"...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 30, 2015

The "Servant Girl Annihilator"

Jack the Ripper is an enduring monument to the powers of a good press agent. The anonymous fiend's lingering, and likely eternal, stature as history's most famous serial killer obscures the fact that he was hardly unique in his era. Just four years before Jack began his murderous spree in the East End, the women of Austin, Texas suffered through an equally brutal and mystifying reign of terror. And yet, this string of unsolved murders is relatively unknown.

On the night of December 30, 1884, a cook named Mollie Smith was lying asleep next to her common-law husband, Walter Spenser. Someone broke into their bedroom and knocked Spenser unconscious with an ax blow. When he finally, painfully came to, he saw that Mollie was gone. Her body was found lying in the snow behind the home of her employers. She had been raped, after which some heavy implement had been used to bash her head in. On May 6, Eliza Shelly, who was also a cook for a prominent Austin family, was found on the floor of her home. She had probably been raped, and an ax had nearly split her head in two.

On May 23, Irene Cross, another domestic servant, was attacked with a large knife which nearly scalped her. She briefly survived the attack, but was unable to give any information about her assailant.

In September 1885, another servant named Rebecca Ramey was sleeping quietly with her eleven-year-old daughter Mary. During that night, someone broke into her home, knocked her unconscious, and dragged Mary to a washhouse in the backyard, where the girl was raped and fatally stabbed in the head.

This crime was soon followed by a multiple attack, on Gracie Vance, her boyfriend Orange Washington, and Lucinda Boddy, a friend of Vance's who was unlucky enough to be a houseguest of the couple. As the trio were sleeping in a shanty on the property of Gracie's employer, someone came in and smashed Washington's head in with an ax. Boddy was then struck in the head and raped, but she survived the attack. The killer then forced Vance to her employer's stable, where she was raped and beaten on the head with a brick until she was dead.

Austin was naturally horrified by this series of baffling, gruesome killings, but as the victims had all been working-class African-Americans, the white elites felt little sense of personal peril. As if to mock this attitude, the killer soon shook them out of their complacency. On Christmas Eve 1885, Susan Hancock, a white woman who moved in Austin's most elegant society, was discovered by her husband in their backyard. As was the case with most of the earlier victims, she had been sexually assaulted, and then her skull had been crushed by an ax. Just one hour later, the naked body of a beautiful young socialite named Eula Phillips was found in the alley behind the home of her father-in-law, in Austin's most expensive neighborhood. Someone had dragged her from the house to this dark spot, raped her, and split open her head with an ax. Inside the home, her husband, Jimmy Phillips Jr., was found knocked unconscious. Their little boy, who had been in the bedroom with them at the time of the attack, was unharmed.

This slaughter of two of the city's most prominent citizens made all of Austin half unhinged. People gathered together in panic, scanning the headlines that screamed of this "horrible butchery." Men and women armed themselves to the teeth. Others, in the belief that such a savage and mysterious murderer must be some sort of demonic entity, spent their nights lighting candles and praying for divine protection.

The day after Hancock and Phillips were killed, over five hundred of Austin's leading citizens gathered together to find some way to fight back against their invisible tormentor. Many plans were suggested, from using large lamps to light the city at night, to putting all Austin under lockdown, but no one could really agree on what to do. It was many years before the phrase "serial killer" would even be invented. Such an unprecedented, almost supernatural series of motiveless killings was beyond their comprehension.

As it happened, any action would be irrelevant. After the killings of the two high society women, the butcher of Austin vanished. It seemed as if having made his point that no one in the city was safe from him, he felt his work was done. However, the climate of fear and anger that was his legacy took years to fully dissipate.

Investigators continued to do their utmost to find the murderer, but the Austin police force of the day was clearly out of their league in dealing with a murder spree of this magnitude. Unfortunately, they were fixated on the theory that a black man must have committed the killings, which led to a long persecution of the city's African-American males. Virtually every black man in Austin was treated like a suspect. Race relations in Austin, which had, before the murders, been relatively progressive, quickly deteriorated, as many whites convinced themselves the bloodbath was proof that blacks were hopelessly uncivilized.

In January 1886, the hunt for the killer took a startling turn. The husbands of the last two victims, Jimmy Phillips Jr. and Moses Hancock, were arrested for the murders of their wives. The theory was that the two men had--utterly coincidentally--chosen the same night to kill their spouses in a way that would look like they had been victims of the murderer of the black servants.

Although the victim's spouse is traditionally the first prime suspect, the case against the men was ridiculously weak. The closest thing to hard evidence brought against Moses Hancock was a letter Susan had written him months before her death. It said that she loved him, but could no longer tolerate his drinking. The DA argued--with absolutely nothing to back it up--that on Christmas Eve, Moses got drunk, and in a rage butchered his wife to prevent her from leaving him.

As for Jimmy Phillips, the 23-year-old was quite the local playboy, a dissipated sort who enjoyed drink, playing the violin, and the company of the ladies. On a far darker note, he was said to be a mean drunk who abused his wife when he was under the influence. Eula--who had married Phillips in 1883, when she was only fifteen--was so miserable with her husband that she reportedly tried to induce an abortion when she was pregnant with their second child.

Eula Phillips

Another detail emerged about the Phillips marriage that must have really made Austin society gasp and reach for the smelling salts: In the months before her death, Eula had taken to regularly visiting Austin's most high-class house of assignation. The home, operated by a May Tobin, was a meeting place for expensive prostitutes and their clients, as well as adulterous lovers. The last time Eula visited Tobin's was on the very night she had been killed. It is not clear whether Eula visited the house because she was carrying on illicit love affairs, or if she had turned to prostitution to make some money independent of her husband's allowance.

May Tobin--no doubt to the secret horror of many of Austin's upper-crust--was said to have told nearly all she knew to the authorities, including the names of Eula's visitors. Among those names was William J. Swain, who was no less than Texas' state comptroller and a favorite to become the state's next governor. According to Tobin, several other prominent Texas politicians were among Eula's lovers. Rumor had it that Tobin was blackmailing many other influential men in exchange for her silence about their visits to her house.

Despite the scandalous revelations, the evidence presented against Phillips at his trial was, to say the least, weak. The prosecution argued that Eula, realizing that her husband had learned of her many infidelities, had armed herself with an ax for self-protection. Phillips raped her, after which she struck him on the head with her weapon. He seized the ax and used it to kill her. He then hauled the body into the alley, in the hope that it would be seen as the work of the servant murderer. The defense countered this theory by demonstrating that a bloody footprint found on the Phillips back porch could not have been made by their client.

Despite the dubiousness of the case against Phillips, the combination of powerful motive and his history of brutal behavior was enough to cause the jury to find him guilty of Eula's murder. However, six months after his conviction, the state's Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, citing lack of evidence. They ordered a new trial, but the DA evidently decided it was fruitless to pursue the case against Phillips, and he was released.

The trial of Moses Hancock was no more successful. After his daughter testified that her mother had never even shown him the letter that was, according to the prosecution, his main motive for murder, the case against him collapsed. There was a hung jury, and he too was set free.

Although various other men--most notably William Swain--were suspected of involvement in the killings, no one else was ever charged with perpetrating these singularly ugly and incomprehensible deaths.

Swain's once-invincible political career, unsurprisingly, came to an abrupt end as a result of the Eula Phillips murder. Moses Hancock and Jimmy Phillips both moved out of Austin and started new lives for themselves. The investigation into the crimes, as well as public interest in the string of deaths, eventually came to an inconclusive end. To this day, there are many researchers in Austin who are as obsessed with trying to solve their city's ghastliest crime as "Ripperologists" are with the Whitechapel killings. (Some have even argued--unconvincingly, in my opinion--that the two sets of murders were committed by the same person.)  The latest "solution" to the mystery came in 2014, when the television show "History Detectives" used modern forensic and psychological techniques to suggest the murders were committed by a young African-American cook named Nathan Elgin. In February 1886--shortly after the last of the murders--he was shot and killed by police while he was attempting to attack a woman with a knife. While Elgin is a plausible suspect, unfortunately, we will probably never know for certain if he was one of the 19th century most horrific killers.

We remain as baffled as our ancestors were in those grim days in the mid-1880s.

[Note: Contemporary news reports generally called the killings "The Servant Girl Murders."  However, writer William Sidney Porter--aka "O. Henry"--who was living in Austin at the time of the crimes, referred to the "Servant Girl Annihilators" in an 1885 letter.  In modern times, his more colorful name for the serial killer has stuck.]

Friday, March 27, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

Ever wonder what is more unsettling than having one cat just sit and stare at you?

Well, yes.  Exactly.

Let's go stare down some links:

Who the hell legally owned this goat?

What the hell happened to Michael Rockefeller?

What the hell is in the Russian sky?

What the hell are the Tjipetir blocks?

Watch out for those haunted furnaces!

Watch out for those gay deceivers!

Watch out for the Empress Josephine's shawls!

Gandhi's historic Salt March.

The still-puzzling Babes in the Woods murder.

If you were having a big night out in Manhattan in 1951, this is what you'd be doing.

A wonderful photo gallery featuring the dogs of WWI.

Varna Man, who really managed to take it all with him.

Thecla, who took chastity to whole new levels.

19th century actress stars in her own romantic comedy.

Iceland goes to Hell.

A defense of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's most disparaged wife.

Let's face it, we'll never stop arguing about Richard III.

A witch has second thoughts about a curse, 1877.

A post combining two of my favorite things:  Cats and P.G. Wodehouse.

An Arkansas fairy alliance against the Bakka Bird.  And things got only weirder from there.

On the hazards of humanizing dolls, yesterday and today.

A Tudor poisoning mystery.

The dos and don'ts of a Regency masquerade ball.

Avoiding "the crafty, the wicked, and the designing" while visiting Regency London.

A pagan's guide to celebrating spring.

And there we go for this week!  See you on Monday, with the tale of a still-mysterious, and relatively little known, Jack the Ripper of 19th century America.  In the meantime, here's a bit of Bach:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Clipping of the Day

This account of the world's longest nap comes from Sabine Baring-Gould's "Yorkshire Oddities":
At Laycock, two miles west of Keighley, at a farm called "The Worlds," lived a close-fisted yeoman named Sharp, at the end of last century and the beginning of this. He carried on a small weaving business in addition to his farm, and amassed a considerable sum of money. The story goes that on one occasion old Sharp brought a piece of cloth to the Keighley tailor and told him to make a coat for him out of it. The tailor on measuring the farmer pronounced the cloth to be insufficient to allow of tails to the coat, and asked what he was to do under the circumstances. "Tho' mun make it three laps,"—i.e., any way. The expression stuck to him, and till the day of his death the name of "Three Laps" adhered to him, when it passed to his still more eccentric son.

This son, William Sharp, for a while followed the trade of a weaver, but was more inclined to range the moors with his gun than stick to his loom; and the evenings generally found him in the bar of the " Devonshire Inn " at Keighley, the landlord of which was a Mr. Morgan. Young Three Laps was fond of chaffing his boon companions. On one occasion he encountered a commercial traveller in the timber trade, and began his banter by asking him the price of a pair of mahogany "laithe" (barn) doors. The traveller, prompted by Mr. Morgan, drew him out, and booked his order. After some weeks the invoice of mahogany barn-doors, price upwards of £30, was forwarded to William Sharp. Young Three Laps was beside his wits with dismay, and had recourse to Mr. Morgan, and through his intervention the imaginary mahogany barn-doors were not sent. 
The barmaid of the "Devonshire" was a comely, respectable young woman, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer named Smith. William Sharp fell desperately in love with the girl, proposed, and was accepted. The day for the wedding was fixed, and the young man went to Keighley Church at the appointed hour to be married. But the bride was not there. At the last moment a difficulty had arisen about the settlements. Mr. Smith could not induce Old Three Laps to bestow on his son sufficient money to support him in a married condition, and the two old men had quarrelled and torn up the settlements.

The blow was more than the mind of William Sharp could bear. He returned to "The Worlds" sulky, went to bed, and never rose from it again. For forty-nine years he kept to his bed, and refused to speak to anyone. He was just thirty years old when he thus isolated himself from society and active life, and he died in his bed at the age of seventy-nine, on March 3rd, 1856. 
The room he occupied measured nine feet long and was about the same breadth. The floor was covered with stone flags, and was generally damp. In one corner was a fireplace which could be used only when the wind blew from one or two points of the compass ; the window was permanently fastened, and where some of the squares had been broken, was carefully patched with wood. At the time of his death, this window had not been opened for thirty-eight years. The sole furniture comprised an antique clock, minus weight and pendulum, the hands and face covered with a network of cobwebs; a small round table of dark oak, and a plain unvarnished four-post bedstead, entirely without hangings. In this dreary cell, whose only inlet for fresh air during thirty-eight years was the door occasionally left open, did this strange being immure himself. He obstinately refused to speak to anyone, and if spoken to even by his attendants would not answer. All trace of intelligence gradually faded away; the only faculties which remained in active exercise were those he shared with the beasts. 
His father by his will made provision for the temporal wants of his eccentric son, and so secured him a constant attendant. He ate his meals regularly when brought to him, and latterly in a very singular manner, for in process of time his legs became contracted and drawn towards his body, and when about to eat his food he used to roll himself over and take his meals in a kneeling posture. He was generally cleanly in his habits. During the whole period of his self-imposed confinement he never had any serious illness, the only case of indisposition those connected with him could remember being a slight loss of appetite, caused apparently by indigestion, for two or three days—and this, notwithstanding that he ate on an average as much as any farm labourer. He certainly, physically speaking, did credit to his food, for though arrived at the age of seventy-nine years, his flesh was firm, fair and unwrinkled, save with fat, and he weighed about 240 lbs. He showed great repugnance to being seen, and whenever a stranger entered his den he immediately buried his head in the bed-clothes. About a week before his death his appetite began to fail; his limbs became partially benumbed, so that he could not roll himself over to take his food in his accustomed posture. 
From this attack he seemed to rally, and no apprehensions were entertained that the attack would prove fatal, till the evening before his death. 
However, during the night he rapidly became worse, and expired at four a.m. on Monday, March 3rd, 1856. 
Shortly before he expired he was heard to exclaim— "Poor Bill! poor Bill! poor Bill Sharp! "—the most connected sentence he had been known to utter for forty-nine years.

He was buried in Keighley Churchyard on the 7th of March, amidst crowds who had come from all parts of the neighbourhood to witness the scene. The coffin excited considerable attention from its extraordinary shape, as his body could not be straightened, the muscles of the knees and thighs being contracted. It was an oak chest, two feet four inches in depth. The weight was so great that it required eight men with strong ropes to lower it into the grave. It was thought to weigh with its contents 480 lbs. 
A gentleman who visited Old Three Laps before his death has given the following account of what he saw :— 
"If you chance to go a-skating 'to the Tarn,' and want a fine bracing walk, keep on the Sutton road about a mile, and you will come to an avenue of larch, not in a very thriving state, but sufficient to indicate that some one had an idea of the picturesque who planted the trees, although the house at the top of the avenue has not a very attractive appearance. You have now reached 'World's End,' and save here and there a solitary farm, with its cold stone buildings and treeless fields, there are few signs of life between you and the wide and boundless moors of Yorkshire and Lancashire. On the opposite hill, right up in the clouds, is 'Tewett Hall,' the residence of a Bradford Town Councillor. He alone, in this part, seems to follow Three Laps' ancestors' plan of planting, and in a few years we may expect to see a fine belt of timber on the verge of the horizon, a sight that will cheer the heart of some future Dr. Syntax when in search of the picturesque. At this place Three Laps 'took his bed,' and in a little parlour, with a northern light, the sill of which is level with the field, the floor cold and damp, and meanly furnished, it was my privilege to see Three Laps some twenty-five years ago. To gain admission we had some difficulty; but with the assistance of the farmer and a tin of tobacco to the nurse, who was an inveterate smoker, we were shown into his bedroom. As soon as he heard strangers, he pulled the bed-clothes over his head, which the nurse with considerable force removed, and uncovered his body, which was devoid of every vestige of body-linen. A more startling and sickening sight I never saw. Nebuchadnezzar rushed into my mind. Three Laps covered his face with his hands, his fingers being like birds' claws, while, with his legs drawn under his body, he had the appearance of a huge beast. He had white hair, and a very handsome head, well set on a strong chest. His body and all about him was scrupulously clean, and his condition healthy, as his nurse proudly pointed out, digging her fist furiously into his ribs. He gave no signs of joy or pain, but lay like a mass of inanimate matter. It struck me at the time that his limbs were stiff; but a neighbour of his, who after his dinner stole a peep into his bedroom window, told me that he found him playing with his plate in the manner of a Chinese juggler, and with considerable ability. On my informant tapping the window, he vanished under the bedclothes.

"Such was the life of the strange man who for love of a woman never left this obscure room for nearly half a century."
Old Three Laps: Heartbroken lover, or simply England's laziest SOB? Your call.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Morristown Ghost; or, Beware of Goblins Bearing Gifts

"Her figure ’fore me. Now I ha’ ’t--how strong
Imagination works! how she can frame
Things which are not! methinks she stands afore me,
And by the quick idea of my mind,
Were my skill pregnant, I could draw her picture.
Thought, as a subtle juggler, makes us deem
Things supernatural, which have cause
Common as sickness."
-John Webster, "The White Devil"

Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have a deep-seated yearning to believe there are such things as ghosts. Many people have an even more fervent desire to believe there is such a thing as easy money. Put those two wishes together, and you're almost guaranteed to have the public flocking at your door. One of the best illustrations of this is the curious case of Ransford (or Rainsford) Rogers and the Morristown Ghost. Rogers, a native of Connecticut, was a schoolteacher in New York state. He was poor and only semi-literate, but he had, in the words of a later biographer, "the power of inspiring confidence...very affable in his manners and had a genius adequate to prepossess people in his favor...very ambitious to maintain an appearance of possessing profound knowledge"--a polite way of saying he was a born grifter.

Our story had its origins in a legend Morristown, New Jersey residents had long cherished regarding nearby Schooley's Mountain. It was said that during the Revolutionary War, Tories had buried for safekeeping large sums of money in the mountain, which had never been reclaimed. Over the years, a number of efforts had been made to find this treasure, but they all failed due to the "hobgoblins and apparitions" who were guarding the horde. This area of New Jersey was notable for a fervent belief in witches, ghosts, fairies and the like. Rogers, as we shall see, found a novel way to make use of both these local traditions.

In 1788, he "providentially" made the acquaintance of two men from New Jersey who were hoping to find someone to help them uncover this lost Tory treasure. What was needed, they said, was someone who could negotiate with these troublesome hobgoblins, someone "whose knowledge descended into the bowels of the earth, and who could reveal the secret things of darkness."

Rogers promptly assured them that he was just the man they were looking for. In short, he proposed to lead the good citizens of New Jersey on a supernatural treasure hunt.

By August of that year, he had relocated to Morristown. He brought with him a crony (named, with a nice touch of irony, Goodenough,) to help him with this elaborate plot. As many locals had for years been dreaming of finding the Tory gold, Rogers had no difficulty gathering together a band of about forty suckers like-minded gold-seekers, who became known as the "Fire Club," or simply "The Company." These were, we are told, Morristown's most honorable citizens, "honest, judicious simple church members." The Company included an "eminent jurist," two justices of the peace, two doctors, and a retired colonel.

Rogers gathered his comrades together and "communicated to them the solemnity of the business and the intricacy of the undertaking and the fact that there had been several persons murdered and buried with the money in order to retain it in the earth." He likewise informed them that those spirits must be raised and conversed with before the money could be obtained. He declared he could by his art and power raise these apparitions and that the whole company might hear him converse with them and satisfy themselves there was no deception. This was received with belief and admiration by the whole company without every investigating whether it was probable or possible." When Goodenough secretly accentuated Rogers' oration with some spooky rappings on the walls and ceilings and a sepulchral cry of "Push forward!" everyone was convinced that in this humble New England pedagogue, they had found themselves a genuine sorcerer.

Despite his lack of education, Rogers had somehow obtained some basic knowledge of "chymistry," which allowed him to convincingly pass himself off as someone gifted with deep supernatural powers. He concocted a chemical brew which he buried in the earth. After a few hours, the mixture--apparently some sort of crude gunpowder--would "break and cause great explosions which appeared dismal in the night and would cause great timidity." One night, Rogers and Goodenough secretly laid out in a field a design showing "a great variety of paths--circular, elliptical, square, and serpentine...That evening, when the dupes themselves saw these fanciful paths, they were convinced that a thousand men could not have performed the task...and they unhesitatingly ascribed it to demoniac power." These "uncommon curiosities" convinced even the most skeptical that Rogers was in communication with the Dark Side, and made his group "anxious to proceed."

One night in November 1788, the group convened in some local woods reputed to be haunted. They gathered in a circle, the scene lit only by some candles that cast "a ghastly, melancholy, direful gloom through the woods." Suddenly, they heard "a most impetuous explosion from the earth" nearby. Flames rose from the blast site, "presenting to the eye many dreadful objects." Hideous groans, presumably from ghosts, could be heard. Rogers declared that although these restless spirits were invisible to the rest of the group, they were speaking to him of the immense treasure they were guarding.

The ghosts, he related, were willing to reveal the hiding places of the money...if the price was right. Before the Company would be allowed to see the treasure, they would each have to pay the spirits £12 in silver or gold. It apparently did not occur to anyone to ask what use incorporeal beings would have for cold cash, because, we are told, members of the group positively fought over "who should be the first in delivering the money to the spirits." A number of these worthies went into debt in order to pay their ghostly bribes. The spirits also declared that the group must "acknowledge Rogers as their conductor, and adhere to his precepts; and as they knew all things, they would detect the man that attempted to defraud his neighbor."

This spectacular demonstration of ghostly power so cowed the assembly that they looked to their leader "for protection to defend them from the raging spirits; and after several ceremonies Rogers dispelled the apparitions, and they all returned from the field wondering at the miraculous things that happened, being fully persuaded of the existence of hobgoblins and apparitions. By this time they could revere Rogers, and thought him something more than man."

The bundle of money was left under the stump of a tree, where the "spirits" instantly scooped it up, lest their pigeons have second thoughts about being plucked.

By March 1789, Rogers' flock was naturally impatient to see a return on their investment, and they became increasingly insistent that the treasure of Schooley's Mountain should be excavated. In reply, the ghosts advised them to simply put all their trust in Rogers, and to follow him implicitly in all things.

Delays, however, could only be made for so long, and Rogers finally was forced to name May 1st as the great day when the ghosts of Schooley's Mountain would lead them to the treasure. On the night of April 30, the Company assembled in an open field outside of town to await instructions from the Great Beyond. Two "ghosts" appeared some distance away, in a very angry temper. They delivered a sharp lecture to the group, accusing them of bad conduct and violating their vows of secrecy. They closed their furious harangue by declaring that as punishment, they were delaying--perhaps indefinitely--permission for the Company to excavate the loot.

The Company was understandably disappointed by this setback, but their faith in their leader was unshaken. Perhaps they felt they had gone too far to turn back now.

Encouraged by his success, Rogers began to cast his ghostly web farther. With the help of two friends, he pulled much the same stunt in another town near Morristown, this time relying on "spirit writing" to communicate with the ghosts. Late one night in June of 1789, Rogers wrapped himself up in a white sheet and rode over to one of his candidates for Company II. He summoned the man by rapping on his doors and windows, announcing that he was a ghost come not to haunt the man, but to enrich him. He explained that he was "in charge of an immense treasure." He would like to give this wealth to some local organization, but he could not do so until certain upstanding church members banded together to take charge of the money.

The gentleman he visited ate his story up. The man gathered together all the other men the "ghost" had named as suitable guardians of the treasure, and all twenty-six of them happily forked over their twelve pounds each. After all, they told themselves, it was an investment that would soon pay off big. Rogers led them in a series of seances where they received many encouraging "notes" from the spirit world.

It did not end well, however. The menfolk were entirely under Rogers' spell, but their wives were a good deal more skeptical.

As part of Rogers' rituals designed to fill his flock with the proper fear and respect of the ghosts, he had pulverized some animal bones, and gave them to one of his new Company, "declaring that it was the dust of their bodies, and each man must have some of the powder in a paper sealed, as a token of the spirits’ approbation, and that he was one of the company. This powder was to be kept secret, and no one touch it upon his peril." One of the group, Alexander Carmichael, accidentally left his paper in his house, where it was discovered by his wife. She opened it, and when she saw the contents she "feared to touch it supposing it to be witchcraft: She went immediately to the priest for advice--he, not knowing its composition was unwilling to touch it for fear it might have some operation upon him.

“When her husband discovered what she had done, he was much terrified, declaring she had ruined him forever, in breaking open that paper. This made her more solicitous to know the contents; and she declaring not to divulge anything, he told he: the whole proceedings; she insisted on it they were serving the devil, and thought it her duty to put an end to such proceedings."

This setback should have inspired Rogers and his co-conspirators to just take their ill-gotten gains and run. However, by now they were thoroughly drunk with power and had an arrogant confidence in their continued success, and they carried on as before.

Alas, even the best scams must one day come to an end, and the Morristown Ghost was no exception. As it happened, it was Rogers' own careless stupidity that caused the downfall of his little enterprise. One night when he performed his ghost impersonation for the benefit of one of his followers, he made the mistake of having too much to drink beforehand. His "spirit costume" was put on more carelessly than usual, and he made a few unghostly sort of errors in his conversation. The lady of the house grew suspicious of their spirit visitor, and spied on him through one of the windows, and saw enough to confirm her worst suspicions.

After the "ghost" had left, she asked her husband "My dear, do spirits wear shoe buckles? Those were very like Ransford Rogers' buckles!"

The couple traced Rogers' footprints to the fence where he had tied his horse, and then traced the animal's hoofprints to the schoolteacher's home, and then to the stable of the horse's owner, where they found a discomfited Ransford Rogers. The game was well and truly up.

Rogers was arrested and thrown in prison. However, like any good con man, he asserted his complete innocence so vehemently and convincingly that one of his True Believers put up his bail money. Rogers rewarded this confidence in his probity by immediately fleeing town. After being arrested a second time, we are told he "acknowledged his faults and confessed." After unburdening his conscience, Rogers "absconded, and under the auspices of Fortune saved himself by flight from the malice of a host." His cohorts in fraud seem to have gotten away completely. The two Companies had between them given Rogers some $1300, "none of which was ever recovered by the unfortunate and humbugged company."

Despite this narrow escape, our hero had developed an irresistible taste for crime. The next we hear from him was nine years later. In York County, Pennsylvania, a man named John Dady was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for swindling a number of people through various faux-supernatural means. Among his accomplices was a man calling himself "Rice Williams," who turned out to be none other than Ransford Rogers. True to form, this slipperiest of fish somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law, and subsequently disappeared from history. Although his ultimate fate is unrecorded, it seems virtually certain that he continued to pull different swindles, in different towns, under different false names.

It's hard to keep a good ghost down.

[Note: The tale of the Morristown Ghost is preserved in several contemporary pamphlets. The most famous account was written in 1826 by a prominent almanac maker named David Young. However, the earliest, most detailed exposé was published by an anonymous author in 1792. It is an extremely rare pamphlet, as most of the copies were bought up and destroyed by the son of one of Rogers' dupes, who was understandably anxious to bury this embarrassing proof of his father's gullibility. Many students of this case believe this pamphlet was written by Ransford Rogers himself, squeezing one last bit of fun and profit out of his most famous escapade.

I'd like to think this was the case.]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

A reminder that Sphinxes are not only found in Egypt.

Let's Walk Like an Egyptian over to this week's links:

What the hell are all these faces in the window?

What the hell is this piece of jade?

How the hell old is the Giza Plateau?

Where the hell is this Irish island?

Watch out for the ghost of La Corriveau!

The horrible story of Topsy the elephant shows human nature at its worst.

Speaking of human nature at its worst, meet Dr. Geza de Kaplany, who made an excellent argument for the death penalty.

Some wonderful images of Newgrange over the years.

Scotland's terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.  Or at least one of them.  The Scots have had quite a few of those.

The time the police tried to set up Arthur Conan Doyle.

Taking near-death experiences seriously.

Christian X and the yellow star:  When a myth is not really a lie.

An Arabic ring in a Viking grave.

Maria Owen, bogus doctor.

A real-life fairy tale from 18th century Sussex.

A real-life Dr. Frankenstein finds his monster.

Dr. Parkman rests in pieces.

Saying good-bye to the drive-in theater.

Irish football-playing fairies.  No, really.

Going Badminton Mad in 1873 India.

Gervase Thompson learns that no good deed goes unpunished.

How to be a dishonest valet.

A Russian general gets fair warning.

The "Bermuda Triangle of New Jersey."

How to hit the town in 1922 Manhattan.

Stand up straight! 18th century style.

Marie Antoinette's last opera.

Jamaica's first serial killer.

A witch runs out of luck, 1579.

The Barbarians at Hatra's Gate.

Neanderthal bling.

Is this a relic of the first North Americans?

That's the end of the line for this Friday. See you all on Monday, when I'll be talking ghosts, gold, and grifters. In the meantime, here's Judee Sill:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Close-up of Trolls, by John Bauer, 1915

News of strange goings on in a Pennsylvania huckleberry patch--caused by what were variously described as "spirits" "elves," or "fairies"--appeared in a few newspapers during August 1873. Because I realize the blog has been short on berry-loving, stone-throwing elves lately, here's this account from the "Savannah Morning News," August 30, 1873:
All Cumru township, over in Berks county, is agitated from the fact that a spirit settlement has taken up its abode in a narrow strip of wood about five miles from the city of Reading, on the road leading out to Kohl's mill.

It was a raw, damp night when your correspondent alighted at the roadside inn, about a half mile from the above place. The wind howled, and the swaying of the heavy branches of sturdy oaks creaked and sighed, and gave echo to the croaking owl away over on the mountain side.

I need not describe one of these quaint old revolutionary relics--these Pennsylvania country wayside inns. In the barroom sat seven men, whose sun-browned features and shaggy whiskers told of long years of toil on the farm and wood-chopping on the hills. A coal-oil lamp swung from a pendant, and a faint light shone out from a greasy and smoked chimney. The landlord, a large-headed, quiet personage, sat smoking a pipe, and occasionally peering over his glasses toward the corner I occupied. These men were earnestly discussing the visitation of spirits in their neighborhood. They were men of fair average intelligence and were persons of good standing in the neighborhood. One of the men gave his name as J.M. white, and stated that he was constable of the township. The remaining men were Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Henry Grimes, Abraham Miller, and Daniel White. They are all engaged in agricultural pursuits in this township.

I remarked to them that I had come a long distance to ascertain what truth there was in the report that spirit carnivals had been witnessed at night, and that stones and missiles had been heard to whiz and seem to whirl in all directions.

The constable turned in his chair, and with a look of deep earnestness told me that there was too much truth in it. "Have you heard anything definite about it?" he asked.

In answer to my negative reply, he delivered himself about as follows:

"We people here in this neighborhood are neither sceptics nor fools. I have not been constable of this town for six years without knowing and learning something. A ghost never trod shoe leather that would make me whistle. But the night that me and the rest of us went down past old Kohl's on to the huckleberry strip, and saw and heard what we did see and hear, has made me a better and wiser man, and a devilish perplexed one at that. There sits Abe Miller; he can tell you how the thing commenced."

It seemed an important matter to Mr. Miller, who emptied his mouth of a huge quid of masticated tobacco. He said: "Last Tuesday, Mrs. Daniel White, her daughter, Susan White, and Mary Hartz, three in number, went down to the huckleberry strip on Miller's farm for the purpose of gathering berries. They were there but a short time when they were startled by stones and clubs being thrown in the bushes. There was no person to be seen. After the first throwing everything was quiet. The women folks then heard strange screeching and unearthly noises resembling the hum of a steam engine. They were frightened almost to death, and stood riveted on the spot white with fear and trembling. Then of a sudden the air seemed filled with light and transparent shadows, that flitted about under the trees and above the heads of the frightened females. Then came slaps, quick and sharp, and the young ladies frequently received smacks on the sides of their faces, while Mrs. White received a hard blow on the back with a large piece of bark. The folks could not run, but were obliged to stand still and take it. They were with the spirits for nearly an hour before they could get out of the woods and hurry on towards home. They came back terribly alarmed and frightened. Miss White was considerably bruised about the sides, she having been struck several times."

I inquired whether the women had so stated the case. "Yes," answered several men in the bar-room, "this comes directly from Mrs. White, who would not tell a lie for the world."

A friend of Miss Hartz said: "I know Miss Hartz very well; she is a very sensible young lady. She returned from the berrying party very much frightened. She did not receive any injuries, but she saw spirits running about through the bushes, screaming and making other unearthly noises."

"What did she say a spirit resembled?" I inquired.

The young man continued: "She says that the objects she saw had human faces, white flowing gowns and wore long hair. They were comparatively small and very indistinct; so much so that she could not make out who they resembled. Certain she was, however, that they were spirits of human people. One kissed her on her left hand, which still bears the mark. It is red, and a dark streak is on the outside of it."

The landlord at this laid away his pipe, and with much consciousness of importance, nodded his head and remarked, "It's queerest case I ever heard of, and I know these people too well to think they would try to humbug anybody. Mrs. White is an honest and respectable woman, and her eyes are open; and when she tells of such a thing you can rely on it."

Mrs. White's husband owns the haunted huckleberry patch. He was a witness to the throwing of missiles. He is positively certain that no human hands did the throwing.

The constable at last said: "It's a good thing that you city people are never bothered with these strange affairs."

I asked him whether an investigation of the matter had been made, and he replied that there had. This was his story:

"The following day after the women had been so terribly frightened by the visitation, fourteen people were appointed to make an investigation. They were: J.M. White, Elias Snable, Samuel Zeigler, Samuel Sweitzer, John Marks, Henry Grieves, Daniel White, Abraham Miller, James Schaeffer, Priscilla Marks, Catherine Good, Mrs. Daniel White, Susan White, and Mary Hartz. The women folks were not afraid when the men went with them. I, as constable of the township, led the party. We marched in a body down to the patch, and stopped just before going in to examine the points around the haunted place.

"The spot is a very lonely one, and very few people go there unless it is to gather berries. When we got ready we took hold of hands, and formed a circle around the spot where the women saw the spirits. Four of the women were then in the circle. Before I knew what I was about I was struck about the face, on the cheeks, and my hat was knocked off. The missiles came from a heavy clump of bushes, and we could see them plainly shoot up and over towards where we were standing. Four of us men made a dash through the bushes, but when we arrived there was nothing to be found. As soon as we got to the place where the stuff was first thrown from stones and sticks came from another direction, and to save our lives we could not see who it was that was doing. By this time the females became terribly alarmed; and, when a singular humming noise was heard and a strange smell pervaded the atmosphere, they almost fainted away, their hearts beating and thumping fearfully. My wife was in my arms, which explains my last remark. We could discover no traces of the invisible hands that threw the stones, but saw them come, and knew where they came from--but that was all."

The constable's story was corroborated by the remainder of those present. But the hour hand had swung around, and the old clock in the corner had struck eleven; the rain was comparatively over, and the men pulled down their slouch hats, buttoned up their coats, and sallied out in the darkness for home.

I turned to the landlord and enquired whether he really believed those men.

"Young man," he replied, "they are earnest in every word they say, depend upon it."

The next morning I talked with Mrs. Daniel White on the subject. She corroborated all I had heard, and stated that her back was yet painful from the effects of a blow she had received.

Miss Hartz, upon whom I also called, was positive that she had seen spirits. "Why," she continued, "there were so many of them that I really imagined the very air was full of them." But she was excused from further conversation, as she stated that it was extremely distasteful to her. She seemed to tremble as she described the appearance of one of the alleged spirits.

Miss Hartz, by the way, is a very prepossessing young lady, and I ventured to remark that it was no wonder the spirits were attracted to her. This did not even cause her to smile.

I then visited the haunted huckleberry ground. It is situated on the right of the road, on a gentle declivity. There are some undergrowth, large trees, and thick clumps of bushes. When I arrived a jolly old crow flapped his black pinions and cawed as he flew over through the mist toward the hills beyond. Taking down the bars I jogged along through some bottom and, and entered the supposed spirit and fairy circle. All about lay sticks and stones, and the berry bushes were tramped down in many places. Upon a twig hung a calico shred that had been torn from the apron of one of the frightened females, while near by lay a gaiter that had been dropped in their hurry and flight. The rain soon came down, and I was obliged to turn back toward the hotel.

When I reported my visit to the landlord, he remarked, "Can't help it; those people are sensible people, and know what they talk about. They were there also and saw just exactly what they told you they did. I believe they saw spirits, and I would not go near that place at midnight for the best horse in the country."

So. Either this was a very nutty hoax on the part of the good people of Cumru township, or something mighty weird was going on in those huckleberry bushes. As is usual with this type of alleged incident, I have been unable to find any follow-up stories to the mystery. I can only add as a footnote that historically, Pennsylvania has been a particular hotbed for odd tales involving witchcraft, ghosts, and all manner of sinister folklore. Readers of David Paulides' "Missing 411" books may also recall that he has observed that berry fields are, for God knows what reason, associated with many particularly bizarre disappearances.

That's about all I can say on the matter.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Adventures of Miss Cora Strayer, Private Detective

While browsing Pinterest last week, I came upon the above ad. I was curious about what a female private investigator in early 20th century Chicago must have been like, so I went off to the online newspaper archives in search of more information about the "legal or confidential advice" offered to the ladies by Miss Cora Strayer.  And, oh, boy, what I found was beyond my wildest dreams.

She seems to have gotten into the detective line sometime around 1899.  This interview, which appeared in the "Chicago Tribune" on August 16, 1903, gives a bit of background information:

Women detectives there have been for a good many years, successful ones, too, despite the old fiction of women and their secrets being soon parted, but in Miss Cora M. Strayer Chicago has the first to take the direction of an agency and employ others.

She tells the story of her work forcibly and earnestly, and it carries conviction of her enthusiasm.

"I drifted into the work without deliberate choice," she said. "An attorney asked me to do a little investigation on a case for him. I had studied and practiced law for several years, but had been forced to give it up on account of ill health. The lawyer thought I had some ability in the investigating line, and I found quickly what a demand there was for this kind of work.

"A woman with her quicker sympathies and intuition has a great advantage in winning confidence. Although I am usually fortunate in this respect, still I often have people come to me and tell me a story which I can perceive immediately is but half truth. I ask them to wait until they have thought the matter over and then come and tell me everything. Sometimes an hour will elapse, again several days or weeks.

"Mine is a difficult business, wearing to the nerves and depressing. At times I have gone to pieces completely and had to get away from the town, but in a few days letters and telegrams arrive and the old eagerness to be up and at it returns. Suddenly I feel entirely recovered and come back to begin again. The work is terribly confining. I can scarcely get out for sufficient exercise. I am like the switchboard of a telephone, constantly in touch with all my subordinates.

"My observation led me to believe that most people get into difficulty from a failure to distinguish between right and wrong. In most cases it is a lack of training in youth. Many times I am able to make the person see this, and that is one reason why I can recommend this profession to other women who have any adaptation for it."

Despite the general depression of having to deal so constantly with wrongdoing and foolishness, the comedy side will turn up now and then. For instance, an elderly couple living in the country received information concerning a young man engaged to their daughter stating that he was a married man with three children. The poor parents were almost frantic. It took the young man's solemn oath and Miss Strayer's subsequent investigations to convince them that their future son-in-law was a straight a young bachelor as the city afforded.

In comparing men and women operatives, Miss Strayer said: "I have about an equal number of men and women under me. The women are better in some things, but, of course, men are absolutely necessary in others. Some of them have been in my employ for years, and to them I often confide all the details of a case. To others I merely give their instructions for the day. What I demand of my people is the truth. Failure I am willing to pardon and assist, but if a man or woman will lie to me he will lie under any conditions, and is liable to betray my client. For the faithful and skillful there is always good pay and confidence.

"It's wonderful what ever renewing interest one can get out of work if she only puts enthusiasm into it. I am constantly drawn to mine by the opportunities I find for helping people. Even above pecuniary reward I place some of the grateful hearts which I know thank me for what I have been able to do for them.

"I certainly have a big opportunity to study human nature, but if I were to write some of the strange things that come under my eyes they would not be believed."

Oh, if she only had written them down.

I was able to find a few more details about Miss Strayer. The following year, newspapers reported that she was in St. Louis, where she was organizing an all-female detective bureau. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell this plan came to nothing.

In 1907, our Cora played a part in a juicy murder trial. From the Chicago "Inter-Ocean," September 13:
Despite the declaration in court of. the defense of Amasa G. Campbell that no appeal will be made to the unwritten law to save him from the gallows on the charge of murdering Dr. Benjamin F. Harris, developments yesterday showed that the chain of evidence which is prepared in his behalf will seek to prove that the dead physician was another Stanford White.

Campbell, claims the defense, was insane whew be shot Harris, and was suffering under the delusion that Harris had wrecked his home and induced his wife, Mrs Campbell, to become untrue to him. To bear out this statement it is promised that a Iong list of scandal in the society life of Antlgo, Wis., the city from which both the Harris and Campbell families come, will be dug up. "Many homes in Chicago, St. Paul, and Antigo may be shattered by the revelations which are promised" by the defense in its endeavor to prove that Campbell was insane when he shot the physician, in the Stock Exchange building.

Most of the sensational testimony bearing on the  scandals is expected to come from the lips of the Rev. C. C. Campbell of Plymouth Congregational church of St. Paul. He is not a relative of the prisoner, but was pastor of the Congregational church of Antigo ten years ago and admits that he himself left the city because of a scandal in which his own wife's name was mentioned. 

This and other scandals in which the dead man is said to have figured will be dragged before the Jury, that their rehearsal may prove the frantic condition of the man who believed that his wife had received too marked attentions from Dr. Harris.

The prosecution won what it considered a victory yesterday when it succeeded in putting in evidence the papers in the divorce case in which Mr. Campbell was freed from his wife. In this connection there was presented an affidavit of Cora B.[sic] Strayer, a woman detective at 2104 Cottage Grove avenue, who told of enticing Mrs. Harris to Milwaukee at the instance of Mrs. Campbell to secure from her letters which Mrs. Campbell had indiscreetly sent to Dr. Harris. It was charged that this service cost Mrs. Campbell $1500 besides a liquor bill of $123. [Ed. note: Cora got Mrs. Harris roaring drunk, and while that lady was incapacitated, stole the letters!] Attorney James Hartnett opened the case for the defense yesterday afternoon, declaring it would be based on insanity and self-defense. In his address he said: 

"The defense in this case will be entirely within the lines recognised and authorised by the statutes. We will appeal to no higher law and we repudiate any so called 'unwritten law.' We will show that at the time the defendant killed Dr. Harris he was laboring under an insane delusion caused by the very man he killed.

"And It is our contention that after Dr. Harris had made the defendant insane he compelled that insane man to defend his life. Gentlemen, there were too many shots in that office to have come from a revolver with only five chambers."

Dr. Harold N. Moyer testified for the defense that he believed Campbell was suffering from paranoiac dementia at the time he killed Harris.

Campbell was eventually found guilty of manslaughter by a sympathetic jury and sentenced to one year in prison.

A 1909 "Chicago Tribune" article described Cora as possessing "keen eyes that take in everything without seeming to notice anything; a smile that is fascinating and a manner that encourages confidences." The writer added that in her voice "there is an undercurrent of decision that says plainly, 'I mean what I say--understand?'"

I'm guessing she also had what Damon Runyon once called "one of those marble, you-bet-you-will chins."

Cora was again in the news late in 1910, when George S. Holben, superintendent of her agency, was fatally shot at her home/workplace by a recently fired employee named Stephen Ayers. (Ayers probably would have also shot Strayer and one of her brothers, who were in the house at the time, but Ayers' gun was wrestled from him by Mary Myers, who was alternately described as Strayer's maid and one of her operatives.)

Ayers blamed Holben for his dismissal. However, Ayers may have been more than just a disgruntled ex-employee--he claimed that the two men had been romantic rivals for the "fair detective." "The trouble is over Miss Strayer," Ayers stated after his arrest. "She loves me and we were going to be married, but she was afraid of Holben." Ayers claimed he shot Holben in self-defense when the other man appeared to be pulling a gun on him.

Cora and George Holben

Cora called Ayers' story of a love affair "a fabrication from beginning to end," and it must be said that at least one part of his statement is incredible. I don't believe for a moment that Cora was ever afraid of anybody. She stated that he had been dismissed for "inebriety" after only six weeks at her agency.  In any case, the jury did not buy Ayers' defense, and he was convicted of murder.  He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Sometime after this incident, Strayer wed a Robert Fortune.  The marriage was short-lived, as her husband died in February 1913.

Chicago Examiner, December 5, 1910

Feast your eyes on this story from the "East Oregonian," August 6, 1912:
Five years of waiting by a lonely fireside for her husband to leave his convivial companions and return to her caused Mrs. Otto W. Henssler, wife of Dr. Otto Henssler of 3618 Indiana avenue, to attack her husband and a woman companion in front of 124 East Twenty-second street and later to sue for divorce.

The attack came after Mrs. Henssler, with a woman detective named Cora Strayer, had followed Dr. Henssler and several companions in a "joy ride" about the city, during which stops were made at several cafes. The joy ride ended in front of the apartments at 124 East Twenty-second street.

Mrs. Henssler hid in a taxicab and waited for her husband to leave the place. About 3 o'clock in the morning the party broke up, and Dr. Henssler and a woman companion started toward the automobile which was awaiting them.

Mrs. Henssler jumped from her hiding place and upbraided her husband for being seen "with such companions." "They're just as good as you are." replied the doctor, and a moment later the battle was on.  Mrs. Henssler struck her husband across the face several times with her hand, and with a small whip which she had carried. The woman who was with Dr. Henssler attempted to interfere, and Mrs. Henssler turned upon her in all her fury, pulling her hair and striking her several times with the whip.

At length Miss Strayer succeeded in pushing the irate wife into the taxi cab, and they returned home. Dr. Henssler returned home, packing some clothes in a suitcase, and left the house.

Three women were named in a divorce bill filed by Mrs. Henssler in the circuit court. The names of Rose Maschlk and Marie Wychodil with that of "Katie Doe," whose real name is not known to the plaintiff, appear in the bill.

In her bill Mrs. Henssler says that her husband has $50,000 in personal property, including an automobile, stocks and bonds. She also charges cruelty and claims that he choked and beat her on July 1 and July 20.

I was a bit surprised to learn that in 1913 Strayer filed for bankruptcy. It seemed a strange twist in fortune for such a dynamic woman. I then found this alluring item from the Chicago "Day Book," dated from that same year:

I found out more details of "Cora vs. the Clairvoyants" from the "Chicago Examiner" for May 18, 1913:
As the grand jury was voting the indictments the most amazing story of the clairvoyants' trust yet revealed was given to State's Attorney Hoyne by Miss Cora L. [sic] Strayer, head of a private detective agency.

The most important piece of information contained in Miss Strayer's expose related to an $18,000 swindle upon Miss Esther Alexander of Fond du Lac, Wis. Miss Alexander, while in Chicago a few months ago, according to Miss Strayer, visited a clairvoyant known as "Madame Graham." A bond scheme, according to the woman detective, was the means of obtaining the money. The peculiar feature of the Alexander swindle lies in the fact that, though reported to the police and listed at the time of the "investment," there is today no record of it upon the police files...New names, included in Miss Strayer's list of clairvoyants, opened up new lanes of investigation.

In 1914, our heroine, described as "one of the best horsewomen in the country," was
training a female cavalry regiment to participate in the border war with Mexico. The "Rock Island Argus" for May 1, 1914, gave us a delightful look at "Col. Strayer":

 A thoughtless young national guardsman who undoubtedly has a mother, probably has sisters, and may some day have a wife, said something intended to be sarcastic as "Col." Cora Strayer began recruiting the first volunteer woman's cavalry regiment in the Seventh Regiment armory Wednesday. If he had been listening at the door of Company A's room a few minutes later his ears would have burned. After "Col." Strayer. who in semiprivate life is the head of a detective agency, had finished an address in which she told the 30 women present that persons thinking of enlisting for fun or for notoriety might better draw back before the "bugle blast," she announced herself as willing to answer questions.

The first question was: "What do you think of that soldier who said he thought he'd 'put on a skirt and stick around?'"

"He wasn't a soldier," the colonel contradicted. "A soldier wouldn't say such a thing."

"But he did, and he wore a uniform like a soldier," insisted the prospective cavalrywoman. "And then he laughed!"

"A man could not laugh loud enough to make me hear him," the "colonel" said serenely. "Nor do I know a man or of a man who would dare to laugh in my face."

Three men interrupted the discussion of the rude soldier at this point by marching into the meeting.

"Perhaps Mr. Ayers would like to speak a word," the "colonel" said, still gallant. She referred to one of the visitors, Frank D. Ayers, one time attorney for the election board.

"I want to state my belief that if you ladies organise your regiment and are accepted and do go to the front and do shoot some one, you probably will hit them in the back." Mr. Ayers said.

The women looked puzzled and slightly shocked.

"That is to say," he continued, "that they will turn to run as soon as you come in sight."

The women applauded.

"I think." Mr. Ayers went on. "that a woman will do more fighting with two bullets In her than a man hit only once. Once they make her mad--look out for her!"

The speaker retired amid cheers.

Some one wanted to know if it wouldn't be better to hold the woman's regiment in reserve until hearth and home were threatened. "Col." Strayer's eyes flashed.

"Do you want to wait until all the men are killed before you do your duty, sisters?" she asked. "A woman that would stand and let a man do all the fighting and suffering for his country is not a soldier. She belongs in the effete ranks of those who hurry abroad when trouble starts. Pooh! She is not even worthy of the ballot."

Damn, I do love this woman.

Cora and her "Amazons"

This story from the December 30, 1918 "Chicago Tribune" shows our girl in the middle of a high-speed police chase:

This tale should begin with a church scene in Dubuque, Ia six years ago when Marie Rossi, from her place in the choir loft, first charmed Jack P. Russell, a young traveling salesman, with her voice and face.

For action, however, we will start turning the crank at the Rialto, Clark and Randolph streets, Chicago. Time: 11:15 Saturday night. Persons involved: A girl with a red auto, red hair, and a lavender dress; a woman detective in a black automobile, three city detectives; Russell, and  a reporter for The Tribune.

Time and the whirl of life have changed Russell's unstable affections from the sweet voiced choir singer that he made his wife to the girl with the red hair and the red auto, whose name is Katherine E. Bezon, 1141 Sunnyside avenue, a girl of mystery who came from Holland, Mich. to the lights of the big city and a love beyond the law.

Complaint was made recently to the office of the second deputy of police that Russell and Miss Bezon were living together in various north side apartments and hotels as man and wife. Detective Sergeants Joseph McGuire, Fred Brown, and Arthur Wentze were assigned to the  case.

Cora M. Strayer, 2838 Indiana avenue, a private detective, came into the plot here. She had been working for friends of Mrs. Russell and offered to take the officers in her automobile on the chase after the couple. She took them to Clark and Randolph where they found the red car waiting for its owners to come out of a theater. While waiting for Russell and the girl to appear the detectives examined a bag that they found in the red car. It contained an assortment of negligee.

A Tribune reporter happened along, saw the detectives, and watched to see what would happen. When Russell and his companion appeared and got into their car the reporter was close behind in a limousine. The black car of the detectives came third and was almost lost in the chase out Michigan avenue, Lake Shore drive, through Lincoln park to Wilson avenue. The red haired girl drove like a racer.

"Step on it, they're getting away," shouted the three detectives to Miss Strayer, at the wheel of her black car.

West on Wilson to a garage on Kenmore where the red car stopped. Russell was suspicious of something. The police car came up. The shadows scattered. The reporter went into a cigar shop across the street. Russell looked up and down the street, then strolled into the Central Drug store with his lady. As they drank hot chocolate the reporter took a seat near them.

From the drug store the couple walked to the Sher-Lak hotel, 4841 Sheridan road, where they formerly lived. Russell carried the bag. They did not go in, however, but watched and waited from a doorway across the street. They seemed sure they were being followed.

Back to the garage, where the red car was backed out. North on Kenmore, the police car following. Suddenly the red car turned into an alley and stopped. When the police car stopped, too, Russell stepped out and confronted the detectives.

"Been following me, have you?" he asked belligerently. He spoke harshly to McGuire, who pulled him from the car. Russell admitted that his companion was not his wife. The woman said nothing. She was taken to the detention home for women and Russell was taken to the Town Hall police station. They were charged with disorderly conduct and will appear this morning in the Morals court.

Miss Strayer will appear, and there will be hotel clerks and registers and apartment house janitors. It is charged that the couple lived at the Sher-Lak, although the register does not show this; at 808 Sunnyside avenue, at 845 Melrose street, at the Alcazar Inn, and other places.

Russell Is a salesman for the Alaska Sulphur company and has offices in the Hartford building. He is 28 years old. Miss Bezon gave her age as 32. Russell, it is said, has been dividing his time for two years between this girl and his wife.

Mrs Russell is an operatic singer and is a soloist at the Church of Our Lady of the Lake, Sheridan road and Buena avenue.

Russell has a son, Alan, 4 years old, who lives with the mother at the Wilson apartments, Wilson and Maiden avenues. Russell has been paying $50 a month rent for them and contributing $12 a week for their support. He had rooms at the Sher-Lak until Saturday night. He left his wife finally, she says, on Nov. 12.

A week ago he filed suit for divorce, charging acts of cruelty in 1915. It was to counteract this suit and bring out the relations with the "other woman" that friends of Mrs. Russell retained Miss Strayer and filed the complaint with the morals department.

Mrs. Russell said that recently the woman came to her and said:

"You can't hold Jack's love. Why don't you leave him to me? He loves me and will leave you for good as soon as the war is over." He did.

The "Inter-Ocean" reported a similar case on April 2, 1910. A Sidney J. Hamilton hired Cora to watch his wife Susan, whom he believed was seeing other men. He was right, leading to an "all night chase" where Mrs. Hamilton and two of her gentlemen friends were pursued by her husband and some police detectives. It ended with Mrs. Hamilton's arrest for disorderly conduct.

Strayer was still advertising her agency in Chicago papers through at least the beginning of 1931, but after that she permanently drops from sight. After a bit of browsing online Illinois genealogy indexes, I found a listing for the death certificate of "Cora May Fortune," who died on December 19, 1932.  Her age was given as "Unknown," but she was apparently born sometime between 1867-69.

Unfortunately, this was all I could find about this amazing character, but by God I think it should be more than enough for Hollywood. Where the hell is "Cora Strayer, Private Detective," the movie?!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

Today is Friday the 13th.

May a lucky black cat cross your path.

On to the Links of Good Fortune:

What the hell caused this Martian mushroom cloud?

What the hell is this ancient jawbone?

Who the hell--and we do mean, hell--killed Jeanette DePalma?

Watch out for the Pearce family!

Watch out for those Puritan New Haven hippie ship builders!

Watch out for those Felt Presences!

Watch out for those visits from the Devil!

Watch out for the giant octopus!

Watch out for Poveglia Island!

Watch out for David Icke's shape-shifting reptilians!

Are you a gambler?  Watch out for the Grimaldi Curse!

A sordid soap opera plays out in 19th century Hertfordshire.

Oh, just another fight between a disembodied spirit and a hypothetical messiah.

"For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet the elephant and her ghostly Romeo."

I just love this:  The oldest known film footage of New York City. Annotated!

A book-mauling ghost.

Commemorating the Cat Lady of Spitalfields. 

Death & Taxes, Georgian Style.

James Gillray, dissolute Prince of Caricaturists.

The Duke of Queensbury races against time.  And loses, naturally.

A guide to celebrating Friday the 13th.

How Regency women "improved upon beauty."

Was Silbury Hill an ancient lighthouse?

Our memories trick us more than we like to think.

Cryptids go to war.

Jane Austen's colorful Aunt Philadelphia.

The diary of a two-year-old aristocrat.

Yes, you may laugh at my house full of cats/But it sure beats a couch full of telepathic rats.

Yeah, I'd live here.

The cats of the Algonquin Hotel.

How to hail a Victorian cab.

Rev. Thomas gets a lesson about ghosts.

Getting hairy with Miss Stout.

The ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars.

The bourdaloue:  for the Regency woman who just couldn't wait.

Quote of the week: "We're not anti-fairies but it's in danger of getting out of control."

And, finally, our musical clip of the week:  At the 1930 St. Louis International Aircraft Exposition, a certain Nellie Jay became the first cow to ride in an airplane.  She was milked during the trip, with the moo juice dramatically parachuted back to earth.  The annual dairy festival at Mount Horeb, Wisconsin still celebrates her feat, with oil paintings, poetry ("She flies through the air with the greatest of ease/Dropping her ice cream, yogurt, and cheese,") and an opera, "Madame Butterfat."

Much to my joy, I found an excerpt of this opera on YouTube.  Behold, the Bovine Cantata in Bb Major:

And that's it for this week.  I can't tell you how much fun I had writing next Monday's post about a pioneering female detective.  Murder!  Adultery!  Car chases!  Crooked clairvoyants!  All-women cavalry regiments!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Early in October 1955, a number of newspapers across the country carried the following AP report:
Windsor, Vt.--The mystery of the water in the home of Dr. and Mrs. William Waterman was no nearer solution today.

The Watermans have been forced to take refuge in a trailer in their front yard.

The water, in the form of dew, mist, or fog, dampens everything in the eight-room house except the walls and ceilings.

The Watermans have lived in the house for nine years but not until two weeks ago did water begin to plague them. At first they sponged it up and carried it out in buckets, but then they decided to evacuate until the cause could be determined.

Experts from electrical, plumbing, furnace and insulation companies are as puzzled as the Watermans. There are no water pipe leaks and there seems to be no seepage from a spring, well or other body of water. Fog is common near a pond 200 yards from the house, but none ever has drifted into the residence.

The problem started on September 20, when the family suddenly began finding puddles of water throughout the house.  The flooding quickly escalated, until the Watermans found themselves collecting dozens of buckets of water from the house.  No one could ever tell where the water came from--it just appeared, including in places like bureau drawers and closets.  On at least one occasion, it actually rained inside the home.  Dr. Waterman told the "Claremont Daily Eagle" that once, while carrying a bowl of grapes from the kitchen to the living room, the bowl filled with water virtually in front of his eyes.  Even more strangely, the basement and the insulation inside the walls remained dry.  The furniture became so soaked they had to be hauled outside. 

Late in October, the watery plague began to taper off, until it finally ceased altogether. The Watermans were able to move back into their home, and, as far as is recorded, were able to lead a dry existence from then on. The question of what caused the problem remained unanswered, however.

And, yes, the irony of the family's name was not lost on anyone.

[Note: Cf. these three previous posts on Mystery Floods.]

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Long Walk Home of Lillian Alling

Sometime around 1925, a woman in her 20s emigrated to New York City. In America, she went by the name "Lillian Alling," an anglicized form of her birth name, which may have been "Olejnik." Although her exact origins are uncertain, Cassandra Wyman, who wrote a brief book inspired by Alling's story ("The Woman Who Walked to Russia,") concluded she was probably a displaced Jewish woman from Belorussia.

Alling found her life in America to be a hard one, with the added burden of intense loneliness. She had no family in the country, and her reserved, somewhat prickly nature made it difficult for her to find friends even in the immigrant communities. She was left completely alone to struggle with a series of tedious, low-paying jobs in a loud, bustling city that was frighteningly different from anything she had known.

Before long, she decided she had made a horrible mistake in leaving her native country. She longed to go back to her home, a land that may have been harsh, but at least had the virtue of familiarity. But how could that be done? She knew it would be nearly impossible for her to raise the money for the passage back. She seemed trapped.

But then, this remarkably determined woman had an idea. Studying maps of North America in the New York Public Library, she developed a plan of action: she would walk home.

She traced out a route that would take her from New York to Canada, then across the Yukon Telegraph line to the Bering Sea. From there, she anticipated it would be easy to cross the water and enter Russia.

It was, of course, an utterly daft undertaking, but never underestimate the will of a woman with an itch to get the hell out. One day in 1926, equipped only with a backpack and an iron bar to defend herself against both animal and human predators, she set out for home.

A young woman walking on her own across the continent would be an unusual enough sight today. In the 1920s, it was quite startling enough so that there are numerous eyewitness reports of her incredible trek. She was spotted in Chicago, followed by Minneapolis, then Winnipeg, and finally, in the fall of 1927, Alling was observed making her lonely way in Hazelton, Canada, headed for the Yukon.

At Hazelton, the authorities felt that to allow her to venture into the Yukon with winter approaching would be tantamount to permitting her suicide. For her own safety, the local police arrested her for vagrancy and sentenced her to two months in the county jail. When they searched her small store of belongings, they were aghast to find she carried only three loaves of bread, a bit of tea, twenty dollars cash, and her trusty iron bar.

They hoped this setback would be enough to convince Alling to give up her seemingly impossible quest. They were quite wrong. By spring of 1928, she was again on the road north. Linesmen working along the telegraph trail monitored her astonishingly quick progress--it was estimated that she must have walked an average of thirty miles a day. These men readily gave her what practical aid and moral support they could. She stopped for the winter in Dawson City, where she took on odd jobs and worked on repairing a small, abandoned boat she planned to use for the last leg of her journey. In the spring of 1929, when the ice began to thaw, she set sail in her little vessel, headed down the Yukon River en route to the Bering Sea.

If this story was a Disney movie, it would now end with Alling making a triumphant return to her hometown, where she would be acclaimed as a heroine. She would then find the love and prosperity which had so far eluded her, and settle down to a long, happy life sharing her incredible memories of a one-of-a-kind road trip.

Well, life ain't no Disney movie. Our last certain glimpse of Lillian Alling is of her lonely, valiant figure sailing down the Yukon into who-knows-what waters. We simply are not sure what happened to her after this point. It is said she reached Nome. Some time later, near the Alaska/Siberia border, an Eskimo reportedly saw her pulling a small cart containing her few belongings. She may have been seen making arrangements with Eskimos to take her by boat across the Bering Strait. At any rate, Alaska saw Lillian Alling no more. One researcher, Arthur Elmore, recorded a story he claimed he heard in 1965 from a Russian friend. This Russian told him that 35 years earlier, when he was a boy in the Soviet area of Provideniya, he saw a young woman being taken into custody by local officials. Word was that she had come from America, where she had been badly treated. This Russian source did not know what became of her after that. These reports are all plausible, but unconfirmed.

Was the grueling last leg of her epic trek finally too much for her, leaving her to die alone somewhere in the Yukon wilderness? Even more depressingly, did the Soviets arrest her as a suspicious character and send her off to spend the rest of her days in some gulag? Or did she, against all the odds, make it back to her native town and disappear into a foot-weary obscurity?

We can only hope she had something of a Disney ending, after all. Surely, such courage and hardihood deserved no less.