"...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, July 20, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Marcus, a certain actor's Rebel With All the Claws.

What the hell happened to the marble corpse of G.W. Davis?

What the hell is in that ancient black sarcophagus?  

Watch out for those haunted bridges!

Watch out for those flying stones!

Watch out for those summer ghosts!

A real-life Dickens character.

A woman who was much more than Ernest Hemingway's third wife.

The World Cup war.

The rise and fall of the Tasmanian Nightingale.

Conjugal bliss leads to free bacon.

Not only can't we figure out who Jack the Ripper was, we don't even know for sure how many murders he committed.

Foxes and Japanese folklore.

17th century infertility remedies.

Hugh Astley and the doppelganger.

A newly-discovered shipwreck that may have carried gold.

A death by "brain fever," 1801.

The Nessie of Sweden.

A baby for each day in the year.  And yes, a curse is involved.

The "digester of bones."  No 17th century cook should be without one!

Annotations found in used books.

Two instances of Devonshire witchcraft.

The cow that inspired riots.

Long before Blondie and the Ramones, CBGB hosted canaries.

The long history of Sudeley Castle.

Physics is enabling us to read scrolls from Pompeii.

Remembering the "Bevin Boys."

Captain Anderson: did he fall or was he pushed?

Recidivists provide a busy day at Tyburn.

The Irish woman who was nanny to the Romanovs.

The murders at the lake: a Texas mystery.

A recently discovered "Irish Stonehenge."

The world's oldest sandwich.

The loudest sound ever heard.

Mary Todd Lincoln, spiritualist.

The British heatwave of 1808.

The palmist and the Czar.

2,000 year-old writing has finally been decoded.

An arsonist in 1907 Hollywood.

So humans are the real bird-brains.  As if you didn't already know that.

Jacopo Bonfadio, who died of indiscretion.

BREAKING:  The Romanovs are still dead.

An accidental amputation.

The first female member of Britain's Parliament.

Mysterious underwater stone structures.

The last of the Stuyvesants.

19th century afternoon tea etiquette.

Joan, Queen of Scots.

Bastille Day, 1792.

How to build a mountain range.

Ghosts and the Lord of Cool.

The oldest film footage of Paris:

And that's a wrap for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll be talking Edwardian Murder.  In the meantime, here's a song from back in the day that I remember very fondly.  They just don't make cheesy pop hits the way they used to.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Coloradohistoricnewspapers.com

These little chapters in the history of Colorado High Strangeness appeared in the "Colorado Weekly Chieftain," December 15, 1870:
That there exists in the mountains of Colorado beasts and animals unknown to the devotes of science, there cannot be the least shadow of a doubt. We have just learned of a trapper on the Greenhorn, a stream about twenty miles south of Pueblo, who, while hunting recently for elk and deer, saw a strange animal at the sight of which he was not only astonished but at first it caused him great fear.

The hunter was, however, in a position that afforded him protection, and after the first surprise and he had gained an assurance of his safety, he watched the beast, and the following is the description he gives of the thing: It was larger than an ox, and of a kind of mouse color, with a skin varied with light stripes similar to those of a zebra. Its head favored that of a rhinoceros, but much larger, and a bushy tail like that of a fox. The animal fed on grass, weeds, &c., and finally disappeared, crossing the creek and going up the mountains where it is likely the brute has a habitation of some kind. The next day our informant examined the tracks of the singular looking animal, and found them to be like those of a horse, but a great deal larger. We cannot but believe the assertions of the trapper to be entirely true, as the whole story is fully corroborated by Mr. Matt Riddlenarger, who lives in that neighborhood, and who has seen the same beast or one like it. We think that by the next issue of our paper we will be able to give more authentic information on this mater, as we learn that a posse of gentlemen are now in pursuit of this seeming monstrosity, and who are determined to capture or kill the animal, and thus give to the world and science another proof that there are still strange animals in existence which, although scarce, are not entirely extinct.
The newspaper was just warming up. Elsewhere on the same page was a far more bizarre tale:
TRINIDAD, C.T., Dec. 11, 1870, EDITOR CHIEFTAIN:—I have been sojourning a few days in this quiet little burg, and have visited all the points of interest in the neighborhood, among which was the celebrated haunted ground, on San Francisco creek, about fifteen miles southeast of here. The manifestations as related to me by Uncle Billy Bransford, are more wonderful than anything ever before heard of.

A short time ago, while Juan Vasques, a farmer on the creek, was digging a foundation for a residence, he struck an immense quantity of bones, which upon examination proved to be human remains, and of a very large size. Through superstition, operations were suspended, and that night was coinmenced the work of the ghosts. Loud and distinct knocks were heard upon the doors and roofs of all the houses in the neighborhood, and have continued every few nights since then.

The son of Mr. Bransford, a young man of twenty years of age, says he saw, standing on the threshold of his door, the form of an Indian chief, dressed in white and wearing a costume different from any he has ever seen; he turned in affright to call a friend who was sleeping in the room, but upon looking, it had vanished. The same form was seen the following evening, by a Mexican girl who resides farther up the creek. And now comes the most singular and most unaccountable sensation of all. The same night that the ghost made his appearance, the family were all sitting by the fire place, conversing about the nocturnal visitors, when suddenly two sticks of wood which were burning, commenced to dance; then one as if shot from a gun, went up the chimney, and was found in a few minutes about thirty yards from the house.

All of the above can be vouched for by at least twenty persons. In connection with the above, and which has never yet been accounted for is the following: About midway between the dwellings of Mr. Bransford and Juan Vasquez, is two small columns of smoke constantly issuing from the ground. It is not steam, and does not appear to because by chemical action. I will close this article until further investigation, hoping that the scientific gentlemen, now on a visit to Colorado, will give it their attention and render us a solution of the above facts. JAY G. KAY.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find any more about what promised to be a first-rate haunting.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Case of the Vanished Bride

Mary Shotwell Little. Photos via Newspapers.com

Tragedy has an extra level of poignancy if the victim is a young bride. However, when the tragedy is an unsolved mystery--and a particularly bizarre one, at that--it goes beyond merely "poignant" to "uniquely unnerving."

Small wonder that the following story is one that has lingered uneasily in the collective memory of Atlanta, Georgia for over fifty years.

Mary Shotwell grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. After graduating from college, she moved to Atlanta, where she found work as a secretary at the C&S Bank. During the Labor Day weekend of 1965 the pretty, outgoing twenty-five year old married a bank examiner she had been dating for the past year, Roy Little. She was prosperous, well-liked, and in love. In short, Mrs. Little seemed destined for a life of unremarkable contentment.

Destiny, however, had other ideas.

October 14, 1965 started off as utterly routine for the newlywed. She was living alone at the moment, as Roy was in LaGrange training to be an auditor for the state's Banking Department. After getting off work, Mary did some grocery shopping and met a co-worker, Isla Stack, for dinner at a cafeteria in Lenox Square, a popular open-air shopping center She was in the best of spirits and told her friend how much she was enjoying being married. At around 8 p.m., the two parted and Mary walked back to her car. "I'll see you tomorrow!" she told Stack cheerily.

Lenox Square in the 1960s

When Mary failed to come to work the next morning, her boss, Eugene Rackley, was immediately uneasy, as she was normally a conscientious employee. He phoned her apartment, but got no answer. By now thoroughly alarmed, Rackley called police, as well as Roy Little, who immediately prepared to return to Atlanta.

Meanwhile, a Lenox Square security guard took note of a silver Mercury Comet parked in the lot. It had been there all morning, which was somewhat unusual. He took a closer look, and saw grass stems and blood on the front seat and right front window. He contacted the police. It turned out to be Mary's car.

Police photo of Mary's car

Where had the Comet been all night? No one at the mall had seen it overnight or early the next morning. Also, it was soon discovered that someone had replaced the license plates with ones that had recently been stolen from a car in North Carolina. The car was covered with red dust, indicating that it had been driven in a rural area. The groceries Mary had bought the day before were still inside, along with a pack of her cigarettes. The car also contained something that had particularly frightening implications: Mary's slip, panties, bra, girdle, and one stocking. There were drops of blood on the underwear, and the stocking seemed to have been slashed with a knife. Tests indicated the type of blood found in the car was the same as Mary's. The other items of clothing Mary had been wearing, as well as her purse and car keys, have never been found. The supposition was that she had been kidnapped and driven elsewhere, after which her abductors were either stupid or incredibly brazen enough to return the car to its original parking place.

The police discovered that the day after Mary disappeared, her credit card had been used to buy gasoline at a station in Charlotte: coincidentally or not, her hometown. Twelve hours later, the card was used again at a gas station in Raleigh. The credit card slips bore what was believed to be Mary's genuine signature. Attendants at both the stations said the gas was bought by a young woman matching Mary's description. She was in the company of an unshaven middle-aged man who appeared to be telling her what to do. They also stated that the woman had a head wound and bloodstains on her hands and legs, but she made no attempt to ask anyone for help.

Adding to the puzzle was the long gap between the two gas purchases, as Raleigh is only about two hours away from Charlotte, and there were only forty-one miles on the car's odometer that were unaccounted for.

Shortly after the disappearance was publicized, Roy Little received an anonymous ransom demand: $20,000 in exchange for Mary's safe return. He was told to go to an overpass in Pigsah National Forest, where he would find further instructions. An FBI agent went to the place indicated, but found nothing. It is surmised that the caller, who was never identified, was merely a sick prankster.

When investigators spoke with Mary's friends, they learned that the missing woman's seemingly ideal life had recently taken a dark turn. Mary had spoken of being afraid to be alone--and, particularly, of being alone in her car. Co-workers stated that she had been getting phone calls at her job that left Mary deeply upset. Although she refused to discuss these calls with anyone, she had been overheard telling the person on the other line, "I'm a married woman now," and "You can come over to my house any time you like, but I can't come over there." She hinted to a couple of close friends that she had something important to tell them, but would not say what that was. Shortly before Mary vanished, she had received a delivery of red roses. They were sent anonymously, and police were unable to trace who was responsible.

Most people presumed that Mary's shadowy, sinister admirer was behind her disappearance, but police considered other theories. There was an ongoing scandal at her workplace involving claims of sexual harassment and a prostitution ring that allegedly operated on bank property. Although Mary was not personally involved, it was suggested that she might possibly have stumbled across some dangerous information relating to the dispute.

Although Roy Little's alibi seemed impeccable, he too came in for a share of scrutiny. It emerged that Mary's friends had heartily disliked Roy, finding him surly, cold, and remote. Some of them had even boycotted the wedding. Mary's husband seemed unsettlingly nonchalant about his bride's highly ominous disappearance--he appeared more concerned about getting their car back--and he refused all requests to take a lie detector test. When talking to investigators, he would drop odd little remarks about "perfect crimes," and appeared highly reluctant to discuss his wife at all. Jack Perry, the lead detective on the case, commented years later, "That boy wasn't right for some reason." On the other hand, by all accounts Roy and Mary were happy together, and investigators could find no motive for him to want her dead.

Or was Mrs. Little the random victim of some predator?  A few days after Mary vanished, a woman went to police with an alarming story.  She stated that she had been walking to her car parked at Lenox Square around the same time Mary was preparing to leave the mall.  She suddenly realized a tall, thin man was following her.  She rushed into her car, and just as she locked the door, the man grabbed the door handle.  When he saw he couldn't open the door, he tapped on the window and said, "Your tire is low."  The woman drove to a nearby service station.  Her tires were fine.  FBI agent Jim Ponder was convinced this never-identified man kidnapped Mary Little, raped and murdered her, drove her back to Lenox where he switched cars, and buried her body somewhere in the woods around Raleigh.

Some investigators, perplexed by the many incomprehensible clues surrounding the case, began to wonder if the missing woman had engineered her own disappearance. The amount of blood in the car was so small--less than you'd see from a nosebleed, according to someone in the state crime lab--that it was speculated that the blood had been deliberately planted in order to create a "fake" crime scene. Possible corroboration for this theory came from a woman named Margaret Fargason. She had been shopping at Lenox Square the evening Mary vanished. She claimed that she had seen Mary's car being driven out of the mall around 8 p.m. A woman matching Mrs. Little's description was at the wheel, and she was alone. She contacted the police, but investigators never bothered to interview her.

Months went by, with the riddle of what became of Mary remaining as puzzling as ever. Then, two years later, Atlanta saw another tragic event that investigators hoped might lead to solving the mystery. On May 19, 1967, 22-year-old Diane Shields, who had briefly been employed at the C&S Bank after Mary disappeared, left her new workplace after a routine day on the job. She was never seen alive again. Late that night, police on patrol noticed her car parked near an Atlanta laundromat, with a long trail of blood behind it. When the officers opened the trunk, they found the dead body of Diane Shields. She had been strangled. Shields had not been raped and her jewelry was intact, leaving the motive for her murder a puzzle.

Diane Shields

The links between the two women were intriguing. Like Mary, Shields had last been seen going to her car. At one time, Shields had been roommates with one Sandra Green. Green had shared an apartment with Mary before the latter's marriage. Most eerily of all, shortly before her death, Shields told an old friend that she was working undercover for the police in order to solve the disappearance of a woman called "Mary." (This startling claim has never been verified.) Unfortunately, these suggestive coincidences failed to help the police solve either crime. To date, Shields' murder is as stubbornly baffling as the fate of Mary Shotwell Little.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This Friday the 13th Link Dump is sponsored by the League of Lucky Black Cats!

Why the hell does Los Angeles have so many palm trees?

What the hell happened to North America's first dogs?

The world's oldest footprints.

A 1,000-year-old runic message.

The first murder to be solved by a fingerprint.

A Tahitian boy who joined Captain Cook's "Endeavour."

Madame de Stael in London.

How to beat the July heat, 17th century style.

It's not uncommon for the dying to see the dead.

Stone Age dentistry.

In defense of the semicolon.

More from the "pushing back human history" file.

A first-hand account of the Burr/Hamilton duel.

"At the 1887 Annual Meeting of the British Medical Association a surgeon from Sunderland, James Murphy, walked on stage brandishing a testicle."  Enjoy the blog lede of the week.

The real Dick Whittington.

A fortunate spy.

Murder in Australia's Blue Mountains.

An ancient library where everything is still under lock and key.

An ancient, mysterious black sarcophagus and a giant alabaster head have just been uncovered. I'm sure this will end well.

An abused Victorian maid seeks justice.

Saving Egypt's "Sistine Chapel."

Ice cream in the Georgian era.

A ghostly highwayman.

India's cursed ruins.

Some reports of spell casting.

Some significant Bronze Age chariots.

The understandably restless ghost of Mary Surratt.

An Empress and her magical ring.

Norway really doesn't fool around when it comes to rest stops.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a particularly baffling disappearance. In the meantime, here's a bit of Corelli:

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Some driving commutes are worse than others. If a fellow named Charlie Wetzel is to believed, on one of these drives home he encountered something even more annoying than traffic jams and potholes: a hitchhiking monster. From the "Greenville News," November 10, 1958:
Riverside, Calif.--A funny thing happened to Charlie Wetzel on the way home Saturday night.

A monster jumped out at him.

That's what he told authorities who planned to continue an investigation of the incredible story.

Wetzel, 24, a resident of nearby Bloomington, reported soberly that he was driving on a street near Riverside when a frightening creature jumped in front of his car.

"It had a round, scarecrowish head," he said, "like something out of Halloween.

"It wasn't human. It had a longer arm than anything I'd ever seen. When it saw me in the car it reached all the way back to the windshield and began clawing at me.

"It didn't have any ears. The face was all round. The eyes were shining like something fluorescent and it had a protuberant mouth. It was scaley, like leaves."

Wetzel said he became terrified when the creature reached over the hood of his car and began clawing at the windshield. He said he reached for a .22 pistol he had in the car.

"I held that pistol and stomped on the gas," he said. "The thing fell back from the car and it gurgled.

"The noise it made didn't sound human. I think I hit it. I heard something hit the pan under the car."

Sheriff's officers said Wetzel pointed at some thin, sweeping marks he said the creature made on his windshield. They went to the scene of the claimed apparition but said they could find nothing to prove or disprove Wetzel's story.

The scene is at a point where North Main Street dips and crosses the Santa Ana River bed, which is usually almost dry.

Wetzel said he told the story to his wife and she induced him to phone authorities. "I kept saying no one would believe a story like this," he said.

Sheriff's Sgt. E. R. Holmes said he thought perhaps a large vulture might have flopped on the hood of Wetzel's car--"Sometimes cars hit them when they're in the road eating rabbits cars have killed," he said. So he searched the area himself Sunday. "But," said Holmes, "I didn't even find a feather."

In a later story about the alleged encounter, Wetzel grumbled about the press coverage he had received. "They are trying to make me look like a fool," he complained, "and I don't believe I care to say anything more about it. But I did see something, and it wasn't a vulture, either."

So far as I can find, no one else reported seeing Wetzel's monster. However, as a Californian, I can vouch that far worse things can be seen on our roads.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Hexham's Hexed Heads

Some years ago, right after my family bought our current home, we were digging a hole in the back yard to plant a tree. We were dismayed when we unearthed the skeleton of a cat, presumably the previous owner's pet. For some time after this accidental exhumation, some mighty odd things went on in the house. Our cats would suddenly stop and glare at something...something we humans couldn't see. At night, one or other of us would feel and hear what we assumed was one of the cats jumping on the bed. However, we'd look to find...no one there. Objects would mysteriously disappear, only to reappear someplace else. On one occasion, I was in the house alone. I was sitting in the living room, minding my own business, when I saw, down the hallway, a book from my bedroom being hurled across the hall into another room.

I stared for a moment, wondering how one should react to such an occurrence. Then I saw another of my books being flung in the same manner.

Now I was getting annoyed. "Stop that!" I yelled. It stopped.

Things quieted down after that, although to this day the cats periodically react as if to some intruder, and every now and then small household items unaccountably get teleported about. We have always attributed it all to the "ghost cat"--perhaps that long-dead feline annoyed at us for disturbing its eternal rest.

The point of my little autobiographical digression is that digging up unexpected objects often has unexpected results. One of the more contentious examples of this is that peculiar case of the "Hexham Heads."

Our story opens in the spring of 1971, at the council house of the Robson family in Hexham, England. One day, eleven-year-old Colin Robson was digging in the back yard, when he came across something very strange. It was a small, round stone head with a crude human face. Soon afterward, Colin's brother Leslie unearthed a second "head." Closer examination revealed that the objects were of a sandstone-like material, and clearly man-made. The two "heads" had distinctly different faces, but were both equally sinister in appearance.

If subsequent accounts can be believed, those heads were as malevolent as they looked. As soon as the objects had been excavated, the Robsons found themselves a target for some particularly nasty poltergeist activity. Paul Screeton, a local journalist who was one of the first chroniclers of the case, reported that "The heads would turn around spontaneously, objects were broken for no apparent reason--and when the mattress on the bed of one of the Robson daughters was showered with glass, both girls moved out of their room." The family would often see a mysterious light glowing over the spot where the heads had been unearthed. Later, a "strange flower" began to grow on that same place.

Curiously, their next-door neighbors, a family named Dodd, also experienced similar paranormal persecutions, with Mrs. Dodd undergoing the most frightening event yet: one night, she encountered a tall dark figure that she could only describe as half-animal, half-human. The experience so terrified her that the town council had to move the family to another home.

After a few months of this, the Robsons decided they had had enough of those damned--in every sense of the word--heads and donated them to the Newcastle Museum. After ridding themselves of the objects, peace returned to the family home, and the Robsons essentially drift out of our story.

This was not the end of the Hexham Heads saga, however. In fact, you might say the little guys were just getting warmed up.

Museum staffers, baffled by the strange objects, gave them to a Celtic scholar and archaeologist, Dr. Anne Ross, for examination. Dr. Ross was of the opinion that the stone balls dated from around the second century AD, and were examples of ancient Celtic "head worship."

Dr. Ross soon came to the conclusion that the heads were also outstanding examples of The Weird. In 1978, she gave an interview to paranormal researcher Peter Underwood where she described her frightening and uncanny experiences with the objects. She claimed that as soon as she saw the heads, she felt a strong instinctive aversion. When she brought them into her home, very disturbing things happened. Inexplicable crashes and other sounds were heard by the family. Doors opened and slammed shut by themselves. Early one morning, Dr. Ross awoke feeling an unnatural coldness in the room. When she opened her eyes, she was horrified to see a figure very like the one described by Mrs. Dodd--a large dark creature that appeared to be half-wolf, half-man. As she saw the eerie being creeping out of the room, she felt an irresistible urge to follow it.

When she came on to the landing, she saw the figure moving down the staircase. It vaulted over the balustrade--landing with a loud thud, indicating it was more than a mere apparition--then scurried out of sight. She and her husband searched the house, without finding the creature--which must have been rather a relief--and no sign of any forced entry or exit.

A few days later, Dr. Ross and her husband made a day trip to London, leaving their 15-year-old daughter to look after her younger brother. When they arrived back in Southampton, they found the poor girl practically in hysterics. When she returned from school about an hour earlier, she entered the house only to encounter the same bizarre man/wolf creature seen by her mother. The figure was crouched half-way up the stairs. When the girl came in, it leaped over the stair rail and trotted on all fours into a back room of the house. The teenager felt the same curious fascination Dr. Ross had experienced in the creature's presence. She was compelled to go search for it upstairs, but the being had vanished. It was only then that she began to feel increasing shock and fear. Soon afterward, the other two Ross children also saw the "werewolf-like" creature.

Oddly enough, it was only at this point that Dr. Ross began to link these strange events to the mysterious stone heads in her possession. Feeling that there must be something cursed about the objects, she returned them to the museum.

"Newcastle Journal," January 14, 1974

The next academic to make a study of the heads was G.V. Robins, an inorganic chemist from the Institute of Archeology. His book "The Secret Language of Stone" proposed that minerals are able to store information in the form of electrical energy. He suspected that the Hexham Heads, which contained a high proportion of quartz crystals, were acting as something of a paranormal tape recorder, "replaying" energies from the far distant past. Although Dr. Robins was spared seeing that sinister wolflike being who had stalked previous custodians of the heads, he noted his own share of peculiar events. He felt a "stifling, breathless" atmosphere in their presence, and when he first put the heads in his car to bring them home, the auto's electrical system suddenly and mysteriously died.

Around this time, a spoilsport named Desmond Craigie stepped forward to pour some cold water on everyone's Fortean fun. Craigie, the previous occupant of the Robson home, claimed that he had carved the stones in 1956 as toys for his young daughter. Eventually, they had lost them in the garden, never to be seen again until excavated by the Robson boys. He said cheerfully, "I have been laughing my head off about these heads and I cannot understand why all this attention is being paid to them."

As far as I can tell Craigie's story is neither proved nor disproved, although it must be said that primitive-looking stone heads seems like an odd toy for a small child. But if he was telling the truth and the now-infamous heads were merely innocuous playthings, how to explain the weird phenomena experienced by three different families--particularly that black, crouching wolfman?

Unfortunately, any discussion of the Haunted Heads of Hexham is now purely theoretical, not to mention futile. In 1978, Dr. Robins gave the stones to a dowser named Frank Hyde, who wished to do some experiments with them. The heads have never been seen again, and their current whereabouts are unknown. As a matter of fact, we can say the same about Frank Hyde.

Whether the heads were a harmless amusement or cursed Celtic idols, we're probably well rid of them.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is again sponsored by Strange Company's expert writing staff.

What the hell are the Carnac Stones?

What the hell was the Kentucky Meat Shower?

Why the hell do people believe in Bigfoot?

Watch out for those ghost trains!

Watch out for those carnivorous mists!

Watch out for those Dark Watchers!

Watch out for those poisonous books!

Watch out for those cursed jackets!

A 19th century murder reminiscent of the notorious killing of Ken McElroy.

Victorians liked to wear live insects.

A DIY "Ancient Aliens" episode.

The history of military bats.

The cat who exterminated an entire species.

The obituary of a linen bleacher.

Karma strikes again!

The Czech Republic's greatest hero who never existed.  I just love this story.

The long history of Pears' Soap.

A hidden curio cabinet of The Weird.

As I always say, don't mess with a psychic octopus.

The hunt for exomoons.

Cheating the hangman, 1828.

A monument to Dick Whittington's cat.

A truly authentic Independence Day menu.

That time Benjamin Franklin turned to true-crime writing.

That time George, Prince of Wales was nearly horsewhipped.

Speaking of Franklin, here's a link between him and James Cook.

Wallace the Great, defeated by prejudice.

The strange symbols of Lincoln Cathedral.

Why strawberries and cream are eaten at Wimbledon.

Louis Wain, Rembrandt of far-out cats.

19th century bird charmers.

An 18th century ballooning scrapbook.

A pardoned police hound.

A potentially habitable planet.

Captain Monckton and the ghost.

The real "Little House" was no children's story.

Farming and folklore.

The importance of ancient teeth.

A mutineer comes to a bad end.

A border reiver comes to a bad end.

The search for the "Hoodie Killer."

How to impersonate a ghost.

Dancing in the Street, in a way that Martha and the Vandellas never imagined.

Napoleon's brother.

That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at the case of some curious stone heads. In the meantime, thrill to the incomparable lip-synching skills of Johnny Horton.

Not to mention Dick Clark cuddling a donkey.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to my American readers! So, how would you like to spend this holiday? Picnicking? Boating? Watching a professional fireworks display? Listening to patriotic orations?

If you answered, "No, silly, I'd rather read about death, dismemberment, and disaster," well, you've come to the right blog. Yes, it's time for the annual Strange Company 4th of July celebration!

In some of my previous posts, I've compared the 4th to a war zone. In 1910, the American Medical Association took me quite literally, and made a scientific comparison. And guess what? Yes, you'd be safer in the war zone.

"Hutchinson Gazette," June 25, 1910

This roundup in the "Dayton Daily News" for July 5, 1904, was typical post-4th newspaper reading:
Chicago, July 6.--According to dispatches from all parts of the country, 25 persons dead, 1384 injured, and a property loss amounting to $177,800 is the price which the United States paid for its Fourth of July celebration, and the deaths from lockjaw will probably double or triple the number of fatalities already listed.

Of the injured, 177 were hurt by firecrackers, sky rockers or other explosives, and nearly all the dead owed their fate to these. Cannon prematurely exploding brought death to two persons and injuries to 101; firearms, including revolvers and guns, caused the hurts of 171; gunpowder and dynamite mistaken for gunpowder severely hurt 220 persons, and the deadly toy pistol this year claimed 209 victims. Runaways caused by explosions injured 39 persons, and in such an accident a woman lost her life.

Chicago this year escaped fortunately in comparison with the past. A new feature was the absence of a death roll in Chicago, and but 41 persons were injured.

The fire loss throughout the country likewise was extremely small, the largest damage reported being $50,000 in Boston. Janesville, Win., suffered a $35,000 fire, caused by a skyrocket. Small boys fired the stick, and it stuck on the roof of the Rock River Cotton company's mill, where the blase smouldered for six hours before it was discovered.

Baltimore, warned by its disastrous fire, restricted the use of explosives as, it is reported, never before has been done in an American city.

The records of other big cities follow: New York--Killed by fireworks, 1; injured by fireworks, 20; cannon, 3; firearms, 20; pistol, 4; total, 52; fire loss, $1500.

Philadelphia--Injured by cannon, 12; firearms, 28; gunpowder. 106; toy pistols, 67; total, 271; fire loss, $7000.

Meanwhile, the "Billings Journal" for July 5, 1909, chose to look on the bright side.

By the 1920s, the movement to hold "safe and sane" Fourth of July festivities had firmly entered the American consciousness. People looked for ways to celebrate the holiday that didn't involve racking up long rows of casualty lists. No, by golly, this time everyone was going to make it out alive!

This worked about as well as you'd think. The "Montreal Gazette" for July 5, 1921 had a good laugh on their neighbors to the south.

New York, July 4. Seven men were drowned today at beaches in the vicinity of New York as hundreds of thousands of sweltering masses fled from the intense heat that has enveloped the city since Saturday. An unknown man, believed demented by the excessive temperature, committed suicide by jumping into the reservoir in Central Park.

One death from prostration was reported in the city, while numerous persons, overcome during the day's festivities, were revived at hospitals. Several minor accidents resulted from the premature explosion of fireworks.

The crowds that sought relief at the beaches yesterday and today were the greatest in the history of any of the nearby resorts. At Coney Island and other popular hot weather rendezvous thousands slept on the sand last night and a throng fully as great was following their example tonight. Police details at the beaches have been augmented and the patrolmen instructed to see that the sleepers were protected from molestation.

Although five degrees cooler than July 4, 1914, today was still among the hottest Independence Days in New York in recent years. A maximum temperature of 93 degrees was reached during the afternoon, which, according to weather bureau reports, is ten degrees above the average for this time of year.

The list of casualties due to celebration of the "Glorious Fourth" began to arrive in dispatches early In the day and indications were that the efforts to make the U.S. national holiday, "safe and sane" were not likely to meet with any greater degree of success than in previous years.

At San Jose, California, . Gladys Flatham, youthful celebrant, is dead and her playmate, Joyce McLaughlin, is not expected to live. Their dresses caught fire while they were playing with fireworks and they suffered severe bums despite the efforts of neighbors to save them.

During celebrations today at Springfield, Mass., a young girl was assaulted and badly beaten; Joseph Startari, also of Springfleld, is in Mercy Hospital suffering from severe knife wounds received during a fight in east Longmeadow. Two Italians In the same city engaged In a revolver duel, said to have resulted from a family feud. Neither were injured.

Lockjaw, resulting from the explosion of blank cartridges being used to celebrate the fourth resulted today in the death of William Drumm, 15, and Michael Santello, 14, at Norwalk, Conn. The sale of explosives for Fourth of July celebration had been forbidden in Norwalk, and the police are investigating.

Milwaukee, Wis., July 4.--Nine persons are dead in this vicinity as a result of fourth of July celebrations, two of them being overcome by heat. Six were drowned, while another was killed in an automobile accident.

Chicago, July 4.--Twelve persons died and a score or more injured as the result of the three-day fourth of July holiday. Two were accidentally shot to death, a three-year-old. boy died in a three-storey fall, five persons were drowned and four were killed in automobile accidents.

Philadelphia, July 4.--Three drownings, several heat prostrations and the highest temperature of the year marked Independence Day here. At 2 o'clock this afternoon the thermometer registered 96, the highest previous temperature this season being being 94.

New York. July 4.--Minneapolis reported Its first Fourth of July fatality this afternoon. George Wheelan, 24 years of age, died in that city today from injuries he received when he accidentally shot himself yesterday with an automatic pistol, which he was preparing for use in celebrating Independence Day.

Cleveland, July 4.--John Shollis, 69, was killed tonight, a victim of a Fourth of July celebration. He was shot through the breast when a neighbor placed a cartridge on the sidewalk fifty feet away and struck it with a hammer, according to the police.
You get the feeling the Canucks were really enjoying rubbing it in?

So, forget the fireworks, forget the beach party. Who needs explosions or swimming parties to celebrate the holiday when there's good food and drink to enjoy? What could be more all-American like an ice cream party?


Glens Falls, New York "Post-Star,"July 9, 1887
New York, July 7.--There is now a strong suspicion that the twenty families who were poisoned on July 4 by eating ice cream furnished them by Ernest A. G. Interman, of Sixth avenue, were the victims of some of the confectioner's business rivals or personal enemies. Interman has been established in business in his present store for many years. He uses only pure fruit syrups for flavoring the cream. The cream is made in the basement, with an entrance from the street, and the door is nearly always open. Interman kept a big dog in the basement to keep intruders out, but on Thursday last the dog died with all the symptoms of arsenical poisoning. It is now believed that some one gave poison to the dog for the purpose of getting it out of the way, and that on the Fourth of July they entered the basement and dropped poison into one of the cans of ice cream. As most of Interman's customers buy mixed cream, the contents of one can would thus be mingled with cream from a number of others. The police and health authorities are both engaged in investigating the matter. All those who were poisoned by the cream either have entirely recovered or are out of danger.

Well, I wasn't hungry, anyway. Let's just pass around some ice-cold lemona...

Never mind.

"Onaga Democrat," July 8, 1886

That closes our July 4th, 2018. We all have our own individual ways of spending this day, but I dare any of you to top Mr. William Prendegrast's holiday merriment.

"Weekly Bulletin," (Anthony, Kansas,) July 17, 1885

Monday, July 2, 2018

Murder at Sea: the "Glendower" Mystery

"Harrisburg Independent," June 10 1911

For an Edgar Allan Poe devotee such as myself, the strange and bloody goings-on aboard the good ship “Glendower” have an irresistible fascination. Here we have a murder claustrophobic enough to unsettle Hitchcock, strange enough to make Dame Christie throw up her hands, and impenetrable enough to baffle Poe’s M. Dupin. It resembles the Lizzie Borden case, in the sense that we think we “know” who committed the crime in question, but we can never truly know. Also like the Borden murders, the complete absence of discernible motive leaves one deeply disquieted. If the captain of the “Glendower” could be slaughtered in such an apparently pointless fashion, who among us is safe?

Our tale-without-a-moral began on June 9, 1911. The “Glendower,” a coal barge that had seen seventeen years of service, was part of a three-ship flotilla. The captain was fifty-five year old Charles Wyman, a man with a long, and so far as is known, perfectly commendable history at sea. His three crew members, William DeGraff, William Nilsen, and Antonio Priskich, seemed both hard-working and respectable. The vessel appeared to be approaching its scheduled destination of Newburyport, Massachusetts without incident. The first sign of trouble came at about eight in the evening, when the barge began whistling. It sent out signals indicating it wanted the “Monocacy,” the tug that was leading it, to change course and come alongside.

The “Monocacy’s” pilot, a Captain Camp, realized this was a sign of trouble, but what happened next must still have been a great shock. When his tug approached the barge, the ship’s cook, William DeGraff, shouted to him, “The captain is dead!” When Camp sputtered out words of disbelief, DeGraff reiterated phlegmatically, “He took a rest this noon at twelve, and when we went to call him around five o’clock—well, he was dead, that’s all. We found him dead.”

Camp was understandably stunned by the news, but he assumed Wyman had died of some unexpected, but perfectly natural causes. Before heading to shore and notifying the police, the flotilla dropped anchor and he attempted to question DeGraff further. In response to these inquiries, the cook said that Wyman had evidently died around noon, casually adding the information that “there was blood in the bunk, too.” He invited Camp to come aboard and inspect the corpse himself.

Camp declined—he probably already suspected by this point that events were becoming far too weird for him to handle alone—and the ships made their way to Boston, where he went ashore to file a report with the police and the local coroner.

It was not until dawn of the following day that the Suffolk County medical examiner, Dr. George Magrath, accompanied by several policemen, went aboard the ill-fated barge. DeGraff greeted them quietly. DeGraff, a sailor for nearly forty years, had joined the crew of the “Glendower” only a month before. DeGraff ‘s background was and is a puzzle—virtually all we know of him is contained in the previous sentence—and although he was a strongly-built man with powerful arms and shoulders, he was also extremely hunchbacked. His strange, oddly composed figure only compounded the grim atmosphere of the scene.

The visitors found Wyman’s body lying face-down in his bunk. He was wrapped in a blanket, which was heavily bloodstained. Drops of blood also covered the area around him. His head had been repeatedly battered with what was believed to be a hatchet or large club. Dr. Magrath found a hammer loosely held in the dead man’s hand. It was, however, bloodless, proving that it had been placed in Wyman’s hands after the blood on them had already dried. It did not take a forensic genius to realize this was not, as Camp had assumed, a stroke or heart attack, or even a suicide.

When Magrath and the patrolmen questioned the crew, they obtained little helpful information. The trio insisted that there could not have been anyone but themselves aboard ship, and they all professed complete ignorance of how their captain met his violent end. The policemen made a minute search of the little barge, without discovering a single clue to help them solve the mystery. The crewmembers were all placed under arrest and brought ashore. It was noted that DeGraff, unlike his obviously confused shipmates, was quietly wary, taking careful notice of all that went on around him.

When the trio faced a Boston Grand Jury, it was brought into evidence that while Nilsen and Priskich bunked some distance away from the captain, DeGraff’s cabin communicated with Wyman’s, enabling him to clandestinely enter Wyman’s quarters. It was also revealed that the other two survivors of the “Glendower” were continuously alone together during that fatal afternoon, in a different part of the ship. It was judged to be a ridiculously easy case to solve. There appeared to be literally no one in the world who could have killed Captain Wyman but his crippled cook.

DeGraff went on trial on February 19, 1912. Testimony showed that DeGraff called the men to meals by ringing a bell. Three of them ate at a time, while the fourth manned the wheel. On the day of the murder, Nilsen was at the wheel for the midday meal, which was served at eleven. Priskich was with him until the dinner bell rang, and DeGraff arrived for his turn at the wheel. Wyman ate a full meal and retired to the chartroom, which adjoined his cabin, shortly before twelve. It was the last time anyone admitted seeing him alive.

Newspaper sketch of DeGraff's trial

Nilsen took the wheel at noon, and Priskich went to the engine room, where it was impossible for him to reach Wyman’s cabin unobserved. DeGraff went somewhere below deck, where he was unseen by Nilsen or Priskich until close to five PM. Around one-thirty Nilsen thought he heard a groan or cry, without being able to place its source. (Some vaguer accounts state he heard an angry cry of “Get out of here!”) Doctors who examined the murder victim believed that what he heard were the last sounds made by Captain Wyman.

At two, Priskich took his place at the wheel. Nilsen testified that he briefly rested in his bunk, and then rejoined Priskich. From then until the four-thirty supper time, the pair were constantly within sight of the other.

Supper was—for the first time—late, by about fifteen minutes. DeGraff came to take the wheel, and Nilsen and Priskich went to eat. They were surprised to find the captain was not there. After waiting fruitlessly for a while, they went to question the cook about what they should do. DeGraff told them indifferently to go ahead and eat—the captain would turn up eventually. Priskich knocked on Wyman’s door, but got no reply.

After the two men ate, they again consulted DeGraff about their increasing unease with the situation. The cook, with the same air of nonchalance he displayed throughout the entire story, dismissed their worries. When Priskich pointed out that Wyman was due to take the wheel at five, DeGraff replied that he himself would take the captain’s place. However, after Priskich left to look after the engines, the cook told Nilsen to take over the wheel, as he had to clean up after the meal.

Priskich returned to the wheelhouse an hour and a half later. Upon seeing that the captain had yet to make an appearance, he insisted on breaking into Wyman’s cabin—a plan DeGraff strongly discouraged--but his crewmates finally overruled him. Priskich and DeGraff entered Wyman’s cabin, where their captain’s body was finally discovered. Priskich—again over DeGraff’s demurrals—insisted on immediately alerting their tug. Before doing so, he suddenly stopped and said “I don’t really know Captain Wyman is dead.”

“Sure, he died,” DeGraff replied. “He died long ago, for I took his hand like this,” holding his left wrist with his right hand.

The weapon that killed Wyman was never found, and no blood was on the clothing of the three survivors. However, only one of DeGraff’s aprons—freshly washed and unused—could be located.

At DeGraff’s trial, the prosecution’s main difficulty was establishing motive. They found two witnesses who testified that DeGraff had said Wyman was “no good,” and that he had sworn to kill him. These men were unable to give any reason for the cook’s reputed hostility, however.

When DeGraff himself took the stand, his testimony was terse and unenlightening. The best his attorney could do for a defense was to suggest that a stowaway had secretly hidden aboard ship, slaughtered the captain for reasons unknown, and then managed to jump overboard and swim to shore unseen. The prosecutor, on the other hand, was able to establish that DeGraff was the only one on the ship who had the time and opportunity to commit the crime. He also pointed out that the murder must have been done by someone familiar with Wyman’s habits, and surely some secret lurker would be unable to know when the captain would be invisible to the rest of the ship.

By the morning after both sides had rested their case, the jury reached a verdict: “Not guilty.” Evidently, the prosecution’s inability to prove why DeGraff would wish to kill his captain  outweighed everything else, as far as these jurymen were concerned. They also likely found it difficult to picture such a calm, nondescript figure in the role of wild butcher. DeGraff left the courthouse, and disappeared. Some believed he changed his name and went on with his life at sea, but his subsequent history remains as shadowy as everything else in this case.

There is a legend that, immediately after DeGraff was freed, he confided to someone who had struck up an acquaintance with him during his imprisonment the story of his murder of Charles Wyman. The tale said that many years before, when DeGraff was a strong, healthy young man, the brutal Wyman had attacked him, causing him to suffer a fall that left him permanently crippled. DeGraff waited decades to take his revenge, biding his time until Wyman had forgotten him and the tragic incident. Aboard the “Glendower,” he finally found the opportunity to settle scores.

This slice of Gothic melodrama is almost certainly the product of an enterprising journalist or overly imaginative local blowhard, but in the absence of any other explanation for what happened that gruesome day on the “Glendower,” it has lingered ever since.

The fate of the “Glendower” itself may be clearer. Robert Ellis Cahill, the founder of Salem Massachusetts’ New England Pirate Museum, has told of visiting an abandoned building in his city where the second story is composed of an old barge. Upon entering this upper half of the site, he was greeted by a ghostly voice yelling “Get out of here!”

Cahill was convinced that the barge used to construct the building was none other than the remains of the “Glendower,” complete with the restless, un-avenged spirit of its murdered Captain. “It sounds,” he wrote, “like the ‘Glendower’ was kind of a hoodoo vessel.” This is certainly as good an answer to the mystery as any.

In any case, let us pay tribute to the otherwise unmemorable William DeGraff. This quiet, unassuming little cook may well have been as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the most bloodthirsty pirate.

[Note: this originally appeared in July 2012 as a guest post on the excellent--and now sadly on-hiatus--blog "Pauline's Pirates and Privateers."]