Friday, January 30, 2015
The weekend is almost here! Don't let yourself be boxed in.
Leave that to the cats.
Let's unpack this week's links:
What the hell happened at Montford Bridge in 1966?
What the hell are the Naga Fireballs?
What the hell is the Antikythera Mechanism? (The latest in a continuing series...)
Where the hell is the Ark of the Covenant? Do the Ethiopians know?
Where the hell is the White Pyramid of Xian? Did it even ever exist?
Watch out for the puff guts!
Watch out for the Gympie-Gympie!
Watch out for Nessie!
Watch out for those Sumo-wrestling cats!
What the well-dressed Undead are wearing.
The ghost of Ann Frost grasses on her killer, 1820.
Georgiana, the colorful Duchess of Devonshire.
The fashionable French Revolution.
Genghis Khan proves that it's a small world, after all.
A grim tale from WWII France: What to do with the 18-year-old?
It turns out that space aliens make lousy pancakes.
Some charming 18th century trade cards.
Franklin Stockton, ghostwriter in every sense of the word.
Some helpful tips on visiting 1830s France. If someone insults you as you walk along the street, knock 'em down!
Zazel, female cannonball.
Why it was never a good idea to laugh at Henry VIII's poetry. (As an aside, I think Dr. Beach is spot-on when he suggests that bruised pride led Henry to convince himself of Anne Boleyn's guilt. This also probably explains the immediate failure of his marriage to Anne of Cleves. Anne's first meeting with Henry was wholly unexpected on her part, and it's clear, in her surprise, she failed to hide that she was physically unimpressed with him. As the old judicial serial killer's ego was as massive as it was fragile, he had to heal this blow to his self-esteem by convincing himself that he had an unconquerable physical aversion to her. Henry VIII: World's worst blind date.
The curious tale of Fulcanelli the alchemist.
The "ghost island" of Japan.
John Wilkes, the Truth and the Filth.
A children's book gives us an intimate look at the Early Modern world.
In search of Ivan the Terrible's library.
Discovering a long-forgotten natural disaster.
Viewing the work of the "divine" Bernini.
Christoph Haizmann, yet another example of why making contracts with the Devil is a damned tricky business.
Architecture for ghosts.
Dead Man Walking.
It's consoling to know that tapeworm pills appear to be an urban legend.
The man who was both a dwarf and a giant.
The often sad saga of Soviet space dogs.
And we're done! See you on Monday, with the tale of two famously mysterious deaths. We'll meet again, some sunny day.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
In early January 1995, a number of newspapers across America described eerie dual tragedies that took place in a home located in an upper-class subdivision in Georgetown, Texas.
The first owners of the home were Cynthia and Cecil Wuthrich. They lived there without apparent incident from 1981 until October 1989, when Mrs. Wuthrich was found dead in an upstairs bedroom. She had been either strangled or smothered. Her husband was the only suspect in the case, (two months earlier, Cynthia had filed for divorce,) but police never had the chance to question him fully. He shot himself four days later. Her killing has remained officially unsolved.
Only six months after this murder-suicide, the house was sold to another couple, Laura and Cliff Brown. They knew all about the house's grim history, and professed themselves to be completely untroubled by it. In fact, they gloated over the fact that it had enabled them to buy the home at a bargain price.
The neighbors, who had been badly shaken by the shocking crime, welcomed having such a nice, normal couple and their two daughters move into the Wuthrich home. "They were good neighbors," said a woman who lived next door.
Sadly, very soon after moving into their new home, the once-happy Browns began having marital trouble. In August 1994, Laura Brown filed for divorce.
The divorce never had a chance to go through. On New Year's Eve 1994, Cliff Brown went mad. He chased his wife through several of the neighbor's yards before he managed to corner her long enough to shoot her three times through the head. He then turned the pistol on himself.
Mr. Brown died instantly, but, amazingly, his wife survived her injuries.
After this second tragedy, a neighbor was quoted as saying he hoped they would tear the home down. A Google Earth search shows that there is still a house at that address, but I cannot say if it is the same one. If it is, one wonders how the current tenants feel about its history.
So, what is the story with this upscale suburban home? A writer of fiction, of course, would assume either that the house was somehow "cursed" from the beginning, or that the "bad vibrations" from the Wuthrich murder/suicide impregnated the residence, influencing Cliff Brown to commit a similar act of evil.
Or was it just an awful coincidence that the first two families to live in this house--two well-liked and seemingly "ideal" couples--should both have their marriages break down in the month of August and end in violent death shortly afterward?
I just hope that whoever lives there now is unmarried.
Monday, January 26, 2015
"Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
~epitaph for John Keats
Sometime around the end of the 17th century, a young man could be seen wandering through Germany and the Low Countries. He was a poor man, little more than a footloose beggar. He described himself as "a Japanese converted to Christianity." Little was known about Japan at the time, and the youth's habits were odd enough to make people accept he was some sort of exotic foreigner.
It did him little good. No one cared where this ragged, lice-ridden stranger came from, they just wanted him to go away. Having no other options, in Cologne he enlisted in the army of the Duke of Mecklenburg. He gave his name as "George Psalmanazar."
"Psalmanazar" was no ordinary soldier. He made a point of eating nothing but raw meat and herbs and he had an elaborate daily ritual involving facing the rising and setting suns while he chanted in some incomprehensible language that he assured everyone was fluent Japanese. In 1703, this peculiar fellow attracted the attention of an Alexander Innes, chaplain to a Scottish regiment stationed near Mecklenburg's troops. Innes was sharp enough to see at once that "Psalmanazar" was a fraud, and he was unscrupulous enough to utilize the young playactor for his own personal ends. He felt that the unusual achievement of converting a "heathen Japanese" would be very good for his career.
Innes made a great show of baptizing the "heathen." Then he wrote his superior, the bishop of London, a letter relating "Psalmanazar's" remarkable tale, with a few even more baroque additions of his own. In this letter, Innes changed the land of "Psalmanazar's" birth from Japan to the even lesser-known Formosa. He threw in a great deal of self-congratulatory remarks describing his triumph at converting this pagan to the True Protestant Faith. The bishop swallowed it whole, and begged for more. He quickly wrote back urging Innes to bring this exciting new Anglican to London as soon as possible.
Thus is was that this penniless, enigmatic vagrant became a leading light of British society. England has always loved its human curiosities, and you didn't get any more curious than Psalmanazar. He soon proved himself to be not only odd, but highly intelligent, erudite, and charming. He and Innes explained that he had been kidnapped from his native land by Jesuit priests, who sought to take advantage of his talent for languages by training him to be a missionary. He managed to escape their clutches, and, fortunately, fell under the protection of Chaplain Innes.
Psalmanazar delighted the bishop by translating the Church of England catechism into, uh, "Formosan." It was such a hit that he was prevailed upon to write a history of his homeland. In 1704, he produced "A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan." It all bore about as much resemblance to the real Formosa as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" does to Des Moines, Iowa, but fortunately for Psalmanazar, no one around him knew enough about the far-off land to be able to tell. The well-written, colorful, and astonishingly detailed work was a huge success. When it was pointed out that Formosa belonged to China, not Japan, he loftily accused these nitpickers of either lying or being grievously mistaken.
It was his air of certainty that did the most to make his outlandish hoax a success. Psalmanazar later explained that, "There was one maxim I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho' to ever so few people, and tho' ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted in the narrative." In other words, if he was a ridiculous fraud, at least he was a consistent one.
Londoners adored Psalmanazar. The clergy delighted in landing such a fascinating convert. Scientists and linguistics experts flocked to study his exotic Formosan language. The titled and wealthy considered it an honor to become his patrons. Everyone was spellbound by the lurid tales of his homeland--human sacrifices, polygamy, cannibalism, and all.
Rather amazingly, Psalmanazar's bizarre heyday lasted until around 1710. Then, he found himself dealing not only with increasing doubts about his story, but with a novelty-hungry public's satiety and eagerness to discard him for new thrills. With his decreasing popularity came a corresponding lack of self-confidence. It all combined to create a perfect storm of personal disaster.
The next few years of Psalmanazar's life are hazy. All we know is that the impostor, humiliated by his public exposure as a fraud, deliberately hid from the world--and himself--in what he later described as "a course of the most shameful idleness, vanity, and extravagance."
By 1715, he had pulled himself together enough to obtain a position as clerk to a regiment of dragoons. He couldn't resist presenting himself as a descendant of Formosan royalty who had been knighted by Queen Anne, but by now such taraddidles scarcely raised an eyebrow. He remained quietly with the regiment for two years, until it was transferred to Ireland. He had become rather disgusted with himself, and sincerely tried to make an honest living. He turned his hand to tutoring, then becoming an artist, then a translator, but nothing worked out for him. His only real talent, it seemed, was one for make-believe. Although by now he was heartily sick of being a faux-Formosan, it seemed to be the one thing people found valuable about him. He was, in a word, trapped.
In 1728, Psalmanazar fell seriously ill. As with so many other people who narrowly escape death, the experience caused him to undergo a long period of solemn soul-searching. He came to bitterly repent his long, wasted years of deception and dissipation, and resolved to spend the rest of his life making amends for his folly.
Although he continued to go under the name of "Psalmanazar," otherwise he was a changed man. His lifestyle became one of saintly asceticism and self-disciplined study. He earned a living by writing--always anonymously--on various topics (including Formosa, where he scornfully attacked the ridiculous falsehoods of George Psalmanazar.) Secretly, he began to write his memoirs, which would prove to be one of the oddest non-confessional confessions on record.
Psalmanazar had gone from goofy charlatan to public sensation to scorned laughingstock to, in his later years, a beloved, even revered figure, greatly admired for his scholarship, dignified demeanor, and purity of character. His friend Samuel Johnson wrote, "Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful in the lives of the saints." Johnson called him the best man he had ever known.
Psalmanazar died on May 3, 1763. With what had become his characteristic modesty and self-denial, he requested that his body "be conveyed to the common burying-ground, and there interred in some obscure corner of it, without any further ceremony or formality...and that the whole may be performed in the lowest and cheapest manner. And it is my earnest request, that my body be not enclosed in any kind of coffin, but only decently laid in what is called a shell of the lowest value, and without lid or other covering which may hinder the natural earth from covering it all around." His funeral was as anonymous as his recorded life had been.
His memoirs were published after his death, as he had instructed. For the first time, he explained how he had concocted an entire language and history of Formosa out of whole cloth. He gave only vague details about his early life. He was probably born around 1679. He described himself as having come from a poor Catholic family in a small village in an undisclosed country--probably, it has been guessed, somewhere in southern France. The local monks gave him a good education, and he was sent to a university to study theology. He showed little interest in the subject, but he discovered he had an extraordinary talent for languages, quickly becoming fluent in six or seven different tongues.
However, he soon tired of the academic life, and left the university to become a tutor. Finding that did not suit him either, at the age of sixteen he set out on his own, apparently with no real goals or plans other than to see the world. He was the only surviving child of parents who would never hear from him again. The directionless young man fell into a vagrant lifestyle that only ended with his transformation into "Psalmanazar."
His only explanation of why he constructed such an outlandish persona was that he thought people would be more likely to give alms to a colorful foreigner. As for why he continued to hide behind it, even after he repented of the deception, all he would say was that "I deserve no other name than that of an impostor." His memoirs gave no hint of his real identity, which is almost certainly lost to us forever. Psalmanazar felt he deserved punishment, and he got it from spending nearly all of his long life as a stranger to everyone around him. He lived, died, and was buried with no one who knew him ever having any idea who he really was.
What an incredibly lonely fate.
Friday, January 23, 2015
Come on in and fill your plate from this week's link buffet.
The cats think it's finger-lickin' good.
What the hell happened to the owner of this rifle?
What the hell was wandering around Australia in 1932?
Watch out for the spunkies!
Watch out for the walking toads!
Watch out for your lightbulbs!
Are you German? Watch out for these diseases!
The silver tomb of Psusennes I.
I forgot the suicide pills, and "I'll shoot you first." Probably the last words anyone wanted to hear on D-Day.
Summary of what little we know about the Green Children of Woolpit, one of history's more baffling and unique stories. It's a long read, but well worth the time.
Military women in ancient Rome.
More 18th-century Cries of London.
Terror attacks in 1890s Paris.
Some medieval interactive books.
Richard Nixon's hypnotized housekeeper.
Sunday in London with George Cruikshank.
Tommy Mulligan, Coney Island's lighthouse cat.
There's progress in deciphering a carbonized ancient Roman library.
The strange history of a Poe letter.
"The Power of Sympathy," America's first roman à clef.
Meteorites: the universe's hard drives.
The fearless woman.
Books go to war.
The birth of a gypsy, 1820.
A look at the first automatons.
Vincenzo Lunardi, 18th century daredevil aeronaut.
Stunning photographs of life on a Russian farm.
Some haunting mugshots of Victorian child criminals.
A brief history of crochet. "Ladies made happy!"
Victorian men going crazy.
In a related topic, here's a look at life in the Victorian asylums.
And that marks the end of yet another Link Dump. See you on Monday, with the tale of one of the most mysterious impostors in history. In the meantime, here's some Telemann:
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
This lovely story of neighborly friendliness comes to us from the "New York Evening World" for March 4, 1909:
There were peace and quiet and the blessings thereof in the apartment house at No. 137 Main street, Astoria, until Mrs. Louis Kramer bought a phonograph and Miss Laura Fitch, who lives across the hall from her, invested in a green parrot with red trimmings and a black and white cat.I have a suspicion the warfare did not end there, but after this story the battling neighbors disappear from recorded history.
There is an extension roof behind the Fitch domicile, and on this the black and white cat was wont to walk of nights and lift his soul in song. During the day Miss Fitch's parrot hung out of the window and as the bird made the voyage north in the forecastle of a lime-juicer its vocabulary was extensive and profane.
One morning there came to Miss Fitch a polite little note risking her to restrain her parrot by day and her cat by night that her days might be long in the apartment house. Miss Fitch sent back word that providing the Kramers would please turn off their phonograph and trade it for a smoking table or a butter dish she would be glad to do so. Here diplomatic relations were severed and both sides ordered up their artillery.
Mrs. Kramer planted her heaviest gun--the phonograph--in the window opposite Miss Fitch's . Here, in rain and shine it ground out "Because I'm Mar-r-r-ied Now," which was distinctly annoying to Miss Fitch, who has passed the age when women usually contract matrimonial alliances.
Then, according to Mrs. Kramer, Miss Fitch taught her parrot to say, "Wash your dirty kids, wash your dirty kids," and fed it red pepper and lumps of sugar as a reward when Mrs. Kramer appeared at her window and scowled. Miss Fitch says the Kramers rigged up a hose and sprayed her bird with it to douse his spirits. Mrs. Kramer says Miss Fitch retaliated by throwing potatoes at the phonograph. Several of these missiles fell on the head of Louis Anspacher, the janitor, last week while he was doing chores in the backyard, and what he said to Miss Fitch only fed the flame of warfare in that militant little lady's heart.
Mrs. Kramer says that Miss Fitch deliberately allowed her scraggly old black-and-white Tom to go out and serenade all the eligible tabbies in the neighborhood with the express purpose of keeping Mr. Kramer--"a hardworking man if ever there was one"--from his slumbers. Miss Fitch goes as far as to say that Mr. Kramer cultivated his natural tendency to snore till dishes fell from the rack in her kitchen beneath the thunderous diapason of his nose music.
And all the while the phonograph kept wheezing--it had grown wheezy now--"Because I'm-m-m-m m-m-m-mar-r-i-bzzzzz-n-bz-z-z-now-&xx." And the parrot yelled, "Wash your dirty kids! Wash your dirty kids!" urged to a frantic stage by the sight of favorite foods, till its voice grew cracked.
Then the ladles took up letter writing, and today Mrs. Kramer had Miss Fitch summoned to the Long Island City Court to explain why she had written three letters that contained all sorts of unladylike things. Miss Fitch was martial and unashamed when she marched into court. From their station at one site of the magisterial bench the allied forces of the Kramers glared at her.
"Yes, I wrote two of the letters, Your Honor," fearlessly spoke up Miss Fitch. "I guess they stung. I hope they did," and she tucked her umbrella akimbo, as if it were a rifle.
The janitor was in court to testify about the potatoes.
"I guess they gave him 50 cents to do that," commented Miss Fitch.
"Now, you ladies go home," said Magistrate Smith, "and you"--to the janitor--"report to me any further disturbances, and if there are any I shall order the landlord to evict you both."
"I bane sure skall," said the janitor, rubbing his head where the vegetable missiles had hit it.
"H-m-m-m," sniffed Mrs. Kramer.
"Cat," said the Misses Kramers.
"Vulgarians," said Miss Fitch.
Perhaps that is just as well. Frankly, Miss Fitch scares the life out of me.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Louis Le Prince (1841-1890?) is not only one of the most undeservedly obscure people of the modern era, he is also at the center of one of the 19th century’s most intriguing disappearances.
It is a bit of a shock to learn that Le Prince, not Thomas Edison, shot the first moving images on film. In October of 1888, Le Prince filmed two brief moving pictures, “Roundhay Garden Scene,” and “Leeds Bridge,” using a single-lens camera he had developed and George Eastman’s paper film.
So, why has this man never gotten the acclaim he deserved? This is because, on September 16, 1890, he disappeared while traveling on a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. His luggage, stored in a separate compartment, were also never seen again. He vanished before he could stage a planned demonstration of his invention in New York that would have publicized his achievement. As a result, when competing inventors such as Edison and the Lumière brothers developed the ability to create similar films, they were the ones to receive the fame as motion picture pioneers.
Over the years, there have been many theories to explain Le Prince’s disappearance. Many years later, his grand-nephew claimed he killed himself because of financial difficulties caused by many years of investing in his experiments. However, surely his pride in his recent inventions—ones that he knew would likely prove to be very profitable indeed—gave him a powerful motive to live. People have been known to commit suicide for no obvious reason, but this is still a very implausible theory.
An adaptation of this allegation was devised by film historian Jacques Deslandes. He proposed that Le Prince staged his own disappearance because he was nearly bankrupt. A journalist named Leo Sauvage also proposed Le Prince voluntarily vanished. He suggested (on no known factual grounds,) that the inventor was gay, which would had alienated him from his relatives. However, there is not a trace of evidence supporting the idea Le Prince willingly abandoned his life. By all accounts, he was a decent person and a loving husband and father, who had no motive to play such a cruel stunt on his family.
Another yarn has it that Le Prince was murdered for his share of an inheritance by his own brother, who was the last person known to see the inventor alive. This speculation is also generally disregarded due to a complete lack of proof.
And now we turn to the most startling theory: Was Le Prince killed over his landmark invention—and possibly at the instigation of his greatest rival, Thomas Edison, a wealthy man who was as powerful as he was unscrupulous?
Certainly, the timing of Le Prince’s disappearance is suspicious. If he had succeeded with his plans for displaying his films in public, it would have been an obvious blow to any rivals in that field. Months after Le Prince vanished, Edison patented his own film equipment—instruments that bore a decided resemblance to his missing competitor’s work—and he thereupon insisted that he, and no one else, deserved credit for inventing the motion-picture camera. There is another connection between Edison and Le Prince that, in light of the latter’s disappearance, has a sinister aspect: The law partners of Clarence Seward and William Guthrie were prominent patent attorneys. They had been friends of Le Prince, and were among the very few people who knew all the details of his experiments with motion pictures. By the time Le Prince vanished, their firm was working for Thomas Edison. (There is evidence that, even before Le Prince was somehow erased from the scene, there was what can only be described as a widespread legal conspiracy to deny him credit for his invention.) When, after Le Prince’s disappearance, his family sought legal help, lawyers usually wound up either ignoring or sabotaging them.
There were other signs that something very strange indeed was going on. Around the time Le Prince vanished, his wife Lizzie, who was innocently awaiting his arrival at the home they were renting in New York, received a visit from a stranger who gave his name as “Mr. Rose.” He was very anxious to see her husband. When he was told Le Prince was not there, he left in evident agitation. Sometime later, he returned disguised as a milkman—a façade Lizzie easily saw through—and again asked about the inventor. When Lizzie indicated she recognized him, and threatened to summon the police, he fled. No one has any idea who this man was, and why he was so anxious to see Le Prince.
A further complication for the family was the fact that they were unable to take legal action defending the priority of Le Prince’s cameras against those of his rivals until he was officially declared dead—which under American law, took seven years. During all that time, Le Prince’s relatives were forced to sit on the sidelines while Edison and others gained credit for inventions they knew he had pioneered. In that sense, Le Prince’s disappearance was far more useful to his rivals than his immediate, unquestioned death would have been.
For what it’s worth, Le Prince’s family, particularly his wife, believed he had been deliberately killed, and that Edison was probably responsible. And the family had not seen the last of their tragedies. In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe, who had been his father’s assistant, testified in a lawsuit the American Mutoscope Company was fighting with Edison. The company wished to use proof of Le Prince’s discoveries to discredit Edison’s claims to have invented the motion picture camera. Mutoscope lost the case, ending the Le Prince family’s hopes for Louis gaining proper recognition for his work. (They eventually won on appeal, but Le Prince’s achievements remained largely overlooked.) Eerily, shortly after the initial negative verdict was announced, Adolphe was found shot dead while out duck hunting. Was it suicide? An accident? Or was Lizzie Le Prince correct in her belief that Adolphe was murdered because he had too much knowledge about his father’s work for the likes of certain important men?
Christopher Rawlence's book “The Missing Reel” is the most in-depth study to date of Le Prince and his puzzling fate. The author does not endorse the “Edison-did-it” theory, (the very idea clearly unnerved him,) but he does not entirely discount it, either. Rawlence admitted that his research taught him that Edison was “ruthlessly corrupt…resorting to lying, intimidation and dubious business practices when it came to asserting his power.” Rawlence’s own book proves that, if anything, he was under-emphasizing both Edison’s power and his corruption.
A nice example of the methods used by Edison’s team involved an obscure inventor named Thomas Armat. He had created a motion picture projector that was superior to Edison’s flailing kinetoscope. In 1896, Raff & Gammon’s Kinetoscope Company, approached this potential rival with a deal. “No matter how good a machine should be invented by another,” they wrote Armat, “and no matter how satisfactory or superior the results might be, yet we find that the greatest majority of parties who desire to invest in such have been waiting for the Edison machine and would never be satisfied with anything else…While Mr. Edison has no desire to pose as inventor of the machine, we think we can arrange with him for the use of his name to such an extent as may be necessary for the best results.”
In other words, Edison—already a powerful brand name—would “temporarily” present Armat’s camera to the world, and once “the respective rewards” had been reaped, the true inventor would be given his deserved credit.
Armat trustingly agreed, selling Edison his patent. And the Edison empire well and truly stabbed him in the back. They publicly presented the camera, which they named “the vitascope,” as “Mr. Edison’s latest,” and “Thomas A. Edison’s Latest Marvel.” And, until the Edison Company eventually abandoned the vitascope for their newly-developed Projectoscope, an Edison invention it publicly remained. Similarly ugly stories--most famously, his nasty propaganda war against Nikola Tesla and alternating currents--abound in Edison's career. The "great American hero" was, in short, a double-barreled bastard.
As I said above, whatever Le Prince’s financial status may have been, it hard to believe he would take his own life right when his years of effort and sacrifice to achieve what had become his life’s work were on the verge of paying off. An accidental death also seems highly unlikely.
That leaves us with foul play. The theory that the inventor was killed in order to get him out of the way may sound like something from a bad novel, but it cannot be ignored. The birth of the film industry was just as viciously competitive and conscienceless as Hollywood is today, full of spies, conspiracy, and dirty dealings. A stray murder here and there in order to accomplish what certain types of people see as the “greater good” of furthering their own interests is hardly uncommon. If Le Prince was slain, Edison is the most obvious suspect, but he is hardly the only possible one. The truth about Le Prince’s end will likely never be known, but his wife was not necessarily deluded in her belief that her husband and son had lost their lives because of their pioneering scientific work.
The only bright spot in this story is that in recent years, Le Prince has received a certain amount of the credit he deserves. Among film historians, he, and not Edison, is known as the “Father of cinematography.”
[Note: There is a strange footnote to the Le Prince mystery: In 2003, a researcher found in the Paris police archives a photo of an 1890 drowning victim. Some believe this unidentified corpse was the missing Louis Le Prince. If that guess is correct, it still would fail to explain what had happened to him—or his luggage.]
Friday, January 16, 2015
It's nearly the weekend! Time to relax with some of your best friends.
Here's this week's links, fresh off the grill:
Who the hell was "J.M.," the WWI soldier who created a remarkable sketchbook?
What the hell happened to the Easter Island civilization? Now we...maybe know?
What the hell is the Rohonc Codex?
What the hell is wandering around Ohio?
Watch out for those treadmills!
Watch out for those meteorites!
Watch out for those crinolines!
Watch out for those sorcerous werewolf princes!
Watch out for those mysterious mirrors!
Watch out for Busby's Chair of Death!
Oh, just another 96-year-old postmaster being driven around by a pig, a badger, two cats, a goose, & a hedgehog.
Saying goodbye to Ray Bradbury's house.
Slave trading in the Crimea.
And I'm sure Winkles was very deserving of the honor.
One of the earliest cat film performances.
Robbing the ghosts of Westminster Abbey.
At this rate, calling someone a "Neanderthal" will soon be a compliment.
"Pamela" and the Cinderella Complex.
Why it's never a good idea to cheat a ghost.
The latest in the "did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time?" controversy.
Trolling the Middle Ages.
Was Judas an ancient hit man?
Uncovering an ancient Cambodian city.
Some lively doings in old churches.
A guide to satirizing Napoleon.
The Prince of Wales tours the Middle East, 1862.
The dogs of Old London.
I still have my doubts that this ended well.
The ghost paintings of Georgiana Houghton.
The witch vs. the cobbler, 1743.
The mystery of the English Cave.
More weirdness surrounding elongated skulls.
So, would I rather be beheaded, or married? Tough call.
The lingering effects of paganism.
Can the future affect the present?
The horrors of pognophilia. With poetry!
How to tell your Buricks from your Buffer Nappers.
Women and 18th century politics.
An Italian murder mystery.
The giant rock that was a favored destination for nicely tanned space aliens.
Dealing with Georgian deformities.
A look at the uncomfortable craze for hobby horses.
An eerily beautiful look at abandoned greenhouses.
A modern demonstration of 17th century makeup.
Fifteen countries, four minutes:
And finally, here's a nice little surprise for those of us who are fans of Joe Ely and Linda Ronstadt: A duet they recorded back in 1987 was recently released for the first time.
See you all Monday, with the sinister Case of the Vanishing Inventor.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
This sad story--which somehow seems so characteristic of the Depression era--is one of the most curious poisoning cases I know. This particular account comes from the "Kingston Daily Freeman," September 4, 1933:
New York.--Two persons were taken ill at almost the same moment in a restaurant at Broadway and One Hundred Fourth street. One was a man, the other a woman. They were strangers.
The man died within a few minutes in the restaurant wash room. The woman died an hour later in Knickerbocker hospital. Autopsies disclosed that both deaths had been caused by cyanide poisoning.
Detectives were of the opinion that the man had committed suicide and that the woman's penuriousness had betrayed her into becoming an unwitting companion in that act.
The man was Henry Jellinek, fifty years old, an automobile mechanic in business for himself. He had a wife and eighteen-year-old son, the latter a student at New York university. Jellinek, the police learned, had been in ill health for several weeks, and was worried over business conditions.
The woman, Lillian Rosenfeld, forty-three years old, lived by herself in a dank cellar apartment of two rooms. She was known there as Lillian Fields. She was a daughter of Simon S. Rosenfeld, a Boston and New York real estate man, who died twelve years ago.
So far as anyone in the house knew, Lillian Fields was almost penniless and had neither relatives nor friends. The janitor, on finding her sleeping in the hallway, obtained permission for her to sleep in the cellar apartment.
Lillian Fields, the janitor said, was always complaining of poverty; begging him for the scraps he had left over at meal time; rummaging in ash cans for anything she could salvage. The only furnishings of her apartment were a rickety bedstead with no mattress and a battered red plush sofa she had found in a vacant lot. And piled high around the walls were hundreds of cardboard boxes.
This is what detectives found when they broke through the window recently. But it was not all. At the time she was stricken in the restaurant they had found on her person a bank book. It showed deposits of $4000 in a savings bank. Hunting among the contents of the boxes they found five more bank books. These showed deposits aggregating $41,000 in other savings banks. Among them was a slip of paper which read:
"In case of accident to Lillian Fields please notify Della Rosenfeld of 38 West One Hundred Twenty-Sixth street."
Della Rosenfeld identified the dead woman as her sister. They had not seen each other for years, she said. Her father at his death, she explained, had left them each $15,000, and soon afterwards they had quarreled because Lillian accused her of being "too extravagant."
It is the theory of the police that Lillian Rosenfeld went to the restaurant--a Horn & Hardart automat--in the hope of finding enough scraps on the plates to save her the expense of buying breakfast, and this is what occurred:
Jellinek, bent upon taking poison, entered the restaurant, dropped a nickel in the slot, and obtained two poppy seed rolls. One of these he broke open, then poured a quantity of cyanide into it; the other he left untouched on the plate. He had eaten only half of the poisoned roll when he was taken ill and went to the wash room. Then Lillian Rosenfeld passed the table. Seeing the rolls on the table, she snatched up the whole one and slipped it into a paper bag. The other she devoured.
If this scenario explaining the dual deaths was correct, it certainly is an illustration of the strangeness of fate.
Or maybe it's just a lesson about what bad manners it is to filch food from other people's plates.
[Note: If any of my New York readers have a taste for morbid architecture, the automat building is still standing.]
Monday, January 12, 2015
You have to love a guy who proved to be just too damn much for the likes of George IV. Meet George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, one of my favorite minor eccentrics.
Hanger was born in 1751, as the third son of a wealthy Gloucestershire family. His father Gabriel was an MP who received the title of "Baron Coleraine" in 1762. As was usually the case with upper-class surplus sons, young George was pointed toward a career in the army. After graduating from Eton and the University of Gottingen, he did a brief stint in the Prussian Army before returning to England. In 1771, he bought an Ensigncy in the 1st Regiment of Footguards. It was at around this time that his more colorful qualities began to show themselves: George married a gypsy woman, who soon dumped him for an itinerant tinsmith. As Hanger himself wrote, "I was early introduced into life, and often kept both good and bad company; associated with men both good and bad, and with lewd women, and women not lewd, wicked and not wicked;--in short, with men and women of every description, and of every rank, from the highest to the lowest, from St. James's to St. Giles's; in palaces and night cellars; from the drawing-room to the dust cart...Human nature is in general frail, and mine I confess has been wonderfully so."
Hanger continued his army career, although philandering always remained his dominant interest. In 1776, he purchased a captaincy in the Hessian army, and in that capacity he fought in the American Revolutionary War, eventually transferring to become a major in the British Legion. After a less-than-distinguished performance commanding a legion (and leading it into defeat) at the Battle of Charlotte in 1780 (an experience he airily dismissed as a "trifling insignificant skirmish") Hanger came down with yellow fever, and was sent to the Bahamas for his convalescence. (He claimed to have cured himself with a diet of port wine laced with opium.)
After his return to England, Hanger became great friends with the Prince Regent, who later took the throne as George IV. The prince keenly admired Hanger's quirky sense of humor and appetite for dissipation, and as a reward for this free entertainment, created him Equerry in 1791. Despite this royal favor, Hanger's passion for fancy clothes and general riotous living landed him in debtor's prison in 1798-99. He used this mandatory leisure time to write his memoirs, which were eventually published in 1801.
This utterly delightful work featured a sketch depicting the author suspended on a gibbet, and included such edifying chapters as "Advice to the lovely Cyprians, and Fair Sex in general, how to conduct themselves in future, and to practise with greater satisfaction the three cardinal virtues, namely, Drinking, Gambling, and Intriguing." Among his "advice" was the recommendation that women settle their differences by dueling each other. He urged that ladies, when eloping, should leave through a window, rather than a door. "It will impress your lover with a respect for your heroism, and ever establish you, in his opinion, as a woman of true spirit, courage, and spunk." Hanger also approved of the current fashion for women to wear loose gowns, which he saw as "admirably constructed either for a young lady to conceal a big belly, or a shop-lifter to hide a bale of goods." On a more political note, he proposed a tax on all Scots who spent more than six months out of the year in England.
|You thought I was kidding about the gibbet, didn't you?|
After Hanger's release from prison (his friends clubbed together to pay his debts,) he decided there was nothing for it but to try to earn an honest living. He horrified his aristocratic peers by setting up business as a coal merchant. He did quite well in the line, too, and enjoyed embarrassing his more snobbish peers by proudly flaunting his career. He supplemented his income by working as a jockey and organizing such stunts as a cross-country race between a flock of turkeys and a flock of geese. (Rather than race, the turkeys opted to roost in some trees along the side of the road, ensuring that the geese won in a walkover.) His friend John Thomas Smith recorded for posterity Hanger's one-day stint as an apple-seller:
I also once heard Lord Coleraine, as I was passing the wall at the end of Portland-road, when an old apple-woman, with whom his Lordship held frequent conversations, was packing up her fruit, ask her the following question:
"What are you about, mother?"
"Why, my Lord, I am going home to my tea; if your Lordship wants any information, I shall come again presently."
"Oh! don't baulk trade. Leave your things on the table as they are; I will mind shop till you come back."
So saying, he seated himself in the old woman's wooden chair, in which he had often sat before whilst chatting with her. Being determined to witness the result, after strolling about till the return of the old lady, I heard his Lordship declare the amount of his receipts by saying, "Well, mother, I have taken three-pence half-penny for you: did your daughter Nancy drink tea with you?"
Hanger also became famous for what a later biographer described as "the train of strumpets, dogs and monkeys" he kept in his lodgings. A contemporary described with disgust Hanger's fondness for "introducing into the best apartments of the most respectable families, his cats, his dogs, and his monkeys, while revelling himself in every species of sensuality." In 1787, the newspapers printed his "Ode to Bacchus," written to consecrate a London saloon. ("Illustrious son of Jove and Semele/To thee we dedicate this pile/Built for the Heir-apparent of your isle/Who must one day/When Death shall call his powers into play/Look on his subjects as a monstrous family...")
Hanger's peculiar personality also made him a favorite for contemporary satirists. Caricaturist James Gillray produced no less than twenty prints mocking him as "Georgey the cock-horse," and "Georgey in the coal-hole." Unfortunately, a contemporary recorded that Hanger's "eccentric manners" became "somewhat too free and coarse" for the Prince Regent's liking, and the two parted ways.
Following the deaths of his father and older brothers, he succeeded to the family title in 1814, but he flatly refused to take his seat in the Irish House of Lords. (He did, however, happily accept the handsome family fortune which came with his accession.) It was said that he "was always somewhat peevish" when others persisted in addressing him by his rightful title, correcting them by saying "Plain George Hanger, if you please." Around this time (the date is unknown,) he married his housekeeper, Mary Anne Greenwood. The couple had one son, John.
George Hanger died of a "convulsive fit" on March 31, 1824. His gravestone describes him as "a practical Christian, as far as his frail nature did allow him so to be."
Can't say fairer than that.
Probably due to the questionable legality of his second marriage, his son did not succeed to his title, thus the baronetcy became extinct. If John was anything like his old man, he probably didn't want it, anyway.
Hanger's obituary in the "Gentleman's Magazine" noted that although he "was free in his manners, he never was inclined to give intentional offence, and the peculiarity of those manners precluded all idea of resentment, and laughter rather than anger was the result of his most extravagant sallies. He was capable of serious exertions of friendship, not by pecuniary sacrifices, for of such his situation hardly ever admitted, but by persevering zeal when he was likely to effect a beneficial purpose...Though disposed to participate in all the dissipations of higher life, he yet contrived to devote much of his time to reading...He was so marked a character that he might be considered as one of the prominent features of his time, and he was courted as well for the peculiarity, as for the harmless tendency of his humour."
Not a bad way to be remembered, really.
Friday, January 9, 2015
The cats decided they wanted to go bowling.
Unfortunately, there was a slight mix-up in communications.
Let's roll out this week's links:
What the hell happened to Zebb Quinn?
What the hell happened to the SS Yongala?
What the hell fell in the Cowichan Valley in 1905?
What the hell are Chime Children?
What the hell is this ancient amulet?
What the hell is climbing up this Mexican volcano?
Where the hell is the causeway for the Great Pyramid? Now we know?
Where the hell is Philae Lander? Will we ever know?
How the hell did the Dogons learn so much about astronomy?
Who the hell built this French pyramid?
Who the hell was Robin Hood?
Watch out for those crinolines!
Watch out for those First Footers!
Watch out for those Georgian Superspies!
Watch out for those cadaver tombs!
Watch out for the Yatton Daemoniac!
Watch out for the Balloon Monster!
Watch out for the Carpenter of Doom!
Pennsylvania is really booming!
Tennessee is really booming!
The whole world is really booming!
Prince Rupert and his Devil Dog of War.
Dining in the Abbot's Kitchen.
More Witch Pits!
The many uses of a dead body.
Napoleon's unmarked grave.
Queen Victoria's "dear Dashy."
More on the ugly history of makeup.
A look at some charitable dogs.
Burn those corsets!
Bright Eyes, a kitten who became mascot of a New York tunnel.
Pass the gin.
Ghosts as raucous public entertainment.
A musical recording from ancient Egypt.
The first Horse Whisperer?
The life of a woolcomber, and why it should matter.
Yet another tale about the ghost of a murder victim seeking justice.
The dark side of Victorian lodging houses. (The lede to this one is unforgettable...)
A 14th century murder mystery has recently been uncovered.
Alcohol archaeology! Pass the Etruscan ale.
Meet a cat dowser.
The amazing survival of a 300-year-old Siberian church.
Goodbye to organ grinders.
More suggestions that King Charles III will be an anti-monarchist's best friend.
An 18th century chocolate recipe. Musk? Musk?!
Know your cryptids!
The life of a Chinese eunuch.
Charles Lamb's big night on the town.
Here's your big chance to fly over the Middle Ages.
"Three-fingered Jack," an ornament of the 19th century stage.
God bless America: our Founding Fathers could drink a battalion of Marines under the table and back again.
A look at some historical notebooks.
And there we go. See you on Monday, when we'll be traveling to the Georgian Era for a look at one of my favorite aristocratic oddballs. In the meantime, here's Tish Hinojosa:
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
The August 1, 1902 issue of "The Dial" carried an unusual book review:
The tendency of the English novel to take the form of biography has always been marked, although the imaginative nature of the writing is usually apparent, except in the case of such an extraordinary realist as Defoe. But Mr. Montgomery Carmichael has just produced a work of fiction which it would be difficult, from internal evidence alone, to exclude from the category of actual biography. It is entitled "The Life of John William Walshe, F.S.A.," and reads, from introduction to closing chapter, as if it were in very fact the veritable record of a man's career. What could be more convincing than such a prefatory statement as the following: "The will of my friend Philip Walshe has put me in possession of a large and extraordinary collection of valuable MSS., and has at the same time laid on me a task of no little delicacy and difficulty. These MSS. are the voluminous works of his father, the late Mr. John William Walshe, F.S.A., who died on the 2nd July, 1900, aged sixty-three, at Assisi, in Umbria, where he had passed the latter half of his life. Mr. Walshe was well known to scholars as perhaps the greatest living authority on matters Franciscan; otherwise he had practically no fame." This statement is followed by a minute description of the manuscripts in question, with historical and bibliographical notes, and an account of how the editor has dealt with them in preparing the present "Life," together with his plans for further publication. It takes some time to realize that this is all an elaborate piece of mystification, and to recall the fact that the name of Walshe does not figure in any actual list of Franciscan scholars, living or dead. The present imaginary biography is offered to us as the work of the son, Philip Walshe, who survived his father long enough to prepare it, but not long enough to arrange for the publication of the memoir or of the works themselves. Having said this much by way of explanation, we may now speak briefly of the memoir itself. It is, in substance, the story of a saint, whose instincts from boyhood impelled him to the spiritual life, who groped his way out of the sordid middle-class commercialism of his early English environment into what proved to him the clear light and perfect happiness of the Catholic Church. He made his way to Italy while a young man, entered the household of a Catholic English nobleman residing at Lucca, there received the faith, married the daughter of the house, and succeeded to its traditions. Attracted in middle life to the history of St. Francis, he removed to Assisi, became a tertiary of the Franciscan order, and died in the fulness of time, "of the love of God," as the memoir simply affirms. In all this there is little to attract the ordinary reader of novels, who may as well be warned at once that here is no book for him. But to the more serious reader the book has many things to offer. In the first place, it offers a psychological study of marvellous delicacy, such a study as may be found elsewhere only in the " Lives of the Saints" or in the history of the mystics. This alone should distinguish the work; but we may say in addition that it is written in a style at once simple, strong, and beautiful, that it makes throughout the scholar's appeal to the scholar, and that, with no more than an occasional hint of the controversial spirit, it portrays the great historic church, not the church of an ignorant peasantry led by a hardly less ignorant priesthood, but the church which Newman found irresistible in its claims, and to which Joseph De Maistre gave the rapturous allegiance of his powerful intelligence.
One of my favorite books-about-books, Edmund Pearson's "Books in Black or Red," tells more about one of the most oddly charming of literary hoaxes:
Persons who have burned their fingers would be glad to have the literary hoax forbidden by law. Adventuring among books would be safer and tamer. If it should be provided by statute that all books must follow their title-pages as exactly as a bottle of medicine must follow its label, our self-esteem would get fewer wounds, but our wits could be even duller. The traveller into the future, on H. G. Wells's "Time Machine," found men from whose lives all threats of danger, all but one, had been removed. Their life was safe, pleasant, and mightily stupid.
Easy will be the work of the writer of book-reviews, and of his learned brother, the literary critic, when a hoax is punishable by fine and imprisonment. No band of conspirators will dare to unite in celebrating the life and works of an imaginary Russian novelist; the invention of a fictitious school of poetry, with samples of its style, will be as illegal as printing counterfeit treasury notes; all accounts of voyages to the South Seas must be narratives of fact. And then the writer of book-reviews may go away fishing or golfing, and leave still more and more
of his work to his amanuensis.
The writer of a review is supposed to approach a book; not necessarily with suspicion, but at least with a question. Is it what it appears to be, or is it parody, or satire?
Has this author ever visited the curious place which he describes, or known the poet whose strange verses he quotes? If the writer of reviews believes every statement he finds in print, and passes them on to his own readers, sooner or later he will get bitten. And then he accepts with good humor the joke upon himself, or else (if his self-importance is greatly over-developed) becomes furiously angry with the author, and denounces him in words of fire and brimstone.
"I have heard," said a Churchman of some rank I--think he was a Dean or an Archdeacon, for I remember that he reminded me of Trollope--"I have heard that that book is really fictitious from beginning to end!"
And he glared at me as if he intended to follow his remark with a medieval curse. I told him that I had heard the same thing and from good authority.
"Well!" he said, pounding the table, "the man who would do that is a hound! An absolute hound!"
I could not understand his wrath; the author's skill had aroused my admiration. But the Archdeacon's sense of devotion had been outraged. The book was "The Life of John William Walshe," by Montgomery Carmichael, one of the most inexplicable examples of the literary hoax. There are two outward signs of the biography as distinguished from the novel, as with many other books of fact compared with those of fiction: by some ancient convention it is supposed to be larger in size and higher in price. The Walshe book followed the latter of these requirements, unless I am mistaken, but not the former.
Its size was that of a novel. It contained not one atom of satire, it was not a parody, and so far as I, at least, could have discovered by internal evidence, it was what it purported to be: a sober and reverent biography of an Englishman dwelling in Italy, a devout member of the Church of Rome, and in particular an enthusiastic student and pious follower of St. Francis of Assisi.
But John William Walshe, his ancestors and his family, his extraordinary literary labors, the close parallel of his saintly life to that of his exemplar, St. Francis, and finally his death, in the odor of sanctity and under the Papal blessing, were all of them invented by Mr. Carmichael, a member of the British consular service in Italy, and the author of a number of volumes, mainly works of fact. Why my Archdeacon could not have rejoiced at the creation of an imaginary character, whose piety he so much admired, is hard to explain, except on the ground that his self-esteem had been hurt because he had been fooled.
It is well to remember that if one or two reviewers, such as the one in "The Dial," had not bothered to do even the most basic fact-checking, this "biography" would have gone down in history as the real life of a real man.
Carmichael, a learned and serious man,was not normally the prankster sort. He never explained why he bothered with such an elaborate yet delightfully pointless hoax.
Monday, January 5, 2015
On July 30, 1898, a 31-year-old Arkansas City, Kansas, bank cashier named George Kimmel went on a business trip to St. Louis. He checked into a hotel, bought a cigar at the front desk, stepped out into the street, and disappeared. Detectives were put on his trail, but no trace of the young man could be found. Just before he vanished, he insured his life for $25,000 in favor of his sister, Mrs. Edna Bonslett. After Kimmel went missing, it was discovered that he was deeply in debt and had resorted to embezzling money from his bank. These financial entanglements led many to assume that the missing man had simply run away.
Nothing more was heard of Kimmel until 1906, when Mrs. Bonslett moved to have her brother legally ruled dead. New York Life, the insurance company that held the Kimmel policies, contested this action, and launched their own nationwide search for the missing cashier. They soon discovered a man who was in the New York state prison under the name of "Andrew J. White," who stated that he was, in reality, George Kimmel. He told a curious story to explain his absence from the scene. He claimed that a relative--he later strongly hinted it was Kimmel's uncle Charles Johnson--was implicated in the embezzlement of $100,000 from the Pacific Express Company. He, "Kimmel" possessed certain information which would prove the relative's guilt. As a result, his kinsman and some confederates drugged him, kidnapped him, and kept him prisoner. After three weeks in captivity, he escaped, but the criminals recaptured him and gave him a beating. The next thing he knew, he was in a New York's Matteawan Asylum, with little memory of who he was or where he came from. He remained in the asylum for some time until he was ruled sane and released. Afterward, he wandered the streets of New York, homeless and penniless. In desperation, he forged a check for a few dollars. For this offense, he was sent to the state prison, where eventually he recalled his past life as George Kimmel. (Incidentally, by this point Charles Johnson had gone bankrupt and was himself in prison. If he had any comment about his "nephew's" astonishing story, it does not seem to have been recorded.)
Mrs. Bonslett was not impressed by the news of her brother's supposed return. She immediately branded White as a lunatic and an impostor.
Equally unsurprisingly, the New York Life Insurance Company took the claimant rather more seriously. They asserted that they were convinced the New York convict was indeed the long-missing man, and they flatly refused to pay up until some sort of proof could be given that George Kimmel was well and truly dead. The result of this standoff was that the National Bank of Niles, Michigan, to whom Mrs. Bonslett had previously assigned the insurance policies, brought a lawsuit against New York Life.
In those days before DNA testing, the question of "Andrew J. White's" true identity simply could not be definitively settled. As bizarre as White's story might have been, no one could actually disprove it, either. It all boiled down to a "he said/she said" quarrel, and as a result, the tug-of-war over that insurance money occupied the attention of the courts for over ten years. First, the courts in St. Louis declared Kimmel dead. Then, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals declared there was insufficient evidence in the case and reversed the judgment. In the meantime, a number of people who had known Kimmel well visited "White" and declared that he was indeed the long-lost cashier. So did Kimmel's cousin, Mrs. Harriet Fox, his niece, Mrs. Charles Montague, and his former fiancee, Mrs. Harriet Marston. Kimmel's mother Stella, on the other hand, joined her daughter in asserting the man was a brazen fraud.
The suit was retried yet again in 1910, with the jury failing to reach a consensus. Seven members of the panel, it was reported, believed White was indeed Kimmel, with the rest believing otherwise.
In August 1911, the claimant was released from prison. He immediately announced his intention to return to his hometown of Niles, Michigan, where Stella Kimmel was still living, and prove once and for all that he was indeed George Kimmel.
The results of his visit were as inconclusive as everything else in this case. The claimant arranged a meeting with Mrs. Kimmel. When the two came face-to-face, he pleadingly stretched out his arms and exclaimed, "Mother, don't you know your boy? Don't disown me any longer. You know I am your son."
Mrs. Kimmel backed away and insisted, "No. I don't see in you any positive resemblance to my son." The claimant sighed afterwards, "I love her with all my heart and cannot understand why she should insist that I am dead. Still, I will not worry her, and if she continues to disbelieve me it shall be as she wishes. But I know I am Kimmel, for I recognize everyone."
He did, too--or, at least, he put up a very convincing show of recognizing everyone. He was escorted around Niles, where he pointed out landmarks and recalled incidents from the past that proved to be correct. He repeatedly greeted townspeople by name. The claimant showed knowledge of things he could hardly have known unless he was George Kimmel. On the other hand, he also showed ignorance of details Kimmel must have known. (The claimant, of course, attributed the latter to the memory loss brought on by his sufferings.)
As for the good citizens of Niles, they were divided in their opinion about the claimant. In brief, some insisted that the man must be George Kimmel, while an equal number asserted with equal certainty that he absolutely could not be him. There was also the curious detail that the claimant's eyes were blue, while the consensus (including Kimmel's former doctor) agreed that those of Kimmel were brown. (The insurance company dealt with this inconvenient fact by bringing in a doctor who argued that the claimant's many vicissitudes had changed his eye color.) A cousin of Kimmel's mother offered a possible explanation for the claimant's detailed knowledge of Niles: "At the time Kimmel disappeared the newspapers were full of mystery stories as to what had become of him. This man says he was in St. Louis about that time. He may have been familiar with Niles and so have taken an interest in the story. It was then he was struck on the head in St. Louis. The blows impaired his mind. My belief is that his mind was so affected that he lost his own identity and came to the conclusion that he was Kimmel and has ever since been of that belief." Plausible enough, as far as it goes. But was it true? Who knew?
1912 saw yet another lawsuit about the man the newspapers had dubbed the "American Tichborne." The same parade of witnesses who had known Kimmel took the stand. As usual, some of them swore "White" was the missing banker, some of them swore just the opposite. Henry Ford once said that "History is bunk." If nothing else was accomplished by this case, it proved once and for all that the same holds true for eyewitness identification.
Then John Swinney, a New Mexico ranchman, came forward with a curious tale. He claimed that in 1898 Kimmel, in the company of Swinney and several other men, had gone to search for buried treasure in Coos Bay, Oregon. After finding $4,000 of the loot, Swinney said Kimmel and one of the men had quarreled, with the result that Kimmel wound up shot dead. Swinney then killed Kimmel's murderer. There was, of course, absolutely nothing to corroborate this story. The fact that Swinney had served two prison sentences for robbery and murder did little to help his credibility. The claimant's attorney called Sweeney's testimony "so improbable and highly-colored as to be unworthy of consideration of sane men." This was almost certainly the truth, but admittedly Swinney's yarn was no less bizarre than anything else in this story.
The anti-White faction brought in two witnesses who swore that the mystery man was a transient railroad brakeman commonly known as "Turkey White." They were so positive in their identification that it looked like the puzzle was finally indisputably solved...until a man named Andrew H. White entered the courtroom declaring that he was "Turkey."
By this point, everyone involved was probably calling for cold compresses and strong drinks.
During this latest bout of litigation, the claimant announced that he was renouncing his "mother" and "sister," for refusing to acknowledge his identity. "These women are no longer my mother and sister," he declared. "I mean, of course, that they are my blood relations, but I feel no kinship for them. Our relationship was killed by their actions toward me in this litigation."
Turnabout, after all, is fair play.
In March 1912, the latest Kimmel jury delivered a typically enigmatic verdict. They ruled that the claimant was not George Kimmel, but they could not agree on whether or not Kimmel was dead or alive when the present suit was filed. This meant that the question of whether or not the Niles National Bank got their insurance money was still left hanging. The jury's decision was appealed by New York Life--a company certainly remarkable for its tenacity--with mixed success. In 1917, a Federal judge was finally able to negotiate a compromise where New York Life paid $7700 to the National Bank. Whether Kimmel was really still alive or not, as far as American courts was concerned, he was now a corpse.
So, from a legal point of view, the Kimmel Mystery was finally closed. The human drama involved was not resolved so neatly.
The claimant did not give up the fight to establish himself as George Kimmel. He underwent a brain operation in the hope, he said, that it would improve his memories of his former life. He declared afterward that his memory was "returning gradually and with it comes the horror of years of wasted life. I don't doubt that I can satisfy everyone of my identity."
This statement was overoptimistic. Although the claimant still had his supporters, he was unable to fight the stark reality of the last court verdict. He continued to insist he was George Kimmel--but Kimmel, as far as officialdom was concerned, was dead. In 1913, the claimant--certainly a sad figure, whoever he was--disappeared again. In 1928, one of his old champions received a letter from him postmarked San Francisco, but bearing no return address. This was the last time anyone is known to have heard from, or of him. Where he went, what he did, and when he died is unknown.
"White" may well have been an impostor, although it is quite possible that he genuinely came to believe he really was the long-lost banker. Of course, this assumption still leaves a good many questions unanswered. If he was a fake, how did he come to assert he was George Kimmel? Did New York Life coach him in the role? Was this ostensibly respectable insurance company so corrupt that they would deliberately lend themselves to such an outlandish fraud for the sake of one relatively small insurance policy? It seems indisputable that "White" did have a great deal of knowledge about Kimmel's early life. If he was a fraud, who fed him this information? Who really was the man who had been imprisoned under the name "Andrew J. White?"
And most importantly, of course: If the claimant was a fraud, what really did happen to George Kimmel in 1898?