"...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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Remember that newspaper story I posted a while back about a family who woke up to find blood scattered around their house? In September 1987, an Atlanta couple was subjected to a similar sanguinary mystery.

One night, 77-year-old Minnie Clyde Winston stepped out of her bathtub to find the floor covered with splotches of blood. She discovered that blood was also in the kitchen, living room, bedroom, all the halls and the basement. Police could find no evidence that a crime or any sort of wrongdoing had been committed.

Minnie and her husband William had lived in the home for 22 years, and never noticed anything unusual about it before.  Despite Mrs. Winston's stubborn declaration that "I still don't believe it's human blood, I don't care what [the police] say," tests proved that's what the mysterious substance was, but it did not match the type of either of the Winstons. No one ever figured out where it came from. “It concerns me that we don’t have any answers,” said one of the investigating officers.

Bloody hell.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mrs. Sheatsley's Furnace

The morning of November 17, 1924 was a perfectly ordinary one for the Sheatsley family of Bexley, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Fifty-year-old Mrs. Addie Sheatsley served lunch to her husband, the Reverend Clarence Sheatsley, pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church,and their four children, and placidly saw her family all depart on their normal daily activities. A friend briefly visited her and found the Reverend’s wife in her usual cheerful spirits. Neighbors later saw her going about her household tasks. Mrs. Sheatsley was known as a good friend, a caring mother and wife, and an excellent housekeeper. Quite the Norman Rockwell picture.

Except Rockwell never depicted what happened next.

When Rev. Sheatsley returned home that evening, he found his wife was absent, but the children had been at home for some hours. They all noticed a strange burning odor in the house, which they assumed came from some rabbit skins that had become mixed up in the household refuse.

The Reverend later told police that his ten-year old son Clarence had opened the furnace door, and saw nothing unusual. However, when his father later took a look inside the furnace himself, he found the charred remains of his wife. Her small body had just managed to fit inside the miniature inferno, and then the door was closed behind her.

The investigation hinged on these questions: Did she enter the furnace voluntarily? If she did select such a highly unusual and agonizing form of suicide, was it physically possible for her to shut the door behind her? If it was murder, who on earth could have done such a horrific thing to this innocuous suburban housewife? Unfortunately, Mrs. Sheatsley’s body had been in the furnace since approximately two in the afternoon, and was by then too cremated to show if there were any signs of an attack.

The Reverend’s opinions about the death of his wife were oddly inconsistent. In his first statements to the police, he was adamant that there was a crazed murderer at large; it was impossible that Addie could have killed herself. However, the very next day, he had a sudden change of heart. He made a return visit to the county prosecutor to state that, having thought the matter over, he was now equally positive that this was a case of suicide, done in a “sudden seizure of insanity” that he thought often befell women of her age. He also changed his story about having been the first to find his wife’s body. He now told investigators that young Clarence had seen "mama standing in the fire,” but kept that interesting fact to himself, “preferring for some one else to find it out.”

And then there was the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t bottle of carbolic acid. One of the sons told police that a bottle of the poison that was always kept in the family medicine cupboard, which he knew had been there the day before Addie’s death, was missing. A week later the Sheatsleys announced that—hey, presto!—it suddenly reappeared in the cupboard. There was no sign that Mrs. Sheatsley had been poisoned, and it’s unknown what significance, if any, there was to this incident. But it all adds to the sense that there was something deeply weird about this seemingly ultra-normal household.

The furnace double-doors were about fourteen inches square, and two feet from the floor. They could only be closed by pulling the lining of one door into the lining of the other. When Addie Sheatsley’s body was discovered, her back was towards the opening. The smallness of the space and the position of the body made it seem impossible that she could have, on her own, crawled inside feet first and closed the doors behind her.

The county prosecutor was convinced he had a particularly bizarre murder case on his hands. Several days later, a chemist hired to examine the corpse gave his report. He stated that her lungs showed no trace of carbon monoxide, soot, or ashes, which would have been the case if she had been alive when she entered the furnace. It was his verdict that she had died of strangulation or suffocation, and then the murderer shoved her body in the furnace, obviously in the hope of burning away all trace of her. A pathologist seconded these findings.

All in all, it was looking like the prosecutor’s instincts had been correct from the start. It seemed that the only mystery remaining was the question of who had killed Mrs. Sheatsley and stuffed her body into the furnace, and why.

And then the county coroner derailed the murder investigation before it even properly began. About a week later, he came out with the report of his examination of Addie’s corpse. It was, he declared, “a plain case of suicide.”

As the coroner saw it, Mrs. Sheatsley, “her mind unbalanced as a result of pathological changes through which she was passing [menopause]” decided to kill herself. As soon as she was alone in the house, she opened the furnace door and pulled herself feet first into the fire box. As the flames began to consume her upright body, the “soot and other irritants” provoked a reflex spasm of the vocal chords, causing immediate asphyxiation. It was this spasm that filled the lungs with blood, not, as the initial report opined, manual strangulation or suffocation. As the body burned, it gradually sank into the odd crouching position in which it had been discovered. He also took issue with the initial conclusion that the lack of carbon monoxide in her blood proved that she could not have been breathing when she entered the furnace. He retorted that the reflex action he described would have halted her breathing so quickly there would not have been time for the gas to enter her system. As for the question of how she managed to shut the door after her, he assumed she had somehow rigged a string to the inside of the doors in order to close them over her.

