"...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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day




This cheery little tale comes from the "[Maysville] Evening Bulletin," February 10, 1894:
It's a cold day when Vanceburg's newspaper correspondent can't scare up a special. Tho following is his latest, and he asserts that its truth is vouched for by his informant.

He says: "Dr. C. H. Dyer, who lived in Fleming County, near tho Lewis County line, and who was well-known throughout this section of the State as a very noted 'root and herb' doctor, died some six weeks ago and was buried at his home, near Muse Mills, Fleming County.

"A few days ago a pack of hungry dogs were discovered digging with might and main in the doctor's grave. They were driven away but returned as soon as the men left, and re-began their digging and howling. The friends of the deceased doctor, becoming anxious to know just what the dogs were after, concluded to take the body up. They did so, but what was their astonishment, when, on opening the coffin, they found, not the body of the venerable doctor, but a 200 pound hog, nicely rolled up in a winding sheet, waiting for Gabriel to toot his horn, when he would walk out and claim the doctor's share in the glories that await him at the final resurrection of the just.

"The conclusion of the natives as to how this transformation came about is, that as the doctor was not above suspicion suspicion from a moral standpoint, the Lord had changed his mortal remains into those of a hog. The case is a very remarkable one, viewed from any stand point."
I certainly won't argue with that last remark.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Lord, He Was Born a Ramblin' Man: Review of "A Sense of the World," by Jason Roberts

James Holman



"Some difficulties meet, full many
I find them not, nor seek for any."
~James Holman's self-penned motto

The most active world traveler in history is believed to be an Englishman named James Holman. He traveled completely alone, braving the dangers and discomforts of early 19th century journeys without even the cushion of personal wealth to ease the way. By public carriage, by horseback, by peasant carts, by foot, he boldly entered every populated part of the globe without even knowing the native languages, but he always emerged not only alive, but with a profound understanding of the lands he had seen. He was simultaneously a reckless adventurer, a cool-headed explorer, and a sensitive poet.

He was also totally blind.

Holman was born on October 15, 1786, the fourth of six sons of John Holman, a successful Exeter apothecary. Holman the elder had ambitions for all his children, spending a great deal of money to have them well educated and placed in professions that would advance their social status. James was destined for a naval career. This delighted the boy. In later years, James wrote, "I have been conscious from my earliest youth of the existence of this desire to explore distant regions...to investigate with unwearied solicitude the moral and physical distinctions that separate and diversify the various nations of the earth." What better way to achieve this goal than by becoming a naval officer? Three weeks after he turned twelve, James was formally enlisted as a Volunteer First Class in the British Navy. As he was not only an adventurous and brave boy, but intelligent and determined, he seemed destined for a successful future following his life's dream. "I was determined not to rest satisfied until I had completed the circumnavigation of the globe."

However, destiny has a way of pulling tricks on us, and it had a particularly cruel one in store for James Holman. Holman was stationed in frigid North American waters, traveling between Nova Scotia and New England.  The harsh conditions of early 19th century life at sea, where sailors were mercilessly exposed to the worst extremes of cold, heat, wet and wind, often took its toll on their health, and before he had been at sea for six years, it became clear that Holman--who by this time had reached the rank of Lieutenant--was particularly vulnerable. He developed a serious case of rheumatism, which left his body so crippled by the agony--described as "exquisite pains" and "lying pains, which are increased by the least motion"--that for days at a time he was unable to move. None of the standard remedies of the time helped for very long. By 1807, naval physicians had proclaimed him "Unserviceable," and he was quickly bundled back to England. After a brief convalescence, Holman obtained a post on another ship, but before long, he again fell too ill to remain on duty. Desperate to regain his health, Holman went to Bath, the spa city that was a Mecca for Europe's invalids. His swollen, aching joints responded well to the mineral waters, and he began happily looking forward to resuming his aborted career.

Then, for the first time, his eyes began to pain him. The puzzled doctors could not tell him why. There was no visible injury or infection to be seen. This strange new affliction intensified with frightening speed. Within days, he was reduced to lying in a darkened room, his face covered with compresses. Nothing helped the increasing pain and pressure behind his eyes. Within a few weeks, he was suddenly, mysteriously blind. Although every eye treatment known to the medical science of the day was applied, nothing worked in the slightest. (Modern medical opinion believes Holman suffered from an eye inflammation called uveitis which caused optic nerve death. Uveitis is still a leading cause of blindness.)

Holman was only twenty-five years old, and it looked like his life was over. In his time, those who were sightless generally faced a grim future--begging or living as a charity case at best, destitution and death at worst. Holman was determined to avoid either fate. He vowed to find "some pursuit adapted to my new state of existence, a congenial field of employment and consolation." In short, he would carry on with his life. Holman's sense of hearing became unusually acute, and he soon learned to depend on sound not only to deal with people, but to negotiate the landscape around him. He could no longer see the world, but few people could match his ability to hear it. As he walked through a town, what to sighted people would be a mere blur of noise was to him an intricate soundscape providing a vast panorama of information.

Holman's next move was to relearn to write. He obtained a recently invented device called "the Noctograph," intended to enable sighted people to write in the dark. It was a wooden clipboard with wires stretched across horizontally. Sheets of special carbon paper were clipped under the wires. A stylus was used to press down on the papers, using the wires as guides to keep the lines of writing straight. The pressure pressed the "carbonated papers" on normal papers underneath, resulting in faint but perfectly legible marks. Being able to write by himself, without the usual blind person's reliance on scribes, gave Holman an added sense of independence.

Holman with his "Noctograph"


Holman made a successful application to the only job open to a blind former naval officer: The Naval Knights of Windsor. This knightly order was limited to "Seven gentlemen, who are to be superannuated or disabled Lieutenants of English men of war...single men without children, inclined to lead a virtuous, studious and devout life." These men were given a small salary and rooms at Windsor Castle for life, with their only duties being to attend service in the castle's chapel. It was a dull life, to be sure, but it enabled Holman to earn his own living, and the simple routines of the day gave him the opportunity to continue adjusting to life as a blind man.

Holman adjusted so well that what at first seemed a haven of safety and security soon began to feel like a prison. His blindness did not quench his naturally active and adventurous spirit. As he became more confident in navigating his surroundings, the thought that the rest of his life would be spent doing nothing but pacing between his apartment and the chapel filled him with a mounting dread amounting almost to panic. He badly needed something to do.

So Holman decided to become a doctor.

In the fall of 1813, Holman approached the governor's board of the Naval Knights with an unusual request: that he be granted leave to study at the University of Edinburgh. He pointed out that the University's classes were crammed into a single six-month session, which would leave him half the year to continue his Windsor duties. The bemused governors saw no good reason to refuse, so long as Holman paid his own way. On October 15--his twenty-seventh birthday--Holman set out for Edinburgh.

His plan to obtain higher education was not quite as daft as it sounded. The University had no entrance requirements, and most classes were conducted solely as lectures, meaning that students did not have to bother with written texts. It was a curriculum that relied on rote memorization, and Holman, most fortunately, had an excellent memory, a skill his blindness had only intensified. "Whatever I retain," he boasted with only slight exaggeration, "I retain permanently." After taking a number of courses on literature--a subject at which he excelled--Holman focused on studying medicine, suggesting that he had yet to give up on finding a cure--or at least learning the cause--of his blindness. He spent three years at his studies, becoming as conversant in "the practice of physic" as any physician of his day.

In 1818, Holman suffered another serious illness, which necessitated him leaving the University. Its cause is unclear. Holman himself merely attributed it to "the cultivation of those pursuits which were pressed upon me by the tasks I had prescribed to myself." The rigors of his self-imposed studies had left him mentally and physically exhausted.

His health did not improve after his return to Windsor. His doctors prescribed that popular remedy for obscure ailments: travel. It was arranged that Holman's brother Robert (who had also become a naval lieutenant) would obtain a formal leave of absence and escort James to France.

However, the planned day of departure dawned, and Robert still had not obtained his leave. James was raring to go, and he refused to be delayed for a moment. He made a decision that would shape the rest of his life: one way or another, he was going to France. Alone.

On October 15, 1819--another fateful birthday--Holman boarded a packet ship bound for Calais. He later wrote of this first solo adventure, "Behold me, then, in France! surrounded by a people, to me, strange, invisible, and incomprehensible; separated from every living being who could be supposed to take the least interest in my welfare, or even existence." He was a blind man, with little money, wandering in an unfamiliar land. He knew no one in France, and he could not even speak the language. He was entirely alone, unprotected, utterly dependent on his luck and his wits. Even a sighted person would find the prospect daunting.

Holman loved it.  In Roberts' words, "Solitary travel...was the collision of chaos and momentum, a constant, welcome assault on his senses and attention. It distracted him from his pain, and sparked new energies within." The "distraction" of travel became a physical and mental addiction. For the rest of Holman's life, whenever he had to stay inactive for long, he would come down with illnesses which were probably at least partly psychosomatic.

From Calais, Holman made his way to Paris in a two-wheeled cabriolet. It was a jolting, uncomfortable thirty-five hour trip, with only two stops along the way. As he continued to make his way across France, he followed a medical regimen of his own devising: lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty of exercise. He obtained the latter by periodically jumping out of the carriages, tying a length of cord to the vehicle, and, grasping the other end, following the carriage on foot, like a dog being taken for a walk. (It was a spectacle, Holman recalled, that gave "no small amusement" to onlookers.)

When Holman faced the end of his one-year leave of absence, he was in much better health, and in excellent spirits. The thought of giving up his freedom--a freedom seasoned with just enough risk to be intoxicating--for a return to the cloistered boredom of Windsor was unsupportable. He obtained an extension of his leave from the Admiralty, and set off for Italy.

He settled in Saint Rosalie, a vineyard estate just outside of Nice. Holman helped the locals pick grapes at harvest time and thoroughly joined in all the other rustic pastimes of what he called "this semblance of an earthly paradise." He was far from lonely. Holman's intelligence, charm, good looks, and easy geniality won him immediate friends everywhere he went, with his blindness giving him a certain exotic appeal--particularly among women. Throughout his travels, Holman had a number of platonic romances--his writings often read like a G-rated edition of Casanova's memoirs--but as far as is known, he never considered marriage. Roberts assumes Holman remained a bachelor because of his twin handicaps of blindness and poverty, but it was likely more than that. Holman enjoyed the society of women, and on occasion he wistfully envied the marital happiness of others, but someone as restless and independent as he was probably had no strong need for a permanent life partner. Even his many friendships had a "ships that pass in the night" quality that was undoubtedly deliberate on his part.

Holman sailed to Genoa, utterly indifferent to the fact that, with Naples at war with Austria, and Milan and Piedmont heading for revolution, Italy had become a very dangerous place to travel. He then proceeded to Rome, the most relatively calm area in the region. There, he made the acquaintance of a Scotsman named Dr. James Clark. The doctor obtained Holman lodgings most recently occupied by a patient of Clark's who had recently died--a young poet named John Keats. Holman soon moved on to Naples. He was anxious to climb Mount Vesuvius. He spent the rest of his wanderings across Europe in the company of an old friend he had encountered in Naples, a gentleman Holman only identified as "Mr. C-l-b-k." (In his writings, Holman followed that maddening--from a historian's point of view--19th century fondness for discreet initials.) "C-l-b-k" was completely deaf, giving their travels together a quality that Holman admitted was "somewhat droll."

The friends parted company in Amsterdam: "C-l-b-k" wished to go to Germany, while Holman felt obligated to return to England. He had been abroad two years, and the governors of the Naval Knights were losing patience with his long absence.

Back at Windsor, Holman's memories of his many travels seemed more real and important to him than the dull grind of the Knights. He hired scribes, and compiled a written record of his adventures. The resulting manuscript, given the self-explanatory title of "The Narrative of a Journey, Undertaken in the Years 1819, 1820, & 1821, Through France, Italy, Savoy, Switzerland, Parts of Germany Bordering on the Rhine, Holland, and The Netherlands" found a publisher. The book was a solid critical and popular success, with the author's blindness (which the book only mentioned in passing,) making it a genuine curiosity. By the time the book was released, Holman was no longer in England. He had set out to fulfill his boyhood dream.

He was going to, in his words, make "a circuit of the world."

Holman decided his best hope of reaching this unlikely, if not insane, aim was to start by traveling though Russia. If he could make it across that vast country, he would be nearly one-third of the way to his goal. He would keep expenses down by essentially living like a Russian peasant: traveling in their primitive carts and sledges, sleeping in the simplest hostels and eating the cheapest foods. He would save more money by dispensing with guides and translators. At the eastern end of the country, Holman would hitch a ride on a whaling ship to the Sandwich Islands. From there, he expected to have little trouble finding passage on a ship to take him around Cape Horn. He would make his way to South America and Africa, and finally return to Europe via the Mediterranean. He kept the true extent of his plans to himself, telling others that he was merely taking a casual tourist jaunt to Saint Petersburg, where his old friend "C-l-b-k," was now living. His reticence was due to what he knew would be "the opposition my kind friends have always been inclined to make against what, under my peculiar deprivation, they are disposed to regard as Quixotic feelings."

In other words, he knew everyone would think he was nuts.

Holman's "Quixotic" venture started on July 19, 1822, when he boarded a merchant vessel bound for the Russian harbor of Cronstadt. He did not bother obtaining formal leave. After all, he blithely told everyone, he would not be gone long.

In Saint Petersburg, "C-l-b-k" introduced Holman to the large British expatriate community. He spent a pleasant winter there, continuing his charade of claiming he intended to go no further than Moscow, while he worked at acclimating himself to Russia's subzero temperatures. At the beginning of spring, he set off for the White City. As had been the case in Saint Petersburg, he was instantly welcomed by local high society. A personable British officer who knew the latest news from the continent was considered a prize. His next intended stop was Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia that was known as the world's most isolated city. From there, he was told, he could obtain a license to travel anywhere he pleased. He bought a wagon and horses, hired a native Tartar to drive the vehicle, carefully packed his bags (he memorized where he placed all his belongings, so he could find them by touch,) and headed for Siberia. He faced open wilderness, bitter cold, vicious insect swarms, and rough or non-existent roads in one of the most inhospitable areas on earth. It was a situation, Holman exulted, "of extreme novelty."

In Irkutsk, he encountered an unexpected problem. After he had been unwise enough to confide the true scope of his plans to the Governor General, this worthy informed him that he could not leave Siberia without the express written consent of the Tsar himself. Instead of this consent, the Tsar sent an aide, to act as Holman's "personal escort." Whether Holman liked it or not. Holman soon realized that he was no longer a tourist, but a prisoner. Back in Moscow, he was put under a virtual house arrest, and forbidden to have visitors. The authorities did not bother to tell him why. After a few interviews with police officials, Holman was bundled into a carriage and driven into Poland. (Although the reason for his expulsion remained a mystery to Holman, it appears that the Russian authorities suspected him of being a spy.  The Tsar was very anxious to hide from the outside world any awareness of Russia's growing presence in North America, and Holman's seemingly inexplicable desire to explore that part of the world had roused the most dire suspicions in Russian high circles.)

Holman did not have a pleasant time in Poland. Everyone there assumed than anyone kicked out of Russia by the Tsar himself had to be some sort of dangerous desperado. After some difficulty, he was finally allowed to go to Austria, where he met a similarly chilly welcome. With something of an international cloud over his head, Holman was happy to return to England in the spring of 1824. He dictated a second book, with another spoiler-alert title: "Travels Through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, &c &c." He was given the honor of permission to dedicate the work to King George IV. The book, full of colorful and informative detail, was another great success, turning Holman into a literary celebrity. Holman was voted into the Linnean Society, and received an even greater honor when he was inducted into the Royal Society of London. Unfortunately, the Naval Knights were not nearly as impressed with Holman's exploits. The governors sternly informed him that there would be no more leaves of absence.



