"...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, June 28, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company is looking up this week.

The cats always do.

This week's Roundup of the Weird:

Let's kick things off with what is probably the quintessential What the Hell Are These link.

If the Voynich Manuscript isn't a hoax, then what the hell is it?

Who the hell was Lori Ruff?  An eerily fascinating case of a woman with multiple identities.

What the hell happened to Elisa Lam?

A real-life "Poseidon Adventure" that makes the fictional tale sound like a Girl Scout camping trip.

Because you just can't get enough stories about fossilized Sasquatch heads.

A certain Egyptian spirit is unhappy.  And you know what happens when Egyptian spirits are unhappy.

Or maybe Osiris just wants to get on "Dancing With the Stars."

Don't worry, there was an unpublished feel-good sequel where all these animals wreaked a terrible revenge on their owners.

If this thing is for real, why doesn't someone use it to kill the threat of any more "Twilight" sequels?

Before you read this story, get out the world's biggest freaking can of Raid.

Oh, just another photo of an all-girl vaudeville act serenading cows.

Haunted painting?  Or really cool publicity stunt aimed at getting an otherwise worthless piece of junk off their hands?  You make the call.

Pianos as instruments of torture.  Bloody hell, in the wrong hands they're weapons of mass destruction.

England had cave-dwellers a lot more recently than you think.

A delightful archaeological variation on the classic "locked room murder mystery":  A hundred-year-old watch has been found in a tomb...that's been sealed for the last four hundred years.

Salvador Dali swimwear.  In case you don't feel like going to the link, I can assure you that it looked pretty much like you'd expect it to look.

Speaking of Dali, I think he designed this river as well.

When Barbie and Ken wind up in Hell, this is what they'll find.

Ah, the Victorian era:  If the dumplings didn't kill you, the coconut shies would.

Our old friend Anna Kingsford has a Japanese protégée.

A Frenchman visits Whitechapel, 1859.  Hilarity ensues.

And, finally, the Video of the Week:  A cat.  In a shark costume.  Riding a Roomba.  While chasing a duck.  You're very welcome. (h/t @GlennWhidden)

In other news, I’ve recently become addicted to watching old episodes of “Midsomer Murders,” the show with a bigger body count than the Black Plague.  Aside from the fact that I’ve developed a weird sort of crush on John Nettles, the show has given me many valuable lessons in life. As a public service, I’ll share some of them here.


1. An excellent way to kill your neighbor is by pinning him down on his croquet field and using a trebuchet to hurl bottles of his extremely expensive wine at him.

2. An excellent way to kill your neighbor is by drowning him in a giant pot of gazpacho.

3. An excellent way to kill your neighbor is by battering her with a giant hunk of cheese.

4. An excellent way to kill your neighbor is by pretending he was abducted by aliens.

5. An excellent way to kill your neighbor is by having his liquor cabinet fall on him.

6. Do not attend the village fete. Someone is certain to be killed there, and that Someone will probably be you.

7. Do not go into the woods. Someone is certain to be killed there, and that Someone will probably be you.

8. Do not have an extramarital affair. Someone is certain to be killed as a result, and that Someone will probably be you.

9. Do not speak in favor of land development in your area when everyone else in the village is set against it.  Someone is certain to be killed as a result, and that Someone will probably be you.

10. Do not blackmail anyone. Someone is certain to be killed as a result, and that Someone will definitely be you.

11. However, it is virtually impossible to follow rule #10 above, as everyone you know has a deep dark secret they are desperate to protect.

12. It is perfectly normal to have Upper Warden at the lower part of a valley and Lower Warden at the upper part.

13. Every sweet, precocious, angel-faced child you meet is a psychopathic killer.

14. And perhaps most importantly:  You never need to ask your neighbors "How are you?" because the answer is almost invariably "Dead."

That wraps it up for now. See you on Monday, when I’ll present what is probably the strangest story to appear on this blog to date:  A tale set on a small island in the Caspian sea, featuring three inexplicable deaths and a mysterious buried stone.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A bloody good mystery took place in the state of New York in 1933:

The town is greatly worked up over the mysterious blood stains and spots of blood found on the premises of Arthur Wickham at North Brewster, formerly the William Liddy home, early Tuesday morning. It is all so mysterious one hardly knows how to relate it, but the story Trooper Jagoda relates is:

The five year old daughter of the Wickham’s came down stairs ahead of her parents on Tuesday and astonished them by asking why the front door was open. Mrs. Wickham states emphatically she locked the door herself. On investigation Mr. Wickham received another shock to find blood on the porch in front of the door and going on more spots on the steps and ground. Later he discovered blood spots on the front door of his car on the driver’s side, also on the steering wheel. The car had been parked all night in front of the house.

Officer Schaffer was called and he discovered a good sized pool of blood on the back entrance as if a bleeding animal or person had paused for some time, but they stated that it would have to be a large animal to lose so much blood, as a cow or horse.

This was all worked on quietly on Tuesday. A check up on all doctors was made to find if any one had come for treatment, but no one had. A quantity of blood was taken to Dr. C.W. Marshall for analysis to determine whether it was the blood of a human or animal.

At this writing nothing more has been determined and it is quite a mystery.

Mr. Wickham stated that during the night their dog barked and was restless and he called out of the window for it to lie down and keep quiet. The dog was there and they found no blood on it or any sign of its being involved in any fight or near anything that had.

Several neighbors who have dogs recall that their dogs acted restless and barked but laid it to the barking of another dog. So Brewster is quite “het” up over this affair which certainly has some mysterious facts.

This is the only story I could find about this bit of random creepiness, so I have no idea if anyone ever presented a normal explanation for the incident.  Although I'm not sure what "normal" explanation you can find for waking up to find your house and car covered with blood.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Return of Nelly Butler: America's First Great Ghost

Machiasport circa 1908 via Wikipedia

The fun began on the night of August 9, 1799, in Machiasport, Maine. The family of Albert Blaisdel suddenly heard a disembodied voice echoing through their house, announcing that he/she/it/whatever would shortly appear in their village.

Blaisdel put on his what-would-the-neighbors-think hat on and told his family to keep this news item to themselves. Tales of ghostly visitations did not play very well in 18th century New England.

All was quiet for some weeks afterwards, and the Blaisdels had just convinced themselves they had imagined the whole experience, when on January 2, 1800, The Voice made an unwelcome return. She—they were able to recognize it as a she this time—informed them that she was their neighbor George Butler’s wife Nelly, who had died in childbirth some months before. She demanded they send for her father, David Hooper.

Hooper was persuaded to travel to the Blaisdel home—God knows what they told him—and when he arrived, he was stunned to encounter his lost Nelly. He testified afterwards that “the Spectre,” as the visitor was called, gave “such clear and irresistible tokens of her being the spirit of my own daughter as gave me no less satisfaction than admiration and delight.”

Nelly then decided it was about time to be seen, instead of just heard. A couple of weeks later, Blaisdel’s son Paul was walking through a field when he saw a “strange-looking” woman in white walking—or, rather, floating—towards him. Then, before he knew how to even react, she vanished.

The next morning, Nelly complained of Paul’s rudeness in not speaking to her. She took such offense at this unneighborly spirit that she disappeared for two months. In March, she was back, ordering the Blaisdels to the cellar, where she proceeded to lecture them on the reality of the afterlife.

One can only picture their delight in sitting in utter darkness, being nagged by a ghost. In fact, this whole story suggests that those psychic researchers who earnestly do all in their power to summon ghosts had better be careful what they wish for. Nelly was probably the most irritatingly conspicuous spirit in history.

By now, of course, Nelly had become quite the local conversation piece. Some townspeople saw her but did not hear her, some heard her without catching a glimpse of her, some never saw or heard anything at all (one can imagine their attitude of superiority towards their lunatic neighbors,) and, of course, a favored few like the Blaisdels got the full treatment. Everyone who saw “the Spectre” agreed that it was identical to the living Nelly Butler, only in the afterlife she had acquired all-white robes and a glowing white light that surrounded her. The poor Blaisdels (who must have been wishing Nelly into a more infernal region) had to play host to an unending stream of houseguests who had come to chat with the late Mrs. Butler. The Spectre did her best to soothe the Blaisdels—particularly their terrified young children—that she meant them no harm, and she seems to have meant what she said.

Still, we all know what it’s like to have houseguests who never know when to leave.

Nelly’s husband George was as convinced as his father-in-law that this was indeed his wife. He stated that when he talked to the spirit, she told him things that had passed between him and Nelly in life that no one else could have known. Her parents said much the same thing. However, Nelly’s sister, Sally Wentworth, was more dubious. She thought it highly likely they were all being hoaxed by the Devil.

Or perhaps that’s what she preferred to believe. On one occasion, someone asked the Spectre if Sally was a good Christian. Nelly replied, “She thinks she is, she thinks she is.”

Nelly then turned matchmaker. She told her husband, George Butler, to marry Abner Blaisdel’s daughter Lydia. George and Lydia had been inching towards a courtship, but once Nelly butted in, Lydia was having none of it. “I will not marry a man who has been scared into proposing by a ghost!” she snapped, and who can blame her? A third party is unwelcome enough during a honeymoon, but when it’s your new husband’s nosy dead wife, that’s surely asking too much of a girl. Lydia was so upset by Nelly’s tactless interference—not to mention the local gossip speculating that she herself was impersonating the Spectre just to get a husband—that she tried to leave town. However, Nelly warned her—in front of a number of witnesses—that it was useless to flee. Her fate was her fate. After this talking-to, George was able not only to soothe his sweetheart out of her qualms, but overcome the opposition of their families (who had all bitterly opposed the match.) The two were finally married.

Even then, of course, Nelly couldn’t keep her big mouth shut. Immediately after the wedding, the Spectre came privately to her ex (joint?) husband and warned him that he would not have Lydia for long. Within the year, the new Mrs. Butler would have a child, and—just like Nelly--die the next day. And that is exactly what happened. One can only hope Captain Butler had the sense to keep wife number one’s predictions to himself while wife number two was still alive.

Or perhaps Nelly was playing a more sinister game. Some accounts state that the time of her death, there were rumors she had not died as a result of childbirth, but had been murdered—rumors that gained such force that an informal inquest was held into her death. (This would certainly explain why the Blaisdel family was so anxious for Lydia not to marry George Butler.) Some people who talked with the Spectre claimed she made statements indicating that she indeed had been the victim of foul play. If true, it makes one wonder uneasily why she would be so anxious for her husband to remarry, and to a woman who would be doomed by the match.

Nelly apparently delivered more predictions that later came true. On one occasion, she told Abner Blaisdel that his father, who lived two hundred miles away, had just died. One week later, he received the news confirming this report.

Nelly continued ordering people about, preaching the glory of God, making unasked-for predictions, and generally being a big show-off for quite some time. Her last recorded performance was in July of 1806, while Machiasport was visited by a minister who lived in the area, Abraham Cummings. He had, of course, heard about the resident ghost, and was quite troubled by this evidence of mental and emotional decay shown by his flock. While he was undoubtedly preparing a most stern sermon against the dangers of clinging to primitive superstitions, he was informed that Nelly had made one of her periodic appearances. Of course, he couldn’t resist going to see for himself, if only to provide further ammunition against the mass hysteria that seemed to have taken hold around him.

As he began walking towards the Blaisdel home, he was startled to see a glowing ball of light rise in front of him. He was a great deal more than startled when this light transformed itself into the shape of a tiny woman. He thought to himself, “You’re not tall enough for the woman who has been appearing among us.”

Instantly, the figure grew to adult size, giving off “glorious” rays of light. Cummings simply stared, unsure what the proper etiquette might be with such an apparition. He later admitted he was scared to death, but with his fear was mixed a strange “ineffable pleasure.”

After a moment, the figure vanished. And Cummings was forever a changed man. That brief experience turned him from a disapproving skeptic in the spirit world to an ardent, grateful believer. He wrote that it was the greatest regret of his life that he lacked the presence of mind to speak to her. The Reverend was not one to do things by halves. He set himself up as Nelly’s official biographer. He did a thorough investigation into all the dozens of sightings of the spirit, and eventually published his findings in an 1826 pamphlet entitled “Immortality Proved by Testimony of Sense.” Thanks to Cummings, Nelly is one of the most heavily-documented ghosts on record.

After Cummings’ conversion, Nelly evidently felt she had fulfilled her mission. She has never been seen again.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company may take up yoga.

The cats already have.

Happy Summer Solstice!

This week in the World of Weird:

What the hell is in this?  An ancient lost city has been discovered in Cambodia.

Unfortunately, only our distant ancestors could say what in hell these are.

We now at least know where the hell this is.

The Stranger's Guide to London:  Watch out for those bawds, duffers, jilts, and ring-droppers!

Meet Mary Walker, Civil War surgeon and the only woman ever to be awarded with the Medal of Honor.

An interactive tour of King Tutankhamun's tomb.

Michael Hastings:  Hardly worth killing?  Ouch.  That really must sting him, wherever he is.

Remember that post about poor old Lady Grange I did awhile back?  Yeah, me neither.  Still, here's a tour of the islands where she was imprisoned.  Nice sheep, I must say.

Uri Geller, psychic spy?

Curing the Vapours, and Hysterick Fits.

Yes, the FBI is still looking for Jimmy Hoffa.

According to this, they're looking in the wrong places. (H/t Twitter's @memizon for passing this one along to me.)

I hope Hoffa likes strawberry ice cream.

All I'll say is, I hope these are nurses with very, very active imaginations.  (Content warning:  That first story in particular was enough to give me a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.  Not to mention the creeping willies and the crawling horrors.)

I must mention why I can't just dismiss stories like those mentioned above, much as I'd like to:  Some years ago, my mother was a nurse at a maximum-security psychiatric hospital.  Her patients were "the worst of the worst"--serial killers, serial rapists, serial child molesters, charmers like that.  Mom's as tough a customer as can be imagined, so she wasn't bothered by dealing with such characters--in fact, I think she rather enjoyed staring them down and making them wilt.  What got to her was when she began to come across certain offenders--thankfully, fairly rare ones--who literally didn't seem human.  She's not religious in any traditional sense, but she was convinced that certain patients were either otherworldly evil forces, or human beings who had been possessed by them.  It takes a lot to unnerve my mother, but some of what she saw so disturbed her she left the job--even though it paid well and in those days we were desperate for every dime we could get.  She's told me more than once that while she doubts there is a "God," she has always believed there were angels on earth.  Ever since working at that hospital, she has been equally certain there are demons, as well.

On a lighter note, I think this UK city council member has finally explained the secret of why modern-day government everywhere is what it is.  And, yes, cats figure into it, too.

Why You Should Love the 1970s:  It was the kind of decade where Brian Eno's cat did an ad for Purina.

Spinning witches, spinning centenarians, and, of course, spinning cats.

Continuing the Catapalooza theme:  Meet Morris, political genius.  Who wouldn't vote for a candidate--of any species--that promised to restrict their activities to eating, sleeping, and filling in potholes?

In which we learn that Ernest Hemingway was just chock full o' The Weird.  Atlantis, the KGB, six-toed cats, and F. Scott Fitzgerald's manhood (or lack of same) figure prominently in this list.

For Washington Irving fans:  A photo tour of Sleepy Hollow.

Edward Kelley:  Conjurer or con artist?  Or perhaps a bit of both?

In book news, my Twitter friend @MaryLindsey has "Ashes on the Waves,"  a "young adult gothic romance," coming soon to a bookstore near you.  It's inspired by Poe's "Annabel Lee," and if the lovely cover is any indication, it should make great summer reading for all romantic young gothic adults.

If only Mary would learn to never, but never, click on anything I ever link to.

Coincidentally, another esteemed Twitter acquaintance, Andrea Janes (see Sleepy Hollow link above) also has a YA paranormal in the works, "Glamour."  I greatly enjoyed her collection of ghost stories, "Boroughs of the Dead," so this novel should be well worth your time.

It suddenly occurs to me that all this blog may be good for is product endorsements.  And since it gets fewer hits than Milli Vanilli does these days, probably not even that.

Photo of the week: eBaby.