The coroner absolved her family from all suspicion, stating their stories had been “straightforward and reasonable.”

He also obviously found it “straightforward and reasonable” that menopause would be enough to convince any woman that there was nothing for it but to roast herself alive.

The county prosecutor was not convinced.  He announced that he would call a special session of the grand jury to investigate the case.  I have not found any record this was actually done.  If it was, it did nothing to clarify the mystery.  Mrs. Sheatsley's death remained an official suicide.

A local paper, when reporting on the suicide verdict, referred to a recent experiment where a female volunteer had shown it was possible for her to creep through the furnace door. After noting that “the furnace used in the experiment, of course, was cold,” the paper added dryly that “There has been no experiment to prove whether or not any woman could creep into a bed of blazing coals, and inasmuch as there probably will not be any such experiment, the last chapter in the weird parsonage furnace mystery seems to have been written.”

Reverend Sheatsley remained in his pastorate until 1929, when he remarried and took the post of secretary of the board of Lutheran foreign missions. He died in 1943. The last surviving member of the family, Milton, who had been twenty when his mother died, passed away in 1998. No one in the Sheatsley family ever publicly spoke of their family tragedy again.

The last chapter in Addie Sheatsley’s death had indeed been written. Whether or not it was written correctly is something we will never know for sure.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company hopes you aren't getting bored with this blog.

We fear the cats already are.

On to this week's Carnival of the Curious:

What the hell is going on in Baltimore?

And in Russia?

And in Alaska?

And in Cape Town?

And in London?

And in the oceans?

And in the whole freaking universe?

True crime writer Ann Rule is at the center of an interesting twist on the recent rash of author vs. negative reviewer battles.

Anyone for a scavenger hunt?

Lost Angeles.

America's oldest known cave paintings have recently been discovered.

In case you needed one more reason to appreciate gin.

Music to die by.

Kittens go to war.

More military cats, via the Library of Congress:

Mascots of the USS Nahant, circa 1898

Miss Vixen, mascot of the USS Vixen during WWII

Time machines a go-go!

No, but they sure have us sized up.  Next question?

Start your weekend off with a taste of the Total Perspective Vortex.

An interesting "revisionist history" of "The Elephant Man," suggesting that Joseph Merrick may have found life as a sideshow exhibit preferable to being a hospitalized exhibit.

Via the ruins of Pompeii:  I'm embarrassed to admit I have loaves in my kitchen that look worse than this.

Because around here, we just love our Royal-baby-secretly-switched-at-birth stories.

Photo of the week, via the UCLA Archives.  It was Raymond Chandler's birthday this week, so they highlighted a photo of him with his cat, Taki.  The inscription notes that in this photo, Chandler was holding his cat's tail to keep it still.  Look closely at Taki's face, and you will see how much he appreciated that.

I'm sure there was an unreleased sequel to this photo that showed Chandler's nose being ripped off.

This week's PSA:  Santa Anita is hosting an unscheduled exhibition of what happens when people who do not know how to drive horse trailers insist on driving horse trailers.  I told one of the security guards that they have to bronze this thing and keep it as the perfect metaphor for what's become of the track since Frank Stronach took over.

He liked that.

Have a good weekend, gang.  I'll be back Monday, with the story of one of the strangest deaths on record. Let me put it this way:  After reading about what happened to a quiet suburban housewife in 1924, you will never think of barbecue the same way again.

Consider yourselves warned, my lovelies.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

While bizarre murders, sinister disappearances, mysterious deaths, hangings, decapitations, poltergeists, psychic assassins, and demonic garden hoses are all great good fun, I admit to being a hopeless sucker for this kind of story.

Meet three-month old Tuffy.  In 1950, the former New Jerseyite disappeared from her new home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Her owner, Clyde McMillan, put a lost-and-found ad in the "Daily Iowan."  Four days after she vanished, the kitten read the ad and strolled into the paper's newsroom.  After Tuffy spent most of the day sitting on a photographer's shoulders, a reporter remembered the notice and--people not being nearly as quick on the uptake as cats--two and two were finally put together.  Tuffy and Clyde were reunited, and, as the caption above stated, "Now everyone is happy--except the Iowan staff, which misses Tuffy."

Here's hoping Tuffy went on to have a long and blissful life spent very close to home.

[A postscript:  Just before going to press, so to speak, with this post, I discovered this sequel to the story dated from about a year after the above clipping.  Tuffy became a superstar!]

Monday, July 22, 2013

Eliza Fenning: Guilty or Innocent?

Crime historians still cannot agree whether twenty-two year old Elizabeth “Eliza” Fenning was the most incompetent of poisoners or the unluckiest of cooks. She worked for the family of Robert Turner, a London law-stationer (a seller of articles used by lawyers.) Besides Turner and his wife, the household consisted of two apprentices, Roger Gadsden and Thomas King, a housemaid named Sarah Peer, and Fenning.

By the date that was to become so crucial to Fenning’s history, she had been working for the Turners for about a month and a half. There was only one recorded instance of unpleasantness during her employ. According to Mrs. Turner, three weeks after Fenning’s arrival, she had been caught one night entering the bedroom of the apprentices. The next morning, she was threatened with dismissal, but after showing the proper contrition—Fenning claimed she had only been fetching a candle—Mrs. Turner relented. This proved to be an unfortunate decision. Certainly, Fenning would have preferred unemployment to what would take place about a month later.

On March 21, 1815, Fenning prepared dinner--a beef pie for the servants and steak accompanied by yeast dumplings for the Turners. (It was recorded that Mrs. Turner ordered Fenning not to leave the kitchen after the dumplings were made—a very curious demand that was never explained.) Although Fenning was normally a fine cook, it was noted at the dinner-table that the dumplings looked “black and heavy,” but the Turners and their guest, Robert’s father Orlibar, ate them anyway.

This was a grave mistake. The Turners almost immediately began experiencing all the violent, crippling agonies typical of poisoning. Most importantly, Fenning, who, after the remaining dumplings had been returned downstairs, had eaten as many of them as anyone, soon became dreadfully ill as well. The apprentice Roger Gadsden later testified that Fenning had warned him the dumplings were “cold and heavy,” and “would do him no good,” but he ate a small piece of one anyway. He too subsequently felt unwell, but not as badly as the others. The only members of the household to escape were Sarah Peer and Thomas King, who evidently had a providential aversion to dumplings. The household had a rough day or two, but everyone pulled through with no permanent damage done.

Except, of course, to the cook. Fenning, the creator of those “devilish dumplings,” immediately became the prime suspect, although it would be unusual indeed for a mass poisoner to be egalitarian enough to deliberately take a dose herself. The next day, Gadsden, prowling about in the kitchen, discovered a white power in the pan where the dumplings had been mixed. It was pointed out to the authorities that two packages of arsenic—clearly labeled as such—were kept in an easily accessible drawer. One of these packages, Gadsden claimed, disappeared about two weeks before the fatal dinner. (If this was the case, it is curious that no previous interest was taken in the theft.)

That was enough for the authorities. Fenning was taken into custody. She vigorously denied any wrongdoing, and blamed everyone’s illness on the milk Peer had fetched to make the dumplings. (Fenning and Peer apparently did not get on very well—a fact that may or may not be significant.) She later added that the yeast she used had a strangely-colored sediment at the bottom. It was never chemically established that the food had contained arsenic, or if it did, that the poison came from Turner’s supply, but those were the assumptions everyone accepted. (Incidentally, it was later demonstrated that the presence of arsenic in the dough would not inhibit it from rising normally. The reason why the dumplings were so unappetizingly “black and heavy” is unknown.)

At Fenning’s trial, the prosecution claimed her motive for attempting to slaughter the entire Turner family was a lingering bitterness over the scolding Mrs. Turner had given her a month before. Supposedly, she nursed her deadly wrath for weeks, and then included herself in the punishment. (She only fell ill after the Turners had collapsed, and also after she had advised Gadsden against the dumplings. This had led to the theory that after seeing the results of her handiwork, Fenning deliberately poisoned herself—either to throw off suspicion, or an attempt at suicide, fueled by fear or remorse.)

Fenning denied that she held a grudge over the incident. She declared “I like my place very much—I have never been more comfortably off since I have been out to service.” She said that the trouble with her mistress arose when Gadsden, against her wishes, “behaved improper to me,” and Mrs. Turner came to unjust conclusions. Fenning had been ready to leave her position, but Orlibar Turner’s wife (“the old lady”) smoothed things over, and as far as Fenning was concerned, the dispute was resolved. The defense called a number of witnesses who all testified that Fenning was a hard-working, good-natured girl with an excellent character. It was also made plain that she was not the only one in the kitchen on the day the dumplings were made. Peer, the apprentices, and even Mrs. Turner were in and out of the room. In short, anyone in the household could have slipped a little something extra into Fenning’s cooking.

Fenning begged that Thomas King be called to the stand, as he would attest that she never went near the drawer where the arsenic was kept. For whatever reason, her wishes were ignored. Instead, Gadsden was brought to testify. He declared that he had seen Fenning go to the drawer many times. He was not asked about the incident between him and Fenning that started the trouble with Mrs. Turner. The unfortunate cook continued to protest that King should be questioned, but the judge—who was blatantly prejudiced against Fenning--brushed off her pleas, stating that it was too late to bring the apprentice forward. Even more amazing is the fact that Dr. Ogilvy, the man who treated the household—including Fenning—during their illnesses never gave testimony. (According to the laws then in place, Fenning herself was barred from taking the stand.)

