"...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, March 6, 2015

Weekend Link Dump



Everyone is a basket case sometimes.


So let's unwind with some links:

What the hell is the Maine Penny?

We're still asking, "Where the hell is MH370?"

Watch out for those deserts!

Watch out for Tango Foot!

Watch out for those cemetery ghost lights!

Port Angeles is really booming!

North Texas is really booming!

Florida is really booming!

Taking the concept of "BFF" to a whole 'nother level.

The ominous lessons of a rodent utopia.

Declaring WWI.

The sad case of the "Boxing Baroness."

A museum honors an alien abduction.

Tales of phantom ships, 1909.

Born in India, raised in Britain.

Eglantine Wallace, wild child.

The Shah of Persia collects revenue.

The madness of menses.

Shorter version:  A Georgian household was Housekeeping Hell.

The strange "family" life of Augustus Hare.

How Victorian mothers unwittingly gave their children "Murder bottles."

If you've read M.R. James' "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" you'll know this probably won't end well.

A rather unusual tale of haunted Welsh ironworks.

Winston Churchill's Demon Voices.

Fascinating Womanhood, 1920s style.

Charlie Chaplin and the grave-robbers.

Prankster Brian Hughes and his cat sidekick.

The advantages--and disadvantages--of the crinoline.

Vikings as "global investors."

Return of the Royal Eggs.

The strange case of George Edalji.

A night out in Manhattan, 1938.

Writing to Agatha Christie.

The Cato Street Conspiracy.

Turning the tables on an executioner.

Joseph Richards makes a really bad career move.

Another tale of body-snatching gone wrong.

Another tale of burials gone wrong.

And finally, here's a pony and his periscope.



There you have it. On Monday, I'll be back with the tale of one strange, sad road trip. In the meantime, don't put on any airs when you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue:


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Just to prove that the English can put on a French farce as well as anyone, here is a report from the "Chester Chronicle" for August 22, 1857, describing the remarkable technology involved in a case of "criminal conversation" (i.e. adultery.) Behold the inventive Mr. Lyle and his "crimconometer":

An invention for jealous husbands has filled that fraternity with admiration. Numerous experiments are being made, and the results are said to be lamentably successful. The apparatus is called "an indicator," and its use and construction were elicited in the course of an action, last week, for crim. con., at the Croydon assizes, before the Lord Chief Baron and a special jury.

The plaintiff was a builder, named Lyle, having a good business in Charlotte-street, in that town, and the defendant was his partner, Mr. Herbert, who had joined him in Christmas last, since when he had lived at the defendant's house. The plaintiff was aged 34 years, his wife being under thirty. She had no particular personal attractions, and it was stated, was jealous of the servant girl, with whom she thought he had been on too intimate terms. This feeling appeared to be reciprocal, the husband having latterly suspected that she was too kind to his partner. He instituted a watch, calling in the assistance of a reduced cabinet-maker, named William Taylor, who, after the failure of other means, invented what he called the indicator, which was simply a piece of string fastened under the plaintiff's bed, carried through a hole in a parting wall to an adjoining house, which was empty, and having attached to the other end a weight, which would indicate when one or more persons got into the bed. In his examination, Taylor said, on the night of the 18th June he was watching with his ear at the hole, and the indicator acted. (A laugh.) The lever fell according to the weight.—(Laughter.) It first informed him that one person got into bed, and then that a second person had done so.— (Renewed laughter.) He immediately proceeded to the roof, and entered by the trap-door; took the servant by the hand, opened the door of the defendant's bedroom, tore down the curtains, and turned the bull's eye upon them.—(A roar of laughter.) Mr. Herbert and Mrs. Lyle were in bed together. When the bull's-eye was turned upon them they rolled off the bed, and Mrs. Lyle then rushed down stairs to her own room. In cross-examination by Mr. Serjeant Parry, who appeared for the defendant, this witness stated that the plaintiff was in the empty house when the discovery was made, and that he watched the indicator while witness was looking at the hole through the wall.

Mr. Serjeant Parry, in a humourous speech for the defendant, said a more ridiculous--and at the same time disgusting case he--and he believed, he might say every one, including,the learned judge, who had had great experience in these matters--had never heard of. Had any one ever heard such evidence as that given by the witness Taylor? Was it possible for any one to hear him talk of his "indicator"; or rather his "crimconometer," without having his risible muscles excited to the utmost degree?--(Laughter, in which the learned Judge could not help joining.) He could not help saying that was astonished that his learned friend Mr. James, who, he knew, enjoyed anything that was funny as well as any one in the world, could have opened the case in the solemn manner he did, when he was aware of the nature of the evidence by which the plaintiff's case was to be supported? The learned serjeant then proceeded to state that, in his opinion, the action was one of the most disgraceful that had ever been brought into a court of justice, and that even if the jury should believe the evidence of the witness Taylor, upon whom, he said, the case entirely rested; the lowest coin of the realm would be ample compensation for the injury the plaintiff' had sustained.

The jury, after a short deliberation, returned a verdict for the plaintiff--damages one farthing.

This story desperately cries out for an "Illustrated Police News" image, (complete with detailed diagram of the crimconometer!) but, alas, that publication was still some years in the future at the time of this incident. I hope this drawing from 1898 will suffice.


Monday, March 2, 2015

Goodwin Wharton, King of Fairyland

Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake


"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil."
~Edgar Allan Poe, "Eleonora"

Being a younger son in a family of 17th century aristocrats was often not an easy lot. Goodwin Wharton was an ideal example of that. His older brother Thomas was promised all the family's income and estates, leaving Goodwin with no prospects and no practical way of earning his own keep. Worse yet, his father, Lord Wharton, made no secret of the fact that he much preferred his gregarious, dynamic elder son and heir to Thomas' more inward, decidedly oddball sibling.

Goodwin did his erratic best to find a place for himself in the world. In 1675, he patented a design for deep-sea diving equipment, as well as "new inventions for buoying up ships sunk in the sea," and "an ingenious design...for the squenching of public fires."  Another attempt to make his fortune failed when an "alchemist" hired to teach him to make gold instead took his money and ran.

Unsurprisingly, these visionary ventures failed to keep the wolf from the door. He then tried his hand at politics, that favorite last resort of a gentleman incapable of holding a normal job. He was elected an MP in 1680, but his career both began and ended with his maiden speech. It consisted of a bizarre rant against the Duke of York (later James II,) accusing him of everything from cowardice to starting the Great Fire of London. In one stroke, he managed to unite both the Court party and the opposition Whigs. Unfortunately, what united them was their conviction that Wharton was a jerk. Things were not going any better in his personal life. He had a quasi-affair with his sister-in-law Anne, (which, typically for Goodwin, never really got off the ground and ended badly.) Unsurprisingly, this liaison alienated him from both his father and his brother. He was, Goodwin wrote with rather endearing bemusement, "generally hated and slighted by my own relations."

In such desperate circumstances, it is not surprising that our hero sought out a fairy godmother or godfather. What is a bit unusual is that he did took the "fairy" part quite literally.

Wharton's Walk on the Weird Side began in the spring of 1683, when he met a fiftysomething "wise woman" named Mary Parish. She was not very successful at her profession, eking out only a bare living selling "charms" and dubious homemade medicines. For some reason, however, this third-rate witch made a great impression on Wharton. In fact, the story she spun for him would change the course of his life for good.

She told Wharton that although she was now poor, when she was a small child, her family had suddenly acquired a mysterious amount of money. She confided to her new friend the source of these strange riches: Her grandfather had discovered a pot of "fairy gold" in the woods at Northend. What's more, an inscription on the pot promised still more wealth to anyone who knew where to find it. One day young Mary, while searching the woods in search of this treasure, saw a group of fairies. After that, her family, in the hopes that she would expand upon these latent occult talents, sent her to an uncle, who taught her many healing and esoteric arts. Despite this promising start in life, she fell on hard times, and wound up in prison for debt.

While in Newgate, she became friends with a condemned man named George, who promised to become her guardian spirit after his execution. George, she sighed, fulfilled his promise, but alas! despite this otherworldly support and her own native gifts, the jealous machinations of the royal physician, Sir Thomas Williams, kept her in undeserved poverty and obscurity.

However, although the human world may have let her down, Mary had recently found allies in the land below. She explained that while walking through Hounslow Heath, she heard mystic bells ringing underground. She followed the music down into the kingdom of the fairies--the "Lowlands." While there, she visited the royal palace, where she ingratiated herself with no less than the King and Queen of Fairyland. With a little human help--say, someone of high birth, good social connections, and, of course, the ability to raise a little cash (here she stared meaningfully at Goodwin)--she would be able to obtain wealth and powers beyond the imaginings of mere humanity.

Mary told Goodwin all about the world of the Lowlands. The fairies were mortal, but capable of living for many centuries. Through their technological wizardry, they could appear and disappear at will, and change their size and appearance. She effortlessly spun him long, meticulously detailed accounts of these magical creatures--their customs, religion (Roman Catholic with some Jewish trimmings,) and history. She filled him in on the complex, and surprisingly bloody, rivalries at the royal court, complete with biographies of everyone who was anyone in the Lowlands. It all read like J.R.R. Tolkien meets "I, Claudius." Mary's stories were so colorful and spellbinding that Goodwin soon felt himself more immersed in the Lowlands than in his own relatively drab, dull little world. He believed every word she said, and was eager to communicate with these exciting, marvelous creatures.

Goodwin did not find any of this at all weird.

With Mary's spirit pal George acting as mediator, it was arranged that Penelope, Queen of the Fairies, would meet with Goodwin in his lodgings. Frustratingly for Wharton, he always seemed to be asleep when she arrived, and thus kept missing her visits. Annoying though this was, he was cheered when the messages she relayed to him via Mary and George took a new tone. Penelope announced that she wanted to marry Goodwin and make him king of the Lowlands. After this, when she would visit the sleeping Wharton in his rooms, she would--so he was told--make love to him, somehow without wakening him. She even became pregnant by him, but before long Goodwin was told the sad news that she had suffered a miscarriage.

Goodwin still did not find any of this weird.

Around this time, in a curious "as above, so below" parallel, Mary and Goodwin also became lovers. Although she was by now past the age of 60, Mary soon announced that she was carrying his child. After an appropriate number of months, she informed Goodwin that she had given birth to a boy named Peregrine, who had been given over to a nurse to raise. Goodwin never laid eyes on the child, but for the rest of his life, he unhesitatingly provided money for the boy's care. (Mary later produced--God knew how--a second son, Hezekiah.) Further good news came to him when he learned that Queen Penelope had named him as the new King of the Fairies. Young Peregrine would be his successor.

No, of course Goodwin did not find any of this weird.

Wharton and Mary did not let this spectral soap opera distract them from their real goal: Uncovering the hidden fairy gold of Northend. By late 1683, they had located the site of the treasure, but there was just one problem: The gold was protected by an evil spirit named Rumbonium. Fortunately, another, more benevolent spirit named Bromka tipped them off that Rumbonium took every Monday afternoon off, leaving the treasure unguarded during those hours.

Now, the problem was that the two partners were nearly out of money. Goodwin sought out a wealthy acquaintance, the former postmaster-general, John Wildman, and invited him to contribute to their little business scheme.

Whenever an old friend asks, "Can you lend me some money so I can dig up a fairy treasure?" most people, I imagine, react by slamming the door and calling the police. Wildman, however, thought it sounded like a sound investment, which seems to suggest that Goodwin's social circle was even stranger than the Lowlands. He gave Goodwin 300 guineas, with the promise of more if things looked promising.

So. One Monday afternoon in July 1684, the trio (quartet, if you count George, which we really should,) trooped through Northend to the treasure site. The good news was that Rumbonium was indeed absent. The bad news was that he had left some deputies in his place: Two menacing ghosts named Rismin and Osmindor, as well as a fearsome dragon, Accoron. Mary sighed that there was nothing for it but to conduct an exorcism. This was successful, but then Mary informed her partners that the treasure was just too large for the three of them to manage. She would have to hire some servants from Fairyland to haul it out from them. If Wildman would just give her an additional fifty guineas to pay them...

Wildman did not find any of this at all weird. He obediently handed over the money.

Mary obtained these fairy porters, but before they could get to work, Bromka informed her that the treasure was just, oops, well, gone. Taken by whom? And to where? Who knew?