This week's local What the Hell is This:  The other day I saw this in a window near the executive offices at Santa Anita:

I have no idea what that thing is, or what it could conceivably have to do with horse racing, but I'm afraid to ask anybody.

Just to add to the general spookiness factor, I spotted the object in this deserted corridor.

One of these days, I'll have to write a story called "The Ghosts of Santa Anita":  An eerie tale of handicappers desperately trying to bring their bankrolls back from the dead.

That wraps it up for this week.  Speaking of hauntings, tune in Monday, when I shall tell the tale of Nelly Butler, America's first great ghost.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A curious case of "amnesia" from 1953:

Police were never able to trace North's movements from New Zealand to London, but "amnesia" was accepted as the solution to the mystery.  (Even though North had never before suffered from memory loss and the poor befuddled man had no idea why he should want to leave his "normal environment.")  It all sounds very tidy and straightforward, if highly unusual, but Harold T. Wilkins, who mentioned the incident in his book "Mysteries Solved and Unsolved," made an excellent point:  "Who paid the not inconsiderable airliner passage to London from New Zealand; since it seems very unlikely that a schoolmaster, on the way to school in New Zealand, with no thought of going beyond his school, would have been carrying in his pocket wallet the fairly large sum for a trip he had not planned to take?"

As far as I can tell, no answer to that question--or the riddle of why it had proved impossible to determine where and how he traveled to London--was ever found.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Murder and the Mystic Mine

Taos, New Mexico, is in an area of the world that has hosted many strange happenings. One of the eeriest involves the so-called “Mystic Gold Mine” and the impressive body count associated with the site. The mine was in an area long believed by the native population to be cursed. As events were to prove, they very well may have been right.

The Mystic was found in 1863 by a man named Stone, who, two years later, took a John C. Ferguson as his partner. In 1882, Stone disappeared from the scene. Whether he left on his own free will, or, as seems more likely, he was murdered, is unknown.  Several of the mine's employees died in bizarre and unexplained ways.  One particularly luckless worker was found at the bottom of the mine shaft, decapitated.

However, The Weird only really kicked into high gear when, in 1895, an English mining promoter named Arthur Rockfort Manby entered into a gold-hunting syndicate with Ferguson and another miner named James Wilkinson.

The Mystic proved extremely profitable. It was only five miles away from the Aztec, then one of the richest gold mines in the world, and it was suspected that Manby—who seems to have been one of Nature’s born grifters—had somehow found a way of stealing nuggets from this other site. In any case, the trio quickly became exceedingly wealthy. And then in 1915, Wilkinson vanished. Although ominous rumors circulated about his disappearance, no one knew for sure what became of him. Not long after this, Ferguson ended his days in a mental hospital, tormented by visions of angry ghosts and decapitated bodies. His daughter Teresita inherited his share of the mine.

In 1921, Wilkinson, who had long been given up for dead, suddenly reappeared on the scene, only to quickly vanish again—this time for good.

In 1929, it was Manby’s turn to meet his fate. On June 30, a deputy sheriff came to Manby’s home to serve a judgment in a breach of promise suit filed against him. When he was unable to contact Manby, he returned three days later with backup and broke down the front door. When this search party broke into the house, they made a dreadful discovery. Manby’s decapitated corpse was discovered in a bedroom of his home. His brutally mutilated head was discovered in an adjoining room. The front door of the house, it was noted, had been locked from the inside.

Manby and his mansion had a sinister reputation long before his gruesome death. He had become a strange recluse who lived in great fear of something—fears that were certainly eventually justified. His 20-room estate had bars on every window and multiple locks on every door. He insisted on cooking all his own food, to guard against poisoning. His only companionship in the sprawling, lavishly-decorated hacienda was a pair of fierce Alsatian dogs who guarded him everywhere he went. He was periodically seen on his roof, using colored flags to send who-knows-what signals to who-knows-whom. All in all, his neighbors were quite happy to leave him to his own devices.

The coroner’s jury, faced with this grim and puzzling demise, responded with one of the most astonishing verdicts on record. They decreed that Manby died of natural causes. One of his dogs, crazed with hunger, then chewed off his head and carried the body to the other room.

This bit of absurdity was just too much for anyone to stomach. Manby’s brother back in England put pressure on Washington to arrange a less deranged investigation into Manby’s death, with the result that a detective, Henri Martin, was dispatched to Taos. When he had the body exhumed, he discovered that the gold tycoon was riddled with shotgun bullets. The assassin then, for some unknown reason, carefully removed the head. The mystery of who shot and decapitated Manby—not to mention the puzzle of what that coroner’s jury was thinking—remains unsolved to this day.

Martin received some interesting, if ultimately unhelpful, information about the other peculiar deaths associated with the Mystic Mine. He discovered that over the years, at least half a dozen men associated with Manby had been mysteriously murdered--with several of them being decapitated.  A woman who had been Wilkinson’s housekeeper told the detective that her employer had been killed by his business partners. She claimed the body—like Manby, full of bullets and decapitated—had been placed in her room one night. She directed Martin to a certain place where she said Wilkinson was secretly buried. The spot was exhumed, and a skeleton was found, but it was uncertain if it really was the vanished Wilkinson. At least nine other beheaded bodies were found in that area. Martin also heard from locals that Ferguson, who had become a drug addict, was so terrified of…something…that he killed himself in the asylum.

It also came out that a few years before, Manby and Teresita Ferguson—who had a very close relationship until, so she said, he cheated her out of all her money--organized a shadowy organization known as the “United States Civil Secret Service Society.” Men were persuaded—or, more often, compelled--to invest in this group, which was presented as a clandestine society working with the U.S. Secret Service. In return, investors would share in the reward money earned when the organization captured criminals. In reality, of course, it was one of Manby’s many swindles. However, the general fear that the group was Manby’s private criminal gang, responsible for many unsolved robberies and murders, scared many people from seeking justice against him. (The hints that the "society" also practiced black magic undoubtedly added to the general unease.)  Perhaps, it was suggested, one of the men he had defrauded with this scheme finally got his bloody revenge.

Or perhaps the killer was one of the many other people Manby had cheated during his astonishingly busy career? Or did Teresita Ferguson, the one person to come away from the Mystic alive, have something to do with the death of her former business partner/lover? And what of Margaret Waddell, the Los Angeles woman who successfully brought the breach-of-promise suit against Manby? Through his typically shady, complex business maneuvers, he engineered it so she would be unable to collect her $12,000 damages. Did she obtain a less lawful payback?

Or was this mutilated body really Manby’s? Some observers insisted the skull found in his house was far too small to be his. The body was too decomposed to permit a positive identification. Many were convinced that the old crook, ever fearful for his safety, staged his own “murder,” and escaped to a new life. This idea has been largely ignored, but with a story like this, it’s hard to believe anything is impossible.

What was it that reduced both Manby and John Ferguson to such a state of mortal terror?

The knowledge we have about the long, twisted history surrounding the Mystic Mine is bad enough. It seems likely that the details hidden from us were far, far worse.

[A footnote: The strange goings-on of the Mystic crowd did not end with Manby’s death—or, if you prefer, “death.” In 1930, not content with looting Manby’s mansion, Teresita Ferguson, her common-law husband Carmel Durand, and her nephew George Ferguson, were tried and convicted for committing  a series of burglaries (and at least one arson) in Taos. The trio got four to six years in prison.  After her release, Teresita was, for whatever reason, given a full pardon by the Governor.  In 1955, she was charged with witchcraft and fraud.  She had obtained $100 from a Santa Fe couple on the claim they were "bewitched" and she could cure them.  She also told them that--for additional funds--she would lead them to $25 million worth of buried treasure hidden on their property.  Her run of peculiarly good luck continued when she was acquitted.  Perhaps the fact that her son, Columbus, was a former Taos sheriff (!) had its influence.  Teresita Ferguson died at the age of 91 in 1979.  And, oh, the stories that must have died with her.]

Friday, June 14, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company's getting by with a little help from their friends.

And so are the cats.

The latest from the World of Weird:

What the hell was that?

Or that?

And, pray tell, what the hell were these?

I can assure you, we really don't want to know what the hell this was.

Drink radium!  It sparkles and foams like champagne!  It'll give you that very special glow.

The strange Yarmouth runic stone.

I assume the wedding registry for this couple was at Forest Lawn.

The Mystery of the Mummified Cat of Islington.

The RHLI Museum has its own cat mummy, but this story is more Gothic tragedy than mystery.  (H/T Twitter's @captainswallow.)

The case of the aristocratic virgin birth.

Black Jack and Mike, the British Museum's most esteemed residents.  Not mummified, thank heavens.

As Bill Crider would say, here's the plot for your next 1950s science-fiction movie:  An ancient underground network stretching from Scotland to Turkey has just been uncovered.

Commemorating the first people to die in an air crash... in 1785.

It's official:  The Tunguska explosion was caused by a meteor.  Or, uh, "maybe?"

Ufologist Nick Redfern presents what may be my favorite conspiracy theory yet:  What if the government is just as in-the-dark about extraterrestrials as we are?

Ah, those strait-laced, repressed, hyper-conventional Victorians.  Here's an ad where the Pope is endorsing cocaine.

Norman Bates meets Charles Fort.

The kind of thing they did for fun in 19th century India.

The kind of thing they're still doing for fun in Australia.

Here we see a return of one of the more delightful conspiracy theories:  Elizabeth I, the Virgin King.

While we're on the topic of disputed identities:  Was Christopher Columbus really a Lithuanian prince?

An alien abductee story featuring...uh, strawberry ice cream.  (True story:  What slightly unsettled me about this tale is that, the night before I read it, I dreamed that I was buying strawberry ice cream.  I remember thinking that I don't particularly like that flavor, but for some reason, I felt I had to buy some anyway.  So, if this blog isn't updated next week and I disappear from Twitter, you'll know I've become a guinea pig for extraterrestrials.  I'll tell you this:  If the aliens start examining my brain, they won't know what they're in for.)

That's it for this week, folks.  Assuming  I'm still here Monday, I'll share a tale about gold mining in New Mexico.  Oh, and with a few disappearances, deaths, robberies, frauds, secret societies, and decapitations thrown in.

Lots and lots of decapitations, actually.

The fun never stops around this blog.

(Oh, and a note to the aliens:  I prefer chocolate caramel swirl, thanks.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

From 1901:  The very strange death of Lavinia Farrar was reported in England's "Teesdale Mercury."

And open the verdict has remained.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Strange Fate of Pauline Picard

Goas Al Ludu, via Wikipedia

The bizarre, gruesome story of Brittany’s Pauline Picard is one that suffers from a frustrating lack of documentation; we only know of her tragic end through a handful of relatively uninformative contemporary newspaper articles.

Of course, if we knew more about her, it is no guarantee that her mystery would be solved.

In April 1922, two-year-old Pauline disappeared without a trace from her parents’ farm in the village of Goas Al Ludu. The local residents conducted an intensive search of the area, but no one could find the slightest clue what might have happened to her.  Then, a few weeks later, it was reported that a small girl matching Pauline’s description was found wandering alone in the streets of Cherbourg. Pauline’s parents recognized the child as their missing daughter—although they were disquieted by the fact that the girl did not appear to know them. She had also evidently lost her ability to speak and understand Breton. Indeed, she seemed altogether mute and unresponsive.

Still, Pauline’s parents took the little wanderer home with them, and while the mystery of how she disappeared remained unsolved, it seemed the story would at least have a happy ending. These hopes were dashed a month later when a horrifying discovery was made in an open field less than a mile from the Picard farm. It was the naked corpse of a little girl, badly mutilated, presumably by foxes or rats, and decapitated. Clothes that were presumed to belong to the child were found nearby, neatly folded. The Picards identified these garments as the ones worn by Pauline when she vanished, although the corpse's face was too disfigured for any positive identification.

Was this child the real Pauline Picard? Whether she was or not, who killed her? Assuming the body was Pauline's, how could it have possibly escaped discovery for all that time? If this corpse was the Picard girl, who was her Cherbourg doppelgänger?

The disquieting puzzle only deepened when, close to the body, the skull of an adult was found. This second victim was never identified.

A French newspaper article published shortly after the body was discovered indicated that the Picards believed this little corpse was that of their daughter. So, the reporter asked them, where did this leave the living child they had previously accepted as Pauline?

“I do not know,” the father said sadly.

And there the matter evidently rested. If there was ever any real resolution to this story, I have been unable to find the slightest record of it.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company has devoted this week to gardening.

And so have the cats.

This week's Carnival of the Weird:

Sing it with me, my friends:  What the hell is this?!

A look inside the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's doomed flagship.

The curious saga of an American journalist's censored anti-Nazi film.

Rescue an injured starling, and you've got a friend for life.

The strange tale of a baby lost, then found, and now lost again.

The 2013 meeting of the Bilderberg group, aka Conspiracy Theorist Disneyland, is upon us.  Here's a list of attendees, in case you want to know who to feel paranoid about.

Speaking of events that spawn conspiracy theories, here's a roundup of books about the granddaddy of them all, the JFK assassination.

An interesting documentary about the megalithic structures of Britain and Ireland.  Available online!

Here's the trailer for another documentary, about the popular Florida Sea World attraction who also happens to be a serial killer.

A look at the Merry Cemetery of Romania.

If the cemetery gets so merry they bury you alive, here are some helpful tips.

Emily Davison:  Heroic suffragette or hysterical outragette?

How to "chuse" a husband, 1738.  Cyrano de Bergerac and Kirk Douglas need not apply.

Want to learn to read tea leaves?  Madame Zodiah explains it all for you!

Taming the Unmannerly Poor.  The last line of this post is a minor classic.

I think I have my next project:  Reviving the grand lost art of Text Hexes.

The sun is more than ready for its close-up.

Starbucks makes men gossipy and impotent.  But I suppose you already knew that.

A look at some of the more idiosyncratic historical mysteries.

"Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.

No rays from the holy heaven come down
On the long night-time of that town;
But light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently —
Gleams up the pinnacles far and free —
Up domes — up spires — up kingly halls —
Up fanes — up Babylon-like walls —
Up shadowy long-forgotten bowers
Of sculptured ivy and stone flowers —
Up many and many a marvelous shrine
Whose wreathéd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet, and the vine.
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in the air,
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves;
But not the riches there that lie
In each idol's diamond eye —
Not the gaily-jeweled dead
Tempt the waters from their bed;
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass —
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea —
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.

But lo, a stir is in the air!
The wave — there is a movement there!
As if the towers had thrust aside,
In slightly sinking, the dull tide —
As if their tops had feebly given
A void within the filmy Heaven.
The waves have now a redder glow —
The hours are breathing faint and low —
And when, amid no earthly moans,
Down, down that town shall settle hence,
Hell, rising from a thousand thrones,
Shall do it reverence."

Incidentally, I now have my very own neighborhood What the Hell is This.  Sometime during the night last Sunday, a sinister giant mutant bunny appeared on the street opposite my house, and it's been sitting there, grinning evilly at passerby, ever since.

Unless the visitor shown above goes on a rampage and kills everyone on my block, I'll see you all on Monday, where I will be presenting a tale of disappearance, doppelgangers, death, and decapitation.  Perfect reading material for all the sinister giant mutant mystery bunnies out there.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In December of 1916, Mansfield, Ohio saw a death only Charles Fort could love. One evening, a neighbor came into the house of Clyde Brokaw to find the entire family—Clyde, his wife Mollie, and his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter Pauline Grubb all lying senseless on the floor. The adults slowly recovered when given medical attention, but Pauline was dead.

Everyone was baffled, and not a little disquieted, when they could not find any cause for the family’s simultaneous collapse. No trace of poison or drugs was found in their bodies, and there was no evidence any member of the family had purchased any such substances. There was no sign they could have suffered from ptomaine or other food poisoning. The house was well-ventilated, which eliminated the early supposition of suffocation. The trio had all been seen earlier in the day, perfectly well. They had no known enemies. The parents, when they had recovered, were unable to give any explanation for what had happened to them.

The coroner finally finished his investigation the following February, announcing that the sudden illness and death that struck the Brokaw family would be “an unsolved mystery always.”

He was right.

[A footnote: In 1918 a sad sequel to this story took place when Mollie Brokaw was judged insane and committed to the state hospital. Her doctors believed her mental condition traced back to the tragedy two years earlier.]

Monday, June 3, 2013

Francis Stewart, Fifth Earl of Bothwell: A Devil in Disguise?

”A man of courage, enterprise, wit, and many accomplishments, he had all the Hepburn ambition, with all the charm of recklessness. His ambition was boundless, but crossed by a madcap vein which frustrated his desires. From the queen to the lowest of the people he was popular, and among so many ruffians he alone had a touch of what is genial, sympathetic, and boyish.”
-Andrew Lang, describing Francis Stewart

Francis Stewart, 5th (and final) Earl of Bothwell, is not nearly as well-remembered in history as his uncle, the 4th Earl, who was the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots. This is a pity, as the 5th Earl had a life just as tempestuous and possibly even stranger than his legendary relative. (In fact, in recent years, an amateur historian named Brian Moffatt made a respectable case that Francis was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero.)

Francis Stewart, born circa 1563, was the eldest child of John Stewart, one of Queen Mary’s innumerable illegitimate half-siblings, and Janet Hepburn, sister to the 4th Earl of Bothwell. In 1576, his cousin King James VI (later James I of England,) bestowed upon him his uncle’s deserted earldom. In 1582, Francis returned to Scotland after several years abroad, and his career as (in the words of William Roughead) “the stormy petrel of Scots politics” began in earnest. Francis is generally thought of as an irresponsible, even half mad, troublemaker—Scottish historian John Hill Burton expressed the majority view when he stated the 5th Earl had “no more policy in his violent and astounding enterprises, than in the mischievous frolics of the young man who in the present day wrench off knockers and upset policemen.”

I suspect that is hardly doing Francis Stewart justice. Like his famed uncle, he was a highly intelligent, charismatic, and educated man who simply, well, had his own ways of doing things. He played his own game, for his own purposes. And those purposes may have been even stranger than we know.

Until 1583, relations between Francis and his cousin the king were amicable. Then—as always seemed to be the case with Earls of Bothwell—things began to get weird. Francis was of the party that sought to extricate James from the control of his current “favorite,” the Earl of Arran. On November 28, there was “an evill-favoured brawl betuixt” Bothwell and another of James’ pet councilors, Lord Hume. Bothwell was confined to house arrest for a few days—even though “The Ladie Arran cried to strike off his head”—but then he was restored to the Royal favor.

That did not last long. In April 1584 Bothwell joined in another effort by dissatisfied nobles to pry James out of Arran’s domination and into their own. These plans failed, and the rebel lords fled into England. However, Scottish politics of the day was like a lethal game of musical chairs, with no one staying in the seat of power for long. The next year, the exiled lords, with the backing of Queen Elizabeth, came roaring back into Scotland with an army. Arran, sensing which way the wind was blowing, did a hasty retreat from political life, undoubtedly grateful to be one of the few Scottish politicians to retire with his head. James accepted his new keepers, settling for plaintively wishing Bothwell “a more quiet spirit.”

Bothwell’s spirit was—for him—“quiet” until the execution of his aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, in February 1587. He expressed outrage that James did not lift a finger to try and prevent his mother’s judicial murder—indeed, the king had quietly encouraged it. He told James to his face that he deserved to be hanged, and did his best to promote a retaliatory raid into England. After Mary’s death, when James, with typical hypocrisy, ordered his court into mourning, Francis defiantly appeared wearing armor, which was, he declared, the only suitable “dule weed.”

Francis’ career continued with no more than the usual deadly personal feuds, violent, nearly senseless political brawls, and private “living most dissolutelie” common to the Scottish nobleman of the time until 1591.  He kicked off that year by kidnapping a material witness in a divorce case the Laird of Craigmillar was bringing against his wife (Bothwell was a friend of Craigmillar's lady,) calling Calvin's "Institutions" "a childish worke," mocking the God-fearing women of Edinburgh by dubbing them "the Holie Sisters," and generally treating the king's "authoritie" with the contempt most Scots felt it deserved.

That was also the year in which it was made public that Francis, Lord Bothwell, was the Devil.

December 1590 saw the beginning of those infamous trials known to history as the case of the “Witches of North Berwick.” A remarkably large number of well-to-do, respectable Scottish citizens were accused of forming a witch cult, in the hope of invoking Satan’s aid to destroy the King and Queen of Scotland. The most illustrious name of all to appear in the indictments was King James’ cousin, Francis Stewart.

Did these accusations have any merit? The balance of the evidence indicates that something very strange was happening in Berwick, but what?

The most intriguing explanation for the North Berwick affair comes from Professor Margaret Murray, who specialized in studying the history of European witch-cults. She was convinced that the accused did indeed worship the Devil, who appeared to them in human form, and instigated and directed all their activities.

Murray believed the “Devil” that led the North Berwick cult was none other than the Earl of Bothwell. She argued, not unconvincingly, that Bothwell believed he had a right to the Scottish throne. His father had been legitimized by the Pope, as well as by Queen Mary. This gave Bothwell a reasonably good claim to be James’ heir presumptive, until, of course, the King and his new Queen had children--something, presumably, that Bothwell would be anxious to prevent. Murray pointed out that James himself had declared that Bothwell coveted his throne. Another witchcraft historian, Ian Ferguson, concurred, writing that “John Fian, head of the Berwickshire witches, died in horrible agony to preserve the life of the Grand Master, the Earl of Bothwell.”

Bothwell was certainly capable of such shenanigans, and the theory would supply a powerful motive for his eccentric antics. And, in the words of a contemporary, it was universally believed that Bothwell, like his famous uncle, “had much traffic with witches and was himself an expert necromancer.” On the other hand, the counter-argument that James invented the treason allegations in order to frame a man he feared as a possible challenger to his throne is also quite plausible. At this great distance in time, all we can do is speculate.

James had a notorious fixation about witchcraft, not to mention a great (and, to be fair, not unjustified) paranoia about his personal safety. The North Berwick trials were tailor-made to encourage all his most brutal instincts. The “witches” were all swiftly convicted of consorting with the Devil in order to plot His Majesty's demise, and duly burned at the stake. The one exception was a woman named Barbara Napier, who, wonder of wonders, was actually acquitted.

The jury paid dearly for their courage. James was incensed at the idea of this minion of Satan getting away with it. He sent the court orders that a fresh verdict of “guilty” be brought in, and had the jurymen indicted for “manifest and Wilfull Errour.” The jury quickly groveled in admission of their heinous "Errour," leading His Majesty to graciously pardon them. It can be taken for granted Napier did not escape the flames a second time.

In April 1591, Lord Bothwell himself was summoned before the Lords of the Secret Council. He clearly had some explaining to do. Although he defiantly denied his guilt, he was shut up in Edinburgh Castle to await trial. Having a good idea of how James’ justice system worked, Bothwell wisely escaped captivity and went into hiding. A Royal proclamation was issued announcing that Bothwell had “gevin him self ower altogidder in the handis of Sathan,” and “all kynd of filthiness.” He was declared an outlaw, with all of his titles and estates forfeited.

Bothwell was not one to take his medicine quietly. On December 27, he retaliated with a direct military raid on Holyrood Palace itself, the King’s personal residence, with the aim of making James his obedient captive. The attack was beaten off, but although some of Bothwell’s cohorts were taken prisoner, the Earl made his escape. James made several efforts to capture his unruly cousin, but with small success. In the meantime, Parliament found Bothwell guilty of treason. He now was not only officially persona non grata, he had a death sentence hanging over his head.

Bothwell’s response to this was to march straight into James’s private chambers early one morning, prudently “weill provydit with pistol.” While a half-dressed King cowered in terror at this invasion, (the more indiscreet accounts suggest His Majesty was cornered while in the privy,) Francis placidly bowed at his sovereign’s feet (Roughead:  Bothwell, "though a wizard, was a gentleman") and begged forgiveness.

It is a tribute to the paralyzing effect this amazing man had on King James that this is exactly what he got. That very day, a proclamation was made in Edinburgh announcing Bothwell had received the Royal pardon for all offenses, “with heralds and trumpettis sounding for joy.”

Now that Bothwell had the upper hand, he thought it would look well to hold a trial to officially clear his name of these pesky witchcraft and treason allegations. (He first took the expected precaution of packing Edinburgh with his private army, just to ensure the sympathies of the jury.)

In response to the depositions of the “witches” implicating Bothwell in their activities (depositions that were, of course, obtained under torture,) he simply dismissed them as lies put in the mouths of those unfortunates by his political enemies. He threatened to produce witnesses who would swear they had been told that if they did not implicate Bothwell in the conspiracies against James, they would “endure such torments as no man was able to abide.”

Whether out of a healthy fear of Bothwell’s soldiers, a desire to defend the nobility, or even—who knows?—a belief in the defendant’s innocence, the jury voted unanimously for acquittal.

James, alas, was unreliable even as a puppet. As soon as Bothwell was at a safe distance, the king announced that his pardon of Bothwell had been given under duress, and was now revoked. James sensibly added that the Earl was now forbidden from getting within ten miles of him.

Bothwell’s last grand gesture against his kingly cousin came in March of 1594, when he instigated what is now known as the Raid of Leith. The Earl came swooping down on James with some four hundred men, but the townspeople proved loyal. Although Bothwell fought “fearcelie with clamor and courage,” the raiders were fought off. (During the affray, we are told James himself fled in panic, “ryding in to Edinburgh at the full gallop, with little honour.”)

Bothwell did not have many more cards to play. He sought refuge in England, but Elizabeth, who had little sympathy for losers, bade him begone. After some futile political coquetting with the Catholics, Bothwell departed for the Continent, and Scotland saw him no more. He made energetic efforts to raise armies to enable him to regain citizenship in his homeland by force, but to no avail. The Earl finally settled in Italy, where, we are told, he became “famous for suspected necromancy.” Legend has it he made a professional career of casting horoscopes and performing even more Satanic arts.

We have the text of a letter Bothwell allegedly wrote a French witch-hunter during his final years. If genuine, it certainly provides a suggestive coda to the North Berwick witchcraft story. He wrote:
”You Christians are treacherous and obstinate. When you have any strong desire, you depart from your master and have recourse to me; but when your desire is accomplished, you turn your back on me as your enemy, and you go back to your God, who being benign and merciful, pardons you and receives you willingly. But make me a promise, written and signed by your own hand, that you voluntarily renounce Christ and your Baptism and promise that you will adhere and be with me to the day of judgment, and after that you will rejoice yourself with me to suffer eternal pains; and I will accomplish your desire.”

Bothwell is believed to have perished not long after writing this letter, sometime around 1612.

But, of course, everyone knows the Devil never really dies.