"...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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company may simply go off to live in a remote cave somewhere.

Just like the cats.

This week's roundup of the Good, the Bad, and the Weird:

So, what the hell is...Eh, you know the rest.

In the midst of life...

The very first photograph of the moon.

The Middle Ages:  Dark Age or Golden Age?

Göbekli Tepe, one of the world's great Mystery Sites.

The ice-skating ghost sisters of Central Park.

A look at the Detectives' Lunch Club, where murder is always on the menu.

A story both happy and sad:  Dallas the Cat finally comes back home.

To make a long story short, science says that our universe is one big ol' freak of nature that has no business existing.  This would certainly explain a lot.

The strange death of Dr. William Kirwan:  A Victorian murder with some very puzzling elements.

An array of cat superstitions. Whatever you do, don't keep them from singing!

What's the world's most expensive lawn fertilizer, you ask?  A Ferrari, of course.

Face it, scientists.  Poe already said it all for you in "Eureka."

In which we discover that Mayans greatly resembled a modern-day fraternity house.

Some would say Hollywood itself is one big creepy, cursed urban legend, but...

In that same vein, I present a roundup of some of the entertainment industry's darkest unsolved mysteries.  Surprisingly, Justin Bieber's career success is omitted from the list.

Let's wrap it up with my favorite photo of the week, via Twitter:

That's all, folks.  Monday, I return with the saga of the Scottish nobleman who was a real little devil.

Considering what sort of blog I have here, I think you can guess I'm not speaking metaphorically.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

An eerie family tragedy took place in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1932:

Fear that the mysterious illness which has killed three young brothers may strike again in the same family gripped surviving members of the household today.

The third death occurred late yesterday while the State Health Department was still pursuing its scientific efforts to identify and combat the puzzling fatal malady.

Marion Paazig, 6 years old, son of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Paazig, Knox county farmers, was the last to die. His brother, Stanley, 9, died on January 24, and eight-year-old Raymond died on Sunday.

Three other brothers and the parents survive. They have shown no symptoms of the illness, but Mr. and Mrs. Paazig recalled that Marion and Raymond were not sick when Stanley died and that Marion was not taken ill until several hours after Raymond.

Chemists spent twenty-four hours making tests of the youngest victim’s blood without finding a trace of poison. Yet the belief persisted that some kind of poisoning, accidentally acquired, was the cause of the deaths.

The illness was accompanied by a high fever, followed by a breakdown of the blood. Death was preceded by coma.

[Note: The chain of inexplicable fatalities in the Paazig family did not end with this article. In 1938 and 1938, two more sons, as well as the mother, Laura, all suddenly took ill of unknown causes and died. The next year, another child, Earl, passed away under the same horribly unaccountable circumstances. The father, Clarence, survived until 1952.]

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Rise and Fall of Adah Isaacs Menken

via Wikipedia

“I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,
A spectre not within the door,
A houseless shadow evermore,
An exile lingering here.”
-Adah Menken

The brief, but dazzling career of Adah Isaacs Menken enshrined her as the Marilyn Monroe of the mid-19th century. At her peak, she was the highest paid actress in the world, with her combination of delicate beauty and overt sexuality making her the most photographed and desired woman of her time.

And she died alone and broke when she was barely past the age of thirty.

Menken was even more adept than Poe when it came to creating autobiographical fictions, which has made piecing together the truth of where and when she was born—or even what her real name might have been--a favorite game among those with a taste for historical detective work. The most popular educated guesses claim that she was born in New Orleans in 1835 as Adelaide McCord. Or maybe it was Dolores Adios Fuertes?  Or was she Ada C. McCord, born in 1830 in West Memphis, Tennessee? Or perhaps she was Ada Bertha Theodore, the daughter of a Creole woman? Or was she a native Texan?  A Chicagoan?  Was she Irish, Jewish, Creole, African-American, French, Scottish, English or Spanish?

Whoever she originally was, Menken grew into a bright, well-read girl with a particular talent as a linguist. She began her career as a dancer in New Orleans’ French Opera House. She subsequently danced in Cuba, where she was known as the “Queen of the Plaza.”

In 1857, she was living in New Orleans, the wife of a musician named Alexander Isaacs Menken. (There are some suggestions she had previously married a Philadelphia musician named Kneass, but that is uncertain.) In that same year she made her earliest known appearance as an actress. By 1859, she was in New York, performing in various light vehicles. (Her rare attempts at heavy drama were usually seen as unsuited to her talents.) She met a well-known American boxer named John Carmel Heenan, and, under the assumption that Alexander Menken had divorced her, married the handsome pugilist.

As it turned out, she was still legally married to her first husband, but as her relationship with Heenan only lasted a couple of months, her bigamy proved to be virtually irrelevant. Soon after their “marriage,” Heenan left for England to train for a world championship fight. In his absence, Menken (who capitalized on her lover’s fame by billing herself as “Mrs. John Carmel Heenan”) played to packed, swooning audiences in New York and Boston. She quickly became known as “the Adorable Menken.”

via NYPL Digital Gallery

Heenan did not find being upstaged all that adorable. From England, he ended their affair and refused to send any more money for her support. This very public breakup was like an early Christmas gift to the newspaper editors of 1860, and, of course, the publicity was equally beneficial to the two participants. Menken, with her instinctive talent for self-promotion, even rented a hall to give readings from Poe and Shakespeare, followed by an impassioned speech defending herself.

She was the social and media sensation of the day. When she wasn’t performing in front of adoring audiences in the East Coast and Midwest, (although her critical notices were mixed,) she played the queen of the New York bohemian crowd. She became a center of the contemporary literary scene, drinking and socializing with newly-minted friends such as Walt Whitman. She had now graduated to being “the Royal Menken.”

In 1861, she debuted in what would prove to be her signature role in “Mazeppa.” It was a quite ridiculous but hugely crowd-pleasing melodrama involving Tartar princes, Polish noblemen, gorgeous costumes and scenery, and lots of live horses. Menken, playing the male title role, brought down the house in one scene where, wearing flesh-colored tights that gave the illusion of nudity, she made a dashing—and genuinely dangerous—ride across the stage on a wild stallion.

via NYPL Digital Gallery

In 1862, she brought “Mazeppa” to San Francisco, where it was said more than half the population of the city came out to see her. That same year, she “divorced” Heenan and married an American journalist named Robert Henry Newell.

Having conquered both of America’s coasts, Menken set her sights on London. She performed there in a lavish pre-Vegas-style production featuring dozens of horses, a ballet, and two hundred soldiers. She attracted such huge, fervent crowds that it was often necessary to enlist the police to escort her home. As had been in the case in New York, she gravitated to the literati.  She became friends with Swinburne, Dickens, Thackeray, Rossetti, and Alexander Dumas (who was rumored to have become her lover.) While in London, she decided another change in husbands was about due, when she realized she was pregnant—with a child fathered not by Newell, but a gambler named James Paul Barkley. She quickly obtained a divorce, married Barkley, and parted from him even more swiftly. This fourth marriage lasted an epic Kardashian-level three days. She gave birth to a son, Louis, with George Sand standing as godmother. Unfortunately, the baby did not long survive. (She earlier had a child with Heenan, who also died soon after birth.)

After her son’s death, Menken made Europe her home for what little remained of her life. She proved as popular in Paris as she had been everywhere else she appeared. By 1867, she had become a merchandising phenomenon. Her name was used to sell cravats, jewelry, hats, clothing, and handkerchiefs. You could even buy a Menken shaving mug. Her photographs were seen virtually everywhere.

What added depth to her popularity was the fact that she was rather more than a pretty face. She may have not been a great dramatic talent, but her acting was winning, sprightly, and intelligent. Most interestingly, she preferred the page to the stage. Her true love was writing, which she once called “my only salvation.” She composed many poems throughout her life—often good ones—as well as essays, usually with religious themes. (She was possibly raised a Catholic, but after her first marriage she studied Judaism, a faith she continued to sincerely follow in her own unconventional fashion.) She published a review of her friend Whitman’s then-scandalous “Leaves of Grass,” asserting he was “centuries ahead of his contemporaries.” Menken even wrote opinion pieces covering the political scene. She was also an early advocate for women’s rights. Rather ironically, considering her busy marital history, she believed that women should not think of marriage. She wanted them to be encouraged to seek “higher and holier motives than that of being fashionable and securing wealthy husbands.”

Considering Menken’s charisma, intelligence, energy, and genuine, if somewhat directionless, desire for “higher and holier” things, it would have been interesting to see what she would have done with her life if she had reached full maturity. This was not to be. While performing in “Mazeppa,” in London on May 30, 1868, she collapsed with pains in her side. She never performed again. Although she had made a great deal of money, she spent or gave away her income as quickly as it came in, so once she was unable to work, she was left practically poverty-stricken. The ailing Menken moved back to Paris, where she hoped to make a new career through her writing. She spent her last days compiling an edition of her poems. (The resulting volume, “Infelicia,” was published posthumously, and gained a fair measure of success, remaining in print until 1902.)

Perhaps the most striking thing about Menken’s career was its incredibly ephemeral nature. No sooner had she left the stage, than this woman who had so recently been the idol of two continents was utterly ignored, an instant has-been at the age of about thirty-three. Her many husbands, her even more numerous lovers, the bohemian and literary sets who had once courted and applauded “the Menken” were nowhere to be found when she actually needed them. For all her bravado, Menken gives the impression of an inwardly sad, vulnerable person, who, as most such types do, attracted people eager to take advantage. When she was no longer wealthy and celebrated, these “friends” had no more use for her.

Menken faced her abruptly changed fortunes with a philosophical spirit worthy of a true poet. On her deathbed, she talked of this world and the next with a rabbi she had befriended, and then wrote, “I am lost to art and life. Yet, when all is said and done, have I not at my age tasted more of life than most women who live to be a hundred? It is fair, then, that I should go where old people go."

Very soon after making that statement, she did go, on August 10, 1868. Fittingly for someone whose early life is shrouded in a fog, it is not known what killed her. Theories include an abscess, tuberculosis, peritonitis, cancer, or “a complication of disorders.” Perhaps she simply burned herself out. Three days later she was buried in a simple funeral with only a handful of mourners—“fewer people,” an early biographer groused, “than if she had been an unknown grisette.”  As Menken had requested, her tombstone was inscribed only with her favorite saying, "Thou knowest."

The newspapers largely ignored the death of the woman who had so lavishly provided them with copy, causing one journalist to publicly sneer:

“Ungrateful animals, mankind;
Walking his rider's hearse behind,
Mourner-in-chief her horse appears,
But where are all her cavaliers?”

Friday, May 24, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company's all a-flutter this week.

And so are the cats.

This week's News of the Odd:

All together now: What the hell is this?

The star-crossed history of Marie Antoinette's watch.

The puzzling Stonehenge Archer.

The saga of Soldier Jennie.

I can't decide if Brunelleschi was a freaking genius or just one sick son-of-a-bitch.  Perhaps both.

An interesting study of unreliable memories and our penchant for rewriting our own history.

The coins that may rewrite Australian history.

Motto:  "I Date Dead People."

Oh, just another story about mustachioed ladies taking an axe to their admirers.

Oh, just another photograph of a woman walking her pet bear.

Some handy tips on ballroom etiquette.  Don't forget to throw your flower-pots at the linkman!

"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity":  Edgar Allan Poe describing the death of his wife.

Voltaire, lottery-rigger.

Some wonderful old photographs of the Tower of London.

It's nearly the weekend. Time to party with Learned Pigs.

Or better yet, with Stone Age Zombies.

Setenil de las Bodegas, world's most rockin' city.  Seriously.

The Mystery Booms just keep on coming.  (A footnote:  I was among the many people unfortunate enough to experience the Northridge Earthquake of 1994.  As I recall, in the days before the quake, loud booms were occasionally heard in the area from some unknown cause.  For the sake of the good people of Onaway, let's hope there wasn't a connection.)

"But stay! these walls--these ivy-clad arcades--
These mouldering plinths--these sad and blackened shafts--
These vague entablatures--this crumbling frieze--
These shattered cornices--this wreck--this ruin--
These stones--alas! these gray stones--are they all--
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?"
-Edgar Allan Poe, "The Coliseum"

Somehow, it seems fitting that the largest organism on this planet is a old  fungus.

Let's round things off with my favorite tweet of the week:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Dorothy Carlson McClure had reason to want to start her life anew. She had a somewhat disreputable past, featuring a string of marriages of dubious legality, so when yet another man entered her life--a man who threatened to reveal her troubled history to the world--she, like so many people, tried to make a clean break with her past.

The trouble is, she did it in one of the most inept ways imaginable.

Early in 1928, a young woman took a train to Cleveland, Ohio, and entered the local charity hospital. Ten days later, she gave birth to a daughter. She died the next day. The patient had refused to say anything about herself, other than that her name was "Mary Lou," which was probably an alias.  She admitted she was wearing a wedding ring only "so people would think I was married."  It was looking like the unfortunate young mother’s remains would find an obscure anonymous grave.

Before she could be buried, however, a woman who had read in the papers about the sad little mystery went to the police. “This girl was my sister,” she informed them. “Her name was Dorothy Carlson McClure.”

The woman was, accordingly, buried under that name.

Whoever she really was.

Yes, Dorothy, who had probably seen way too many film melodramas, decided she could only live anew by convincing the world she was dead.

What she wasn’t counting on was that when she “identified” the body, news photographers would be there to snap her picture. And put it in the papers when they announced the “solution” to the mystery. And that a neighbor of hers would see it. And that said neighbor would go to the police and spill the beans.

I have no idea what became of McClure after this episode hit the papers, but I hope she found some less creative, and more effective, means of making a new woman of herself.

As for "Mary Lou," she unfortunately went back to being nameless. Police were unable to find any clue who she was or where she came from.

The last reports of her baby daughter described the child as lying in a crib in the hospital, “healthy and happy, blandly indifferent to the tangled circumstances that accompanied her birth.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Body in the Cylinder

During the London Blitz, a bomb dropped on Liverpool uncovered a water-tight steel cylinder that had been embedded in a concrete building foundation. The object attracted little notice among the debris. Local residents used it as a bench. Children played around it. Then, over four years later, in July 1945, it broke open, and a small boy peeked inside…

To his shock, the boy discovered the cylinder was actually a coffin, containing a male skeleton. The remains were fully dressed, in expensive Victorian-era clothing, and one finger bore a gold signet ring. The cylinder also contained a diary from 1884 (the entries were, unfortunately, illegible,) a postcard dated July 8, 1885, a railway ticket dated June 27, 1885, and a business paper with a letterhead. The items bore the name "T.C. Williams."

Research established that "T. C. Williams" was paint manufacturer Thomas Creegan Williams. Williams’ business failed in 1884, and he subsequently vanished from history. No records could be found of him after his bankruptcy, suggesting that he either changed his name, or simply disappeared. It was presumed that he was this mysterious skeleton, but that was never proven. No cause of death could be established. (Although there was a skull fracture by the left ear, the coroner, rather oddly, seemed to consider that irrelevant.) Just to complicate matters further, a Scotland Yard pathologist suggested the body had not been dead for more than ten years, but he conceded the body could date from 1885.