That did not trouble Holman. He was already hearing the call of the open road, and making secret plans to steal away. He had made the acquaintance of noted maritime surveyor Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen, who had just received a commission to start a British settlement in Fernando Po, an island in the Gulf of Guinea. This settlement would be the headquarters for Britain's fight against the slave trade. Owen was to capture slave ships and free their human cargo. As an ardent abolitionist, Owen was eager to take on this difficult and dangerous job. Among the crew Owen brought on his mission was Lieutenant James Holman, who fully shared Owen's antipathy to the "inhuman traffic" of slavery. Holman had managed to convince the Knights that the journey was necessary for his health. He failed to mention that he was going to an area of the world so malaria-ridden it was known as "the White Man's Grave."

Owen's expedition was ultimately disastrous. Although the native Fernandians were largely friendly enough, the dreaded malaria soon justified the region's macabre nickname, and many of the crew (including Holman) fell ill. Many died. The small community was beginning to run out of food. On top of that, Owen soon learned that it was extremely difficult to capture slave ships. The slavers were faster than Royal Navy ships, and they had the support of the regional leaders. Owen kept to his increasingly futile task until 1829, when he finally threw up his hands, turned Fernando Po over to a civil governor, and returned to England. Of the 135 men in his original crew, only 12 survived.

After about a year on Fernando Po, Holman moved on. He hitched a ride with a passing Dutch ship bound for Brazil. From Rio, Holman fell in with a mule train, and explored the Brazilian wilderness. He then obtained a berth on a Royal Navy ship that would take him as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Thereafter, Roberts tells us, ships of the Royal Navy accorded Holman a special status: "welcomed aboard, and, at the very least, allowed the standard courtesies of an officer in transit back to England...His presence onboard was wonderful for morale. He was not only profoundly pleasant company--a gracious guest and gifted listener--but a nearly inexhaustible source of entertainment. In addition to his own adventures, which he recounted with a storyteller's flair, his eidetic memory allowed him to unspool a vast stock of poetry, prose, and even jokes...Any pity directed toward him usually evaporated by the first week." To further cement his air of "belonging" on ship, Holman liked to initiate each new voyage by indulging in a sport sailors called "skylarking." He would climb to the top of the ship's mainmast--which in the open sea bucked like a mechanical horse--and wave triumphantly down to the crew. It was a stunt dangerous and foolhardy enough for anyone who could see. To see a sightless man carry it off must have been jaw-dropping. In time, people around Holman nearly forgot that he was blind.

When Holman landed in South Africa, he taught himself to ride a horse. He used his newfound talent to explore the open range. When possible, he always preferred wilderness to cities. He then sailed to Mauritius. After being warned there about the great unrest and anti-Western feelings in nearby Madagascar...Holman immediately departed for Madagascar. Next was Zanzibar, then the Seychelles Islands, then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka,) then India. In Calcutta, he found passage to China, where he amused himself by studying Cantonese, a subtle, inflected language which fascinated him. Around this time, he wrote an autobiographical poem:
The beauties of the beautiful
Are veiled before the blind,
Not so the graces and the bloom
That blossom in the mind.
The beauties of the finest form
Are sentenced to decay;
Not so the beauties of the mind,
They never fade away."

By this point, Holman was the internationally renowned "Blind Traveler." Like a modern-day celebrity, he was often asked for his autograph, or for some personal memento. When he reached New South Wales, the local press announced his arrival and reported on his movements like he was visiting royalty. In Sydney, they were amazed by his ability to ride horseback "as if possessed with every facility." He joined an exploring party in the Australian wilderness. Holman developed great respect for the Aborigines, and deplored the demeaning way in which they were treated by the white population.



Back in Sydney, he reluctantly knew it was time to return home. He had been wandering for five years, and he was well aware that he was pushing his luck with the Naval Knights--and the much-needed stipend they provided. At some point on his voyage home, Holman finally completed his "circuit of the world."

Holman in 1830


When he returned to London in August 1832, he was greeted by a formal censure from the Naval Knights. Not unreasonably, they felt they were scarcely getting their money's worth out of James Holman. Holman shrugged it off and prepared another book: "A Voyage Round the World, Including Travels in Africa, Asia, Australasia, America, etc., etc." It was a remarkably wide-ranging work, with digressions on the Fernandian language, a recipe for soy sauce, kangaroo hunts, Aboriginal mourning rituals, and instructions in plastering walls, Indian style. His section discussing the flora and fauna of the Indian Ocean would be used as reference material by Charles Darwin in "The Voyage of the Beagle." Unfortunately, the book was not nearly as successful as Holman's previous works, and the critics were equally dismissive.

Holman was still restless. His many travels seemed to feed his wanderlust, rather than quench it. He could no longer be at ease unless he was on the move. By 1836, he had convinced two doctors to write a petition asking that he be granted medical leave from his duties as a Knight. After some nagging, he managed to wangle a four-month leave. He visited Ireland, came back after precisely four months, and moped.

He obtained a lucky break when Victoria became queen in 1837. She chose as her royal physician Holman's old friend James Clark. Clark took up Holman's cause, and persuaded the queen to write the Naval Knights commanding that Holman be allowed to travel. However, the governors took umbrage at this bit of royal butting-in. They believed that the rules of their autonomous fraternal order were, in short, none of Victoria's business. The issue of Holman's freedom to travel became a genuine policy crisis over the scope of the royal prerogative. Not wanting to get into a legal battle they might well lose, the Crown gave in.

It was Holman himself who devised an ingenious solution to the dilemma. He wrote to the queen, suggesting that instead of giving Holman immunity from the Knight's dictates, she could have the dictates themselves modified. His proposal was that the order's charter be revised to state that any Knight whose infirmities prevented him from carrying out his duties might have dispensation direct from the Crown. As the Naval Knights was legally a creation of the Crown, it gave Victoria the right to amend the rules. Holman brought his case to the High Court of Justice, which--after eight years--ruled in his favor. And Holman was on the road again.

Holman traveled to Malta, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Beirut, Egypt. Then it was on to the Holy Land. He crossed the desert into Damascus. He toured the Adriatic Sea, and ventured into Montenegro. Contemporaries reported seeing him climbing Mount Sinai, examining Venice's Saint Mark's Cathedral by touch. A young American named Francis Parkman encountered Holman in Sicily. He admired the Englishman's "indomitable energy" and "noble appearance." Parkman, who went on to be one of the 19th century's most renowned historians, himself eventually lost his sight. His fear and sorrow about his affliction was greatly eased by his vivid memories of the indomitable Blind Traveler.

On and on Holman went. Bucharest, Transylvania, Hungary, a return to Austria and France. Then, after an absence of six years, the English Channel and home. It has been estimated that by this point in his life, he had traveled a quarter of a million miles--a path equivalent to walking to the moon. Holman returned to Windsor not out of desire, but from destitution. His book royalties were all spent, and he desperately needed to earn more money. Holman became a regular visitor to the Royal Society, where he was respected and beloved by his peers, and he plotted another book.

Holman in 1849


When Holman made the rounds of publishers, he found that he was, in brief, passe. Victorians thought of the blind as pitiful, helpless creatures, incapable of living anything like normal lives. The idea of reading a travel book written by a blind man seemed absurd to the extreme. Worse still, doubts--planted largely by jealous rival explorers--had been planted about his veracity. Many people simply refused to believe it was possible that a blind man could have accomplished what he did, and then accurately record his experiences. Holman now had, in Roberts' words, "an aura of anachronism." However unfairly, Holman had always been regarded as a novelty, and novelties rarely have a long shelf life. Undeterred, Holman continue to work not only on a manuscript of his most recent travels, but on his autobiography.

In 1852, Holman visited Norway and Sweden. It would be his final major round of travels, although he continued to make day trips across the Channel. Most of his energies centered around compiling his memoirs, which he planned to call "Holman's Narratives of His Travels." He saw this manuscript as not only his most important work, but his most personal one. It would, he felt, be his great enduring legacy, proving to the world that he was neither a helpless cripple or a novelty act.

By 1857, Holman's long-shaky health began to deteriorate. Like Ulysses S. Grant a few decades later, he began to see the completion of his memoirs as a race against Death. Also like Grant, he won the contest. In late July 1857, Holman finished his work. Less than one week later, on the 28th, Holman passed away. He probably thought of it as the ultimate solo journey.

Holman was given a quiet burial in London's Highgate Cemetery, and he was quickly forgotten by the public. His manuscripts, including the autobiography, were entrusted to his literary executor, Robert Bell. Bell shopped the manuscript to publishers, without finding any takers. After several years, he gave up trying.

The fate of this manuscript which had meant so much to Holman remains a mystery. After Bell's death, it was not found among his papers. The supposition is that Holman's memoirs were either accidentally or deliberately destroyed, although with any luck, the manuscript may yet turn up in a forgotten corner somewhere. It is a curious thing how history's most accomplished traveler left so few footprints behind him.

Roberts' book naturally centers around the unusual and compelling figure of James Holman, but it is also a vivid glance at the many interesting characters Holman encountered during his astonishingly peripatetic life. There is his deaf friend, the enigmatic "C-l-b-k," (who seems to have been some sort of International Man of Mystery.) There is a boyhood tutor of Holman's, a con man who went on to be the founder of Australia's public school system. There is the blind scientist who was the first to unlock the mystery of bees. On every page, one encounters explorers, eccentrics, world leaders, visionaries, heroes, cranks, and simply "ordinary" people who happened to cross paths with one very extraordinary man.

"A Sense of the World" moved me more than any book I have read in a very long time, and James Holman is someone I shall never forget. Whenever I start moaning and complaining about the difficulties and roadblocks fate throws me, I will think of Holman and what he managed to make of his life. And I will feel very ashamed of myself.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump has a celebrity sponsor:  Arthur Rackham's cats!





Who the hell broke the Sphinx's nose?

Watch out for those hollow tree ghosts!

Watch out for those toothbrushes!

Watch out for those Wyrms!

Ned, the first cat to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

The life of an 18th century actor.

A spell for unfaithful lovers.

The queen's ass.  (Yes, it's SFW.  What sort of a blog do you think I'm running here?)

Niagara Falls before the tourist industry.

An 18th century family's mysterious illness.

A religiously inclined assassin.

A burglarious witch.

The face of a 9,000 year-old teenager.

18th century runaway spouses.

"Alice in Wonderland" and a mysterious manuscript.

A 16th century Indian saint.

A mystery woman buried in a Scottish tomb.

A mystery woman buried in a Welsh grave.

The "wee folk" of Northern Ireland.

French news headlines from the early 19th century.

Fitness tips from 1900.

A murderer haunted by his victim.

An extremely luck accident victim.

Was Nefertiti really a pharaoh?

The women who loved Byron.

A man who helped bring down Robespierre.

Phantom fires.

Good news: alcohol defeats the Antichrist!

The world's oldest dress.

Murder in a boarding house.

Recreating ancient recipes.

Color photographs of 1890s Russia.

The teenager who stowed away to Antarctica.

That wraps it up for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll journey with one of history's most remarkable travelers. In the meantime, here's some Corelli.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Clipping of the Day

Bunworth Banshee, "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland", by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825.



This little ghost story comes courtesy of "The Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe, wife of Sir Richard Fanshawe, Baronet, Ambassador from Charles II to the Courts of Portugal and Madrid."

From hence we went to the Lady Honor O’Brien’s, a lady that went for a maid, but few believed it: she was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Thomond. There we stayed three nights. The first of which I was surprised by being laid in a chamber, when, about one o’clock, I heard a voice that wakened me. I drew the curtain, and, in the casement of the window, I saw, by the light of the moon, a woman leaning into the window, through the casement, in white, with red hair and pale and ghastly complexion: she spoke loud, and in a tone I had never heard, thrice, "A horse ;" and then, with a sigh more like the wind than breath she vanished, and to me her body looked more like a thick cloud than substance.

I was so much frightened, that my hair stood on end, and my night clothes fell off. I pulled and pinched your father, who never woke during the disorder I was in; but at last was much surprised to see me in this fright, and more so when I related the story and showed him the window opened.

Neither of us slept any more that night, but he entertained me with telling me how much more these apparitions were usual in this country than in England; and we concluded the cause to be the great superstition of the Irish, and the want of that knowing faith, which should defend them from the power of the Devil, which he exercises among them very much.

About five o’clock the lady of the house came to see us, saying she had not been in bed all night, because a cousin O’Brien of her’s, whose ancestors had owned that house, had desired her to stay with him in his chamber, and that he died at two o’clock, and she said, "I wish you to have had no disturbance, for ’tis the custom of the place, that, when any of the family are dying, the shape of a woman appears in the window every night till they be dead.

"This woman was many ages ago got with child by the owner of this place, who murdered her in his garden, and flung her into the river under the window, but truly I thought not of it when I lodged you here, it being the best room in the house."

We made little reply to her speech, but disposed ourselves to be gone suddenly.
That's certainly one way to keep guests from outstaying their welcome.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Dentist and His Chopper: Fake or Fortean?




Visiting the dentist's office is an unpleasant experience even at the most routine times. Going to the restroom and sitting on the toilet, only to have a disembodied voice beneath you shout, "Move your behind, I can't see a thing!" is really too much.

If you were a patient of Dr. Karl Bachseitz, your root canal came with a few surprises.

The sixty-year-old Bachseitz had a small dental surgery in Neutraubling, Germany. Assisting him was seventeen-year-old Claudia Judenmann. Life at the office was the height of respectable dullness until one day in the spring of 1981. One of his patients leaned over her dental chair to use the spittoon.

"Shut your mouth!" the receptacle barked at her.

Several days later, another patient was in the chair, only to have the washbasin order him to "Open your mouth wider, stupid." Soon after that came the episode of the Talking Toilet.

Dr. Bachseitz and Claudia Judenmann


Once started, this phantom assistant would not shut up. Worse, the Voice (which called itself "Chopper") had a remarkably unpleasant personality. Chopper--a male voice with a guttural Bavarian accent--would continually interrupt phone calls, hurl abuse at Bachseitz and his patients, shout strings of obscenities, and even threaten Bachseitz and his wife with physical violence. The voice emanated from plug-holes, washbasins, electrical sockets, virtually everywhere in the surgery. No one ever knew where The Voice would pop up next. The one person around the surgery to be spared Chopper's wrath was Claudia. Chopper would speak to her in the most friendly manner, chatting with the girl like they were old schoolmates holding a reunion.

Understandably, the citizens of Neutraubling soon decided they'd rather take their aching teeth elsewhere. Bachseitz's practice was threatened with utter ruin, thanks to this loud-mouthed mascot he had acquired. By February 1983 the distracted dentist was driven to file a harassment suit against...well, he didn't know. Against something. He had the phone disconnected. No good. Chopper continued to use it. He brought in the police, who were understandably disconcerted by Backseitz's demands that they arrest a talking ghost. He had the surgery swept for electrical devices that might have been used to create the voice, but nothing was found. He even called in Hans Bender, the most well-known spook hunter in Germany. "Release me! Release me!" Chopper moaned to Bender. The small surgery was soon flooded with spiritualists, reporters, and simple looky-loos. "Chopper" even inspired a hit pop song.

The local public prosecutor, Elmar Fischer, came to the conclusion that "releasing" Chopper would be a criminal, not a paranormal, matter. In short, he was convinced that Bachseitz and Claudia Judenmann were, for whatever demented reason, pulling what he called "a stupid practical joke" on everyone. In March, he announced that Judenmann had been using "voice projection" to fool the world into thinking the surgery was haunted. Under interrogation, Claudia admitted guilt, stating that she invented "Chopper" to "relieve monotony at work and to get publicity."

Bachseitz, his wife Margot, and Claudia all now faced charges of "filing a false charge of defamation of character" and "bodily harm." Jundenmann was fined $380, while Bachseitz and his wife--who protested their innocence to the end--were ordered to pay $4500.

Chopper proved to be a very expensive ghost.

After their trial, Bachseitz and his wife were so mentally and emotionally drained, they checked themselves into a mental institution. Claudia changed her name and fled into obscurity.

That would seem to be that, except one can't help but think of all the poltergeist cases that have been blamed on some teenaged boy or girl. Few seemed bothered by the fact that it was never satisfactorily explained why the dentist--previously considered to be an eminently sane and respectable sort--would nearly destroy his business and make a public fool of himself, just for the sake of allowing a pointless practical joke. If this was just a silly stunt, why did Bachseitz call in the lawyers and the policemen?

And, if this was indeed nothing but a hoax, young Claudia certainly missed out on a remarkable career as a ventriloquist.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Weekend Link Dump




This week's Link Dump is again sponsored by the Cats of Winter Amalgamated!







What the hell is the Hypatia Stone?

What the hell happened to Clem Graver?

What the hell happened to Malinda Snyder?

Who the hell was Lambert Simnel?

Who the hell betrayed Anne Frank?  Nobody?

Watch out for those Mystery Poets!

Watch out for those ghost ewes!

Watch out for those haunted battleships!

Watch out for those haunted steamships!

Watch out for the Watra Mama!

The latest Great Pyramid weirdness.

The latest radio bursts from outer space weirdness.

Singing about Napoleon.

When cudgelling matches were a thing.

The link between the 1840 presidential election and American cuisine.

A ghost in yellow calico.

A history of mail-order magazines.

A history of "Laugh-In."

A lynching in Colorado.

An account of humpback whales saving seals.

A painting of proverbs.

Secret text in an Alexander Hamilton letter.

Marie Antoinette's household.

Ireland's "Vanishing Triangle."

The unsolved murder of a pub landlady.

The grave of a canine WWII vet.

Empress Josephine's chateau.

The lifestyles of the Georgian rural poor.

The true average lifespan of medieval people.

The dubious death of Jeremy Radcliffe.

The Spa Fields riots.

The unsolved murders at Lake Bodom.

The unsolved murder of Daisy Zick.

The prophecy of Benrose Billman.

Madame Tussaud's Napoleon relics.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do with rocks.

Defining "witchcraft."

The Indian Armed Forces in WWI.

A mystic and con man in early 20th century Los Angeles.

Let's appreciate some dragons, shall we?

The letters of Lady Jane Grey.

A strange Iron Age fort.

The crimes that changed history.

Charles Hindley's Cries of London.

A "wretch robbed of life."

One for the Weird Wills file.

London's lost "city of the future."

The contentious burial of a General's dog.

Mr. Henderson teleports.

A 16th century witch trial.

A Saturday night in 1824 London.

Napoleon's heirs.

World's worst maternity ward.

The execution of one very busy thief.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at Fortean Follies in a dentist's office.  In the meantime, here's the late Edwin Hawkins.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day




Good news! Spring-heeled Jack likes to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, too! From the "[Greenwood, South Carolina] Index-Journal," October 24, 1985:
Hearne, Texas (AP) A tall, mysterious creature appears appears to have begun trick-or-treating a week early, say police who have been getting reports about something leaping from rooftop to rooftop and gnawing on front porches. The creature also has reportedly reportedly torn screen windows and scared a dog, police Chief James Bundren said Wednesday.

"It's Halloween time and there might be a lot of creatures out there. Every now and then someone calls and says they they think they heard the creature." One resident told authorities last week that something about six feet tall chewed up his porch, screen and railing, Bundren said. The resident beard a noise at the front door during the night and went to investigate. When be opened the door, Bundren said, he saw the "image of a man, but it had a head that was chewing and slapping at the door."

The resident told police he quickly slammed the door. He looked out the window and saw his frightened dog running down the street. Bundren said the pet still has not returned.

Another resident told police she heard something large land on one side of her roof, walk to the other side and leap off the carport, be said. But police found no tracks around the house.

"It raised all kinds of commotion around here after that happened," he said, adding that calls are still coming in from people saying they have heard the creature. Bundren said police have no suspects, but that the first homeowner may have seen a man holding a large dog in front of him.
I haven't found anything more about this story.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Strange Exit of Donald Kemp




For many years now, I've believed that what we call "weird" or "unusual" is, rather, the default position of the universe. What we think of as "normality" is a very rare and precious thing indeed. Strange, inexplicable things are thrown at us every day, but unless they seriously impact our lives, we are able to ignore them or explain them away to ourselves.

There is, for example, the fate of a New York man named Donald Kemp, which ranks as the most bizarre missing-persons case I've ever seen. His end was comprised of many smaller mysteries combined to cause one massive mystery...

...and he started out as such a perfectly ordinary guy.

Kemp's life had appeared unusually fortunate. The 35-year-old ad executive was successful at his job, intelligent, well-liked, and prosperous. Still, he began to be unsatisfied with his lot. A bad case of the "Is this all there is?" blues set in. After he became disabled from a 1976 auto accident, his two-year period of recuperation intensified these feelings of restlessness and dissatisfaction. In September 1982, this normally ambitious, meticulous man abandoned his life and headed for Jackson, Wyoming. Kemp had long been fascinated by the Lincoln assassination, and he decided to pursue his dream of writing a book about the tragic event. During his convalescence, he believed he took mental voyages to the "spirit world," where he was in touch with Mary Surratt, the woman hanged as a co-conspirator in Lincoln's murder. His book, he told friends, would combine Lincoln, spiritualism, and what he enigmatically described as "The Truth." "I have The Truth," he once said. "The Truth will come through me...I am attuned to a high spiritual plane...I am a messenger of God." On November 15, Kemp visited a museum in Cheyenne. He stayed for about two hours without speaking to anyone. After his departure, it was found that he had left behind his briefcase containing his diaries, address book, traveler's checks and his prescription eyeglasses.

If Kemp was God's messenger, the communication he delivered was intensely odd. On November 16, 1982, when he was two days short of his destination, his van was found on an exit ramp in a deserted stretch of road in central Wyoming. The vehicle's motor was running, the radio was playing, and all the doors were open. It seemed like he had planned only a very brief stop.

Instead, Don Kemp had vanished. A single set of footprints led from the van into the emptiness of the Wyoming prairie. While following this trail, searchers found Kemp's teapot. Four miles away, three of his socks were found in an abandoned barn. A few days later his laundry bag was discovered inside a haystack. There was, however, no body found, or any other clue where Kemp went or, perhaps even more importantly, why he went. Rod Johnson, the Deputy Sheriff in charge of the search, was at a loss to say what had become of Kemp. "I don't think he's out there," Johnson sighed. "If he was, I would have found him." Kemp's mother Mary quit her job to devote all her time to finding her son. She was convinced that he had been kidnapped for whatever inexplicable reason, and was still alive. "He didn't disappear into thin air," she said. "My son would not do this." A friend of Kemp's had a more pessimistic view. "I think poor Don was sitting on the fence of reality, and as he was driving down the highway he finally crossed over to the other side of the fence. I think he saw some sign in the desert and walked off." There were signs that just before he vanished, Kemp's mind was going into some dark places. One friend received a phone call from him where Kemp was sobbing and near-hysterical. When he stopped at motels, Kemp was fixated by movies with themes of disappearances. His final diary entry proclaimed himself to be "an emancipator of men."

Map of the area where Kemp disappeared.


A major blizzard hit the area several days after Kemp's disappearance, leading investigators to conclude the missing man was now certainly dead. No one, they concluded, could possibly have survived in that weather.

This is when our story goes from merely mysterious to impossibly weird. Three months after Kemp vanished, a friend of his named Judith Aiello returned to her New York home from a long vacation in Europe. Aiello had been out of the country for so long, she was unaware that Kemp was missing. She found a number of messages on her telephone answering machine...from a voice that she swore was that of Donald Kemp. The messages were very brief, merely asking her to call him back. The voice left a phone number where he could be reached.

When Aiello dialed this number, a man answered. She told investigators that when she asked him if Don Kemp was there, "He said 'Yes--no,' very quickly." When she said to tell Kemp that "Judy called," the man simply said "Fine," and hung up.

This number was traced to a house trailer in Casper, Wyoming. Mark Dennis, the man who lived there, insisted that he had not made those phone calls. He vowed that he had never even heard of Kemp, and certainly had no idea where he was. "It is bizarre," Dennis said. "It's puzzling. Nothing this strange has ever happened to me before. The only explanation I can think of is somebody got in my house to make the phone calls." As Aiello's number was unlisted, it could not be explained how Dennis--or any other stranger to Aiello--could have phoned her. Unsurprisingly, Dennis became the subject of intense interest to the police, but investigators could find no evidence whatsoever that he had anything to do with Kemp or his baffling disappearance. Adding to the eerie quality of the whole episode is that Dennis bore a startling resemblance to the missing man. Although Dennis was initially very cooperative with police, he eventually "lawyered up" and stopped talking. After Dennis was confronted by a very accusatory Mary Kemp--who refused to believe he did not know much more than he was willing to say--he quickly left town. (It must be said that all this can easily be read as the actions of a perfectly innocent man understandably frightened at finding himself mixed up in a particularly strange mystery.)

Mark Dennis


The phone calls to Aiello were not the only clues suggesting Kemp was still alive. Some people were certain that they saw him at an exhibit of Lincoln memorabilia held in Casper. Others believed they had spotted him in a Casper bar. However, hopes that the elusive ad executive had survived were dashed in 1986, when hunters found his badly decomposed remains just a few miles from where his van had been found. No sign of foul play was discovered, (although it's hard to figure how that could be established after such a long period of time,) leaving the authorities to conclude that Kemp voluntarily walked into the wild, where he probably died during the blizzard.

A very tidy solution...until you start thinking about those phone calls. If Kemp did not make these calls, who did, and why? Why was Aiello the only person to get these cryptic messages? Is it possible that Kemp did make these calls? Was he, as some have theorized, kidnapped, only to be murdered by his abductors and dumped where he was found? This theory, outlandish as it may sound, would at least explain the puzzling fact that it took so long for his body to be found on that flat, open, barren terrain.

In some of the wilder corners of the internet, it has even been suggested that his scholarly interest in the Lincoln assassination did him in. Did his research into the case lead him to stumble upon some "great secret" that forced shadowy powers-that-be into having him killed? Inevitably, others have proposed that the unfortunate man was kidnapped by space aliens.

On a more prosaic level, Mary Kemp maintained the darkest suspicions about Mark Dennis. She went to her grave in 2014 believing that he had killed her son, although no one was ever able to explain why this seemingly normal man would murder someone who was a complete stranger to him.

Speculate away. No matter how one looks at this case, it is damned difficult to find a "normal" answer for what happened to Donald Kemp.

[Note: In 2010, someone using the screen name "JGPiper" made several posts to an online forum discussing the Kemp mystery. This person claimed to be Kemp's sister, and provided some details that, believe it or not, just made the story even crazier. No one ever established if this person was who they claimed, or if their information was at all correct. If you're interested in going further down this particular rabbit hole, here's a link.]

http://www.sitcomsonline.com/boards/showthread.php?t=233928

Friday, January 12, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Cats of Winter Amalgamated!









Who the hell was D.B. Cooper?  These people think they know!

Two possible spontaneous combustion cases in England.

The widow who dined with her husband.  Or on her husband.  Whatever.

If you're in the mood to read about popped-out livers, here you go.

Catherine of Aragon's loyal friend.

Children and the supernatural.

Shorter version: water is weird.

Shorter version:  Mars is weird.

Shorter version:  human history is weird.

A very well-preserved Chinese mummy.

One of the most notable features of the Georgian era: gout.

Bardstown, Kentucky is having more than its share of unsolved murders.

The morgue as public entertainment.

The Fairy Census.

Stella Alexander, Quaker and scholar.

The horrific Mossdale caving disaster.

Educated spiders.

Killer oak trees.

The restoration of a dragon bed.

The story behind Miss Hap, Korean War kitten.

When Bigfoot gets dressy.

The ship's cat in Georgian times.

The life of Napoleon IV.

Some early UFO mysteries.

A 17th century witch trial.

Murder, suicide, and a newspaperman.

UFOs in the New World.

The scientific way to hunt ghosts.

Walking a mile in the Iceman's shoes.

An early female ballet choreographer.

Memorials to laboratory animals.

The truth about Victorian rakes.

The strange murder of a Vietnam vet.

The funeral of Edward VI.

The fatal can of beans.

The woman who served in the Georgian navy.

The Squibb family murders.

What books did pirates read?

The tiger that terrorized London.

The notorious Stanford White murder.

The life of Madame Lenormant.

More research into the "Bog Bodies."

A brief history of morganatic marriages.

If someone offers you the Barclay Challenge, don't take the bet.

This week in Russian Weird shows us how to go out for drinks.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at what is probably the strangest missing-persons case I've ever heard of.

Yes.  It's that strange.  In the meantime, how about a little Macedonian folk music?


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



This account of a multi-faceted haunting appeared in the "Butte Weekly Miner," February 1, 1888:
Vincennes (Ind.) special: Mrs. Dell Freeman, of this city, keeper of the boarding house exclusively for women, finds herself without boarders owing to the strange sights and sounds seen and heard about her premises. At first the demonstration was confined to unusual rappings and noises at night, growing more frequent as time passed. Then the inmates would rush in terror from their rooms, claiming that cold hands had been laid upon their faces. On such occasions knocks on the headboards of the beds elsewhere became more violent and loud throughout the house.

The noises were like pistol shots or bullets crashing through the transoms. A tall, spare man, dressed in a white robe, was seen in the basement by three inmates at once. Mrs. Freeman made a statement today in which she says she has no fear of the strange visitations, though admitting that they cannot be accounted for. She says that once a sound of a crying child was heard coming from a corner of the room in which she sat. The sound gradually changed into a blood-curdling groan. Two persons besides herself were present. A flash of blue light arose from the corner, revealing the face of the sparely built man before mentioned. This man has appeared a dozen times in the full light of gas, but has disappeared when any one present moved. At night, on several occasions, in different rooms, the same man, lying in a coffin and borne by two spectral pallbearers, passed in review before occupants. The most startling event of this seemingly incredulous story is substantiated beyond doubt. Last Monday night Mrs. Freeman, after retiring, felt a quantity of some warm fluid apparently falling from the ceiling and striking her upon the shoulder. Upon lighting the gas she was horrified to find her gown and bed-clothing smirched with quantities of warm clotted blood. Her clothing has been subjected to washing, but the stains cannot be removed. Mrs. Freeman's strange experience is the talk of the city. The utmost vigilance on the part of two policeman, especially detailed, fails to unravel the mystery.

Another article in the "Cincinnati Enquirer" offered a few additional details:
For several days seemingly incredible stories of supernatural manifestations at the house of Mrs. Dell Freeman, on Water street, Vincennes, Ind., have engaged the attention of the curious. Police circles were first apprised of the ghostly visitations, with a request to keep the matter quiet, but so mysterious and hideous were the apparations that annoyed the inmates of Mrs. Freeman's home that they could not be concealed, even by those who had not experienced them.

Realizing that the mysteries of the haunted house were worth an investigation, your reporter called on Mrs. Freeman, and elicited the following story from her:

"My house many years ago was the finest in the city, and my mother lived here when a child. I have been living here only a few years. I don't believe in ghosts, but that strange and unearthly things have taken place within these walls during the past two weeks I cannot deny, as much as I would like to."

Mrs. Freeman then went on to state that she, as well as others, had been appalled by the appearance of phantom arms and legs and only portions of faces, which seemed to flit through the various rooms. These apparitions, she said, came generally in the dead of the night. She, however, however, did not feel much frightened at the manifestations, but when invisible hands rapped on her bed and shook the bedstead as though it would fall to pieces she felt uncomfortable.

Said she: "These supernatural visitations occur in their most violent form between the hours of 4 and 5 o'clock in the morning. Of late they have been so frequent and so annoying that none of us have been able to sleep. The doors and windows of the house are securely fastened, and yet the specters seem at times to come from every quarter. Knocks and sounds and startling reports of pistol shots are heard all through the night. Loud reports of a pistol are sometimes heard on the outside and the balls come crashing through the transom and strike the head of my bed with such force as to shiver it to pieces, and when we look there is not a trace of a thing. A tall man, sparely built, has been seen in the basement, I had a brave fellow to watch the thing, and he followed it around the cellar for a while, when it vanished like a puff of smoke."

Assuring the reporter that it was not a flight of imagination, Mrs. Freeman continued: "A sound is heard as if an awakening child is crying, but when we look the baby is asleep. The sound then proceeds from the corner of the room, and then grows into a horrid, fierce groan, and finally a weird, sickening blue light flashes from the door to the ceiling and disappears amid awful groans. I have heard whispers in my ears all night long. I have frequently seen a tall man standing at my side and have been startled by the suddenness with which he appeared and disappeared. Guitars have played soft music in the rooms at different times and our clock has played the prettiest tunes I ever listened to. Others heard the same."

"One night the bookcase doors opened softly, and in the full glare of the gas a strange man, with black, curly hair, broad face and broad shoulders, arose from behind the bookcase. On the first motion of one present he vanished and caused a woman to faint."

Several nights ago, after Mrs. Freeman had retired for the night, quantities of warm blood fell on her body from above and ran down her arms to the ends of the fingers. It stained her nightclothes and pillow, and the stains will not wash out. An investigation of the room failed to show whence the blood came. The most horrifying of all these spectral disturbances is the sight of a black velvet coffin without a lid, in which the form of the dark man referred to above is borne across the room. by spectral pallbearers.

This "ghost story," as startling as it may appear, is not exaggerated, and is given just as it was related.

Somewhat to my surprise, I've been unable to find anything more about the lively doings at Mrs. Freeman's. However, I did uncover a bit of background information about the lady herself. Even before her establishment acquired ghosts, her life seems to have been one long round of excitement. As you may have guessed, her boarding-house "exclusively for women" was, in fact, a brothel, and one that was a magnet for trouble.   In 1880, one Samuel Besheares brutally attacked a man named John Fitzgerald inside her "bagnio," leaving the latter with injuries that were thought likely to be fatal.

In March 1883, Dell shot a Frenchman named Levi Laboute in the forehead as he was "trying to force an entrance to her house." Fortunately, "the wound, though severe, is not necessarily fatal."  One newspaper predicted that as a result of the shooting, "The French boys will make it hot for Dell."

Two years later, two men named William Clarke and Jacob Vorhis got into a quarrel in the Freeman establishment, causing Dell and her girls to kick the obstreperous visitors out. When they were out on the street, the fight intensified, ending when Clarke fatally stabbed Vorhis. (Clarke escaped capture, and I have not been able to determine if he was ever caught.)

In 1888, Mrs. Freeman was charged with selling liquor on a Sunday, but owing to the absence of the prosecutor and his witnesses, the case against her was dismissed.

In 1889, our Dell was--for once--on the right side of the law.  She brought a successful lawsuit against the proprietor of Green's Opera House after he refused to sell her a reserved seat ticket.  On the other hand, in that same year she was also fined for "keeping a house of ill-fame."

Meanwhile, Dell's brother, Irwin Gammel, spent years going in and out of prison for various offenses (one newspaper described him as "one of the most desperate crooks in the county") until he died trying to escape the Knox county jail in 1901.

Ghosts seem to have been the least of Mrs. Freeman's problems.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Marry In Haste, Repent With Arsenic: The Case of Christina Gilmour



Throughout history, untold numbers of women have entered into a marriage with a man who was not their true heart's desire. Many of them simply gritted their teeth and endured a lifetime of unhappiness. Some managed to overcome such unpropitious beginnings and find contentment, even love, in their wedded life. Others just fled at the first opportunity.

And then we have Christina Gilmour.

Christina Cochran was the daughter of a wealthy farmer and cheese-maker in Ayshire, Scotland. Aside from her considerable dowry, she was a pretty and personable girl, all of which naturally ensured that she had many suitors. However, there was only one man whom she wished to wed: a neighboring farmer named John Anderson. For some years, there had been an unofficial understanding that they would marry once Anderson--who was considerably poorer than the Cochrans--improved his financial status.

When Christina was 23, she attracted a particularly ardent admirer, John Gilmour. He was of higher social status than Anderson, being both rich and well-educated. In addition to these desirable qualities, Gilmour also possessed an excellent personal reputation. Christina, her heart still set on John Anderson, was indifferent to this latest suitor, but her parents found Gilmour to be a far preferable match for their eldest daughter, and urged Christina to accept his frequent proposals of marriage. She consistently refused, until the lovesick Gilmour finally threatened suicide. This melodramatic appeal, coupled with the pressure she was under from her parents, compelled Christina to ignore her heart and accept Gilmour's hand.

The first thing she did after saying "Yes" to Gilmour was to bring the news of her engagement to John Anderson. It is suspected that Christina was hoping this would force her old lover's hand and get him to agree to immediately marry her. If such was the case, her plan backfired: Anderson, like the hero in a soap opera, immediately said he was bowing out of the picture, and wished her well in her marriage.

One gets the impression that Mr. Anderson was secretly relieved to be jilted. Considering the subsequent events, it is possible that he knew our heroine better than most.

Christina fell into an epic funk. She moped around the house, took long solitary night walks, and sought consolation in large amounts of food. In short, she exhibited all the stereotypical behavior of a young person who has had a great disappointment in love. Despite Anderson's renunciation, Christina continued to correspond with him. Christina's parents, alarmed at her strange behavior, tried to arrange her marriage as soon as possible, but she obstinately kept putting off the wedding date. Finally--probably after realizing that Anderson was showing no sign of wanting to woo her back--the reluctant bride seemed to accept the inevitable. On November 29, 1842, Christina married John Gilmour, and the newlyweds settled down at his farm at Town of Inchinnan.

The Gilmour residence


On their wedding night, Gilmour was hit with the disconcerting news that Christina intended to be his wife only in the strictly legal sense. She flatly refused to consummate their marriage, preferring instead to spend her nights in a chair by the fireside. To his credit, Gilmour did not try to pressure his bride into sleeping with him. He attributed her behavior to "newlywed nerves," and assumed she would eventually come around. Christina, on the other hand, told a servant, Mary Paterson, that she had married Gilmour against her will. She added that she had "intended to take John Anderson."

On December 26, Mary Paterson left the farm to visit relatives in a neighboring parish. While it's not unusual to ask people setting out on a journey to bring back souvenirs, Christina's request was out of the ordinary: she asked Paterson to stop along the way and buy her some arsenic. Christina advised her not to buy it personally, but to stop at a particular house and get "a boy" to procure the poison. She said it was to kill some rats.

What would any true-crime story be without that classic rallying cry? "Arsenic for rats!"

Paterson forgot the location of the house she was supposed to visit, so bought the arsenic herself. On December 27, she stopped at a chemist's shop, said quite openly that it was for "Mrs. Gilmour of Inchinnan," and obtained a packet of the poison, which she dutifully passed on to her mistress. The following day, Christina showed Paterson what appeared to be the same packet of arsenic. She threw it into the fire, stating "it would be of no use to her, and she was frightened she could not use it right."

The day after that, John Gilmour--normally a strong, vigorously healthy man--suddenly and unaccountably became terribly sick. On January 2, Gilmour was still suffering greatly, but he insisted that he and Christina make a pre-scheduled New Year's visit to his family in Ayrshire. As he spent most of the visit vomiting and complaining of internal pain, it could not have been a very festive reunion. Upon returning to Inchinnan, his condition only worsened. Christina was his sole nurse, preparing all his meals. No doctor was summoned.

Early on the morning of January 6, Christina told Mary Paterson that she was going into the nearby town of Renfew. "She wanted something, to see if it would do her husband any good." She returned several hours later, without giving any details on the "something" she bought for the invalid. A while later, another servant, John Muir, found a black bag at the back of the Gilmour home. He had not seen it there earlier in day. When he opened it, he found a small vial of liquid and a paper packet marked with the unsettling word, "Poison." He gave the bag to Mary Paterson, who brought it to her mistress. Christina took it from her, saying nonchalantly that she had bought turpentine to rub on her sick husband.

That night, Christina again left the house, taking with her a farm hand named Sandy Muir. She told Muir that she was going to visit an uncle who lived in Paisley, Robert Robertson. Perhaps he would have some idea of how to deal with her husband's baffling and persistent illness. When Robertson congratulated her on her marriage, Christina remarked that she had wed Gilmour against her inclination. "She would rather of preferred one Anderson." Robertson gave her a friendly lecture on marital duty and the need to make the best of her situation: "Many persons had not got the one they liked best." Christina took his words "quite pleasantly and reasonably." She explained that Gilmour was terribly ill, but refused to see a doctor. Robertson offered to send his personal physician, Dr. McKechnie, but Christina rebuffed the suggestion. She said she would rather that he, Robertson, came to Inchinnan first, "to see what Mr. Gilmour would say." He agreed to visit the next day, and Christina returned home.

Meanwhile, John Muir thought about that strange bag he had found. He thought about the new Mrs. Gilmour's very obvious unhappiness in her marriage. He thought of his master's mysterious and violent illness. He thought of a great many things. That evening, when the invalid was alone, Muir entered his room and asked if he would like to have a doctor brought in. Gilmour replied that if he was still ill in the morning, he would do exactly that. Muir volunteered to fetch one immediately. Gilmour agreed, suggesting one Dr. McLaws, in Renfrew. "Jock," Gilmour added, "this an unco thing!"

Translated into modern dialect, Gilmour was signaling that he knew something rum was up.

Dr. McLaws arrived that very night. He thought the patient was merely suffering from some minor "inflammatory" illness. He bled Gilmour, prescribed a turpentine rub, and went on his merry way.

The next morning, a young woman entered a chemist's shop and asked for arsenic. To kill rats. She gave her name as "Miss Robertson," and stated that the poison was for a local farmer named John Ferguson. As the chemist knew of no "John Ferguson" in the area, he was reluctant to hand over the arsenic. The lady quickly added that Ferguson was no near neighbor, but "up by Paisley." Satisfied with this explanation, the chemist obligingly handed over twopence worth of arsenic.

Later that day, Mr. Robertson paid another visit to the Gilmours. He found that John was still suffering greatly. Gilmour told him of Dr. McLaws' unfruitful visit, and said that if he got no better, he would send for Dr. McKechnie. The next morning, Robertson received an urgent message from the Gilmour home, asking that he return, and bring a doctor with him. It is not known who sent this summons.

Dr. McKechnie found that Gilmour was very feverish, and suffering from unquenchable thirst. He asked for samples of the sick man's vomit and stool, but Christina told him that none had been preserved. He ordered that some should be kept for him to examine the following day. He prescribed various medicines, as well as a "blister." The following day, Dr. McKechnie paid another visit, and found that the patient seemed better. When he asked Christina for the vomit and stool samples, she said "there was so little she did not think it worth while keeping them."

Unfortunately, the next day, January 10, Gilmour's condition took a turn for the worse. On the afternoon of January 11, he died. Sandy Muir later said that shortly before the end came, Gilmour asked that his body be autopsied. Gilmour said to Christina, "Oh, if you have given me anything, tell me before I die!"

Christina did not request a post-mortem on her husband. After the funeral on January 16, she returned to the home of her parents. She also wrote a letter to John Anderson, but, unfortunately, we do not know its exact contents.

Gilmour's neighbors and servants did not share his widow's evident eagerness to have his strange death shrugged off. When an openly discontented wife buys arsenic, and her husband's funeral soon follows, it is tempting to come to certain conclusions. So loud did the gossip become that law enforcement became involved. On April 21, a warrant was issued ordering the exhumation of John Gilmour and the detention of Christina Gilmour. When Christina's father, Alexander Cochran, became aware of this, he suggested to his daughter that it might be a good time for her to take a long vacation. He quickly made arrangements to have Christina brought to Liverpool and placed on a ship bound for America. She traveled under the name of "Mrs. John Spiers."

On April 22, John Gilmour was autopsied, with the verdict that the unfortunate man had died from the effects of a poison, most likely arsenic. Two days later, police arrived at the Cochran home bearing an arrest warrant, only to find they were a bit tardy. Christina had disappeared, and her relatives refused to give any idea where she might have gone. After a bit of detective work, the local police superintendent, a man named George McKay, managed to ascertain that she had fled the country, leading him to obtain a new warrant for her arrest. McKay alerted New York authorities about the fugitive heading their way, hopped on a ship, and managed to intercept Christina in Staten Island. "Mrs. Spiers" initially tried denying that she was Christina Gilmour, but unfortunately for her, McKay had once met her during her brief stint as Mrs. John Gilmour, and he recognized her immediately. Her last gambit having failed, Christina meekly surrendered.

This was the first case of extradition under the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty between America and Great Britain, making the Gilmour case a footnote in transatlantic legal history. At her extradition hearing, the prisoner made a valiant effort to convince the court she was insane, but sadly for her, the court had little trouble coming to the conclusion that she was faking it, and ruled that she should be extradited. On August 16, McKay triumphantly placed his prisoner on a ship bound for Liverpool. One month later, she was committed for trial. In her statement before the court, Christina admitted buying arsenic (you may have already guessed that she was "Miss Robertson,") but insisted that it was only meant to kill herself. She stoutly denied giving arsenic to her husband at any time. Confronted with the fact that arsenic was found in her husband's body, she could only reply that "He got none from me, and I am not aware that he got it from anybody else."

Christina's murder trial began on January 12, 1844. The argument made by the defense was that John Gilmour had taken the arsenic himself, either accidentally or, distraught over the instant failure of his marriage, deliberately.

The court proceeding's dramatic highlight came when John Anderson took the stand. He stated that he had received two letters from the defendant since her husband's death: one in January 1843 and another on April 28. He had not kept either letter, leaving us entirely reliant on Anderson's memory for their contents. He said Christina wrote that she had bought arsenic in order to kill herself, but "she did not admit" giving it to her husband instead. She had also complained about being sent out of the country: she would have preferred to stay "till all was settled." Anderson added that Mrs. Gilmour, whom he had known since childhood, was "of a very gentle, mild, fine disposition." Other witnesses testified that although Christina may have regretted her marriage, she showed no indication of any personal rancor or dislike towards her husband, and appeared to have been genuinely distressed by his illness and death.

Unusually for a poisoning trial, the medical witnesses for both sides were in essential agreement: they had no doubt that John Gilmour had died from ingesting arsenic. The only question was, who was responsible for his poisoning: the dead man himself, or his wife? The judge, Lord Justice-Clerk Hope, gave a notable summing-up to the jury. He pointed out that Christina's statement that she had bought the arsenic for purposes of suicide might have been true. He believed that it was by no means proven that Mrs. Gilmour had been forced into the marriage against her will, thus leaving her with no obvious motive for the alleged crime. In his view, none of the prisoner's actions during her husband's life were at all suspicious. He told the jury that they "may say that without any proved act of administration on her part, your minds revolt from the notion that she committed the crime charged against her." If the jurors felt there were unanswered questions surrounding the case, the defendant deserved the full benefit of the doubt. In short, Hope essentially chucked the trial evidence out the window and instructed the jurors to free the defendant.

The panel obliged, returning a verdict of "Not Proven," that uniquely Scottish ruling that during its history was a friend to many a murderer. The decision was received in the courtroom with "loud, but not very general applause."

Christina never remarried. (Obviously John Anderson feared her second husband might fare no better than her first.) She returned to her home town, where she died over sixty years later in peace and demure respectability. Crime historian William Roughead, writing about the case some years after her death, reported that "a certain clergyman of my acquaintance," had known Christina in her later years. Roughead said the man described her as "a charming old lady, serene and beautiful, famed throughout the district for her singular piety."