"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Enigmatic Exit of William Lidderdale

On January 8, 1892, 40-year-old William R. Lidderdale left his home in Ilminster, England for a brief business trip to London. He planned to meet a surveyor, with a view to buying some property. All seemed well in his life. His career as a bank manager was both prosperous and completely above-board. He was engaged to be married to Elizabeth Chapman, a pretty young woman whom he appeared to love, and who loved him. The wedding was fixed for January 14. Some friends saw him in the train headed for London. It was later established that he had bought a return ticket. Before his departure, he gave instructions to one of his bank clerks to meet him on the following day and report to him. The surveyor Lidderdale was to meet sent a telegram explaining that he could not keep the appointment, but it is not known whether the banker ever received this message.

Two days after Lidderdale’s departure, his fiancĂ©e received a letter from him. It read:

“Arrived safely. Am sending this to Raby in case I should not see my darling tomorrow…I promised you that if ever I saw Miss Vining I would tell you, and I do so dear, at once. She has found out her old lover is dead, and those old duffers of lawyers must tell her they expected me up, so the first person I ran against on getting out of the train was her. I soon told her what she wanted, and got rid of her. She knows we are to be married, but does not seem to know the date of the wedding. Now, my sweet darling, just be happy about this. It will be all right. Excuse this haste, as I want to start off—Yours for ever, Willie.”

The next word anyone received of Lidderdale was considerably more startling. On February 10, numerous English newspapers carried a death notice:

“January 30, on Miss B.A. Vining’s yacht Foresight, William Robertson Lidderdale of Ilminster, result of accident on 8th January, alighting from carriage when in motion.”

This announcement, unsurprisingly, caused quite a commotion back in Ilminster—a commotion that would eventually grow into a world-famous mystery. Why was this notice published eleven days after Lidderdale’s alleged death? Why had his loved ones not been contacted when he had this “accident?” Why was there no record of this accident, or his subsequent death on board a yacht? Where was his body? Who was “Miss B.A. Vining?” And how could he have been fatally injured on January 8? On that date, he was seen at his London hotel, alive and well. His last letter to Elizabeth Chapman was written and posted that very evening.

Advertisements begging “Miss Vining” to come forward and explain herself were placed in all the London papers. They received no direct response. Instead, Chapman received in the mail a curious package, addressed to her in an unfamiliar hand. The package contained a Christmas card, a Jubilee sixpence she recognized as belonging to Lidderdale, a few calling cards with “Miss Vining’s” name on them, but her address erased, and five hundred pounds’ worth of banknotes. On the back of one of the cards was a message in Lidderdale’s handwriting: “Was true to you.”

This was the last we know of William Robertson Lidderdale. No sign of him, alive or dead, was ever found.

As the years went by and the strange story spread throughout Europe and America, newspapers around the world struggled to unravel the strange puzzle. The most obvious solution was that the death notice was a blind designed to hide the fact that Lidderdale had run off with Miss Vining.

However, this lady proved to be a phantom. Elizabeth Chapman and other friends of Lidderdale recalled him giving various exotic descriptions of Miss Vining—she was supposedly a rich, very beautiful American who had been deeply in love with him, but who had also tried to kill him on more than one occasion when he spurned her advances. However, no one he knew had ever laid eyes on her, although Lidderdale had spoken of her for a number of years before his disappearance. No one in the world professed to know her. No sign of her existence was ever uncovered. There was not even any evidence that a yacht named "Foresight" existed. No boat by that name was registered at Lloyd’s, nor was anyone by the name of “Vining” registered as an owner of any vessel. As far as anyone could tell, she was a vivid product of Lidderdale’s imagination, created, it was theorized, as a way of providing a background story for his planned disappearance. Years later, a newspaper reported that he had once known a “Julia Vining” before he moved to Ilminster, and theorized that Lidderdale had run off with her. However, she was described as a humble daughter of a laborer, not a wealthy American, and it is uncertain whether Julia truly existed, or was the invention of one London journalist.

If Lidderdale was not dead, no doubt his loved ones soon wished he were. The peculiar and unresolvable circumstances of his disappearance kept them in and out of courtrooms for years.

The missing man had insured his own life for hefty sums. His relatives, on the strength of the death announcement in the newspapers, tried to get the insurance companies to pay up.

Nothing doing, the companies replied. Life insurance fraud was one of the oldest games in the book, and there was no way they were going to hand over thousands of pounds simply on the evidence of a death notice that reeked of The Weird.

Lidderdale’s next-of-kin sued the insurance companies, endeavoring to prove that there really had been a Miss Vining, and a yacht “Foresight.” Unfortunately, they were never able to uncover solid evidence of either one. After years of litigation, a judge finally put his foot down and said that until the family could produce a corpse—or at least a death certificate—they would not be getting the money.

Then there was the difficulty with Lidderdale’s estate. Just before his disappearance, Lidderdale had drawn up a will leaving everything he had to Elizabeth Chapman.  His executors applied repeatedly to the probate court that the missing banker should be presumed to be dead, with an equal lack of success. For the next twenty years, the executors repeatedly petitioned the court to declare Lidderdale dead, only to be told, “Prove it.”

The Lidderdale Mystery kept detectives busy for years. They scoured the world for some sign of the banker or the elusive Miss Vining, to no avail. Did he disappear voluntarily, covering his tracks with a bizarrely elaborate cover story? How was it he was never found, after all those years of widely-publicized searches for him? Was he murdered, perhaps by the infatuated Miss Vining, taking her revenge for having been scorned by him? And where was the body? Did the rich, sinister Miss Vining even exist? People around the globe debated these issues for years, without finding any answers.

Elizabeth Chapman never married, always carrying the hope that she would be reunited with her fiancé. As far as I can tell, neither she nor anyone else ever collected the money from his estate or his insurance policies.

In 1912, during the fourth court hearing to try and establish whether Lidderdale was alive or dead, a director from his bank suddenly came forward to announce that he knew of Miss Vining, whose full name, he said was Beatrice Alice Hasledean Vining. She had no fixed abode, but spent her life traveling on her yacht. If this man was telling the truth, it is extremely peculiar that he kept this information to himself for two decades. Most likely, it was a well-intentioned, if mendacious attempt to settle the issue once and for all.

The newspapers announced that in light of this new "evidence," “The case has been adjourned in the hope that the identity of the woman of mystery and her equally mysterious yacht may be established.”

The case disappeared from the newspapers after that, so it is unknown to me if they were successful. It seems doubtful that they were. There is no record of the Lidderdale Mystery ever being solved.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by Rubberized Cats Amalgamated.

Where the hell did unicorns come from?

Why the hell did this woman pretend to be murdered?

What the hell happened to Amy Bradley?

Watch out for those frenzied corpses!

Watch out for those goblin orgies!

Watch out for that toast!

Fanny Burney visits Windsor.

Crack-Nut Sunday, one of the more charming old customs.

The woman who became Queen of the Country Blues.

The ghosts of Los Feliz.

Black cats and witchcraft.

The enduring mystery of Josephine Tey.

A 6th century B.C. nose job.

The child who had Napoleon in his eyes.

Poe and the birth of the armchair detective.

The problem with the paranormal.: Why are so many books on the subject so lousy?

The tale of one Dead Man's Penny.

Georgian bling!

How to be Jeeves.

Blog post title of the week:  "Avert Your Eyes--You Lustful Wretches!"

The legend of the Boston Garden Monkey.

Toby, the Learned Pig.

The execution of a 17th century sorceress.

The mystery of the "witch girl" skeleton.

Indonesian islands get some very strange tourists.

A 19th century exorcism hoax.

Alternate headline: A List of Things That Are Worse Than Toothache.

We now know more of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Advice for 19th century husbands.

It's a zoo in here.

The strange case of the Charlton Crater.

The even stranger case of the Vela Incident.

A dishonest bodysnatcher.

Yale gets a little windfall from the 17th century.

The world's oldest papyrus.

An 1807 Royal Navy scandal.

A Salem witch is pardoned, albeit a bit too late.

Fun with coffin plates.

A wrestling warrior princess!

How the Georgian Era kept looking sharp.

The mystery of the Carlton House skeleton.

Letters from Indian Army soldiers, WWI.

And, finally, the Great Dog Train of Fort Worth.

Well, there you have it for another week. See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at one of the weirdest--and lengthiest--missing person cases I know. In the meantime, the Chieftains are on the march:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

One finds many peculiar "personal ads" in the old newspapers, but this may be the most what-in-freaking-hell one I've seen to date. It appeared regularly in the "New York Evening Post" during July and August of 1807:

A report that a monstrous birth, bearing no marks of the human form, has lately occurred in this city, has within these few weeks been industriously circulated. The malignity of the infamous authors and propagators of that report, whoever they may be, has been carried so far as to fix the detestable charge upon a Young Lady of spotless innocence and merit--and, as if the villains were determined that the tale should gain belief, they have even affected to designate the Physicians who attended at the Birth.

We, therefore, who are the physicians so said to have given our attendance, and who have hereto subscribed our names do most solemnly and unequivocally declare that we have no knowledge of any such occurrence, or of any birth by the lady alluded to; and that from our souls we believe the report to have originated in the most diabolical malice, and to be totally destitute of foundation.

Dated July 31, 1807.


P.S. Attempts are making by the friends of the young lady, to trace the calumny to its source, for the purpose of inflicting legal and exemplary punishment; and a reward of One Hundred Dollars is hereby offered to any person who will give information of the original author or authors, so as to convict him, her, or them in a court of justice.

It may not be amiss to caution every person against propagating the aforesaid calumny, as, by so doing, they make themselves equally liable in law with the inventor. The peculiar nature of this case is such that the friends of the injured feel themselves justified in saying that they are determined to take every measure within their power to put a speedy end to so cruel and unprecedented a slander.

The printers of country papers, in whose vicinity the tale may have been disseminated, will vindicate injured innocence, and subserve the cause of justice and humanity, by inserting the preceding.

Does anyone else suspect that all these "vindication" efforts by the friends of this nameless young lady just resulted in an early 19th century version of the Streisand Effect?

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Witch of Ringtown; a Medieval 20th Century Murder

"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily--how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."
~ Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Anyone who believes that we live in an age dominated by science and skepticism needs to study the history of Pennsylvania. In the rural areas of the state, a belief in witches, hexes, powerful spirits and the like was common until well into the 20th century--for all I know, it still quietly exists today. Remote farm communities saw superstition and folklore not as quaint relics of a medieval past, but as all-too real presences in their lives. Sometimes, these beliefs took the benign forms of good-luck charms, folk medicine, and positive spirituality. At other times, however, believers found themselves haunted by sincerely-held fears of curses and ghostly persecutions.

On occasion, these fears led these tormented souls to defend themselves through acts of violence, even murder. Probably the most famous example is the case of Nelson Rehmeyer. In 1928, a Central Pennsylvania "witch" named Nellie Noll convinced a young man named John Blymire that Rehmeyer had put a curse on him. Blymire and two friends, John Curry and Wilbert Hess, broke into Rehmeyer's home in order to steal a "spell book" they believed he owned. They were unable to find this book, but when Rehmeyer accosted them, the trio gruesomely killed him, in the hope of lifting this curse. The three youths were eventually convicted of the murder. One of the many oddities of the case is that the killers had never before committed any criminal offense, and after their release from prison went on to lead thoroughly normal, law-abiding lives.

Although the following "hex murder" is now largely forgotten, it was very similar to the Rehmeyer case, and, in some respects, even more bizarre.

Our story opens in 1934, in the Pennsylvania farming village of Ringtown. Life there had only a speaking acquaintance with the 20th century. Scarcely any residents had electricity or modern plumbing, and telephones were nonexistent. Among its residents was a sixty-three year old widow named Susannah "Susan" Mummey. She lived in a primitive farmhouse in the hills just outside of town with her adopted daughter Tovillia.

The Mummey farmhouse

Back in 1910, Susan had had a premonition.  A vision or dream told her that if on July 5 of that year,  her husband Henry went to his job at a local powder mill, he would die. Although she begged him to stay home on that day, he laughingly dismissed her fears and went to work as usual.

You guessed it. On that very day, Henry was killed when a workplace accident caused a violent explosion.

The tragic event earned Susan Mummey not sympathy, but fear. The deadly accuracy of her premonition caused her neighbors to think of her as a witch--and, considering what had happened to Henry, possibly a dangerous one. From that time on, Ringtown regarded her with a mixture of awe and deep suspicion.

On the evening of March 17, Susan and Tovillia were living with a boarder named Jacob Rice. Rice was staying there because he had a serious foot injury that Mummey was doctoring. (Like many so-called witches, Mummey had some proficiency in the healing arts.)

Before going to bed, Mummey went to change Rice's bandage. As she bent over his foot, the cottage seemed to suddenly explode. The inhabitants heard a frightening roar, and the living room window shattered. The wind coming through the broken glass extinguished their lamps, leaving the stunned trio in darkness. They heard a second blast, which they now recognized as the sound of a gun. Someone out in that black night was trying to kill them.

They crouched on the floor, terrified by the thought of what might happen next. But there was only silence. After a few minutes had passed, Rice finally worked up the nerve to sit up. He could see nothing, and all he heard was the sound of Tovillia whimpering in fear. He called out Susan's name, but got no response. He managed to light a lamp, which illuminated Mrs. Mummey's motionless body on the floor. He saw at once that she was dead.

The two shaken survivors sat huddled together in the darkness, waiting for the morning light to come. At dawn, Rice set out to find help. Tovillia was too hysterical to make the effort. Despite his injured foot, Rice managed to limp to the home of their nearest neighbor, which was over a mile away. This neighbor drove him into town so they could summon police.

Investigators found that Mummey had been shot once through the chest. In one of the walls they found embedded a hand-made bullet, of the sort that was common in the area.

Although the victim had led a quiet, reclusive life, it soon emerged that there was no shortage of people who might have wished her dead. Mummey was a quarrelsome sort who had feuded with most of her neighbors--something that only exacerbated her sinister occult reputation. She was believed to have turned an "evil eye" on one of her enemies, and "hexed" several others. A great sigh of relief went out over Ringwood when it was learned she was dead. In short, the police were confronted with a plethora of possible suspects.

Soon, however, their focus was centered on one man. Three days after the murder, some local boys told the detective in charge of the case that on the night Mummey was shot, they had seen a car parked on the road leading to the victim's home. No one was in the car, but they immediately recognized it as belonging to a 23-year-old named Albert Shinsky.

Shinsky was a polite, well-behaved, good-natured young man with an exemplary reputation. Everyone who knew him liked him. His family was equally well-respected in the community, and he was fortunate enough to be engaged to Selina Bernstel, a pretty, charming girl who adored him. It would be hard to think of anyone less likely to assassinate a defenseless old woman.

Shinsky's life was happy and uneventful until he reached the age of 17. Then, he gradually changed. The once-energetic boy became increasingly lethargic. He lost the energy to work, or do much of anything else. He became thin and haggard-looking. The young man became a shell of his former self, and no one could explain why. Unable to hold down any job requiring physical or mental exertion, Shinsky earned a meager living as a taxi driver for the local mine workers.

When questioned by the police, Shinsky acknowledged being near the Mummey house at the time of the murder. When asked why he was there, he calmly gave a startling reply: "I went out there to kill Mrs. Mummey."

Things only got weirder from there. Without the slightest hesitation, Shinsky treated the detectives to the strangest motive for murder any of them had ever heard. The young man explained that when he was seventeen, he had been working for a farmer who had gotten into a long, extremely bitter fight with Mrs. Mummey over property boundaries between their respective lands. One day, as Shinsky was walking through the disputed land, he saw Mrs. Mummey standing a short distance away, staring at him. Under her hostile gaze, the youth broke out in a cold sweat. He felt like there were hands gripping his throat.

From that day on, he said, he felt a constant "physical and mental torment" that sapped him of all his strength. Susan Mummey had put a hex on him.

Shinsky emotionally described how he constantly felt invisible hands on his shoulders. Pins were stuck into him. A black cat would come down from the sky and attack him while he slept. He tried going to doctors and priests, but they were of no help. What could they or anyone else do against the power of the Devil? In desperation, he consulted some local witch doctors, who gave him various amulets and spells, but they provided only temporary relief. The cat always came back.

Finally, a "spirit" came to him, explaining that the only way he could be free of the hex was if he killed Susan Mummey. So, on the night of March 17, he borrowed a shotgun, loaded it with a "magic bullet" guaranteed to kill witches, and made his way to the Mummey farm.

Shinsky did not enjoy committing murder, but, he cheerfully explained, it worked! Since Mummey's death, he was "a re-born man." He had no regrets whatsoever for what he had done. Indeed, he radiated a joy and relief that these hardened investigators found uniquely disturbing.

Selina Bernstel

Selina Bernstel confirmed much of Shinsky's story. She had no doubt that he had been "bewitched." ("My cousin used to be visited by the ghost of an old woman who cast a spell over her.") Her affection for him had a strongly maternal quality. Selina both loved and pitied this haunted young man who would tell her that she "was the only friend he had." She described him as a "little puppy dog" and a "lost soul." The hex, she quietly told the police, had begun to affect her, as well. She would periodically wake up in the morning to see a vision of Shinsky standing at the foot of her bed, his face grimacing in pain. Every time this happened, she'd find out that he had been visited by the evil cat or the spirit-figure of Susan Mummey herself, "leering and leering at him." Selina said that Shinsky had repeatedly begged Mummey to lift the hex from him, but she refused. Selina often asked Shinsky to marry her, but he refused, saying "the witch wouldn't let him."

Although Selina had not known he had committed murder, she admitted that she "knew something had happened, because Albert seemed different and more gay...He acted as if something had been taken off of him." She was too happy with his transformation to ask any questions.

After his arrest, Shinsky became something of a local hero. Other men went to the police alleging that Susan Mummey had cast spells on them, as well--hexes that were only broken with her death. Townsfolk raised a defense fund for him. The murderer himself remained happy and unconcerned. Even the thought of facing the electric chair didn't faze him. "I don't care," he said. "I'm at peace."  Selina expressed her willingness to marry him while he still sat in his prison cell, but Shinsky refused any thought of such a dismal wedding.  He told reporters he expected to be released soon, after which he looked forward to "marrying my girl."

The court hardly knew what to make of this young man. The story he told was deeply, utterly crazy, but aside from that, Shinsky appeared calm and rational. He indignantly rejected any suggestion of an insanity defense.

Psychiatrists who interviewed him thought otherwise. They came up with a diagnosis of Dementia Praecox, manifesting itself as paranoid delusions, and recommended that he be sent to Fairview State Hospital for the criminally insane. The judge in the case agreed.

Unfortunately for Shinsky, Fairview could give witches and demon cats a run for their money. It had an evil reputation, that, sadly, was entirely justified. It was an unsupervised hellhole where even basic medical care was virtually nonexistent. Guards and staff routinely abused the patients, sometimes to the point of killing them. There were sinister rumors of secret graveyards around the building. It was not a hospital, but an unregulated dumping ground, and would remain so until well into the 1970s. If you were not insane when you entered Fairview, odds were good that you soon would be.

Shinsky disappeared into this living nightmare, never, it seemed, to be heard from again. The world forgot about him until 1968, when a lawyer named William J. Krencewicz learned of the case, which inspired him to lead an effort to have Shinsky reexamined by psychiatrists. Shinsky himself was eager to have his case reopened, even if it meant standing trial for the murder if he was judged to be sane. "I was a stupid, foolish, superstitious young man when I did [the murder], but I do think I've been punished enough."

The issue of what to do with Shinsky dragged through the courts until January 1976, when a judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial. However, the authorities apparently agreed that Shinsky was indeed "punished enough," as I could not find any record that this trial ever took place. Shinsky may well have been released without ever being tried for a murder no one doubted he committed. He went back to Ringtown, where he lived quietly until his death in 1983.

I have found nothing about Tovillia's subsequent life other than the fact that she continued to live in the Ringtown area until her death in 1963. In 1938, Selina Bernstel married a Charles Betterton. She died in Towanda, Pennsylvania, in 2003.

I have long thought that the great tragedy of our species is that--despite our fondness for psychological pigeonholing--our minds and souls are too strange for us to ever understand.  How does one categorize Albert Shinsky, an otherwise sane young man who fell into the grip of a belief most people would call utterly insane?   Did that make him crazy? Or merely all too human?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by one of our favorite organizations, the Fellowship of Lucky Black Cats:

Who the hell killed Huey Long?

Who the hell were the Polish vampires?

Who the hell is "Benjaman Kyle?"  Now he knows, even if we don't.

What the hell is this air raid siren?

What the hell happened in Great Wyrley?

Watch out for those pixies!

Watch out for those Siberian Traps!

Watch out for those ghost dancers!

Watch out for those headless rectory-robbing ghosts!

Watch out for that causality!

Britain is really booming!

George Canning, the politician who was both hated and indispensable.

That time Indiana had a millionaire policewoman.

The loyalty of dogs.

A visit to Samuel Pepys' church.

Scottish cave with some ghoulish ancient relics.

A Swedish island with some puzzling ancient relics.

Some photos from back when Los Angeles was still a fun place to live.

How an 18th century Englishwoman became The Black Widow of Jamaica.

Opium addiction in the early 19th century English countryside.

The King's Caracal.

Another example of why the 18th century was the Golden Age of sex scandals.

Another example of why the 18th century was the Golden Age of Eccentrics.

Gambling with death.

A pre-Roman grave has been found in Pompeii.

Eating like a Hittite, or why archaeologists have the coolest buffet tables.

How to be a professional corpse.

WWI, the bar fight.

Yes, Virginia, there is a con man.

A century-old murder is finally confirmed.

The apple trees are mighty strange in Ukraine.

Well, all righty.

A sailor cat's well-earned retirement.

Celebrating St. Matthew's Day.

The man who bought Stonehenge.

Is "America's Stonehenge" a hoax?

How to be swindled in 19th century London.

Aboriginals have long memories.

The costs of an early 19th century execution.

This one's for all you lorgnette fans.

Almond puddings in guts, anyone?

An utterly charming Lake District home.

An unusual 19th century acquittal.

The death of an apple pie.

Samuel Johnson's diploma.

The treacherous 19th century cat.

This week in Russian Weird.

Flappers run amok!

And, finally, a couple of friends sharing a relaxing weekend.

And we're done for the week! See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at a tale of witchcraft and murder. In the meantime, here's the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. Goodnight and safe home!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The, well, next-to-last rites of the gloriously named Mr. Buffenbarger is possibly the most delightful funeral I've come across. From the "Muskogee Times Democrat," September 9, 1910:

Springfield, O., Sept. 9--The funeral of Francis Marion Buffenbarger was attended by 500 people who went to the Grape Grove cemetery led by the "corpse" (on foot,) listened to a funeral oration delivered by the "corpse" in person, and feasted on pies and such that the aforesaid "corpse" passed around with his own hands. But they were not clammy either. Gnarled and horny perhaps, but not clammy.

Francis Marion Buffenbarger, retired farmer, had been looking forward to his funeral for years. Finally, that there might be no hitch or untoward incident to mar the event he concluded to hold it under his own immediate supervision before it was too late for him to manage properly.

So he sent out invitations to hundreds of friends and relatives, and on the appointed day led the funeral cortege to the cemetery, where he dug his own grave and erected his own tombstone all ready for the last sad rites.

"Old Buff" himself made the speech of the day, advising everybody to be good and ever ready for the summons, and counseling especially against running the risk of sudden death. "Beware of automobiles and every other invention of the devil," he warned his auditors.

Then the "rites" being over, "Old Buff" passed out a wagon-load of pies and other edibles, gave all the children candy, each of the little girls a handkerchief and each of the men a cigar. Finally he invited everybody to come to his real funeral, warning them, however, that all the doings but the actual burial were already over, and that it would be a simple affair "with no undertaker around to make folks feel bad."

It seems that the Buffenbargers have ever taken delight in preparation for ringing down the curtain of life. "Old Buff" says that his grandfather kept his coffin in the house for years before he died, and had his grave clothes handy all the time.

"Old Buff" himself had a coffin ordered from a South Charleston undertaker, but it will remain in the undertaker's warerooms till it is needed.

Several years ago Mrs. Buffenbarger left "Old Buff" and ran away with  the hired man. That broke the old man's heart. He left his farm near South Charleston and came to live with friends near Grape Grove. The folks take good care of him and when the time comes for the final episode of the installment obsequies the funeral procession will not be one rig the less because all the speech-making and funeral baked meats and such are already consumed.

In an ironic touch, considering "Old Buff's" warnings against automobiles and the like, he was killed in a streetcar accident two years later. He was, of course, buried in the grave he himself had prepared.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Billy Hansbrough Failed to Rest in Peace

On May 4, 1905, the "Louisville Courier-Journal" carried a moving obituary notice for an eight-year-old named Billy Hansbrough. It was placed by the two people closest to him, William and Ada Hansbrough. The opening lines read, "Two hearts are grief-stricken, a once happy home is lonely and desolate, for death in its terrible mission entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough Saturday, April 22, at 4:30 o'clock, and took their little ray of sunshine from them."

The column (which included a handsome portrait of the deceased,) paid 124 lines of tribute to the "brown-eyed, sweet-faced" Billy, adding, "The suddenness of Billy's death has left desolation in its path." Billy was "their companion wherever they went, their comfort in sorrow, their little protector in the lonely hours of the night, and as he grew deeper in their lives and hearts, their love for him became dearer."

"Their little child and sunbeam" first showed signs of illness on April 13, when he refused to eat. William and Ada had sat up all night with him, keeping "warm flannels to his little cold body...When morning came he seemed better, and took his usual little walk...and then got up in his chair at the table." However, he still had no appetite. Billy was so perturbed, he ran away from home for three days. William and Ada "made every effort in human power" to find him. Finally, he returned, "so changed from their little bright-eyed darling they could hardly recognize him."

The notice went on to say, "After a loving greeting...he went through all the rooms of his happy home, where his toys and playthings were, then got up on his little bed, and they gave him his rag doll; he was so happy to be home again."

Billy's physician was summoned at once, but nothing could be done. "Neither love, medicine, nor prayers could save that precious life." Finally, after "a pitiful little moan," he "passed away for ever."

The mourning couple held a wake, attended by all the deceased's many friends and loved ones. Then, an undertaker was called in to embalm the little body. A beautiful and expensive casket was ordered. With "trembling hands," the Hansbroughs placed Billy inside the coffin, with "the little doll he loved so well by his side."

The Hansbroughs described the funeral of their beloved in Cave Hill Cemetery. "While a little bird in a tree above them was singing they laid their darling, their Billy, to rest in his little grave in the family graveyard" in a space between those reserved for Ada and William. "As they turned from that little grave they knew it would be their only comfort while they lived" that they would eventually rest in peace forever with him. "I believe his death will kill me," said Mrs. Hansbrough plaintively. "Oh, my baby Billy, if I only had you back for a while."

This was no ordinary family tragedy. The Hansbrough choice of resting place for "their darling" was destined to cause a great deal of legal trouble.

Because, you see, Billy was a dog.

The cemetery's board of directors had allowed this unusual burial on the condition that "no mound or marker" be placed over the grave. However, the Hansbroughs violated this agreement by raising a mound over Billy's resting place. They also talked of putting up a monument. All this was too much for the villain in our little tale: a fellow plot-owner named Henry Hertle. Hertle--obviously not a believer in the "man's best friend" motto--seemed to take it as a personal insult that he should be asked to share cemetery space with a dog. In January 1906 he filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Hansbroughs and Cave Hill Cemetery to exhume Billy and bury his remains elsewhere. Hertle's suit accused the Hansbroughs of "keeping and maintaining a nuisance." Cave Hill was a cemetery intended only for the use of "members of the white race." Mr. Hertle huffed that he was "greatly humiliated in thinking that the bodies of those who were near and dear to him lie near the buried dog and in the contemplation that of the probability that when he dies, his body will also be buried beside that of a dog."

Personally, I can think of far worse company--such as, say, the likes of Henry Hertle--but never mind.

Although the lawsuit argued that Cave Hill had violated its own rules by allowing the dog funeral, the defense made the point that the cemetery's charter said nothing specifically forbidding dogs to be buried there. In any case, how does one prove that a decently--and expensively--buried fox terrier constitutes a "nuisance?"

The two sides argued the matter in court for over a year. Finally, in the spring of 1907, the court ruled that Billy should be allowed to continue resting in peace. The judge ruled that plot owners should not be allowed to pick and choose who should be buried in cemeteries. Otherwise, it would prevent the burial of anyone who might be personally objectionable to any other individual. "The injury done here is to the living plaintiff, who expects to be buried in his lot at some future time. It consists in his distress of mind in contemplating his daughter's present burial and his own prospective interment in a lot adjoining that in which Billy lies buried. If this be an injury to person or property, it is too incapable of being measured to invoke action by the court. If the claim of right here asserted be permitted to control it would prevent the burial of any one -- a murderer or a suicide, for instance -- whose grave might be objectionable to neighboring lot owners.

"That matter is in control of the cemetery company. An unburied dog, either alive or dead, may be a nuisance per se, but a dead dog, well buried, as in this case, is not a nuisance per se, and can not become one." In short, if Billy's grave was all right with the cemetery company, it was all right with the judge.

Well, it wasn't all right with Henry Hertle. He filed an appeal. In December 1907, the state court of appeals agreed with his anti-canine spirit and overruled the circuit court's decision. One of the judges wrote, "If the body of a dog may find sepulcher on the lot of its owner in Cave Hill Cemetery, why might not the owner of a horse, or bull, or donkey, also bury his favorite on his therein, if his fancy should take this freakish direction? Where would or could the line be drawn if not at the body of a dog?" The tribunal ordered that Billy must be buried elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I do not know what happened after this. I presume the exhumation was carried out, but history is silent on Billy's ultimate resting place. According to Findagrave.com, Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough are both interred in Cave Hill.

I'd like to think William or Ada managed to sneak Billy in with them.