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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week, the cats are celebrating the first Link Dump of summer with a beach party!

Who the hell was "Joseph Newton Chandler?"  Now we know!

Watch out for those shape-shifting spook lights!

In which a cat is asked to vacate his master's chair.  I think I know who won.

The four Cod Wars.

Los Angeles really likes to watch drunkards.

Giants in the New World.

An extinct ape in an ancient tomb.

The world's most stolen painting.

The problem with using "Pride and Prejudice" as a real life "how-to" guide.

The problem with breaching an 18th century fireground cordon.

Outlaws versus vampires.  Go on, take your pick.

Jonathan Swift and Henrietta Gordon, pen pals.

More 18th century "sporting prints."

A practical "joke" lands a soldier in the hospital.

Folklore of the summer solstice.

The ghost of Louise's Island.

Rebirth in Indian mythology.

Civil War surgical practices.

Men landing on the moon may have had some unintended consequences.

Elizabeth and Josiah Potts, who insisted to the end that they didn't do it.

A senior retirement home...for cats.

No, Fidel Castro did not nearly become a pro baseball player.

A child's grave regularly gets a new set of clothes.

The world's coziest canine shelter.

Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors.

Captain Cook and the not-so-friendly islands.

Regency "blue ruin."

Moe Berg, top baseball player and CIA assassin.

A murderer faces his own death with a notable sangfroid.

A crime-fighting canine squire.

A dead father comes to collect his child.

The puzzling, fascinating world of "alters."

And here's a far worse father.

That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a noted Irish eccentric, who reputedly came to an end not unlike Saki's "Laura." In the meantime, here's some medieval dance music.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Some of you may remember the story I posted about a hypnotist who put an entire family under his influence...and then couldn't figure out how to undo his handiwork. This report from the (Eufaula, Alabama) "Times and News," February 16, 1888, takes that cautionary tale to a whole 'nother level:
Cincinnati Enquirer--Detective Maheffey and J, Rood, both of Alamo, Van Buren county, Michigan, have been in the city a couple of days, looking for a young man named Dwight T. Holmes, whom they believe to be here. It is a case of life and death, and it is of the most importance that Holmes be found.

The story told by Mr. Rood is a most remarkable one, and his own daughter is party to it. On the evening of Jan. 9 his daughter Kitty attended a "candy pull" in Alamo with Holmes. The couple accompanied Miss Annette Garlanger home, and while waiting for her folks to come, they being out somewhere, Holmes thought he would try some of his mesmeric powers.

He first put Miss Garlanger under the hypnotic influence, to his orders she smoked a cigar and did other things. The he experimented on Miss Kittie Rood. She is of a very nervous organization and subject to hysterical attacks. Holmes found her an easy subject, and compelled her to do a number of absurd acts, concluding by ordering her to feign death. At once she became like a corpse and respiration ceased. Holmes was frightened and Miss Garlanger was paralyzed at the unexpected turn things had taken, for they could not waken Miss Rood at all. Holmes got the village doctor, who gave it as his opinion that the young lady had died of heart disease. The grief-stricken parents accepted this, and the funeral occurred Friday, Jan. 13. Thursday night Holmes disappeared. As the coffin was being lowered into the grave Miss Garlanger became hysterical.

She was at once taken home and gradually told the story of the case. Then there was a great rush for the cemetery, and the sexton was surprised to see a lot of men digging away at the newly made grave. The body was taken home, and when the leading physician at Paw Paw, the county seat, Dr. Vanderburg, made a critical examination, he said she was not dead. He applied tests, and then said she was in a trance. Hypnotists from near and far have been called, but they can do nothing. The parents think the only one who can help their daughter is Holmes, and if he will only return to Alamo he will not be prosecuted, as it is thought that he, having put her in this hypnotic condition, he alone can break the bonds which bind her. Miss Rood still lies at her home as if dead, while it is thought that Holmes is hiding for fear he will be arrested for manslaughter. He is said to be a very good looking young fellow, and of excellent reputation.

As is usual with this kind of story, there were no follow-ups in the newspapers, so for all I know Dwight remained on the lam and Kitty remained in a trance. Needless to say, if any amateur hypnotist wants to practice their new-found skills on you, the safest response is to punch them in the nose.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Failed Partnership of Udderzook and Goss

Insurance fraud is one of those enterprises that leads to unexpected misadventures. When the focus is on life insurance swindles that requires one of the conspirators to feign being dead, the likelihood of unpleasant surprises naturally increases.

Particularly for the corpse.

Our story opens early in 1872. One Mr. Lowndes rented out a cottage he owned just outside of Baltimore to Winfield Scott Goss. Goss explained to Lowndes that he was an inventor--he had already created a "ratchet screwdriver," and was currently formulating an artificial substitute for rubber. The rural retreat would, he said, be the ideal location for his secret and vital experiments.

All seemed well until the evening of February 2, when the cottage inexplicably burst into flames. The conflagration was too intense to be contained. All poor Mr. Lowndes could do was watch helplessly while his property burned to ashes. Also observing the disaster was Goss' brother-in-law, William Udderzook. After studying the flames for about an hour or so, Udderzook strolled up to Lowndes and casually commented, "I think he's still in the house."

"Who is in the house?" asked the understandably rattled Mr. Lowndes.

Udderzook seemed surprised that the man had to ask. "Mr. Goss," he replied.

Lowndes' evening was quickly going from bad to worse. After a bit of sputtering, he inquired why Mr. Udderzook could not have mentioned this earlier. Udderzook--clearly a man with a passion for etiquette rare in this unmannerly world--replied coldly that he had not been introduced to anyone present, so he was naturally reluctant to impose himself. As he said later, "I claim that I performed my duty in sending a message to the family."

When the ruins were searched, it was soon evident that Udderzook's grim assertion was likely only too correct. A man's body was discovered. It was burned beyond recognition, but everyone took it for granted that these were the earthly remains of inventor Goss.

Immediately following this tragedy was the revelation that Mr. Goss had been a great fan of life insurance. In the months before his fiery end, he had purchased no less than four different polices, which--once his accidental demise was made official--would make his wife, Eliza, richer by $25,000.

When a man of modest means suddenly becomes addicted to buying large policies on his life, and then meets a weird end immediately afterward, insurance companies tend to narrow their eyes and begin asking uncomfortable questions. The coroner and the police wanted to know a bit more about Mr. Goss, as well. How was it, they asked, that this perfectly fit man came to be trapped inside the burning little home?

Udderzook and the late inventor's brother, Campbell Goss, told the authorities a simple story: On the day of the fire, Udderzook accompanied Winfield to his cottage, where they spent an educational and entertaining morning inspecting artificial rubber samples. At dusk, Goss filled a lamp with kerosene, and Udderzook took his leave. Later in the evening, Udderzook and a neighbor, Gottlieb Engel, paid a brief call on Goss. Winfield was having trouble with his lamp, so Engel volunteered to get another one from his mother's home. Goss gratefully accepted the offer, insisting that Udderzook accompany him on this mission. Udderzook and Engel returned to find the cottage on fire. It was obvious, said Udderzook, that this faulty lamp had exploded, causing the fire. Just a tragic accident, that could have happened to anybody.

Unfortunately for the Widow Goss, while the insurance companies agreed the lamp was the likely cause of the fire, they were not nearly so certain it had been an accident. They were uncovering some interesting things about Goss. For instance, they found it odd that although the ruins of the cottage had been searched without finding anything of value, more than a week later Campbell Goss claimed to have found in the wreckage his late brother's watch, chain, and keys. It struck them as curious that Goss had been willing to spend no less than half of his total income on life insurance premiums. There was also the fact that the day before the fire, Winfield had withdrawn his entire bank balance and closed his account. And when they also learned that on the night of the fire, Campbell Goss had hired a horse and carriage and made a mysterious ride into the country, the firms began muttering some suspicions that were very painful to the Goss family. The companies flatly refused to pay up.

Mrs. Goss took the companies to court. The lawyers for the insurance companies insisted that the body --which they were now openly doubting was truly that of Winfield Goss--be exhumed and autopsied. Mrs. Goss was asked to give a detailed physical description of her husband, with particular attention to his teeth. After a bit of judicial nagging--she was very reluctant to provide this information--she finally submitted a written report of Winfield's dentistry. He had, she said, an excellent set of teeth.

Unfortunately for her, the corpse revealed a quite different story. The man who had been buried as Winfield Goss had many teeth missing, and the ones he had retained were in a sad shape indeed. The insurance companies felt their darkest theories about the case were vindicated, and they vowed to fight.

The first case--against the Mutual Life Insurance Company--was held in May 1873. The heart of the trial was the medical evidence, all of which raised serious doubts whether the body found in the cottage was truly that of Winfield Goss. However, for reasons best known to themselves--probably a misplaced gallantry--the jury found for Mrs. Goss.

The time would come when they would feel a tad embarrassed about that decision.

The insurance companies moved for a new trial. They were convinced that Winfield Goss was still alive and well, and they were determined to prove it.

Mr. Udderzook was not pleased by this news.

On June 30, 1873, Udderzook traveled to the village of Jennerville, Pennsylvania, and booked into the local hotel. Accompanying him was a middle-aged, bearded man who coyly refused to give his name. That evening, the pair paid their bill and drove off in a rented carriage. A few hours later, Udderzook returned the carriage to the livery stable. He was quite alone. The next morning, the stable owner was disconcerted to find that the carriage was in a sorry state. The dashboard was broken, two blankets were missing, a large seal ring had been left between the cushions, and there were stains on the floor that looked very much like blood.

A week later, a local farmer named Gainer Moore passed by an area known as "Baer's Woods." He noticed an unusual amount of buzzards. When Moore went to investigate, he was shocked to find a man's body.

Or, to be more precise, part of a man's body. There was only a trunk and a head, partially covered with dirt and leaves. Further exploration revealed the man's limbs in a trench about twenty yards away. A quickly-assembled coroner's jury soon determined that the man had died of stab wounds. And that this was the same man who was last seen driving off in a carriage with Mr. Udderzook.

Udderzook was quickly tracked down and put under arrest. And when the insurance companies got the chance to examine the body, at long last they had to admit that Winfield Goss was well and truly deceased.

The prosecution saw very clearly what had happened. The problem with Winfield Goss was that he just didn't know how to play dead. He liked to, in the words of one of Mrs. Goss' attorneys, "deal in conviviality to too great an extent with his companions." After the fire, Udderzook and Campbell Goss settled Winfield--who was now calling himself "A.C. Wilson"--in some secluded residence, and at first all seemed to be going according to plan. However, Winfield soon got bored with being deceased. He also became very thirsty. His fondness for boozing it up in bars could not be contained. This was clearly not at all the way a dead man should behave, and it became an increasing source of worry for Mr. Udderzook, especially when the insurance companies broadcast their intention to find the allegedly defunct Mr. Goss.

Mr. Udderzook decided that Mr. Goss needed some help with being a really convincing corpse.

In October, Udderzook stood trial for murder. The prosecution presented the results of their detective work, which managed to trace the movements of Goss/Wilson from the night of the fire until the discovery of his remains. Photos of Winfield Goss were used to prove that he and the corpse found in the woods were one and the same. (Incidentally, this set a legal milestone in confirming the admissibility of photographs in court.)

Another of Udderzook's brothers-in-law, Samuel Rhodes, offered some startling testimony: he stated that on the day Goss was murdered, Udderzook had asked for his help with a certain scheme. He wanted to bring a man into the woods, sedate him with laudanum, and then rob him.

Very wisely, Rhodes declined.

The defense lawyers--who were apparently taken aback by the strength of the prosecution's case--had a hard time of it. The most they could do was suggest a feeble conspiracy theory that the insurance companies were trying to frame their client by planting a spurious body in Baer's Woods.

While this was certainly a novel argument, it failed to sway the jury. Udderzook was found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 12, 1874, maintaining to the end that Winfield Goss had indeed met his end in that cottage near Baltimore, and solemnly warning his audience about the evil machinations of those dastardly insurance companies.

The true identity of the unfortunate soul who had been enlisted to masquerade as Goss remains a mystery. Trial testimony indicated that Udderzook and Goss had hauled this body to the cottage in an express wagon the morning of the fire, but it was never established how the pair had acquired it. It is assumed that Udderzook had managed to filch it from some medical college.

Unless, of course, that worthy had more than one murder on his resume.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by a majestic, fearsome god.

The statue is pretty formidable, too.

Photographer:  Elliot Erwitt

That ongoing question:  What the hell is Tabby's Star?

Another ongoing question:  What the hell is the Roanoke Stone?

Watch out for those Japanese monsters!

Watch out for those spider rains!

Watch out for those haunted wells!

Watch out for those haunted burger joints!

The Goblin Overlord.

Was William Hastings Richard III's treacherous "friend," or an innocent martyr?  (I go with the former, but your historical mileage may vary.)

Troubled by a barking dog?  Have I got the prayer for you!

A 19th century murder and a white squirrel.

The Victorian fad for gold-dusted hair.

James Joyce and the disappearing scholar.

Hate having people lecture you about ending a sentence with a preposition?  Blame John Dryden, who reminds me of those humorless pedants you see online in such large numbers.

Life in a 17th century coffee shop.

UFOs and a disappearing Air Force officer.

Fairies are among us as much as ever.

The Lady of the Mercians.

The eternal allure of alternate history.

The temporary allure of flagpole sitting.

Agricultural labor in the Georgian era.

The first professional food critic.  Who hosted his own funeral party.

Some recent Fortean ice falls.

It's 18th century Ireland.  There is a football match.  Things go exactly as you'd think.  Plus poetry!

The Beatnik monk.

How Napoleon lost his carriage.

A really freaking deep cave turns out to be even freaking deeper than we thought.

Being a phone operator at "Unsolved Mysteries" is sort of like being on Twitter without use of the "Mute" button.  Bits of good stuff, lots of creeps, and a whole lotta Weird.

The mysterious death of a forgotten Founding Father.

The menu on Cook's "Resolution."  Here's hoping you like "Sour Kraut."

It turns out that the Stanford Prison Experiment was a bunch of hokum.

A tailor who was tempted by dancing.

18th century sporting prints.

Penka the Bulgarian Cow escapes a death sentence.

The history of "witch balls."

Cats and Thomas Bewick.

British hairdressers have a ball, 1866.

The execution of the Paisley Witches.

Cleopatra's medical knowledge.

A hidden 19th century diary.

A cursed family.

Shooting at ghosts.

A fire poltergeist in Zimbabwe.

1918, the year of death.

That's it for this week!  Rejoin me next week, when we'll be looking at one of my favorite true-crime topics: diddling with life insurance!  In the meantime, here's some vintage summer music.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This account of what would now be called a "poltergeist event" appeared in the "Hampshire Telegraph" for May 5, 1800:
A most extraordinary circumstance happened in this Town [Portsmouth] on Sunday and Monday last. It is a topic which engages the attention of the gay, and the serious, the sceptic and the believer, the speculative philosopher, and the superstitious fanatic; in a word, persons of every description are impressed with the singularity of the event, as surpassing, in its causes and effects, every power of reason to investigate, or experience to reconcile with the general tenor of Nature's vicissitudes.

On Sunday morning, between nine and ten o'clock, Mr. Rood, an opulent Wine-merchant in the High-street, was alarmed with the sudden ringing of the bell, hung for the particular purpose of calling up his servant. No cause whatever, could be perceived of the bell ringing. In a little time after, the other bells in the house joined in the concert, and continued at intervals, of a quarter of an hour during the whole day. And, although persons were placed at the handles of each bell, to watch the cause of their ringing, they still continued their clamour without any perceptible agency whatever. At night one of the Maid-servants was so alarmed that she fell into a fit, in which she continued several hours. Late at night, Mr. Rood and his family went to bed, and passed the night without any further disturbance. About nine o'clock on Monday morning, the bells re-commenced their ringing, but with much greater violence and clamour than on the preceding day. Mr. Rood being now in the greatest consternation at not being able to ascertain the cause of this surprising circumstance, called in several neighours as witnesses of what was occurring. They had no sooner arrived than every endeavour was tried, to see whether the bells were rung by any trick of clandestine confederacy, and also to prevent their ringing. For this purpose, the wires were taken from the bells and their clappers were muffled after every examination had been made, in vain, to discover whether they were rung by any deceptive means. Among the most active visitors on this occasion was Mr. Luscombe, the keeper of the town prison. He muffled the principal bell and took away its handle and wire. But he had no sooner left the room with Mr. Rood and the rest of the neighbours, than the bell resumed its ringing more violently than ever. So great was its motion that it beat in such a forcible manner against the ceiling as to injure it materially, and it afterwards broke from its fastening and fell to the ground; but what is still more remarkable is, that the part which was driven several inches into the wall for suspending the bell, was found drawn out at least half a foot, which, to have effected by any human means, would have required more strength than any inhabitant of the place is said to possess without the aid of a mechanical power of most considerable energy.

At this time one of the servants was strongly suspected of being the cause of this supernatural event, in consequence of its appearing that, in two places in which she had lived before, occurrences equally unaccountable, and still more alarming, had happened, so as to occasion her being sent home from both places to her parents. The two places to which we allude, are Mr. Binstead's, Shoe-maker in Lombard-street; and Mr. Peake, builder in the Dock-Yard. At the former place, the most tremendous noises were heard whenever she was alone. Sometimes they represented the crashing of falling ruins, and at others the agitations of buildings being wrenched by the most powerful engines from their foundations. She frequently appeared as if combating with Spectres or Demons, and fell into the arms of her mistress in the greatest state of terrific agitation and horrid dismay.--Having stated the above circumstances, we avoid any comment. We, however, think it but justice to state, that the Girl, although now discharged from her third place, is remarkable for being most pre-possessing in her manners and person, and attentive to her duties as a servant.
[Note: other cases of Fortean bells can be found here and here.]

Monday, June 11, 2018

Edwin Fuhr's Close Encounter

"Nanaimo Times," September 11, 1974

Farmers are accustomed to finding unexpected things in their fields: deceased animals, amorous couples, the occasional visiting UFO...

...That last part may require a bit of explanation.

On September 8, 1974, Edwin Fuhr, a farmer near Langenburg, a community in Manitoba, Canada, went out to swath his fields. As he approached a large hay flat, he saw a peculiar steel-colored object in the hay. His first thought was that neighbors had put duck blinds there as a joke. He got off his tractor and approached the item with the idea of giving "the thing a kick."

When he was about 15 feet from the device, he suddenly realized that "the thing" was not lying on the ground. It was hovering just over the field, and revolving swiftly. Fuhr decided it was more prudent to leave it well alone. He walked backwards to his tractor ("I wasn't going to turn my back on the thing.") where he sat for a few minutes wondering what in the world he was supposed to do next. He was afraid to go near the object, but even more afraid to leave it unsupervised. He noticed that to the left of him were four other objects, all identical to the first and all revolving.

While he pondered his dilemma, the devices simultaneously shot straight up in the air, leaving a trail of gray vapor, and the group disappeared into the clouds. Fuhr estimated that the crafts were about five feet high and ten feet across. He saw no windows or other openings. They were completely, eerily silent.

When the objects rose into the air, they raised a heavy wind. After they disappeared, Fuhr summoned enough courage to survey the hay flat. He found five distinct "donut style" prints in the hay and grass. In the middle of the "donuts," the hay was not disturbed, but around the center was a ring some two feet wide where the hay was pressed flat into the ground. The grass was whirled down in a clockwise direction, but otherwise unmarked. These grass circles could still be seen days later.

Three days later, Fuhr found a sixth circle in that same hay flat.

"Brandon Sun," September 20, 1974

Three weeks before the farmer's brush with The Weird, a family in Yarbo, a town about 25 miles from Langenburg, reported seeing five bright objects moving across the night sky. Around that same time, a bus driver and his passengers reported seeing similar unidentifiable items. It is presumed that these were the same objects that Fuhr had seen.

Fuhr initially told no one of his odd experience. Finally, after some pressuring by his family--who sensed that something was preying on his mind--he confided his story to them. Fuhr had no desire to publicize his tale, but without his knowledge, his brother-in-law contacted the RCMP. From there, the story quickly spread to the newspapers, leaving the world--depending upon one's point of view--skeptical, enthralled, or just plain baffled.

Ron Morier, the RCMP Constable who was the first to investigate the incident, was convinced the farmer's story was utterly truthful. He told a reporter for the "Nanaimo Times," "Something was there and I doubt it was a hoax. There's no indication anything had been wheeled in or out and Mr. Fuhr seemed genuinely scared."

Just what in hell did happen on Fuhr's farmland? For the moment, at least, that must remain a matter of opinion.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the newest member of Strange Company HQ's crack team of assistant writers.

What the hell happened in 6th century Britain?

What the hell is happening in modern-day Britain?

Watch out for those wandering needles!

Watch out for those hitchhiking ghosts!

The strange disappearance of Paul Love.

A suffragette folklorist.

What it was like to attend a ball at Almack's.  Sounds a bit dull, if the truth be known.

A look at historical murder confessions. They were rarer than you might think.

Gossip about ancient philosophers.

Hiding behind a beard.

A ghost's revenge.

You wouldn't want to follow the real caveman diet.  One is suddenly reminded why fast food was invented.

The man who probably regretted surviving being shot through his stomach.

Some mighty old footprints.

A well-liked robber baron.

A Vietnamese fire poltergeist.

Pauline Bonaparte, party girl.

This week in Russian Weird presents the world's most badass eyebrows.

Jack the Ripper appears in court.  Sort of.

Smoky, the cutest warrior.

I'll see your corpse candle and raise you one death fire.

How John Cleese got a rubbish dump named in his honor.

Want to write a biography about someone who left us no biographical information?  Easy!

How to email a cat.  That is, if you want to do so, and I really hope you don't.

Robin Hood and the Virgin Mary.

Letters between an Indian ruler and the wife of an Indian army officer.

Be cautious about breaking death-bed promises.  The deceased won't like it.

Conspiracy theories and Nikola Tesla: a skeptic's view.

Why is it (usually) hard to remember dreams?

How Benedict Arnold went from hero to traitor.

The wild world of Victorian camping.

An intact Roman tomb was recently uncovered.

Three popular 19th century Paris restaurants.

The mysterious death of Bessie Little.

This is truly spooky: an animated recreation of the death of Pompeii.

An accused murderer finds a new life in America.

The rebellion of the Luddites.

Victorian hair removal methods.  Yes, of course arsenic is involved.  Victorians couldn't do anything without involving arsenic.

"Roaring Meg"...well, roars.

Why it's not a good idea to hitch a ride with a horse thief.

Smyrna's Electric Girls.

The "noon girls" of Victorian Paris.

A politician who ran a bordello.  Well, many of them have found worse ways to screw their constituents.

The famed "half-hanged" Margaret Dickson.

Have wrinkles?  Get out the stinking iris!

A "notorious" 18th century captain.

And that's it for this week! Join me on Monday, when we'll look at a Canadian farmer who harvested some High Strangeness. In the meantime, anyone else old enough to remember "If it's Lene, you'll Lovich?"

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

I always say, you really can't beat ghosts when it comes to administering cautionary tales. The following Welsh tale of love gone very, very wrong was told by one John Humphreys in the "North Wales Express" for December 24th, 1886. As I have said before, Wales has some of the best ghost stories anywhere, and this one's a particular corker.

Behold, the mother-in-law story to beat them all:

There is today in Carnarvon, a woman who has lived nearly a hundred years. She was pointed out to me some time ago as distinctly remembering the execution, on the Morfa, of a murderer. He was taken to a place of execution in an open cart seized for the occasion by the sheriff's officers, and from the cart he was swung into eternity. As far as I can ascertain this occurred about eighty years ago.

At that time the good folk living in and about Carnarvon were densely, intensely, and ignorantly superstitions--to a great extent they are too much so still--and belief in ghosts and their supernatural appearance was an unexceptional rule. How any work requiring to be done in the dark after sunset was done at all I can hardly imagine, insasmuch as the most hair-raising and ghastly sights were commonly believed to have been seen by belated travelers in all parts of the county. The Morfa, for example, near the present Workhouse was reported and believed to be the scene of ghostly and even demoniacal revels, if revels be the proper word to use to describe the nightly diablerie of perturbed spirits and unholy spirits. One story relates how a countryman, residing near, on looking through his window at midnight, saw the whole expanse of country in front of his home covered with wheels of fire, careening madly hither and thither, interspersed with which were ghostly forms in white robes, with outstretched arms, which floated in an aimless fashion in and out among the fiery wheels. On the sill of every house window, at other times, burned, pale and blue, the terrible "corpse candle" (canwyll corph) prognosticating disaster to all beholders.

To minds inured and accustomed to these things, a belief in such a story as I am about to relate would be the most natural thing in the world, and I, for one, am not surprised that my informant implicitly believes in its truth at the present day, in spite of all the revelations of knowledge. I do not of course, commit myself to the story, but, as related to me, I place the incidents of it before my readers.

In the year 1810, then, John Jones and his wife, Jinney, lived in a substantial farm house near Caeathraw. They were comparatively well to do, and had an only daughter, named, after her mother, Jinney. At the time this story opens, Jinney's mother had just died, and her body lay in a room in the old farm, awaiting interment. Her grave may now be seen at Llanbeblig.

Near Mr. Jones' farm stood the "big house" of Rhys Rhys, whose eldest son, an enigmatical sort of person, morose and taciturn, had fallen in love with Jinney Jones, and had obtained Mr. Jones' consent to a marriage. Mrs. Jones, however, disliked the idea of a match between her pretty daughter and the sour heir of the adjoining estate, and she had, up to her death, steadfastly refused to withdraw her opposition, and in this frame of mind had died, denouncing maledictions on the union if it were consummated after her death. As for Jinney herself, she appears to have been of an aspiring if somewhat flighty character, and, as far as she dared, ignored her mother's injunctions against keeping young Rhys' company. Many a sweet kiss was indulged in during the frequent lonely walks of the young couple around the lanes of what is now called Glangwna and Caeathraw, and they vowed that come what might, as soon as propriety would admit after her mother's interment they would be married.

The day of the funeral arrived, wet, and gloomy with fog, and what was regarded as a supernatural darkness prevailed during the procession to Llanbeblig. The horrified mourners were also startled at intervals by the apparition of the deceased lady, which appeared frequently during the march to the church, gleaming spectrally among the trees or the road side, and in such a form as impressed them with the conviction that the wraith was denouncing doom on those who had so secretly determined to ignore her dying wishes.

But the interment itself past off quietly, and all returned home, drenched to the skin by the sleet which fell all the morning, changing in the afternoon to a heavy fall of snow, which covered the whole countryside with a vast white mantle.

In Mr. Jones' homestead only three persons remained, and one of them sat alone in the kitchen. In a smaller room, where a great wood fire burned, Jinney and Rhys sat together conversing in low tones on the events of the day, Rhys encouraging Jinney in her decision to marry him as soon as decency would permit.

"The firelight flickered, glancing
To and fro,
Raising by its weird enchantment
Ghostly shadows, flitting
To and fro."

The night closed, and Mr. Jones pressed Rhys to stay rather than face midnight terrors on his homeward journey. This the lover consented to do, and a new subject of conversation was started in the ghostly appearance of Mrs. Jones during the funeral procession. But while they conversed, they became aware of a Presence in the room, and their hearts almost stopped from fear. There was nothing to be seen; not a sound broke the deathly stillness of the night; yet they felt that, somewhere near them, all about them, an antagonistic supernatural influence prevailed, and choked their utterance. The fire waned and died; the watchers sat still in their places, staring dreadfully into the gloom; clutching each other's hands in an agony of terror. Every moment they expected some horrible vision to manifest itself; every moment they expected some ghastly outbreak of noise to affright their ears; but neither sound nor vision had they.

The long hours of the night passed, and the day broke, and the three watchers, hand-in-hand, woke from their trance with a shuddering cry of relief, and separated.

Three months passed, and Jinney Jones became Mrs. Rhys.

A large wedding party gathered in the Rhys Mansion, and dance and song rang through the old house. About eleven o'clock the party broke up, old John Jones being the last to leave. Rhys and his wife went with him to his lonely house, and bade him good night on the door steps. They then slowly traced their steps homeward. Arrived there, Jinney turned round to give a last glance at her old home, and immediately fell screaming to the ground. Rhys, who had turned to open the door, swung round to ascertain the cause of his bride's sudden terror. To his unspeakable horror, on the sill of his father-in-law's bedroom window, burned the dim flame of the corpse candle, while all about him in the night air the deadly fear of the funeral night began to assert itself. Gradually the Presence became manifest. Dimly outlined on the door of his house stood the wraith of Jinney's mother, menacing but silent. Rhys stood paralysed with fear. Not a movement could he make, either to pass into the house or to assist his bride. The eyes of the apparition regarded him with terrible persistence, but there was no voice or sound. And so the time passed--in reality but a few minutes, it seemed to Rhys endless.

The spell was for a moment broken by the recovery of his wife from the swoon into which she had fallen.

Rhys stooped to raise her. But the moment she turned her eyes to the hall door, a more terrible cry than before rang through the night, and she dropped lifeless to the ground.

Lights now appeared, and servants ran up on all sides. Rhys regarded them wildly for a moment, then threw up his arms and fell heavily beside his dead wife.

When they carried the bodies into the house, life had passed from the bride. Rhys himself still lived, and for many years after, but his hair had turned completely grey.

In the morning John Jones was found dead in his bed.

When questioned as to the motive of these ghostly appearances on the part of Mrs. Jones, my informant stated that Mrs. Jones in her younger days had been jilted by the elder Rhys, hence her antipathy to the marriage. It was not supposed that her posthumous appearances were intended to result so tragically as they actually did, but were made merely as a kind of protest against the marriage; from which we may deduce the moral that ghosts, no more than frail humanity, can foresee the effects of terror on ignorant minds, and that they ought to be particularly careful how they "turn up" at inconvenient hours to affright pale mortals; with which caution to ghosts in general, and those of mothers-in-law in particular, I close.
Always listen to your mother, girls!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Murder On the Cheap

As I have mentioned before, murder cases do not usually interest me unless they are unsolved and/or have an unusual quality to them. Simple, unadorned brutality is not something I care to dwell upon. However, every now and then I come upon a murder that is your usual banal evil with virtually no mystery at all, but is so utterly deranged from beginning to end that I find it noteworthy enough to include in the hallowed halls of Strange Company HQ.

As you may have already guessed, this week we shall look at an unjustly obscure example of one of those crimes. Behold, The Case of the $1.50 Hit Man.

At the center of our story is Gaylord V. Saunders, the pastor of a Methodist Episcopal church in Wabash, Indiana. As he entered his mid-thirties, Saunders, like so many people, had something of a mid-life crisis. His life felt empty. He needed a sense of meaning to his existence. He longed for excitement, emotional fulfillment, new challenges, a fresh road to travel. So, naturally, he moved to Indianapolis and enrolled in an embalming school. Unaccountably, his wife Neoma failed to heed the siren song of organ preservation and creating a remarkably lifelike appearance, so she and their children stayed behind in Wabash.

Over the embalming tools and formaldehyde, Saunders became friends with a classmate, 19-year-old Theodore Mathers. So far as anyone knew, Saunders' studies went along quite pleasantly until the morning of February 2, 1934, when he was discovered in his parked car, in a condition ideal for his recently-acquired skills. He had been shot in the back of the head.

As baffling as the crime may have initially appeared, it wound up being a candidate for the shortest unsolved murder on record. By the end of the following day, the police knew not only who killed Saunders and why, but a whole lot more besides. If anything, this was an investigation that elicited almost too much information.

Theodore Mathers had a long-time friend named Masel Roe, to whom he confided all the details of his personal life. This was Mathers' error. No sooner had Saunders' body been found that Roe was telling police all he knew about the crime. And, brother, that was plenty.

Roe, you see, claimed to have witnessed Mathers shooting the aspiring undertaker. He explained to police, "Several times Mathers told me that his roommate, Saunders, was nuts and was going to kill his wife and children at Wabash. Mathers said he would rather kill Saunders than see him kill the children." Accordingly, on the night of February 1, Roe and Mathers escorted Saunders to a local tavern for some much-needed liquid courage. Then, the three got back in the car, with Saunders at the wheel, and "before I knew what had happened, Mathers shot Saunders through the head." After idly driving around town with the corpse--apparently the question of what to do with the body afterward had never previously occurred to these criminal masterminds--they simply stopped in a quiet spot, placed the body back in the driver's seat, took the dead man's watch and ring in order to simulate a robbery, and went to their respective homes to contemplate the strange byways of Life. At some point during the night, it finally entered Roe's mind that he was now an accessory to murder. This made him a bit uneasy. The next day, he went to the nearest police station to unburden himself. When detectives heard his tale, they naturally wished to conduct an interview with Mr. Mathers.

They tracked down Mathers at what was probably among the last places they expected to find him: the home of the newly-bereaved Neoma Saunders. He explained that he was there to help with the funeral arrangements. (As he himself was directly responsible for the need of such arrangements, this was an admirably considerate and mannerly touch.)

The police's first question to Mathers was probably what you yourself would be asking, given the opportunity: why did he shoot Saunders, and why was he taking such an interest in his victim's widow?

Mathers--who was just as chatty and self-incriminatory as his buddy--had a simple answer: Mrs. Saunders had hired him to do the deed. Three weeks earlier, he explained, Neoma paid him ten dollars to rid the world of her husband. He had invested eight dollars and fifty cents of his payment on the gun used for the deed.

Yes. Theodore Mathers was willing to commit murder for the net profit of a buck-fifty. Which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "life is cheap."

Mathers and Mrs. Saunders were immediately arrested and hauled back to Indianapolis. Roe was taken into custody as well, along with a nurse named Mabel Balke. Mathers had helpfully informed the authorities that Balke had known all about the murder plot, and had even been obliging enough to hide Saunders' watch and ring in her basement. (She later enlisted a Saunders family friend, Ross Curtis, to destroy the items.)

The foursome proved to be the most informative bunch of suspects on record. They were practically fighting to be the first to put their hands up. Neoma admitted to planning her husband's murder. Theodore admitted to carrying out these plans. Masel admitted to witnessing the deed. Mabel admitted to having prior knowledge of the crime. You couldn't find a more obvious Murder Incorporated if you tried.

Mrs. Saunders was the first to face a jury. It was expected to be the least suspenseful murder trial on record. Everyone assumed it was not a question of if Neoma would take a seat in the electric chair, but when. Her lawyers did what lawyers generally do when given an apparently unwinnable case: they threw everything they had against the wall to see if any of it would stick.

The defense went for that time-honored tactic of blaming the victim. Every competent criminal defense attorney knows that no matter how overwhelming the case against your client may be, if you can just present an unlikable corpse, your murderer is off to the races. Neoma told heartrending tales of how she lived in fear of her insane husband. According to Neoma, Gaylord had threatened to kill their sons. Mrs. Saunders explained, "I wanted my husband killed because he was losing his mind and I had papers filed to put him in an insane asylum." (Presumably, she decided that murder was both cheaper and more efficient than institutionalization.) Mabel Balke agreed. She testified that, in her professional opinion, Mr. Saunders was losing his mind, and was a great danger to everyone around him.

But wait, there's more! The late embalming student was not just a lunatic, he was an alcoholic, marijuana addict, and "moral pervert" who subjected his wife to "unspeakable indignities" such as making her look at lewd pictures and listen to equally indecent stories. Ross Curtis testified that Mr. Saunders had once threatened to take a butcher knife to his spouse. When Curtis objected to this plan, Mr. Saunders bit him on the finger.

So, why did Neoma select young Theodore as her hit man? And why did he accept the job? For just the reason you might think: the two were having an affair. However, Mrs. Saunders managed to turn even that into an indictment of her husband. You see, Gaylord had forced them to become lovers. At knife-point.

Once the defense had finished blackening the victim's character, they moved on to disparaging their own client. They brought out the insanity defense. Mr. Saunders' many "unnatural acts" had driven his poor wife around the bend, causing her to believe her husband was possessed by the Devil. Three medical experts testified to their belief that whatever Neoma's mental state had been previously, she was--at the moment, at least--sane.

In response to all this, the prosecution settled for presenting the unvarnished facts: Mrs. Saunders was involved with another man, and wished to enjoy the $29,200 worth of life insurance she would collect if her husband met with a premature end.

The case made by the defense was patently ridiculous, but like so many patently ridiculous things in this world, it worked. After deliberating for a grand total of 80 minutes, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, due to "temporary insanity." As the three doctors had ruled that Neoma was now perfectly compos mentis, that meant she was immediately free as the proverbial bird.

Mathers stood trial in April 1935. His lawyers, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, essentially repeated the same story given by Mrs. Saunders. Mathers, too, was insane at the time of the shooting. Being forced into a romance with Neoma, they explained, had driven him temporarily out of his mind.

Mrs. Saunders could not have been pleased with this argument.

Unfortunately for the defendant, jurors were getting a bit bored with this tactic, but they still showed him a certain amount of favoritism. Instead of finding him guilty of first-degree murder, they delivered a verdict of "involuntary manslaughter." One to ten years in prison. There were many petitions asking the court to give Mathers a suspended sentence, but these efforts on his behalf appear to have failed.

As for Mabel Balke and Masel Roe, the authorities decided it wasn't even worth the effort of putting them on trial. The law merely shrugged and let them go. And that was the end of what contemporary newspapers dubbed "The Ten-Dollar Murder."

Friday, June 1, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by this celebrity cat, who looks understandably alarmed to be canoodling with Evelyn Nesbit.

Things had a way of happening to guys who canoodled with Evelyn Nesbit.

Who the hell was the real Venerable Bede?

What the hell was this creature stalking Montana cattle?

Watch out for those fava beans!

Watch out for those hungry ghosts!

Watch out for the Suffolk sea monster!

An Australian almanac of magic.

The execution of one of the Pendle Witches.

A Voltaire love affair.

Graffiti from the dungeons of Richmond Castle.

A history of the "king-pine."  That's pineapples to you.

Europe's oldest tree is still going strong!

Herrings:  Icelandic gold!

18th century tea drinking.

Folklore relating to midwives.

How to speak Persian like a Colonial Englishman.

The Leka and the logger.

A Georgian actress gets third time lucky.

Executing the executioner.

The clock that foretold death.

A Chilean Stonehenge.

The good news for Tycho Brahe:  He wasn't poisoned.  The bad news for Tycho Brahe:  He's still dead.

Elizabeth Short wasn't the only grisly murder victim in 1940s Los Angeles.

Defenses against dark algorithms.

What pilots see during night flights.

A menu from India's Gorakhpur Club, 1916.

Restoring Stonehenge.

A peek at the life of an Early Modern wife.

The last days of Empress Josephine.

The life of an early 20th century factory girl.

That time Thomas Jefferson sent a moose to Paris.

Tuffi the elephant's great escape.

People who live in glass dresses shouldn't...well, they just shouldn't.

Scottish political history adds one more to its extensive body count.

The anti-suffragist nursery cat.

Today's forecast: scattered showers of honey, maggots, and bog nuts.

A bad end for a grave-robber.

The ballerina who shot Nazis on her way out.

That's all for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at one very cheap murder. In the meantime, here's some Handel.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Another case of Mystery Fires, this one targeting one particularly helpless woman. From the (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) "Argus-Leader," March 23, 1922:
Alva, Okla.--Blue flames, their origin a mystery, which burst into being apparently from the air Itself, threaten death to Mrs. Ona Smith, 23 years old, an invalid, who lies paralyzed on a bed in a little cottage here.

The authorities are completely baffled and the woman cowers in terror. Bedside watchers, who are keeping vigil day and night, can only leap to the rescue as the mysterious fires break out at intervals in bedding, clothing worn by Mrs. Smith, wall draperies or any inflammable material in the room.

Two mattresses have been reduced to smoldering ruins, a calendar on the wall has been ignited, a shawl worn by the invalid has burst into flames and several other blazes started in bedding in the last few days.

The first fire came at midnight Wednesday. The flames, which suddenly leaped up from the bottom of the mattress on the bed were extinguished by Mrs. Smith's mother, Mrs. John Meyers. Later the mattress caught fire in another another spot.

Friday a calendar on the wall blazed. Soon afterward the carpet ignited. An aunt, Mrs. Mary Wagner, was in the room at the time.

The invalid was removed from the bed to a chair. Her shawl flamed as it touched the floor. All bedding and apparel were removed from the room and a new mattress installed. It burst into flames yesterday morning, witnessed by several among them a newspaper reporter.

Dr. C. L. Rogers, who was called in following the first blaze, failed to solve the mystery. Speculation here is rife concerning the reason for the fires. Theories advanced include spiritualism, chemical reaction from urine and incendiarism.

Witnesses say the fires seem to start in the air, blue flames jumping and crackling.
The last report on the story, dated several days later, stated that after Mrs. Smith was removed to a hospital, the terrifying blazes stopped. Sadly, however, according to findagrave.com, poor Ona died on March 20, before most of the newspaper items about her strange affliction even appeared in print.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Hollywood's Greatest Mystery: Review of "Tinseltown," by William J. Mann

William Cunningham Deane-Tanner was born in Ireland in 1872. His father was a retired Army Officer. William had the classic upbringing of the Victorian gentry. His most unconventional feature was a fondness for amateur theatricals. In 1890, he spent time at a dude ranch in Kansas. While there, his interest in acting was rekindled, and he settled in New York.

In 1901, Deane-Tanner married a well-to-do ex-Floradora girl named Ethel May Hamilton, and he settled down to work in an antiques store on Fifth Avenue. Although the couple was prominent in local society and had, on the surface, a privileged life, William was not happy. He was bored and frustrated with his comfortable but stultifying life, and reportedly dealt with his misery by heavy drinking and a succession of affairs.

In October 1908, William Deane-Tanner vanished, without so much as a word to his wife and young daughter.

The next few years of Deane-Tanner's life are largely lost to history. All we know for certain is that he led an itinerant life, traveling though Canada, Alaska and the U.S. northwest, mining for gold and performing with various acting troupes. By the time he landed in San Francisco some time around 1912, "William Deane-Tanner" had gone forever. He had reinvented himself as "William Desmond Taylor." The newly-christened runaway settled in Los Angeles, where he found work as an actor in the fledgling film industry. In 1914, he switched to directing films. He directed more than fifty films, with his work finding both commercial and critical success. In a twist straight out of Hollywood, failed family man William Deane-Tanner had become the successful filmmaker William Desmond Taylor. He was very popular with his peers (who knew nothing about his past life.) Women especially adored him, seeing him as the epitome of the cultured, courtly gentleman. He was considered to have a spotless personal reputation.

Ethel Deane-Tanner knew nothing of her ex-husband's whereabouts until 1918, when--in yet another Hollywood-like twist--she and her daughter went to see the film "Captain Alvarez." When one of the actors came onscreen, she told her child, "That's your father!" Ethel contacted William via his studio. Although he refused to publicly admit his real identity, he did visit his former family and made his daughter his legal heir.

On the morning of February 2, 1922, Taylor's straight-out-of-a-film-script life had one hell of an ending when his dead body was discovered in his Los Angeles bungalow. He had been shot to death. Although it's doubtful he would have appreciated the honor, his murder has remained Hollywood's strangest and most famous mystery, spawning at least four books and an endless number of theories that claim to "solve" the riddle of his death.  Over the years, virtually everyone who ever knew Taylor has been accused of murdering him.  His death has arguably spawned more "suspects" than the Jack the Ripper killings.

Taylor's Alvarado Street bungalow

What makes the crime particularly impenetrable is that there were deliberate efforts from people high-up in the movie industry to ensure that the case remained unsolved. It is virtually certain that there were a number of people who knew--or, at least, had a pretty good guess--who shot the film director, but for their own reasons, they launched a conspiracy that allowed someone to get away with murder. Evidence was concealed, misleading rumors were launched, and mouths were kept firmly shut. As all the people "in the know" are now long dead, we will never learn for certain who was behind the killing, and why it was done. As very little reliable evidence about the mystery survives--all the trustworthy known facts about the case could fit on a postage stamp--all theories about the case are necessarily based on speculation.

"Tinseltown" is no exception to this rule, but William J. Mann offers one of the fullest, richest accounts of the Taylor killing to date, introducing several new details, a novel, intriguing "solution," and--most valuable of all--offering a fascinating look at Old Hollywood. The Taylor murder is, in fact, only a plot element in the complex, often sordid, but always exciting history of the film industry's early days.

The anti-hero of our story is Adolph "Creepy" Zukor, the ruthless film mogul who likely engineered the Taylor cover-up. Other stars of the show include the drug-addicted comedienne Mabel Normand (one of the few sympathetic characters in this story,) the lovely but tormented ingenue Mary Miles Minter, Taylor's black, gay valet Henry Peavey (depicted much more sensitively and positively than most other accounts of the case,) and a host of grifters, blackmailers, film idols, main-chancers, lost souls, politicians, killers, and desperate wanna-be stars.

Mann's scenario of how Taylor died is interesting, if impossible to prove. It centers around an obscure early film actress, Margaret Gibson. Gibson was a classic Hollywood failure story: a beautiful young girl enters the film industry with dreams of stardom, but never gets beyond the lowest rung of the ladder. She turned to drug dealing and prostitution. Gibson soon found a more lucrative market: blackmail. Even in those early days, the film industry was rife with corruption and disgusting, even criminal behavior. Couple that with being a business dependent on keeping the favor and good will of the public, and you've got a blackmailer's Eden.

Margaret Gibson

Gibson and a number of other Hollywood fringe characters formed an extensive extortion and blackmail ring, preying on those who had a lot of money and even more dirty secrets. In 1923, these exploits led to her arrest, although the charges were eventually dropped. She continued her struggle to find legitimate work in the industry, but she never graduated beyond bit parts before permanently retiring from acting in 1929. For reasons unknown, she moved to Singapore in 1935, where she married an oil company executive, Elbert Lewis. The marriage appears to have been a happy one. After Lewis's death in 1942, Gibson (who was now calling herself "Pat Lewis,") moved back to the Los Angeles area, where she led a reclusive existence living off a small "widow's pension" until her death in 1964.

Gibson was never linked to the Taylor murder until 1996, when a man named Ray Long, who had known Gibson in her final years, went public with a startling tale. He stated that he was present at Gibson's last moments. As she was dying, she suddenly blurted out that many years before, she had shot a man named William Desmond Taylor.

Mann seized upon this story. He pointed out that Gibson had performed with Taylor in 1910, when he was still just another traveling actor. The two later appeared together in a few early silents. Mann's thesis is that this early acquaintance enabled Gibson to acquire "dirt" on Taylor. Perhaps she knew of his past life as "Deane-Tanner." Perhaps she knew something about his sexual history that Taylor would also wish to keep hidden. (Mann asserts as fact that Taylor was gay, a claim that so far as I know has never been corroborated.)

Taylor and Gibson in "The Kiss," 1914

Mann argues that Gibson and her merry band of blackmailers went to Taylor's bungalow to demand money for their silence. Taylor refused, and in the resulting altercation, one of Gibson's more excitable confederates shot the director. Afterward, industry executives initiated a cover-up, deliberately thwarting justice lest Hollywood's many dark secrets should emerge from any real investigation of Taylor's death.

Mann's scenario cannot be accepted as the "final word," but it's certainly not impossible. However, it should be emphasized that his premise rests entirely on one woman's alleged death-bed confession. If you question whether this elderly, mentally unstable woman was speaking the truth--or for that matter, if she made this confession at all--Mann has no evidence on which to base his theory.

As thorough as Mann's book is in most respects, he does make a few odd omissions. He barely mentions the curious fact that in 1912, Taylor's brother, Dennis Deane-Tanner, also abandoned his family and disappeared. It has been proposed that Dennis was really Taylor's sinister former valet, Edward Sands. Not long before the murder, Sands robbed Taylor and vanished--yet another puzzling element to this endlessly peculiar case. (Mann states that Sands was never seen again, although other accounts claim that the ex-valet was eventually found dead under suspicious circumstances.) I believe Mann made a mistake in dismissing all possibility that brother Dennis and Sands the valet somehow figured in the murder. Like so many researchers who fall in love with a particular theory, he seizes upon any scrap that might prove his pet thesis, while deliberately ignoring anything that argues for rival "solutions."

Although I believe "Tinseltown" does nothing to solve Taylor's essentially unsolvable murder, this book is wonderfully absorbing reading. Even if you have little interest in true crime, the soap-opera like saga found in these pages is almost certain to draw you in.