Friday, May 17, 2019
The staff here at Strange Company HQ decided to skip work to spend the weekend at the beach.
A brief history of English vagrancy.
A Bristol academic thinks he's deciphered the Voynich Manuscript. And another academic thinks he's full of crap. And so it goes.
Bringing to life forgotten creatures of folklore.
India's worst serial killer.
Why Renaissance artists loved sexy weasels.
The world's oldest printed book. And it was intended to be public domain!
So now you can explore shipwrecks without even leaving this link dump.
Analyzing the costume of the plague doctor.
London's phone booths at night.
A female writer in early Hollywood.
Frogmore House throws a heck of a party.
When medieval priests tried to claim sanctuary.
A Prussian grifter.
An 18th century fortune-teller.
The tragic case of the Sea Waif.
The man who met 20 ghosts. Liked most of 'em, too.
The gravedigger who buried two queens.
There's a new record-holder for the world's deepest dive.
A story of a bigamous wife.
That time when doctors prescribed slippers made of dead pigeons.
This week in Russian Weird introduces us to the Almasty.
Islam and Restoration England.
England's first known Christian burial.
People in Bavaria are being killed by crossbows.
How time became universal.
The man who tried to assassinate Napoleon III, and came to regret it.
Investigating a haunted Irish castle.
Tales from the world of Victorian post-mortem photography.
Escaping Gloucester jail, 1765.
A brief history of German humor.
A medieval best-selling book.
Rome's "talking statues."
Howard-Bury and the Yeti.
Hitler and the dead tramp.
A mysterious French rock.
An Edwardian pet photographer.
Regency era swimwear.
Some people who survived the hangman.
The argument that Shakespeare was a woman.
A mysterious murder in Hawaii.
Love and death on Clapham Common.
The Anti-Corn Law League's own Robin Hood.
Shorter version: we don't know squat about the sun.
The plane that accidentally flew around the world.
A fishing feline golf mascot.
The castle that's haunted by Satan the monkey.
That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a very mysterious murderer. In the meantime, here's a favorite old country song of mine. Considering the rate at which people are fleeing my state, I've been threatening to write a sequel called, "California's the Reason God Made All These U-Hauls."
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the...deadest one of all? The "Saint Joseph Herald Press," February 20, 1936:
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich, Feb. 20 (AP). Harvey Davenport, who was informed by dying Jeffery Derosier, 38, that he would be unable to remove a mirror from a table after Derosier had looked into it and saw he was breathing his last, was so frightened by what he believed to be the spell of the dead man, that he left the hospital where he was under treatment as Derosier's ward mate. He had given Rexton as his home, but at Rexton It is understood that he has left for "somewhere in the west".I have no idea what became of the understandably rattled Mr. Davenport, but I'm guessing it was a very, very long time before he voluntarily looked in a mirror again.
The mirror, apparently tossed at random onto the steel table, "froze" solidly to the table and the efforts of Davenport, of hospital attendants, and of Dr. F. J. Moloney to remove It were in wain for more than 24 hours. Then Miss Adeline Knopf, a nurse from the operating room, using an ice pick with force, pried it up.
Today, fearful of violating ethics of their profession, and in the absence of Superintendent Emma Dickson from the city, nurses declined to discuss the case further, or to present the mirror for public inspection.
Dr. Moloney, Derosier's physician, said he had no explanation for the sticking of the mirror to the painted steel table.. He said he was positive that no adhesive or saliva had been used by the dying man. Asked if he believed the answer was a supernatural one, he answered "Do I look superstitious?"
Lewis Descheneau, elderly Brimley citizen, an eye witness to the death of Derosier, solemnly related the details of the death.
"There were four of us in the ward with Mr. Derosier, and we all could see and hear everything that was said and done. I heard Derosier ask Davenport, who, I think, was of Indian blood, to bring him his hand mirror. The mirror was just a piece of looking glass without a back.
"Davenport took him the mirror. and we all heard the sick man exclaim that his face looked terrible and his eyes wild. I was alarmed when he cried 'My God, I'm dying.' I saw him toss the glass onto the table, where it lay near the edge.
"I watched Davenport go toward the door as though to call a nurse. But he stopped when Mr. Derosier asked him to come back and give him the mirror again. As Davenport reached for the mirror, which was at the edge of the table, Derosier told him in a voice that was not loud but which we could all hear 'You won't be able to pick it from the table'.
"Davenport seemed frozen to the spot for an instant. Then the sick man started hiccoughing and we could see he was dying. A nurse came but he died right away. Then Davenport and others tried and tried to take the looking glass from the table. It wouldn't move. And that's all. I know. I'm sure I can't say what supernatural power or other cause is responsible. But that's the way it happened."
Einar V. Jorgenson, bookkeeper, who personally tried every ordinary hand method of taking the mirror off. declared he had no doubt that the explanation was a natural one but he could not say after inspecting the mirror what it was. "Perhaps perspiration on the sliver on the mirror may be the answer, he hazarded.
Detroit. Feb. 20 (AP). Scientists here and in Ann Arbor advanced molecular action, chemical reaction and hypnosis today as possible explanations for the adhesion of a mirror to a metal table top on which it was tossed by a dying patient in a Sault Ste. Marie hospital.
Prof. George W. Carter of Wayne university said it was possible that the mirror and the table surface were so perfectly smooth that all air was expelled.
"That," he said, "might permit the molecules of the table top to exert an attractive force on the molecules of the mirror surface strong enough to hold them together against ordinary prying."
Prof. Peter Harbecht of the University of Detroit, said that perspiration from the patient's hand might have set up a chemical reaction in the quicksilver of the minor, causing it to adhere to the table top.
Dr. Albert M. Barrett, director of the state psychopathic hospital at Ann Arbor, suggested hypnosis. The dying patient, he said, might nave convinced his fellow patient, through hypnotic suggestion, that he could not lift the mirror.
"This hypnosis," he explained, "could have been transferred to other persons by recital of the dying man's statement."
Monday, May 13, 2019
The youth of today--as youth always does--tends to exist in the present. Anything that happened before their time is considered alien, irrelevant, and inferior. Young people today imagine that the strong, confident, kick-ass women they see portrayed on TV or in movies are a modern innovation. Women of the "old days," they assume, were weak, inhibited, helpless.
Of course, anyone with the slightest knowledge of history knows otherwise. Every era, no matter how outwardly conventional and repressive, has had their share of daring, adventurous females who make a mark in their own individual fashion. Such women can emerge at the strangest times, and in the strangest ways.
That brings us to the subject of today's post: Meet Elizabeth "Dolly" Shepherd, a Victorian/Edwardian girl whose road to becoming a fearless, groundbreaking heroine began with a liking for the music of John Philip Sousa.
Shepherd was born in a small English town named Potters Bar on November 19, 1886. When she was 16, she longed to see Sousa and his famed band play at London's Alexandra Palace, but she lacked the money to buy a ticket. Shepherd got around this handicap by taking a waitressing job at the establishment. Instead of paying the Palace to hear Sousa's music, the Palace was paying her! One day on the job, she overheard the showman Samuel Franklin Cody lamenting the fact that he needed a stand-in for a part of his act which involved shooting an egg off a woman's head. (His wife, who normally fulfilled that role, was injured when one night, Cody's aim was just a little off.) Bored with waiting on tables and thirsting for excitement, Shepherd immediately volunteered for the job.
After, I presume, urging Cody to brush up on his marksmanship.
After a year of serving as Cody's assistant, Shepherd accompanied him to visit the workshop of French parachutist and balloonist Auguste Gaudron. Dolly was fascinated. So fascinated that by the end of her visit, she had left Cody's employ to become a parachutist. Gaudron gave the girl thirty minutes of training, took her up to 2000 feet in the air, pointed out a suitable landing place, and shouted, "Go!"
Shepherd later described what came next: "My heart rose into my mouth as I plummeted for what seemed far too long, dropping like a stone. I could hear the rapid flap-flap-flap of the silk streaming after me as the canopy broke from the balloon netting and sucked at the rush of air, and then at last there was a great whooooosh...Suspended there in the clear, warm air, high above the land of mere mortals, I experienced a sense of elation such as I had never known."
Skydiving is not a pastime for the timid, particularly in those early days. The modern safety harness had yet to be invented, and the parachute itself was a crude affair. Hanging below a small gas balloon was the canvas parachute and, on another cord, a trapeze bar for the parachutist to sit on during the ascent. When the balloon was fully inflated, it was released with the parachutist running underneath it, ready to be lifted off the ground. At the right altitude, the parachutist would pull a ripcord to begin the balloon’s deflation and jump off the trapeze bar, allowing the parachute to open. Everyone involved in the sport knew that every time you went up, there was the very strong possibility that you would not live to see another jump. Dolly wrote, "From time to time a member of our team might 'disappear.' Nothing would be said. He or she would just not be seen at any more shows, and if questioned, Captain Gaudron would merely say that the aeronaut in question had 'left the team.' They had left, sure enough!"
Dolly was unfazed by the risks. In her words, "death was a subject on which we did not dwell." Some people are terrified of risking their necks; others find it gives them an addictive adrenaline rush. Dolly was a perfect example of the latter. She took to parachuting as if she had been doing it her whole life. When she ran into trouble on her jumps, she did not panic. She sang to keep her nerves steady and used her brains to get herself out of the jam. She designed a special costume for her jumps, a jaunty blue outfit with gold trim, and by 1905, was regularly making public performances, cheerily waving a Union Jack to the crowds before making her jumps. The attractive, dashing, six-foot-tall Shepherd was an instant crowd-pleaser. She became the most renowned of the "Edwardian lady parachutists."
Shepherd had enough near-misses to make any insurance actuary weak in the knees. On one jump, both her balloon and the parachute failed, leaving her helplessly rising as high as 15,000 feet. She was very, very fortunate that, instead of being dashed to the ground, the balloon slowly sank back to the ground--after nearly four hours. Dolly enjoyed the experience. She later enthused to a reporter that the unplanned tour over England was "too beautiful to describe." On another jump, she almost landed on a steam train, but the driver had the wit to blow the steam, pushing her into a canal. Shepherd was unfazed. She once cheerfully said that she liked to "go high," because "I have it in my head that if I had to be killed, I'd like to be killed completely: good and proper!"
In July 1908, it was arranged that Dolly would do a double jump with another female parachutist, Louie May. The crowd was thrilled by the unusual sight, but their excitement quickly turned to horror. May's parachute failed to release. It looked like she was doomed. The spectators would have witnessed a gruesome tragedy if not for Shepherd's cool head and quick thinking. Shouting words of encouragement to her terrified companion, Dolly managed to release May from her harness, and told the other girl to hold on to her literally for dear life so they could both descend on Shepherd's parachute. Unfortunately, the parachute was not quite enough to handle two people, so they had a hard landing. May was not seriously hurt, but Shepherd suffered a severe back injury. Her legs were left paralyzed, and the doctors told her she would never walk again.
Shepherd refused to believe them. She found a physician who gave her back electrical shock treatments. Amazingly, this unconventional therapy realigned her vertebrae. Within a few weeks, Shepherd was back on her feet and planning her next jump. (As a side note, the failed jump with May landed Dolly a spot in the record books, for the first mid-air rescue.) It was only years later that Dolly learned that during her convalescence, her mother took her place in Gaudron's troupe under the name of "Madame Papillon."
This really must have been quite a family.
Only two months after her near-fatal crash, Shepherd made her comeback. She felt uncharacteristically nervous before the jump, but after a perfect landing, "I rose to my feet, happy to be a parachutist again." Shepherd was scheduled to make another jump in Coventry on July 9, 1910. However, at the last minute, Dolly canceled her appearance, and another female parachutist, Edith Maud Cook, took her place. Eerily enough, this was Cook's final jump. A sudden gust of wind caused her parachute to collapse. Cook was thrown onto a factory roof. She fell off the roof, causing injuries which led to her death five days later.
Cook's awful fate--only one of numerous high-profile deaths of female parachutists--intensified an already-raging debate: should women be allowed to parachute at all? One Edmund Pigott insisted that it was shameful to allow crowds to fulfill their worst instincts by watching young women risk their lives for entertainment. Caleb Hackney wrote a widely-read editorial pleading, "Can not public opinion perhaps supported by some exalted personage, put an end to parachute descents by females?" In reply, Dolly laughed, "What a dull world it would be if it were full of Reverend Pigotts and Caleb Hackneys!"
Shepherd continued parachuting until 1912, when, during one jump, she thought heard a voice warning her, "Don't come up again, or you'll be killed." Dolly may have been fearless, but she was nobody's fool. She didn't come up again.
Besides, she soon had a new field of adventure. When WWI broke out, Shepherd and her sister joined the Women's Volunteer Reserve, where she was assigned to drive a munitions truck for the War Department. In 1917, she volunteered to go to France as a driver/mechanic. The soldiers were dubious about having women performing such jobs, but the skill and hard work of Shepherd and her female colleagues soon won them respect. Among Shepherd's duties was chauffeuring a Captain Percy Sedgwick. Although he initially balked at being driven around by a woman, his feelings toward her turned to admiration, then to love. After the war, they were married.
Dolly's adventures were not quite over. She worked for the home front during WWII, earning commendations for her efforts. The Sedgwicks moved to the Isle of Wight, where Percy died in 1956. In 1963, Dolly moved to Eastbourne. In 1976, she was invited to join the Parachute Red Devils. She celebrated turning 90 by flying with the Red Devils on one of their air shows. She also co-authored a charming book about her venturesome life, "When the 'Chute Went Up."
Dolly Shepherd Sedgwick died in 1983. The Red Devils and the RAF Falcons sent representatives to her funeral, and a local paper warmly eulogized her as "one of the most intrepid, charming, and colourful characters ever to have lived in Eastbourne." Those words were surely not hyperbole. Dolly once said that she had led a "charmed life." If so, it was due less to mere luck and more to her own intelligence, bravery, and ability. Very few of us are so blessed.
Friday, May 10, 2019
This week's Link Dump suffered a slight delay in publication. The Strange Company HQ staff were running late.
What the hell was the Beast of Gevaudan? Now we know?
What the hell are Irish banshees?
Where the hell is the tomb of Genghis Khan?
How the hell did Ludwig II die?
Who the hell were the Green Children of Woolpit?
A playwright from the Little Theater movement.
The Soviets and Western culture.
The Weird Wild Man of Sublime, Texas.
A Victorian joke book.
The eternal Jack the Ripper.
A vengeful ghost in India.
Now, this is a royal wedding.
The female Lawrence of Arabia.
Edith Wilson, widow and con artist.
The battle of Halidon Hill.
A 17th century witch trial.
The Flying Dutchman and some cursed letters.
What it was like to do hard labor in Victorian prisons.
How it was shown that Leif Erikson beat Columbus to North America.
You want to know why 19th century Frenchwomen were afraid to lose their husbands? The consequences were so damned complicated.
An Irish tapping ghost.
A near-fatal millipede.
The 18th century was the Age of Melancholy.
It didn't pay to be an ally of Richard II.
Emma and her exorcisms.
Ancient Romans built invisibility cloaks. Sort of.
Comets and Gobekli Tepe.
A British diplomat turns to science fiction. (Part Two is here.)
The room that can drive you mad.
Civil War soldiers and "Angel's Glow."
The mystery of the undecorated Egyptian tomb.
A balloon locomotive.
The first sound recordings.
Some assorted facts about Napoleon.
What the well-dressed 18th century astronomer was wearing.
Women and Wedgwood.
Anna Ruppert's dangerous beauty.
The history of the Charter Fair.
A mysterious murder in Maine.
A jockey's restless ghost.
And there you have it for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll talk Edwardian Lady Parachutists. In the meantime, here's one of my favorite folk songs.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
All right, kids, let's talk about Killer Blobs From Outer Space. No, this isn't the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi movie, but a news item in the "Casper Star-Tribune," August 20, 1994:
Oakville, Wash. Blobs Fall From the Sky. Kitten Dies.There was a follow-up in the "Palm Beach Post" on August 21:
"We don't know what it is or where it came from," said Dick Meyer, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle. "It's a puzzle."
It's a puzzle Sunny Barclift wants solved. "This stuff came out of the sky," Barclift said. "I want to know what it is."
Twice in the past two weeks when it has rained, small blobs of clear, gelatinous goo have fallen on and around the home Barclift shares with her mother, Dotty Hearn, on a 29-acre farm. The blobs, about half the size of rice grains, might have gone unnoticed had it not been for a number of circumstances, beginning with a small shed covered with black asphalt roofing.
Barclift, who moved here last year from Phoenix after working for six years as director of occupational safety and health for the Arizona branch of the National Safety Council, noticed the clear, jelly-like particles on the shed roof after the rain stopped. After the first blob shower on Aug. 7, Hearn went to the hospital suffering from dizziness and nausea. Barclift and a friend also had minor bouts of nausea and fatigue after collecting and touching the mysterious goop. A newly adopted kitten, which lived outside, died days later after a struggle with severe intestinal problems.
The blobs came again in the rain on Tuesday, but this time no one in the household fell ill.
There have been no other confirmed reports of mysterious blobs, officials with several agencies said. But a National Weather Service employee in the area received a call from an unidentified man in early August describing hot, metallic particles from the sky that burned holes in his children's trampoline.
Dr. David Little, who treated Barclift's mother, said he doubted that Hearn's illness was connected to the strange blobs. Little said her dizziness and nausea appeared to be caused by an inner ear problem. But he agreed to have the lab take a look at the stuff anyway.
"The lab tech put the substance under a microscope," Little said. "He found some human white cells in it." The hospital didn't do a chemical analysis, Barclift noted, perhaps because the lab staff seemed reluctant to test the blobs in the first place.
Little suggested the blobs might be concentrated fluid waste from an airplane toilet, since this could contain anti-freeze that would explain the presence of human cells as well as the illnesses. The kitten, he said, could have been hurt by ingesting anti-freeze.
But Little said there was no clear evidence of a health hazard.
Barclift called the FAA and eventually persuaded it to investigate the mystery blobs.
Meyer said all commercial plane toilet fluids are dyed blue, so it seemed unlikely that was the explanation. He said the FAA investigator asked the military if there had been any flights over the area or any exercises that might explain the blobs.
"This is where the jellyfish theory came in," Meyer said.
It's not clear who should get credit for proposing this theory, but it's based on the fact that the blobs appeared around the time the Air Force was dropping bombs in the Pacific Ocean off the Washington coast.
"They were conducting bombing runs using live ordnance," said Master Sgt. Thaddeus Hosley, spokesman at McChord Air Force Base.
Hosley said the 354th Fighter Squadron was flying last week and this week, dropping bombs about 10 to 20 miles west of Ocean Shores.
Despite the 40 to 50 miles separating the bombing runs and the blob fallout, Oakville Chief of Police Gary Greub said somebody suggested a school of jellyfish might have been blown literally sky-high.
McChord's Hosley, trying but failing to stifle a laugh, said he could not comment on the jellyfish theory.
"That's ridiculous," said Barclift. Besides, she said, this wouldn't explain why the blobs came twice or why they come only when it rains.
After more than a week's worth of phone calls to state and federal agencies, Barclift has persuaded the state Department of Ecology to conduct tests of the blobs.
"We'll take a look at it," said Mike Osweiler of the agency's hazardous-material spill response unit for Southwest Washington. Osweiler has heard all the theories, including the flying jellyfish one.
"That's a long way for jellyfish to travel ... unless they're shooting them in from the coast," he said.
Seattle.--The blobs of Oakville, Wash., are alive or at least they were once alive, or part of some living creature, according to a preliminary analysis by Washington State Department of Ecology scientists.Apparently, the toxic rainfall has remained a mystery. But if tiny clear blobs should ever fall on your property, I advise not handling them.
"There's a number of cells of various sizes," said Mike Osweiler, with the agency's hazardous-material unit for southwest Washington. But what kind of creature the cells came from is still uncertain, he said.
Osweiler said he will ask the State Department of Health to take a look since his unit is not equipped to identify biological cells.
The mystery blobs, half the size of rice grains, have appeared twice during rainfall at the home of Sunny Barclift near the town of Oakville. Since word got out about the blobs, a number of theories have been launched such as the flying jellyfish theory. It's not a theory Barclift favors, but many in Oakville seem to like it.
"Some people want to start an annual jellyfish festival now where they shoot jellyfish into town with a cannon," she said, laughing. Barcilift noted that the town's tavern is also concocting a new drink, "The "Jellyfish," made of vodka, gelatin and juice.
Barclift has been trying to get to the bottom of the blob mystery since their first appearance on Aug. 7 was followed by her kitten's death and bouts of nausea afflicting her mother, herself and a friend who handled the blobs.
While she acknowledged the illnesses might just have been coincidence, Barclift's interest intensified when a hospital lab technician looked at the goop under a microscope and said it contained human white blood cells.
But Osweiler said his laboratory staff found the cells had no nuclei, something human white cells do have. He said he had no idea what jellyfish cells look like.
The jellyfish theory began when townsfolk learned the Air Force was dropping live bombs into the Pacific Ocean about 10 to 20 miles off the coast of Washington. The idea was that jellyfish remains might have been blown up into the clouds where they were later dispersed in rainfall.
"I don't think so," Barclift said.
Reps. Jolene Unsoeld and Norm Dicks, both D-Wash., last week asked the military to stop bombing near the coast, although Bill Dunbar, spokesman for Unsoeld, said the request was prompted by concern for salmon runs. Dunbar said it had nothing to do with the blobs.
What interested Dunbar more than the blobs was the experience reported by Jim and Kathy Belanger, about dead crabs they found on the Washington coast. While camping last week, they heard explosions at sea and found hundreds of dead crabs and globs of jellyfish or clear gel dotting the shoreline.
"These were big crabs, hundreds of them," said Jim Belanger. He said there was a dead crab on the shoreline every 2 or 3 feet.
Merritt Tuttle of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland, Ore., said that was the first report of any harm to sea life that may have resulted from the bombing.
Dunbar, who said the military dropped cluster bombs, promised Unsoeld's office will investigate. The search for an explanation of the mystery blobs, he noted, appears to have raised other concerns.
"But I still want to know what those blobs are," Dunbar said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has ruled out airplane toilet waste since all such waste is dyed blue. And the Belangers didn't keep samples of the globs they saw on the beach to compare with Barclift's samples.
"I thought at first it was jellyfish, but they didn't look like jellyfish up close," Kathy Belanger said. She noted that she handled the blobs and that their dog ran on the beach that day. The next day, she said, both she and the dog became ill. The couple didn't think the blobs and crab deaths were connected until they read about the blobs of Oakville.
"Makes you wonder," said Jim Belanger.
And for God's sake, don't let your cat anywhere near them.
Monday, May 6, 2019
A classic poisoning case is the death of James Maybrick in 1889. Although his wife Florence was tried and convicted for his murder, an element of mystery still surrounds the story, as many true-crime researchers have plausibly argued that Mrs. Maybrick was in fact innocent. James had the unnerving habit of dosing himself with what he was pleased to think of as "theraputic" amounts of arsenic, strychnine, and other unwholesome snacks. According to the pro-Florence team, her husband essentially accidentally murdered himself. Unfortunately, we will likely never know for sure if Mrs. Maybrick was a villain or a martyr.
A similar murder trial, renowned in its day but now long-forgotten, took place in England in 1775. Although the case was "closed" in the legal sense, there were enough ambiguities to ensure that there are still questions about what really happened. The story reads like one of Samuel Richardson's contemporary novels, complete with a real-life Pamela or Clarissa.
Jane Butterfield was an extremely pretty girl. Great beauty is very often a mixed blessing, as Jane would soon discover. When she was only 14, a professional procuress lured Jane away from her home and into the bed of a wealthy rake named William Scawen, old enough to be her grandfather. Through what she later described as a "variety of artifices," Scawen persuaded the girl to remain in his home, as combination housekeeper/mistress.
Fortunately, this arrangement (which was hardly uncommon in those times) worked to the satisfaction of both parties. Scawen developed a genuine affection for Jane. He provided her with a fine education, a wardrobe fit for a great lady, and, in her words, "shewed her so many instances of friendship and kindness, that she sincerely loved him, and gave him many unquestionable proofs of her gratitude, fidelity and affection." Jane stood so high in Scawen's regard, he made a will leaving her the bulk of his not-inconsiderable estate. Jane was entirely dependent on Scawen's good will. Her status as a "fallen woman" caused her family to disown her. Without her much-older "protector," she would be left "naked and defenseless on the world."
Jane was a sweet-natured, generous woman who inspired the high regard of Scawen's neighbors, who were willing to overlook her irregular status and treat her with all the respect due a legitimate Mrs. Scawen. Jane gave generously to the local poor, and even came to the rescue of a pervious mistress of Scawen's who was living in poverty. Jane gave the woman (known only to history as "Mrs. F.") money out of her own allowance, and persuaded Scawen to leave the daughter he had with "Mrs. F." a handsome bequest in his will. In short, everyone had reason to be highly pleased with the relationship between Jane and William, with one important exception: Scawen's sister, Lady Mead. As Scawen's closest living relative, she felt she had a right to be named his chief heir. Lady Mead grumbled about the prospect of his fortune going into the hands of a mere concubine. This attitude may--or may not--have played a significant role in the tragedy to come.
For some fourteen or fifteen years, Jane and William lived together quietly and peaceably. Then, in 1775, Scawen's health, which had been poor for the past few years, took a dramatic downturn. He had been taking a tincture containing mercury prepared by his apothecary, Robert Cochran, to counter his rheumatism, but it made Scawen so ill he stopped taking the medication. He blamed his sickness on the mercury. He also consulted his doctor, Edmund Sanxay, for his rheumatism, as well as an ulcer on his arm which had "bred maggots"[!!!] Sanxay gave him plasters for his arm and a sarsaparilla-based tonic for the rheumatism. However, Scawen discontinued this draught as well. It--as well as everything he had been drinking lately--had a disgustingly metallic taste to them. Jane acted as Scawen's nurse, tending to him constantly, and seemingly most affectionately.
Scawen's illness persisted for weeks, which aroused Cochran's suspicions. He felt the mercury in Scawen's tonic could not be responsible for such a prolonged sickness. The apothecary went running to Lady Mead with startling, and highly ominous, news: he believed her brother was being deliberately poisoned, and urged her to share this theory with Scawen's doctor.
In June, Sanxay visited Scawen, who was now too ill to leave his home. Scawen was feverish, nauseated, and his mouth was full of ulcers. Although Sanxay had been alerted to the apothecary's dark fears--and after examining Scawen the doctor was inclined to share them--he said nothing to the patient. He merely prescribed some innocuous medicines, all of which were served to him by Jane.
Scawen continued to complain that everything he drank seemed to have that same strange, metallic taste, and he noted that he always felt worse afterwards. Sanxay--over Jane's protests--insisted on having a professional nurse brought in to tend to Scawen.
When a rich man becomes seriously and mysteriously ill while in close proximity to someone who would gain great financial benefit from his death, it is inevitable that unpleasant things will be said. Gossips were having a field day. Lady Mead began openly declaring that her brother was being poisoned with mercury. She did not--yet--name any names, but it was not difficult to guess who she believed was responsible.
Sanxay brought in a colleague, Robert Young, to examine his patient. Young was familiar with the symptoms of mercury poisoning, so would be in position to know if Sanxay's suspicions were correct. After examining Scawen, Young was able to confirm that the mouth ulcerations, as well as the metallic flavor of Scawen's drinks, were most likely indeed due to chronic mercury poisoning.
Sanxay wasted no time. The doctor persuaded Scawen to immediately leave his home--and his mistress--and move in with Sanxay's household. However, this change in scene did nothing to alleviate Scawen's condition. The ulcerations, brassy taste in his mouth, and general debility continued. Sanxay did what he could for the patient, but William Scawen was beyond all human aid. He died on June 21, 1775. Shortly before his passing, Sanxay and Lady Mead persuaded him to write a new will, making Lady Mead his principal heir and cutting Jane off without a penny. Scawen's body was scarcely cold when Jane Butterfield was arrested for his murder.
Sadly for the course of justice, the state of forensic knowledge regarding poisons was in its infancy, if it could be said to have been born at all. It was more a matter of personal opinion rather than established scientific fact, something which was very much to this particular defendant's advantage. Cochrane, Sanxay, and Young were the main prosecution witnesses at Jane's trial. They stated unequivocally that Scawen died as a result of deliberate mercury poisoning. On the other hand, the defense presented their own expert witness, one Dr. Saunders, who testified with equal authority and certainty that Scawen's symptoms could very well be attributed to other causes. The dead man's excess salivation could have resulted from a "paralytic state, a palsy in those parts." Older people frequently had a "relaxation of the throat" which made it difficult for them to swallow saliva. ("They call them drivellers.") Saunders recalled that he once had a patient who showed all the classic signs of mercury poisoning, only to have it turn out that her symptoms were from a completely different cause. Saunders' testimony was corroborated by three surgeons, one of whom said that Scawen confided to him that as the result of "repeated venereal injuries," he had dosed himself with mercury.
Further complicating matters was the fact that Scawen had been taking various medical hellbrews for his many physical problems, and no one had been able to make a definitive diagnosis of what, exactly, his fatal ailment had been. (Rather curiously, his body was never autopsied.)
The defense also brought on several witnesses attesting to the genuine fondness between the prisoner and her alleged victim. As was the custom in those days, Jane did not take the stand. However, a statement of hers was read in court. In it, she described her relationship with Scawen, and how despite its sordid beginnings, she came to have a sincere affection for him. She wrote, "I will thus publicly do him justice, that, except in the instances of our first acquaintance and conclusion of it, he sought by all means to make me happy: nor was the improvement of my mind neglected; in this he faithfully supplied a parent's duty to which I will add, that he was by nature generous, and, to myself, that generosity was unbounded. Judge then, my lord, what I must have felt when charged with a crime of the most shocking heinous nature! Not only of murder, but of murdering this benefactor and my only friend."
Jane's beauty, coupled with her gentle, modest, and seemingly virtuous demeanor, had made her a very popular defendant. The excellent impression she made in court, coupled with the conflicting medical evidence, led the jury to return an acquittal. The "Derby Mercury" reported that when the verdict was read, "the Hall rebounded with Acclamations and Shouts of Applause; the Ladies burst into Tears of Joy, and there was the most general Expression of Satisfaction ever heard on any occasion."
The trial was over, but the mystery about Scawen's death remains. Despite Jane's sterling reputation, it is just possible that she did poison her "protector," after all. Even for the most estimable young lady, the prospect of becoming a rich and independent woman may be very, very tempting. Perhaps there was some truth to the contemporary gossip that Jane had found a younger man she wished to marry. On the other hand, Scawen was aged and infirm. Jane must have known that if she merely let nature take its course, he would surely pass away before long.
And what of Lady Mead? She had a powerful motive to see Scawen disinherit Jane and die before he could change his mind, with the young mistress getting the blame for his demise. And that is exactly what happened. Was she entirely guiltless?
Of course, it is possible that Scawen was inadvertently responsible for his own death. He was fond of taking numerous quack "remedies," and 18th century medical aid was often enough to finish off even the strongest constitutions. His medicines may well have been fatal to a man already weakened by rheumatism and venereal disease. We will never know.
Also unknown is what became of Jane Butterfield after her trial. She filed suit to overturn the will Scawen made just before his death, but after three years of litigation, a judge ruled that this testament was perfectly valid, leaving Jane alone, notorious, and penniless. She subsequently vanished from history. Eight months after her trial ended, a rather sad item appeared in the "Kentish Gazette" on April 13, 1776. It read:
Some of the friends of James Scawen [William's nephew] having propagated a report that he had made a provision for Miss Butterfield; and others having intimated that he would do it upon a proper application, she was induced to send him the following by James Howell, of Surry-street:
To James Scawen, Esq.
Surry-street, March 16, 1776.
I am told by my friends that you have said, "if I made application to you, it is your inclination to do me a kindness." You can easily judge of the feelings an innocent mind, loaded with accumulated distresses, must endure on such an occasion; and you will allow, that if my opinion of your generosity were not equal to my own sufferings, I could never take the step I now do of appealing to you, rather than justice and the law, for an alleviation of my sufferings. Behold me then, Sir, your supplicant for such provision as you think due to me for my long and affectionate care and attendance upon your uncle: and if you will not take into your consideration the sense your uncle entertained, during all the uninfluenced hours of his life, of my desert on those accounts, and the compensation he owed me for the tender sacrifices I had made him, place it to the sense of your own bounty, and your compassion for my hard fake; a fate, upon which I could say what must move the most obdurate. But the delicacy of this address binds me to say nothing which can either give you offense, or depart from what I owe to my own innocence. I shall therefore conclude with assuring you, that I take this step with the less regret, because for the greatest part of my life I have been solicitous to gain your esteem, and I long flattered myself that I had obtained it. I am, Sir,
With the utmost anguish and respect,
Your unfortunate and
Obedient humble servant,
Mr. Howell's account of his success when he delivered the above:
"I waited on Mr. Scawen in South Audley-street with the foregoing letter, which I delivered to his servant, he himself refusing to see me; and after waiting near half an hour, the same servant brought me verbally from his master the following answer:
'My master [Mr. Scawen] has read the letter, and burnt it, and that is all the answer he will ever send; and had he known from whom it came he would have burnt it unopened.'"
Whether Jane was guilty or innocent, odds are very good that her subsequent fate was not a happy one.
Friday, May 3, 2019
This week's Link Dump is hosted by Strange Company HQ's Photography Department.
Buffalo Bill visits France.
Henry Ort's Fortean dinner plate.
Why you should never gamble with buttons. Particularly ones that are not your own.
When cats go to the theater. Or, more precisely, when cats are the theater.
How Aleister Crowley came to pitch his tent at Loch Ness.
Just for the record, James Monroe did have a sense of humor.
A May Queen is posthumously crowned.
A blind engineer who revolutionized lighthouses.
Freddy, one damned tough parrot.
Somebody in Norfolk, England, is not resting in peace.
A village of Generals.
Six Degrees of Separation, 18th century style.
A brief history of the May Queen.
Homosexuality in 17th century England.
The woman who recorded history. Literally.
So it turns out we're all scared of neutron stars.
The burning of an "old cankered heretic."
The Midnight Marauder of Mayobridge.
The oldest human footprint in the Americas.
A famed snake handler.
How Victorian women traveled.
The Great Chocolate Rivalry.
Stuff you probably don't know about Madame Tussaud.
In search of Shakespeare's DNA.
Japan's Imperial Treasures.
The "Sultana" tragedy.
This week in Russian Weird looks at the rocket scavengers. And sinking cities.
The enduring Robinson Crusoe.
A murderer gets off easy.
The ancients knew quite a bit about magnetism.
Here's your opportunity to get baked inside a potato.
Why it didn't pay to be a "bold paramour" in medieval times.
In which Notre Dame meets the European Union, and I'm betting this won't end well.
The horsemanship of William Hutchinson.
The strange world of academic impostors.
A history of trolls. No, no, not that annoying snot you just blocked on Twitter.
The value of annotations.
Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase.
That time when Paris had floating swimming pools.
That time when a dead Pope was put on trial.
That time when a girl volunteered to eat a General's letter.
In which a young lady named Florence Georgie has one of life's embarrassing moments. Preserved forever on film:
That time when Newgate Prison was on the auction block.
The homeless cat lady of Battle Row.
Brad Steiger and the doppelganger.
If you shop at thrift stores, you may pick up a few ghosts along the way.
And that's a wrap for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll examine an 18th century murder case...that may not have been a murder at all. In the meantime, here's a tune from the late 16th century.