had ever seen the letters from her bank stating that she was overdrawn--the letters which were only later found on her desk and used by her son as a motive for her suicide. Only John Donald could have answered all the lingering unsolved questions surrounding his mother's death--and he declined to testify at his trial.

After deliberating less than an hour, the jury decided the defendant was guilty of forgery. As for the charge of murder, they delivered that peculiar Scottish verdict of "Not Proven." It was, as a local newspaper commented, "An unsatisfactory ending to a rather unsatisfactory case."

Merrett was sentenced to a year in jail. He served his time in an open prison, under far from unpleasant conditions. Upon his release, he was given a temporary home by a Mrs. Bonner, a friend of Bertha Merritt's who took pity on this unfortunate young man who was now alone in the world. Merrett's way of thanking her for this act of kindness was by eloping with his hostess' pretty seventeen-year-old daughter Vera. The young couple married in March 1928. Three months after the wedding, the newlyweds were arrested on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretenses. It seems that, feeling nostalgic for the good old days, Merrett opened a bank account under a false name and bought a large amount of goods from local tradesmen. As he had only deposited the sum of one pound in this account, the checks he have these merchants immediately bounced. Merrett soon found himself in a considerably less desirable prison, doing nine months with hard labor.

True-crime doyen William Roughead wrote of the Merrett case only a few years after John Donald's second conviction, and so his account ends there. Roughead was a lawyer, well aware of the laws of libel. As the subject of his essay was still alive, Roughead contented himself by commenting that the public had heard nothing more from Merrett, "but you never can tell: we may do so yet."

We did indeed, but that was not until 1954, two years after Roughead's death. After being released from prison the second time, Merrett claimed his grandfather's inheritance, settling part of it on Vera. He changed his name to "Ronald Chesney," and embarked on a full-time career of smuggling, theft, gun-running, drug-dealing, and many similarly sordid crimes. He spent more time in prison than out of it. After his money ran out, he began to cast covetous eyes on the share of his fortune that was in the possession of his wife. However, the two of them had been bitterly estranged for many years. (Vera, a Roman Catholic, refused to consider divorce.) The only way he would get that money back was if she predeceased him.

This inevitably led to certain trains of thought.

In January 1954, Merrett/Chesney was in Germany. He used a stolen passport to make an undetected return to England, where he snuck into the flat Vera shared with her mother and drowned his wife in the bathtub. While creeping away from the murder scene, he unexpectedly ran into his mother-in-law. From his point of view, there was nothing for it but to strangle the woman so he could make his getaway.

Vera Merrett

The elderly woman had bravely put up a lengthy fight for her life--scraps of flesh were found under her fingernails--and Merrett was spotted leaving the scene. This proved to be his final undoing. Merrett, on the lam in Germany, read the newspaper accounts of the double homicide--his arms still raw from where Mrs. Bonner had clawed him--and learned that he was wanted by the police. He knew that this time, there was no escaping the gallows.

Merrett had spent his entire life cheating everyone around him, so it was fitting that his last act was to cheat the hangman. Before the authorities could catch up with him, he had withdrawn into a lonely forest by the Rhine, where he put a pistol into his mouth and shot himself.

Roughead's prediction came true possibly even more horrifically than he had imagined.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's Friday!  Time to stretch out in the sun and relax!

Of course, for the cats it's always the weekend.

On to the links:

Who the hell killed Walter Debbins?

Who the hell killed Elizabeth Sheppard?

Who the hell was Zana?

Where the hell is Jesus' tomb?

Where the hell is Tuanaki?

What the hell is the Great Serpent Mound?

Watch out for those snakes in the stomach! And, uh, other body parts.

Watch out for Aqua Tofana!

Watch out for the Alaska Triangle!

Watch out for those cavalier road ghosts!

An execution with heavy collateral damage.

Berkeley is really booming!

A look at Horace Walpole's wonderful Strawberry Hill.

Reviving the sad story behind a long-forgotten murderer.

An odd story about an Icelandic girl who invented her own language.

Some great pictures of the 19th century American West.

I really don't know what to say about this except..."Eek!"

Walking in the footsteps of a badass 8th century mystic.

A message in a bottle takes its time about being found.

The ill-fated Grand Duchess Elisabeth.

A Chinese lumberjack who had sex with an alien.

An American pilot who nearly ran into an alien.

Good news!  Next time you're in Antarctica, you can go bowling!

San Francisco's graveyard wars.

A night out in 1943 Manhattan.

Your "Oopsie!" moment of the week, Art History Division.

Poor Biso the cat is finally free.

You finally have time for that long holiday.  Naturally, you spend it touring sites of death, misery, and devastation.   Party time!

If you're UFO hunting, here's the map.

An interesting bit of alt-history:  What if the Amerindians had been immune to smallpox?

Wartime kangaroos.

Explaining the "southern lights."

Milton Wainwright, the scientist who just can't stop finding aliens.

Who created these bone flutes?  The Neanderthals or the hyenas?

Twelve buildings that date from the time of Richard III.

That time Lenin almost got what was coming to him.

Scandinavian Easter Witches!

If you ever find yourself working as a Regency Era servant, here's a handy cheat sheet.

British social life in 19th century India.

Floyd the bar-hopping turtle.

Etchings of Old London.

The dog detectives of the Long Island Railroad.

How two adventurous sisters found the Hidden Gospels.

The waxy Sarah Hare.

I have met the Bigfoot Apocalypse, and it is us.

Here's your chance to have a Pictish stone circle in your backyard.

And, finally:  Some people really should not be allowed out of their homes.

And just like that, we wrap up another Week in The Weird.  I'll see you all on Monday, when we'll meet a man who...almost...got away with murder.  In the meantime, here's The Band: