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

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Luck of Thomas Smethurst

"One of the most dangerous classes in the world,” says Holmes, “is the drifting and friendless woman. She is the inevitable inciter of crime in others.”
~"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," Arthur Conan Doyle


If you love not wisely, but too well, you become a protagonist for William Shakespeare. If you love not wisely and not well at all, you become Strange Company blog fodder.

That brings us to the star of this week's post. He styled himself as a "doctor," but his medical degree was likely bought through dodgy means. In fact, virtually everything about him was dodgy; he was one of those people that generally inspires mistrust on first sight. He even had a name fit for a Dickensian villain: Thomas Smethurst.

Smethurst was born in Budworth, Cheshire, in 1805. In 1828, he married one Mary Durham. She was over twenty years older than the groom, but possessed enough money to make her charms irresistible to Smethurst. Two years later, he became a licensed apothecary, and later somehow acquired a medical license. (Likely through the early 19th century equivalent of mail order.) The dubious nature of his degree did not stop him from having a successful private practice, which was followed by an equally popular establishment specializing in the then-fashionable "water cure." In 1850, Dr. Smethurst retired on a comfortable income of £240 a year.

The year 1858 saw Thomas and Mary living in a boarding house in Bayswater. It was here that they met the woman destined to lead them into true-crime immortality: 42-year-old Isabella Bankes.

Bankes, like Camille Holland, was the perfect example of Sherlock Holmes' dangerously vulnerable "drifting and friendless woman": she was a spinster, reasonably attractive, possessed of a handsome private income, and longing for a little romance in her life. She was, in other words, perfect prey for the Thomas Smethursts of this world. Before long, it became shockingly obvious to their landlady that Dr. Smethurst and Miss Bankes had become considerably more than mere friends and neighbors, and she ordered them to leave her house.

They obliged. In December 1858, Thomas and Isabella--both merrily ignoring the fact that the doctor was a married man--entered into a bigamous union and settled down together in Richmond. As for the legitimate Mrs. Smethurst, she appeared to take her husband's flagrant infidelity with a remarkable sang-froid. Thomas continued to visit his wife occasionally and provide her with financial support, which evidently was enough to keep her contented.

Meanwhile, Isabella's health began to take a serious downturn. She had occasionally suffered from what were diagnosed as "bilious attacks," but by March 1859, they suddenly increased in severity. She began suffering violent spells of vomiting and diarrhea, and complained of a burning sensation in her throat and stomach. Her physician, a Dr. Julius, prescribed various medications, none of which had any effect. Her odd symptoms, and their resistance to any of the usual treatments, led him to suspect she was being poisoned. Dr. Julius could not help but note how very attentive Isabella's "husband" was to the invalid: Smethurst was continually bringing her food and medicines.

In mid-April, Isabella's sister Louisa came to see her. She was shocked at the change in Isabella. When the patient complained about the awful taste of the tapioca she had been served, Louisa offered to make her a fresh batch. Smethurst instantly vetoed the suggestion. After that, he forbade Louisa from making more visits, explaining that Isabella's physicians had given orders that she not have any visitors. The excitement was too much for her.

It could be surmised it was too much for Thomas, as well.

In late April, Isabella was examined by another physician, a Dr. Todd. He recorded that the ailing woman had a "peculiar expression...a terrified look, such as I have never before observed in a patient." His prescribed remedies were no more effective than Dr. Julius' had been, and Todd too began entertaining dark theories about the nature of her illness.

On April 30, Smethurst visited a solicitor and presented him with a will Isabella had recently signed. The document left all she possessed to "my sincere and loved friend, Thomas Smethurst." Once that was taken care of, he wrote Louisa giving her permission to visit. She found her sister in even worse shape than before. Louisa had brought Isabella some soup. Smethurst took the tureen from her and brought it in another room--so the soup could cool, he explained. A moment later, he brought the soup back and gave some to Isabella, who promptly vomited it back up.

Isabella's doctors compared notes and agreed that an examination of her stools and vomit was called for. They collected samples and sent them to the renowned toxicologist Alfred Swaine Taylor for testing. The results were no great surprise to them: Isabella was being poisoned. On May 2, Dr. Smethurst was arrested.

Smethurst vigorously protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He insisted that if Isabella had been ingesting arsenic, it must have come from the medications prescribed by Dr. Julius. Her doctors were killing her, he declared.

On May 3, Isabella died. Smethurst was now charged with murder.

The next day, an autopsy was performed, which revealed that Isabella had been five to seven weeks pregnant. The doctors who performed the post-mortem ruled that her pregnancy alone could not account for her illness. They believed she might have suffered from acute dysentery, but that the most likely cause of her death was irritant poisoning. No arsenic was found in her body, but further tests revealed the presence of a small amount of antimony. Her bottles of medication were also tested. All appeared to be normal except for one. This container of potassium chlorate, which was dubbed "bottle 21," became the central item in the case. Professor Taylor announced that this bottle showed the presence of arsenic. He gave his opinion that Smethurst had used the potassium chlorate--a common diuretic--to speed up the elimination of arsenic from Isabella's system, thus explaining why the autopsy failed to find any traces of the poison. According to Professor Taylor, Smethurst was a poisoner, and a very clever one.

Taylor's verdict was the central piece of evidence at Smethurst's trial. The prosecution brought in an array of doctors who all agreed that Miss Bankes had not suffered from dysentery, or any other natural illness. Testimony showed that Isabella's doctors had not prescribed her any medications containing arsenic or antimony. If those poisons were in her system, they were put there by nefarious means.

It was all looking extremely black for the defendant, until Dr. Taylor reluctantly took the stand. He was forced to make one of the most embarrassing revelations ever given during a murder trial by an "expert witness." It turned out that--whoopsie!--"bottle 21" had never contained arsenic, after all. Taylor--rather late in the day--realized that the arsenic he had detected really came from the copper gauze he used in his tests. Despite this blunder, he continued to insist that Isabella Bankes had been killed by an irritant poison.

He just could no longer prove it.

The scientific community was disgusted with Taylor. An editorial in the "Dublin Medical Press" thundered, "The man who, par excellence, was looked upon as the pillar of medical jurisprudence; the man who it was believed could clear up the most obscure case, involving medicolegal considerations, ever brought into a Court of Justice; the man without whose assistance no criminal suspected of poisoning could be found guilty in England; the man whose opinion was quoted as the highest of all authorities at ever trial where analysis is required, is the same who has now admitted the use of impure copper in an arsenic test where a life hung upon his evidence, the same who has brought an amount of disrepute upon his branch of the profession that years will not remove, the ultimate effects of which it is impossible to calculate, which none can regret end, a lesson may be taught which will not be lost upon the medical jurists, and which may tend to keep the fountain of justice clear and unpolluted." The editorial closed by suggesting that Professor Taylor permanently retire to the country and take his copper gauze with him.

The defense brought on their own medical witnesses, who asserted that Isabella had died from natural causes. If she had been poisoned, they were certain the autopsy would have found evidence of it. These physicians believed the traces of antimony Taylor discovered could be attributed to the bismuth Isabella had been prescribed. The prosecution continued to insist Miss Bankes had been poisoned, although they conceded that it was impossible to say what exactly the poison had been, or how it had been administered.

The solid defense arguments led many legal minds to assume Smethurst would be acquitted. However, even though Taylor's initial verdict of poison had been refuted, it managed to taint the case. An aura of "poisoner" still clung to the defendant, and Smethurst's naturally shifty personality did not help him any. Despite the strong case to be made for "reasonable doubt," the jury found Smethurst guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death.

The verdict was immensely unpopular. The public and the medical community found themselves in the uncomfortable position of saying, "We think he did it, too, but we have to let him off."  Smethurst may well have been (in the words of the "British Medical Journal") "a liar, a cheat, a scoundrel of the blackest dye," but his trial had signally failed to prove that he was also a murderer.

In those days, there was no Court of Criminal Appeal. If Smethurst's admittedly unlikeable neck was to be saved, it could only be done by the Home Secretary, George Cornewall Lewis. After being bombarded by petitions from medical and legal experts pointing out the many flaws in the case against the condemned man, Lewis took the unprecedented step of granting Smethurst a free pardon. In his report, Lewis noted that he had no other choice, due to "the imperfection of medical science, and from the fallibility of judgement, in an obscure malady, even of skilful and experienced medical practitioners."

In other words, Dr. Taylor wound up being responsible for saving Thomas Smethurst from the gallows. I doubt he appreciated the irony.

In December 1859, Smethurst stood trial for bigamy. His defense was characteristically sordid: He revealed that his wife Mary had previously lived with an artist, John Peter Laporte, and had borne his child, a son named Charles. (A curious footnote: it was Charles Laporte who had introduced his mother to Smethurst.)

Smethurst's lawyer argued that Mary had wed Laporte, thus making her marriage to Smethurst invalid. (And, not incidentally, making the late Isabella Bankes Thomas' only legal spouse.) Unfortunately for the defendant, the court was unmoved by this novel argument. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year imprisonment. Upon his release, Smethurst and his wife were reunited, and undoubtedly spent many happy years sharing some unforgettable memories.

In 1862, Smethurst claimed probate on Isabella's will, successfully fighting off a challenge from Miss Bankes' relatives that the document was invalid. He inherited some £800.

The last we hear from our hero is when he petitioned the Home Office asking compensation for the six months he spent in prison between his arrest and the pardon. His application was refused with the tart comment that Smethurst "had a very lucky escape."

[Note: Some crime historians believe that, pardon be damned, the bigamous little doctor was a cold-blooded poisoner. However, in the "British Medical Journal" of January 5, 1985, J.F. Fielding argued that Isabella's symptoms, as well as the results of her autopsy, all clearly point to Crohn's Disease being the true cause of her death. In her book "The Secret Poisoner," Linda Stratmann added that if Isabella did suffer from Crohn's or ulcerative colitis, her pregnancy may well have exacerbated the condition, leaving her to die from malnutrition or dehydration. On the other hand, we have Louisa Bankes' description of Smethurst's decidedly shady behavior during Isabella's last illness, not to mention the fact that Miss Bankes' death proved greatly profitable to him.

Smethurst deserved to be acquitted. But did he deserve to be exonerated? We'll never know for sure.]

Friday, April 27, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the International Federation of Vintage Cats in Hats!






What the hell are the Edinburgh coffin dolls?  This guy thinks he knows.

What the hell are these Arctic circles?  I'm betting H.P. Lovecraft would know.

Where the hell is Hell?  It turns out to be in quite a few places, which should surprise no one.

Watch out for those cursed trees!

Watch out for those saucer-eyed monsters!

Watch out for the sea monster of the Bahamas!

The Milky Way, revealed.

A Victorian girl becomes a Victorian boy.

A dead guy finds a good Samaritan.

Go to the Maldives, and live like a mermaid.

The life of a "botanical daredevil."

Some ballooning "firsts."

A teenage girl turns horse thief.  (Shades of our old friend Josephine Perkins!)

Speaking of horse thieves, here's how Jimmy really became Blue.

The "Norwegian Brothers Grimm."

The woman who taught Amelia Earhart to fly.

Do animals predict earthquakes?

Looking for a DIY project involving human thigh bones?  Here you go!

An early motor car.  Really, really early.

A newly-discovered skeleton in Pompeii.

The living Bonaparte descendants.

Solving Germany's oldest cold case.

The murder of a dodo.

Naughtiness in the shrubbery.

A well-intentioned traitor.

Neanderthals may have gone on sea voyages.

China's bringing out heavy artillery in order to play God with the climate. What could go wrong?

Only click this link if you're in the mood for stories about nasal worms.  And don't say I didn't try to warn you.

Ghost stories from Kashmir.

A ghost that played architecture critic.

Smuggling via hot air balloon.

The art of the silhouette.

A Danish sailor in Norfolk.

The town with a cat mayor.

Don the Talking Dog.

Finding another Earth.

Diary of an antiquarian.

A millionaire's lost treasure.

A brief history of shanghaiing.

One of the last "gentlemen highwaymen."

You can now visit a "lost city" in Kansas.

This week in Russian Weird goes for a walk in Siberia.

Speaking of Siberia--which seems to be Ground Zero for Russian Weird--here's an ultra-spooky statue just begging to star in a horror movie.

An early 19th century elopement.

The first female detectives.

A joke turns out very, very badly.

Where to get away with murder.

Mohammed rises from the dead, 1903.

A luckless 16th century witch.

How to diet like a flapper.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a man who was either wrongly persecuted...or a murderer who got away with it.  You decide!  In the meantime, here's what was rocketing up the Billboard charts several thousand years ago.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



This week, let's talk Mystery Stones. From the (Dundee, Scotland) "Sunday Post," August 15, 1920:
Woodford, Saturday. Mysterious attacks made on a villa in Grove Road, Woodford, are puzzling the local police. The attacks are also causing considerable indignation and alarm among the people in the neighbourhood.

Wellington Villa, occupied by Mr. Thomas Herbert Gaskin, inventor of the Gaskin lifeboat, has been singled out for a series of extraordinary assaults by some person or persons apparently armed with a long-distance catapult.

The attacks commenced about a week ago, when stones, seemingly propelled from a spot a considerable distance away, rattled against the upper windows without doing any damage. The second attempt was of a more determined nature, and the third, commencing late on Thursday night, was continued into the small hours of yesterday morning, causing much damage.

The whole neighbourhood was roused, and fifty people, assisted by four policemen, searched the district for hours. Having got the range of the house, the attackers sent stone after stone through the bedroom windows, breaking plate glass three-eighths of inch thick. Mr. Gaskin's son was struck on the shoulder by a pebble, and the bedroom floors were soon littered with stones and broken glass.

The police and others who took up the search for the attacking party climbed the roofs of adjacent houses and swarmed neighbouring trees, in order to get good posts of observation, but no one could discover where the stones were coming from. The stones were smooth, and evidently carefully chosen for the purpose.

Mr. Gaskin, who is an American, has lived at Wellington Villa for fourteen years, as far as he knows has not an enemy in the world, and he can offer no solution to the mystery. If a catapult is being used it must be one of unusual power, for all the stones come in a straight line. 
On August 18, the "Sunderland Echo" had more on the puzzling bombardment:
The mystery of Wellington Villa, Grove Road, Woodford, deepens. Detectives inside and outside the house have failed to solve it, nor can the crowds of curious onlookers who hare been attracted to the road offer any intelligible theory.

The problem is to locate the person or persons who, for more than a week, have been terrorising the occupants of the villa nightly by directing a steady fire of stones at the front bedroom windows. The villa—three storey house—is situated in a quiet road. The serio-comic, yet uncanny, happening, repeated each evening as soon the family retire to rest, has created indignation in the neighbourhood, and the local police have sought the assistance of Scotland Yard.

The theory at first favoured by the local police was that the stones came from persons armed with a long-range catapult; but it is now thought that the stones must be directed by something of greater force than a catapult.

The house is occupied by Mr. Gaskin, the inventor of the Gaskin lifeboat, who has resided there for fourteen years.

Crowds of curious spectators flocked to the scene of operations soon after dusk, while policemen and interested residents climbed trees and mounted roofs and housetops in search of the unseen enemy. Oblivious of the massed forces of the "defenders" and "scouts," the attackers opened fire, the windows being subjected to a storm of stones of varying sizes. Several people keeping watch on neighbouring housetops were struck.
I wasn't able to find any more about the story, suggesting that Mr. Gaskin's persecution ceased without the mystery being solved.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Girl From Farksolia: Review of "Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life In Letters" Edited by Stefan Cooke



"I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind — that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong."
~Edgar Allan Poe

"I always am grieved at the world."
~Barbara Follett

It has often been said that true child prodigies seldom mature well. All too often, their early brilliance soon flames out into desperate unhappiness, early death, or a simple nonproductive adulthood where they are never able to live up to their early potential.

Of all these prodigies, arguably the most haunting of the lot was the strange, fey literary marvel Barbara Newhall Follett. By the age of 13, she had published a brilliant and acclaimed novel, established deep friendships (augmented with a remarkable correspondence) with intellectuals three times her age, and, most importantly, showed a profound sensitivity to and understanding of nature rare among even adults. So deep was her connection to the "uncivilized" world of Mother Earth that one almost believes she was a "changeling," brought by the fairies into an uncongenial and utterly alien human environment. "Her Life and Letters" is the closest thing we have to date to an in-depth study of Follett. Cooke, a blood relative, (his mother was Barbara's half-sister,) has compiled Follett's many extant letters, and it is clearly a labor of love memorializing this aunt he never met, but obviously reveres. Wisely, he does not clutter the collection with too much editorializing, allowing Follett's vivid voice to speak for herself. It is, in effect, an epistolary autobiography.

Follett was born on March 4, 1914. Her father, Wilson Follett, was an editor at Knopf, and her mother Helen was a former schoolteacher. Barbara's parents took great pride in her obvious intelligence, and encouraged her interest in writing. She was home-schooled, which allowed her intellect and prodigious imagination to follow their own eccentric paths. By the time she was four, Barbara began using a typewriter to compose everything from thank-you notes to short stories. She also took to writing long, articulate letters to her many adult friends.  (Including her mother.  When Barbara was eight, she wrote Helen an astonishing lecture sternly advising Mrs. Follett to get rid of her boring friends, or if that was not possible, at least "talk about something really worth while...'Make your talk more interesting.'  Just try this and see if it doesn't work.")

She created an imaginary world called "Farksolia," with its own history (a surprisingly "Game of Thrones"-like one,) wildlife, and language ("Farksoo.")  Farksolia, she enthused, was a land most beautiful, but "very peculiar and strange in almost every way."  For several years, her imagination was fixated on this far-off planet of her fancy.  She spoke of her longing to visit Farksolia, and wrote poems in "Farksoo":
"Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yar fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart ain birdream.
Avee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen der tuee,
Darnceen craik peen bune."

By the age of eight, she was playing the violin and piano, writing plays and poems, and starting work on her first novel, "The House Without Windows."

"Windows" is set in an imaginary paradise called Mount Varcrobis. The novel centers around a little girl named Eepersip, who, in Barbara's words, "ran away from loneliness." Eepersip leaves her home and family to live in the wild. Her loving parents make a search for her, but she manages to elude them. Eepersip gradually sheds her shoes, then her clothes, making for herself magical dresses of flowers and leaves. At one point, Eepersip lures her little sister Fleuriss into joining her, but although the girl loves Eepersip, they both eventually realize Fleuriss does not truly belong in the wild, and she returns to her parents. Eepersip will miss the girl, but she is also relieved to again be free of human companionship. All she wants is to live among the beautiful plants and her animal friends.

The novel ends with Eepersip becoming one with her beloved nature:
And, when the sun again tinged the sky with colour, a flock of these butterflies, of purple and gold and green, came swooping and alighted on her head in a circle, the largest in front.  Others came in myriads and covered her dress with delicate wing-touches.  Eepersip held out her arms a moment.  A gold-and-black one alighted on each wrist.  And then--she rose into the air, and, hovering an instant over a great laurel-bush, vanished. 
She was a fairy--a wood-nymph. She would be invisible for ever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see. To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature--a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods.

"The House Without Windows" would be a remarkable production by an experienced author. When it's remembered that it was written by a child not yet into her teens, one begins to think there was something downright uncanny about Barbara Follett.

Follett in 1922


In 1922, her family rented a cottage in the New Hampshire woods. Barbara was in her element there, spending most of her time exploring the wilderness. She wrote a friend, "I wonder if you know, by any chance, that I am now in the home of Beauty and Nature. This is where nymphs, fairies, gnomes, elves, live. Nowhere in the world, I believe, is there a place so fertile and luxuriant...It is a windy day. The silvery white-caps bring me tidings from Nature, tidings from the mermaids." Her father took her on camping trips, which she adored. She wrote ecstatically of the "stars quietly trembling" in the "mermaid-haunted lake," the fairies and water-nymphs she believed were all around her, the "Night-air fairies and night-air-queens."



She made no secret of the fact that she thought much more of animals than people. In one of her many letters she complained, "How one can look at the fuzzy yellow ball of a little chicken and then want to kill it is more than I can see...The chicken never did anybody any harm; it is human greed that makes us kill them...I am a friend of all Nature save human beings, and for this reason can be brought to see the right side of things."

In 1927, Knopf published "The House Without Windows," which was an immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers gushed over the child author's "perfect prose style" and curiously adult grasp of words and ideas. The "Hartford Courant" enthused, "Critics are marveling at the fluent English, at the instinctive artistry of it, at the happy revelation of the heart of a little girl. Educators are amazed at the background of reading and observation it shows, combined with a power of self-expression which few adults achieve."

Follett at work, 1928


The following year, Barbara persuaded her parents to allow her to join the crew of a lumber schooner, the "Frederick H.," on its voyage from New Haven to Nova Scotia. After her return, she wrote, "Oh! there is nothing in the world more thoroughly delightful than being under sails, the schooner leaning before a north-west gale, the green and foaming waves raging all about, the sails full and bellying out with wind, the howling and whistling of wind through the white canvas, the raging white bone the schooner would have in her white teeth, the far cant to leeward o that we had to use the table-racks, the calling out of "Hard-a-lee!" when we tacked, the bustle of mens' feet to the blocks and sheets; or in a calm for several days, nothing but the swell which rolled you out of your bunk at night, so that she almost rolled water onto her decks, and everything rolling and thumping, doors banging in the cabin, bottles and dishes jingling, the groaning of the booms as they would swing in and out, the billowing and flapping of the idle sails, the pattering of reef-points; and the sailor-life in general...it was all just exactly as I had dreamed."

The voyage provided Barbara with the material for her next book, "The Voyage of the Norman D.," which was published in 1928. It too was hailed for its mature literary craftsmanship. Unfortunately, just as the young author's career was blossoming, her personal life began falling apart. Her father, the person she loved most in the world, announced he was  abandoning his family for a woman only six years older than Barbara. Worse still, when Knopf, disgusted by this family scandal, fired Walter, his wife and children were left penniless.

Barbara was bitterly angry and hurt by this betrayal.  She was never close to her father again. She rejected him, as he had rejected her.  Barbara dealt with her pain by retreating, Eepersip-like, to the outdoors. As she would float on a raft in the middle of Lake Sunapee, she reflected, "how external all those things were, and how unimportant, and how beautiful the lake was, and how huge the universe was, and what a fly-speck the Earth is (God must have to use a microscope,) and what They were missing, squabbling away in the cottage, and how fortunate I was to be able to keep myself from being drawn into it--and numerous helpful thoughts of this kind."

The sound of a little girl whistling past the graveyard.

Helen Follett shared her daughter's need for escape. In September 1928, the two of them sailed to the West Indies. Their plan was to earn a living by writing magazine articles about their travels. Sadly, the trip proved to be a disaster. Mother and daughter began quarreling with each other, and in Tahiti, Barbara suffered a breakdown. Helen wrote bitterly, "Bar has had a smash--emotional and nervous. It was bound to come sometime when the condition was right for it...Follett's attempt to smash his family for his own individual freedom has worked one hundred percent. Bar is now the victim."

In May, 1929, Barbara and her mother visited Honolulu, and sailed back to the mainland on a schooner, the "Vigilant," where Barbara became infatuated with the second mate, Edward Anderson.  She and Anderson would continue a romantic correspondence for some years.  Anderson was an intelligent, articulate, philosophical man whom Barbara described as "a rock and a shelter."

Upon returning to the U.S., Barbara and Helen made their way to Pasadena, California. Unfortunately, relations between them continued to deteriorate so badly that it was agreed that the two needed to separate. Helen returned to Honolulu, where she found a job at a museum and began writing a book about their travels. Barbara would stay in Pasadena with a family friend, take classes at a junior college, and see a psychiatrist.

"Honolulu Star Bulletin," August 26, 1929


At least, that was the plan. Barbara hated Southern California and its "poisonous" atmosphere, hated school, hated life. After only a few days, she ran away to San Francisco. Police managed to track her down, and she was put into custody. Barbara told a reporter for the "Oakland Tribune," "I hate the idea of school...I was not given the conventional upbringing and it is too late to try to standardize me now...Both of my parents are literary--perhaps that is the trouble with them, and with me...What I hate about it all is the sordidness and vulgarity of being arrested. It has none of the beauty of grief or tragedy in it. If it were beautiful, I wouldn't mind so much....all I ask is to be let alone to do what seems best to me." She sighed, "perhaps some day it will be literary material."

"Honolulu Star Bulletin," Oct. 1, 1929


 Barbara was returned to Pasadena and placed in the custody of friends while awaiting Helen's return from Hawaii. Barbara, Helen, and Barbara's younger sister Sabra then moved to New York. Sixteen-year-old Barbara found a job writing synopses for the Fox Film Corporation and took business courses at the Packard Commercial School. She also started another novel, "Lost Island." It shared the "House Without Windows" theme of escaping to nature. In the novel, a couple is stranded on a desert island.  They become lovers, and all is idyllic.  Then, they are "rescued," and the trouble begins...

Despite all this activity, Barbara was bored and unhappy in New York. She wrote, "I certainly don't think there is much to be said for this so-called civilization...I wish we were back to the cave days." She mourned, "My dreams are going through their death flurries."

In the summer of 1931, Helen and her daughters rented a cabin in Norwich, Vermont. It was there that Barbara met a young man named Nickerson Rogers, who became her close companion. (Although she wrote a friend that she still had Ed Anderson "in the back of my mind--in reserve, so to speak.")

The following year, she and Rogers hiked the newly-created Appalachian Trail. The couple then set off on a journey which took them to Gibraltar, Morocco, Spain, France, and the Swiss Alps. They passed themselves off as husband and wife, which amused Barbara no end.  She wrote a friend, "You have no idea how much fun it is to be married, I mean when you REALLY AREN'T...We have agreed that the first requisite of a happy marriage is not to be married."

When they returned to America, Barbara accompanied Rogers to his native Boston. There, she worked on a book about their Appalachian hike, continued revising "Lost Island," and earned cash by working as a church secretary. Barbara and Rogers ceased to play-act about being a married couple and turned themselves into the real thing on July 7th, 1934. Rogers got a job at the Polaroid Corporation, where he showed promise of becoming a successful businessman. Barbara was bemused by her new-found conventional domesticity. She wrote, "My family has so long been associated in my mind with financial failure.  It is hard for me to conceive that one member of it--me--could even be associated with, let alone married to, somebody who is going to be able to make a normal living!"

Barbara reconnected with her parents, although her relations with them remained strained. She wrote, "I am very fond of them both...Of course I can never really be myself with them, they are so sort of formal, without at all meaning to be. Nick is completely at sea with them. He doesn't get the point at all. He is a simple person, and his family is simple, and all this much ado about nothing, these mannerisms, this literary pomposity, gets him down...I guess you have to be brought up with it to be used to it! And heaven knows I have a hard enough time myself!"

Unfortunately, Barbara's marriage soon developed problems. Someone so unconventional and free-spirited likely wasn't meant for the marital state at all. Rogers' job left him little time for the outdoor pursuits that had originally brought them together.  The young couple began quarreling, leading Barbara to seek escape in a new passion--modern dance. She joined Boston's Dance Workshop Group, and in 1939 enrolled in a dance program at Mills College in Oakland, California.

While on the West Coast, Barbara received a letter from Rogers, announcing that he wanted a divorce. Despite their difficulties, this came as a complete shock to her. She feared that, like Wilson Follett, he was leaving her for another woman.  Blaming herself entirely for this breakdown of her marriage, she immediately returned to Boston to plead with him to give their relationship another chance. He agreed, but relations between them were, inevitably, uncomfortable. Barbara was hopeful, however. She wrote, "I think I've persuaded him to give me my chance. He is a very kind person, really, and hates to hurt people...I think that, if I can really prove that I'm different, why maybe things will work out...That's what I'm banking on."

By the end of the year, the fragile reconciliation was unraveling. It probably did not help matters that Barbara was now dependent on "sleeping stuff" prescribed by a doctor friend.  In November 1939 Barbara wrote a friend, "On the surface things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong--just as wrong as they can be. I am trying--we are both trying. I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one; but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!"

That was Barbara's last known letter.  Despite her brave words, the "outcome" was not happy at all. On the evening of December 7, Barbara walked out of their Brookline apartment carrying nothing but thirty dollars with her. She has never been seen or heard from again. On the 21st, Nickerson Rogers reported to the police that his wife was missing, but requested that there be no publicity. Apparently he assumed she had, as was her wont, simply run away from her problems, and would eventually come home.

Weeks went by, with no word from Barbara. Finally, in April 1940, Rogers went again to the police, this time asking that news of her disappearance be made public. Unfortunately, the alert was given out under her married name. No one associated "Barbara Rogers" with the youthful prodigy Barbara Follett, so the case got very little notice. It was not until 1966, when Helen Follett and psychology professor Harold Grier McCurdy published a short book about her ("Barbara, the Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Prodigy") that the world became aware that the once-famous "girl author" had vanished many years back.

In 1943, Nickerson filed for divorce, stating that since December 7, 1939, he "has had no word from or information concerning her existence or whereabouts." He eventually remarried, and passed away in 1980.

What happened to this young woman who began life with such promise, only to see it all end so sadly and enigmatically? Inevitably, some have wondered if Nickerson Rogers was responsible for his wife's disappearance. Among those who harbored dark suspicions about him was Helen Follett, who found it sinister that he had put so little effort towards finding his wife. Some years after Barbara vanished, Helen wrote him, "All this silence on your part looks as if you had something to hide..." However, Rogers seems to have been a nonviolent man, and one who could simply have walked away from his marriage any time he chose. Barbara's fate was most likely a genuine mystery to him.

Suicide cannot be ruled out. Barbara's writing career had stalled, and her marriage was failing as well. It is possible that she came to the conclusion that life was no longer worth living. However, to date, no one has found any evidence suggesting she killed herself.

There is a more optimistic possibility. Barbara was talented, adventurous, and not afraid to strike out alone. It is conceivable that she "ran away from loneliness" to carve out an existence more to her tastes. Perhaps like her childhood alter ego Eepersip, Follett fled to some real-life Eden where she could live as a "spirit of nature," shunning all attempts to lure her back to civilization. In Barbara's case, it would not be at all strange if her life wound up imitating her art.

Most disappearances are surprising and inexplicable. Barbara Follett's could almost be called inevitable.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Strange Company HQ kitchen staff.




"Jolly Jane"...well, wasn't.

Predictions of Lincoln's death.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  the hiccup cure to end all hiccup cures.

Billiards and John Quincy Adams.

Germany has a dachshund museum.  Well, why not?

Sadly, it does not seem that Virgil held a funeral for a fly.

Kay Boyle: she had been there, done that.

The duties of a Georgian footman.

The first prank phone call.

Minnie, the ship's cat who kept coming back.

A Stone Age archaeological site in the North Sea.

Taking the measure of criminals.

Nesta, the forest witch.

Ancient medicine.

The day when no news really was good news.

The man who experimented with time.

Dealing with teething in the 19th century.

We all had a surprise visitor last weekend.

Someone stole a queen's heart.  No, I mean literally.

An assortment of historical coincidences.

A famous 18th century asylum.

Particularly strange cases of mass hysteria.

The man with a weaponized hand.

Mr. Hovey and the little stone book.

A time-slip account.

Two famous dogs in the Smithsonian.

Perverted penguins.

The Falklands and a tube of toothpaste.

Dog folklore.

How Samuel Taylor Coleridge wound up in a wine cellar.

Becoming Clark Gable.

The 1814 Frost Fair.

Exploring the possibility of pre-human civilizations.

Etiquette lessons from fairy tales.

The diaries of a WWII officer.

The most haunted roads in the UK.

19th century wolf attacks.

The truth about Johnny Appleseed.

This week in Russian Weird brings us a firebug poltergeist.

That wraps it up for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at the sad life and mysterious death of a literary prodigy.  In the meantime, here's some Telemann:




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



When you come across the phrase "amateur hypnotist" in the old papers, you know you're on to something good. From the "Sedalia Democrat," April 28, 1902:
A family of seven is lying in a comatose condition in the town of Ticona, Ill., as the result of the work of an amateur hypnotist who for four days and nights has been trying unsuccessfully to restore his victims to consciousness.

A Lasalle, Ill., dispatch of the 26th says: The subjects are Rudolph Bartig, his wife and five children. The mesmerist is Leo Lenzer, a youth who lives near them. Neighbors, attracted by the quietude about the Bartig home, made an investigation today which resulted in a confession by Lenzer. He admitted that early in the week he had put the family in a hypnotic state and had lost control of his subjects. Since then, he said, he has spent most of the time in the house trying in vain to lift the spell under which they rest.

The strain has brought him to the verge of nervous prostration. At his earnest request no physician is allowed to interfere with the Bartigs. Their condition as to pulse and heart is all right.

Tonight Lenzer succeeded in partly arousing two of the children and he promises to awaken the other members of the family when he shall have regained his nerve.

I couldn't find any follow-ups to this story, so for all I know the Bartigs are still having a nice long nap.

Hopefully Lenzer took up less hazardous hobbies, but he strikes me as one of those types who goes through life Attracting Incident.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Haunted Monkey Jacket; Or, The Unexpected Hazards of Second-Hand Clothing

"Illustrated London News," April 23, 1949



Tales of haunted houses are, of course, a dime a dozen. Haunted dolls are--if you go by the sale listings on eBay--drearily commonplace. Allegations of haunted items of clothing, on the other hand, are comparatively rare, which is why I was pleased to come across The Case of the Jinxed Jacket. In his 1968 book "Exploring the Psychic World," paranormal researcher Fred Archer discussed how in 1949, the cast of "The Queen Came By," a play set in the Victorian era, unexpectedly wound up playing starring roles in a production of The Weird.

While preparing a "period" wardrobe for the play, a woman's jacket from the 1870s was found in a second-hand clothing shop. It was decided this would be an ideal costume for the star, Thora Hird. It was a bolero-style garment made of black velvet--what was known in Victorian times as a "monkey-jacket." It was in remarkably good condition for its age, suggesting that few people had ever worn it.

Subsequent events would suggest that its lack of use was not really all that surprising.

When Hird first put on the jacket, it fit her very comfortably. However, after a short time the garment began to feel increasingly tight around her arms and chest. She felt a "queer choking feeling." She said nothing about this to anyone, and tried dismissing the unpleasant sensation as a figment of her imagination, but the feeling persisted. It was almost as if the jacket was slowly strangling her.

One night, Hird was unable to appear in the performance, so her understudy, Erica Foyle, took over her role. When Foyle donned the jacket, she immediately felt the same increasing sense of tightness that--unbeknownst to her--Hird had also suffered. That same night, Foyle had an odd vision: for an instant, she saw the figure of a young woman, wearing the same jacket.

When Foyle told the rest of the company about her eerie experiences, Hird finally shared how that jacket had affected her in the same way. As an experiment, the stage manager, Marjorie Page, donned the jacket. She soon felt the same creepy sense of constriction.

Next to try the coat was the director's wife, Mary Piffard. Unlike the other women, she felt nothing uncomfortable about it. However, when she took it off, the others were startled to see gruesome-looking red marks on her throat. It looked as if someone had been strangling her. "The jacket," Mrs. Piffard declared, "has a hoodoo on it."

The director, Frederick Piffard, happened to be a friend of Archer's. Piffard asked the "ghost-hunter" to make an investigation of these peculiar happenings. Archer arranged to have three mediums hold a seance at the theater. This proved to be a far more interesting production than "The Queen Came By."

The mediums were given the jacket, and asked for any impressions they might obtain from it. (Naturally, they had not been told anything about its history.) The first medium sensed nothing unusual about it. The second could only say that it had belonged to a young woman.

With Ray Morgan, the third medium, they hit the psychic jackpot. After holding the jacket for a few moments, Morgan began to see a chilling vision. He said the jacket had been worn by a young woman of about eighteen or twenty. He thought her name was something like "Edith Merryweather." She was feeling intense guilt over something she had done. She had also inspired a violent rage in her lover, a man named "Derek"--rage that she felt she somehow deserved. The medium "saw" this man attack the girl. They struggled for a moment, his hands on her throat, until he managed to force her into a butt of water, where she drowned. The murderer then pulled the body out and carried it up a flight of stairs to a bleak, sparsely-furnished room. He wrapped the corpse in a blanket and carried it back downstairs. The psychic vision ended there.

When the medium told his story, Marjorie Page broke in excitedly. She blurted that she had seen this exact same vision of murder when she wore the jacket. It had seemed so outlandish, she couldn't bring herself to mention it to anyone.

After the seance had broken up, Archer and a few members of the theatrical company remained in the theater, trying to digest what had just happened. Mrs. Piffard again tried on the jacket. This time, no marks appeared around her throat, but the coat quickly became agonizingly tight. A friend of Hird's then donned the coat. He immediately fainted. Another actor, Ivan Staff, put on the jacket, but felt nothing.

Logically enough, Archer feared that the power of suggestion could now be affecting everyone. They needed to involve outsiders, who knew nothing about the jacket and its alleged history. Although it was now past midnight, Archer and another reporter decided to head out and invite the first people they happened to meet to join their little experiment.

In Trafalgar Square, they encountered a young couple, a man and woman in their twenties, heading home after a night on the town. Archer and his friend explained to the pair that they were reporters working on a story, for which was needed help from members of the public. Would they be willing to join them at the Duke of York's Theatre?

In those more innocent days, the couple saw nothing wrong with the mysterious request. They certainly were willing!

When the couple arrived at the theater, all they were told was that the group was conducting an experiment. They asked the girl to put on the jacket. To the thinly-veiled disappointment of her audience, she felt nothing unusual. Her boyfriend touched the jacket's sleeve with his right hand, and an alarmed expression crossed his face. He said he felt a strange urge to grab the arm. He put his left hand on the other sleeve. His hands began moving higher on the jacket, until he suddenly yanked himself away. He stammered that touching the jacket gave him an increasing impulse to put his hands around the girl's throat.

He was asked to try on the jacket. Reluctantly, he agreed. He immediately seemed to have trouble breathing, as though the garment was choking him. He gasped, "There is something sinister--like death. It feels as if someone were trying to kill me. But in a just way." When asked what he meant by those last words, he admitted that he had no idea.

Unfortunately, our little tale ends there. There was no way of tracing the jacket's history, leaving it impossible to know if these visions of a guilt-ridden young woman and her brutal murderer were based on some now long-forgotten real-life tragedy. The last report I've been able to find about the "hoodoo" garment--by then known as "The Strangling Jacket of Drury Lane"--stated that it was sent, appropriately enough, to Hollywood. Gerrett J. Lloyd, a former assistant to film director D.W. Griffith, wished to do his own experiments with the jacket. Newspapers reported that he intended to "take the garment to Death Valley to see if the spirit still lingers at a below sea level altitude." For all I know, the jacket is still in existence somewhere.

So if you're ever browsing through a vintage clothing shop, and you stumble across a Victorian-era velvet jacket, I wouldn't advise putting it on...

Friday, April 13, 2018

Weekend Link Dump


As this is Friday the 13th, this week's Link Dump is sponsored by an array of lucky black cats!








Why the hell do we have eyebrows?

Who the hell was Jane Austen?

What the hell killed off the dinosaurs?

What the hell formed Giant's Causeway?  Now we know?

Watch out for those haunted farms!

Jesse James and the paranormal.

The Army Cyclist Corps.  ("Cycle for the King!")

Some mid-20th century photos of London.

An island associated with Franklin's expedition.

A possible ancient Roman refrigerator.

The obscure French village that hides an ancient treasure. (No, it's not Rennes-le-Ch√Ęteau...)

Spring cleaning, 19th century style.

The long history behind a famous insult.

The British theft of Ethiopian manuscripts.

Superstitions for drivers.

The very, very strange Silent Twins.

You wouldn't want to be around Jeremiah Meacham when he was mightily distressed.

The Witch of Huntingdon.

A man who had an unenviable "first and last."

Fairies in the Folklore Society.

I'm not sure why I'm linking this, because I've always hated this story: the ill-fated Laika, space dog.

The young author and the fateful seance.

A recent murder case that shook Iceland.

The history of punch, the "middling drink."

A French conjurer in England.

A mayor of Zurich comes to a bad end.

As a side note, "Biddy Early" is a great name for a witch.

Esperanto lives!

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Ladies, this is what not to do with a pot of cosmetics.

A massacre that shaped English history.

Yet another potential "Robin Hood."

A dream of death.

A ghost who wanted a coroner.

A finger bone stars in this week's "pushing back human history" link.

A look at 18th century Bristol.

The dangers of 19th century railway stations.

The snake-woman of Jamestown.

The man who tried to buy the Devil.

Embalming should really wait for when you're dead.

"I have shot my husband."  And she got away with it, too.

Chatelaines: Victorian mobile devices.

A baby boom at sea.

If anyone offers you a "Whistle-Belly Vengeance," I advise saying no.

Two persistent 19th century bachelors.

La Belle and her lemonade stand.

The peripatetic life of Alexander von Humboldt.  (Poe fans know that "Eureka" was dedicated to von Humboldt.)

How the skull of a 19th century Indian murderer wound up in a British pub.

Frankenstein bog mummies.

A Victorian doppelganger.

So, let's talk zombie raccoons.  And body-snatching wasps.

Parts of Stonehenge may have predated humans.

Documenting the weird side of Irish history.

A strange 17th century disappearance.

The colonel and the sheikh.

The woman who gave birth in her sleep.

The "El Faro" maritime tragedy.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a play that wound up having a ghostly co-star.  In the meantime, here's Jimmy Cliff.



Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

"Sioux Falls Argus Leader," March 8, 1978



Most cases of "mystery fires" are blamed on mischievous adolescents or disgruntled servants. Putting responsibility on the household furniture is a welcome novelty. From the "Minneapolis Star Tribune," March 8, 1978:
Duluth, Minn.--Steve Curtis says four fires in the vicinity of an old desk he owns is enough.

"I want to get rid of this for sure. No way will I keep it," Curtis said after fire heavily damaged his new house Monday.

Fire officials blame the 8 a.m. fire on a short circuit in electric lines under the kitchen floor. But Curtis and his relatives--who say they have seen three other houses burn down around the desk--don't care. All the fires started near the desk.

"That damned desk. We're all through with it now," said Curtis' mother, Rose Juntenen. The desk was in a house, a former Methodist church, the family bought 20 years ago in Carlton, Minn., and was given to Curtis.

In 1973 the house was destroyed by fire, but the desk and three other pieces of furniture survived. The desk was moved to Curtis's house in Cloquet, which burned down a year later. Again the desk remained intact.

Last June Curtis asked his brother-in-law, Rick Thyen, to store the desk at his home in Rice. In December that house was destroyed by a fire that started in a hallway where the desk was standing.

The desk was not damaged.

At this point Juntenen got worried and urged the family to "get rid of the desk."

But when Steve moved into a new home in Duluth, he took the desk with him. Less than a week later, fire struck.

He awoke Monday smelling smoke and ran out to see the kitchen ablaze, just a few feet from the desk. Damage was $1,000 to the house and $1,000 to the contents. The desk was unmarked.

"I'm taking any offer I can get," said Curtis, who says at least one antique dealer valued the desk at $3,000-$5,000.

"I'm sure a desk can't start a fire," said Thyen, "but it sure makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
I haven't been able to find any follow-up stories, so it's anyone's guess what became of the firebug desk.

Monday, April 9, 2018

John Birchall's Bad Bet



John Reginald Birchall was in most respects a tiresome murderer. His crime had no mystery to it, or even those little human touches that sometimes evoke a certain amount of sympathy for a killer. His was a coldblooded, selfish, thoroughly repulsive crime, and the only good thing that can be said about this story is that through a combination of luck and Birchall's own mistakes, he was soon arrested, and the jury had no problem with giving him the sentence he richly deserved.

The one curious touch to this case--the thing that lifts it above the commonplace for me--is that his was the only murder I know of that was committed in order to place a bet.

Birchall was born in 1866. He was the perfect example of what was a classic character from the Victorian and Edwardian eras: The young man from a "good family" who went very, very bad. His father, the Reverend Joseph Birchall, was a respected rector and an excellent scholar, who saw to it that his children received a first-rate education. When Reginald was twelve, he was sent to Rossall, a fine public school, where he was a talented student. When he was in his second year at this school, his father died, an event that marked the beginning of Reginald's downward spiral. His guardian moved him to a lower-quality school, where the boy fell in with a bad crowd, who taught him how to drink, gamble, and generally raise hell. He still managed to make it into Oxford, but he so ignored his studies in favor of riotous living that he left the University without getting a degree.

After leaving school, Birchall proceeded to do nothing in particular with his life. He tried various professions, but despite his native intelligence, he was too lazy and self-indulgent to make much of a success at anything. He married a girl named Florence Stevenson in 1888, but it is feared that his bride's main attraction for him was the fact that she was the heir of a very old and very well-to-do father.



Birchall badly needed these funds. His fondness for spending money, coupled with a reluctance to honestly earn it, had left him deeply in debt. He had recently taken to covering his expenses by writing bad checks, but he knew that expedient would not last forever. A change of scene was required if he wanted to stay out of prison, so he and his wife hopped a boat to Canada. He coupled his new residence with a new name. For reasons unknown to history, he began calling himself "Frederick A. Somerset," while broadly hinting that he and his wife were really "Lord and Lady Somerset." Unfortunately, the New World was no more profitable to Birchall than the old one had been. In 1889, the couple returned to England, one step ahead of a pack of angry creditors.

Like so many pampered and greedy people, he began to contemplate striking it rich through a life of crime--or, as Birchall himself put it, he "planned out a great scheme which I thought would land me safely upon the shore of comparative affluence and comfort." He recently got a "hot tip" on a horse named Sainfoin for the 1890 Epsom Derby. If he placed enough money on the longshot colt, his financial troubles would be over, at least for a while. But where to get the capital?

His "great scheme" was this: He would enlist one or two men in a bogus plan to set up a farm in Canada. His dupes would give him money up front, which he would use to make his genuine investment in Sainfoin. He assumed that "nothing could be said to us, as we could not be held in Canada for fraud committed in England."

Under the name of "J.R. Burchett," he placed notices in London newspapers advertising his desire to find a "gentleman's son" to go into business with him at his Canadian farm. It would be necessary for the men to invest £500 "to extend stock." This led to him coming to an arrangement with two young men, Frederick Benwell and Douglas Pelly. Pelly was incautious enough to give "Burchett" £170 as a down payment, but Benwell refused to "invest" anything until he saw the farm for himself.

In February 1890, the Birchalls sailed with Benwell and Pelly for Canada. The two "investors" had no idea that Birchall had come to the same financial agreement with each of them. During the trip, Birchall kept his two "business partners" apart by cleverly poisoning their minds against each other, with the result that by the time the voyage was over, Benwell and Pelly were scarcely on speaking terms. The last thing Birchall wanted was for his two marks to get together and compare notes.

When the ship arrived in Buffalo, New York, Pelly and Mrs. Birchall stayed at a hotel while Birchall and Benwell took a train to Ontario to inspect this mythical farm. A few hours later, Birchall returned, alone and in very good spirits. He explained that he left Benwell behind at the farm.

The next morning, the trio traveled across the border to Niagara Falls. When they arrived, Birchall invited Pelly out for a walk to inspect this natural wonder. Birchall urged his companion to get very close to the water's edge, as "it is the best way to see the Falls." Pelly was not particularly eager to do so, but Birchall was so insistent, he finally complied. They were both disagreeably surprised to find that they were not alone. Another man was already there, staring into the deep, ferocious waters.

Pelly had no reason to believe he was in any danger, but his subconscious, fortunately, was wise enough to alert him that something was very wrong with this scene. He swiftly turned and went back to the hotel. His companion slowly followed him. Pelly later recalled that Birchall was gloomy and silent for the rest of the day.

The next day, Birchall talked Pelly into another tour of the Falls. Again, he urged Pelly to stand very close to the rapids, but, in Pelly's words, "his manner seemed so coldly quiet, so repellant, that instinctively I drew back and made my excuses for not going near the edge, and went away."

The next day, Pelly read in a newspaper that the body of a murder victim had been found in a swamp in nearby Woodstock. He had been shot in the back of the head. No clue was found to identify the corpse, except for a cigar holder that had apparently fallen from the body. It bore the initials "F.W.B." Birchall immediately voiced his suspicion that the dead man was Benwell. Pelly, already somewhat unnerved by his companion's odd behavior, was so alarmed at this statement that he secretly provided himself with a revolver.

Later that same day, Birchall again lured Pelly out of the hotel on some pretext. Again, it involved them going near the Falls. And again, Birchall made another attempt to get Pelly to take a close view--a very, very close view--of the water. Pelly, however, this time flatly refused to go anywhere near the rapids--or Birchall.

It was not a very cheerful walk back to the hotel for either man.

Birchall then announced that Benwell had sent him a message asking to have his luggage forwarded to a hotel in New York. He was not particularly impressed by the farm, and had decided against the proposed partnership. The next day, Pelly saw in the newspaper a photograph of the murdered mystery man at Woodstock. "That looks like Benwell," he told Birchall.

Birchall scoffed at the idea, reminding him of the "message" Benwell had sent. It was finally decided that Birchall and his wife would go to Woodstock to inspect the body, while Pelly went to New York to see if Benwell had indeed arrived there.

After the Birchalls viewed the corpse, they met with John Wilson Murray, the detective investigating the Woodstock murder. They confirmed that the murdered man was indeed Frederick Benwell, a man Birchall said he had known "only slightly." The dead man, he explained, was only a casual acquaintance that he had met while sailing to Canada on the "Britannic." He only got a "brief line" from Benwell after they arrived in Canada.

As the two men chatted affably, Murray noticed that Mrs. Birchall seemed strangely tense and unhappy. She paced up and down the room, as though the conversation was upsetting her.

Afterward, Murray couldn't shake the suspicion that Birchall had not been entirely forthcoming with him. He did not at that time think the man had been involved in Benwell's murder, but his policeman's instinct told him that there was just something a bit "off." He followed Birchall to Niagara Falls to question him again. He also talked to Pelly, who had just returned from New York without finding any sign of Benwell. This interview told Murray quite enough about Birchall to order a warrant for his arrest.

Once Birchall and his wife were in custody, Murray set out to trace Birchall and Benwell's movements on the day they left together to "inspect the farm." He found a number of different witnesses who had seen the two traveling from Niagara Falls to Eastwood, a train station a few miles from the swamp where Benwell's body was later found. He found more witnesses who had seen them leaving the train and heading in the direction of this swamp. He found a farmer who had heard two gunshots shortly after the Englishmen had walked off together. He found still more witnesses who had seen Birchall returning to the Eastwood station, quite alone. In short, Murray soon had as pretty a chain of damning circumstantial evidence as any detective could ever hope to see.

There was more. The dead man's father sent Murray a letter Birchall had sent him. The note cheerfully talked about Benwell's deep satisfaction with the farm and his eagerness to go into a partnership with Birchall. Birchall urged the father to send the £500 Benwell had promised him.

The letter was dated February 20--three days after Benwell had been murdered.

Birchall's murder trial was one of the least suspenseful in Canadian history, but it attracted a stunning amount of media attention. Newspapers all across Canada, America, and England sent reporters to file dispatches on the proceedings. The courtroom was even wired for sound so the public could listen in on the trial. It was probably the first live broadcast of any murder trial.

Birchall consistently asserted his innocence, but it was hard to find anyone who believed him. The defense made a feeble effort to argue that in the four-and-a-half hours between his train trips to and from Eastwood, their client would simply not have had the time to murder Benwell, but the prosecution easily made short work of that contention. The jury swiftly returned a verdict of "Guilty," and everyone--probably even the defense attorneys--would have been deeply shocked if they had come to any other conclusion.

"Illustrated Police News"


Birchall was hanged on the morning of November 14, 1890. He had evidently decided that although he had not lived like a gentleman, he was at least going to die like one. He walked to the gallows with a composed, dignified demeanor, politely shook hands with the executioner, and even had a slight smile on his face as the noose was placed around his neck. The hangman said afterward that he had "never before beheld such an exhibition of nerve." Such sang-froid, ironically, just made it plain to him how Birchall could have committed cold-blooded murder.

It was truly a crime where the grand old legal phrase, "committed at the instigation of the Devil" applied. Birchall took an innocent life, and thus forfeited his own, simply so he could bet on a horse race.

As what of Sanfoin, the horse who inadvertently provided a motive for murder? He won the Derby, at generous odds.

The Devil has always had a sense of humor.

Sanfoin