"...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, March 31, 2014

Jane Wenham, the Lucky Witch

It occurred to me that after over a year of posts about mute amputees, psychic murderers, disappearances, kidnappings, poisonings, suicides, amnesiacs, poltergeists, hoodoo cats, women in furnaces, mystery blood, mystery explosions, and Satanic garden hoses, this is rapidly turning into the internet’s most depressing blog. So, for this week, I decided to present an upbeat, life-affirming story with a happy ending.

The best I could do was a witchcraft trial.

The action brought against Jane Wenham in 1712 is often, but erroneously, described as “the last witchcraft trial in England.” Wenham, an elderly, impoverished woman, had long had a negative reputation as “the wise woman of Walkern.” In February 1712, she was also dubbed “a witch and a bitch” by a local farmer who accused her of putting a curse on one of his employees. She tried to sue the farmer for defamation, but the local magistrate made what proved to be a fateful decision: he had both parties bring their dispute to the local rector for arbitration.

This rector, the Reverend John Gardiner, was a firm believer in witchcraft. At the time, he did nothing more serious than fining the farmer one shilling and instructing Wenham to be nicer to her neighbors. However, from that time on he looked at the “wise woman” with deep suspicion, particularly as Wenham was unwise enough to express dissatisfaction with the verdict with the ominous words that “if she could not have justice there, she would find it elsewhere.”

Immediately after this incident, one of Gardiner’s servants, Anne Thorne, took center stage. She suddenly fell into “fits,” which she claimed to be the work of “the witch,” Jane Wenham. Wenham was swiftly arrested and a search of her home uncovered strange ointments and cakes that were said to be used in her Satanic rituals.

At her trial, where she was indicted for “conversing familiarly with the devil in the form of a cat,” Wenham caught an amazingly lucky break. The judge, Sir John Powell, was a humane, courageously rational man who treated the whole proceedings as a farce. (Reportedly, when the prosecution claimed Wenham had the ability to sail through the air, he nonchalantly observed that there were no laws on the books against flying.) The accused was—as was almost inevitably the case in witch trials—convicted by the jury and automatically sentenced to death. Powell, however, was able to have her reprieved, and, eventually, pardoned outright.

Very unusually for a witchcraft trial, Wenham’s ordeal proved to be something of a blessing in disguise. In 1718, the case inspired Bishop Francis Hutchinson to write “A Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft,” a fiery denunciation of the whole witch-hunt phenomenon. The work was widely read, and did much to influence opinion against the persecution of “witches.” Wenham herself was given financial support by some of her advocates, as well as a new cottage where she lived “soberly and inoffensively” until her death in 1730. A contemporary account stated that she became sufficiently well-off to provide charity for the poor, which made her “as much an object of their esteem as she had been of their detestation.”

Her “victim,” Anne Thorne, also reaped unexpected benefits from the case. As a cure for her “fits,” a doctor prescribed that she wash her hands and face twice a day, and arranged for a “lusty young fellow” to stand guard over the young woman until she recovered. Under this regime, Thorne quickly lost her "fits”—and gained a husband in her lusty and personable escort.

Would that all witch trials had ended so peacefully.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company watches a lot of cats on TV.

Whether we want to or not.

On to this week's Link Festival:

What the hell is flying over Chile?

What the hell is flying over Amarillo?

Where the hell are all the dead cryptids?

What the hell were these Florida Bogeys?

What the hell are these messages?

Where the hell is Imhotep's tomb?

What the hell is Stonehenge?

Florida is still really booming!

Watch out for those stone-throwing spooks!

Watch out for those flying fish!

Watch out for those smallpox shawls!

Watch out for those Snarly Yows!

Watch out for those legendary family curses!

The rise and fall of courtesan Cora Pearl.

Saints preserve us!

The life and times of a medieval European teenager.  On the bright side, at least they didn't have Miley Cyrus videos.

Runaway slaves in the British Navy.

Personally, I think this headline is an insult to crows.

Uh-oh:  Richard's not himself again?

The difficulties of interpreting ancient Scandinavian rock art.

The difficulties of interpreting ancient Indian rock art.

Richard Halliburton, curiously forgotten adventurer.

A look at why Romanians and vampires go together like peanut butter and jelly.

How to tell if you're "a fit object for confinement in a House for the reception of Lunatics."  They all read like chapter headings from that autobiography I'll never get around to writing.

The Millionaire and the Mummies:  Gilded Age archaeology.

When treasure hunting met dowsing rods.

Mary Ann Cotton:  rotten, but not forgotten.

Sarah Chesham: possibly even more rotten, but forgotten.

Jack Sheppard: somewhat rotten and definitely not forgotten.

Everything you ever wanted to know about reading coffee grounds.

Some of America's most beautiful ghost towns.

A list of Alabama's most renowned animals.

The dreadful history behind the world's first planetarium.

What the well-dressed Anglo-Saxon was wearing.

Have you been saying to yourself, "Gosh, where are all those books about X-rated 18th century bathroom graffiti?"  No need to thank me.  Just doing my job.

How Mark Twain would never have been "Mark Twain" without the lecture circuit.

No, hold on, Mark Twain would never have been "Mark Twain" without the Mississippi River.

The murder of Martha Ray: one of the 18th century's most scandalous crimes.

The Devil's Footprints, then and now.

In which the afterlife sounds very like the counselor's office in my old junior high school.  In other words, hell.

Remember our old friend William Nathan Stedman and his very public passion for novelist Marie Corelli?  Here's her story.

And, finally, a word of advice for us all:  Repent Now!!  Happy Weekend.

See you all on Monday, assuming the Killer Clowns and Snarly Yows haven't taken over.  I'll be looking at a historical rarity:  a witchcraft trial with a happy ending.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here is a case of, as the headline put it, a "Singular discovery of a murder by dreaming." This story appeared in the "London Star" for July 21, 1818.
Friday night, Mrs. Peat, the Landlady of the Carpenters' Arms public house, in John-street, Tottenham-court-road, retired to rest, about 12 o'clock, but had not slept many minutes before she dreamed that some person had given three knocks at her chamber-door and she fancied she heard a female voice exclaim--"Mistress! Mistress! here's some one putting a child down the privy!" During the whole of the night the idea haunted her, and she arose extremely troubled. On coming to the breakfast-table she related the circumstance to Mr. Peat, the brother of her late husband, who treated the idea with ridicule; but, seeing that it had made more than a common impression on her mind, he endeavoured by every means in his power to divert her thoughts from such an improbable circumstance. In order to gratify her curiosity, she determined to explore the drain of the privy. For this purpose, she provided herself with a stick, and after about a minute's search succeeded in bringing the arm of an infant above the surface of the drain!! This terrible conformation of her dream had such an effect on her as nearly to overpower her: she could only call her brother-in-law, who, with another person, came immediately to her assistance, and, after a few minutes' trouble, succeeded in getting the body out, which had every appearance of a full-grown child, and did not seem to have been long placed there. As the story got wind in the neighbourhood, the utmost consternation prevailed, and various and many were the conjectures formed. Information was at length sent to the Parish Officers, who caused proper steps to be taken to investigate the matter.--Saturday evening, at nine o'clock, an inquest was held at Mrs. Peat's house, before T. Stirling, Esq. and Mr. Raynsford, the Police Magistrate, with many other Gentlemen. The first witness examined was the Maidservant; but, after a most ingenious examination, nothing could be elicited to throw the least light on the subject, and, from her manner, the girl seemed to have no guilty knowledge of the transaction.--Mrs. Peat detailed, in a firm unhesitating manner, her singular dream to the Jury; and her brother-in-law confirmed her in that part which related to finding the body.--Isaac Moodie, the Waterman at the Coach-stand, stated, that on Saturday he was in the Carpenters' Arms: he heard Mrs. Peat scream, and accompanied her brother-in-law to her assistance: she told them that she had found the body of a child in the water-closet; but although she said she had found it in half a minute, witness could not find it in five minutes, or more! He was afterwards told that she had dreamed over-night that some person had buried it there. Mrs. Peat had been for some time a widow.--Mr. Upham, a Surgeon, said he had examined the body: it appeared full-grown, but he could not positively say whether it was still-born: the nails on the fingers and toes were perfect, and it seemed in every respect to have come to its full time. This witness, at the request of the Coroner and Jury, examined Mrs. Peat and her female servant, and he gave it as his opinion that neither could have been recently delivered.--The Coroner charged the Jury at some length, and at two o'clock on Sunday morning they brought in a Verdict of--Wilful Murder against some person or persons unknown.

I have not found any further reports about the case, so I cannot say if the crime was ever solved.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Who Killed Jane Stanford?

Jane Lathrop Stanford

Jane Lathrop was born in Albany, New York in 1828. In 1850, she married a promising young lawyer named Leland Stanford. In 1856, the Stanfords moved to San Francisco, where Leland turned his attention from law to business. He became a co-founder and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, and by the time of his death in 1893, Stanford was one of the wealthiest men in America.

After their only son, Leland Jr., died in 1884, the couple founded their most well-known achievement, Stanford University, in his honor. After her husband’s death, Jane Stanford took virtual control of the university, often funding the fledgling institution out of her own pocket. It was not until 1903 that she allowed a Board of Trustees to be formed, although she retained presidency of this board. She carefully oversaw every detail of the university’s management. Under her direction, Stanford University became a champion of the arts and women’s rights. She left instructions that after her death, her jewelry should be sold and the money used as a permanent endowment to purchase books and academic journals for the university. This “Jewel Fund” is to date worth approximately $20 million.

Stanford University was, as Jane Stanford had hoped, her “child.” Many suspect that this loving, intensely possessive care for the institution directly led to her death.

On January 14, 1905, Mrs. Stanford drank from a bottle of mineral water that was, following the nightly custom, left near her bed by a servant. She immediately noticed it had an oddly bitter taste. It was very fortunate for her that she was able to immediately vomit out the liquid, because when she had the remaining water analyzed, it was found to contain strychnine. Someone with access to her private household wanted her dead. A maid whom Mrs. Stanford suspected of being the poisoner was fired, but the crime remained unsolved. A month later, Mrs. Stanford was still deeply troubled by the incident.  Feeling in understandable need of a change of scene, she left her San Francisco mansion for Hawaii. Among the entourage accompanying her was her personal secretary Bertha Berner. Berner had worked for Mrs. Stanford for twenty years, and was completely trusted by her employer. Berner was the only person traveling with Mrs. Stanford who had been present during the attempted poisoning in January.

By February 28, the Stanford party had settled into Honolulu’s Moana Hotel. Soon after her arrival, Mrs. Stanford told another visitor to the hotel that "they" had tried to poison her in San Francisco, so she had come to Hawaii to evade them.  That evening, Mrs. Stanford had Berner prepare her a glass of bicarbonate of soda. Soon after drinking it, she frantically screamed that she was going into convulsions. She had, she cried, been poisoned again.

Unfortunately, she was right, and her mysterious assailant was more successful this time around. Jane Stanford passed away that night. It was, as she herself said in the final agony, “a horrible death to die.”

At the inquest, all the coroner’s jury could conclude was that she had died of strychnine poisoning, introduced into the bottle of bicarbonate of soda “by some person or persons to this jury unknown.” The soda had been purchased before Stanford left San Francisco, and was freely accessible to anyone in her house. The bottle had not been used before her death. The source of the strychnine was never discovered.

The police questioned everyone who worked for Mrs. Stanford, but although they discovered that many petty jealousies and rivalries existed within the household, they could not find that any of the servants had a reason to wish their mistress dead.  Some newspapers printed allegations that certain members of Mrs. Stanford's staff had cooked the household books, by charging her for far more than she was really paying for food and other items, and then pocketing the difference.  Even if these stories were true, this relatively minor and far from uncommon offense seems to hardly justify murder.  Mrs. Stanford's Lathrop relatives were lacking in motive, as well.  At the time of her death, Mrs. Stanford was not as personally wealthy as one might think.  During her lifetime, she deeded all her personal property to the regents of Stanford University, to be held in trust after her death. Her relatives had already been generously provided for, and evidently were not in need of additional funds.  Even if one of them felt they just couldn't wait for their inheritance, no evidence ever surfaced suggesting they tried to hurry along the inevitable course of nature.  In addition, Jane Stanford had the reputation of being a generous, charitable, and high-minded woman who was unlikely to inspire murderous personal hatred.

Although the circle of people who could have been responsible for Stanford’s murder was a relatively small one, the identity of her poisoner—let alone the motive to kill her in such a particularly cruel manner—remains a hotly-debated puzzle to this day.

For instance, there was the peculiar behavior of Stanford University’s president, David Starr Jordan. Jordan’s reaction to Stanford’s demise was to bribe a shifty doctor—who had never set eyes on Jane Stanford--to write a report stating she had died of heart failure, a diagnosis rightly characterized as “medically preposterous.” Jordan did everything in his power to whitewash the truth about her death. Jordan even slandered the physicians who had been at Stanford’s deathbed by accusing them of manufacturing the evidence that she had been poisoned. Jordan used his bogus physician’s report to persuade law enforcement in California and Hawaii that Mrs. Stanford had died a normal death. Frustrated by the lack of obvious suspects, as well as the inability to trace any source for the poison, the police were soon more than ready to close the case by embracing Jordan's argument that Mrs. Stanford must have died of natural causes.  In short, Jordan deliberately helped someone to get away with murder. (It is also interesting that after the first attempt to murder Mrs. Stanford, Jordan assured the press that reports she had been poisoned were "entirely unfounded.")

Was Jordan merely trying to save Stanford University from a damaging scandal?  Or did he have more sinister reasons for wanting the curious circumstances of Mrs. Stanford's death ignored?  Jordan had long been at odds with Jane Stanford over management of the university—in fact, she told friends that she was planning to have him fired. It could be said that Jordan had a motive for murder, and his actions were certainly remarkably suspicious—but did he have the opportunity?

David Starr Jordan

Then, there was the long-time secretary, Bertha Berner. The fact that she was the only witness to both poisoning episodes has, not unnaturally, caused many students of the case to look at her with suspicion. Her position, however, was the opposite of Jordan’s:  she certainly had the opportunity to poison Mrs. Stanford—but what motive could she have had? Her relations with her employer had always been very good. Berner was left $15,000 in Stanford’s will, but she already enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in the Stanford household, and she had no financial problems. In fact, even with this inheritance, her standard of living sharply declined after Stanford’s death. Besides, she may well have been unaware she would receive this bequest.

Bertha Berner

There is always the possibility that Jordan or someone else bribed Berner to do their deadly work for them, but it is hard to picture this hitherto quiet and inoffensive woman suddenly turning hired assassin. Although Berner was obviously a subject of intense scrutiny, no one who knew her appeared to find her a credible suspect. It is conceivable that some disgruntled servant poisoned the mineral water, and also introduced strychnine into the bicarbonate of soda before Stanford left California. However, no one had the slightest clue who that might have been.

Despite the best efforts of many researchers and armchair detectives, Jane Stanford’s death remains one of America’s most enigmatic murder mysteries.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company urges you to take a chair and settle down.

Assuming you can find one that isn't already occupied.

Grab a plate for this week's Link Buffet:

What the hell is happening to UFO experts?

What the hell happened to the megafauna?

What the hell is the Blarney Stone?

What the hell is this cloud?

What the hell happened to Grand Duchess Anastasia?

What the hell happened to Rose Cole?

What the hell hangs around Norwegian observatories?

Canada is still really humming!

Florida is still really booming!

Rescuing Edgar the raven.

Pasadena's Damned Devil's Gate:  this ain't the Rose Parade.

Isaac Newton, alchemist.

Century-old film of a now-extinct hen.

A 14,000 year old oral tradition?  Hard to believe, you say?  Hey, don't underestimate those aborigines...

Enjoy camping?  Don't care for bathing or haircuts?  Have a taste for dressing like a Druid?  May I suggest a career as an ornamental hermit?

Man's best felonious friend.

Ancient Egyptians may have been Crazy Cat People even earlier than we thought.

Alexander III of Scotland, who met his death under what I've always thought were highly suspicious circumstances.

Ching Shih, Chinese Pirate Queen.

1783:  The real year of living dangerously.

England's first private execution, 1868.

The first photo of earth from space.

The swastikas of England.

More details about the amazing ancient city of Petra.

Because around here, we love our historical trash-talk.

Descriptions of England's great storm of 1703.

Is this a photo of the Bronte sisters?

The execution of the Earl of Kent: a key incident in a fascinating historical soap opera/royal mystery.

Ikea meets Ed Gein.

The sad tale of Lillie Hoyle, who never got justice.

An eerie missing airplane mystery...this one from 1965.

Some musings on the Siberian Empire of the Sasquatch.

Now, this is what I call soldiering:  swords, longbows, and bagpipes.

More proof that circuses are really secret portals to Hell.

Salisbury's oldest pub, complete with hidden tunnels and severed hands.

Why there are times when I'm very glad I'm not an archaeologist.

Thirsty UFOs?

The Green Man:  secret anti-Norman symbol?  William the Bastard is among my least favorite people in history. I rather like the idea that England is to this day filled with hidden slogans dissing him.

A Different Drum, indeed.

Some handy tips on how to stay buried when you're dead.

"Dead aliens"--deliberate government hoax?  And if so, why?

Setting the record straight about Giordano Bruno.  Good luck with that one, gang.

The puzzling Richard Meinertzhagen.

Stealing daylight.

And, finally, our wise piece of advice for the week, courtesy of the Tower of London's Ravenmaster:

Incidentally, the same goes for all other animals, as well.  And we're done for yet another week. See you on Monday, when I will be looking at the puzzling unsolved murder of the founder of one of America's most prestigious universities.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Every now and then, there is an old newspaper story that simply leaves me at a loss for words. This baby is one of them.  On July 20, 1852, the "Elyria Courier" reprinted an item from the "Boston Atlas":

Wonders will never cease--On the 5th inst., as a gentleman of this city was looking out of a window, he saw a black kitten fall past him, apparently from the top of a house, and expected to see it dashed dead upon the sidewalk; but contrary to his expectations when it reached the ground it began to walk. Some children supposing it to be injured, took it in and gave it some milk, when it lapped in the usual style. The next morning the lady of the house went into the cellar to give it some more milk, when strange to relate, it darted past her a distance of 20 feet, without touching the ground, and when out of the house, ascended upwards into the air more rapidly than it had fallen down the day before, and was soon lost to view among the clouds.--Improbable as these statements may appear they were made to us by a medical gentleman of whose sanity and love of truth we do not entertain a doubt. We recommend this singular phenomenon to the attention of the editor of the Spiritual Telegraph.

Look!  Up in the sky!  It's a bird! No, it's a plane! No...it's Superkitty!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Death at Ireland's Eye

Ireland's Eye, via Wikipedia

Celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Strange Company style, with a controversial Irish legal puzzle:

On the morning of September 6, 1852, a fisherman named Patrick Nangle delivered a couple to the banks of a charming, rocky little island named Ireland's Eye, in County Dublin. It was a popular local picnic spot, equipped as it was with a picturesque ruined church, a fine beach, and beautiful views.

The two sightseers were 35-year-old William Burke (or Bourke) Kirwan, a modestly successful artist, and his attractive 30-year-old wife Maria. He planned to spend the day sketching, while she indulged her fondness for sea-bathing.

Surely, a romantic, even idyllic, scene if ever there was one. But the day's outing would end in death and enduring mystery.

The Kirwans, a childless couple who had been married a dozen years, carried some dark secrets beneath their placid middle-class exterior. For one thing, Mr. Kirwan had a superfluity of wives. During the entire duration of his marriage to Maria, another woman named Teresa Kenny had been living across town, styling herself as "Mrs. Kirwan." She and William had seven children together. The vital question of whether or not Maria was aware that she only had a half-share, so to speak, in William would receive utterly conflicting answers. According to William and his supporters, Maria knew about William's mistress all along, and treated the situation with forgiveness, even acquiescence. Others stated that she had first learned of her rival a few months before this September day, and had reacted in a far angrier, even threatening manner.

As we shall see, the Kirwan case is overflowing with conflicting answers.

The Kirwans arrived at Ireland's Eye at about 10 a.m. They instructed the fisherman to pick them up at eight in the evening--about an hour and a half past sunset. A couple of hours later, the boatman brought to the island another party, who remained there until four in the afternoon. This group saw both the Kirwans going about their business, but they did not exchange words with them. After they left, William and Maria were alone on Ireland's Eye for four hours.

Around seven p.m., men on a fishing boat passing Ireland's Eye heard what one described as "a great screech" coming from the island. A few minutes later, they noted two additional, fainter screams. They saw nothing in the growing darkness, however, and they went on their way without further examination. Four other people on the mainland reported hearing these same piercing cries.

Shortly before eight, Nangle, accompanied by three other men, arrived at Ireland's Eye to pick up the Kirwans. It was by now quite dark. They found William standing calmly on the bank with his bag and sketch-book. It should be highlighted that although a number of people as far away as the mainland had recently heard very distressing-sounding screams emanating from the island, Kirwan himself showed no signs that he had heard anything amiss, and later made the curious claim that he had never heard any screams at all. When Nangle asked him where his wife was, Kirwan answered nonchalantly that he had not seen her for an hour and a half.

The men spread out over the tiny island, calling Mrs. Kirwan. They finally found her, spread over a large rock at an inlet known as the Long Hole. She was dead. Her body was lying on her back, on top of her bathing sheet, with her head hanging over one edge and her feet dangling in the water. Her wet bathing clothes were bunched up under her armpits. Her mouth was covered with froth, and blood was flowing from her ears and lower orifices. She had evidently died quite recently.

Contemporary illustration of the Long Hole

William exclaimed, "Oh, Maria, Maria!" and instructed the others to look for her clothes, pointing up to a high rock where he said they would be found. Patrick obediently searched the area, but found nothing. Then William himself went to the very same spot, returning a few minutes later with Maria's shawl and "something white," which was probably the dead woman's chemise. (That garment was never officially found.) He told Patrick to go up again. Patrick did, and immediately found her clothes in the exact place where he knew he had just looked.

They gathered up the body and brought it back to the couple's lodgings. Kirwan's landlady and other women present noted that William's trousers and boots were soaking wet. He ordered the women to wash his wife's body for burial. When they pointed out that the corpse must not be touched until the police had examined it and an inquest held, he snapped, "I don't care a damn for the police; the body must be washed!" The intimidated women complied.

They too noticed the large amount of blood on the body. Mrs. Kirwan's face and breast had several deep cuts, and blood still ran from her ears. The right side of her body was black from bruises. Her lips were swollen, and her neck slightly twisted. This once-pretty woman--"a beautiful creature"--in the words of one of the women--was now a horrifying sight.

Unfortunately, the young medical student later assigned to professionally examine the corpse was not so thorough. After making what he himself admitted was "a superficial examination," he concluded the woman had simply drowned. On this unsatisfactory evidence alone, the coroner's jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

Others, however, had far grimmer ideas of how Maria Kirwan met her death. Gossip soon spread about Teresa Kenny and her offspring, who had all moved into the Kirwan home when the legitimate wife was scarcely in her grave. William does not seem to have been a popular figure even before Maria's death. His next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Byrne, told everyone within earshot that "Bloody Billy" had not only murdered his wife, but her own husband as well. Dublin newspapers added to Kirwan's alleged body count, stating that he had previously murdered his brother-in-law, as well as a man named Bowyer. Patrick Nangle and the women who had washed Maria's body spread the word about the sinister amount of blood found on the corpse. The people who had heard the screams from the vicinity of Ireland's Eye began to talk of what they had heard. Public opinion became so loud against the new widower that the authorities realized more investigation into this death was necessary. One month after her death, orders were given for Maria's body to be exhumed. The doctors who examined her corpse were hampered by the fact that decomposition was so advanced, but they saw enough to rule that they believed her death may have come about through foul play, probably some sort of suffocation or strangulation. Their findings led police to arrest William Kirwan for murder.

At his trial in late 1852, William pled "Not Guilty." The prosecution witnesses had some damning things to say about the defendant. The Kirwan's landlady testified that the couple had often quarreled, and William treated his wife with great brutality, beating her and on at least one occasion threatening to kill her. She stated that Maria had been in good health when she departed on the tragic expedition to Ireland's Eye. Patrick Nangle told what he knew of that day, adding that he did not think the injuries on Maria's body could have occurred by natural means, such as the flow of the tides. He insisted that no one other than the Kirwans could have been on the island after four o'clock. He also did not believe William could have become as soaked through as he was that evening simply by walking into the inlet where Maria's body lay--the water was not deep enough. The witnesses who had heard the screams told their stories. So did the women who had washed the body for burial. The doctor who had examined the corpse after it was exhumed repeated his belief that Maria had not met an accidental death. It was also noted as being very suspicious that Maria Kirwan was found lying on top of her bathing sheet. Under normal circumstances, she would have left it on the beach, so she could use it to dry herself when she finished bathing. And why was her bathing costume found bunched up under her arms? Try as he might, Kirwan's attorney failed to shake any of these witnesses during cross-examination.

When it was the defense's turn to make their case, they naturally argued that just because their client was an adulterer, it did not necessarily make him a murderer. They claimed (without producing any proof) that Maria Kirwan had been aware all along of her husband's liaison, and was untroubled by it. They asserted that the witnesses who heard the screams were mistaken, or perhaps what they had heard was William himself, calling his wife. The cuts and scratches on her body were due to the bites of sand crabs. (Prosecution witnesses had earlier testified that the marks did not in the least resemble crab bites.) They pointed out that William had no injuries on his face and body, which would surely have been the case if he had been in a murderous struggle with his wife. If he had drowned her in the surf, they argued, surely his arms and coat would have been very wet, and such was not the case. Their argument was that, while bathing, Maria had suffered an epileptic fit, which caused her to accidentally drown. Such a fit, they suggested, could also account for the screams which were heard.

The only witnesses for the defense were two doctors. They had not actually examined Maria's body, but had merely heard the courtroom testimony of the prosecution's medical witnesses. These doctors said that it did not sound as if her body bore the marks which would have inevitably resulted from a violent attack. They stated that an epileptic fit, followed by drowning, could account for the appearance of the body. However, under cross-examination, they admitted that they had never seen such bleeding in any case of simple drowning. When asked if suffocation by means of a wet bathing sheet held over the victim's face could also create these same appearances, they agreed that it could. In short, the medical evidence said that Maria could either have drowned naturally or through foul play.

There was a great deal of fruitless argument over the question of whether or not Maria was epileptic. No definitive proof one way or the other was ever presented. Curiously, Maria's mother, who certainly would have been in a position to know, was never called to the stand by either side. It is telling, however, that after his wife's death, William never suggested his wife may have suffered from seizures until he found himself charged with her murder.

After all the evidence had been heard, the jury returned a verdict of "Guilty." The judge pronounced sentence of death, adding his own agreement with the jury's decision. However, the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. After a quarter-century in prison, Kirwan was released, on the condition that he leave Ireland. He emigrated to America, where, according to unconfirmed legend, he finally married Teresa Kenny.

The evidence in this case is just enigmatic enough for there to be a number of true crime writers who doubt Kirwan's guilt and see the jury's verdict as a miscarriage of justice. In his essay on the death of Maria Kirwan, crime historian William Roughead avoided explicitly stating his own opinion of William's guilt or innocence. He contented himself with quoting the report of a expert in forensic medicine whom he had asked to study the available medical evidence.

This doctor said the appearance of the body suggested death not by simple drowning, but through asphyxiation. He said there was no evidence to show Maria had an epileptic fit or apoplectic stroke. He could see no way in which the injuries she suffered could be consistent with an accidental or suicidal drowning. He believed she was suffocated while on dry land, and then her body was dragged to where it was found, in an effort to make her death look accidental.

In short, "It was a simple murder, clumsily carried out."

I see no reason to disagree.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

In the world of Strange Company, life is not a bowl of cherries.

It is a patch of catnip.

On to this week's Collection of Curious Chronicles:

What the hell was this 17th century Russian fireball?

What the hell did these monks leave behind them?

What the hell is this Martian pothole?

What the hell are these wheels of light?

Who the hell is trying to tell us something?

Who the hell was the Lady in the Lake?

Watch out for that froggy drinking water!

Davenport is really booming!

Philip K. Dick and his plasmate.

The unsolved (to date, at least) mystery of Flight 370:  time to take a look at Vile Vortices?

The autobiography of a medieval mystic.

Meet the real Sherlock Holmes.

Meet Andy Rolan, the Donkey Man.

The case of Washington Irving Bishop:  Sometimes magic just isn't enough.

The death of Venetia Stanley:  too much Viper Wine?

The Affair of the Fringes:  a Versailles mystery.

Now, gang, this is what we call "overanalyzing."

Fighting words, 17th century style.

Golfer spreads urban panic, 1900.

A letter between two WWI widows, 1915.

The serial killer capital of the world is...London, Ontario?

A selection of 19th century vegetarian personal ads.  Fans of pickles or feather-beds need not apply.

Duke buys himself a wife, 1744.

A warning not to mess with Nikola Tesla's ashes.

A BYOB meal:  Bring Your Own...well, never mind.

Amy Spain, who celebrated way too prematurely.

The Queens of Ghost Land.

Convict courtship and the Female Factory.

And, finally, my favorite story of the week:  Fire-fighting Felines!  With video!

That wraps it up for this week.  See you on Monday, when, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'll be presenting the story of a mysterious death on an Irish island.  In the meantime, I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, doing...well, nothing even remotely interesting, now that I think of it.  Never mind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This grimly weird story--somewhat reminiscent of Poe's "The Black Cat"--appeared in several newspapers early in 1912. I found this particular account in the "Washington Post" for January 12. The schooner Sarah and Lucy did indeed exist--rather fittingly, it ran aground in March 1918--and other, less sensational, accounts do confirm that Andrew Lundberg hanged himself just before the ship reached New York. As for the "hoodoo cat" and other lurid details found in this story...horrid truth or a case of some journalist or fellow sailor who read too much Poe letting his imagination run wild? Who knows? The sea is a strange world...

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest,
Yo-ho! and a bottle of rum.
Drink and the devil had done for the rest.
Yo-ho! and a bottle of rum.

Since Andrew Lundberg signed as able seaman aboard the two-master schooner Sarah and Lucy in Bridgeport last Friday he dinned the words of Stevenson's pirates song in "Treasure Island" into the ears of his shipmates until they drove him from their quarters in the fo'castle, and made him share the ice-covered deck with a big black cat that went aboard before the schooner left Bridgeport for this port.

Early yesterday morning Lundberg, in a tipsy frenzy, lay on the deck, the cat on his shoulder and an empty bottle in his hand, mumbling the same old chorus while the schooner rolled at her anchorage off Red Hook. His shipmates were asleep, and the watch had curled himself up in a warm corner.

Two hours later Lundberg was found dead, hanging by a halyard from the foremast. The empty bottle was frozen to his fingers, and perched on his shoulder, as it swung like a pendulum in the breeze, was the hoodoo cat.

Lundberg lived at 1 Seeley street, Bridgeport. He told his mates the cat had followed him for miles, and that it meant his death. At times he cursed it, and once tried to kill it. The other seamen aboard prevented him, and for a time it looked as though Lundberg was going to start a killing on board.

A few hours sleep cleared his mind a little from the effects of the drink he had been swallowing, but he was not long awake before he found a bottle again, and once more he started raving and hunting for the cat. He found it and kicked it half the length of the schooner. The thought that he had killed it seemed to pacify him for a time, and he began to sing again.

The schooner dropped anchor off Red Hook on Tuesday, waiting for a tow to Perth Amboy. Then the cat, minus its tail, appeared on deck from nowhere and sat and blinked at Lundberg. With a curse the sailor tried to get on his feet, but the deck was like glass and he slipped down again. For an hour he lay, singing and cursing until he dozed off.

There his mates left him, with the black cat alongside, and went below to sleep. The man on watch gave him a glance of disgust, tossed a piece of bread to the cat, buttoned his coat, and sought out a corner where he would escape the sting of the icy northwester that blew steadily all night.

Lundberg cut a halyard, tied a hangman's noose, and slipped it around his neck. Then he climbed the rigging high enough to be sure the drop would break his neck. Whether the cat went with him or climbed on his shoulder after he had hanged himself is not known.

When the body was found it was shrouded in frozen spray; the fingers of the left hand showed they had been badly cut, and the sailor's coat was missing. The cat was dead.

The New York police were notified, and Lieut. Dwyer, of Harbor Squadron A., went out to the patrol and brought the body to the Battery. There it was taken to the morgue and information sent to Bridgeport.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Robert Coates: The Greatest of Bad Actors

It’s common to see an actor become a celebrity despite having little talent. It is a cherished rarity to see an actor become a celebrity precisely because he had absolutely no talent whatsoever.

Well, you’re seeing it now. Meet Robert Coates.

Coates was best known in his day as “Romeo” (because of his lifelong inordinate passion for the stage,) or “The Amateur of Fashion” (thanks to a wardrobe that would have given Liberace the vapors.)  He was born in Antigua in 1772. He lived in obscurity until 1810 (some sources say 1809,) when the theaters of England were first graced by his distinctive presence.

His two obsessions were Shakespeare and designing his own costumes. When he played Romeo, for example, he proudly strutted out in a white-feathered hat, blue spangled cloak, red pantaloons, and dozens of diamonds. (On one occasion, he designed his pantaloons a size too small, causing them to split onstage. It was undoubtedly the high point of his performance.) Another outfit was described as “a species of silk so woven as to give it the appearance of chased silver; from his shoulders hung a mantle of pink silk, edged with bullion fringe; around his neck was a kind of gorget, richly set with jewels; and at his side was a handsome gold-hilted sword.” Coates was so delighted with his abilities as a clothes designer that he habitually wore these outfits in public, as well. He also designed his own carriage, in the shape of a kettledrum and driven by white horses. It was decorated with a crowing cock and the motto, “While I live, I’ll crow.”

This multi-talented man was a playwright, as well. Before appearing in a Shakespearean play, he liked to “improve upon it” with various innovations of his own. (As Romeo, he “improved upon” the ending by prying open Juliet’s tomb with a crowbar.) When he forgot his lines—a common occurrence—he would simply improvise dialogue and stage action, leaving his hapless co-stars to follow along as best they could. If the results of a scene particularly pleased him, he would just keep repeating that same scene all evening.

Once, as Romeo, he delivered the line, “Oh, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste,” but, instead of leaving the stage, he started to make a minute survey of the set. When the prompter hissed, “Come off! Come off!” Coates replied quite audibly that “he would so soon as he found his buckle.” During one performance as Lothario in “The Fair Penitent,” (one of his favorite roles,) he was “considerably annoyed” during his climactic tomb scene by repeated audience shouts of “Why don’t you die?” (Perhaps this was the performance witnessed by Lord Byron, who wrote in 1811 of having seen “a Mr. Coates” perform Lothario “in a damned and damnable manner.”)

Contemporary caricature of Coates as Lothario

He probably was the one working actor in history whose bouquets and applause were hysterical laughter, brutal heckling, noisy ridicule, and, on occasion, lynch mobs.

Coates was independently wealthy—he was heir to successful sugar plantations in his native land—leaving him free to follow his dreams, which he did with a determination and panache that can only be admired. When theater managers tried to boycott him, Coates bribed them into submission. When his fellow actors, fearing the wrath of his audiences, refused to perform with him, he mollified them by providing armed guards. When he failed to get cast in leading roles, he simply subsidized his own productions. When he thought the audience heckling was getting out of hand, he would abandon his script to give his detractors as good as he was getting. When onlookers threw fruit and vegetables at him, he ducked.

It is a pleasure to record that his dreams, in his own distinctive way, did eventually come true. Coates, who dubbed himself “the celebrated philanthropic amateur,” hung on long enough to go from mere loser to a famous and, to those with a sense of humor, beloved figure. He even gave command performances in front of royalty.

Coates’ later years, however, were not as fortunate. His private fortune diminished, and along with it his opportunities for work. He eventually became almost forgotten, although he never gave up his beloved profession altogether. His end was peculiarly appropriate. In 1848, he was struck by a carriage while leaving a London theater, and died soon afterwards.

[A postscript: The following are several rather delightful eyewitness accounts of Coates in his heyday. As we today are sadly deprived of being able to view the Master at work, these descriptions must stand as the next best thing:]

"Richmond Theatre, Sept. 1811.—The people of Richmond, and its vicinity for several miles round, including many families of the highest rank and fashion, and great numbers even from London, crowded to Richmond Theatre on Wednesday night, the 4th of September, 1811, to see that celebrated Amateur, Mr. Coates, perform the part of Romeo. While the audience impatiently awaited the rising of the curtain, Mr. Coates's performance was the subject of general and audible conversation, from which it was easy to anticipate that the pathetic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet would, for this time, be one of the most laughable comedies with which merry Old England was ever entertained.

At length the hero appeared; clad in a most splendid, and really very beautiful, dress, consisting of yellow and silver tissue, with a large sash of pink and silver, put on in the manner of a Scotch plaid, and a Spanish hat, with a rich plume of ostrich feathers; to these were added a profusion of rich jewelry, in all the various shapes of collars, buckles, buttons, &c. to the amount, it was said, of several thousand pounds. We are not disposed to be severe on Mr. Coates's performance, which afforded singular amusement; but it is necessary, in order to give a just idea of it, to say, that for some time it was not so much below mediocrity, that it appeared likely to pass off in that flat routine which is neither forcible enough to affect the feeling in the pathetic, nor absurd enough to amuse by provoking the risible faculties.

At length a sudden start, or rather frisk and jump, in one of the love speeches, called forth an universal burst, and from that moment the laugh was not discontinued, nor the audience composed for one instant to seriousness for the remainder of the night; and whether Romeo addressed Juliet, or Juliet pronounced the praise of Romeo, laughter convulsed the house, and made it sometimes impossible for the love-sick maid herself (though represented in a very superior manner by a young lady of the name of Watson) to forbear from a smile and a titter, where a sob and a tear would be appropriate, if the tragedy had not been so superlatively comedized, or rather farcified by her lover.

‘Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’

was harped upon in a very particular manner; but when she spoke of ‘cutting him up into little stars,’ &c. the effect produced was beyond all description. Everyone in the house burst by one common and irresistible impulse into a peal of laughter, which shook their frames, the benches, and the house with them: it would be tiresome to notice every successive instance in which this recurred. It was most forcible at the time when the hero forgot his text, and trying back to recover the cue, as the prompter calls it, after audibly expressing his doubt and hesitation, by the contradictory monosyllables, no, yes, actually begun over again the very speech that he had just finished. Again, when he said, ‘Is it a dream, or am I mad?’ the laugh exceeded even its former excess. At length the dying scene came, and was performed amidst unceasing roars of laughter, in which several extraordinary sounds mingled, such as crowing and chuckling like a cock, crying cock-a-doodle-do, &c. till the curtain fell, and here the play closed, the audience vociferously and repeatedly, though ineffectually, demanding, by cries of encore, encore, &c. that the death scene should be re-acted, as it had been on Mr. Coates's former performance of Romeo at Cheltenham. Mr. Coates did, however, appear again, and recited, ‘Bucks have at you all!’ in a style somewhat less laughable than his Romeo. There were some alterations to suit his own particular case; and an allusion to some of the Cheltenham critics, whom he supposed to have mixed among the Richmond audience, had a very good effect. The audience was at last put into good humor, and they sincerely applauded and called for a repetition of the address. But Mr. Coates not appearing, while the encore was insisted on for a quarter of an hour, the manager, Mr. Beverley, came before the curtain, dressed for the character of the Jew, in the afterpiece of the Jew and Doctor; and having obtained silence, a long dialogue ensued: he stated, that Mr. Coates had actually left the house, therefore could not appear to repeat the performance that night, but promised that the same should be repeated another night, which was well received."

The following described a performance of “The Fair Penitent,” in 1813:

“The house was completely crammed in a few minutes after the doors were opened, and the performance instantly commenced—for, on this occasion matters were reversed, as compared with other theatres, the most prominent performers being before the curtain.—The boxes, pit, and galleries were filled with actors, mutually exerting themselves for the amusement of each other; the galleries were particularly active in punning on the name of the 'Amateur of Fashion,' and continued to call for him as ‘Long Coates, Driving Coates, Flannel Coates, Petty Coates, Turn Coates!’ &c. until they were interrupted by a loud crowing of cocks, which was very melodious, and gave a lively idea of a feeding loft, on the eve of a grand Welch main. At length the histrionic hero appeared, clad in silver and satin, and blazing in jewels, towering in majesty and feathers far above his worthy compeers, and looking as though he bore the whole empire of Thespis on his Atlantean shoulders. On his entree he was greeted, or, as Shakespeare has it, bruited, in a manner which we will not attempt to describe, and for similar reasons we will forbear to criticize his acting—we are unable to do so, we have no standard of comparison; for we most solemnly assure Mr. Coates, that though we have seen all the great actors of the present age, we have never seen one that can even for an instant stand in comparison with him.

The piece went off very rapidly, and the fourth act did not occupy more than two minutes, including the death of Lothario, which delighted the assembly (for an obvious reason we cannot call it audience) so much, that a unanimous encore was the consequence. The performer, however, was dead to this mark of favor, and would not comply, and a noise ensued, which we can only characterize by describing what it surpassed— Billingsgate on Saint James's day, when delicious oysters first appear, is quiet—a bull frog concert, heard in a South American Savannah, soft music—and an O. P. row absolutely tame, compared with this wild hubbub and strange uproar. The fifth act of the play was over in about three minutes; and though the interval between the play and farce was rather long, the spectators continued almost as gay and merry as at any time during the tragedy. Between the acts of the farce, Mr. Coates again came forward, and after apologizing for appearing before the ladies without boots and spurs, spoke some lines about hobbies, which, from their extraordinary beauty and classical elegance, we suppose to be his own production. He was particularly happy in the harmony and quantity of his verse, as well as in grammatical precision. Our readers may take this couplet as a specimen of his rhyme—

‘Horses which are dull and stubborn,
Are as difficult as our wives to govern.’

Of Lord Wellington, Mr. Coates said,

‘Lord Wellington's hobby in these bloody wars,
Is breaches, ambuscades, and ugly scars;
In time of peace how chang'd his trade is,
His Lordship's hobby is then the ladies.’

His own hobby he described as

‘Acting for widows, driving on high cushions,
And playing for our brave allies—the Russians.’

He was loudly encored, and returned, but as appeared in the sequel, not to repeat his address, but merely to give a sage and interesting piece of advice to the ladies, in these words—

‘Since I've repeated my hobbies through,
Pray, ladies, don't let the fortune-hunters jockey you!’

Mr. Coates then retired amidst a most tumultuous uproar of approbation.

A review from the "Morning Post" of Coates' appearance in "Herod and Marianne," December 24, 1816:

After a slumber, tolerably profound, of some thirty or forty years,, the repose of the above amiable couple has been disturbed by our managers: but the revival is by no means complimentary to their taste. The chief attraction of the night was


At the end of the 2d Act, the curtain drew up, and discovered " Romeo," in all his glory--studded with jewels--leaning like Patience, on a monument, smiling at grief. Tricked out in the trappings and suits of woe, he advanced in a most solemn, measured, tragic stride.

" Thrice made his bow--cried Hem!--and then began." What the Monody on the death of Nelson was like, whether it was very like a whale, or very like a camel, or very like an ouzel--nobody could tell: for when that Mr. Coates--a wight

"--whose very sight would
Entitle him--Mirror of Knighthood ! "

began to open his mouth, the audience was, (I presume) in extacies; for they clapped and cried bravo! and roared silence! so loud, that nothing but silence could be heard for a long time...The skirt of his coat, or by whatever name you call it, was (accidentally on purpose) pushed under the waistband of his small-clothes: and at the words (or some such) of "nature cast away," the Amateur of Fashion suddenly laid hold of it, disengaged it with such a jerk, and cast it away so gracefully, and so pathetically, that the whole house was electrified. The Amateur retired. It was, however, too good a thing to be parted with so easily; and encore! encore! encore! sounded and resounded from boxes, pit and gallery. But the more they called, the more he would not come. The whole house thumped with sticks, hissed, groaned, kicked, bellowed "Romeo! Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?" " Cock-Cock-a doodle doo-Cock a doodle doo encore! encore!" The High Priest of the play, in pontificabilus, came forward, and was assailed with "No, no; off, off, off; encore, encore." In consequence of which he bowed and retired.

And, finally, a regrettably crabby view of our hero from the "Morning Chronicle" for February 25, 1813:
Last night Mr. Coates "in all his glory re-appeared," in the character of the "gallant gay Lothario" in Rowe's "Tragedy of the Fair Penitent."

We know not whether the town is more obliged to this gentleman for the mirth he occasions among the idle and thoughtless, or disobliged to him for the sorrow he creates among the sensible and reflecting: to witness the senseless tricks of a mountebank at Bartholomew fair; to see there a being of the same species with the noblest ornaments of our race, degrade his nature below the brute creation, is surely sufficiently humiliating to the vanity of man; but what must be the feelings of the considerate, when they see a creature calling himself an Amateur of Fashion, sink himself even below the standard of the most debased! The mountebank has besides, an excuse to which Mr. Coates cannot pretend: he may say with some justice "Il faut vivre," but if Mr. Coates were to employ this apology we should rely on the words of the acute Frenchman, "Monsieur je ne vois pas la nécessité. de cela."--In the latter instance there is an additional aggravation, for this successful candidate for contempt, is committing a crime little short of sacrilege upon the sanctity which belongs to the productions of one of our best poets--Amateur of Fashion! it is a profanation of language: What is a man of fashion? Certainly not one who because fortune, unluckily for the rest of mankind, has placed him a little above want, thinks it right to dress himself like Gahano's monkey, and to drive about the town, the laughing stock of all who view him. We have always imagined that a man of fashion is one whose ambition at least it is to excel in all useful and polite accomplishments; who, it is true, accommodates himself to the general customs of the country, but does not deviate into all the ridiculous extravagancies that fools or madmen can invent. Sir Philip Sidney was such a man of fashion; the admirable Crichton was such a man of fashion: is Mr. Coates such a man of fashion? Times have changed since Sir Philip Sidney was the pattern of perfection, and language may also have altered; modern acceptation may make those words, that in the reign of Elizabeth signified every thing that is excellent, in the reign of George the Third imply every thing that is contemptible. We speak not thus out of enmity, but out of charity to Mr. Coates, and no man above the level of an idiot can misunderstand us. If nothing else will produce an effect, we shall, to use the words of Randolph, employ

"The whip of steel, that with a lash
Can print the characters of shame so deep,
Even in the brazen forehead of proud folly,
That not eternity shall wear it out."
-Muse's Looking-Glass.

The performance of Mr. Coates was as usual absurd beyond conception. When he entered on the first act, in the same way that the Ghost in "Hamlet" makes his exit, with the crowing of the cock, from all parts of the Theatre. The actor's voice was scarcely audible at any time, and its sepulchral tone, and the antic gestures that seconded it, when it was heard, rendered his appearance more ludicrous than description can represent it--In the second act, in the altercation between Lothario and Horatio, the latter introduced the following lines, not in the original part:--

"Why drive you thus in state about the town,
With curricle and pair, the crest a cock."

The audience relished the joke exceedingly, but Mr. Coates started back several paces with indignation, and then advanced in apparent agitation to the front of the stage: he attempted to obtain a hearing, but in vain; he retired towards Horatio, and looked terrific, as if denouncing vengeance. Horatio next tried to make himself audible, and unsuccessful, withdrew: thus while the spectators were bursting with laughter, and Mr. Coates was swelling with rage, the two actors by turns made their exit and appearance. At length silence was obtained, and the Amateur spoke as follows:--"Ladies and Gentlemen, I was solicited to play for a Lady whom I was informed was an object deserving of my attention." Loud applauses succeeded, and Mr. Coates, in the interval, employed himself in selecting the most engaging attitudes. He proceeded, "I beg leave to state that there are several performers in this place who belong to our great theatres, and let me add, that one of them has taken most unwarrantable liberties with me."--This sentence was received with shouts and hisses, and Mr. Coates was busily engaged in brow-beating his enemies in the pit, and in running to one of the stage boxes, where some friends were stationed. Silence being again obtained he resumed, "You doubtless have read the play of "The Fair Penitent," and if not, you may do it to-morrow morning, but there you will find something about horses and merriment; but a performer has no right to hurt my feelings by inserting what is not in his part. Let my equipage be laughed at by those that chuse; but though my father blest me with a good fortune, he always taught me good manners. I am little skilled in boasting, but I must say that I feel myself a most useful character: for if my dress be extravagant, and my curricle and equipage expensive, let it be remembered it is this that supports the lower orders: does it not assist the taylor, the mercer, and the coach-maker? In these respects I set what I think is a laudable example, that cannot be too soon followed." Mr. Coates here ended, and laughter for some time incapacitated the audience from listening to Horatio, who stood piteously pleading in the front of the stage. At length he said, that he was not one of the public performers to whom Mr. Coates alluded, and that his sole object in appearing was charity. He had already assured Mr. Coates that he meant to give him no offence, and on his honour he now disclaimed any such intention. This apology was satisfactory to the company, and Mr. Coates, after consulting with his friends in the box, most generously condescended to shake hands with his antagonist. Thus terminated a dispute from which dangerous consequences might have resulted. Mr. Coates might have died never to die again.

The tragedy proceeded without much interruption until the scene where Lothario is killed by Altamont, when the audience behaved with unprecedented barbarity to the Amateur--for having already received three mortal wounds, they kept him in the agonies of death nearly ten minutes, without permitting him to terminate his existence. At length he died, and tears bedewed the cheeks of the whole company--tears of laughter. We should not omit to notice "a young lady" of about 60, who made her appearance as Calista, whose voice rivalled a jew's-harp, and whose person, like that of Mr. Coates, was a caricature upon human nature. Some persons asserted that it was Mrs. Coates, and, sure, such a pair were never seen.

After the play some time elapsed for the Hero of the Night to array himself for the purpose of speaking an address for the occasion, of his own composition. When he appeared, he seemed to give an intimation that he intends, on a future occasion, to play Hamlet, for his dress was such as usually belongs to that character. This production was of a piece with its author, and its repetition was loudly called for; but Mr. Coates doubtless thought that the treat would be too great, and therefore did not comply.

The house was filled to excess, and while the exquisite talents of Mrs. Jordan are wasted upon empty benches, the exquisite absurdity of Mr. Coates is found to attract crowds!--Really, John Bull is the most good-humoured, easily pleased fellow breathing.

You have to say this for Robert Coates: he always kept his audiences (if not the critics) entertained and happy.  How many modern celebrities can say the same?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company can always use some help picking winners at the racetrack.

Unlike Eddie, who was not only the best cat, but the most astute handicapper we have ever known.

On to this latest edition of the Week in Weird:

What the hell is lighting up Cleveland?

What the hell did Lieutenant Larkin see?

What the hell was seen in the skies of New York in 1879?

What the hell is being heard on this radio station?

What the hell is under our very noses?

Watch out for those Norwegian interdimensional portals!

Watch out for those Georgian STDs!

Watch out for those Bradford Humbugs!

Watch out for those sarcastic Vikings!

Watch out for those Vibratoriums!

Watch out for those brazen talking heads!

Watch out for Harriet the Haunted Head!

Watch out for Shiny the Devil Cat!

Wonderful old photos of "Wonderful" London.

If you wish to spend eternity with the gods, pack a good lunch first.

An ancient Egyptian soldier writes a melancholy letter home.

Been longing for the chance to put the Total Perspective Vortex on your computer and realize anew what pitifully insignificant creatures we earthlings are?  You're welcome.

Stonehenge as prehistoric glockenspiel.

Hey, everybody!  Let's show those Sad Squonks and Soul-Sucking Cats some love!

When animals go to war.

More wartime animals, featuring pigeon photographers, British elephants, and, of course, rocket cats.

The alley cats of old New York.

Very eerie story of two sisters who disappeared...over 30 years apart.

Helen Duncan, the "last of the witches."

More scientific bad, bad ideas.

The UFO files of the German Secret Service.

Strange road signs from the supernatural superhighway.

Fanchon and Marco: an early Hollywood sensation.

When you manage to earn the nickname "El Loco," you've earned a spot on this blog.

When you build a church to honor the memory of dogs, you've earned a spot in my heart.

Witchy women.

The beautiful, ill-fated, and slightly mysterious Mary March of Newfoundland.

Here Came the Sun.

The recently-discovered photo journal of a WWI soldier.

As Bertie Wooster would say, aunts aren't gentlemen.

Road trip to Point Dume, anyone?

A brief history of life in darkness.  (Incidentally, I've read "At Day's Close," and it's a wonderful book.)

Using cats as hired assassins is just...wrong.  Leave 'em alone to commit their own murders, I say.

I may have to volunteer to write a whole series of BabyLit Edgar Allan Poe books.  Your infants complaining about teething? Read 'em "BabyLit Berenice."  Want to teach your kids to be careful about offending the wrong people? Pick up "BabyLit Cask of Amontillado."  "Mommy, this kitten followed me home. Can I keep him?" Whip out "BabyLit Black Cat."  Sick of overly expensive children's birthday parties?  Read the spoiled brats "BabyLit Hop-Frog."  Need to scare them into doing their homework? Plant the idea of "BabyLit Pit and the Pendulum" into their disobedient little heads.

Damn it, I think I'm really on to something here.

And we're done!  Have fun this weekend sending your two-year-old off to a lifetime of intense therapy with "BabyLit Valdemar."  In the meantime, I'll see you on Monday, when I shall introduce you to a 19th century man who was to acting what our old friend William Nathan Stedman was to poetry.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


This is just to mention that over at the great new blog, Yesterday Unhinged, I'm this week's participant in the Fab Five Historical Challenge.  I'm briefly discussing five of my favorite figures from history.

Incidentally, the Fab Five series is open to anyone who cares to submit an entry, whether you're a blogger or not.  If you love history, why not create your own list?

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Most people with even the most casual interest in true crime are familiar with the name of Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was executed in 1910 for murdering his wife, Belle.

But how many of you have heard of his lively afterlife as a sinister black cat?

Well, vital information like that is what this blog is here to provide. Here is an account of the good doctor's ghostly career from the "Syracuse Daily Journal" for March 10, 1911:

The ghost of Dr. Crippen, the murderer, is said to infest the house at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, where Belle Elmore was murdered. Sandy McNab, the comedian and present occupant of the house, writes his experiences with uncanny noises and weird sights. McNab is, of course, a Schtchman and bought the fated house as a bargain. Directly after a harrowing night he took to his bed. He has now recovered from his fright sufficiently to tell the story of Crippen's ghostly appearance. He writes:

"Just three days before Christmas, I sat typing in the very room in which Belle Elmore is supposed to have been murdered. It was close on midnight. Out of doors the rain was coming down in torrents, and the wind shook every window in the house. On my desk was a heap of letters and telegrams which required answering, and it was my intention to get these off my hands before I retired. My desk was facing the window, looking out on the main road, deserted at this time of the night.

"Suddenly, there was a sound on the pane, as though some one had thrown a handful of gravel, and simultaneously came a heavy thud at my room door, as though a mattress had been throw against it. I stopped typing and listened. I can't say that I was frightened, but I felt a little uneasy. After a minute or so I resumed my work, or at least tried to do so.

"It was no use. My fingers refused to touch the proper keys. 'Bang!' went the door again. Mechanically I raised my hand to my forehead, only to find that I was bathed in cold perspiration. I thought I heard muffled footsteps going upstairs, yet I seemed glued to my seat.

"I felt myself fainting, and with one mighty effort I sprang to my feet and made for the passage. I gave a glance up the stairs. It was perfectly dark, but looking down on me were two eyes resembling electric lights. With all my strength I rushed to the front door, pulled back the latch, closed the door behind me, and sprang down the ten steps on to the garden walk. I doing this I sprained my ankle. Somehow I struggled to the gate, then out into the street, and searched for a policeman.

"In a few minutes I found one, and together we returned to the house. He laughed at my story as I inserted my latchkey in the door. We entered, closing the door behind us, and then we listened.

"At first we could neither hear nor see anything. I began to think myself a fool, when suddenly a slight noise came from one of the bedrooms. The constable mounted the stairs and I followed. It was not until we reached the very top of the house that we found the room from which the noise appeared to originate. We entered it, lit the gas, but there was nothing to be seen.

"We were about to retire, when we heard a piercing cry from a cupboard, the door of which was closed and securely fastened with a catch. The constable opened it and out flew a big black cat, which immediately commenced to rush around the room. Although the door of the room was wide open, that cat refused to leave. It rushed round and round, flew up the walls and dashed into the window. It was only when the constable made a dash for it with his cape that the beast made a bolt for the door. We put out the light, closed the door and systematically searched every nook and corner of the house for the cat, but to this day it has never been seen again.

"I should say that not a single door or window in the house was open, and how that cat escaped is a mystery. It is also a mystery how it got fastened up in the cupboard, assuming that it was the cat which was looking down the staircase on me when I saw the eyes. I am by no means superstitious, but have heard it said that the spirits of the departed sometimes enter the bodies of animals and this incident has set me thinking."

If we were cynical types, we might wonder if McNab's eagerness to relate this colorful tale had any connection at all with the fact that he was at that date in the process of turning the Crippen house into a museum where the luridly-minded would pay him admission to tour the place.

But, of course, we are not nearly jaded and unkind enough to even suggest such a thing.