"...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, July 22, 2019

California Gothic: The Strange Death of Edith Irene Wolfskill

"San Francisco Examiner," August 29, 1903, via Newspapers.com


It seems inevitable that rich, powerful families attract any number of strange incidents. Dysfunction abounds, perhaps as the Universe's way of balancing out all those material advantages. It's unusual, however, for one relatively small family of wealth to become famed for internal feuds, mental illness, odd disappearances, mysterious deaths, and allegations of murder.

It's even more unusual for all these tragedies to center around one particular person. But such was the fate of Edith Irene Wolfskill.

Edith's grandfather, Mathus Wolfskill, was an early settler in Yolo County, California. His brothers, John and William, had already bought a 17,000 acre Mexican land grant. The siblings used this land to cultivate what would become an impressive agricultural empire. By the time Edith was born in 1872, the Wolfskills were one of the wealthiest and most influential families in California. The beautiful, sensitive girl had a privileged, pampered childhood, followed by a spell at a European "finishing school." Edith was on track to have a happy life of luxury.

Instead, things turned out very differently. Although she had seemed normal during her childhood, by the time Edith returned from Europe, she began behaving oddly. She developed what was described as a "religious mania," which would cause her to suddenly begin praying in public. It drew attention.

It is hard to say just how mentally unbalanced Edith was. Some contemporary newspaper reports described her merely as "eccentric," while others painted her as "the mad heiress" who proclaimed herself to be "Empress of the World." All that can be said for certain is that by 1903, her family believed it was necessary to have her committed to San Francisco's California General Hospital.

It was during her confinement that Edith demonstrated a new specialty: disappearing. On the night of August 27, Wolfskill vanished from her hospital room. Two days later, a detective hired by the young woman's family found Edith at the bottom of a ravine in Colma, then a rugged, sparsely populated area, praying fervently. She was heavily scratched by brambles and exhausted by her wanderings, but was otherwise unharmed.

Edith resented being found, and fought her would-be rescuer. The detective had a very hard time forcing her into his carriage, and upon her return to San Francisco, she lapsed into an angry silence, refusing to speak to anyone. Edith remained at California General for some years, until she was transferred to a hospital in Los Angeles to be nearer her parents.

As time went on, Edith's peculiarities only increased. Her family accepted that she would never be capable of living on her own, and had her declared legally incompetent. After her parents died, Edith's brothers, Matthew and Ney, were given "joint custody" of their sister. They were required to use a portion of the family estate to care for Edith for the rest of her days. The brothers placed her in a ranch the Wolfskills owned in Solano county. As Matthew and Ney had been locked in a bitter feud for some years, they were never at the ranch at the same time. Instead, they took turns living with Edith, carefully scheduling their visits so they would never run into each other. The brothers allowed no outside visitors, aside from staff and the occasional workman.

Edith's lonely, reclusive existence went on quietly enough until July 1929, when Matthew Wolfskill, for reasons unrecorded, fired her nurse, Bessie Ritchards. Edith was fond of Ritchards, so the nurse's dismissal left her extremely upset. When the new nurse, Mary Conklin, arrived on July 13, she received a less than friendly welcome. The only two people at the ranch were Edith and Nelda Wolfskill, the wife of Edith's nephew. Edith refused to even speak to Conklin, and the nurse saw immediately that she was in an agitated and unhappy mood. Within a few hours of Conklin's arrival, Edith was suddenly nowhere to be found. It was not uncommon for her to take long solitary walks among the hills, so at first it was believed there was no cause for alarm. However, when she failed to appear after several hours, Ney, who had by then arrived at the ranch, feared she had gotten lost or suffered some accident. When a search of the area failed to find any sign of Edith, the police were called in.

It did not take long for the Sheriff to come to more sinister conclusions about Edith's disappearance. Conklin told him that shortly before Edith vanished, the nurse overheard her talking to some unknown figure. All Conklin could make out was Edith stating angrily, "I will not leave. This is my home." This led the Sheriff, John Thornton, to believe the heiress had not, as Ney was insisting, merely wandered off somewhere: rather, she had been kidnapped.

The investigation into Edith's whereabouts uncovered some details that made her disappearance even more ominous. Matthew and Ney Wolfskill had been at war over the use of the money their parents had set aside for Edith's care. This led the bank that managed Edith's estate to hire a private detective to investigate the brothers. After questioning Matthew and Ney, this detective told a reporter, "I would like to believe Miss Wolfskill wandered off and is lost. I can't believe that in view of what I discovered." (What he "discovered" was, unfortunately, never made public.) Police suspicion grew that at least one of the brothers knew more about Edith's vanishing act than they were admitting.

Meanwhile, the mysterious disappearance of a very rich and very troubled woman--with dark hints of familial foul play thrown in--generated newspaper headlines across the country. As always happens with high-profile missing persons cases, a swarm of reported "sightings" of Edith Wolfskill popped up in the press. None of them proved to be valid.

It turned out that, whatever the circumstances of Edith's disappearance may have been, the missing woman stayed close to her home. On July 20, searchers found a set of what were believed to be her footprints in a muddy creek bed some five miles from the ranch. The prints crossed over a set of tire marks left by a truck which had passed that way just the day before. This indicated that Edith was apparently still alive, still wandering somewhere in the hills.

The search of the area was intensified, but no further trace of Edith or her movements could be found. Her whereabouts remained utterly unknown until September 19. 18-year-old Bernard Glashoff was walking through a dry creek bed about a mile from the Wolfskill ranch when he came upon a gruesome sight: a badly decomposed corpse. Although the long hair indicated it was of a female, the body was wearing a flannel shirt and a pair of men's overalls. A pair of women's shoes, in pristine condition, were neatly placed near the body.

It was soon determined that Glashoff had found what little remained of Edith Wolfskill.

The grim discovery only intensified the mystery. For openers, why was she wearing these overalls, which had apparently belonged to a local man who had worked on the property several months earlier? Those who had known Edith were adamant that she had a phobia about even touching other people's clothing. (The dress she had allegedly been wearing the day she vanished was found hanging in her closet, which just served to strengthen law enforcement's belief that Edith's family was not being entirely honest with them.) The area where her body was found had been frequently searched by hundreds of people and several tracking dogs. How had she remained hidden?

The unscuffed shoes found by the corpse also had police raising their eyebrows. The autopsy was unable to determine how Edith had died, but it indicated that she had been alive for at least a week after she vanished. If such was the case, how had her shoes stayed so clean after she had presumably spent days rambling the hills?

"Philadelphia Inquirer," October 27, 1929


Meanwhile, Matthew and Ney seemed less interested in their sister's peculiar demise than they were in her money. Their father's will had stipulated that if Edith predeceased her brothers, her $750,000 estate would be equally split between them. Before Edith's body was even discovered, the brothers had launched legal battles over how, exactly, her money should be divided. A sad sequel what had been the very sad life of Edith Wolfskill.

The many questions lingering around the end of the "mad heiress" seem destined to remain unanswered. Sheriff Thornton remained convinced that Edith had been abducted, held captive in some remote cabin, and murdered when she refused to sign a ransom note, but he was never able to prove it. Her disappearance and death have remained, in the words of the "San Francisco Chronicle," "one of the most baffling cases in Northern California."

Friday, July 19, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



Today's Link Dump weather forecast: cloudy with a strong chance of seeing it rain cats and/or dogs.





Who the hell was King Arthur?

Watch out for those haunted violins!

A haunted castle in Italy.

The first "Fete de la Federation."

A psychic vision and the American Revolution.

The execution of the Black Watch mutineers.

As anyone who lives here can confirm, Los Angeles is Hell.

I didn't know Salvador Dali came out with a cookbook.  Ignorance was bliss.

The language of the Carnies.

This week in Russian Weird: They love their psychic cats.

And this: a mysterious ancient underground structure under Russia's oldest city. What could go wrong?

Turning the dead into compost.

A first-hand view of the Gordon Riots.

Just a boy dolphin and his dog.

Women's cricket in the 19th century.

A gruesome murderer comes to a gruesome end.

Victorian bathing machines.

One heck of a royal coach.

Bingen's Mouse Tower.

The latest installment in the saga of Mermanjan.

Victorian executions: fun for the whole family!

Death masks and phrenology.

Confirming a tale from the Crusades.

The secrets of the Shaman of Durrenberg.

Murder at a pool table.

More from the "pushing back human history" file.

The kind of thing that happened when you asked Florence Nightingale her age.

A murder in Margate.

This was probably history's weirdest spy.

Legends of lost mines.

Francis Delaval, 18th century prankster.

A very unusual--if not impossible--fever.

Some really vintage clothing.

And, finally: wild kittens!



That does it for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll look at an heiress' mysterious end. In the meantime, here's a summer song I remember fondly from back in the day. Most appropriate album cover, too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com


This odd little news item came from the "Cincinnati Enquirer," August 25, 1955:
What was it that fell out of the sky to kill the little peach tree Edward Mootz had so carefully nurtured in his side yard? That problem has Mr. Mootz, who owns a handsome estate just off Sycamore Street Hill, tossing in his sleep these hot, humid nights.

It all started early in the evening on July 22. It was a hot day and Mr. Mootz had waited for the cool of the early evening to mow his terraced lawn at 440 Boal St. He estimated that the time must have been 5:30 and 6:30 p. m. Mr. Mootz first noticed that something unnatural was occurring when he was down on his knees near the peach tree.

"All of a sudden," he recalled, "a peculiar liquid substance, dark red in color and feeling somewhat oily, began pelting me and the tree. It was almost like being caught in a shower. I looked up and hanging directly over me about 1000 feet in the air was the strangest cloud I had ever seen. It wasn't a big cloud but it certainly did have odd colors. It was dark green, red and pink. The red in it matched the color of the substance which hit me and the tree. I could see that whatever it was that was raining down on me was coming from that cloud.

"I watched the cloud for a minute trying to figure it out and then my bare arms and hands where the drops had hit me began to burn. They really hurt, too. It felt like I had put turpentine on an open cut. I ran for the house and washed It off real good with strong soap and hot water."

Concerned only with washing off the burning drops, Mr. Mootz didn't even wonder how the tree might have fared. But the next morning when he stepped out in his yard he was stunned. The tree had died overnight. The day before it had been a healthy young tree over six feet tall. Mr. Mootz estimated that It had a "good peck" of young peaches on it. Still green, the peaches were about the size of a chicken egg. Overnight most of its leaves had turned brown, and fallen off. The healthy young peaches had shriveled up to the size of the stones inside of them. The twigs and limbs were brown and brittle as if the tree had frozen to its roots. The main trunk of the tree had shriveled also and had become so hard that Mr. Mootz had difficulty driving a nail in it. On the side of the tree which bore the brunt of the miasmic shower, the leaves not only died but fell completely off. They died just as completely on the other side but they remained attached to the twigs. The grass was killed where the drops sifted down through the tree to the ground.

Mr. Mootz has been growing shrubs and bushes and trees for many years but he contends that he has never seen a plant die so fast. "I've seen plenty of them killed by insects, disease and poor care," he explained, "but it takes a while for them to die. I never heard of anything that could kill a plant within 12 hours."

No one can tell him that his peach tree died of anything other than that strange, red shower. Whatever it was," he contends, "it killed my tree. Some of my friends have suggested that an airplane dropped jet fuel on my tree. But it wasn't that. There wasn't an airplane in the sky. I know. I looked for one. Furthermore, that cloud was the only cloud in the sky."

Mr. Mootz also puts no stock in the theory that the cloud was produced by some chemical plant and drifted over his yard to drop its red death.

"I've lived here for 15 years," he said, "and it's never happened before. I've never even seen a cloud like that before and I'm 59 years old now. Besides, I don't think I live near enough to any kind of plant that might produce such a cloud for it to drift over my land."

Mr. Mootz believes that the most ridiculous theory yet advanced is that a flying saucer was hidden in the cloud. "That's silly," he said. "That cloud wasn't big enough to hide a flying saucer if there are such things. Besides, it wasn't controlled. I watched it for a long time from the house and it was drifting with the wind. I watched it until it drifted out of my sight over toward Eden Park. No, it definitely wasn't controlled."

He doesn't know how or why, but Mr. Mootz believes that the cloud somehow is connected with the atomic bomb tests which were conducted in Nevada some time ago.

"You hear a. lot of talk about fall-out," he said. "Maybe this was part of it. That's the only thing I can think of. But I do know one thing. Whatever that stuff was, someone should put it on the market as a weed killer. Those weeds under that little peach tree died just as fast as the tree and the grass did."
The cause of Mr. Mootz's tree-killing cloud was never identified.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Ghost of Garpsdal

The exorcism of a ghost. Engraving by E. Portbury after F.P. Stephanoff


Happy Monday, readers. Let’s talk poltergeists.

A particularly sinister haunting was said to have taken place in Iceland in 1807. The following narrative of the “Ghost at Garpsdal” was dictated by the local minister, a Sir Saemund, in June of 1808. Rather than try to paraphrase, I thought it best to simply publish it in this eyewitnesses’ own words:

In Autumn, 1807, there was a disturbance by night in the outer room at Garpsdal, the door being smashed. There slept in this room the minister’s men-servants, Thorsteinn Gudmundsson, Magnus Jonsson, and a child named Thorstein. Later, on 16th November, a boat which the minister had lying at the sea-side was broken in broad daylight, and although the blows were heard at the homestead yet no human form was visible that could have done this. All the folks at Garpsdal were at home, and the young fellow Magnus Jonsson was engaged either at the sheep-houses or about the homestead; the spirit often appeared to him in the likeness of a woman. On the 18th of the same month four doors of the sheep-houses were broken in broad daylight, while the minister was marrying a couple in the church; most of his people were present in the church, Magnus being among them. That same day in the evening this woman was noticed in the sheep-houses; she said that she wished to get a ewe to roast, but as soon as an old woman who lived at Garpsdal and was both skilled and wise (Gudrun Jons-dottir by name) had handled the ewe, its struggles ceased and it recovered again. While Gudrun was handling the ewe, Magnus was standing in the door of the house; with that one of the rafters was broken, and the pieces were thrown in his face. He said that the woman went away just then. The minister’s horses were close by, and at that moment became so scared that they ran straight over smooth ice as though it had been earth, and suffered no harm.

On the evening of the 20th there were great disturbances, panelling and doors being broken down in various rooms. The minister was standing in the house door along with Magnus and two or three girls when Magnus said to him that the spirit had gone into the sitting-room. The minister went and stood at the door of the room, and after he had been there a little while, talking to the others, a pane of glass in one of the room windows was broken. Magnus was standing beside the minister talking to him, and when the pane broke he said that the spirit had gone out by that. The minister went to the window, and saw that the pane was all broken into little pieces. The following evening, the 21st, the spirit also made its presence known by bangings, thumpings, and loud noises.

On the 28th the ongoings of the spirit surpassed themselves. In the evening a great blow was given on the roof of the sitting-room. The minister was inside at the time, but Magnus with two girls was out in the barn. At the same moment the partition between the weaving-shop and the sitting-room was broken down, and then three windows of the room itself—one above the minister’s bed, another above his writing-table, and the third in front of the closet door. A piece of a table was thrown in at one of these, and a spade at another. At this the household ran out of that room into the loft, but the minister sprang downstairs and out; the old woman Gudrun who was named before went with him, and there also came Magnus and some of the others. Just then a vessel of wash, which had been standing in the kitchen, was thrown at Gudrun’s head. The minister then ran in, along with Magnus and the girls, and now everything that was loose was flying about, both doors and splinters of wood. The minister opened a room near the outer door intending to go in there, but just then a sledge hammer which lay at the door was thrown at him, but it only touched him on the side and hip, and did him no harm. From there the minister and the others went back to the sitting-room, where everything was dancing about, and where they were met with a perfect volley of splinters of deal from the partitions. The minister then fled, and took his wife and child to Muli, the next farm, and left them there, as she was frightened to death with all this. He himself returned next day.

On the 8th of December, the woman again made her appearance in broad daylight. On this occasion she broke the shelves and panelling in the pantry, in presence of the minister, Magnus, and others. According to Magnus, the spirit then went out through the wall at the minister’s words, and made its way to the byre-lane. Magnus and Gudrun went after it, but were received with throwings of mud and dirt. A stone was also hurled at Magnus, as large as any man could lift, while Gudrun received a blow on the arm that confined her to her bed for three weeks.

On the 26th of the month the shepherd, Einar Jonsson, a hardy and resolute fellow, commanded the spirit to show itself to him. Thereupon there came over him such a madness and frenzy, that he had to be closely guarded to prevent him from doing harm to himself. He was taken to the house, and kept in his bed, a watch being held over him. When he recovered his wits, he said that this girl had come above his head and assailed him. When he had completely got over this, he went away from Garpsdal altogether.

Later than this the minister’s horse was found dead in the stable at Muli, and the folks there said that it was all black and swollen.

These are the most remarkable doings of the ghost at Garpsdal, according to the evidence of Sir Saemund, Magnus, Gudrun, and all the household at Garpsdal, all of whom will confirm their witness with an oath, and aver that no human being could have been so invisible there by day and night, but rather that it was some kind of spirit that did the mischief. From the story itself it may be seen that neither Magnus nor any other person could have accomplished the like, and all the folk will confirm this, and clear all persons in the matter, so far as they know. In this form the story was told to me, the subscriber, to Samuel Egilsson and Bjarni Oddsson, by the minister himself and his household, at Garpsdal, 28th May, 1808. That this is correctly set down, after what the minister Sir Saemund related to me, I witness here at Stad on Reykjanes, 7th June, 1808.

GISLI OLAFSSON

[Note: Andrew Lang, who published this narrative in his “The Book of Dreams and Ghosts,” added, “Notwithstanding this declaration, the troubles at Garpsdal were attributed by others to Magnus, and the name of the ‘Garpsdal Ghost’ stuck to him throughout his life.”]

Friday, July 12, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is proud to be sponsored by royalty!

[Just don't tell him this is the case with all cats.]


Watch out for those sea vamps!

Watch out for those haunted mirrors!

Marie Antoinette and a notable royal hunt.

The Doge of Genoa goes up against Louis XII.  And eventually wishes he hadn't.

The long history of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Stolen Nazi era items at the British Library.

A rock band whose music you undoubtedly know.  Even though you've never heard of them.

A new look at an old case I covered on this blog a while back: The Green Bicycle Mystery.

The mystery light of Ballymoney.

The link between fraud and proper haberdashery.

Scientists are searching for a parallel universe.  As if the one we already have isn't bad enough.

An unlucky lucky cat.

How the 18th century gave us those three magic words, "Pooping robot duck."

The conclusion to last week's post about the saga of Mermanjan.

The Mitford sisters were an odd lot.  But you probably already knew that.

Speaking of peculiar families, here's the woman who had her daughter sterilized.

Robert Kirk and the fairies.

This week in Russian Weird: what in hell was this submarine up to? 

This week in Russian Weird also features in the Darwin Awards.

All you need to know about Victorian corpse coolers.

A Georgian-era home and its residents.

Did D.B. Cooper recently pass away in San Diego?

The American Revolution's Dr. Strange.

Poor old Pompeii.  First the volcano, and now this.

Don't spit!

The voyage that inspired "Moby Dick."

Uncovering a Viking boat burial in Sweden.

That time it was claimed Mark Twain acted as a ghostwriter.  I am speaking quite literally.

If you go to chiropractors, thank a ghost.

You can't keep a good cockatoo down.

The Ghost Club.

Queen Victoria's hairdresser.

The strange case of the missing girl and the Vatican.

Murder in a boarding house.

A professor's mysterious suicide.

A brief history of the hot dog.

For dessert, a brief history of chocolate and vanilla.

John Quincy Adams, dirty dancer.

And, of course, a brief history of picnics.

Britain's most haunted village.

America's most haunted small town.

LSD and a legendary suicide.

An abandoned French time capsule.

If you're anxious to obtain information about how to eat from, uh, the wrong end, have I got the link for you.  And yes, this is a Thomas Morris post.  Consider yourselves warned.

And yet another Link Dump comes to a close.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an Icelandic poltergeist.  In the meantime, it's summer, so this means War:

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com


Let's talk about the time a Wisconsin plumber shared high tea with with a trio of space aliens. The "Janesville Daily Gazette," April 24, 1961:
Eagle River, (AP)--A 55-year-old plumber said Sunday his story of trading a jug of water for three cosmic cookies in a silent bit of swapping with three men in a flying saucer kept his telephone ringing all weekend.

Joseph Simonton, who also operates a chicken farm, said the calls started pouring in after the story broke in newspapers and over radio and television. One of the cookies was sent to Donald E. Keyhoe in Washington, D.C, director of the unofficial National Investigating Committee on Aerial Phenomena, which has accused the Air Force of concealing facts about flying saucers.

This is the story Simonton told Dist. Atty. Calvin A. Burton of Vilas County:

The saucer landed on his property shortly before noon last Tuesday. It was a gleaming silver, brighter than chrome machine and appeared to hover over the ground instead of landing. It was about 12 feet from top to bottom and about 30 feet in diameter.

Out of a hatch that opened popped one man dressed in a black suit who held up a jug and indicated that he wanted it filled with water. There were two other men inside the saucer. Simonton saw an instrument panel.

All the men were about five feet tall and weighed about 125 pounds. Not one spoke a word to Simonton or each other.

Simonton filled the jug with water and gave it to the man who remained outside the ship. One of the saucer trio then gave him three cakes, about one-eighth inch thick and three or four inches in diameter.

The man got into the ship with the jug of water, the hatch snapped shut and it took off. Simonton said the ship had exhaust pipes six or seven inches in diameter.

Burton said that Simonton "sounded sincere" and added that the plumber had a good reputation in the community.

Simonton told the district attorney he was reluctant to talk about the incident earlier because some people might think it preposterous.

Simonton gave one of the cakes to County Judge Frank Carter Sr. The judge was supposed to have sent the cake somewhere for analysis but so one knew where.

A follow-up story appeared in the "Stevens Point Journal" four days later:
The flying saucer business picked up today. A 20-year-old Oneida farmer said he and five other persons spotted one in the air. And the Air Force decided to conduct an on-the-spot inquiry into one that an Eagle River man said landed on his land last Saturday.

Major Robert Friend of the Aerosoace Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio, said that a "routine" probe was under way, with an Air Force officer and a civilian space, expert investigating the landing reported by by Joseph Simonton, 60.

Friend said that one of three pancakes Simonton asserted occupants of the saucer gave him was analyzed.

The latest sighting was reported to Oneida County Sheriff Penny Drivas Thursday.

"I wouldn't have called you, sheriff," said Brent Lorbetske. "but others saw it, too."

Lorbetske. his companion, Tom Hunt, 17, Mrs. Phyillis Lorbetske, the youths' mother, and three other Lorbetske children, all said they saw the object. All reported the object as flying quite high, extremely fast, bright and shiny and circular.

The Lorbetske farm is near the home of Joseph Simonton, an Eagle River plumber who said last week a flying saucer landed on a field near his home and one of three men inside asked him for a jug of water.

Dr. A. L. Hynak. the chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern University, was asked to investigate Simonton's story for the Air Force.

"Lebanon Daily News," April 27, 1961


I haven't been able to find out any details about this analysis of the goodies from the Interstellar House of Pancakes. As so often happens with these particularly weird news stories, everyone involved seemed to think it best to just let the matter drop. Simonton passed away in 1972. His newspaper obituary stated that in August 1961, he saw two more UFOs.

What a pity he and Jean Hingley never got a chance to compare notes.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Gross Family Murders


Frederick Gross, "Boston Globe," May 11 1935. (All images via Newspapers.com)



Frederick Gross was not a man blessed by the gods. Born into a working-class family in Philadelphia, a carriage accident in his youth had necessitated the amputation of one leg, thus limiting his opportunities in life. He found steady work as a bookkeeper at a Manhattan chemical firm, but his pay was not nearly enough to enable his wife Katherine and their five children to live in anything approaching comfort. The large family (plus Katherine's mother, Olga Bein,) were crammed together in a tiny Brooklyn tenement flat, where the best you could say was that they managed to survive. On the positive side, Mr. Gross appeared to cope well with his difficult lot in life. Unlike so many men in his situation, he did not seek escape through drink, or gambling, or other women, or domestic abuse. He impressed everyone who knew him as a quiet, intelligent, kindly man who was devoted to his family.

He was, in short, the last person people pictured as a serial murderer.

Frederick Gross' life began its tragic twist in late March 1935, when his nine-year-old son Freddy became sick. At first, it was assumed the boy was merely suffering from one of the unremarkable ailments common to childhood. However, overnight, Freddy's condition took a sudden turn for the worse. He began vomiting, and had trouble breathing. By the morning, he was dead. This was immediately followed by the equally frighteningly sudden illness and death of three-year-old Leo. "Bronchial pneumonia," said their doctor. No sooner had Katherine Gross buried her sons than she, too, sickened. Mrs. Gross passed away on April 4.

The Grim Reaper was not yet finished with the Gross family. April also saw the deaths of seven-year-old Katherine and eighteen-month-old Barbara. Mrs. Bein and five-year-old Frank were languishing in the hospital. The oddest thing about these illnesses and deaths was that all the sufferers became nearly bald.

It finally occurred to authorities that something very unusual was going on with this family. Police ordered that tests be done on Olga and little Frank. Their suspicions were correct: the patients had been poisoned. The bodies of Mrs. Gross and Freddy were exhumed. It was revealed that they too had been poisoned, and with the same deadly substance: thallium.

Naturally enough, the top suspect in all these murders was the only member of the Gross family to remain alive and well: the seemingly loving husband and father, Frederick. He was arrested and subjected to a harsh twenty-eight hours of questioning. Police were certain Gross had annihilated his family. Now they just had to get him to admit it. However, he vehemently maintained his innocence. He insisted that he had no idea how all his nearest and dearest wound up full of thallium. "I have done nothing, and I am not afraid," he said.

"New York Daily News," May 12, 1935


Despite their failure in getting the accused to confess, police believed they had found the method used by Gross to murder his family. It was learned that Gross's firm kept a supply of thallium on hand for use as a rat poison. Shortly before the string of deaths began, Gross' company had offered its employees a supply of cocoa at discount rates. Gross had bought four tins. Something as strongly-flavored as chocolate would, detectives reasoned, have been a perfect vehicle for disguising poison. One of the remaining cocoa tins found in the Gross apartment was analyzed. To the surprise of no one, it was found to be heavily doctored with thallium.

Police also believed they had the motive for all these killings: poverty. Gross' income of $20 a week was simply not enough to support all these dependents. At the time the poisonings started, the family was heavily in debt, and two months behind on rent. Katherine Gross was expecting another child, which would have created yet another strain on the household's already desperate financial situation. Investigators theorized that the struggle to make ends meet finally became too much for the head of the household, leading Gross to feel he had no choice but to exterminate his family.

"Chicago Tribune," May 12, 1935


All this, however, remained mere conjecture. Gross was still stubbornly insisting that he was innocent. Although police remained equally adamant of his guilt, they were having a surprisingly difficult time proving it. No one had seen Gross purchasing or stealing the thallium. No one had seen him doctoring the cocoa; in fact, all the family's food and drink was prepared by Mrs. Gross or her mother. Nobody in the household was insured, so Gross did not profit financially from this string of fatalities. It was also significant that despite the damning circumstantial evidence, no one who knew Gross--including his stricken mother-in-law--could believe he was a murderer. Friends and his surviving relatives all maintained that he was a gentle, kind-hearted soul who had loved his family. There was no way he would ever have done anything to harm them.

Investigators, increasingly puzzled and frustrated by their inability to solve what had initially seemed to be an open-and-shut case, began exploring other theories. In particular, they found their attention drawn to the late Mrs. Katherine Gross. Police learned that she owned two medical books which gave detailed information on various poisons, including thallium. She also had a copy of Schopenhauer's "Studies in Pessimism"--not a book you would choose to keep your spirits up, but excellent reading to persuade you that life was not worth living. Most tellingly, friends of the family told investigators some rather chilling things about Mrs. Gross. A neighbor testified that several weeks before the deaths began, Katherine had confided that she was desperately unhappy about being pregnant again. She was going to use rat poison to kill her children, her mother, and herself. When the appalled neighbor asked if she was serious about making her own children suffer so, Katherine replied, "There's no suffering to what I've got. It's sure death." In any case, Mrs. Gross added, she'd sooner see her offspring dead than continue to endure such wretched poverty. Frederick, she went on, would be much better off without all of them. "I have the best husband any woman could want. But rather than drudge along like this and live in poverty I'd do anything." Other witnesses also related hearing Mrs. Gross talk of suicide. "I'm tired of living," she allegedly said. "Life is too hard. I wish I were dead and the children with me." Katherine was, in the words of one neighbor, "always sick and complaining."

Investigators were beginning to wonder if Mrs. Gross was the victim of her very own crime.

Meanwhile, further chemical tests done by the city's top toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, revealed something quite interesting: Mrs. Gross had not died of thallium poisoning. As had originally been believed, she succumbed to encephalitis. Gettler noted that the Gross children had received different levels of poison. The two boys who predeceased their mother had much higher levels of thallium in their systems than the girls who succumbed after Mrs. Gross's death. Gettler believed that the girls had been poisoned while their mother was still alive, leaving them to be killed more slowly, by a lower amount of thallium. Gettler found more that was surprising. His tests of the cocoa tins showed they had never contained poison, after all. In short, while Olga Bein and the Gross children had indeed been poisoned by thallium, there was absolutely nothing to indicate that Frederick Gross was responsible.

Faced with this new expert evidence, police had no choice but to dismiss all charges against Gross in May 1935. District Attorney F.X. Geoghan sighed, "[Gross] is either the most cold-blooded murderer or the most innocent man in the world." The first thing the freed man did was to go to the hospital to visit his one remaining child, Frank. The youngster scolded his father for not visiting him before.

"New York Daily News," July 25, 1935


"I told the boy I had to work," Frederick said to reporters. "He doesn't know anything about the trouble and I don't want him to know at all, if I can help it. I'm going to try to get some money together and send him off to camp this summer to get built up. Then maybe we will move out of the neighborhood, so we can get away from all this."

Gross added that Mrs. Bein had agreed to keep house for him and help him raise his motherless little boy. He vowed to give his surviving family members the best life possible. He had his old job back, and the neighbors--who had never lost their faith in his innocence--welcomed his return. Frederick said he was also determined to learn who had annihilated his loved ones. He rejected the idea that his Katherine was responsible. "My wife is gone and unable to protect herself. But I can protect her name. I know she did not commit suicide and..."

He could not bring himself to even finish the sentence.

The mystery of who poisoned Mrs. Bein and the Gross children--and why--remains, in the words of one of the investigators, "incapable of solution."

Officially, at any rate.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



Theme music for this week's Link Dump is provided by the Strange Company Orchestra!





The strange death of the first U.S. Secretary of Defense.

When making fudge was a symbol of defiance.

A "sleeping preacher."

The life and death of "Our Aeroplane Girl."

Victorian remedies for hay fever.

The execution of the Earl of Argyll.

The mystery of the screaming house.

The Sherlock Holmes scholar whose death was...a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

After 900 years, they've found Emma of Normandy.

Before there was Uncle Sam, there was Brother Jonathan.

The hazards of bankrolling an assassination attempt.

The 19th century didn't think much of novel reading.

The Imperial Russian Finland Guard Regiment in exile once had their own magazine.  Thus proving there really is something for everybody.

A famed dog and cat circus.

That time a potbellied pig terrorized Ireland.

Beverly Hills is cursed.  Yes, surprise, surprise.

The Spanish "Romeo and Juliet."

How a cursed statue destroyed a Welsh church.

A 19th century theater censor.

A very undiplomatic diplomat.

The American writer who is still revered in Japan.

Science solves a murder mystery.  Albeit some 33,000 years too late.

The romantic tale of Mermanjan.

The island of vanishing birds.

Life-saving brandy.

The lavender fields of Surrey.

The true story behind Bob Dylan's "Hattie Carroll."

Remnants of a mysterious ancient empire in Iraq.

Contemporary newspaper reports of the battle of Gettysburg.

The young woman who helped send astronauts to the moon.

The 13th century Prisoner of Dolbadarn.

Melancholy and Romanticism.

The tragic saga of Honest Carrie Gilmore.

The Fourth of July "safe and sane" movement.

The legend of a haunted grave.

The plan to assassinate James Garfield.

How to cook like an ancient Mesopotamian.

The struggle to produce a legitimate George III grandchild.

Historians are still fascinated by Mary Toft, mother of rabbits.

Britain's most haunted house.

Chatham Royal Dockyard. 

The sad case of Eliza Wilmot.

A collection of mysterious ciphers.

A brief history of a spa town.

A brief history of Elizabethan witch trials.

A 16th century weapon of mass destruction.

The power of imagination.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a family's mysterious poisoning. In the meantime, here's America.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Independence Day

"Boston Globe," July 4, 1907. All items via Newspapers.com

Yes, it is once again time for Strange Company's annual Fourth of July celebration! This year, we have a roundup of assorted holiday oddities. Something for everybody!

Well, assuming everybody is a little weird, and if you're reading my blog, you probably are.

This writer for the "Muncie Evening Press" got into the proper Strange Company spirit for Independence Day 1939:
...July Fourth only comes once a year, too, like Christmas, and plenty often enough, at that. On Christmas we don't burn up buildings, put out the eyes of our fellow celebrants, nor maim and kill hundreds of people...I learned to hate Fourth of July demonstrations many years ago when a little boy who lived with his parents in an apartment on East Main St in the business district, died of shock caused by the barbaric noises of the day. The child had been very ill, but had begun to recover when the noise demons let loose their two-day barrage and killed him as certainly as if they had fired bullets into his frail body. How many, if any, victims will there be in Muncie, this year?

More importantly, how many hens will fall victim to the Fatal Fourth? The "Philadelphia Evening Telegraph," July 13, 1870:
They had an instance of the peril of trifling with explosive materials way down in Province-town on the Fourth of July. An old hen attacked a torpedo, and by persistent pecking, caused it to explode and blow her own head off. Not a very serious beginning in Fourth of July casualties for Cape Cod.

"Arizona Daily Star," June 30, 1935

Some handy tips from the "Appleton Post Crescent," July 4th, 1930:



You want to survive until the Fifth of July? Get a corset. The "Boston Post," July 5, 1921:
New York, July 4.--The steel stays of her corset probably saved the life of Mrs. Anna Stole, 25, when a bullet, fired by boys celebrating the Fourth of July, ricocheted from the curb and struck her left side. The woman's only wound was a slight abrasion.

Back in the day, lockjaw was as much a part of any Independence Day celebration as fireworks, ice cream, and parades.  The "Daily Journal," July 13, 1903:


A typical 19th century Fourth of July was reported in the "Dayton Herald," July 6, 1897:
Chicago, July 6. Fourth of July accidents yesterday resulted in a list for the day which included four dead, eight seriously injured and twenty-five slightly hurt. The dead are:

JOHN HOFFWATER, 8 years old, premature explosion of leaded pop bottle.

JAMES W. KEEFE, 21 years old. found dead in the rear of his home, with a bullet in his heart; supposed to have shot himself accidentally or been struck by a stray bullet.

CHARLES SMITH, fell asleep in a window; startled by explosion of giant cracker, lost his balance, and fell to the ground.

JOHN THOMAS, JR, 12 years old, jugular vein severed by fragments of glass bottle he had placed over muzzle of his toy cannon.


Because I know you're dying to learn what Independence, Kansas, spent on the holiday in 1880:


I shall close with two items dealing with the origins of our national birthday party.  In 1778, New Bern, North Carolina had the honor of being the first place in the country to hold public celebrations for the Fourth of July.  This report of that epochal day comes from the "North-Carolina Weekly Gazette" for July 10:



And, finally, this clipping from "Purdie's Virginia Gazette" for June 21, 1776, carried the biggest news of the day: the sad passing of Mrs. Martha Scasbrooke.  They managed to report on less momentous events, as well.



A happy Fourth of July to all my fellow Americans!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Beautiful For Ever: The Lures of Madame Rachel

"Illustrated Police News," March 9, 1878, via Newspapers.com



Few emotions cause the human brain cells to malfunction like personal vanity. Naturally, for centuries, many people have noted this fact, and profited accordingly.

One of my favorite examples of this particular breed of charlatan was the legendary Madame Rachel, who, during the 1860s and 70s, sold a widely-publicized line of cosmetics and other beauty aids that were at best ineffective, and at worst dangerous to body, reputation, and bank account. Not content with making mid-Victorian London’s more insecure females “Beautiful For Ever,” with the aid of her “Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara,” bought straight from the Sultan of Morocco, or the “Royal Arabian Toilet of Beauty,” Sarah Rachel Russell Leverson had even more profitable, if less publicized, ventures into blackmail and pimping. At her peak, this former debtor’s prison inmate lived like an aristocrat, complete with an elegant mansion in the center of town and a box at the Opera.

Her methods were crude, but highly effective. A barrister who had the honor of prosecuting her on two different occasions recalled in his memoirs of the time when the wife of an Admiral innocently entered Madame’s booby-trap establishment in Bond Street for “some trifling article."  Madame, who had the true criminal’s eye for the gullible, lured the woman into buying item after item. The proprietress sent in an exorbitant bill, which the client paid, and thereafter “discontinued her patronage.” Rachel’s reaction was to send another, entirely fraudulent, bill for a thousand pounds, along with sinister hints that if it was not paid, she would let it be known that she had had to “cure” the woman of some extremely scandalous afflictions. The barrister recorded that the bill was refused “with disgust and indignation,” but that did not discourage Madame from applying such techniques to more pliable customers. Most of her victims preferred the private humiliation of being robbed to the public shame that would inevitably arise from resorting to a court of law.



Madame’s most famous escapade was her expert fleecing of a particularly appalling lamb named Mary Tucker Borradaile. The aging widow was exceedingly anxious to regain her long-lost beauty, comfortably well-to-do, and staggeringly stupid. When she eagerly responded to one of Madame Rachel’s newspaper ads extolling her “world-renowned fame for preserving and enhancing youth, beauty, grace, and loveliness,” the proprietress immediately sensed the two of them were made for each other.

Madame’s first words to her new client were to ask how much money she had to spend. That question settled to her satisfaction, the two went to work. For the next two years, Borradaile spent hundreds of pounds on cosmetics, soaps, and powders, but not even the Sahara’s magnetic rock dew had any visible effect.

When the spider’s juicy fly expressed a wish to escape the web, Madame had a new lure. She suddenly announced that Lord Ranelagh, “a very good man, and very rich,” had long loved Borradaile from afar, and that, once her beautification treatments had performed their magic, he intended to marry her. The next day, Borradaile called at Rachel’s home, where her hostess announced, “I will now introduce you to the man who loves you.” She then, Borradaile later testified stubbornly in court, “introduced me to a man whom I believed, and still believe to be Lord Ranelagh.” Borradaile went on to see “Ranelagh” several more times at Madame’s mansion, Rachel telling her all the while what a good husband he will make her…once she complied with her fiance’s “express desire” that she continue her beauty treatments. Rachel calculated the initial outlay at a thousand pounds.
Borradaile obediently sold enough of her stocks to raise the sum, and her “courtship” was on. It was explained that Ranelagh’s wooing of her was to be done entirely through the mail, and when the time was right, they would be “married by proxy.” Rachel began hand-delivering to her a series of letters his lordship addressed from “William,” to “my only dearly beloved Mary,” expressing his eternal love and earnestly advising his beloved to obey “Granny” [Madame Rachel] in all things. In return, “Granny” dictated to “beloved Mary,” letters to “William,” that Rachel had carefully crafted to make Borradaile sound like an “immoral” woman who was carrying on a highly improper relationship with him. Rachel, of course, carefully stored away not only the letters she had Borradaile write, but insisted on retaining the letters written by “William.” It’s always prudent to keep a little blackmail material handy.

“Ranelagh” told his bride-to-be to turn all her jewels over to “Granny,” explaining that once they were wed, he would buy her gems much more suitable to a nobleman’s wife. However, since, as “Granny” explained, Borradaile needed diamonds for her wedding day, she had her client buy a coronet and necklace worth over twelve hundred pounds. Madame, behind Borradaile’s back, returned the diamonds to the jeweler’s, but, of course, kept the money Borradaile had given her to pay for them. In a similar fashion, “Granny” acquired sums to buy the future Lady Ranelagh dresses, laces, and other costly ornaments. While taking Borradaile’s money to buy a new carriage for the wedding and the down payment on a townhouse for the newlyweds, she also gained possession of virtually everything her victim possessed, all with the same explanation that they were inappropriate for her new station in life.

When Borradaile had finally been stripped clean of all her worldly goods, Madame administered the coup de grace. She lured her client into executing a bond for sixteen hundred pounds, and had her arrested for this debt. Unless Borradaile wished to spend the rest of her days in debtor’s prison, Madame announced, she would have to make over to Rachel an annual pension.

It was only at this point that Borradaile’s family learned just how thoroughly this human pigeon had been plucked. A suit was brought against Madame for obtaining money by false pretenses and conspiracy to defraud.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this story is that the jury was unable to reach a verdict. Apparently the “silly, giggling, half-hysterical” Mrs. Borradaile, with her dyed yellow hair, and “face ruddled with paint,” made such a poor impression that at least some of them were inclined to think that the (to quote the “Times”) “self-confessed idiot” got what she deserved.

One month later, the prosecution pursued the charges against Rachel a second time. The defense argument was that, to put it succinctly, Madame Rachel was a procuress who obtained money in an open, aboveboard fashion, from “a woman of loose habits, who was willing to prostitute herself.” They submitted the letters Borradaile had written at Rachel’s dictation as proof. All Borradaile could say in reply was that her intentions, however deluded, were honorable. She had never paid money to carry on an “intrigue” with the mysterious “William,” but believed every word Madame told her about Lord Ranelagh’s desire to marry her. She so trusted Rachel that she was willing to write out anything the woman dictated, without giving any thought to their implications. She was, in short, a self-confessed idiot. In defense of her morals, she finally snapped petulantly at Madame’s attorney, “She [Rachel] is a wicked and vile woman, and you are bad too!”

The authentic Lord Ranelagh—whose first name, incidentally, was “Thomas”—took the stand. He admitted having visited Madame Rachel’s shop on several occasions, simply out of curiosity to see this notorious figure who “had been able to get a large sum of money out of a lady,” on some earlier occasion. (“You don’t suppose I went there to get enameled,” he grumbled.) He remembered being introduced to Mrs. Borradaile on one or two occasions, but he certainly never dreamed of marrying her, and had no idea who “William” might be.

This time around, the jury had no trouble bringing in a conviction, and Madame was sentenced to five years.

You can never keep a good crook down, however. After her release, with a truly awe-inspiring effrontery, she set herself up as “Arabian Perfumer to the Queen” in another part of London, and carried on exactly where she left off. Even more astonishingly, she continued to find customers ready to give her every cent they possessed in pursuit of her alluring dreams of eternal loveliness. To anyone with memories of her earlier legal skirmishes, she explained blithely that she had been “the victim of a vile conspiracy,” but the Home Secretary himself had cleared her name.

Before long, she encountered a client nearly as vain, but, unfortunately for Madame, rather more intelligent than Mrs. Borradaile. After Cecilia Pearse turned over large amounts of money—not to mention her jewels—to Rachel, only to get a painful skin rash as a reward, she confessed her folly to her husband. When Mr. Pearse demanded the return of the jewelry, Rachel purred that she knew all about his wife’s “private affairs,” and “would make the city ring” with the scandal. The Pearses responded by obtaining a warrant for Rachel’s arrest on the charge of intent to defraud.

This 1878 trial provided an interesting insight into Madame’s remarkable beauty preparations. The skin wash that Mrs. Pearse had bankrupted herself to obtain featured starch, lead and hydrochloric acid as key ingredients. It was also revealed that Mrs. Pearse once asked Madame why she herself did not benefit from her own arts (Rachel resembled, in the words of crime historian William Roughead, “a dissipated Queen Victoria.”) Madame blandly answered that as she was now eighty-five, you couldn’t expect to see the same results that would be shown by someone under sixty.

After all was over at the Old Bailey, it took the jury only ten minutes to find the defendant guilty, and she was given another five years in jail. Even after this latest conviction, women continued to write her, begging for the promised magic formulas that would make them young and comely. Madame Rachel died in prison only two years into her sentence, and the ladies of London had to find new ways to make themselves “Beautiful For Ever.”

"Illustrated Police News," October 23, 1880

Friday, June 28, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump features yet another of our Cats From the Past!



Meet Sam.  As has always been the case with me, Fate brought him into my household.  When I first made Sam's acquaintance, he was a neighborhood stray.  Apparently, his owners had moved away, leaving him behind.  (Yes, I know.  Special place in Hell.)  An elderly man who lived across the street from us fed Sam and generally took responsibility for him, but he remained an outdoors cat. (It was also this man who named the cat "Sam," because, as he once told me, at first he didn't know if the cat was a "Sam" or "Samantha.")  Sam and I became great friends, and he took to hanging out in our yard.

Things went on like this for a few years, until our elderly neighbor died.  You might say we "inherited" Sam.  Life went on, until one memorable day when Sam decided it would be a fine idea to attack a very large neighborhood dog.  (The dog got by far the worst of the fight.)  This led us to decide we had to bring Sam inside, although since he had been an outdoor cat all his life, we weren't sure how he'd adjust.  Fortunately, he loved being an indoor guy.  He particularly loved sleeping on beds.  And when he realized that at night, a human would join him there, his joy was unbounded.

Sadly, Sam was not part of our household for very long.  We had no idea how old he was, but we knew that he must have been of an advanced age.  After he had been indoors only about two years, he developed some incurable health issues, and passed away.

Sammy wouldn't have won too many beauty contests, and I fear he would have fared little better with an IQ test, but he was a cheerful, outgoing, good-natured lunkhead of a guy.  To know him was to love him.

Unless you were a dog, of course.


What the hell happened at Dyatlov Pass?

Watch out for the Werewolf of Chalons!

Some tips for the next time you interview a serial killer.

Raven romance in the Tower of London.

The story behind the "rule of thumb."

An execution linked to the notorious murder of Lord Darnley.

I have to say, if you're name is "Zack MacLeod Pinsent," you have no choice but to dress like a Regency dude.

A mysterious assault leads to suicide.

Was there a serial killer roaming early 20th century America?

Breakfast with the Duchess of Devonshire.

You might like to know that New York's Central Park is full of people running around counting squirrels.

A puzzling poisoning in Antarctica.

A puzzling disappearance in Australia.

The alleged disappearance of a Chinese village.

This week in Russian Weird looks at the Siberian Atlantis.  And the Perm Anomalous Zone.

A brief history of air conditioners.

Censoring Tennessee Williams.

Archaeologists have found the elixir of immortality.

The legend of the Bride From the Underworld.

The Victorian Harry Potter.

How to exercise in outer space.

The making of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Great Catnip Caper.

Fashionable widow's rings.

Latvia's "Valley of Spirits."

The Montgomery Murders.

Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway.

A tragedy in Butler County.

Albania's Virgin Matriarchs.


And so we come to the end of the line for yet another Link Dump. See you on Monday, when we'll meet the Avon Lady From Hell. In the meantime, here's some Nilsson: