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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Weldon Atherstone's Final Performance

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on."
~William Shakespeare, "Othello"

Thomas Weldon Anderson may not have been a great show business success, but he accomplished one thing achieved by very few actors: he starred in a real-life mystery story which topped anything he ever performed on stage.

Anderson was born in the English village of Much Woolton in 1861. As a young man, he decided to become an actor, changing his name to the more romantic "Weldon Atherstone." The newly-rechristened Atherstone was not a particularly talented thespian, but he was a tall, handsome man with an impressive voice. These attributes were sufficient to get him a steady stream of roles in the lesser theatrical companies. He was never an acclaimed performer, but he was a regularly employed one, which is more than most actors can say.

In 1886, he married an actress named Monica Kelly, and the two had four children. Unfortunately, the marriage quickly hit the skids. Atherstone was a jealous, hot-tempered individual, and the pair spent much of their time quarreling. By the late 1890s, Atherstone had enough, and he abandoned his family. He was not on his own for long. In 1899, while performing in an otherwise forgettable melodrama called "The Power of Gold," he fell in love with one of his co-stars, a pretty young American named Elizabeth Earle. In 1902, Earle retired from the stage, settling down with her mother in a small flat in Battersea. Atherstone lived with them when he was not "on the road" with touring companies.

"The Era," July 15, 1899 via Newspapers.com

When Earle's mother died in 1905, Earle remained in the flat. She became a teacher at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and also held private acting lessons in her home. Earle developed a warm, motherly relationship with Atherstone's two sons, and for some time the irregular Earle/Atherstone household was the picture of tranquility.

Sadly, this domestic bliss did not last forever. Atherstone's career began hitting the skids. He was getting too old for leading man roles, and his hammy, melodramatic acting style was falling out of vogue. He did not take his professional problems well. Atherstone became increasingly moody, paranoid, and generally angry at the world. He fell into jealous rages against Earle, forbidding her to have any male pupils. In May 1910, Atherstone accused her of infidelity. When she indignantly denied the charge, he struck her across the face and moved out of the flat.

Such was the unhappy situation on July 16, 1910. Earle still remained close to the Atherstone boys, and on that evening she was visited by Weldon's 21-year-old son Thomas Frederick. As the two were having supper, they were startled by the sound of two gunshots. They seemed to come from the flat underneath Earle's, which was then unoccupied. However, neither went outside to investigate the noise. A short time later, a policeman came to the door. Apparently, a neighbor had just reported hearing the shots, after which he saw a man jump down from the wall of the next-door building and run off.

Thomas escorted the officer downstairs and into the rear yard, where they found a man lying unconscious. He had been shot twice in the head. The gun was not at the scene, and, in fact, never was found. Although doctors were immediately summoned, the victim soon died. Thomas claimed not to recognize the man. The victim was wearing carpet slippers instead of boots, and had been carrying a homemade cosh in his pocket, suggesting that he had not been engaged in any sort of benign enterprise. Also in his pocket was a business card bearing the name of "Weldon Atherstone."

When police asked Thomas if he knew anyone by that name, he hesitantly replied, "my father," but he could not believe his parent was the dead man. However, when he later viewed the body at the mortuary, he immediately acknowledged that it was indeed his dad.

Naturally, the prime suspect in Atherstone's murder was the man seen fleeing the scene. Witnesses described him as a small man in his twenties, and wearing a dark suit. He was definitely not Thomas Anderson, who was notably tall. But who was he, and--assuming he was the killer--what was his motive for shooting Atherstone?

Ross-Shire Journal, July 29, 1910

The actor's reason for being on the scene could be explained more easily. Atherstone was spying on his ex-lover. A diary found in his pocketbook revealed a man driven half-mad by jealousy, and he was convinced that Earle was seeing other men. In this diary, he named his suspected rivals, but these men all had alibis for the time of the shooting, and were soon cleared by police. (Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Atherstone's obsession had any basis in reality.)

At the coroner's inquest, Earle--who seemed genuinely grief-stricken--was asked about her odd lack of curiosity when she heard the two gunshots. (She had assumed someone was scaring off a thief, or shooting at alley cats.) Thomas Anderson received questions regarding his equally peculiar inability to initially recognize his own father. He attributed this to a combination of the darkness and the victim's facial injuries. Both these witnesses struck observers as completely sincere, and no one could come up with any adequate motive for either of them to murder Atherstone. The inquest jury, faced with a remarkable paucity of evidence, gave the inevitable verdict of "murder by some person or persons unknown."

We know no more about the murder of Weldon Atherstone than that long-ago jury did. The near-total lack of clues in the case has provided a fertile field for a wide variety of theories. The simplest and most popular scenario imagines that Atherstone was out on a spy mission, hoping to catch Earle in the company of a romantic rival. He concealed himself in the empty flat below Earle's, expecting to confront her lover. Instead, he encountered a burglar. The two men fought, which ended with the burglar shooting Atherstone and disappearing into the night. Early 20th century true crime writer Hargrave L. Adam doubted that a burglar was afoot--early on a summer night, he said, was not a time for housebreakers to ply their criminal trade. He suggested that the gun had actually belonged to Atherstone, but during his encounter with "some petty sneak-thief," the weapon wound up being used against him. Sir Neville Macnaughten, a senior official at Scotland Yard, also scoffed at the burglar theory: "Burglars don't start business at 9:30 on a summer's night, nor do they crack cribs which contain nothing."

In more modern times, Jonathan Goodman--who had a taste for devising convoluted "solutions" to crime mysteries--proposed that Atherstone's murder was not due to a chance encounter with a stranger, but from a conspiracy among those closest to him. Atherstone, Goodman pointed out, had not been a very good father, and would hardly win any prizes as a boyfriend, either. Perhaps, he thought, long-suffering Elizabeth Earle and the two Anderson boys worked together to kill Atherstone. In Goodman's view, Thomas Anderson shot his father, with his brother William on hand to make off with the murder weapon. However, William had an alibi for the time of the shooting, and he did not match the description of the man seen fleeing the scene.

In his "Murder Houses of South London," Jan Bondeson diffidently speculated that Earle and/or the Andersons hired a "hit man," but immediately undercut his own theory by pointing out that none of them had sufficient funds to indulge in murder-for-hire. In any case, Bondeson felt that none of the three had sufficient motive to "swear into a murderous conspiracy." He cast doubt on the "burglar" hypothesis as well: the mystery man was described by witnesses as wearing an "elegant suit"--hardly likely in the case of a burglar stalking a lower-class neighborhood.

In his book about the case, "Mr. Atherstone Leaves the Stage," Richard Whittington-Egan listed the various questions surrounding the murder:

Had the dead man reason to believe that someone might come to the back of the mansion premises?
If so, for what purpose?
Was Atherstone anticipating an attack on himself, his son, or Miss Earle?
Who was there with whom he had at any time quarrelled who might cherish sufficient ill-will to take his life, or bribe an agent to do so?
Who anticipated a possible meeting with Atherstone, and a possible attack by him?
What was the reason for the meeting, and the motive for the attack?

"There were no answers," he sighed.

[Note: Understandably, Elizabeth Earle moved from her flat soon after the murder. What happened to her next is uncertain, but she may have emigrated to Australia. All we know of Atherstone's younger son William is that he served with distinction in World War One. As for Thomas Anderson, he joined the Merchant Navy, and eventually settled in New Zealand, where he became an active member of the Federated Seamen's Union of New Zealand. He died in 1964 with a dark cloud over his name, as he had just admitted to having spent the last several decades stealing funds from his union.

It would be interesting to know their theories about Atherstone's messy and untimely death, but, unfortunately, they seem to have kept whatever ideas they had to themselves.]

Friday, October 19, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by more of our Halloween Cats!

Who the hell was B. Traven?

What the hell was the Wakulla Volcano?

Watch out for those haunted paintings!

Watch out for those haunted effigies!

Watch out for those banana merchants!  Wait, what?

Here's your opportunity to buy the home of a Salem witch.

Cooking with human ashes.  Martha Stewart, call your office.

The murderer's ghost.

America's first "celebrity burglar."

Sketches of Georgian-era beauties.

The palomino vs. the hurricane.

A murder in Brooklyn.

The many adventures of a 19th century showman.

The real-life stories behind famous horror movies.

The biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

A Welsh warrior princess.

Cappy Ricks and the poltergeist.

The world's worst lighthouse?

A newly-discovered Viking boat burial.

The victims of Vesuvius met an even more unpleasant end than you might think.

Speaking of which, the eruption probably happened on a different date than you might think.

The still-controversial murder case that helped lead to the end of the death penalty in Britain.

Attack of the Fairy Folk.

Yet another deadly love triangle.

Emblems fit for a king.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: vipers are not for kissing.

Betsy Balcombe, friend to Napoleon.

This week in Russian Weird looks at a gruesome and mysterious murder.

Did Nessie pop up on Google Earth?

A street of scandals and scoundrels.

The enigmatic Walworth murders.

Wheelbarrow Men meet the gallows.

The spooky Drummer of Tedworth.

A self-cleaning house.

That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at the puzzling murder of an actor. In the meantime, here's some Bach.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Novels and movies about vengeful spirits angered over their last living wishes being ignored are so commonplace, you would think everyone would be aware of the danger, but some people just can't be told. The "Frankfort Daily Review," July 20, 1909:
Sterling, Ill. Friends and neighbors throughout Whiteside county are discussing in awestruck whispers the strange events associated with the burial of Mrs. Emma Stelzer, who vowed in a death message that unless her funeral was conducted from the house of the man she loved she would send her spirit to haunt him and to vex him for the remainder of his life.

Mrs. Stelzer killed herself by taking strychnine. She left a note saying that she loved Jacob Warner, a farmer, and that she wished her funeral to take place from his home. She also commanded Warner to see that her divorced husband did not witness the burial.

Warner scoffed at the strange threats. He said he never loved Mrs. Stelzer and that he would have nothing to do with her funeral. News of the woman's threat and the man's defiance spread over the countryside. and there was intense interest in the plans for the funeral.

Mrs. Stelzer's body was taken from the morgue, where it had lain since Warner refused to admit it to his home, and was carried out to the cemetery at the head of a long cortege of carriages, containing friends, neighbors, and many who were drawn by curiosity. The pastor had scarcely begun to read the burial service when the earth around the open grave caved in.

There was a suppressed movement of alarm among the crowd about the grave. The minister sent for workmen, who repaired the damage, and the burial service was resumed. Just as the pallbearers were about to lower the casket into the grave, one side of the grave caved in again and caught the casket, holding it like a vise. It was necessary to raise the casket to remove the dirt. On the second attempt there was another cave-in, and it was necessary to remove the casket again and remove the obstruction.

There was none in the funeral assemblage that believed the woman's threat had been anything more than the distracted message of a troubled woman, but all those present were visibly impressed by the two accidents.

Warner, who laughed at the threat that her spirit would return to haunt him all his life, keeps up his air of bravado. But he has noticeably grown pale and is failing in health, and friends who saw him the other day said he was a sick man. They attribute it to his brooding over Mrs. Stelzer's vow.
I have no idea what became of Warner, but I think it's safe to say that Emma was not a woman to be trifled with. Alive or dead.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Leg-Stretcher of Odcombe

Thomas Coryat

You would think that someone who was a popular Early Modern travel writer, and who also knew pretty much everybody who was anybody in his era--half Baedeker, half Zelig--and who was dubbed "The Odd," would be better remembered today. But such are the vagaries of history.

This week, let us pay tribute to this undeservedly obscure Englishman, one of the quirkier figures of a decidedly quirky era.

Thomas Coryat (or Coryate) was born circa 1577 in the Somerset town of Crewkerne, although he grew up in the village of Odcombe, where his father George Coryat was rector. The family was not wealthy, but George was able to see to it that his son got a good education at Winchester College and Oxford. After Thomas left the university, he found himself unable to decide what to do with his life. His class-conscious era offered few desirable opportunities for a young man who had more brains than he did money.

Coryat, like so many people in his situation, made use of his wits as best he could. He had enough "connections" to get himself a place in the court of James I's son Henry. Coryat was a gregarious, witty fellow with a gift of gab, so he managed to earn his keep by keeping his wealthy, important acquaintances amused. Prince Henry granted him ten pounds a year to act as his unofficial court jester. His contemporary Thomas Fuller wrote that "Sweetmeats and Coryate made up the last course of all court entertainments. Indeed, he was the courtiers' anvil to try their wits upon; and sometimes the anvil returned the hammers as hard knocks as it received, his bluntness repaying their abusiveness."

It was a comfortable enough job, but a demeaning one.  Like so many other comedians, Coryat wanted to be taken seriously. He cared little for mere money, but he longed for fame and, even more importantly, respect. Playing the fool for the entertainment of the nobility was no way to achieve either of those desires. He came up with a remarkable career plan. He would travel--alone--across Europe, then write a book about his adventures. Surely, then, he would win lasting acclaim?

Coryat set off on his journey in May 1608. His limited funds meant that he had to walk a good part of the way. (He proudly dubbed himself "The Oddcombe Legge-Stretcher.") In the course of nearly half a year, Coryat "leg-stretched" his way through France, Italy, Venice, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Once back in England, he gave thanks for his safe return by donating his well-worn clothes and shoes to Odcombe Church, apparently with the thought that they should be venerated as relics. (The items, rather remarkably, remained on display until the 18th century.) In 1611, he recorded his achievement in a book, "Coryat's Crudities, hastily gobbled up in Five Months Travels in France, Italy, &c." His friend Ben Jonson arranged to have the work published, and also wrote a forward where he described Coryat as "an Engine, wholly consisting of extremes, a Head, Fingers, and Toes. For what his industrious Toes have trod, his ready Fingers have written, his subtle Head dictating." Coryat enlisted his other literary friends, such as John Donne and Inigo Jones, to write promotional verses (the 17th century equivalent of "blurbs") for the beginning of the book. He perhaps did not anticipate that his pals would gleefully take this as an opportunity to satirize and mock him. This literary celebrity roast proved so popular that a pirated reprint of the verses was published, omitting Coryat's material "for thine and thy purses good."

The imposing (over 200,000 words) "Crudities" is entirely characteristic of its author: Energetic, garrulous, amusing, eclectic, and slightly cracked. (It is the only book I know of to feature a frontispiece showing the author being pelted with eggs.) The streets of Paris "are the dirtiest, and so consequently the most stinking of all that ever I saw in any citie in my life." After describing a harrowing trip through the Alps, he noted that Aiguebelle featured many people with throat goitres, which he attributed to "the drinking of snow water." Savoy had beds so high "that a man could hardly gette into his bedde without some kind of climbing." Coryat deplored the Italian habit of sprinkling cheese over their food, "which I love not so well as the Welchmen doe." He did, however, appreciate one aspect of Italian dining: how they "doe alwaies at their meales use a little forke when they cut their meat...This forme of feeding I understand is generally used in all places of Italy, their forkes being for the most part made of yron or steele, and some of silver...The reason of this their curiosity is, because the Italian cannot by any means indure to have his dish touched with fingers, seeing all mens fingers are not alike cleane." Forks were not entirely unknown in England, but it took Coryat's promotion of their hygienic benefits to bring them into wider use.

Coryat also took note of another Italian innovation: "what they commonly call in the Italian tongue umbrellaes, that is, things that minister shadow unto them for shelter against the scorching heate of the Sunne. These are made of leather something answerable to the forme of a little canopy, & hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compasse." This is believed to be the earliest use of the word "umbrella" in English, although it would take about a century for the instruments to come into general use among Coryat's countrymen.

Venice fascinated him. It "yeeldeth the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that ever any mortal eye beheld." He described the architecture in astounding detail (often borrowed wholesale from earlier guide books.) Coryat earned the undying gratitude of music historians for his vivid descriptions of performances of the Venetian School, considered to be one of Europe's most well-known and influential musical movements.

On a less sublime note, he recorded the city's ubiquitous brothels, complaining that "if a stranger entereth into one of their Gondolas, and doth not presently tell them whither he will goe, they will incontinently carry him of their accord to a religious house [his sarcastic term for a bordello] forsooth, where his plumes shall be well pulled before he commeth forth againe." Coryat estimated that Venice had at least 20,000 prostitutes, "whereof many are esteemed so loose, that they are said to open their quivers to every arrow." He added his fear "least I shall expose my selfe to the severe censure and scandalous imputations of many carping Criticks, who I thinke will taxe me for luxury and wantonnesse to insert so lascivious a matter into this Treatise of Venice." Our Thomas knew that nothing sells books like a little sex.

Coryat followed up the success of "Crudities" with a sequel, "Coryats Crambe," a grab-bag of material consisting of some verses that had been submitted too late for inclusion in the previous book, petitions to Prince Henry and other members of the Royal Family, and the text of a speech Coryat made in the Court of Chancery. It too had a respectable sale, earning the author a decent amount of fame. Coryat became an accepted member of London's lively literary society, hobnobbing with (in the words of John Aubrey,) "all the witts then about the towne." John Hoskyns wrote a lengthy poem about this Jacobean Algonquin Round Table where Coryat ("This orator of Odcombe towne") was immortalized with lines such as,
But yet the number is not righted;
If Coriate bee not invited,
The jeast will want a tiller.
For wittily on him, they say,
As hammers on an anvil play,
Each man his jeast may breake.
When Coriate is fuddled well,
His tongue begins to talke pel-mel,
He shameth not to speake.
Hoskyns concluded his "tribute" by noting,
But Coriate liveth by his witts,
He looseth nothinge that he getts,
Nor playes the fool in vayne.

Coryat was still feeling restless and unfulfilled. His wanderlust urged him on to tackle even more exotic adventures. On October 20, 1612, he set out on another solo journey. He walked through Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Coryat was one of the few Englishmen to tour the Ottoman Empire while it was still nearly at the height of its power and renown. He joined up with a caravan traveling through Palestine to Jerusalem. Coryat was utterly charmed by the region. His letters carry rapturous descriptions of monasteries with beautiful walled gardens, grand mosques with a thousand pillars, and cheap but excellent food. He called Damascus "an earthly paradise." In Jerusalem, Coryat piously had his arm tattooed with the arms of Jerusalem and the words "Via, Veritas, Vita" ["the Way, the Truth, the Life"] and visited the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre and other religious sites. By July 1615, he had arrived in India, where he was pleased to encounter a small group of Englishmen who were doing negotiations on behalf of the East India Company. He had been walking for some nine months, and was ready to take a rest in this little British enclave. The letters he sent home during this period were published in 1616 under the title of "Greetings from the Court of the Great Mogul." (A sequel appeared in 1618.)

Coryat made an appearance the court of the Emperor Jahangir in Ajmer. He presented a petition to Jahangir where he described himself as a "poore traveler and World-Seer," come to see "the blessed face of your Majesty," elephants, and the Ganges, presumably in that order. He asked the Emperor's permission to travel to Samarkand. Jahangir replied that his hostile relations with the Tartars made it impossible to help Coryat make the journey, but he did give the traveler a small sum of money. Coryat was grateful for this donation, as "I had but twentie shillings sterling left in my Purse."

Coryat visited Agra, which was then a great trading city. He observed religious festivals (as a devout Protestant, he did not really approve of any of them,) and toured grand tombs and exotic holy sites.

However, Coryat was tired. The strain of months of foot travel through largely inhospitable lands was finally taking its toll. He confided to an Englishman of his acquaintance that as he usually traveled alone, he feared he might die and "be buried in obscurity and none of his friends ever know what became of him."

In November 1617, Coryat made his way to Surat, popular as both a trade city and a port of embarkation for Mecca pilgrimages. It was his final journey. According to Edward Terry, an East India Company chaplain who had befriended the wanderer, Coryat's end was characteristically serio-comic: "He lived to come safely thither, but there being over-kindly used by some of the English, who gave him sack which they had brought from England; he calling for it as soon as he first heard of it, and crying: 'Sack, sack, is there such a thing as sack? I pray give me some sack'; and drinking of it (though, I conceive, moderately, for he was a very temperate man,) it increased his flux which he had then upon him."

This combination of English wine and Indian dysentery proved fatal for Coryat in December 1617. The location of his grave is now uncertain. Just outside of Surat is a domed Muslim-style monument which legend says is his burial site, but it is also possible that Coryat was laid to rest in Surat's English graveyard.

It is a sadly anonymous fate for someone so eager to make his mark in the world. However, although Coryat did not achieve the level of permanent historical recognition he probably craved, his could not be called an unsuccessful life. He was a brave, likable man who had adventures unheard of by most of his contemporaries and, for the most part, he seems to have had a jolly good time doing them. He deserves to be remembered.

I for one raise my fork to him.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by some of the Cats of Halloween!

Where the hell is Lord Lucan?

Where the hell is Atlantis?

Where the hell is the Holy Grail?  What the hell is the Holy Grail?

Who the hell was Suitcase Jane Doe?

Watch out for those novels!

Watch out for the Yowie!

Watch out for the Woman in Black!

Watch out for those hopping ghosts!

Watch out for those haunted tunnels!

Watch out for those haunted mines!

Watch out for those haunted cemeteries!  Especially the ones that come with a side order of smallpox!

Watch out for those haunted desks!  ( Here is another example.)

You want to know what Henry VIII's castles really needed?  Porta Potties.

An Irish soldier in India writes home.

Early 20th century identity theft.

A landmark legal case dealing with slavery.

Why the Welsh love their dragons.

The horrors of the dickey.

The 19th century murder of Charlotte Dymond.

Early Modern dietary tips.

The Witch of Chesapeake.

Saint Galgano and the sword in the stone.

One really freaking old knife.

Japan's ancient "rock ship."

The history-changing death of Princess Charlotte.

The importance of Regency-era circulating libraries.

Frankly, I'd love to see more modern artists do this.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Fattest Bear in Alaska.

England's last fatal duel.

When your goal is to be the ugliest man in the world, maybe you need to rethink your life.

What it was like to be an 18th century poacher.

Victorian Barbies.

Identifying the woman in the iron coffin.

Robert Peary and the meteorite.

Speaking of meteorites, here's the world's most expensive doorstop.

Lincoln's Butter Market.

A Neanderthal girl's gruesome end.

Games banned by George Washington.

A 1000-year-old schoolbook.

The unsolved murder of a manuscript dealer.

The Case of the Stagnant Slabs.

The Case of the Perfumed Missionaries.

The Case of the Vanishing Monk.

A day in the life of a 12th century merchant.

Charles Dickens' veterinarian.

The man who was both a dwarf and a giant.

"He opened the conversation by announcing that he had a pig’s nerve inside his bladder."  Try out this line at your next cocktail party.

The mysterious gender of the Chevalier d'Eon.

The French Mustache Strike.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an eccentric 17th century traveler.  In the meantime, here's Steve Forbert.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

If there's one topic that defines this blog, it would probably be "ticked-off ghost cat." So I am pleased to share this item from the (Bridgewater, New Jersey) "Courier News," November 23, 1910:
Montclair, N. J., Nov. 23. Frederick G. Johnson, who lives at 9 Oxford street, in this town, thinks that the ghost of a pet cat which he owned haunts his alarm clock.

Up to a few weeks ago the clock behaved as well as any good domesticated alarm clock should. On November 13 the alarm clock, which had been set inadvertently for the noon hour, went off. The Johnson cat was dozing near where the clock stood and the noise awakened her. She dashed about in a frenzy. The kitchen door was open and through it the cat ran. That evening Johnson found the cat dead in the yard back of his home.

The next night the alarm clock began its strange antics. The timepiece switched suddenly into the Ananias circuit. The hands would suddenly jump forward for several swings about the face and the alarm would go off at all hours without any apparent cause. Johnson says he does not remember having wound the clock before these untimely capers. The climax came last night. Johnson was sound asleep. He had left the clock on a chiffonier in his room. About 2 o'clock he was awakened by something striking him in the chest. When he got his bearings he found it was the alarm clock. The thing was ripping out alarms. Johnson says that when he went to sleep the clock was at least four feet from the bed. The clock was today relegated to Johnson's cellar. The owner ascribes the strange actions to the transmigration of the spirit of his vengeful cat.
Sadly, I was unable to find any follow-ups to this story.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Haunting of Slawensik

An old castle out in the middle of nowhere. Two Napoleon-era soldiers who are its reluctant houseguests. Then, strange and inexplicable things begin to happen...

It sounds like the classic setting for a Gothic novel. In this case, however, we are dealing with real life.

The starting point for our story is October 1806, when the Prussians were defeated by the French in the battle of Jena. Among the prisoners of war was one Prince Friedrich Hohenlohe. One of the Prince's councilors, Augustus Hahn, was more fortunate: the French granted him parole. Hohenlohe asked Hahn to take over the management of his main residence, Castle Slawensik in Upper Silesia, until he obtained his release from Napoleon's custody.

Despite his natural desire to return to his own home, Hahn loyally agreed. He would take with him his personal servant, John Reich, two coachmen, and the castle's housekeeper, Frau Knittel. To stave off the loneliness of his temporary exile, Hahn persuaded an old friend, Karl Kern, to accompany him. The little group settled in at Slawensik on November 19, 1806. Both men had a contemptuous skepticism towards anything that smacked of the supernatural. Hahn, in particular, was proud to describe himself as a thoroughgoing materialist.

Nothing unusual was noted until the third night after their arrival. As Hahn and Kern sat reading in a room on the first floor, they were suddenly pelted with bits of plaster. At first, the two startled men assumed the ancient ceiling was beginning to crumble. Then they noted that there were no cracks or any other signs of weakness on the ceiling. It looked perfectly sound. As they examined the apparently pristine surface, another shower of lime fell on them. Kern noticed that the pieces felt oddly cold to the touch.

The next morning, the men were disconcerted to find that the room was now thickly carpeted by fragments of plaster. And the ceiling was still completely uncracked.

That evening, the mystery took an even more alarming turn. The bits of lime began not merely falling, but flying across the room, hitting the two men as if they were guided missiles. As Hahn and Kern fled, they heard rapping noises following them down the dark, ancient halls.

The two soldiers were beginning to think that there were worse fates than being captured by Napoleon.

Kern accused Hahn of pulling some deranged practical joke on him. He had to abandon that relatively comforting theory when a series of earth-shaking knocks were heard at a time when Hahn clearly could not have made the sounds.

When the eerie noises continued on their fifth night at the castle, Kern and Frau Knittel's son made a painstaking search of the upper floors of the castle. The rooms were all completely empty. Later that night, the men were awakened by the sound of slippered footsteps moving across their room. These sounds were then joined by the sound of a walking stick being tapped on the floor.

The ghost--for by this time everyone had to admit this was what they were facing--expanded its repertoire. Candlesticks were thrown across rooms. When the household sat at the dining table, their dishes would suddenly be tossed about by invisible hands. Other household objects would, before their eyes, levitate and dance in the air.

After three weeks of this uproar, Hahn and Kern had their belongings moved to an upper room. This helped them about as much as you think it would. In the middle of the night, Hahn was awakened by the sound of Kern whimpering. He saw Kern staring into a mirror, pale and shaking with fear. When Kern had recovered from his shock enough to speak, he said that he had seen reflected in the mirror the image of an old woman in white robes. Her face was calm and unthreatening, but the sight nevertheless filled him with horror. In the morning, the men had their things moved back downstairs.

Word spread through the area that there were some very odd things happening at Castle Slawensik. Two Bavarian officers, Lieutenant Nagerle and Captain Cornet, came by to investigate. These soldiers were determined skeptics, eager to expose the "truth" behind these allegedly spectral manifestations. Nagerle obtained permission to spend the night in the "haunted" room.

Nagerle had not been in the room for more than a few minutes when the others heard him cursing loudly. This was followed by banging noises. When they reentered the room, they saw Nagerle whacking away at tables and chairs with his saber, angrily battling some invisible foe. He explained indignantly that the minute he was left alone, "something" began pelting him with lime. Hahn and Kern had a very difficult time persuading the outraged officer that they were not pranking him. As the four men were talking, candlesticks abruptly rose in the air and fell to the ground. A lead ball hit Hahn on the forehead. A glass shattered itself on the floor. The men heard footsteps marching through the room.

Nagerle was forced to concede defeat.

The goings-on at Slawensik became increasingly varied. One day after Hahn had heated some water for shaving, before his eyes the liquid was mysteriously sucked out of the basin and vanished. On another occasion, a visitor found that his hat had disappeared. While the household was looking for it, the hat suddenly floated in the air before its owner's face. When he grabbed at it, the hat jerked away and mockingly sailed around the room before dropping at his feet.

One night, Hahn decided that he had enough. Before going to bed, he addressed the ghost, demanding that he be allowed to have one night of peaceful sleep. No sooner had he dropped into a deep slumber that a quantity of cold water was dumped on his head.

Probably the strangest event took place while Hahn was away from the castle for a few days to attend to some business. In his absence, Kern--who did not at all relish the thought of facing the ghost alone--persuaded Hahn's servant John Reich to spend the night in his "haunted" room. After they had retired to bed, the pair saw a jug of beer rise from the table and pour the contents into a glass. Then, the tumbler was raised in the air and emptied. "Oh, Lord," Reich shuddered. "It is swallowing it!"

After a moment, the now-empty glass was replaced on the table. The men examined the floor. The beer had disappeared.

This left the men more unnerved than anything that had previously taken place. If the ghost--or whatever it was--could drink beer, what else might it do?

One evening, as Hahn was walking towards the castle, he heard a dog walking behind him. Assuming it was their greyhound, Flora, Hahn turned and called to the animal. He saw nothing. As he kept walking, the sounds of the footpads continued to, well, dog him. Even inside the castle, he heard a large dog trailing after him.

Kern approached him, calling Flora's name. He too had heard what he assumed was the greyhound coming up the stairs after Hahn. The two went in search of the dog. They finally found Flora securely locked up in the stables. The coachmen told them that the dog had not running loose at any time of the day.

For whatever reason, this ghostly dog proved to be the final eerie manifestation at Slawensik. The two officers stayed at the castle without incident for six more months, when Prince Hohenlohe was released from captivity. Hahn, who had been keeping a detailed diary of his strange experiences, ended the manuscript by concluding, "I have described these events exactly as I heard and saw them; from beginning to end I observed them with the most entire self-possession. I never felt fear; nor an approach to it; yet the whole thing remains to me perfectly inexplicable."

No one ever offered an explanation for the "perfectly inexplicable" events at Slawensik. The only possible clue emerged in 1831, when the castle was destroyed by fire. It was said that the skeleton of a man, who had evidently been walled up in some secret room, was discovered in the ruins. There was a sword by his side, and his skull had been split open.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Strange Company HQ's hard-working research staff.

Why the hell is it dark in outer space?

Why the hell was this woman buried in her Ferrari?

What the hell was the Bell Witch?

What the hell was the New England Sea Serpent?

What the hell happened to the Witchfinder General?

Watch out for the Gwiber!

Watch out for those haunted rocking chairs!  [Note: I posted about another one earlier this year.]

Because I'm getting tired of being pestered with questions about how to survive mermaid attacks, here you go.

The mystery of the Horse With No Name.

Victorians did a lot of weird things, God knows, but they did not keep tear bottles.

A cautionary tale about social media: anyone can be destroyed.

A murderer who was so evil his town had to change its name.

Kelly, the Sassy Dolphin, and the intelligence of animals.

The very messy execution of an apostate monk.

Recruiting for the East India Company.

When the formula for good health was staying in bed and drinking a lot of milk.

A forgotten Norwegian witch.

The link between salt and the Civil War.

The good news: Caravaggio did not die of syphilis.  The bad news: He's still dead.

Mysterious art hints at an unknown civilization.

Horse-powered towns.

Rules for Victorian gallantry.

The coronation of England's first queen regnant.

The ancestor of badminton.

The Case of the 384,000 Squeezes.

The Case of the Sicilian Dwarf.

The Case of the Eternal Flames.

The Case of the Bog Bodies.

Mystery Blood in Scotland.

French ladies liked Ben Franklin.

The candy mastiff who was a friend to cats.

Booze and jealousy are not a good combination.

This Week in Russian Weird: Do that voodoo that they do so well.

An ancient Roman comic strip.

Vintage ghost-hunting tools.

The man who walked backwards for fun and profit.

Europe's oldest intact book.

The secret confession of a 17th century sailor.

Some lovely 18th century sketches of rural cottages.

A brief history of blood transfusions.

A DIY project goes really wrong.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a haunted castle.  In the meantime, here's some Ludwig.  I'm not usually a great fan of piano music, but I love this one.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Let us discuss Mr. Oliver and the Cats. The "Detroit Free Press," December 25, 1870:
The fact that Mr. Oliver lived in a uniform row of houses in the Fourteenth Ward, says the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, was the reason why he was unfortunate.

One moonlight night last week the noises made by the cats on his roof was simply awful. Mr. Oliver lay in bed trying in vain to get to sleep and grinding his teeth in rage, until at last the uproar overhead became unendurable. Mr. Oliver crept out of bed softly, so that his wife would not be wakened. He put on his slippers, seized a boot with each hand, and clad in the snowy robes of night, he opened the trap-door and emerged upon the roof. There were thirty or forty cats out here holding a kind of a general synod in the cool of the evening, enjoying the bracing air and singing glees.

As Mr. Oliver approached, the cats moved over to the next roof. Mr. Oliver advanced and flung a boot at them. They then adjourned suddenly to the next residence. Mr. Oliver projected another boot, and went over after the first one. In this manner the synod retreated and Oliver advanced until the last of the row of twenty houses was reached, when the cats arranged themselves in a line along the parapet, ruffled up their fur, carved their spines and spat furiously at Oliver. That bold warrior gathered up his boots and determined to retreat. He walked over a dozen houses and descended through a trap-door. He went down stairs to his bed-room, and opened the door. There was a man in the room in the act of walking up and down with a baby. Before Oliver had recovered from his amazement, the man flung the baby on the bed, and seizing a revolver began firing rapidly at Oliver. It then dawned upon Oliver that he had come down the wrong trap-door. He proceeded up stairs again suddenly, the man with the revolver practicing at him in a painful manner.

When Oliver reached the door he shut the trap quickly and stood upon it. The man fired through the boards twice, and then hooked the door upon the inside. A moment after Oliver heard him springing a watchman's rattle from the front window. As soon as the neighbors knew there was a man on the roof they all flew up stairs and fastened their trap-doors, and Mrs Oliver fastened hers, with the firm conviction that some predatory villain had entered while she slept and stole her Oliver. When he tried the door It was fast, and Mrs. Oliver was screaming so fiercely that he could not make himself heard.

By this time the street was filled with policemen, all of whom were blazing away at Oliver with their revolvers, while the young men in the houses across the street kept up a steady fire with pistols, shot-guns and miscellaneous missiles. Oliver, with every advantage of forming an opinion, said that Gettysburg was a mere skirmish to it. He hid behind the chimney and lay up against the bricks to keep himself warm, while the policemen stationed themselves all around the square to capture him when he would slide down one of the water spouts.

But Oliver did not slide. He sat out on the roof all night, with the bitter air circulating through his too trifling garments listening to the yowling cats and the occasional shouts from the picket line below, and thinking of the old Jews who used to pray from their house-tops, and wondering if Mussulmen were ever shot at or bothered with cats and policemen when they practiced their evening devotions on their roofs. And then he wondered how it would do to take off his night-shirt and wave it over the edge as a flag of truce! He concluded not to, because of the danger of a bullet from some misguided policeman not familiar with the rules of war. When daylight came, the neighbors rallied in a crowd, armed with all kinds of weapons from howitzers down, and mounted to the roof. Oliver was taken down and put to bed, and he now has more influenza for a man of his size than any other citizen of the Fourteenth Ward. He says he is going to move as soon as he gets well--he is going to move into a house that is next door to nobody, a house that stands in the middle of a prairie of some kind and he intends to stencil his name in white on the trap-door.
Let us hope Mr. Oliver also learned a lesson about throwing shoes at cats.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Baltimore Borgia

Elizabeth Wharton, via Newspapers.com

Elizabeth "Ellen" Nugent Wharton was a sparkling ornament to 19th century Baltimore high society. She was, in the words of a contemporary, "highly prepossessing," with a vivacity and charm that won her many admirers.

Sadly, her personal life had more than its share of tragedies. In the late 1860s, her husband, Major Henry Wharton, died suddenly and mysteriously. Not long afterward, her only son, Harry, joined his father in the grave, leaving Mrs. Wharton with no consolation except the large life insurance policies she had taken out on her unfortunate menfolk. When her brother-in-law Edward Wharton and his daughter also passed away during a visit to her home, her friends greatly sympathized with poor Elizabeth. Mrs. Wharton's only remaining close family member was her daughter, Nellie. Nellie Wharton's health also took a dramatic downturn during this period, but fortunately, she survived.

In late June 1871, an old friend, Eugene Van Ness, paid her a friendly social visit. Van Ness, a bookkeeper, kept the records of Mrs. Wharton's accounts at the banking firm of Alexander Brown & Sons. On June 28, another of Mrs. Wharton's friends, General William Scott Ketchum, also came to spend the weekend at her home. The object of his visit was not just pleasure, but business. Some time back, the General had loaned Mrs. Wharton $2,600. He wanted the loan repaid before she set out on a voyage to Europe which was scheduled for the following week.

The ever-hospitable and popular Mrs. Wharton had a full house of weekend guests. Aside from the General, the widow was still playing hostess to Eugene Van Ness and his wife, as well as three or four other friends. It was a cheery, convivial group.

Well, cheery and convivial until the evening of Ketchum's arrival, when both he and Eugene Van Ness became extremely sick. They were too ill to return to their homes. Van Ness remained in an dangerous state for several days, but he eventually recovered. Unfortunately, although Mrs. Wharton was the most attentive of nurses, the General died a week later. One of the last things Ketchum ever said was, "Mrs. Wharton has poisoned me with a glass of lemonade."

Witnesses was inclined to wave off this ungallant statement as a "jocular remark." But when an autopsy was performed on General Ketchum, everyone stopped laughing. This post-mortem revealed that he had some twenty grains of tartar emetic in his system. Ketchum's physician was inspired to examine the glass Van Ness had used before falling ill, and darned if that didn't contain tartar emetic as well.

Mrs. Wharton's preparations for her European trip were abruptly interrupted by her arrest for murder.

While the widow sat in jail awaiting trial, the police found many interesting details about her recent activities. It turned out that she had recently bought a large quantity of tartar emetic. She blandly explained that she had used it all for "a mustard plaster which she placed on her breast."

It also emerged that immediately after Ketchum's death, his waistcoat--which contained Mrs. Wharton's note for the $2,600--had unaccountably vanished. Shortly afterward, it reappeared--minus the note. Mrs. Wharton had an explanation for that, too. She stated that she had repaid the loan--in cash--and the General then destroyed her note. Not only that, but the Ketchum estate owed her $4,000. That was, she said sweetly, the amount of some bonds the General had been holding for her. (These alleged bonds were never found, and Mrs. Wharton had neglected to obtain a receipt for them.)

As for Eugene Van Ness, it turned out that he had been keeping two sets of accounts for Mrs. Wharton: one for official public view, and another, private one, detailing certain dodgy financial transactions she preferred not to let the world know about. (Although Mrs. Wharton came from a wealthy family, she was always recklessly extravagant--she had a particular obsession with fancy clothes--which led to frequent issues with "cash flow.")

Edward Wharton's widow, M.J.A. Wharton, now came forward, asserting that Elizabeth had poisoned Edward and their daughter. She claimed that the motive was that Elizabeth had owed Edward $2,500. She explained that at the time her husband and daughter died, she had accused Elizabeth of their murder, but her relatives dismissed her charges, saying that her "mind was affected."

Meanwhile, the "Baltimore Sun" reported on a curious detail from Elizabeth's early life. When she was twenty, she issued invitations to her upcoming wedding, to a Mr. Williamson. On the appointed day, her many friends and relatives arrived at her family's mansion, eager for the gala event. Miss Nugent, decked out in her lavish bridal finery, greeted them like a queen. The stage was set for a fairytale wedding. All it needed was the groom.

The groom...who never showed up. Servants were set off to find the tardy Mr. Williamson. They returned with the disquieting news that "Mr. Williamson had not contracted the marriage and knew nothing about it." Elizabeth's father, naturally troubled by this episode, spoke of sending the girl to an asylum. Before this could be arranged, she eloped with Henry Wharton, to whom she was said to be "passionately devoted."

Elizabeth was clearly a great deal more interesting than your average Southern society lady.

Mrs. Wharton stood trial only for the death of General Ketchum. Her lawyers managed to get any reference to the suspiciously simultaneous illness of Eugene Van Ness omitted from the evidence presented to the jury. Like most poisoning trials, the case against Mrs. Wharton suffered from a lack of direct evidence. Even though she had unquestionably purchased tartar emetic, no one had actually seen her actually put any of it in the drinks and medicines she served Ketchum. The motive offered was also fairly unconvincing. Mrs. Wharton was a well-to-do woman who, her lawyers argued, had no need to murder one of her oldest and dearest friends for the sake of $2,600.

Mrs. Wharton's trial, via Newspapers.com

As is usually also the case with alleged poisonings, her trial was dominated by a battle between medical "experts." The doctors brought in by the prosecution argued that General Ketchum had died as the result of poisoning by tartar emetic. The defense, however, presented an impressive team of physicians who insisted that the chemical analyses done by the prosecution experts were hopelessly inept and inaccurate. These worthies--with the aid of a working model of Ketchum's stomach, which must have greatly entertained jurors--maintained that the General had died from perfectly natural causes, such as "cerebro-spinal meningitis."

As so often happens When Experts Collide, the jury was left in a state of utter confusion, leaving them no alternative but to acquit Mrs. Wharton. She was still under indictment for the poisoning of Eugene Van Ness, but after the fiasco of the Ketchum trial, the State threw up its hands and dropped that charge, leaving Mrs. Wharton free as the proverbial bird.

I regret to say that Baltimoreans failed to share the court's confidence in Mrs. Wharton's innocence, and the nickname given to her by contemporary newspapers--"The Baltimore Borgia"--had an unflattering tendency to stick. As crime historian Edmund Pearson noted, "a number of years had to pass before there was any real rivalry for an invitation to one of her week-end parties."