Authorities had even less luck in determining how the man—whoever he was—got into this cylinder, which was believed to have originally been part of a ventilation shaft. Did he, for some inexplicable reason, crawl into it himself? Was Williams murdered, with the body cunningly hidden?

It is hard to believe this man entered the cylinder of his own free will, or even through an accident. It seems nearly as unlikely that a murderer would go to such trouble to hide the body, and still leave such obvious evidences of his victim’s identity, not to mention a valuable ring. These items used to identify the body as Williams actually seem almost too obvious. And that brings up the possibility that the bankrupt businessman was more villain than victim.

Could T.C. Williams have faked his own death, as a way of escaping creditors and a wife and children that he may have seen as a financial burden? Did he, through some means, acquire a corpse that he dressed in his own clothes, with documents that would, when the body was eventually found, (and would presumably have become unrecognizable,) let the world assume he was dead and gone? Only to find he hid the body rather too well?

It’s an outlandish scenario, to be sure. But then, this is an outlandish mystery.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company, staring into the abyss.

And so are the cats.

The weekly dose of Weird:

If it's Friday, that means it's "So, what the hell is it?" time.

And what the hell is this?

We probably don't even want to know what the hell this is.

We definitely want to stay in blissful ignorance of these.

Photo of the week:  A lovely image of a shooting star over Stonehenge.

William Jackson Marion, hanged for a murder that never took place.

The peculiar life and death of John Edward Mack, Harvard professor turned alien abduction expert.

Life is not a fairy tale.  Thank God.

Humanity's ambivalent attitude toward owls.

Is there a lost treasure of Petra?

The mermaid palace, that, alas, never was.

A quite charming first-hand account of a medieval joust.

In which we ponder the tale of orange fireballs and miniature aliens at UK's Silbury Hill.

Of electric cats, and the worst musical instrument ever.

Check-cashing at Bernie's.

You'll be pleased to hear a vortex to another dimension has been discovered.  I mean, one besides this blog.

That reminds me:  On to Magonia!

The story of Robert and Raymonde:  A love story told in postcards.

For all of you who've spent your lives yearning to know what ancient Roman sewers were like, here's your great opportunity.

Around here, we love our mystery tombstones.

The Flying Man of Pocklington:  Take a bad bungee-jump, become a legend.

The Earl of Castlehaven:  Monster or Martyr?

And, finally, my favorite tweet of the week:

See you Monday, when we take a look at another mysterious skeleton.  Unlike our Bruges friend, this one was undoubtedly human, but still very very weird indeed.  In the meantime, I shall be busy contemplating the impression I'm making on the younger generation.  The other day at the races, I was standing at a window making some bets when I heard a little girl of about 10-12 years old saying (in a screech that was undoubtedly heard throughout the plant,) "Daddy, isn't that the same girl we saw here yesterday?  Does she come here every single day?!"

I looked over, and yes, of course she was staring right at me.

Damn, but I'm getting a bad rep.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The death of twenty-two year old Vaden Boge is oddly reminiscent of the case of Jessie Culbertson.  Boge, a native of Oregon, traveled to Los Angeles and checked into the Alexandria Hotel on November 27, 1922, as "V. E. Boge and wife."   He ordered dinner for two, and soon afterwards staggered out into the hallway exclaiming that he had been poisoned.  He died a few minutes later.   Cyanide was found in the dregs of one of the two cups of coffee in his room.  Friends and family had no warning he might kill himself, and he left no suicide note, so the initial thought was that his "wife" had poisoned him.

This theory soon fell to pieces when it was discovered that Boge himself bought the poison that killed him.  As far as anyone could tell, "Mrs. Boge"--whom no one at the hotel had ever seen--did not exist.  Authorities decided that Boge, not wishing his loved ones to know he had committed suicide, carefully arranged for it to look as if he had been murdered...murdered by someone who could not be charged with the crime, as she was a phantom.

No one ever knew for sure why Boge would want to end his life, but relatives speculated that it was due to despondency over a recent bout of ill-health.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Monster of Bruges

Fernand Khnopff "In Bruges:  A Portal," 1904

In his 1959 book “Mysteries Solved and Unsolved,” Harold T. Wilkins gives an account of a nightmarish discovery that is simply enigmatic. It is so enigmatic, in fact, that I have my doubts about whether his story is more fact than fiction—particularly since I have been unable to find any corroborating evidence for his macabre anecdote.

Wilkins wrote that “some years” before WWII, he was in Bruges, Belgium, boarding at an ancient house in the heart of that still largely-medieval city. During his visit, he was told of a very strange skeleton found years before in the building.

The house had originally been a Dominican monastery, but by 1908 it had become a boarding place for artists and tourists. However, no tenant remained for long. They reported the phenomenon common to haunted houses—mysterious footsteps, spectral raps on doors, etc. An English visitor even reported encountering something “damned inhuman” in one of the passageways. Finally, the owner of this increasingly unpopular residence had workmen excavate the cellar, as that was seen as the source of all the strange activity.

It was behind one of the walls that they found the skeleton. The skeleton of what, no one could say, not even the pathologist brought in to examine it. It was not an animal, and all the spectators shuddered at the idea that it could have ever been anything spawned by humans…

The ghastly remains, Wilkins tells us, were packed off to an unnamed medical museum, and the house became as quiet as the house of God it once was.

So, there you have it. Make of his story what you will. As I say, I think it’s quite possible that Wilkins heard some small, innocuous fact or outlandish legend from which he crafted an uncanny tall tale—and his lack of specifics about time and place tend to back that up. On the other hand, if there is anything I have learned in this life, it’s that pretty much anything is possible. To borrow from that old witticism about ghosts:  I do not believe in the Monster of Bruges, but I am afraid of it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company's taking it easy this week.

Along with the cats.

This week's roundup of Weird:

The obligatory "So, what the hell is it?" link.

My favorite internet discovery of the week:  Color--yes, color--film footage of London from 1927.

Why George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell turned to literature rather than the Tour de France.

I can't improve on this headline:  "Crowd Runs Scared After Witnessing Woman Fight With Short Bald Ghost."

Whenever I start thinking my life is dull, I will keep in mind the people in charge of this experiment.  Surprisingly, this isn't in Florida.

Hey, weird full-moon-loving bubble creatures need nature preserves, too.  Yes, of course this is in Florida.

What was worse than searching for housing in 19th century New York City?

Searching for housing in 19th century Paris!

The mystery of John Titor, the internet's weirdest--or perhaps just goofiest--legend.

Tunguska, the Voynich Manuscript of impact sites.

The Legend of Margorie McCall; Or, You Just Can't Keep a Good Woman Down.

The latest in what seems to have become this blog's ongoing series of Fun With Coffins links.

If you really want a memorable burial, however, it seems that all of the cool people in history wind up in Leicester car parks.

It's pretty sad when you think your soul is only worth a pair of shoes.  Me, I would've held out for these knee-high platform boots I've had my eye on and a really rockin' hat.

The good news?  Celestine V wasn't murdered, after all.  The bad news?  He's still dead.

Want to learn how to be an 18th century witch?  Of course you do.  You're welcome.

That does it for this week, my friends.  See you Monday, when I tell the tale of a haunted boarding house and its eerie walled-up skeleton.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

This story appeared in the London "Times" on Dec. 11 1873.  It reads like a real-life version of William Hope Hodgson's story "The Whistling Room."

Pity Yelp was not around in those days.  I'd love to see the reviews this hotel would've gotten.

A singular circumstance came to light in the Bristol Police Court, on Tuesday. Mr. Thomas B. Cumpston, and his wife, Mrs. Ann Martha Cumpston, of Virginia Road, Leeds, were brought up for being disorderly at the Victoria Hotel and with letting off fire-arms. It was stated in evidence by the landlady of the hotel, Mrs. Tongue, that the defendants took an apartment at the hotel, on Monday evening, and retired to rest about twelve o'clock. About four o'clock in the morning she was awoke by loud screams and shouts in their bed room, succeeded by a report of fire-arms. She went down and found that they had both leapt from their bed room into the yard below—a depth of upwards of twelve feet—and then made their way to the railway station opposite.

Mr. T. Harker, the night superintendent on the Bristol and Exeter Railway, said the parties rushed into his office, partly dressed, crying out "Murder," and they were in a terrible state of excitement. They told him they had escaped from a den of rogues and thieves, and they had to defend themselves. They were under the impression that someone was following them, and they made him search the waiting room to see there was no one there. Upon his sending for a policeman, Mr. Cumpston was searched, and a revolver and three knives were found upon him.

When asked by the magistrate what he had to say in explanation of the matter, Mr. Cumpston, who had an impediment in his speech, said he and his wife had been staying at Clifton; but, intending to proceed to Weston-super-Mare that morning, they came down and engaged a room at the Victoria Hotel, being near the railway station. They were alarmed at about four o'clock in the morning by terrible noises which they could not explain, and which frightened them very much. The bed seemed to open, and did all sorts of strange things. The floor, too, opened, and they heard voices. They were so terrified that they opened their bed-room window and leapt out.

Mrs. Cumpston, also, gave her version of the affair. She said they heard terrible noises at about four o'clock in the morning. The floor seemed to be giving way. It certainly opened, and her husband fell down some distance, and she tried to get him up. What they said was repeated every time they spoke. Being very much frightened she asked her husband to fire off his pistol, which he did, into the ceiling. The noises continuing, they got out of the window, but she did not know how. When they got outside she asked her husband to fire off his pistol again. They then ran up to the railway station. In reply to the Bench, the lady said she did not hear the noises so plainly as her husband. Ultimately, a Mr. Butt, who had been telegraphed for from Gloucester, attended the Court, and in reply to the Bench said the parties occupied a very good position in Leeds. He offered to take proper charge of them if they were handed over to him, which was ultimately done, the defendants being discharged from custody. No explanation can be given of this strange affair, and the belief is that it was an hallucination on the part of the husband.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Phosphorus and Dr. Bowers

Like many people, Dr. J. Milton Bowers was unlucky in love. Unlike many people, the doctor’s ill-fated marriages eventually made him an object of intense interest to the police.

His first wife, Fannie, died of unknown causes in 1874, after they had been married for only a few years. Not long afterwards, he wed a beautiful young actress named Teresa Sherek. Before she too passed away in 1881, the second Mrs. Bowers distinguished herself by publishing a pamphlet titled “The Dance of Life.” This was a rebuttal to “The Dance of Death,” a little book describing the evils of waltzing that was, unbeknownst to the general public, a satirical hoax co-written by a San Francisco journalist named Ambrose Bierce. (Bierce gleefully published reviews of both books, describing them as about equally dreadful.)

Four months after Teresa’s death, Bowers married one of his patients, a young widow named Cecilia Levy. Four years later, Cecilia, like Bowers’ previous brides, mysteriously sickened and died.

Knowing the good doctor’s “if at first you don’t succeed…” spirit, this pattern could have run on for years, except for the fact that some anonymous observer felt that enough was enough. The day after Cecilia Bowers died, the San Francisco city coroner got an unsigned letter strongly advising that her demise deserved a little investigation.

Coroner O’Donnell was obviously a man who could take a hint. He ordered an inquest into Mrs. Bowers’ death, which was held on November 3, 1885. The hearing uncovered nothing that seemed unusual. The deceased had been ill for about two months before she died. She was attended by two outside physicians, as Dr. Bowers felt it was improper to treat members of his own family. He and these other doctors all agreed that she had died of an abscessed liver.

That probably would have been that, if it had not been for some unexpected observers at the inquest: Several representatives of life insurance companies. Life insurance companies where the late Mrs. Bowers had taken out several sizable policies, in favor of her husband. They displayed what was, for Dr. Bowers, a quite distressing cynicism about his wife’s death. At the close of the inquest, they made it clear that they didn’t give two hoots about the medical evidence that had been presented. They wanted an autopsy.

Dr. Bowers, as he had been throughout the proceedings, was the picture of amicable cooperation. The only objection that he made was that his wife’s funeral had already been arranged, and delay would be a great inconvenience. A compromise was reached: the service would be held as planned, but the body would then be returned to the undertaking parlor for the autopsy.

However, the day after the funeral, the doctors who were to perform the examination found that Mrs. Bowers’ body had disappeared. It was finally discovered that, contrary to the agreed-upon plans, Dr. Bowers had had his wife buried immediately after the service. The body was swiftly exhumed.

This bit of double-dealing made everyone suddenly very suspicious of Dr. Bowers. These suspicions were soon confirmed when the autopsy uncovered the fact that his wife had actually died of phosphorus poisoning. That very same day, he was arrested and charged with murder.

Bowers’ maintained his usual unruffled demeanor. In no time at all, he asserted, his name would be cleared.  He would not be such a fool, he said, to use a substance such as phosphorus that would permeate the entire system.    (The irresistible interpretation:  "Hey, I'm a better poisoner than that!")

When a reporter commented on his string of marriages, the doctor smiled and said, “I’d get married twenty times if I chose.”

Considering his track record, that must have been a chilling thought for the women of San Francisco.

In the meantime, the police were busy digging into Bowers’ past, where they found some very interesting details. For one, they discovered that his medical practice was almost exclusively devoted to performing abortions, which netted him a quite handsome living. Five years earlier, he was charged with petty larceny, a trial which ended in a hung jury. Acquaintances described him as a boastful womanizer, an abusive stepfather, and a wife-beater. Henry Benhayon, Cecelia Bowers’ brother, all but point-blank accused his former brother-in-law (whom he had always disliked) of murder. And, of course, everyone was becoming increasingly curious about the early deaths of the first two Mrs. Bowers. The only friends Bowers seemed to have left were his nurse, Charlotte Zeissing, and Teresa Farrell, a former maid in his household. Those two stood alone in describing the doctor as a loving husband and altogether saintly figure.

Bowers’ trial was heavy on complicated medical and chemical evidence, which produced the usual muddled results. To make a very long story short, the prosecution argued that phosphorus, and only phosphorus, could have been responsible for Cecilia Bowers’ death, while the defense claimed with equal certainty that all of those same symptoms,as well as the autopsy findings, could have been the result of natural causes. Hampering the prosecution’s case was the fact that no phosphorus was found in Bowers’ possession, and no solid evidence was uncovered that he had ever obtained any. (There was, however, a good deal of suspicion that the loyal Nurse Zeissing, who had the key to the doctor's office, had swiftly cleared it of anything incriminating.)  When Bowers himself took the stand—calm and smiling as always—he simply offered either glib explanations or flat denials for all the accusations against him.

The six-week legal drama was, at that time, the longest murder trial in San Francisco history. However, when it was all over, it only took the jury half an hour to find Bowers guilty of first-degree murder. At his sentencing, Bowers had an unusual request: “Fully knowing that my late dear wife did not die of phosphorus poisoning,” he asked that “I should be placed somewhere with the same surrounding conditions, etc., and a crowd of medical men be around and administer to me as the prosecution has claimed has been administered to my late dear wife. I am willing to show that she did not die of phosphorus poisoning.”

The judge sentenced him to hang instead. Bowers continued to sit in jail while his lawyers appealed the verdict to the State Supreme Court—a process that lingered on for three years.

It was at this point that this seemingly simple, straightforward murder case began to get extremely weird.

In October of 1887—a year and a half after Bowers was convicted—a young man visited a boarding house on San Francisco's Geary Street. After inspecting the building, he asked to rent room number 21. The landlady informed him that the room was currently occupied, but it would be empty the following Saturday. The next day, a second man visited the house and said he had heard room number 21 would be available Saturday. He put down a deposit for the room and obtained the key.

On Sunday morning, a servant entered room 21 to tidy up. He found a dead man lying on the floor. The body was not of the man who had first asked about the room or the man who had rented it; in fact, the landlady had never seen him before. On the table by the bed was a half-empty bottle of whiskey, a bottle of chloroform, and, most ominously, a bottle containing cyanide. The table also contained three letters: One to a local newspaper, one to the city coroner, and one to Dr. J. Milton Bowers. It was soon established that the dead man was Henry Benhayon—Bowers’ vengeful brother-in-law.

The letter to the newspaper requested that they publish an ad asking for the return of a lost memorandum book. The note to Bowers warned him against false friends, advised him that Cecelia had lost a good deal of money in the stock market, and that some diamonds the doctor had bought his wife were fakes. He also asked that his mother not be held responsible for Benhayon’s actions: “I made all the reparation in my power.” The letter to the coroner was a confession that he had poisoned his sister and had intended to also murder Bowers. The message said that his motive had been to become the administrator of the estate of Cecelia’s daughter, where he “would have the benefit of the insurance.”

J. Milton Bowers was finally vindicated! An innocent man was saved from the gallows!

Well…perhaps not. Suspicions soon arose that Benhayon’s death was, in fact, another murder—one designed to get Bowers off the hook. Investigators pointed to the fact that Benhayon’s body was found in an unnaturally composed position. The bottle containing the poison was tightly corked. Cyanide is a very fast-acting poison, making it unlikely that he could have taken a swig from the bottle and reseal it before his death. The pen found with the “confession letters,” which presumably had been utilized to write them, had never been used. People familiar with Benhayon’s writing all asserted that the letters were forgeries. And what of those two other men who were involved with renting the room?

Detectives quickly turned their attention to Bowers’ most devoted supporters, Charlotte Zeissing and Teresa Farrell. Throughout the doctor’s imprisonment, they had visited him virtually every day. Could they have been his agents in staging a diabolical hoax? It had come out during the trial that Farrell was secretly married, to a John Dimmig. (He wed her several years back under the alias of "Wilson," supposedly because "I didn't want the boys to know I was married.")  When he was brought before the landlady of the boarding house where Benhayon had died, she immediately identified him as the man who had rented room 21 from her.

Dimmig admitted taking the room, but cheerfully declared that he rented it to spend some quality time with one of his numerous “side issues,” a Miss Timkins. Teresa corroborated his statement. She knew all about his “side issues,” she declared, but chose to take the broad-minded view of such things.

The police were not nearly so tolerant. They promptly charged Dimmig with murder.

The case made against him at his trial looked quite damming. He knew Benhayon well, and often visited Bowers. Shortly before Benhayon’s death, Dimmig had purchased cyanide. (For a “skin ailment,” he shrugged.) Dimmig had recently hired Benhayon to copy some documents for him, presumably to get samples of his victim’s handwriting. The dead man was described as a most unlikely candidate for murder and suicide; a cheerful, well-balanced young man with a promising future and an unwavering belief that Bowers had killed his sister.  Dimmig, on the stand, changed his story about why he rented the room (he now said it was "to sell books.")  He produced yet another letter, purportedly sent to him from Benhayon just before the latter's death.  It said that Benhayon was in "a devilish fix" and needed advice.  He asked Dimmig to meet him in...room 21, No. 22 Geary Street.  Dimmig stated that as he was busy at the time he received the letter, he just stuffed it in his pocket unopened.  He said matter-of-factly that he had not troubled to read the message until after he heard of Benhayon's death.  And that was all he knew about the tragedy.

The letters Benhayon supposedly wrote wallowed in the usual utter confusion created when “expert witnesses” collide. To put it most simply, the prosecution’s handwriting experts said the letters were not in Benhayon’s handwriting, while the witnesses for the defense said they were. This Battle of the Experts was probably responsible for the jury’s inability to reach a verdict. Dimmig remained in prison to await a new trial.

In the meantime, these allegations of suicide and deathbed confessions prompted the Supreme Court to order a new trial for Bowers.

At Dimmig’s second trial, the jury found the same difficulty as the first panel in reaching a verdict. When the judge pressed them to come to a decision, they threw up their hands and declared Dimmig “not guilty.” He walked out of the courthouse a free man.

After Bowers had been granted a retrial, he confidently asserted that “No jury will be found to convict me.” He was right. In August 1889, Benhayon’s “suicide” and Dimmig’s acquittal led the DA to agree to dismiss the charges against the doctor. Under those circumstances, he reasoned, trying to obtain a conviction would simply be a waste of public time and money.

After Bowers was freed, he resumed his practice as “a specialist in the treatment of women.” Probably wisely, he did not try to collect the insurance taken out on his wife. Sometime after 1901, he married for the fourth time, and died in 1904. Rather amazingly, his wife survived him.

When Bowers died, he left many unanswered questions as his legacy. How did his first two young wives die? Was Benhayon’s death murder or suicide? Who sent the letter to the coroner urging him to look into Cecelia Bowers’ death? Why were Teresa Farrell and Charlotte Zeissing so devoted to this unctuous little Bluebeard—to the point where they may have been willing to kill for him? Assuming Henry Benhayon's death was the result of foul play, how on earth was Dimmig persuaded to become involved?  Was Dr. Bowers responsible for one death, two, three, four, or, conceivably, even more?

We’ll never know.

[Note:  Many thanks to the curator of the delightful blog The Pet Museum for picking Verrazano in the Kentucky Derby.  OK, so the horse finished fourteenth--after starting from post 14!--but backing him was still fun while it lasted.]

Friday, May 3, 2013

Weekend Link Dump, Run For the Roses Edition

Strange company is just a basket case this week.

All thanks to the cats.

Before I get on with the regular business, I have a particular request to make:  Just to show how thoroughly my mind has snapped, I'm asking readers of this blog (all three of you) to help me pick a horse in tomorrow's Kentucky Derby.  In the comments to this post, the first person who leaves any number from one to twenty will provide the number of the horse I'll bet on to win.  If there are as many as four numbers offered, I'll do a superfecta box.  If the horse comes in, I'll...well, I'll dedicate Monday's post to the lucky reader.  It's a sweet little poisoning case with a high body count and more ambiguities than you can shake a stick at. Just the sort of thing anyone would want to sponsor.

While you're thinking the matter over, and struggling to understand why I have yet to be placed in some good lunatic asylum, here's my favorite horse-related song:  The late, great John Stewart's tribute to Secretariat.

Meanwhile, on with the weekly link roundup!

If I had an extra quarter-million to kick around, would I buy this?  You'd better believe I'd buy this.

Coffin-makers Just Want to Have Fun.

Coffin-makers who were absolutely no fun whatsoever.

It's a Blood Rain Gonna Fall.

A provocative article suggesting that Poe's magnum opus, "Eureka," may contain coded messages.  I've often  thought it was likely that all of Poe's published works contain hidden meanings, but, like the author of this article, I'm not knowledgeable enough about cryptography to test this theory.  If this is ever read by someone  who does know something about the subject, for heaven's sake, give it a go.  I have the feeling the experiment would lead to some very startling results.

The infamous Dr. Foulks: "Thou Holy letcher thou religious cheat/How shall I halfe thy horrid guilt repeat."

Obviously, the good doctor was this blog's kind of guy.

The Moon Really is a Harsh Mistress:  Why Stonewall Jackson died.

Tear-Catchers; Or, Nobody Could Beautify Misery Like the Victorians.

Why John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, really should have had his mouth washed out with soap.

I'm ridiculously pleased to see that my hunch about a so-called "Poe poem" has finally been proved correct. "Lines on Ale," begone!

Oh, and here, too.  [Scroll to updates at the end of each post.]  And, yes, my smugness is nauseating even me.

Rediscovering a lost Egyptian city.

Edward Sanborn:  Businessman, philanthropist, brothel-keeper.

The death of Edmund de la Pole, the last White Rose.

If you have a hankering to read about teensy skeletons with squashed alienlike heads, boy, do I have a story for you.

A mystery photo from 1967:  Blushing bride or molting super-chicken?

This week's "So, what the hell is this?" link courtesy of Ireland's River Foyle.

Elsje Christiaens, who had the great bad luck to model for Rembrandt.

Dead kings are bustin' out all over:  The hunt for whatever may remain of Scotland's James IV.  [Editor's note:  Lots of luck on this one, guys.]

If E. L. James does not light a candle every night to the memory of Amanda McKittrick Ros, she is terribly ungrateful.  After all, it is solely thanks to Ros that James is not called The Worst Novelist in History.

Unmentioned but necessary wardrobe accessory:  The world's biggest freaking can of Raid.

A nice tribute to the smartest girl in Hollywood, Deanna Durbin.  Plus architecture!

I saw the movie "Five Million Years to Earth."  I think I know what's coming next here.

"Now there's some sad things known to man
But ain't too much sadder than
Kate Mayfield's fears of a clown
When there's no one else around..."

To end things on a bright note:  Read about this recent moment on an Australian bus.  If I ever see this guy in America, I swear to God I'd want to marry him.

That wraps it up for this week.  Have a great weekend, and may the horse be with us!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In August 1925, Kazimierz Kasznica, a Judge of the Polish Supreme Court, went out for a short hike in the Polish Tatra mountains in Galicia. Accompanying him was his wife, their twelve-year-old son, and an unnamed university student. When the group failed to return, a search party was sent after them. Mr. Kasznica, his son, and the student were all found dead. There were no traces of violence on the bodies, or any sign whatsoever to show how they died.

Mrs. Kasznica, the only survivor of the tragedy, could only state that they were having an ordinary climb when “a suffocating wind” suddenly hit them. She fainted, and when she regained consciousness, the others were dead. She lay there for a long period of time, too weak to move, until she finally summoned up the strength to seek help.

The autopsies failed to find a cause of death for any of the victims, and the case has remained a mystery.