"...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, May 29, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's Friday!  Time to curl up and read some links!

Or just, well, curl up.

What the hell are the Longyou Caves?

What the hell is this Peruvian geoglyph?

What the hell happened to physicist Ettore Majorana?

Who the hell is leaving flowers on Caroline Walters' grave?

Watch out for the Night Doctors!

Watch out for those vengeful barbers!

Watch out for those disappearing islands!

Watch out for that Welsh vampire furniture!

Watch out for the Forty Elephants!

Watch out for those red-haired snakes!

The fascinating grave of a Bronze Age girl.

A night out in Manhattan in 1972.  Watch out for the subways.

More on the life of Dolley Madison.

Erasers:  Instruments of the Devil!

Pharaonic family values.

The trouble with academic journals.

More trouble with academic journals.

Yeah, this is not a good week for academic journals.

Have we found an Olmec written language?

Hard times for a Georgian bookbinder.

Theorizing about ghosts and the fourth dimension.

17th century dog-care tips.

The Hagia Sophia:  Home of healing powers, mysterious mosaics, and holy relics.

Not to mention one superb cat.  I doubt that's a coincidence.

Benjamin Franklin in France.

Some lesser-known female badasses.

The hazards of being a Georgian-Era washerwoman.

History never changes much.  Unfortunately.

A blog post making the important point that if there are aliens out there, they are very possibly, well, alien.

The world's most "exciting piece of excrement."  Yes, that's an actual quote.

The Witch House of Los Angeles.  And no, I don't live there.  Now cut that out.

Those wonderful Dreadfuls.

Pushing back the history of writing.

Pushing back the history of stone tools.

Write on!  This is possibly the world's oldest pencil.

Recasting the runes.

This one is just heartbreaking: Mine mules getting a taste of fresh air and sun in 1898.

Southern France is home to possibly the world's creepiest sculpture.

The FBI's "Did Hitler survive the war?" file.

Russia is just plain freaking weird.

See what I mean?

The spookier areas of Venice.

"The problem with being a necromancer is that you tend to alienate both the living and the dead."  So opens this week's cautionary tale.

The long history of poltergeists.

A good example of why I just don't trust anything anymore.

Country Joe McDonald and Florence Nightengale in the same link!

Witches were not burned at the stake as often as you might think.

Uncovering some "lost" Shakespeare.

Lord Byron's ghost is no doubt displeased that someone has debunked this particular legend.

Witch hunting for fun and profit.

Why early New Englanders often got married naked. It, uh, wasn't for the reasons you might think.

To be honest, just staying alive here on Earth is such a challenge, I don't know why anyone wants to try doing it on Mars.

Why every nice girl loves a sailor.

Here's an unusual ghost story: a phantom tombstone.

A devastating flood and a Man In Black.

And, finally, I leave you with some eloquent thoughts from Kylie Jenner, the great scientific mind of our time.

We're done!  See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at one of 20th century America's most unusual disappearances.  In the meantime, here's Sinatra.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

On February 23, 1967, the "Syracuse Post-Standard" covered the story of a mini-Tunguska event that took place in New York state.

Early on the morning of November 13 of the previous year, a pit about 9 feet wide and 2 feet deep was discovered on the farm of Howard Lacey of Venice Center, in Cayuga County. There had been reports of a loud "sonic boom" or "explosion" the previous night, at about 12:30 a.m. One person reported seeing a "bright white light" in the sky about an hour before the noise was heard.

The hole was examined by state police, members of the Air Force, several scientists, and a host of looky-loos, but no one was able to determine what had caused it. Ralph J. Turner, an assistant professor of architecture at Syracuse University, said there was "no direct evidence" that the pit was of meteoric origin. He added, "There is no definite evidence that it was a hoax or of dynamite origin. No order or remains characteristic of that were found. At this time its origin is enigmatic. It does seem safe to say that it was formed by some sort of explosion."

Professor of Geology Ernest H. Muller threw up his hands, reporting that he had "no further conclusions," and "no conclusive evidence to prove it had extraterrestrial origins." Turner noted that the meteorite "would have to be of a size not commonly found...just big enough to get through the earth's atmosphere without disintegrating and large enough to still cause an explosion."

So there the matter rested...until exactly one year later. On the night of November 12, 1967, the exact same thing happened: an ear-splitting explosion in the middle of the night, followed by the discovery of a large crater on Lacey's farm. Again, the usual band of curiosity-seekers and professional eggheads examined the site, and again they went away scratching their heads.

On the night of November 12, 1968, the whatever-it-was put on a third performance: Loud boom, big crater. And everyone was still baffled about what was causing the damn things. An army ordnance expert could find no trace of an explosive device in any of the craters. An investigator from the Air Force went over the area with a Geiger counter but found no radiation. A geologist from Cornell took soil samples and found "absolutely no traces of any known man-made explosives." The state police said the craters were definitely not man-made.

So, was it an unusual variety of meteorite? An unusually clever hoax? Flying saucers?? No one knew for sure, although one local woman who believed in space aliens formed a UFO club aimed at solving the mystery.

By early November of 1969, great anticipation was building to see if there would be another encore.

Well, anticipated by everyone but Lacey himself. The "Oneonta Star" for November 11 quoted him as grumbling that "It's really getting to be a little monotonous...I even hope it doesn't happen this year."

As November 12, 1969 drew near, people came from all across the country to camp out on Lacey's farm to see the expected show.

So, of course, nothing happened. No explosion, no crater, nothing. And it never returned. As far as I can tell, the annual mystery blast, like the "Poe Toaster," departed for good without anyone ever solving the riddle of its existence.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mommie Weirdest; or, You Great Big Beautiful Doll

In March 1921, 51-year-old Frank McNally of Hammond, Indiana, got married. The bride was his attractive 26-year-old housekeeper, Hazel Hall. McNally professed to love his wife, but he had an additional, even more urgent reason for marrying: Although he was a divorced man with two children from his previous marriage, he wanted his middle age to be brightened with additional progeny. Precisely nine months after the wedding, his cherished desire was fulfilled when Hazel gave birth to not just one child, but twins--a boy and a girl, whom they named Lauren and Laurene.

Mr. McNally, of course, was ecstatic. And Mrs. McNally was the most devoted and attentive of new mothers. She proudly hovered over her babies, doing everything for them. She was not one of those women who gives birth only to turn the children over to nannies and nurses! In fact, she scarcely ever let her precious infants out of her sight. Mr. McNally happily cooed and cuddled his twins, but all the tasks of feeding, nursing, bathing, and changing the babies all fell to his wife. It was a job she happily accepted: indeed, she insisted on being the sole caregiver.

The McNallys were the ideal early 20th century family.

Well, for a while, at least. A few months after the twins were born, Frank had to admit that Hazel's attitude towards her children was perhaps just a wee bit too attentive. Not to mention "possessive." When friends and neighbors would drop by, naturally eager to fuss over the new little McNallys, Hazel kept them well away from the babies. She always said that they were sleeping and she didn't want to wake them. Unlike most new mothers, she didn't seem to want anyone to even look at her children.

And they certainly did sleep a lot. When Hazel was not tending to them, the twins lay in their darkened nursery, perfectly still and quiet. Their mother claimed they had "weak eyes" and could not bear daylight. Unlike other babies, they never cried or wriggled or fussed when they were left alone.

Odd, that.

Mr. McNally was obviously the most easygoing of men, one of those placid souls who takes life as it comes and never wastes much time brooding over life's many funny little details. The remarkably inert characteristics of his offspring was evidently something he was willing to just shrug off. After all, what did he know about babies? Hazel, who was a trained nurse, saw nothing out-of-the-ordinary about them.

The neighbors, however--particularly the women--began to suspect that there was something not quite right about the McNally twins. Finally, one acquaintance, a Mrs. Agnes Sphirmer, privately persuaded Mr. McNally to let her have a peep at the twins the next time his wife was out of the house.

On the next rare occasion when Hazel was away from her children, Mrs. Sphirmer stole into the McNally house. Like an undercover detective hot on the trail of a mystery, she tiptoed into the twins' bedroom. The babies, as usual, where lying in a deep sleep. When she peered down at the little faces, her heart instantly leaped into her throat. The twins were gazing up at her, with the fixed, unblinking stare of the dead.

When Mrs. Sphirmer examined the babies, only to find that they were not corpses, but two straw-stuffed dolls with china heads, I can't say if she was left more or less horrified than before.

When Agnes informed Mr. McNally that his wife had given birth to a pair of toys, he naturally scrambled for some sort of logical explanation. Understandably reluctant to accept that he had fathered two bundles of straw and painted china, he came to the only other possible alternative. About a month after the, uh, children were, um, born, Hazel had taken the babies for a brief visit to Chicago, ostensibly for medical treatment. Frank decided this meant that his wife had cold-bloodedly slaughtered their newborns and, with diabolical cleverness, secretly substituted them with a pair of dolls. He yelled for the police and had Hazel arrested for murder.

Hazel stood trial for double infanticide in October 1922. It was noted that for someone accused of such a heinous crime, Mrs. McNally appeared to be getting a good deal of amusement from the situation. She had a simple defense, albeit one that raised The Weird to dizzying new heights. When she married Frank, she knew that an operation had left her unable to have children. Realizing how anxious he was for the joys of fatherhood, she fulfilled his wish the only way she could. Hazel nonchalantly explained that she pretended to be pregnant, pretended to give birth, pretended to take care of two flesh-and-blood babies, all to keep her husband happy.

Frank was always nagging her to have children, she shrugged. So, what else was she to do, huh?

One of the first witnesses was Mary Griffith, a nurse who had visited the McNally home a couple of days after the twins were born. She testified how remarkably protective the new mother was of her infants. She would not let anyone, even Mrs. Griffith, near the children. Mrs. McNally had, it seems, even given birth on her own. Mrs. Griffith admitted that she did not get a good enough look at the babies to say whether or not they were real or ringers, but she did say that "I frequently saw her nurse them--at least she appeared to nurse them." Mrs. Griffith took Hazel's little hoax as a personal affront, grumbling that "to sit up there nine days with dolls makes me feel foolish."

During the trial, Hazel changed her story. She now said that her husband had been in on the hoax. They bought the dolls with the intention of just keeping them on display until they were able to adopt the real thing. However, "babies are mighty scarce when you want them most."

She soon found that her faux-motherhood was a "terrible bother...I was living in a neighborhood with a lot of old married women and they insisted on advising me as to the care of my children to make them grow. They couldn't understand why they remained the same size.

"Further, Mr. McNally held this thing over my head. And every time a few pieces of the household bric-a-brac would come his way and I would threaten to leave, he'd say, 'Now you'd better be careful--I'll fix you if you leave me.'"

She concluded her testimony on a philosophical note. "Well, it's over. I left Mr. McNally September 22. I didn't know what he was going to do. I didn't care. I only wanted to get away from him and from his dolls.

"So I was arrested for assault when I bashed him over the head with the mop, and later for murder. But now I am free. And the joke is still on Mr. McNally.

"But really, he got all sorts of fun out of it. He rocked the babies, wheeled them around in the baby buggy...What more could a man of his age want than doll babies?"

Frank had an uncomfortable time on the stand, as no one seemed to be able to resist the urge to laugh at him. He admitted that he had never seen the faces of his children. "I've often carried them, and for weeks wheeled them in a perambulator, but my wife always said that they were very weak babies and that I was not to uncover their faces. It was only by accident that I discovered finally that they were dolls."

Mrs. McNally's doctor, Cyrenus Campbell, stated that he had examined Hazel only once during her "pregnancy," and "there was no doubt of her condition at that time."

I'm guessing his professional colleagues never allowed him to live down that expert diagnosis.

Before the trial was even over, the judge, Henry Cleveland, decided it was time to stop the show. While Hazel McNally was definitely one for the record books, there was no proof she was a murderer. Judge Cleveland ruled that even if she had really given birth, there was no evidence to show the children were dead. And while it may be a wee bit eccentric to pass two dolls off as your babies, it wasn't illegal either. The defendant was free to go. It was a very popular verdict among the women of Indiana, most of whom were evidently wondering why they had never thought of Hazel's nifty little gag themselves. Some of the ladies talked of lynching Mr. McNally for bringing charges against their new heroine.  As she left the courtroom, Hazel cheerfully told reporters that she was--roughly in this order--buying two new dolls, divorcing Frank, and entering law school. (The assault charges against her seem to have been nolle prossed.)

Effanbee, the company that manufactured her youngsters dolls, happily used the case as part of an advertising campaign, boasting "When they are produced so close to life that they fool the father and the neighbors, that's going some!"

Hazel's happy new family.

As for Frank McNally, he preferred to think that his wife was a murderer, rather than that he was an idiot. Until his death in 1923, he continued to stubbornly insist that he had indeed fathered living, breathing twins, who were out there...somewhere.

As far as I can tell, neither McNally asked for custody of Lauren and Laurene.

This is all I can find about the story in the old newspapers, leaving me with the same unanswered question that is undoubtedly now plaguing you: For how long did Hazel think she could keep her little secret, and when the inevitable day of reckoning came, what would she do? Was her plan to one day dump the dolls in the trash, and sorrowfully tell the world they had been kidnapped? Or would she keep buying dolls of gradually increasing size--assuring the neighbors all the while that her offspring were just unusually quiet and reclusive sorts?

I find myself resenting that busybody Mrs. Sphirmer for keeping us from learning what would have happened if Hazel had been allowed to play her game to the end.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's Friday!  Time to stretch out and relax!

On to the links!

What the hell was flying over Pennsylvania in 1914?

What the hell crashed in Bolivia in 1978?

What the hell is slithering around Northern California?

What the hell happened to Snooky, the cat of New York's City Hall?

Who the hell was Erich von Richthofen?

How the hell did Louisa Parsons die?

Watch out for the Bunny Man!

Watch out for the Shades of Death Road!

Watch out for the Wild Man of Greene County!

Deciphering the Hobo Code.

It is a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

Why you'd rather hire a Georgian housemaid than work as one.

One of the many, many sad figures from the French Revolution.

The man beneath Trafalgar Square.

Hey, ghosts can be good parents, too.

Finally, science is taking aboriginal legends seriously...but is it too late?

So it turns out that pandas really need a new menu.

Kate Durkee, who sounds like she may have been more than a match for H.H. Holmes.

Elizabeth Brownrigg, who definitely would have been more than a match for H.H. Holmes.

Here's a video on how to fight in 15th century armor.  You never know when such information will come in handy.

Anne Boleyn is back, and as you might imagine, she's pretty cranky.

A Georgian tragedy: the suicide of Annette Paris.

The Norwegian town that seems to be a favorite UFO tourist destination.

The pre-Madison life of Dolley Payne Todd.

Reviving "Australia's Stonehenge."

The Masons and 19th century American politics.

So, maybe they really did find the tomb of Philip II.

23 feet of 6,000 years.

If your ears are full of earwigs, here's the recipe for you.  And please don't stand too close to me.

Uncovering ancient Paris.

Lily Dale, America's most psychic town.

Ancient Chinese polo!

Samuel Jessup, who took his medicine just too well.

How many times do I have to tell you people that pacts with the Devil never work out too well?

This one is for believers in the Universal Mind.

The tomb of a Ming Dynasty survivor.

Beer:  Bringer of virtue!

Meet Alexander Pope's life-saving dog.

A good imagination can be the death of you.

EsoterX takes a peek at Mystery Explosions.

Britain's oldest mulberry tree.

Happy Days!  Hitting the town in 1959.

And so we lower the curtain on this week's Link Dump.  I'll see you all on Monday, when I'll be presenting what may be the weirdest story I've published on this blog to date.  Yes, weirder than Dolly and her Otto in the Attic.  Weirder than psychic assassins.  Weirder than Satanic garden hoses.  Weirder than an Illustrated Police News lady with her horsewhip.

Stay tuned.  I think we'll have some fun with this one. In the meantime, this song is for a particular pal of mine, who still can't believe I found it on YouTube.  Enjoy this blast from your past!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Clipping of the Day

How can I not love any painter who has gone down in history as the “Raphael of Cats?” This brief biography of Gottfried Mind, a Crazy Cat Man after my own heart, comes from Champfleury's "The Cat, Past and Present." (1885):

Mind was born at Berne in 1768; his fatter was of Hungarian origin. He studied drawing with Freudenberger, a painter who occupies only a small place in the history of art. "A special taste," says M. Depping,"led Mind to draw animals, or rather two kinds of animals, bears and cats. The latter especially were his favourite subjects, he delighted in painting them in all sorts of attitudes, singly or in groups, with truth and naturalness which have never been surpassed. His pictures were, one might almost say, cat-portraits; he gave every shade of expression to their soft and cunning faces; he lent infinite variety to the graceful attitudes of kittens playing with their mother; he depicted the silky coat of the cat perfectly; in short, the cats that were painted by Mind seemed to be alive. Mdme. Lebrun, who never failed to purchase some of this painter's works on each of her visits to Switzerland, called him "the Raphael of Cats." Several royal personages, travelling in his country, desired to purchase Mind's cats, which were carefully preserved in portfolios by Swiss amateurs, and others.

The painter and his cats were inseparable; while he worked his favourite she-cat was almost always by his side, and he carried on a sort of conversation with her. Sometimes she would sit on his knees; two or three kittens would be perched on his shoulders; and he would remain in this attitude for hours without stirring, lest he should disturb the companions of his solitude. He was not by any means so considerate towards visitors of the human species, whom he received with undisguised ill-humour. 

Mind probably never in his whole life experienced more profound grief than that which was caused by the general massacre of cats by the police of Berne, in 1809. This severe measure was dictated by terror; an epidemic of madness having broken out among the cats. He contrived to save his dear Minette by hiding her, but his sorrow for the death of the eight hundred cats that were sacrificed to the public safety was overwhelming: he never was entirely consoled. It gave him great pleasure to examine pictures or drawings which represented animals. Woe to the painters who had not represented his favourite species with perfect fidelity! They obtained no favour from him, let their talent in any other direction be ever so great. During the winter evenings he still contrived to occupy himself with his beloved animals by cutting out cats and bears in chestnuts. The pretty trifles, which were executed with marvellous skill, had a great sale.

Mind was a short man, with a big head, very deep set eyes, a reddish-brown complexion, a hollow voice, and a sort of rattle in his throat, which, added to his gloomy expression, produced a repulsive effect on those who saw him for the first time. He died at Berne, on the 8th November, 1814. The lines of Catullus on the death of Lydia's sparrow were cleverly parodied and applied to him:— 
Lugete, o feles, ursique lugete,
Mortuus est vobis amicus; 
also another line by an ancient poet:— 
Felibus atque ursis flebilis occidit.

[Note: Google translates this Latin--no doubt very roughly--as "Mourn, all you cats, bears mourn, He is dead to you, friend; Cats and bears lament."

Modern historians usually refer to Mind as autistic, or even mentally disabled, but my guess is he was simply a genuine misanthrope who preferred cats to people. I am the last person in the world to hold that against him.]

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sorcery, Treachery, and Murder; or, Just Another Day at the Court of King James I

His Sacred Majesty King James I of England was the royal equivalent of the "Illustrated Police News": the blogger's gift that never stops giving The Weird. Not content with having his reign as King James VI of Scotland characterized by those classic bizarre episodes known as the "Gowrie Conspiracy," and the "Witches of Berwick," once he moved to England, things got only more peculiar. While the death of Sir Thomas Overbury was not quite as enigmatic as the demise of the brothers Ruthven, it boasted a larger, and far more sinister, cast of characters.

The opening scene of our real-life Jacobean drama was a wedding. On January 5, 1606, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was married to Lady Frances Howard in a grand ceremony attended by the entire court. He was well-bred and rich; she, already showing signs of becoming one of high society's great beauties. It was a uniting of two of the country's leading families.

Frances Howard

As the groom and his bride were only fourteen and thirteen at the time (dynastic ambitions could not wait,) the couple lived apart for several years after the ceremony. Young Essex was sent abroad to learn the art of being a soldier, while little Frances returned to her education. (And quite an education it was, if later events were any indication...)

The following year, the third major figure in the story made his entrance onstage. King James attended a tilting match where one of the players was a young Scot named Robert Carr. Carr was about twenty, and unusually attractive. Where handsome young men were concerned, James, in the words of a contemporary, "was very flowing in affection." The comely young visitor immediately caught the king's eye, and when the youth was fortunate enough to fall off his horse, James insisted that Carr take lodgings in the palace, so his injuries could be attended by the king's personal physicians. During his recuperation, James visited his bedside every day, and upon his recovery had him appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. The court soon realized that Carr had been given a more unofficial, but even higher honor: that of the newest King's Favorite. Naturally, everyone around the king all clustered around this "rising sun, every man striving to investe himselfe into this man's favour, not sparing for bounty nor flattery." James, we are told, was so besotted that he could not refuse the lad anything. Carr swiftly went from knight to Viscount Rochester to the king's private secretary to Knight of the Garter to Baron of Brancepeth to Earl of Somerset to Lord High Treasurer of Scotland to Lord Chamberlain to Lord Privy Seal. This young man--who had no assets other than a pretty face and an agreeably empty brain--became James' unofficial Secretary of State, the second most important person in the realm. Not to mention the second-richest. James loaded the Favorite with gifts of land and money--all of which, of course, the king had appropriated from less favored subjects. (A court observer noted dryly that the king "was very liberall of what he had not in his owne gripe.")

Robert Carr

The only two people at court who declined to join in the universal groveling and flattering of Carr were the king's wife and his eldest son. Queen Anne, although usually indifferent to anything her husband said or did, heartily disliked the new favorite and his unprecedented hold over the king. Prince Henry, who, in the words of William Roughead, "was mentally, morally and physically so unlike his Royal sire as to give some colour to contemporary scandal," saw Carr as merely one more black mark against a father he had long held in contempt. Relations between Carr and the heir to the throne became so openly hostile that on one occasion, the prince walloped the Favorite with his tennis racket.

Carr's meteoric rise to power was shared, albeit far more unobtrusively, by Thomas Overbury. Overbury was an ambitious, clever lawyer and man of letters who had in 1601 entered into a close friendship with the young Scot. In 1608, the Favorite had Overbury knighted and made a Gentleman of the Household, and from then on, Sir Thomas quietly became a key player at court as Carr's personal advisor, supplying the brainpower and cunning his friend conspicuously lacked, and guiding the Favorite in everything he did. He even wrote all of Carr's letters. Overbury boasted of his access to all state secrets, crowing that he knew more about government affairs than the Privy Council.  If Carr was the power behind the throne, Overbury was the power behind Carr.

So much for Act One. Act Two opens with the return of Frances Howard, who was by now old enough to take her proper place in court life. She was described as "a Beauty of the greatest Magnitude," of a "lustfull appetite...covetous of applause...light of behaviour." She was, in short, the type of young lady just born to cause trouble.

The trouble started when she and Carr entered into a love affair. The trouble escalated when the Earl of Essex returned from his military training in the Low Countries, expecting that he and his bride would finally live together as man and wife.

Frances, engrossed in her dallyings with Carr, flatly refused to have anything to do with her husband. Her parents finally forced her to live under the same roof with Essex, but she did so with a notably bad grace. According to her later testimony, at least, she refused to consummate their marriage. She so resented the very existence of her husband that she consulted a "wise woman" named Mrs. Anne Turner. Frances' witchcraft requirements were twofold: to keep Carr's love, while repelling the advances of her husband. Mrs. Turner referred her to a Dr. Simon Forman, who was known "to have skill in the Magick Arts." Forman supplied the Countess of Essex with various Satanic charms and powders to be used on the two men in her life, but, alas, they proved of little efficacy.