Not to worry! Bromka assured them. He knew where they could find an even better treasure: The "Urim and Thummim," taken from the Temple of Jerusalem when it was sacked in 70 AD. It was now in the possession of a spirit named Ruben Pen Dennis, who was ready to hand it over to them--er, in about a week or so.

All right, then. A week later, the trio hiked back to the woods, only to have Bromka announce regretfully that they were just fifteen minutes too late. The Jerusalem treasures had also unaccountably vanished.

Oh, well.

Although Mary and Goodwin were undiscouraged, John Wildman became occupied with other matters. Always a busy, if rather inept, political plotter, he had become involved in the Monmouth Rebellion, and after its failure Wildman was forced to flee to the Continent. (Accompanying him was another player in the Rebellion, Goodwin's father, Lord Wharton.)

Up to this point, Goodwin's only contact with the angels, fairies, and spirits had been through Mary. In October 1684, he began to hear them speak to him personally. They had wonderful news. He learned that he, humble Goodwin Wharton, was destined to become the greatest ruler who ever lived. Throughout that winter, he became increasingly absorbed in these communications. He and Mary would sit in his candlelit lodgings, praying, listening, and marveling. (While hearing these spirit voices, Goodwin occasionally thought he saw Mary's lips move, but he dismissed such uneasy thoughts from his mind.) His faith was rewarded in the spring of 1685, when none other than God spoke to him--curiously enough, the Almighty's voice seemed to always come through doors or walls, and always when Mary was out of the room. It was at this time that Goodwin began to write his memoirs, intended as a message to his "son," Peregrine. He put down some half-a-million words in a manuscript relating his incredible experiences and the amazing destiny he faced. (This memoir now sits in the British Library, but is unpublished, and, alas, largely unread, which hardly seems like doing justice to God's Elect.)

It was around this time that, at long last, Goodwin began to feel things were getting weird.

He started to hear and see very strange things, even when Mary was nowhere in the vicinity. He would see flashes of sacred fire, encounter Christ on a rowboat in a local river, find himself attacked by Satan. He heard voices telling him that he was the "Solar King of the World," destined to turn earth into God's Kingdom.

With all this to occupy his mind, it is not surprising that the Lowlands began to pale in comparison. Mary told him of the death of his "wife" Queen Penelope, and the succession to the Fairy Throne by her sister Ursula. Although the new queen also wanted to marry Wharton, he rejected her advances. Ursula also died soon afterwards, leaving Goodwin Wharton the sole ruler of Fairyland. He paid little attention to his new honor. Now that God was speaking to him directly, Mary's channeling was no longer so important to him.

Besides, the new King of the Lowlands was about to become royal above ground, as well. God was now instructing Wharton to become lovers with Mary of Modena, the wife of James II. He was meant to father her child, who would then become King of England. Wharton followed the queen to Bath, where he arranged to meet her privately...but, oddly enough, she always failed to show up in person. When later in the year, it was announced that Queen Mary was expecting a child, Wharton immediately knew it was all a fraud. He, and he alone, was destined to make her pregnant. The Revolution of 1688 came as no surprise to him whatsoever.

Although he had no role in James' overthrow, it proved to be a lucky turn of events for Goodwin. The Wharton family's well-known support for the Whigs meant that when William of Orange took over, their loyalty (or, depending on how you look at it, disloyalty,) was well-rewarded. Goodwin's brother Thomas became one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.

And Goodwin--the ruler of Fairyland and Solar King of the World--was made one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

Startling though this may be to anyone with knowledge of Goodwin's remarkable private life, it seemed like a perfectly normal turn of events to outsiders. In 1690, he had returned to Parliament, where, in contrast to his brief, disastrous previous attempt at a political career, he soon gained a reputation as an expert in military and financial issues. The former feckless ne'er-do-well impressed everyone as hard-working, serious, and learned. His fairy friends--still secretly with him every step of the way--were serving him well. One could hardly find a more solid, respectable figure.

Goodwin's life appeared to be moving towards a peaceful and prosperous close, but his uncharacteristic success was fated not to last. In 1698, he suffered a stroke which forced him to retire from public life. Then, in 1702, King William was replaced by Anne Stuart. Her Tory sympathies ensured that the once-powerful Whartons were in the descendant.

You may be surprised to learn (assuming that by this point in our tale you can be surprised by anything) that Goodwin was pleased by this turn in the political wheel. For some years, he had "known" that Anne cherished a hidden passion for him. One of his visions told him that she would marry him once her husband died. He was certain that before long, his destiny of becoming King of England would at last be realized.

In the meantime, however, he had to deal with the death of Mary Parish early in 1703. Although he had been playing solo, so to speak, on his visions for some time, Mary had been his closest friend and partner for twenty years. Although it is unquestionable that at first, she had seen him merely as yet another pigeon ripe for plucking, it arguably does them both a disservice to simply classify them as "con artist" and "victim." Mary had, in a deranged sort of way, brought fulfillment and purpose to his life. In the words of Wharton's biographer J. Kent Clark, Mary "constructed and described to him a dramatic world in which he had played the central role. She had made his life significant."

One could say that Goodwin had performed the same service for her.

After Mary's left the scene, Goodwin's "dramatic world" rather lost the plot. His subjects in the Lowlands failed to recognize him as their monarch. Queen Anne failed to reveal her love for him. Even Mary failed to keep her deathbed promise to visit him after her death. He lived quietly, but sadly, on his country estate until his death in October 1704.

The fairies didn't even bother to send condolences.

So, what to make of this unusual life story? The easiest and most obvious response is to simply dismiss Goodwin as a madman--someone who, in the words of the "Dictionary of National Biography," ranked "high in the annals of psychopathology."

This may be an oversimplification of a complex character. Although Wharton was undoubtedly a peculiar man, and trusting to a rather stunning degree, it must be remembered that he was a product of his time. An acceptance of fairies, spirits, demons, alchemy, and the like was hardly out-of-the-ordinary among his contemporaries. (Note that John Wildman, whom nobody regarded as mad, found Goodwin's tales of fairies and buried treasure entirely plausible.) Wharton's "spirit voices," could, in other circumstances, have led him to be regarded as a saint, rather than a lunatic. Seen in the context of the 17th century, Wharton's beliefs were no odder than anything shown on "Ancient Aliens."

There is also the fact that no one who knew Wharton, even in his disreputable younger days. seems to have regarded him as a nut. In his mature years, he was regarded as not just talented, but disciplined and responsible. It is, ironically enough, his own memoir that provides any evidence that he was anything more than just another dull politician.

Perhaps, in the end, it's best to simply say that Goodwin Wharton was one of those who dream by day.

[Note: My main source for this post was Jonathan Law's highly entertaining "The Whartons of Winchendon," a book that incidentally proves that Goodwin was among the more normal members of his family.]

Friday, February 27, 2015

Weekend Link Dump


Everyone needs to remember that spring is just around the corner.


Everyone.

Time to spring over to some links:

What the hell caused these places to vitrify?

What the hell is under Toronto?

Where the hell are the bones of John the Baptist?  Now we...maybe know?

How the hell old was this Chinese herbalist?

Watch out for those flesh-eating Icelandic elves!

Watch out for William Poulson's doctor!

Watch out for roofs that were built on the cheap!

Tennessee is really booming!

Russia is really sinking!

The oldest Norwegian.

A haunted castle in New Hampshire.

Church "plague graffiti" reveals an old family tragedy.

Dandy Jim and the body-snatchers.  I adore this story.

The housekeeper's ghost of Brumby Wood Hall.

A ghost keeps busy in the afterlife by inventing new choppers.  No, really.

Mapping the Piri Reis map.

Being king/queen of Scotland was not a recipe for a long and happy life.

Rachel Jackson, semi-First Lady.

A retirement home for cats.

This story cries out for an "Illustrated Police News" drawing.

A sad episode in the history of the Swan & Royal.

A blogger does some internet detective work and uncovers the saga of the Scientific Swindler.

In which we learn of the dangers of treasure-hunting with ghosts.

Defending John Dee.

2500 year-old brain surgery.

Mike, king of the Fire Dogs.

Danish fairy castles.

The unfunny lives of Victorian street clowns.

What did this spiritualist know about the Lincoln assassination and when did he know it?

A gorgeously enigmatic Portuguese palace.

Abandoned lighthouses and their eerie histories.

Yeah, I don't think this is going to end well.

Well, this is embarrassing for some people.

Photographing the 19th century East End.

The surprisingly lively home life of James Madison.

A good attempt to explain the seemingly inexplicable popularity of "Fifty Shades of Grey."

In a related topic, here's some flirtatious flagellation.

The man who tried to tame Dartmoor.

George Wheeler, bad brother-in-law.

The case of the bewitched cheese-maker.

The time everyone tried to make the "world's smartest woman" look dumb.

The Curiosities of Manchester College.

Swedish funeral candy!

A ghostly Jacobite army.

Avoiding disaster with some really cool cats.

And we're outta here! See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at the man who became king of Fairyland. In the meantime, here's Johnny Cash:


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day

February 5, 1898


For me, one of the innumerable joys of the "Illustrated Police News" is that while they did report on a lot of women who were victims of the domestic abuse, robberies, natural disasters and 'orrible murders that were a staple of this august publication, they balanced this by depicting a remarkable number of kick-ass females who fought their own battles, took no prisoners, and generally raised hell.  No one who browses through the archives of this paper falls for the myth of Victorian female fragility for a second.  Call this post my little tribute to the ladies of the IPN.

As the above sketch so eloquently demonstrates, IPN woman did not take insults from men lightly.  The following image shows what happened when a drunk made offensive remarks to a lady cyclist who was "noted for her athletic powers":



Next, a woman's fiance breaks off their engagement with the insulting words that she was "one step above the street."  After that, he was one foot into the grave:

August 10, 1872


Birmingham lady caught her husband with another woman, and acted accordingly:

September 19, 1896


The "Chicago Times" published an article that Lydia Thompson of the Blonde Burlesque Troupe did not like.  She issued a rebuttal to the editor:





This policeman attempted to charge this woman with breaking the rules of a dog show.  He soon regretted the effort.

October 11, 1879

In the Victorian novels, a "traduced" woman cried, or fainted, or committed suicide.  Not the IPN lady:

September 9, 1899


Other insulted ladies scorned mere weapons and used the direct approach:

March 28, 1896

April 13, 1895

April 30, 1898

March 6, 1899


On a more civilized note, aggrieved women did not hesitate to settle their differences on the dueling field:

December 11, 1869
March 7, 1896

December 11, 1897

Even the nuns got into the true IPN spirit:

August 14, 1869


The ladies of the Illustrated Police News were life-savers!

December 4, 1869

February 28, 1874


The ladies of the Illustrated Police News were crime-fighters!

August 2, 1897


March 7, 1885

August 29, 1896

February 14, 1874

March 20, 1897

May 16, 1896

September 9, 1894


March 27, 1897



November 6, 1877

April 7, 1877

December 3, 1898
March 26, 1898
March 4, 1899



The ladies of the Illustrated Police News turned the tails on would-be murderers!

March 20, 1899

The ladies of the Illustrated Police News were expert marriage counselors!

August 31, 1878
August 5, 1899


The ladies of the Illustrated Police News wore whatever they damn well pleased!

September 5, 1896

The ladies of the Illustrated Police News liked to dance!

October 15, 1898



The ladies of the Illustrated Police News knew that sometimes the best man for a job is a woman!

January 14, 1899


And don't you even dream of getting between them and their cats!

October 1, 1870


In short, the ladies of the Illustrated Police News knew what they wanted, and didn't hesitate to get it.

April 9, 1898


How can you not love them?  Here's to you, ladies.  Long may you wave those horsewhips.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Baron of Arizona



In 1883, an aristocratic-looking man suddenly appeared in Phoenix, Arizona, and calmly announced that thanks to his possession of the Spanish titles of Baron de Arizonaca and Caballero de los Colorados, he owned the entire city and an area surrounding it that amounted to nearly eleven million acres. The territory included not only the state’s capital city, but the Silver King mine, a treasure in copper, gold, and silver ore, and, oh, yes, the right of way of the Southern Pacific Railway.

James Addison Reavis had just proclaimed himself the Baron of Arizona.

Reavis’ astonishing rise to fortune began when he was a soldier in the Confederate Army, when he accidentally discovered that he had a remarkable talent for forging passes of leave for himself and his friends. Having an intelligence and ambition to match this unexpected gift for criminality, he naturally began to think of exercising his abilities on a larger scale.

After his discharge from the army, he made his way to St. Louis, where he became a real estate agent. His skill in forgery came in handy, as it allowed him to “discover” property titles and other paperwork that served the interests of his clients.

In 1871, he met George Willing, who alleged he had bought a large Spanish land grant in Arizona from a Miguel Peralta, although his documentation was extremely shaky and informal. Reavis and Willing eventually formed a partnership to promote this claim. In 1874, Willing went to Prescott, Arizona to file his claim, but the very next morning, he died suddenly. The cause of his death was unknown, but—especially in the light of later events—many dark rumors spread about his convenient exit from the scene. Reavis eventually gained possession of Willing’s papers relating to the Peralta grant, got Willing’s widow to sell him her interest in the claim, and began to dream. If he was going to go to all the trouble of pressing Willing’s questionable grant, why not make it for something really worth owning?

Reavis concocted an eighteenth-century grandee, Miguel de Peralta, a leading ornament of the court of King Ferdinand of Spain, and a long list of Peralta ancestors and descendants. And then he gave them all a place in history. Literally. Incredible though it may seem, he managed to tour archives in places ranging from Mexico to Spain to Portugal, where he deposited for the benefit of skeptics his forged historical documents providing a legal record of the Peralta clan. Reavis then established his link to the Peraltas by concocting documentation that "proved" George Willing had, for a trifle, bought from Miguel Peralta—who just happened to be a direct descendant of the original Miguel de Peralta—the ownership of the enormous Peralta land grant that King Ferdinand had bestowed upon the family.

How could anyone doubt the truth of Reavis’ story? He had all the papers to prove it!

The new Baron brought his impressive stack of aged documents to the government’s surveyor general, along with a petition to be declared owner of the great Peralta grant. He also posted public notices all over Phoenix warning all the “trespassers” on his land to make acceptable financial settlements with him.

This caused, as one might imagine, a good deal of disquiet among the citizens of Arizona, and a positive panic in the board rooms of the Southern Pacific, the Silver King mine, and all the other companies within the new Peralta empire. The businessmen screamed for their lawyers, who painstakingly examined Reavis’ documentation and announced in no uncertain terms that…Reavis had them over a barrel. They advised their clients that the easiest way to deal with the interloper was to settle with Reavis as quickly and inexpensively as they could. The Southern Pacific gave him $50,000, the Silver King $25,000. Meanwhile, Reavis began negotiating with the federal government a settlement of a cool $25 million. The new Baron radiated such self-assurance that he was able to secure the financial and moral support of some of the most important men of his day, such as Robert G. Ingersoll, the San Francisco millionaire John W. Mackay, Charles Crocker, and Senator Roscoe Conkling.

Reavis decided to cement his claim to the grant by linking his lot with someone he could pass off as the real Peralta heir. He found a suitable candidate in a young house servant, Sophia Treadway. He informed the girl that she was no penniless orphan, but heiress to a large fortune in Arizona, and, after concocting the necessary documentation that rechristened her “Doña Sophia Michaela Maso Reavis y Peralta de la Córdoba,” married her.

The Baroness of Arizona

The new Baroness must have felt like Cinderella on the big party night. Reavis bought her a suitably aristocratic wardrobe and saw to it that a convent school taught her how to be a great lady. He changed his name to Don James Addison de Peralta-Reavis, and asserted a secondary claim on his Arizona land on behalf of his wife and children, the true blood kin of the once-mighty Peraltas.

Reavis began living less like a Baron and more like a feudal king. He formed lumber and mining companies and began developing his new empire. The citizens of a good chunk of Arizona—who were now essentially his serfs—paid him in return for quitclaim deeds to what they once thought were their properties. Many others simply abandoned their homes and properties rather than fight what was being presented as an unassailable claim. If the Southern Pacific caved in to this man, what chance did these humble individuals have? At Reavis' peak, he was pulling in some $300,000 a year. He owned mansions in St. Louis, Washington D. C., Madrid, and Mexico. His wife and sons dressed in the style of Spanish royalty.

It is difficult to believe that Reavis, deep down, thought this could last forever, but his empire, amazingly, was allowed to flourish until 1890, when the surveyor general finally completed his investigation into Reavis’ claims. In short, he stated flatly that Reavis had sold everyone a pup.

Reavis responded by filing a lawsuit against the government for damages and continued on his merry way until the next year, when the U.S. Court of Private Land Grant Claims was established. Practically their first order of business was to take a very, very close look at the Baron of Arizona. Their agents followed the trail of documents Reavis had deposited from California to Spain, and subjected them all to expert forensic examination. They soon realized that they were looking at the most ingenious, audacious, extensive, and beautifully crafted fakes any of them had ever witnessed.

Unfortunately for the Baron, by the time his claim came up for review before the Land Grant Court in January of 1895, he had spent all his new-found fortune as fast as it came in. He did not even have money left for legal representation. The government had no problem whatsoever proving that Reavis was a forger on a truly epic scale, with the imagination of the most prolific novelist. As one of the Land Grant investigators later put it, “In all the annals of crime there is no parallel. This monstrous edifice of forgery, perjury, and subornation was the work of one man. No plan was ever more ingeniously devised; none ever carried out with greater patience, industry, skill, and effrontery.”

It all makes one wonder what Reavis could have accomplished in the world if he hadn’t been such a dyed-in-the-wool skunk.

The “wholly fictitious and fraudulent” Peralta claim was dismissed, and Reavis then found himself facing criminal charges of forgery and conspiracy to defraud the government. The ex-Baron was inevitably found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail, which frankly seems like a light sentence considering the incredible havoc he had caused.

The ex-Baron turned jailbird.

After his release, Reavis made efforts to launch new development plans for Arizona, but unsurprisingly failed to find any backers.  As he was apparently unable to imagine any way to make an honest dollar, this once-dynamic con man quickly slid into complete poverty. His wife divorced him in 1902 on the grounds of nonsupport.

Reavis died in a poor house in Denver, Colorado, on November 20, 1914. According to some reports, he consoled himself during his last years by haunting public libraries, where he could read old newspaper stories about himself and relive the days when he was heir to one of America’s richest land grants.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Weekend Link Dump


Strange Company is issuing a public safety warning: Dressing a cat in frilly nightgowns usually carries the most dreadful safety hazards.


Safety hazards for the humans involved, of course.

Let's examine--very carefully--this week's links:

What the hell is going on with Russian snow?

What the hell is one to do with Hitler's birthplace?

Who the hell was the Spanish Forger?

What the hell are these Amazonian geoglyphs?

What the hell did Bridget Sullivan know about the Borden murders?

Watch out for the Hawkhurst Smuggling Gang!

Watch out for ghostly goats and demon sheep!

Watch out for those parallel worlds!

I for one thing the world needs more canine saints.

We're more Neanderthal than we like to think.

The sister of John Wilkes Booth.

An odd reincarnation story.

How bad actors and rotten fruit became the perfect team.

Picturing Picts.

How magic challenges the concept of free will.

When the 18th century honeymoon is definitely over.

I'd go a little further and suggest we're just one big computer virus.

Witchcraft in the north of England.

The use of fumigation to cure venereal disease.

More don't-try-this-at-home vintage cosmetics.

A minister interviews his wife's ghost.

How to eat like an ancient Roman.

The first New Orleans Mardi Gras.

A real-life Artful Dodger.

Catching Napoleon.

A Rothschild lands in hot water, 1883.

Kaspar Hauser meets the Adjustment Bureau.

Susan Picotte, pioneering physician.

The dangers of 19th century London streets.

Ghost riots and doppelgangers.

A story of lost love, ghosts, and a famous hotel.

Scotland's Golden Age of grave-robbing.

This abandoned pet cemetery with a dark history is as sad a sight as can be imagined.  (That headstone for "Taiger"...)

Don't even think about it.

The haunted Willard Library.

Broken-hearted, ladies?  Get a dog.

And, finally:  Need a change from reading about weird history?  How about some weird fiction, courtesy of R.A. Lafferty?

And there you have it for this edition of links.  See you on Monday, with the tale of one of the most astonishing con jobs in American history.  In the meantime, here's some Haydn: