"...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 13, 2020

The Monster of London

Rhynwick Williams


In March 1788, a London woman named Maria Smythe was standing on a friend's doorstep when a stranger suddenly accosted her, muttered some unrecorded but evidently horribly vile comments, stabbed her with a knife, and fled, leaving her slightly wounded.

Although she had no way of knowing it at the time, she was the first victim of a bizarre crime spree that would not be eclipsed in notoriety until Jack the Ripper stalked the land a century later. Over the next two years, some fifty other women--mostly young and attractive ones--would be attacked in a similar fashion.

The attacks were simple, and rarely varied. The "Annual Register" neatly summed up this peculiar reign of terror: "During the course of the two last and the present months, the streets of the metropolis were infested by a villain of a species that has hitherto been nondescript. It was his practice to follow some well-dressed lady, whom he found unaccompanied by a man, and sometimes after using gross language, sometimes without saying a word, to give her a cut with a sharp instrument he held concealed in his hand, either through her stays or through her petticoats behind. Several ladies were attacked by him in this manner, and several wounded; and the wretch had always the address to escape undetected."

Nowadays, our psychoanalytically-inclined society would have all manner of elaborate clinical terms to describe and explain such a warped miscreant, but Londoners of the time had an exquisitely expressive, straightforward name for him: He became famous as "The Monster."

The women of London became understandably panicky. A male contemporary recorded peevishly that when he walked the streets, "Every woman we meet regards us with distrust, shrinks sidling from our touch." On one occasion, a gentleman presented a young lady of his acquaintance with a bouquet. When she took it from him, a wire binding the flowers pricked her hand. She immediately became hysterical, thinking her suitor was The Monster in disguise. The befuddled man was arrested and hauled off to the watch-house before she realized her error. The crimes became so notorious that many women--perhaps insulted at being ignored by the Monster--claimed falsely to have been among his victims.

Contemporary depiction of "The Monster" in action


In April 1790, a reward of one hundred pounds was raised for anyone who could apprehend the villain, or give information which would lead to his capture. The suspect was described as about 30 years old, medium height, thin, "a little pock-marked," with light brown hair, pale skin, and a large nose. Servants were told to report any suspicious activity by their employers, washerwomen were advised to be on guard for any men's clothing with unexplained bloodstains, and cutlers were asked to take note if any customer matching the Monster's description wanted his knives sharpened.

As always, the entertainment industry was not slow to capitalize on the uproar. One theater put on a musical piece, "The Monster." We are told that the songs were "well adapted, and produced unbounded applause."

More traditional criminals also found the Monster useful. In May, a man was robbed by some pickpockets. As a diversion, the thieves pointed at their victim and yelled, "That is the Monster!" Within seconds, an angry crowd had gathered, and the poor man was forced to flee for his life, while his muggers made a clean getaway. It was only with great difficulty that Good Samaritans managed to help him escape to the police office, where he was safely hidden until the would-be lynch mob finally disbanded. A variation on this scam was utilized by a young woman whom a man found lying on the ground with blood on her dress. The distressed lady explained that she had just been the victim of the Monster, and would he be kind enough to fetch her a coach? After she had driven off, her rescuer realized that she had managed to rob him of his watch.

Monsters come in many different forms.

On the evening of January 18, 1790, a girl named Ann Porter was climbing the steps of her house when a man she knew by sight suddenly dashed over and stabbed her in the hip. Five months later, she saw her assailant in St. James Park. A male acquaintance walking with her managed to chase the man down, and the suspect was taken into custody. At long last, it seemed they had finally caged the Monster.

Ann Porter


Four days later, the man--a 23-year-old dancer turned artificial-flower maker by the name of Rhynwick (or Renwick) Williams--was formally charged in Bow Street. He was described as a well-dressed young man "of genteel appearance." Ann Porter and five other women identified him as the man who had stabbed them or used vile language to them in the street. In his defense, Williams asserted that he could prove that he was at work at all the times these women were assaulted. He was sent to the New Prison at Clerkenwell to await trial.

It was not an easy task to transfer him to his prison cell. News of his capture had spread, with the result that, according to the "Edinburgh Herald," the streets were "very much crowded...the mob were so exasperated that they would have destroyed him, could they have got at him." Later, more of the Monster's victims came forward and unhesitatingly identified Williams as their attacker.

Williams went through two trials (the first quickly collapsed on a technicality) at the Old Bailey, in a courtroom that was "uncommonly crowded." He pleaded "Not Guilty." The arguments put forward by the prosecution and the defense were uncomplicated. A troop of women took turns taking the stand to tell of the verbal and physical abuse they had suffered at the hands of the Monster, and to declare that the defendant was their attacker.

When it was Williams' turn to speak, he denied all the charges against him, in a long, impassioned speech largely devoted to complaining about the "scandalous paragraphs" the "Public Prints" carried about him. He made the not unreasonable point that the "malicious exaggerations" made about the case had so prejudiced public opinion against him that it was impossible for him to receive a fair hearing. He closed by saying that he appealed to "the Great Author of Truth that I have the strongest affection for the happiness and comfort of the superior part of His creation--the fair sex, to whom I have in every circumstance that occurred in my life endeavored to render assistance and protection."

On paper, at least, the case against Williams does not seem very impressive. A search of his room found no weapons or bloodstained clothing. His employer and six of Williams' co-workers gave him an alibi for the time of the attack on the principal prosecution witness, Ann Porter, and gave the accused "the best character a man can have." (In his summing-up, the judge pointed out that the testimony of these alibi witnesses showed various contradictions and discrepancies, but this would hardly be unusual. After all, they were trying to recollect details of a then-inconsequential January night six months after the fact.) Other character witnesses--many of them female--testified to Williams' "humanity and good nature." He had no known previous history of violent behavior.

The sole evidence against Williams was the parade of victims identifying him as the Monster. Although the testimony of the victims contained their own share of inconsistencies, the women all asserted unwaveringly that he was their attacker. On the other hand, I would certainly hate to put my life in the hands of eyewitnesses.

Just ask Charles Warner.

Were these women so certain Williams had attacked them because he was, in fact, the Monster, or did their vehemence stem from everyone's understandable anxiety to bring closure to the terrifying crime spree?

A further complication is that Williams and Ann Porter, the woman most responsible for his arrest, had met before, under unpleasant circumstances. He reportedly once made a pass at her in a pub, and insulted her when she rejected his advances. Could this have caused him to harbor a grudge serious enough to later attack her with a knife? Or, as Williams claimed, was Porter out to frame him as revenge for having verbally disparaged her?

Williams had said he was content to leave his fate "to the decision of a British Jury." He probably regretted those words when the verdict of "Guilty" was immediately delivered.

After his conviction, Williams remained in Newgate until his sentencing at the December assizes. He whiled away the time in classic Georgian-era fashion: he threw a thumping good party. In August, he sent out invitations to about 20 couples to call on him in his cell. Tea was served, after which they had dancing, with music provided by two violins and a flute. (A contemporary account stated sardonically that "the cuts and entrechats of the Monster were much admired.”) The "merry dance" was followed by "a cold supper and a variety of wines, such as would not discredit the most sumptuous gala." The party broke up at 9 p.m., "that being the usual hour for locking the doors of the prison."

In early December, Williams received his sentence for assault with intent to kill. In one of British legal history's quirkier moments, it was very fortunate for him that this was the crime for which he was found guilty. The physical attacks were considered mere misdemeanors. If he had been sentenced for deliberately slashing the women's clothing--a far more serious offense--he would have been hanged. He was given six years.

Fortunately for Williams, the Monster quickly faded from public memory. Modern-day researcher Jan Bondeson believed he changed his name to "Henry Williams" and returned to his old career of flower-making as if nothing had happened. Williams had fathered a child during his imprisonment, and upon gaining his freedom, he married the mother and disappeared from history.

This is one of those naggingly uncertain cases that leaves me feeling vaguely annoyed. Was this nondescript, flower-making Mr. Hyde concealing an inner Jekyll which for a brief period was unleashed upon the women of London? Or did the real Monster--no doubt amazed at his unbelievable good luck--take Williams' arrest as his golden opportunity to take his dark urges to other places, perhaps to take other, but equally ugly forms?

Or, as Bondeson suggested, was there never really "a Monster" at all? Were the attacks unconnected "copycat"crimes that became seen as the work of one frightening, overpowering figure, thanks to the power of a sensationalist media building up mass hysteria?

Who knows?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Strange Company HQ's official mouser!



Watch out for those killer cow moos!

The first woman to be hanged in the USA.

How a toddler's death triggered a lethal wave of antisemitism.

Some non-UK crop circles, with a tip of the hat to this week's Russian Weird.

Australians, you've got something unidentifiable circling over you.  Have a nice weekend.

A 19th century domestic tragedy.

A thousand-year-old pet cat on the Silk Road.

An overlooked serial killer?

The Cerne Abbas Giant is younger than we thought.

A weird bladder stone operation, which tells you that Thomas Morris is blogging again.

The mysterious Indus Valley civilization.

Dogs who are archaeologists.

The life of the Yorkshire Little Man.

A particularly barbaric murder of a child.

Burma's forgotten prince.

Tesla and the earthquake machine.

A look at lucky numbers.

Polynesians and Native Americans met some 800 years ago.

The controversial execution of Christopher Slaughterford.  (I covered this enigmatic case here.)

Take a virtual tour of a Pharaoh's tomb.

Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway.

The world's loneliest plant.

Britain's ghostly Bigfoot.

Honoring the first pardoned turkey.

How a Victorian undertaker became a weight-loss guru.

A 12,000 year old mine.

Mysterious Stone Age artifacts.

Investigating the "third eye."

Thomas Jefferson's ice cream recipe.

The horror of Victorian skinny-dippers.

The girls who turned green.

A bicyclist's strange disappearance.

The strange disappearance of Dennis Martin.

An unpleasant incident in Wimbledon.

Rough Rider the goat takes on Sheepshead Bay.

In search of ancient Japan.

So let's talk Victorian shaving patents.

The collapse of the Vajont Dam.

The saga of the Jacob orphans.

Why Edwin Bush had cause to regret police technology.

What's in a name?  Plenty, it turns out.

Did Mallory and Irvine reach the top of Mount Everest?

The pubs of Old London.

A disappearance and a room full of crazy.

The Dr. Strange of the Founding Fathers.

The friendship of Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier.

The earliest underwater Aboriginal sites.

The world's worst soap maker.

The pigeons of wartime.

Mass hysteria and the Dancing Plague.

Why a Mayan city was abandoned.

A 32,000 year old plant.

The last years of Michelangelo.

A mysterious Big Kaboom.

That concludes this week's WLD.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a strange 18th century crime spree.  In the meantime, here's an oldie from Doug Sahm.





Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com


Who doesn’t love a good Demon Cat story? The “Harrisburg Telegraph,” July 30, 1902:
Lancaster, July 30. Mrs. Augustus Stiffel, wife of an ironworker, says she is bewitched and lays the blame for her condition on a big black cat.

According to her story, the cat, which is as large as a good-sized dog, with eyes like balls of fire, visits her house nearly every night, and after it has gone a note in the handwriting of a woman is found, the writer starting she is jealous of Mrs. Stiffel and will have her husband at any cost.

Last Friday night Mrs. Stiffel threw a cushion at her visitor, and suddenly a ball of fire shot from the cat's hide and burned her in the arm. Mrs. Stiffel is prostrated over the affair and her friends say that unless the spell is removed it will kill her.
But wait, there’s more! From the August 28 “Leon Indicator.”


Lancaster (Penn.) Cor. Phila. Times.--According to the story of Mrs. Augustus Stiffel, her husband and her neighbors saw a witch in the form of a great, black cat with huge, shining eyes, who had "put a spell upon her."

Until short time ago Mrs. Stiffel was in good health. Now she lies in her bed wasted with illness. For this unfortunate condition the witch is blamed.

Two weeks ago, Mrs. Stiffel declares, an immense black cat made its appearance by her bedside, with a note in its paw. This note contained dire threats against her. Almost nightly, thereafter, the feline returned, each time bringing a note. Once, she says she threw a cushion at the animal, when a ball of fire struck her, badly burning her dress and the flesh of her arm. The burned garment and scarred flesh are shown in proof of her story. The cushion, she explains, was entirely consumed.

The woman's husband, who is employed at night, stayed from his work to watch for the cat and he, too, declares, he has seen it.

Efforts have been made to shoot the cat with ordinary bullets, but they have had no effect. Silver bullets will now be tried, as they are said to insure a witch's undoing.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find anything further about our little tale. Perhaps Mrs. Stiffel managed to rid herself of this pesky feline visitor.

But from what I know of cats, I doubt it.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Two Disappearances of Frederick Brosseau

Kennewick Courier, September 5, 1913, via Newspapers.com


Whenever children unaccountably disappeared in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common for people to instantly suspect they were kidnapped by "gypsies." These suppositions were generally proven false, to the extent that stories about such alleged abductions are now thought of as vintage "urban myths."

However, on at least one occasion, this conjecture was apparently proven to be correct. And the case only got weirder from there.

Our story opens on October 21, 1896, in the small northern New York town of Sissonville. At around six p.m., a seven-year-old boy named Frederick Brosseau was seen playing on a bridge near the lumber mill where his father John Brosseau worked. The boy often waited there in the evenings to meet his dad and walk home with him. That was the last time anyone saw Frederick. Almost immediately, the entire community turned out to look for the child. The mill was shut down and carefully examined. The local river was dragged and the surrounding countryside diligently searched. Not a trace of little Frederick could be found anywhere. The frustrated townspeople could only assume that the boy had drowned, and his body had become lodged on the river bottom.

The years passed by, with the tragic mystery becoming nearly forgotten by everyone except the Brosseau family. Then, in August 1913, the puzzle of Frederick's disappearance appeared to be resolved, and in an entirely startling way. On a boat traveling along the Ottawa River, a young man approached one of his fellow passengers, a Catholic priest. He explained that many years before, when he was a small child, he had been abducted by gypsies, who had treated him with great brutality. He stated that the gypsy caravan had taken him through a number of foreign countries, as they spent each winter abroad. Worse still, the gypsies had stolen a number of other children. The boys were used as virtual slaves, and the girls were sold for large amounts of cash. He had just now managed to escape from his captors. The caravan was still in Canada, with one kidnapped child, a girl, still in their possession. All the youth could remember about himself was that although the gypsies insisted on calling him "Patrick," he knew his real name was Frederick, and he had come from someplace in northern New York. The priest, convinced the young man was telling the truth, brought him to a Trappist monastery in Oka, a village in Quebec.

In an effort to discover the stranger's true identity, the little information he was able to provide about himself was broadcast in the local news media, along with his photo. The monks contacted a Father Marron, who lived in northern New York. Perhaps he would have some clues suggesting who the young man really was. By a remarkable coincidence, one Kate Perry, a sister of Frederick Brosseau's mother, lived in Montreal, and saw the newspaper articles about the mystery man. She was intrigued enough to visit the Oka monastery, carrying with her a photograph of Frederick taken shortly before he disappeared. When she compared the photo to the as-yet-unidentified young man, she became convinced he was her long-missing nephew. She immediately shared her astonishing news with the Brosseaus. Mr. and Mrs. Brosseau, along with one of their other sons, Frank, and Father Marron, immediately headed for Oka. Upon their arrival, the parents immediately recognized the stranger as their son. It was established that the young man had the same distinctive birthmark on his arm that Frederick had had. Plus, he so resembled Frank Brosseau that the two could have passed as twins.

The Canadian police immediately went in search of this caravan of kidnappers. The authorities were forced to instruct the newly-discovered Frederick Brosseau to remain on the monastery grounds, as he would be a crucial material witness when the gypsies were caught and put on trial. His parents had no choice but to return home without their long-lost son, but at least they now had the assurance that before long, they would be reunited for good.

Mr. and Mrs. Brosseau, and the man who claimed to be their son Frederick. Pittsburgh Press, September 21, 1913.


Unfortunately, a new danger soon emerged. The widespread publicity given to the return of the long-missing boy ensured that his former captors also learned where he was. It was reported that the gypsies made a number of attempts to steal the young man from the monastery, but the monks managed to foil all their evil plans.

Or so they initially thought. Just days after his joyful meeting with his family, the newly-identified Frederick Brosseau vanished from sight once more. On August 22, 1913, he was seen in the monastery's courtyard, talking to a stranger. Frederick seemed worried and upset. A few minutes later, he was gone.

What had happened? It was presumed that the gypsies had somehow threatened or coerced him into returning to their custody, but no one could say for certain why the young man made a second disappearance. Soon after "Frederick" vanished from the monastery, someone matching his description was seen boarding a train from New York, in the company of a woman claiming to be his mother. Was this the missing man? No one could say.

Was this enigmatic youth even the real Frederick? The Montreal Chief of Police for one, was skeptical. He had information suggesting that the mysterious young man had, in reality, one "Patrick Saileure," a barber who had been living in Montreal for years. The Police Chief was convinced the man identified as Frederick was either delusional or a sick practical joker.

Who really was this man? Why did he vanish so suddenly and oddly? Was any of his bizarre story true? And if he was an impostor, what happened to the real Brosseau boy?

We'll never know the answers to any of those questions. Because this time, Frederick Brosseau never did come back.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn


It's a Star-Spangled Link Dump!






Spaniards should just get out of the art restoration business.

A mysterious ancient fossil.

Maine's oldest unsolved disappearance.

Colma, the city of the dead.

Some heroic dogs and cats.

A Victorian wizard in Liverpool.

A particularly deadly lightning storm.

The Vere Street Coterie.

Weird goings-on in Texas.

A shipwreck and the revival of a long-lost perfume.

The bottom of the ocean is weirder than you can even imagine.

The Mystery of the Disappearing Star.

The multinational life of Vickers Jacob.

Researching the history of an "average" 19th century London family.

Ireland's Roswell.

A memorial park to an exploded whale.  I don't want to even think about the souvenirs.

When Britain had radium spas.

The superstar of Brazilian folklore.

The birth of Disneyland.

The first Lutheran martyrs.

Joseph Longchamp and the Jockey Club.

The long history of chain letters.

The long history of "abracadabra."

The gamins of Paris.

The famed 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman.

If you've been wondering what it was like to be an Aztec midwife, here you go.

So, who's up for spending Fourth of July with a psychic pig?

The Georgian era stank.  Literally.

In this week in Russian Weird, we talk DIY pyramids.

The most famous of the self-confessed witches.

The colorful life of George Nyleve.

Dissolving UFOs.

A jail for polar bears.

A ship's turbulent history.

The face of an 8,000 year old man.

Personally, I wish men would start wearing hats again.  And three-piece suits.  And spats.

A century of Fourth of July celebrations.

Colorful 99-million-year-old bugs.

The diary of a sickly 16th century preacher.

Whatever happened to merry widows?

The woman with the blue glow.

Murder in the belfry.

A brief history of wedding rings.

The life of a Tudor courtier.

The life of a Mohawk saint.

The life of a medieval king.

And that's a wrap for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a child's puzzling disappearance...and even more puzzling reappearance.  In the meantime, happy Fourth to all my fellow Americans!

With a tip of the hat to June's Accordion Awareness Month.




Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Independence Day

Via Newspapers.com


Yes, indeed, it’s time for the annual post celebrating the holiday in which America becomes the land of the free, and the home of blowing yourself up with homemade fireworks. Appropriately enough for this blog, the following story combines both the usual red-white-and-blue carnage with an atypical Fortean element.

Elyria Independent Democrat, July 12, 1871
St. Paul Globe, July 6, 1889


The eerie connection between the above news items was explained in the Madison, Wisconsin “Capital Times” for July 3, 2006:
John Betz died in Madison on July 5, 1871, a day after the cannon he was firing on the Capitol lawn to celebrate Independence Day went off prematurely. A 34-year-old German with five children, he had served in the 31st Wisconsin from August 1862 until 1864. Subsequently he had worked in the agricultural rooms at the Capitol for five years.

The Wisconsin State Journal graphically described the accident:

“Captain A.R. McDonald and John Betz were engaged in firing a salute when a premature discharge of the cannon took place just as Mr. Betz was ramming a cartridge home. The terrible force of the explosion tore both his arms off, the left one above the elbow and the right one below (carrying part of the rammer over to Mr. Ogdens house across Carroll Street, taking his hand down to the Park gate), driving some splinters into his side, splitting his nose and badly burning his chest and face. He was taken to his house near the UW, where he died at noon on July 5. A considerable sum was raised for his family by the crowd as the 4th celebration continued.”

An inquest was demanded, since rumors were circulated that one of the men involved in firing the cannon was intoxicated at the time.

Twenty-eight years to the day later, William J. Melvin, who had moved to Madison only six weeks earlier from Shawano, was killed firing a cannon on the Capitol grounds to mark the 4th of July. The flesh was ripped from his right hand and arm to the elbow, and his forearm was broken in four places. Forty-five years old, he left a wife and three children between the ages of 10 and 20.

He had served for three years in the 3rd Wisconsin battery during the Civil War. Governor Hoard attended his funeral at Forest Hill Cemetery. N.B. Hood, the man in charge of the firing, was later found negligent in his death.

In what had to be one of the strangest coincidences in Madison history, Betz and Melvin lived in the same house, at 1036 University Avenue.
I have no idea if Madison ever incorporated cannons into their Fourth of July celebrations again, but if they did, I hope whoever was then living at 1036 University had the wisdom to stay home.

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Brothel's Bad Batter Cakes: A Poisoning Mystery

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 10, 1892, via Newspapers.com


From the time the concept of "mass media" was invented, it has been universally acknowledged that nothing sells like sex or death. Put the two together, and you've got a sure-fire public favorite.

So, naturally, when people started dropping dead in a Louisville brothel, local journalists thought they themselves had died and gone straight to heaven.

The establishment run by forty year old Emma Austin spent the night of September 8, 1892 in a quiet manner--or, at least as quiet as it is in such places. Besides Mrs. Austin, the occupants were her eleven year old son Lloyd, Austin’s laundress Rachel Jackson, Mrs. Jackson’s young daughter Lillie, and Austin’s star employee, young, beautiful Eugenia Sherrill. Some four or five men came to call. Mrs. Sherrill--before presumably entertaining visitors in more private fashion--played “Nearer My God to Thee” on the piano. Someone sent out for ice cream, which was enjoyed by everyone in the house. And so to bed.

The next morning, young Lloyd said he was not feeling well, but Mrs. Austin insisted he go to school anyway. She then made breakfast: batter cakes, cantaloupe, jam, and coffee. Mrs. Austin and Eugenia Sherrill were the only ones to partake of the meal.

The other residents would soon be thankful they had skipped breakfast. Almost immediately, the two women began feeling deathly ill, suffering from uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. A Mrs. Johnson, who was temporarily boarding in the house, heard their cries of agony and summoned a doctor. (As a side note, reporters later had a lot of fun publishing Mrs. Johnson’s insistent remarks that she had no idea--no, sir, no suspicion in the world--that she was rooming in a house of ill repute.)

At first, the physician, Dr. Brennan, presumed the women were suffering from nothing worse than a case of severe food poisoning--an ailment sadly common in pre-refrigeration summers--and gave them the medicine appropriate for such cases. However, Austin and Sherrill continued to deteriorate. Their eyes dilated, they were covered in a cold sweat, and, most alarming of all, they had begun vomiting blood. The doctor soon realized the women had been poisoned, probably deliberately.

This shocking development opened up an embarrassing can of worms for everyone involved. As I said above, Mrs. Johnson was left trying to explain why she, a seemingly respectable lady, had spent the last two weeks living in a brothel. Eugenia Sherrill’s position was even more mortifying: prostitution was merely her secret side career. Up until now, she was known to society only as a member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent and respectable families. Even worse, for the past year she had been married to Edward Sherrill, a prosperous traveling salesman. In her agony, poor Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to be brought to her home so she could die without her double life being discovered. Unfortunately, she was far too ill to be moved. Dr. Brennan was helpless to save them. Eugenia died at 12: 45 p.m. Mrs. Austin’s sufferings ended two hours later.

The Twice-A-Week Messenger, September 15, 1892


As it was obvious that foul play had taken place, the coroner immediately arranged an inquest. To save time, it was held in the brothel, which may be some sort of true-crime first. Because little Lloyd Austin was sick after eating the ice cream the night before, it was at first suspected that the dessert might have been poisoned. However, this theory was dismissed when it was realized that no one else felt ill after eating it. Most likely, the boy had just consumed so much of it he gave himself indigestion.


Louisville Courier-Journal, September 10, 1892


Among the inquest witnesses was Mrs. Austin’s adult daughter, Nellie Koch. Mrs. Koch lived elsewhere, having, as she enigmatically put it, “left my mother’s house several weeks ago.” When she heard of her mother’s illness, she came to see her. She testified that Mrs. Austin told her that she and Mrs. Sherrill became sick right after eating breakfast. Mrs. Koch also revealed that she had done a fine job of eliminating evidence by throwing away all the remnants of the batter cakes. None of the other witnesses were able to contribute anything useful to the investigation.

An autopsy was performed on Mrs. Austin. (Since Mrs. Sherrill had obviously died of the same cause, it was evidently felt that it was unnecessary to perform a post-mortem on her.) It revealed that she had died from ingesting some irritant poison, possibly arsenic. As no such substance was kept in the house, this indicated deliberate poisoning. Considering that the two dead women were the only ones to eat the batter cakes, that meal was clearly what had been adulterated.

Meanwhile, Edward Sherrill returned to Louisville from a business trip, to be greeted by the shock of his life. It is hard to know what stunned him most: the news that his young bride had been poisoned, or the revelation that whenever he was out of town, Eugenia was spending her nights in a brothel. The despairing man dashed to Mrs. Austin’s house--where the bodies of the two victims were on macabre public display--and clasped his wife’s body in his arms, wailing piteously that he refused to believe the “vile stories.” It was some fifteen minutes before the hysterical Mr. Sherrill could be parted from the corpse, still crying and insisting that his beloved “Genie” had been “true to him.”

It must have been a heartrending thing to watch. And, of course, every detail was lovingly preserved in the newspapers.

Mrs. Austin was quietly buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. In contrast, Eugenia’s funeral in her native Meade County was one of the largest in the area’s history. Hundreds attended her burial, all of them apparently drawn by an odd combination of pity and salacious curiosity.

There was no question that the two women had been deliberately poisoned, but no one could agree on who did it, and why. Nellie Koch suggested that Emma deliberately poisoned her food, and for some unfathomable reason, decided to take Mrs. Sherrill with her. Mrs. Johnson endorsed this theory. She said she found it odd that as the women were dying, Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to survive, while, in contrast, Mrs. Austin seemed utterly indifferent to her fate. In addition, Mrs. Austin had recently visited the Jeffersonville penitentiary to see her brother, Sam Gore. (He was serving a ten year sentence for murder.) A guard had heard her telling Gore that she would soon “end her trouble.” It was also noted that Emma had recently heavily insured her life, making her son the beneficiary. And why did she insist on sending Lloyd to school without breakfast, even though he wasn’t feeling well?

Others suggested that the victims were poisoned by one of the brothel’s clients--possibly someone who had a motive to cover up his visits to the house. Two of the men who came by on the night before the poisonings spent the night, which would have made it easy for them to slip something unpleasant into the food before they left. After this theory was aired in the newspapers, it inspired half the males in town to visit the police stations, nervously denying that they had ever so much as laid eyes on Mrs. Austin’s establishment. Thus providing Louisville’s wives with a handy guide to which of their husbands had a taste for bordellos.

No first-class murder mystery is complete without nutty anonymous letters to the authorities, and this one was no exception. On September 12, the coroner received an unsigned letter which took the investigation into a whole new territory:
Dr. Berry: That poison Was intended For Vince Spaninger And Mrs. Austin. He Ate His Meals Thair, And He Has Bin Keeping A Woman for Twenty years. She Lives at 117 West Walnut, And Tha All Had A Fight And it Has not A more than. And she said she would Kill Him is She Caught Him in The Austin House. Enclosed You will find some of the Drug That Was used. Now find out who used it, Spaninger’s Wife or Mrs. Cole or Nelly Koch. Nelly and Her mother had the fuss about Him. The only Regret is that the Poisoning of The Innocent One. It is No secret About the way Spaninger And the Austin woman lived. All Second street know it. Policeman Sweeney Can Tell you if you Want to Know if He will talk.
Anney Myers,
Betty Harper,
John Snyder,
Jake Dehl.
It is to be hoped you will Find the Guilty one.
Vince Spaninger was a Louisville produce merchant. Mrs. Austin’s brothel was located directly above his store. It was far from the first time this anonymous author had written about Spaninger’s doings. For Vince, peddling vegetables was merely a way to make a living. His real profession was women. His romantic history was enough to make Casanova blush. For the past ten years or so, this same anonymous writer had been sending Speninger’s unfortunate wife Lizzie letters chronicling her husband’s many, many infidelities in great--and, it turned out--extremely accurate detail.

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 1892


“Policeman Sweeney”--whose real name was actually “Feeny”--was asked about the anonymous writer’s claims, and he did indeed talk. He was able to confirm that Spaninger was one of the two men who had stayed overnight at Mrs. Austin’s house. It also emerged that Spaninger had suggested Emma make batter cakes for breakfast, but he declined to stay to eat any of them.

The plot, as they say, thickened.

Spaninger’s lady friend at 117 West Walnut turned out to be forty year old Josephine Cole. Like Mrs. Austin, Cole was a madam, but on a more modest scale. She made the bulk of her income from giving psychic readings at fifty cents a pop. She readily told reporters that yes, indeed, she had been Vince Spaninger’s mistress for the past fifteen years, and furthermore, she had tried to keep him from marrying. (By this point, Lizzie Spaninger was probably wishing Mrs. Cole had succeeded.) She admitted that she had been jealous of Vince’s relationship with the late Mrs. Austin, and confirmed that he had been the cause of the falling-out between Emma and Nellie Koch. She professed to have no idea who had written all those anonymous letters chronicling Mr. Spaninger’s every sordid move, but she intimated that whoever had deserved a medal. When questioned about the letters, Spaninger himself denounced them as a pack of lies. He had no idea who had poisoned Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill, but he did not believe Emma had committed suicide.

Nellie Koch denied that she had argued with her mother, and suggested that the letter writer--whoever he/she was--must also be the murderer.

The four names at the end of the anonymous letter were questioned, with little success. Betty Harper, a former prostitute, claimed not to have even known Mrs. Austin, and she certainly had no idea who had poisoned her. Annie Myers said much the same. John Snyder and Jacob Diehl were business partners of Spaninger’s. They both claimed to share the same convenient ignorance of the fact that a house of assignation had been operating over their store. However, Diehl was able to provide the interesting information that Spaninger believed that he thought all those pesky anonymous letters were written by Josephine Cole.

The “drug” the anonymous writer had included with the letter turned out to be arsenic. Did the writer get the arsenic elsewhere, or was it from the stash used as a murder weapon?

On September 14, two detectives called on Josephine Cole. They thought it was time to have a nice long chat. While there, one of them noticed that the writing on a photo of Spaninger resembled that of the anonymous tattletale. When he asked if this was her writing, Mrs. Cole realized the game was up and it was time to confess all. Yes, she had written those letters to Mrs. Spaninger. Most of them, at least. Some, she claimed, were sent by yet another of Vince’s mistresses, one Maggie Faulkner.

The detectives then asked the obvious follow-up question: where did she get the arsenic included with the letter? Mrs. Cole replied that on the morning Mrs. Austin cooked her last breakfast, Spaninger came to her house in an obviously agitated state. He told her that Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill were both going to die. When he took a handkerchief out of his pocket, he failed to notice that a brown paper packet fell out. Mrs. Cole presumed it was a love letter to another woman, so she managed to hide it with her foot until he left. When she opened the packet, she realized it contained poison. Mrs. Cole explained that she would have kept Vince’s little secret, if not for the fact that she subsequently learned that he had been far more than neighbors to Mrs. Austin. Although one would think the Casanova of the Produce Aisle’s habits would have been old news to Mrs. Cole, she was enraged enough to send that informative letter to the coroner, along with a sample of the powder and a list of names she thought could also dish the dirt on Spaninger. She believed his motive for the murder was to get Mrs. Austin out of the way so he could spend more time with his latest amour, Nellie Koch.  (As a side note, Mrs. Cole was evidently unaware that her daughter Carrie was also said to have been Spaninger's mistress.)

As a result of this little tale, both Spaninger and Mrs. Cole found themselves under arrest. Spaninger denied every word of Mrs. Cole’s story; in fact, he was positive she was the poisoner.

And what of Nellie Koch, who, thanks to Mrs. Cole, was suddenly under scrutiny? She had bitterly quarreled with her soon-to-be-deceased mother. She had thrown away the breakfast before it could be analyzed. And she had, shall we say, a colorful past. In 1886, she married a railroad worker named Gilbert Brockman. The pair spent their brief married life getting kicked out of various residences thanks to Nellie’s reputation for “immorality.” And then there was the time Brockman--at his wife’s urging--tried to murder one of her former lovers. In 1887, Brockman suddenly fell ill and died. The smart money assumed Nellie had poisoned him, but his doctors stubbornly stated that Brockman died of natural causes.

This was beginning to look like one of those Agatha Christie stories where all the characters have a motive. Usually, there is a hard time finding suspects in a murder case. 1892 Louisville was just lousy with them.

When the inquest resumed on September 16, it, like the earlier such inquiry, did little to clarify matters. Vince Spaninger denied any involvement with the crime. He claimed that he would have stayed to share the fatal breakfast, if it had not been for the fact that he had important matters to attend to. When Nellie Koch was on the stand, she was asked why she threw out the breakfast leftovers, considering their obvious possible link to the sudden illness of the two women. She replied that it didn’t occur to her that her mother might be poisoned. She denied having any sort of romantic relationship with Spaninger. Dr. Brennan testified that Mrs. Austin’s stomach had indeed contained arsenic. And so the coroner’s jury delivered the inevitable verdict: the two women had been poisoned by a person unknown.

There was a brief trial of Spaninger and Josephine Cole, which was no more illuminating than the inquest.  Everyone who had spoken at the inquest repeated their stories.  Mrs. Johnson (whose real name turned out to be “Lydia Anderson”) had fled town to avoid testifying at the inquest, but authorities managed to haul her back to take the stand. She proved to be as unhelpful as all the other witnesses. Her testimony indicated that Nellie Koch was far from grief-stricken by her mother’s untimely end, and that Spaninger was in the habit of discreetly using Mrs. Austin’s window, rather than the staircase, to enter her room.

At the end of the proceedings, the judge could only sigh, “We have a world of evidence, without a scintilla of proof.” Enough dirty laundry had been produced to fill a million washing machines, but none of it was the slightest help with establishing who had poisoned Mrs. Austin’s batter cakes. Everyone involved was set free to carry on their curious lives, and this complicated little murder mystery faded from public memory.

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 22, 1892


Although many people had motive for the poisoning, only two of them had an evident opportunity. No poison was found in any of the ingredients used to make the batter cakes. Thus, it was reasoned, the arsenic had to have been added to the batter itself. And the only people known to have been in the vicinity when the batter was made were Emma Austin and Vince Spaninger.

Was this murder/suicide? Did Mrs. Austin, resentful of Spaninger’s likely attentions to the younger, prettier Mrs. Sherrill, decide to poison her rival and herself? Or did Spaninger--certainly a man with a lot to hide--have his own secret motives to be rid of the women? Or did someone else manage to sneak in to poison the batter unseen?

Theorize away.