Frances did not take this failure well. She was entirely prepared to escalate her efforts. She wrote to Mrs. Turner that "I cannot be happy so long as this man [her husband] liveth...If I can get this done, you shall have as much money as you can demand." In a related story, another "wise woman" known as "Cunning Mary" later claimed that the Countess of Essex offered her £1000 pounds if she could furnish a slow-acting poison for the Earl. Mary was cunning enough to flee town instead.

In November 1612, Prince Henry died suddenly, in circumstances curious enough for murder to be widely assumed. Although the cause of his demise is still debatable, it is unquestioned that it was a very good thing for his enemy, Robert Carr. With the prince out of the way, the Favorite's power at court was completely unchallenged. Lady Essex decided that this was the time to make her move. She wished to divorce her husband and replace him with her now-omnipotent lover. In those days, her only possible grounds for ending her marriage was on the grounds of non-consummation. Although she and her husband had lived together for three years, she now insisted that they had never shared a bed. Frances also declared that she was still a virgin, which provided the court with a good deal of amusement.

Frances' ambitious parents were all for her jettisoning her husband in favor of a far more glittering match, and the king was also expected to be complaisant in the matter. The sole obstacle to the divorce proved to be Sir Thomas Overbury.

Carr's secret puppetmaster was horrified to learn that the puppet intended to actually marry Lady Frances. He had loathed her from the start as a woman "known for her injury and immodesty."  Overbury realized that once Carr had a strong-minded wife controlling him, he, Overbury, would be supplanted. Even more importantly, Overbury was deeply opposed politically to the powerful Howard clan.  (He was a staunch Protestant, while the Howards had pro-Catholic, pro-Spain sympathies.)  Sir Thomas lost his temper and told Carr a good many things about his intended wife--the fact that they were all quite accurate just made things worse--with the result that the two former friends fell out completely. Overbury was even indiscreet enough to circulate a scurrilous poem, "A Wife," which was recognized as a public attack on Carr's mistress.

Lady Frances realized that Sir Thomas just had to go. She was infuriated that he had dared to publicly describe her as a conniving, unprincipled whore. Besides, he knew so much about her liaison with Carr--not to mention her efforts to poison her husband--that his mouth needed to be shut for good. And quickly.

Carr, with the aid of some of Lady Frances' relatives, came up with a beautifully Machiavellian scheme to rid themselves of Overbury. They urged the king to name him ambassador to Russia. Carr then, in the guise of offering helpful advice, persuaded Overbury to reject the post. James had long wanted to remove Overbury's influence over Carr--the king saw it as "a dishonour to him that the world should have an opinion that [Carr] ruled him and Overbury ruled [Carr]"--so this defiance of the royal command have him the perfect opportunity to send Overbury to the Tower.  In prison, Sir Thomas was now at the mercy of all his enemies.

While Overbury sulks in the Tower, we move on to the comic interlude of our melodrama: the Essex divorce case. While by this point the Earl was quite willing to rid himself of Frances, he refused to humiliate himself by asserting he had been unable to consummate his marriage. A compromise was finally worked out, where he would agree that he had been only temporarily impotent, so to speak. "Seven noble women," led by the Countess' own mother, testified that they had examined Lady Frances, and determined that she was indeed still "untouched." It is generally assumed the women were all cheerfully perjuring themselves, but it was said that a girl "too young to be other than virgo intacta" was brought in, heavily veiled, to act as a ringer for the Countess during the examination. After a good deal of pressure from King James himself, the Royal Commission who had been assigned to preside over this distasteful matter reluctantly voted for the nullity of the marriage.

By the time the Essex marriage was declared a non-starter, Sir Thomas Overbury had died in his cell. Lady Frances, after consulting with Mrs. Turner and yet another reputed wizard named Dr. James Franklin (Dr. Forman had since died,) saw to it that a youth named Richard Weston was appointed to act as Overbury's jailer. Then, Weston was given various poisons to slip into his prisoner's food. Both Carr and Lady Frances sent to the Tower various delicacies for Overbury's benefit--all of which, of course, were also full of various toxic substances. King James even sent his personal physician, Sir Theodore Mayerne, to look after the prisoner. (Mayerne largely deputized this task to a shady apothecary named Lobell.) One can only assume that Mayerne was not instructed to ensure that Overbury lived a long and healthy life.

Sir Thomas lasted a surprisingly long time in the Tower--five months--but he inevitably succumbed to the poison onslaught. On his deathbed, he wrote a letter to Carr bitterly reproaching him for his treachery. He added the highly ominous information that he had put into writing "the story betwixt you and me," and sent this document to a friend for safe-keeping. If he, Overbury, died, this document was to be published, with the result that "your shame shall never die, but ever remain to the world, to make you the most odious man living." Predictably enough, the king saw to it that this manuscript never saw the light of day, which is a great pity. It would have made highly edifying reading.

Within weeks of the nullification, James created his Favorite Earl of Somerset, and soon afterward Carr and Lady Frances were married. Carr had gotten everything he wanted, and it would prove to be his downfall. Without Overbury's guidance, he was utterly lost in the complex world of statecraft. Left on his own, he made a bungle of everything he touched. Worse still, success had gone to his head. He had become arrogant, overbearing, and insolent--even to James, which showed the full measure of his stupidity.

This was particularly unwise of Carr, as his enemies had found a rival for the king's affections. George Villiers, a graceful young man just as decorative as Carr but far brighter, was brought to court and deftly paraded before James. The king took an immediate fancy to the charming newcomer and gifted him with an appointment as the King's Cupbearer, a knighthood, and a pension. The cry began to be heard of "The old Favorite is dead, long live the new Favorite!"

It got worse for Carr. In 1615, a former apprentice of Lobell the apothecary was on what he thought was his deathbed. The apprentice confessed all he knew about the murder--which was plenty. Among other things, he claimed that Lobell supplied the poisons that finally finished Overbury off. Carr's enemies at court used this to persuade King James that an investigation had to be done about the matter--word that Overbury had been poisoned had spread so thoroughly that it was impossible to hush it up. James agreed that the scandal needed to be taken under his control. Lord Chief-Justice Coke was made the head of the inquiry.

Unfortunately for the new Earl of Somerset, Coke took his job more seriously than anyone had bargained for. He did not hesitate to call the erstwhile Favorite himself up to be examined before the judges. By now, James had tired of Carr, and was ready to let him meet his fate. An eyewitness left a memorable description of their farewell:

" Earle of Somerset never parted from him with more seeming affection than at this time, when he knew Somerset should never see him more; and had you seen the seeming affection (as the author himselfe did) you would rather have believed he was in his rising than setting. The earle, when he kissed his hand, the king hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks, saying, 'For Gods sake, when shall I see thee againe? On my soul, I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again.' The earle told him, on Monday (this being on the Friday.) 'For Gods sake, let me,' said the king, 'shall I, shall I!' then lolled about his neck. 'Then for Gods sake give thy lady this kiss for me.' In the same manner at the stayres head, at the middle of the stayres, and at the stayres foot. The earl was not in his coach when the king used these very words...'I shall never see his face more.'"

He said it with a smile, too.

Although Carr had prudently burned all his incriminating papers, and assumed his accomplices had all done likewise, Mrs. Turner had--presumably for future blackmail purposes--kept certain letters Lady Frances had sent her. Once these fell into Coke's hands, the Earl of Somerset and his wife found themselves under arrest right along with Richard Weston, Mrs. Turner, Dr. Franklin, Lobell the apothecary, and the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Gervase Elwes.

These murder trials could not be described as models of impartial justice. The king, of course, stage-managed everything behind the scenes in order to get results that suited him. The dubious role played in Overbury's death by Dr. Mayerne and Lobell was of course suppressed, as touching far too near to James himself, leaving other, less important souls to take the rap.

Richard Weston was the first to face the tribunal. His role in feeding poisons to Overbury was too obvious to be denied, and he was far too insignificant for anyone to bother protecting him. He was soon hanged at Tyburn.

Mrs. Turner was the next to face the gallows. She was admittedly Weston's accomplice, so once he was convicted, her fate was obvious.

A week after her execution, Sir Gervase Elwes was brought to trial, charged with "the malicious aiding, comforting, and abetting of Weston." Elwes was probably guilty of nothing more than turning an obedient blind eye to the doings of those far above him in rank and power, but this did not save him. He too was executed.

When, in his turn, Dr. James Franklin faced trial and the inevitable gallows, he made the most interesting end of the lot. Before being hanged, he stated that "there were greater persons in this matter than were yet known," and that Overbury had not been the only victim of the murder squad that clustered around the king. Franklin declared that Dr. Mayerne and Lobell the apothecary had poisoned Prince Henry.

Then, the hangman shut his mouth for good.

It is now that we reach the denouement of our play: The trials of Lord and Lady Somerset. Frances (who had given birth to a daughter during her house arrest) stood in the dock in May 1616. It was, I fear a complete dramatic anticlimax. As she pled guilty, there was virtually no trial at all (a great disappointment to those who had paid as much as £50 for admission to the courthouse.) She was duly sentenced to death and escorted back to the Tower.

Somerset proved considerably more troublesome. He resisted all the royal pressure to follow his wife's example of meekly confessing and begging for royal mercy. He was willing to gamble that he knew so much about James that the king would not dare convict him. In fact, he told his judges that if he was not freed, he would make certain unpleasant disclosures about the monarch. James was deeply unnerved by this. During Somerset's trial, the king ordered that two servants be placed on each side of him, ready to smother the defendant with a cloak and carry him out of the courtroom if he should begin to speak. As it turned out, this was not necessary. By then, he and James had apparently come to some sort of a private deal. Although both Lord and Lady Somerset were found guilty, they did not pay the legal penalty. Instead, they were kept in the Tower until January 1621, and then quietly released.

This is not to say that the Somersets did not suffer for their misdeeds. By Order of Council, they were forced to live together in one of two remote country houses, in a "private and obscure condition." It proved to be a cruel fate. Long before this, the couple--who had committed so many sins in order to be together--had, in the old way of thieves falling out, become bitterly estranged. Each, it seems, blamed the other for their downfall. And, in a sense, they were both correct. They continued in this mutually loathed propinquity until the Countess' slow, painful death from cancer in 1632. The once all-powerful Earl of Somerset lingered on in unhappy obscurity until 1645.

Overbury's murder was in itself not very mysterious, but there is still one great, lingering puzzle at the heart of this story: What exactly was this secret Carr threatened to reveal about James, this bit of hidden knowledge that, from all accounts, the king was terrified might become public? James' (presumed) homosexuality, the suspicious death of his son Henry, or his involvement in Overbury's murder have all been named as possible answers. These suggestions are unconvincing, for the simple reason that they were no secrets. Everyone at court knew of James' partiality for attractive young men, his own wife Queen Anne had accused Somerset of poisoning Henry, with, it was clearly implied, the father's blessing, most people assumed that James had been an accessory in Overbury's death--and nobody cared! Any allegations Somerset might make on any of these matters would just be one more drop in a very full bucket. Certainly, they were nothing to inspire the mortal dread of Somerset's possible revelations James displayed.

It is a question we will never see satisfactorily answered.

[Note: The idea that James' eldest son was murdered is not as outlandish as one might think. The handsome, cultured, high-minded, courageous Prince Henry was wildly popular. Everyone in England looked forward to the anticipated Golden Age when he finally supplanted his largely disdained father. In fact, once Henry reached young adulthood, there was a growing faction who talked of forcing James to abdicate in favor of the heir. Henry himself appears to have been all in favor of the idea. After what had happened to his mother Mary Queen of Scots, James was understandably highly paranoid about the thought of relinquishing power, and he vowed that he would never step down from the throne.

Then Henry suddenly dropped dead, and the whole issue instantly became moot. And the king's most influential subject, Robert Carr, was rid of his most dangerous enemy. It does make one wonder.]

Friday, May 15, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's time for the weekly Link Dump!

Spread the news.

And here are the links:

We're still wondering what the hell is shining on Ceres!

We're still wondering what the hell flew over Oregon in 1950!

We're still wondering who the hell was D.B. Cooper!

What the hell is flying over Auckland?

Who the hell killed Alfred Oliver?

Watch out for the ghosts of Pogue's Run!

Watch out for those Fortean radio signals!

Watch out for those self-hanging gallows!

Mose Caton, who surely got what he deserved.

Murder by Horoscope; or, The Fault Was in His Stars.

The most famous magician you've never heard of.

The beautiful cats of Elder St.

George II's eldest daughter, who really wanted to be queen and wasn't too fussy about husbands.

A gallery of underwater cities.

The Military Bishop and the Convenient Wife:  a Georgian scandal in high places.

Bad medieval rulers!  Cruel medieval rulers!  Accursed medieval rulers!

Yeah, Sylvia Browne really was a stinker.

Well, darn.  If you can't trust ancient Egyptian cat mummies...

The fake classified ad that conquered the internet.

Gilbert du Brange, illustrious quack.

Wonderful photos of Sudan's "forgotten pyramids."

Exploring a link between Nessie and earthquakes.

From all I know of Russia, this does not surprise me even the tiniest bit.

The grave of the "Red Lady of El Miron."

Medieval death sculptures were...not subtle.

How to pitch a late 19th-century magazine.

Victorians getting just too inventive.

Now, this is what I call diplomacy.

Meet the world's loneliest plant.

The 19th century travels of Isabella Bird Bishop.  (Part Two is here.)

Crystal hunting can be more adventurous than you might think.

The "good end" of William Marshal, the greatest of medieval knights.

You asked for it, you got it:  Raising the dead via tongue-pulling.

Oh, just another Bohemian cannibal sorcerer.

Life, the Universe, and the Great Filter.

The girl who was adopted by a ghost.

Corroborating Margery Kempe.

Coney Island's diving horses.

A night out in Depression-era Manhattan. 

In Russia, you can't tell the Soviets from the Nazis without a scorecard!

Allegations of election fraud made against the East India Company, 1832.

12,300 year-old Alaskan bling.

Cats are eating shoelaces.

Dogs are eating live ammunition.

And, finally:  This weekend, party like it's 2200 B.C.!

And we're done! See you all on Monday, when we'll ponder murder at the court of King James I. In the meantime, here's one of my favorite choral songs: