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

Friday, 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

Friday, April 6, 2018

Weekend Link Dump




Before we get started on this week's Link Dump, let me introduce you to Strange Company's new writer, Furry McFurface.  She'll be handling all blogging duties from now on.



All I'll say is, if you think this blog has had too many cat stories, you ain't seen nothin' yet.



Who the hell was buried at Sutton Hoo?

Why the hell did the chicken cross the road?

Watch out for those haunted cabooses!

The bonfire of the ballet girls.

If you remember my post about Timbuktu and Alexander David Laing--or even if you don't--this makes a great companion piece.

That time when it rained honey in Ireland.

I'm always ready to talk about curse tablets.

Planes as murder weapons.

A feisty diva.

Executed Today Family Values.

Frisky Victorian matrons.

The "ape-man" of Connecticut: fact or fiction?

Secret codes in a Scottish library.

An ode to income tax.  (Considering what I had to shell out this year--thanks to a bureaucratic cock-up that was no fault of mine whatsoever--mine would be more of a dirge.)

Napoleon's suicide attempt.

More Nazca lines have been discovered.

Crime fighting in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Fanny Murray, courtesan and celebrity.

The mystery behind green chartreuse.  (I recently tasted chartreuse for the first time--a gentleman friend who knew I was in need of moral support gifted me with a bottle--and oh my word, where has this stuff been all my life?)

Fairies in 17th century Surrey.

A tale of love and sacrifice during the French Revolution.

The man who says wolves are better family than people.

Did Jesus visit India and Tibet?

Was this French feminist a Bulgarian secret agent?

The famous grave of an unknown woman.

An eccentric 18th century actress.

An early cryptozoologist.

Saving the world's oldest bridge.

In search of fairies.

Policing the powder puffs.

So, Africa is cracking up.

A Napoleonic era marriage broker.

The crocodile massacre at Ramree Island.

A Scottish con man and his fake city.

The execution of a bell.

Blackbeard and his silver-plated skull.

The Great Wichita Frog Wave.

A shell cottage fit for a princess.

The Chimpanzee War.

Robin Hood and the ethics of banditry.

A murder at Maamtrasna.

The "Holy Grail" of shipwrecks.

From Abbess to Heiress.

This is pretty neat: digitally recreating ancient ruins.

Georgian era dog breeds.

A particularly mysterious murder.

The goat that advertised beer.

April Fool at the London Zoo.

Timely reading for a weekend: the six o'clock swill.

An interesting (to me, at least) project to translate Baltic literature into English.

And there are your Friday links!  See you on Monday, when we'll talk about how a horse race inspired a murder.  In the meantime, here's Tim Buckley:


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



Wales, for my money, is home to some of the best folklore tales and ghost stories. For example, here is this account of a very disgruntled spirit. ("Driffield Times," April 19, 1879):
A strange ghost story (says the Birmingham Gazette) comes from the Principality. There is a friendly society at Pontardawe, in the Swansea Valley, among whose rules is one that the funeral allowance on account of a deceased member shall not be paid in cases of suicide. One of the members recently died by his own hand, and the club accordingly refused to pay the death money. For this reasonable and just refusal the members are now complaining that they are subjected to serious persecution from an unseen and presumably a ghostly agent.

The manifestations began on a recent Sunday, when one of the officers, returning home over a lonely road, was assailed, as he asserts, by the spirit of the late member, who, failing to obtain a satisfactory reply to his demand for the money, in a somewhat unspiritlike manner assailed the unfortunate man. and actually "tore his clothes to ribbons." Such, at least, was the account he gave in tones of horror at the first public-house he came to after this terrific encounter.

But the ghost does not appear to have been satisfied with this demonstration. On the following Tuesday evening, whilst the members were assembled in the lodge room, the usual knocks were heard at the door as of a brother seeking admittance. The door was opened, but no one was to be seen. The members, however, are all very certain that they beard the voice of the deceased utter the words, "Pay my widow my funeral money, and then I shall rest." The meeting precipitately broke up, and the members are now puzzled to know what do with such a determined deceased brother.
I couldn't find any sequel to this story, but if I know my disgruntled ghosts, the members would have been wise to just pay up.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Sorcery and the Woman Scorned



Geoffrey Gorer (1905-1985) was an acclaimed and well-traveled English anthropologist. In his 1936 cultural stury "Bali and Angkor," Gorer matter-of-factly related his encounter with a German man whose messy love life left him with a bad case of The Weird.



It was a pleasantly warm night in 1935. Gorer was on a steamer traveling from Batavia to Singapore. He was standing on the deck, enjoying the sea breezes, when he noticed he was not alone. A few yards away, a fellow passenger named Muller was standing in solitary gloom, gazing blankly into the water.

Muller was an odd duck. He eschewed the company of his fellow travelers, preferring to stay in his cabin. Others on the ship only saw him at mealtimes, when he would bury his face in a newspaper and brush off all efforts to engage him in small talk.

Gorer noticed that Muller was silently crying, and was obviously deeply upset. When Gorer asked him what was wrong, the German sighed that he was very lonely. However, when Gorer invited him to come inside and share a drink with him, Muller responded with a bitter tirade against the ship's crew. He was sick of the sight of Asians, he growled. For five years now, he had been surrounded by "brown faces," and he was sick of it. He couldn't wait to return to Europe, just to be rid from them.

Some years back, Muller went on, he had helped his uncle run a hotel in Berlin. Unfortunately, the uncle experienced severe financial problems, which led to his suicide. After this tragedy, Muller managed to eke out a bare living by giving tours of Berlin's gaudy nightlife. During one of these tours, he became friends with a wealthy Indies rubber planter named Jan. His new acquaintance offered Muller a job on one of his plantations. Although Muller was certainly in need of a steady job, he declined, as he had no wish to leave Germany. However, as the German economy worsened, Muller felt it was emigrate or starve, so he sailed to Java. More bad luck awaited him: Jan, like so many others in those Depression years, had fallen on hard times and had no work to offer. Lacking the funds to return home, the stranded Muller managed to find work supervising the staff at a hotel near Batavia.

Muller was miserably isolated in his new life. His job forbade him from socializing with the guests and he was too snobbish to consider fraternizing with the staff, all of whom were the native Javanese he disdained. Eventually, his desperate loneliness led him to become involved with a Eurasian woman named Anna. Anna lived with her Javanese mother and uncle. Muller described the latter as "a thoroughly disreputable old fellow, who made a living by doctoring the sillier natives and giving them amulets and love philters...I thought he was an old rogue and let him see it."

Despite his persistent bigotry, Muller was content enough with his liaison until the day Anna announced that she was pregnant. She insisted that Muller marry her. He flatly refused. Sleeping with a "native" woman was one thing; taking her as a wife was another matter altogether. He agreed to acknowledge the child as his, and provide for its support, but that was as far as he would go. Anna, however, was desperate for her baby to be legitimate. They quarreled over the issue so bitterly and frequently that Muller broke off all contact with her. Anna retaliated by creating violent scenes at the hotel where he worked, which led Muller to call the police.

After that, Anna left him alone, but Muller found that her uncle was now following him everywhere he went. One day, as Muller was in a barbershop, the uncle dashed in and made off with a lock of his hair. Soon after that, he scooped up a patch of mud where Muller had stepped. This strange action was observed by one of the hotel's Javanese waiters. He warned Muller to leave town immediately, as the uncle was obviously planning to cast a spell on him. Muller scoffed at such superstition. He told Gorer, "Of course I couldn't do a thing like that; everybody would know about it, and my position would become impossible. And, anyhow, I didn't believe he could do anything except perhaps poison me; and I took good care not to eat anything which I hadn't seen others already eat."

For some time, Muller's life passed uneventfully until he received a letter from Anna. She apologized for her previous behavior, and informed him that she would soon give birth to their child. She begged him to come and see her. At first, Muller was inclined to ignore her pleas. On the other hand, she was the only person in Java he had ever been close to, and he had been fond of her once. On his next evening off, he went to Anna's house. He found a lavish feast waiting for him. Still wary about being poisoned, he made sure to only consume what his hosts had eaten first. The evening went pleasantly enough until Anna again brought up the subject of holy wedlock. When her pleas for marriage began to turn to angry threats, Muller began to leave. Anna literally threw herself at his feet, grabbing his legs and imploring him to say why he refused to marry her. She pointed out that he had liked her enough to make her his mistress for two years. She vowed that if he made her his wife, she would make him happy.

The exasperated Muller lost his temper. She wanted to know why he would not marry her? Very well. It was because she was a Malay, and he refused to be tied for life to a woman of her color. Anna replied angrily that he would never marry anyone of a different color. "You won't see anybody who looks a different color!" she snarled. Then she bit him. Muller tore free of her and left.

The next morning, Muller was minding the front desk of his hotel, when he was unpleasantly surprised to see Anna approach him. Muller yelled at her to get out or he would call the police again. He was amazed to see her indignantly respond in English...a language he knew Anna could not speak. Then Anna's uncle strode up and began scolding Muller for frightening his wife. Muller was thoroughly disconcerted to realize that he recognized these voices as those of a British couple who were staying at the hotel. He managed to stammer out a bewildered apology. Soon after that, his horror and confusion deepened when he walked into the hotel dining room. He told Gorer, "Every table was occupied by Annas and her uncles. Every white woman I saw looked like Anna, every white man like her uncle. It was horrible, and what was worse, I couldn't do my work properly any more; when all the clients looked the same I never knew which were speaking to me."

It soon became obvious to the hotel staff that something was very odd with Muller. The waiter who had earlier warned him about witchcraft urged Muller to visit a local dukun (healer.) At first, Muller refused. However, as his strange condition persisted, sheer desperation drove him to consult with the magician.

The dukun agreed that Muller had been well and truly bewitched. He said the simplest solution to Muller's predicament would be to marry Anna. That, he explained, would break the spell. Muller refused to even consider the idea. He figured it was bad enough that his former lady love was a Malay. Discovering that she was a sorceress was even worse. The dukun offered a Plan B: if Muller could bring him a lock of Anna's hair, some of her nail parings, and a drop of her blood, he could work a counter-spell.

"But we're in the twentieth century," Muller pointed out to Gorer. "I can't go about picking up other people's nail-clippings, even if she'd give me the chance, which wasn't likely; and apparently it wasn't any good if anyone else did it. So the magician said he couldn't help me." The dukun was, however, able to give him one bit of encouragement: "It won't travel over water."

This may have been an overly optimistic diagnosis. Muller informed Gorer that he took care to avoid glancing at anyone. When Gorer pointed out that Muller had been looking at him, the German explained that Gorer's back was against the light, thus obscuring his face. Gorer wrote, "I didn't reply, but lit a match so that the flare lit up both our faces. After that I went back to my cabin, for the expression on his face showed clearly enough how mine had appeared to him."

Gorer knew nothing about Muller's subsequent fate. We are left with the ironic mental image of a racist who could only see "brown faces" skulking around the "Aryans" of Nazi Germany.

Anna's revenge may have been even greater than she planned.