"...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, August 19, 2019

Cindy Weber's Final Escape

Photo of Cindy Weber in the "Red Deer Advocate," October 23, 1981, via Newspapers.com


Every missing-persons story is tragic, of course. However, I know of few such cases that are both as heart-breakingly sad and utterly peculiar as the following disappearance. It reads like a psychological horror movie, with an almost Fortean ending.

People inevitably called Cynthia "Cindy" Weber of Edmonton, Canada, "troubled." This seems an almost grotesque understatement. Her descent into an abyss began when she was only twelve. In April 1972, her father Arnott Weber died. Worse still was to come. Soon after Arnott's death, Cindy's brother Kenneth revealed to his mother Edna that he was gay. He said he was tired of living a lie.

Edna Weber was horrified. She was an extremely devout Mennonite who sincerely believed homosexuality was a grave sin. She felt that unless her son changed his ways, he was doomed. After consulting with her other sons--who were all as appalled as she was--they decided that they had no choice but to excommunicate Kenneth from the family. They would have nothing to do with him until he "repented," and agreed to renounce his sexual orientation.

After a year of being shunned by his relatives, Kenneth did indeed give in, but not in the way the Webers had hoped. One evening in November 1973, the twenty-four year-old walked into the family garage, turned on his car, and placed his face directly under the exhaust pipe. One of his brothers discovered his body some time later.

Cindy had been particularly close to both her father and Kenneth, and these twin blows were more than she could bear. She never recovered from them. She tried, as so many psychologically suffering people do, to numb the pain with drugs. During her teen years, drug overdoses sent her to the hospital some five or six times. She was placed in psychiatric facilities, which she loathed. She escaped institutionalization a number of times, but she was always caught and forced back for "help." Being confined in hospitals, instead of aiding her emotional torment, only exacerbated it.

When she was twenty, Cindy decided she had had enough of this life, and she hanged herself. When she was found and cut down, she was still alive.

This proved to be Fate's cruelest trick on her yet. The lack of oxygen to her brain left her severely physically disabled. She could not move unassisted. She could no longer speak, leaving an alphabet board as her only source of communication. She was left nearly blind. Unless she took medication every day, her body would shake uncontrollably. Although her mind remained completely lucid, she had to be fed, washed, and dressed like a helpless baby. This young woman who was desperate to avoid captivity found herself imprisoned by her own body.

For the next two years, Cindy was a patient in Edmonton's Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital. She was miserably unhappy there, but this time, it was impossible for her to flee. Understandably enough, she was a morose person who was described as impossible to get along with. No one outside her family ever visited her. Cindy's old friends never contacted her. She spent long, incredibly dull days on a ward full mostly of older people who had nothing in common with her. She often told her mother that she would "rather die" than remain at Glenrose. Her "citizen's advocate" at the hospital, Edna Shaffler, heard much the same thing. Shaffler later said, "She once spelled out for me on her alphabet board that all she wanted was to be around people her own age...I felt so sad for her because there was hardly anyone around to be with her." Shaffler also said that Cindy was so lonely, "She used to scream and yell when she knew I was about to leave. And it was difficult to calm her because she can't talk and express what she wants."

I have no mouth. And I must scream.

In the summer of 1981, Cindy's desperation increased when she learned that the hospital was canceling her speech classes.  She was making little progress, and they wanted to devote their resources to patients with more potential for improvement. In fact, Glenrose wanted to end all Cindy's therapy and discharge her from the hospital for good. Edna Weber fought with hospital officials over this, but the matter remained unresolved.

Cindy was devastated, realizing that the staff was telling her, in effect, "You will never get any better. You have no hope." Schaffler tried to console Cindy, suggesting that maybe they could work out something, but "Cindy just took a fit and tried to run away from her wheelchair. I never saw her like that before."

This was how matters stood on Saturday, July 18, 1981. Cindy was at home on a weekend visit. It had been a relatively good day for her. She spent the morning sitting outdoors enjoying the sun, and in the evening she and her mother took in a movie. Edna could not recall ever seeing her so happy. At about 10:30 p.m. Mrs. Weber put her daughter to bed, and then retired for the night herself.

At 6:45 the following morning, Edna Weber went to Cindy's bedroom and found that the impossible had happened. Cindy was gone. There was no sign of any struggle. Cindy's clothes, walking sticks, eyeglasses, even the medication to manage her shaking were all there. Everything was where it should be...except for Cindy.

When the police learned that a nearly-blind woman unable to walk without assistance vanished from her bed without anyone noticing, they were as baffled as Mrs. Weber. Where did she go? Why did she go? How did she go?

The only obvious explanation is that someone--with or without Cindy's consent--broke into the Weber home and carried her off, but who? Ever since she became disabled, she had no contact with anyone outside her immediate family and hospital staff, and none of them had any visible reason to kidnap her. Her whereabouts remained equally mysterious. Police dogs were used to search a wide area around her home. Neighbors, Cindy's former friends, and the staff at Glenrose were all questioned, and all passed lie detector tests.  Nobody had any idea where she might have gone. A week after her disappearance, a police spokesperson sighed, "Virtually every angle and theory has been looked into, but nothing factual has come up. We're still at the point where we're trying to get a good lead."

That "good lead" never appeared. Police continued their investigation, but after failing to find even one clue indicating what had become of Cindy, they had no choice but to suspend their inquiries. Edna Weber offered a $5,000 reward for any information about her daughter, and even consulted several psychics, with equally fruitless results. To date, we don't know any more about Cindy Weber's disappearance than anyone did on the morning she vanished: that is to say, we know absolutely nothing. It remains a uniquely puzzling mystery.

If one wants to get fanciful, it's almost as if a tormented young woman lay in bed one night, praying to God to end her misery. "I just want to cease to exist," she said.

So God obliged.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is hosted by Clark Gable.

And a cat.  Who frankly, my dear, doesn't give a damn.





The ghost of the Astor Library.

Illustrations of 1893 London.

Life in the Netherlands must be one big round of excitement.

The ghost of Black Hope Cemetery.

Yet another hitchhiking ghost.  No highway is complete without one!

The last person to be executed in New York.

The link between the Treaty of Versailles and a sultan's skull.

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

The Mean Monkey of the Megalong.

How old newspapers are used to study new tsunamis.

The witch who was found innocent...a bit too late.

The cat ghost of the Ansonia Hotel.

The many grifters of the literary world.

The fountain of youth may not be all that it's cracked up to be.

The doctor and the chatty ghost.

How a Russian became a pioneer of Bengali theater.

The mystery of the two Madeleines.

The humans who lived on thin air and mole-rats.  Yum.

Victorian tattooed ladies.

Now you can smell like Cleopatra.

Botticelli's real-life Venus.

The Sorcerer's Toolbox of Pompeii.

The Monster With 21 Faces.

A look at the Fourth Queen's Own Hussars in India.

Pauline Cushman's journey from actress to Civil War spy.

Biddy Mason's journey from slave to real estate entrepreneur.

New images of King Tut's tomb.

The screaming schoolgirls of Malaysia.

I already wear outdated clothes for free.  I've been robbed!

The woman they couldn't hang.

The grave of the "real Snow White."

An unsolved murder on a shanty-boat.

The man who went to the gallows thanks to his pants.

So, let's talk cholera jokes.

The colonel and the pirate treasure.

A brief history of hair powder.

Finland's creepiest murder mystery.

And...that's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at one of the saddest, and strangest, missing-persons cases I've ever come across. In the meantime, here's one of the greatest of summer songs:

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com



This odd little tale appeared in the (Hazleton, Pennsylvania) "Plain Speaker" on July 25, 1932:
Hornell, N.Y., July 25. --A bullet hole through a clergyman's hat today added another chapter to the story at the minister's old and isolated hill top home. Several other tenants have fled from the dwelling in terror of what state troopers call a "phantom rifleman."

Lieutenant Gerald Vine of the state police said the rifleman, who has never been seen, apparently wanted to keep the house unoccupied, for some reason highly important to himself.

Reverend Herman Lee Henderson took it a short time ago as a summer home. In a note he found upon the well outside the house, weighted down by a rifle bullet of large caliber, the clergyman was warned to keep away from "the well."

Troopers say the writer meant the house, too. As he read the message, which carried a threat of death, a bullet sang through the air and lifted his hat from his head.

The rifle report was faint, he said, and Lieutenant Vaine suggested that the weapon had been fired from a considerable distance and sighted by an expert marksman. Later Reverend Henderson learn ed that at least five other tenants had been frightened from the premises by the "phantom." Lieutenant Vaine said he would stay on the case until the "mystery" surrounding the house is cleared up.

Two days later, the "Princeton Clarion" carried further information:
A phantom rifleman whose whining bullets have struck terror into residents in the hills near here was sought Monday night after his latest attack on the hilltop home where a clergyman now resides.

Convinced that the solution to the mystery lies at the bottom of a well on the property occupied by the Rev. Herman Lee Henderson, county authorities prepared to siphon the hole dry while the state police searched the hill sides for the elusive gunman.

The hill country secret leaked out for the first time yesterday when the clergyman appealed to state police for protection after being fired upon last week. He occupied the isolated farm house a short time ago as a summer home, learning later that three other tenants had been driven out by the mysterious rifleman.

He received his first warning in a note he found upon the well outside the house. The message told him to keep away from "the well" and carried a threat of death. As the clergyman hurried across the fields to a neighbor two miles away, a bullet plowed through his hat. The rifle report was faint, indicating the gunman was at a considerable distance.

Lieutenant Gerald Vine of the state police, who has taken over the investigation, said the Rev. Henderson had no known enemies and was at a loss to account for the attack. One theory held by authorities is that a still may be located in the woods near the farmhouse and its operators fear detection if the place is occupied. Another theory is that a treasure may be buried at the bottom of the well.

The "Elmira Star Gazette, July 29:
Hornell Sheriff Stanley T. Hoagland's office and State Police, under Sergeant Charles G. Burnett will not say for publication that they believe the story of the Rev. Herman Lee Henderson to be a hoax. They will not admit that they suspect such to be the case for publication, as intimated as coming from them in some newspapers. Both branches of these authorities state emphatically that they have not given up the search. They still seek to determine who has been firing a gun at the minister and the motive.

Rev. Henderson resides in an almost inaccessible place on the border line between Windem Hill and Oak Hill. He lives alone and claims to have received a warning to get out. Then he was shot at.

County officials in searching the the well have come across "some junk," but also enough evidence to warn them that "something was wrong." Objects found in the-well are being analyzed by chemists, while others are being studied by criminologists.

"We can't be expected to make everything public before we determine what is what, and thereby give our hand away," one officer said. County officers assured them selves of one thing Thursday and that was, "they have been shooting at Rev. Henderson."

Former Sheriff W. B. Page, who resides about five miles from where Rev. Henderson lives, says that he has personal knowledge that not only has the minister been bothered, but other tenants as well.

"If anyone expresses the belief that Rev. Henderson does not fear for his life and does not have good reasons for it, then they have no knowledge of crime."

One of the best known women in the city, and prominent, furnished county officers with one clue they are working on. She observed a figure slink through the woods, acting in a furtive manner, and saw him enter a home nearby with a rifle in his hands.

"No one had better make any effort to discredit me in the eyes of the public," Mr. Henderson said Thursday. It was learned that after first being shot at Rev. Henderson obtained counsel from an attorney, and at his direction visited Police Chief Clarence Bailey.

By the end of July, the police, unable to find any evidence leading them to the mysterious sniper--or even any evidence the sniper really existed--abandoned their investigation. The story subsequently disappeared from the newspapers, leaving the whole matter frustratingly unresolved. If, as some of the stories suggested, Rev. Henderson was pulling everyone's leg, he picked a damn strange way of doing so. It is hard to see what the Reverend--by all accounts a sober, respectable sort--would gain by inventing such a wild tale. On the other hand, who could have wanted the house vacated, and why?

Speculate away.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Denis Vrain-Lucas, Prince of Forgers

Denis Vrain-Lucas


"Collecting"--whether it be of stamps, historical documents, paintings, Betty Boop toothbrush holders, what have you--can lead a person into some very peculiar byways. In many cases, the increasing passion the collector feels to add to their stash of personal treasures warps their judgment and utterly clouds their intellect. It is a profound love, of a sort, and everyone knows love is blind.

One of the unlikeliest victims of this phenomenon was Michel Chasles. Chasles held the chair of geometry in the Imperial Polytechnic of Paris and was a member of the French Academy of Science. His distinguished career was built upon a talent for rigid logic and mathematical precision. Chasles was, in short, the last man you'd expect to see playing the role of dupe. Yet, duped he was, and in a manner that would have embarrassed a five-year-old.

Michel Chasles


After Chasles was elected to the Academy of Science in 1850, he began to research the history of science. His immersion in the old books and manuscripts awakened a desire to start his own collection of historical documents. Most unfortunately for him, one of the people who learned of this ambition was a man named Denis Vrain-Lucas.

One day in 1861, Vrain-Lucas introduced himself to Chasles, and made a most enticing proposition: He had for sale an immense collection of books, manuscripts, and autograph letters. They had been, he explained, the property of a Count Boisjourdain, who had drowned while sailing to America in 1791. The collection was now owned by an old man of Vrain-Lucas' acquaintance. He was naturally reluctant to part with any of it, but he badly needed money, so he was willing for Vrain-Lucas to act as his agent in gradually selling items from his stash. Vrain-Lucas said diffidently that he himself had no idea if anything in the collection was of any value, but as he had heard Chasles was an expert in such matters, he was willing to sell them for whatever Chasles thought they might be worth.

When Chasles learned of the treasures Vrain-Lucas was offering him, he could hardly believe his luck. Among the long-deceased Count's collection were letters personally written by Molière, Rabelais, and Racine. And his new-found benefactor was ready to part with them for the equivalent of less than one hundred dollars each!

It seemed too good to be true!

Chasles, of course, did not know anything about Vrain-Lucas and his mysteriously acquired documents--and was too dazzled and greedy to ask--but this "agent" was, to put it mildly, a dubious character. Vrain-Lucas was the son of a poor laborer. He had had little formal education, but after he obtained a clerking job, he had the opportunity to spend much time at the local library, where he became fascinated by old books and manuscripts. He eventually moved to Paris, where he got a job working for a genealogy firm. When this particular business had difficulty finding genuine documents for its clients, the employees worked around this problem by simply forging them. The firm was an excellent training ground for a young man who combined a lust for history with a handy lack of principles, and Vrain-Lucas soon became an experienced forger.

After the head of the genealogical firm retired, Vrain-Lucas set out on his own. By the time he and Chasles had their fateful meeting, he had a long and profitable career of selling highly dubious documents to credulous collectors all over Paris. Like all the great forgers, Vrain-Lucas combined a scholar's genuine love for and knowledge of historical artifacts with a con-man's thespian abilities. Like our old friend Joseph Cosey, Vrain-Lucas was very good at presenting himself as a humble, slightly witless fellow who was, in his ignorance, offering priceless artifacts at bargain rates.

Chasles knew his science. Chasles knew his higher mathematics. When it came to human nature, he was as innocent and gullible as a baby. He eagerly snapped up anything Vrain-Lucas so casually offered him, no questions asked.

The trouble began when Chasles began proudly shared his purchases with the world. In 1865, Florence, Italy, was holding an exhibition in honor of Dante. Chasles helpfully sent them a letter written by the great poet that he had recently purchased. The letter arrived too late for this exhibition, so it avoided any close examination. The next year, he presented to the Belgian Academy two letters written by Charles V to Rabelais. Although some archivists had their doubts about their authenticity, the Academy, much to its later embarrassment, published them.

In 1867, Chasles gifted the French Academy with two letters purportedly written by the poet Jean de Rotrou to Cardinal Richelieu. Again, even though some in the Academy privately muttered some skepticism about these letters, they were reprinted as genuine in the Proceedings of the Academy.

Things began to unravel in earnest the following year, when Chasles presented the Academy with a letter written by Pascal to Robert Boyle, detailing the principles of gravity years before Newton's discovery.

This upending of history raised a few eyebrows. Even more eyebrows were lifted when it was noted that the letter contained serious grammatical errors and jarring anachronisms. It was also noted that the handwriting of this letter differed considerably from assuredly genuine Pascal manuscripts. When Chasles, in an effort to defend the letter's authenticity, brought out more of his Pascal letters, the fat was truly in the fire. They included notes from Pascal to Isaac Newton--which, from the dates, would have been written when Newton was only eleven! There was a letter to Pascal from Newton's mother--where she signed herself by a name she had long ceased to use when the letter was purportedly written.

Chasles' meetings at the Academy became increasingly uncomfortable. Vrain-Lucas, however, was able to soothe all his doubts with various "new" letters which explained all the questions that had been raised about the previous documents. Scholars scoffed at the idea that Pascal would be discussing complex scientific discoveries with an eleven-year-old boy? Vrain-Lucas responded with a letter written by Newton's tutor, commenting on how his pupil had written to Pascal under his guidance. The letter written in French by Galileo in 1641 about his "eyestrain"--when history records the scientist went completely blind in 1637 and never wrote in French? The biographers, Vrain-Lucas assured Chasles, were simply in error. The fact that these letters contained so many previously unknown details only added to their value. And so on.

Before long, however, the long list of blatant textual errors and inauthentic handwritings found in these letters were unacceptable even to Chasles. Two of France's leading manuscript experts were brought in to finally make a thorough examination of Chasles' purchases. It was an impressive list: Over a period of less than ten years, Vrain-Lucas sold him a total of nearly 30,000 manuscripts, allegedly from over six hundred different people. Vrain-Lucas was a one-man forgery empire.

Fortunately for the interests of justice, he was as sloppy as he was prolific. He rarely bothered to even do plausible imitations of the genuine writing of his subjects, and usually merely copied passages out of old books, with little concern for historical accuracy. To add some much-needed verisimilitude to his handiwork, he occasionally sold Chasles some authentic vintage book or manuscript.

These rare examples of honest transactions constituted Vrain-Lucas' sole defense when he was put on trial in February of 1870. He claimed that the genuine items were worth more than the entire sum Chasles had spent on his collection.

It was a feeble argument. Chasles paid out about 140,000 francs for his now utterly-discredited "bargains," while the few authentic specimens were worth--at best--about 500 francs. Vrain-Lucas' attorneys then tried an even more novel argument. The defendant could only be guilty of fraud, they suggested, if his transactions were designed to deceive someone of normal intelligence. Who in their right minds, they argued, could believe they were buying a letter Cleopatra had written to Julius Caesar? Or from Mary Magdalene to Lazarus? Or Alexander the Great to Aristotle? Particularly since all of them were written in French?

The most amazing part of this story is that Chasles evidently did. Even after Vrain-Lucas was found guilty and imprisoned for two years, Chasles refused to admit that he had been well and truly hoodwinked. To the end of his days, he clung to the belief that the mythical Count Boisjourdain and his magnificent manuscripts really existed, and that he had just acquired clumsy replicas of them. In an equally astounding touch, despite his well-demonstrated ability to be gulled, Chasles' reputation survived the scandal, and he remained a respected figure in the field of mathematics. A road in Paris is named after him, and the mathematician is among the 72 worthies whose names are engraved on the Eiffel Tower.

After Vrain-Lucas served his sentence, he promptly found a new victim: An elderly man whom he swindled out of his pitiful fortune and his few valuable books. For this latest escapade, he returned to jail for another three years. He then was nabbed for stealing rare books from a library, which earned him another four years in prison. Sources give varying years for when he died, but it was sometime between 1880 and 1882.

Chasles passed away in 1880, from choking on a marshmallow. Which somehow seems a fitting end to our tale.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is hosted by an array of musical cats!






What the hell was the Creature From Coffs Harbor?

Yes, we're still asking, "What the hell is the Shroud of Turin?"

Watch out for those cursed towns!

Watch out for those haunted lighthouses!

The guy was an accordion player.  Hanging really was too good for him.

Why you might want to avoid wearing bright colors the next time you go hiking.

It's rarely a good sign when a government agency won't say what the hell it's up to.

If you're having a cold drink this summer, make sure you're very careful about where the ice comes from.

Nathan Foster, killer of patriots and wives.

The ghosts of Gladstone Villa.

The Wyricks and the poltergeist.

A legendary fifth-century warrior king who was not named Arthur.

This week in Russian Weird:  Have a drink on Chernobyl!

The Magus of Delaware.

That time Jane Austen's aunt got arrested.

That time Mark Twain wanted to sell you a cheap watch.

That time summer ice-skating was all the rage.

That time a guy was hit in the face with a cow stomach.

The worst car ever made and the people who love it.

How a wife-murderer (and probably a son-murderer as well) was found out.

An unjustly forgotten Russian poet.

If you're worried about getting scurvy, here's an 18th century recipe for spruce beer.

The mummy of St. Botolph's

An indentured servant turns to murder.

Recreating the face of a vampire witch.

19th century catfishing.

A brief history of quackery.

Identifying a 19th century vampire.

The truth about the Ilkeston Witch.

The man who planned Washington D.C.

What it was like to be a 19th century domestic coachman.

The unsolved murder and the best-selling novel.

That wraps it up for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a particularly weird forgery case. In the meantime, here's more of the songs of summer.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com


The mystery around one very curious inventor was related in the (East Liverpool, Ohio) "Evening Review," July 18, 1940:
The murder of the "Flying Dutchman" 79 years ago remains one of East Liverpool's unsolved crimes.

The verdict of the jury, "We do find Christian Olsen met his death at the hands of a person or persons unknown" wrote the last chapter to the most intriguing story.

Christian Olsen, a Dane by birth came here early in 1861. He gave no explanation except that he wished to build a flying machine. Residents merely considered him eccentric and paid little attention to him until a large box of freight-bearing foreign shipping tags, arrived at the station.

The inventor rented an empty loft of a barn at Third and Broadway and, much to the amazement of the town people, began to build an ingenious machine which he called a "flying machine".

He became a man of mystery and was nicknamed "The Flying Dutchman." He didn't resent this appellation, in fact he rather liked it. Despite their amusement the people regarded him with awe and when they discovered he paid all his obligations with gold money, their awe became mixed with respect.

A few of the more intrepid villagers tried to break through the wall of reserve Olsen built about his activities, but to no avail. The barn became a mecca for curiosity seekers. After several unsuccessful attempts to question the Dane, no one dared intrude beyond the closed gate of the loft's door which opened on an outside staircase.

One chilly spring afternoon a group of school children came trooping down Broadway from the log school on Fourth st. It was their custom to stand and stare up at the loft where the flying machine was being built.

Some of the more daring boys even would venture up a step or two. This afternoon was no exception. The pupils were indulging in their usual game of speculation, when without warning, the gate of the loft swung open and Christian Olsen emerged on the platform and looked down at the children. He said nothing, but finally beckoned to one of the older boys to come up to the loft.

The boy, selected from the group, was an acknowledged leader of youth activities.

Despite his claims for courage his steps lagged noticeably as he climbed up to the loft. His legs grew weak and his heart pounded in an uncomfortable fashion. The Dane stood on the platform, a slight smile on his broad, pleasant face.

The children watched their comrade disappear into the cavernous depths of the loft. They were too frightened to talk. They waited breathlessly for his return and after what seemed to be an endless span of minutes some of the older boys decided to go after the boy's father and the village constable.

"Here he comes!" shouted one of the boys and a sigh of relief went up from the anxious waiters as their chum appeared, apparently unharmed.

From that day until the brutal murder of the inventor three months later the boy worked faithfully for Christian Olsen. He carried his meals to the inventor and was the only contact the Dane had with the village.

Months later, after the death of the "Flying Dutchman," June 4, 1861, the boy gave the only genuine account to be found of activities beyond that closed gate.

"I nearly was scared out of my wits," the lad related later, "when he closed and locked that gate. I nearly jumped out of the window. He asked me all kinds of questions and finally said he wanted a trustworthy boy who would get his meals, run errands for him and keep the loft clean. I was to hear nothing and tell nothing.

"Every week he paid me in gold. A number of strange men visited him. They were trying to get him to sell his machine which was one of the funniest things I ever saw. It seemed to have leather wings that worked with coils of springs which he wound up. He always seemed to be afraid of something happening to the machine and wouldn't trust anyone to touch it.

"Once in a while he left me in charge while he paid a short visit across the street at the home of Enoch Bullock. Then on the night of June 3. he said I might invite two of the boys to come in. The machine was completed. They came and he was excited and happy. He showed us how it worked.

"One or two strangers were there. He said they were his partners. After supper he cleared us out, locked up his shop and went down to the Black Bear tavern to celebrate. The next time I saw him he was in Doc Ogden's house. His body had been taken from the railroad track by Jackman, Frederick Mill (near the present Pennsylvania Railroad passenger station).

"He had been murdered in his shop and his body taken down and put on the tracks. I never saw the men who visited his shop again."

The murder caused a furor in the village, but no clues leading to his assailant ever were found. The machine was stored in an attic over Kefferts tin shop on Broadway and stayed there for 20 years. In 1892 it was destroyed partially by fire.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Strychnine in the Ale: The Puzzling Murder of Almon Farnsworth

"Rutland Herald," February 13, 1872, via Newspapers.com


Poisonings are often notoriously tricky murder cases to solve. Resolution usually comes when the guilty party is obliging enough to have a very obvious motive, and very obvious access to both the poison and the victim. If the case is lacking any of these factors, even the most skilled detectives can easily have an unsolvable riddle on their hands. One now-forgotten, but highly intriguing example took place in Hermon, New York, early in 1872. It is a classic "clue-free murder": very short, very simply-told, and very baffling.

The scene of our little crime was the Farnsworth Hotel, owned by one Almon Farnsworth. Farnsworth was an ordinary, respectable citizen who made a good living and appeared to have no real enemies. On the evening of January 22, the hotel was particularly full. A traveling phrenologist was plying his popular, if quackish trade in the sitting room, drawing many Hermonites eager to have their true characters "revealed" by the shapes of their skulls. If only the phrenologist had the ability to determine who was plotting a murder, our story would have ended very differently.

A little after 8 p.m., one of the hotel's regulars went into the bar for some ale. Almon's son Theron refilled the ale pitcher and placed it on a shelf under the counter. About one hour later, Almon went behind the bar to refresh himself from this pitcher. He drank a glass of ale and went off to treat himself to the lecture on phrenology.

However, the hotelkeeper almost instantly began to feel "very queer." His limbs began tingling oddly. Within a few minutes, he went into seizures. By the time a doctor was summoned, Farnsworth was having convulsions, but the stricken man was just able to say that he had been poisoned by the ale. He died at 9:30.

The doctor, E.G. Seymour, immediately confiscated the remaining ale. He instantly recognized the symptoms of strychnine poisoning--a suspicion that was confirmed by giving a dose of the ale to an unfortunate cat, who suffered an agonizing death within ten minutes. The coroner's jury had little difficulty determining that Almon Farnsworth died as a result of drinking ale that had been laced with strychnine--judging by the swiftness of Farnsworth's end, a lot of strychnine. The problem was, who put the poison in the pitcher, and why? All that could be ascertained was that one or two people drank from the pitcher just a few moments before Almon took his deadly glass, giving a very small window of time for the poison to have been added.

Unfortunately, it seemed that pretty much anyone in the crowded hotel could have had access to the pitcher, leading to a grand amount of rumor-mongering, wild theorizing, and general finger-pointing. In the words of a "Burlington Democrat" reporter, "Men looked upon each other with doubt and distrust. Suspicion was in the very air." At first, it looked like investigators had themselves a first-rate suspect. It emerged that one Oscar Brown had once boarded with Farnsworth, and then left owing a large amount of back rent. The two had been violently quarreling about the matter. Brown was a morose, solitary man who was not generally liked or respected in the community--in short, he made an excellent target. Even more ominously, a witness claimed that a few months before, he had seen Brown buying poison from Mr. Healy, the town druggist.

Case closed! Well, not quite. Healy spoiled everyone's fun by vehemently denying that he had sold a package of strychnine to Brown, or to anyone else for that matter. The charges against Brown were abruptly dropped, and everyone went looking for more suspects.

Next to be scrutinized were the victim's own sons, Theron and Amos. After all, it was Theron who was the last person to refill the fatal pitcher. It was known that the dead man had quarreled with his sons over financial issues. A man named Marshall Reed came forward with a claim that he had been peeping through a hotel window on the evening of the poisoning, when he saw Theron take a pitcher from behind the counter and pass it to one Halsted Smith. Smith them took from his pocket a small paper packet containing a "white powder," which he shook into the pitcher. Alas for Mr. Reed's credibility, he did not tell anyone of what he allegedly saw until his good friend, Oscar Brown, was about to go to trial for the murder. Besides, if the Farnsworth sons had anything to do with the poisoning, wouldn't their very first action have been to dispose of the pitcher and its damming contents?

Despite the weakness of this evidence, prosecutors were obviously anxious to charge someone--anyone--with the murder. The Farnsworths and Halsted Smith soon found themselves indicted by the Grand Jury and thrown in jail to await their trial, which took place in March 1874.

The case against the trio was, to be blunt, pitifully thin. Aside from Reed's rather suspiciously helpful testimony, there were other witnesses who claimed to have seen Smith and the Farnsworths huddled together talking at various times in on the fatal evening: information that could mean something, or mean precisely nothing. No one seemed to have any clear recollection about who had been in the barroom when. On a more interesting note, it was pointed out that, on the previous summer, Halsted Smith had fired a gun at Almon Farnsworth. Smith insisted that he had just been joking around--indulging in the sort of light pleasantry that makes small-town life a joy. He added, perhaps unwisely, that if he had really wanted to shoot Almon, he would not have missed.

It proved to be one of the most anticlimactic murder trials in New York history. In his opening statement, defense attorney W.H. Sawyer swiftly shredded Reed's testimony for its multiple improbabilities and inconsistencies, then pointed out that without Reed, there was literally no case against his clients. After examining the other witnesses, Sawyer asked the District Attorney, J.R. Brinkerhoff, if he felt there was enough evidence to justify bringing the case to the jury. Brinkerhoff had to concede that now that Sawyer mentioned it, no, there really wasn't. The jury, without even bothering to leave their seats, acquitted the prisoners.

The trial was over. Unfortunately, so was any effort to find the poisoner of Almon Farnsworth. The residents of Harmon had to live with the fact that someone in their town--possibly their neighbor, possibly their best friend, possibly their husband--got away with murder. No one could even say for certain that Farnsworth had been the intended target, which must have added to the general air of unease.

I imagine that it took some time for anyone in Harmon to have any real desire for a glass of ale. Particularly if they were unsure who had poured it.