At the end of her trial, the jury only took a few minutes to find her guilty, and she was sentenced to death. The accused “was carried from the bar convulsed with agony and uttering frightful screams.”

It was widely believed that justice had not been done in the case, and Fenning quickly became a public cause. The press came to her defense, and petitions were addressed to the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, and the Prince Regent, asking for a delay in the execution until everyone was satisfied that all the facts had been uncovered.

The Lord Chancellor considered the matter, but finally decided that there was insufficient justification for a reprieve. On July 26, 1815, (some sources say June 26,) Eliza Fenning was hanged. Her last words were declarations of her innocence. Her father reclaimed her body—after paying the hangman’s fee—and she lay in state at the Fenning home for five days, to accommodate the stream of well-wishers and the morbidly curious who trooped through the residence. The crowds became so large that the police finally stepped in and closed the show. Thousands of mourners joined the funeral procession.

Eliza Fenning, if innocent, managed to get a certain posthumous revenge against the Turners. That family became exceedingly unpopular after her hanging. For days, the Turner home was surrounded by an angry mob who had to be prevented from setting fire to the place. There were rumors that Gadsden was the real poisoner, but the most credible suspicions fell on none other than Robert Turner. Shortly before Fenning’s execution, a local chemist named Gibson went to the Sheriff and testified that the previous September Turner had called on him in a “wild and deranged state.” Robert’s father was sent for, and in the meantime, Gibson declared, the younger Turner “used the most violent and incoherent expressions: such as, ‘My dear Gibson, do, for God’s sake get me secured or confined, for if I am at liberty I shall do some mischief; I shall destroy myself and my wife. I must and shall do it unless all means of destruction are removed out of my way; therefore do, my good friend, have me put under some restraint. Something from above tells me I must do it, and unless I am prevented I certainly shall do it.” Other sources state that Robert Turner was prone to “fits,” and an apothecary claimed that shortly before the poisonings, Turner had attempted to purchase arsenic in his shop. As the customer showed “symptoms of insanity,” the sale was refused.

Gibson’s statement was sent to the judge in Fenning’s case, but he showed his usual antipathy to anything in the prisoner’s favor, and the chemist was ignored.

Stories about Turner’s guilt persisted, but historians have been unable to determine their validity. The question of the true culpability of Fenning herself continued to be argued for years afterwards, with “fresh evidence” sometimes presenting her as a martyred angel who fell victim to conspiracy and cover-up, sometimes as the most depraved of evildoers. It all threw off the proverbial heat, but little light. Fenning may even have inspired an incident in a classic novel published three years after her death. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” features a young servant girl who was executed for a crime actually committed by Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Many believe the character of Justine Moritz was based on the ill-fated cook.

In short, the evidence—most of it amounting to mere gossip—that was put forward about the Fenning case before and after her execution was so uncertain, subjective, and contradictory that it is impossible to know what really happened in the Turner house that March day. It is even remotely conceivable, as one modern historian suggested, that the household fell victim to accidental food poisoning, which was all too common in those unhygienic days. (There was, after all, some reason having nothing to do with arsenic to explain the strange appearance of the dumplings.) The one certainty is that whether Fenning was guilty or not, the charges against her received an appallingly poor investigation.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company is reeling from this week's assortment of links.

So are the cats.

The latest installment in this ongoing Path Through the Peculiar:

What the hell is Mount Shasta?

And who the hell are the Black Eyed Children?

And what the hell was the Enfield Poltergeist?

And what fresh ham is this?

Story of the week:  NBAlien?

The ordinary suburban British home that became a time capsule.

Hollywood has always lacked even the most basic moral principles?  The devil you say.

The word "Badass" should have been put into permanent retirement when Adrian Carton de Wiart died.

Putting some life into death.

John Shakespeare?  William Florio?

Baptisms are supposed to help you go straight to Heaven.  One 19th century preacher took that a bit too literally.

A tragic case of death after life after death.

Food can't be too spicy for the likes of me.  Chilis, pepper, curries, bring 'em on.  I am also fiercely antisocial, hopelessly introverted, irredeemably misanthropic, and generally the most undynamic, do-nothing blob in all these United States.  Good going, Science, you've done it again.

For this week's episode of Creepy Victoriana:  Let's talk Harrogate UFOs!

The astonishing Ellora Caves of India.  They make the Egyptian pyramids look like a kid's Lego set.

The unexpected hazards of second-hand clothing.

In which I am cheered to realize that there are worse things than being homely.

Mommie Weirdest:  In which I am even more cheered to realize that I do not have a mother who sees me as a data-mining project.

Spend forty-three years engaged to Mary M. Seeley, and you'd drink, too.

The mystery of the medieval Chinese pearl UFO.

Astronaut UFOs!

The real Watergate.  In Turkey, no less.

The curious saga of the Andes, Atlantis, and Adolf Hitler.

A "Not Wanted" ad from 1800.

The eerie case of Montana's Mystery Legs.

This week's PSA:  Reddit explains the dangers of time travel.

After getting through a post of demonic alien children, Nazis, severed limbs, pig monsters, poltergeists, and, most frightening of all, Ms. Amy Webb, I know what you need right now...


Finally, the latest local What Why the Hell is It:  Last weekend Santa Anita held a home and garden show. (You know, I'm old enough to remember when the place was a racetrack.) This was one of their prized exhibits:

Upon closer examination, I finally determined that this thing is a fireplace.  Yes, a fireplace.  A fireplace shaped like a giant guitar.  The only excuse for having a fireplace like this is if you live in Graceland.  I do not live in Graceland. You do not live in Graceland.

That home show was full of curious delights.  My favorite was the booth offering a free chiropractic exam. Right next to it was a booth advertising Forest Lawn, presumably for when the chiropractic exams don't go very well.

Anyway, I'll see you all Monday, when I will be presenting the enigmatic case of Eliza Fenning. Was this 19th century cook a poisoner, or the victim of a miscarriage of justice?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In 1950, Paradis, Louisiana resident Jacquelyn Cadow prepared for her wedding under highly unusual circumstances, described in the article below:

This little bayou community bustled with excitement today watching for a phantom whistler whose weird serenades have terrorized an 18-year-old bride-to-be.

Nearly all of the village’s 200 population peered out of windows last night while a cordon of sheriff’s deputies guarded the home of Jacquelyn Cadow.

For the past few days the townspeople have talked of little except the intruder who threatened the girl’s life and vowed to prevent her marriage to a young State trooper. Opinion is divided over whether the nocturnal whistler is a prankster, a would-be killer or a lunatic.

His whistle is a shrill interpretation of a funeral dirge.

State police, who were drawn into the investigation by State Trooper Herbert Belsom of New Orleans, Jacquelyn’s husband-to-be, said they were stepping out of the case.

“We are convinced it is the work of a prankster,” Trooper Vincent B. Ebeler said.

State Police Sgt. N.J. Khoury said the Cadow home yesterday took on the appearance of a mecca. Hundreds of curiosity seekers in automobiles paused for a look at the scene of the whistler’s visits—a cottage surrounded by moss-draped oaks.

A doctor attended the young bride-to-be who collapsed Tuesday night after she and her mother, her mother’s sister and a New Orleans States reporter all said they twice heard the intruder’s funeral whistle.

The reporter, Roy Heinecke, joined Trooper Belsom in a search of the Cadow yard, but found nothing.

“The family doesn’t seem to have any enemies,” said Sheriff Leon Vial. “It is either a crazy person or someone close to the family who has something against them that we don’t know about.”

The girl’s mother, Mrs. Clifford Cadow, said it started with whistled wolfcalls last February. Two months ago, when Jacquelyn’s engagement to the 25-year-old trooper was announced, the mother said she received telephone threats.

“I’ll kill her. I’ll stick a knife in her. Your daughter will never marry Herbert,” Mrs. Cadow quoted the caller.

The wedding is set for Oct. 1.

“I’ll marry Herbert if police have to escort me up the aisle,” said Jacquelyn.

Jacquelyn married Belsom without incident, and there is no record of the “Whistler” ever appearing again. The mystery of who was harassing Cadow and why has never been publicly resolved. The Sheriff later announced the case was closed, declaring it to be a “hoax” and an “inside job.” He never explained these remarks, leaving it unclear whether he really found proof the Phantom Whistler of Paradis was indeed a warped practical joke, or if—as so often happens—this was a case of the authorities concocting a simple “answer” as a way of dealing with the unanswerable.

Monday, July 15, 2013

David Haggart: The Memoirs of a 19th Century Pickpocket

Never underestimate the power of a well-timed book deal. Witness the case of David Haggart, alias John Wilson, alias John Morrison, alias Barney McCoul, alias John McColgan alias Daniel O’Brien, alias The Switcher. In life, he was a worthless nuisance and failed example of what Horace Rumpole would call “a minor villain.” In death, the self-penned story of his life transformed him into a best-selling author, a charming rogue, a figure of myth and romance.

It even got him into the Dictionary of National Biography.

Haggart certainly led an active life, although his particular brand of criminality takes on a rather monotonously unimaginative quality. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1801. By his own account, his childhood was perfectly normal, until a game-cock belonging to a townswoman caught his eye. Haggart dealt with this lady’s refusal to sell the bird by stealing it.

This exquisitely simple method of acquiring goods one wanted soon became a habit with young David. (“It was all,” he shrugged, “just Fate.”) His next step was to rob the till of a local shop. He then turned horse thief, but the legitimate owner, a butter-and-egg salesman, managed to recover the animal. The local housewives, who were fond of the young scamp, mollified him out of his justifiable outage by buying up his entire stock—a notably misplaced act of charity.

At the age of twelve, while attending the races in Leith, he got precociously drunk and, while in that condition, enlisted as a drummer in the West Norfolk Militia. The year he spent with the battalion was the only semi-productive, respectable period of his life. Naturally, it couldn’t last. The regiment was disbanded in 1814, and David was discharged. His father sent him back to school—he was at least an intelligent little wastrel—and later was apprenticed to local mill wrights. Unfortunately, the firm went bankrupt, leaving Haggart to follow his own wayward impulses.

He drifted into Edinburgh’s sleazier societies. In the words of the distinguished author himself: “Everything I saw, or heard, or did, was wicked; my nights and my days were evil.” He became the apprentice of an Irishman named Barney McGuire: “a darling of a boy, and a most skillful pickpocket”—so darling and skillful that he once proudly robbed his own brother.

In 1817, Haggart and McGuire went to the Portobello races, where young David saw his grand premiere as a professional pickpocket. His debut was a hit, as first crack out of the box he joyfully robbed a horseplayer of eleven pounds.

The next stop was a tour of the various markets held along the Borders, where they continued to earn a handsome living via the pockets and purses of others.

Next came a romantic interlude. In Newcastle, the pair found lodgings in the house of a Mrs. Anderson. Their landlady had “three pleasant” daughters, and spent “a jolly Christmas” with the ladies. While posing as respectable traveling gentlemen, the duo escorted the girls to balls and theaters, thus adding pleasure to business—while attending these festivities, they managed to relieve the other revelers of a total of about seventy pounds.

After the Christmas season was over, our wandering lads moved on. They attempted to branch out by robbing a house in Durham. This was overambitious of them. The pair was soon recognized, arrested, convicted, and duly sentenced to death.

Undaunted, they set about planning a breakout. Haggart was able to make his escape, but McGuire was recaptured. However, Haggart was able to smuggle a “fiddlestick” [saw] to his mentor, and McGuire managed to cut through the bars and gain his freedom.

This period of liberty did not last long. At the Kelso market, McGuire was caught in the act of robbing a farmer, and a great “mivadering” [fight] broke out. Haggart made a successful dash from the scene, but his felonious friend received three months in jail.

Haggart evidently felt a bit lost when left to his own devices. He took a holiday with the Andersons, remaining in their congenial company for several months and picking the odd pocket whenever convenient.

“Never will I forget the kindness, and even friendship, of these good people to me,” Haggart wrote, and one has little reason to doubt his sincerity. However, a man’s career cannot be neglected forever. He bade a warm farewell to the ladies and returned to Edinburgh to pursue in earnest his chosen profession of “snibbing.” He encountered a former apprentice of his father’s, who persuaded him to return home. A severe illness kept him in bed for a month, but upon his recovery the old Adam soon asserted himself in the prodigal son. The unlawful acquisition of some butter and tobacco landed him in jail, but his relatives posted bail and secured his release.

As was the case in his boyhood, the quality of mercy seemed utterly wasted on our hero. He continued on his business of pocket-picking and petty thievery, until he was finally busted for stealing cloth, which he intended to be a present for one of his girlfriends. “Haggart,” the Sheriff sternly told him, “you are a great scoundrel, and the best thing I can do for you, to make you a good boy, is to send you to Bridewell for sixty days, bread and water, and solitary confinement.” The discovery that he had also stolen a watch added another sixty days to his involuntary vacation. After his release, he drifted about, making the usual general irritant of himself with a series of “petty jobs.”

He fell in with a gang of ruffians, and was soon convicted of theft. Two months. Upon serving his sentence, he and a crook known only as “The Doctor” made their way back to Edinburgh, committing the usual plundering along the way. By March of 1820, he was back in the dock—for all his boasts about his exploits, Haggart appears to have been either a remarkably unskilled or remarkably unlucky junior-league criminal. By the end of the month, he had made his second successful jailbreak, and fled to Dumfries, where he encountered his early friend Barney McGuire. The two old business partners went to Carlisle to take up where they left off, but, unfortunately for them, McGuire was immediately recognized and apprehended by the local sheriff. He received fourteen years in Botany Bay, and disappears from history. “He was a choice spirit and a good friend,” Haggart sighed. “I had no thought and sorrow till I lost Barney.”

Haggart himself was arrested the day after McGuire, sent back to Edinburgh, and put on trial for an impressive array of bad behavior: Eleven acts of theft, two of possession of stolen merchandise, one of burglary, and one of prison-breaking.

He was found guilty of theft, and the burglary charge was “Not Proven.” Before the whole legal proceedings had concluded, Haggart did another escape from custody, but was soon recaptured. In the Dumfries jail, he plotted yet another jailbreak with several other prisoners. During the escape, Haggart encountered the turnkey. He struck the man with a stone, knocking him downstairs.

Haggart made it out of the prison, but while in hiding the next day, he overheard that the jailer he attacked had died. As a freelance evildoer, Haggart had now, one might say, hit the big leagues.

Young David was now, quite literally, running for his life. He made it all the way to Fife, but for whatever suicidal reason—a deep-seated sense of guilt, perhaps, or just his inner Imp of the Perverse asserting itself—he almost immediately returned to Edinburgh. Virtually the first thing he saw in the capital was his wanted poster, offering seventy guineas for his capture.

This was enough to give him an urge to see something of the Highlands, where he had a financially rewarding tour of the area. While en route to Ireland, he was, unbeknownst to him at the time, recognized, and his movements reported to the police. This characteristically ill-fated chance encounter was to be his final downfall.

The Emerald Isle saw his usual business practices, and, accordingly, he soon found himself in the position to compare the prisons of Ireland to those of Scotland. A Sheriff who had arrested him before soon arrived on the scene to identify Haggart and haul him back to his native land.

He returned home, he recorded with professional pride, as a celebrity. He was greeted with crowds anxious for a glimpse of “Haggart the Murderer.”

He admitted that “I was fully as wicked” as the witnesses at his trial testified, his only defense being that the killing of the jailer had been accidental. This had little weight with the court, and he was sentenced to death.

It was while awaiting the hangman that he first dreamed of literary immortality. He savored all the public attention he had recently earned, but realized that, pestilential wretch though he was, he had not been able to achieve sufficient heights of villainy to be anything but a passing fad.

Why not, he reasoned, write the story of his life, putting the appropriately glamorous spin on his adventures, thus giving the world a document that would ensure that the name of David Haggart would not soon perish?

When you are only twenty years old and have had little variety in your career, the story of your life is quickly written. The manuscript was soon ready for publication, complete with a self-portrait that served as frontispiece, and a phrenological analysis of his skull. (By the second edition, a helpful glossary of thieves’ slang was added.)  For good measure, he even composed a ballad about his fate, a poetic effusion that some may think was a capital crime in itself:

Able and willing, you will me find,
Though bound in chains, still free in mind;
For with these things I'll ne'er be grieved,
Although of freedom I'm bereaved.

In this vain world there is no rest,
And life is but a span at best;
The rich, the poor, the old, the young,
Shall all lie low before it's long.

I am a rogue, I don't deny,
But never lived by treachery;
And to rob a poor man, I disown,
But them that are of high renown.

Now, for the crime that I'm condemn'd,
The same I never did intend;
Only my liberty to take,
As I thought my life did lie at stake.

My life, by perjury, was sworn away,
I'll say that to my dying day.
Oh, treacherous S---- , you did me betray,
For all I wanted was liberty.

No malice in my heart is found,
To any man above the ground.
Now, all good people, that speak of me,
You may say I died for my liberty.

Although in chains you see me fast,
No frown upon my friends you'll cast,
For my relations were not to blame,
And I brought my parents to grief and shame.

Now, all you ramblers, in mourning go,
For the Prince of Ramblers is lying low;
And all you maidens, who love the game,
Put on your mourning veils again.

And all you powers of music chant,
To the memory of my dying rant—
A song of melancholy sing,
Till you make the very rafters ring.

Farewell relations, and friends also,
The time is nigh that I must go;
As for foes, I have but one,
But to the same I've done no wrong.

Haggart was hanged on July 18, 1821. It is recorded that the “prepossessing” young man “decently dressed in black,” met his faith with “calm serenity.” After mounting the scaffold, he “earnestly conjured” the large and friendly crowd “to avoid the heinous crime of disobedience to parents, inattention to Holy Scriptures, of being idle and disorderly, and especially of Sabbath-breaking, which, he said, had led him to that fatal end.”

Haggart died, but his book lived on. The pamphlet, issued four days after his execution, was a huge and amazingly long-lived success—new editions were issued at least as late as the 1880s.

Over the years, there has been much debate over the authenticity of Haggart’s narrative. Court records proved that he was certainly a serial thief and, finally, murderer, but how much decorative embellishment had been added to his dreary doings? His final attorney, Henry Cockburn, gave a negative account of his famous client in his own autobiography. Haggart, he wrote, was “young, good-looking, gay, and amiable to the eye, but there was never a riper scoundrel—a most perfect and inveterate miscreant in all the darker walks of crime…The confessions and the whole book were a tissue of absolute lies—not of mistakes, exaggerations, or fancies, but of sheer and intended lies. And they all had one object: to make him appear a greater villain than he really was.” Other scholars, however, tend to put more faith in Haggart’s general veracity—taking his side, you might say, by insisting that yes, he really was that great a villain.

It little matters whether Haggart was, as Kris Kristofferson once sang, “partly truth and partly fiction.” He probably didn’t care if he was believed, just as long as he was remembered.

And remembered he is, to this very day. He even managed to be immortalized on the silver screen. In 1969, John Huston directed “Sinful Davey,” a film ostensibly based on Haggart’s autobiography. In reality, the production was a comedy/adventure romp that had little to do with the facts of the pickpocket’s short and rather depressing life.

Haggart, of course, would have loved it. He likely would have seen such a tribute as well worth a trip to the gallows.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company would never consider posing for a risqué centerfold photo.

But the cats might.

This week's Odyssey of the Odd:

What the hell--and I do mean "hell" is this?

And who the hell is trying to tell us something?

And what the hell is on this old rock?

Whatever the hell these rocks are, don't pick them up.

Unfunny money.

Greatest. Art Museum.  Ever.  That is all.

“This piece could only be improved with cats.” Sorry, I spoke too soon. This is the greatest art museum ever.

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
Only this and nothing more."

A companion piece to the link above:  Seagulls are very sociable, as well.

Haddon Hall:  The quintessential old English home.

The story of an Italian pathologist who investigates Renaissance-era "cold cases."

So, who says love is dead?

I doubt anyone really wanted to find this guy, anyway.

"The loveliest woman in America"--and, ultimately, one of the saddest.

"John Nelson":  A murderer who knew how to keep a secret.

The legend of Alice Flagg, one of South Carolina's most romantic ghosts.

Bizarre, unexplained creatures can be found haunting a lake in Scotland.  Oh, along with the Loch Ness monster, of course.

Oh, those Impure Puritans.

Don't you just hate it when you marry a guy and he turns out to have a ghostly doppelganger who likes to get up and shave in the middle of the night?

Meet a 23-million year old lizard.  And he doesn't look a day over 15 million.

"[He] opened a door and something flew in."  The life and times of John Whiteside Parsons, anti-christ, poet, genius, rocket scientist, and all-around disciple of The Weird.

The colorful history of Billy the Kid's busy finger.  No, that's not the title of a Wild West-themed X-rated film.  Now cut that out.

Internet flame war of the week:  Troll vs. Cat.  Guess who wins.

If it's Friday, that must mean it's Creepy Victoriana Time!  Meet Euphonia.  And then prepare to have your nightmares taken to a whole 'nother level.

And let's see some Victorians losing their heads over portrait photography.  If you've been following this blog for any length of time, I don't think you have to open up the link to guess what's coming.

The Creepy Victoriana keeps coming!  I'm not even sure what to say about these photos.  Anyone remember that "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy thinks the new neighbors are Russian spies, so she sneaks into their apartment to investigate, and winds up disguising herself as a chair?

The scriptwriters must have gotten their inspiration from these images of Victorian motherhood.

Getting up close and personal with a live volcano.

For only $8500, you, too, can proudly tell the world, "I'm a complete freaking moron who needs to have  my credit cards cancelled and my bank account frozen ASAP."

The day in 1973 when someone kidnapped Edgar Allan Poe.

Tweet/photo of the week:  Ladies and gentlemen, let us make a visit to Pig Beach and live high off the hog.

Finally, I must mention that yesterday was the feast day of this blog's patron saint, Olga of Kiev.  An overview of this remarkable woman's astonishing career can be read here.

See you all on Monday, when I relate the story of a pickpocket and murderer whose memoirs became one of the best-selling books of the 19th century.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In 1963, life got all wet for Francis Martin and his family. One night, the Methuen, Massachusetts household was watching television when they suddenly saw water coming from the wall. They heard a “popping noise,” like a firecracker, and the spurts increased, emitting about a quart at a time.

Engineers and the fire department inspected the house carefully, but the streams of water continued. The home became so flooded that the family was forced to take shelter at the home of Mrs. Martin’s mother in nearby Lawrence. No sooner had they arrived, that water began spewing from the walls and ceiling of this house, as well.

Perhaps the strangest detail is that when the walls were pried open, they were found to be dry on the inside. A check of the crawl space above the house showed that there were no leaks in the roof, and no sign of any moisture.

But the water kept flowing.

When the Martins returned to their home, they shut off the water, drained the pipes, and did everything they could think of to air out the place. But nothing stopped the mysterious deluge. And, of course, no one could even begin to explain how the waterworks followed them to Lawrence.

The "water demon," as the Martins came to call the phenomenon, gradually lessened on its own to the point where it disappeared for good, but no explanation for this aquatic slice of The Weird was ever found.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Duke of Druce

One of the strangest and most complicated court proceedings of the late Victorian/early Edwardian era centered around a formerly inconspicuous man named Thomas Charles Druce. He was a London tradesman, to be sure, but was he secretly a massively wealthy Duke, as well?

In 1820, Druce, who was then a draper’s assistant, deserted his wife of four years and their two young children, Frances and George. Fifteen years later, he reemerges into history as a salesman in the Baker Street Bazaar. He had also acquired a common-law wife named Annie May Berkeley.

Druce prospered in his new existence, eventually becoming sole owner of the store where he worked. His legal wife died in 1851, leaving him free to marry Annie May. The couple had a son, Herbert, and four months after their wedding, welcomed their second child, Walter. Druce died in 1864. Or so everyone assumed.

Walter Druce passed away in 1880, leaving behind two children and a widow, Anna Maria, who would become the great figure in our story. Calling Anna Maria Druce a troublemaker would be rather like describing the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 AD as a minor hiccup. The trouble began when she did a bit of digging into the family history and discovered the date of the marriage between Thomas Druce and Annie May, revealing that her late husband’s elder brother Herbert was illegitimate. She never realized that her father-in-law had been married before, with legitimate descendants. Quite a lot of bother would have been spared to a great many people if she had.

Anna Maria began to plot. She figured that if she could overturn Thomas Druce’s will, the illegitimate Herbert could be disinherited, leaving her and her children as sole heirs. In 1898, she went to court to have Thomas Druce’s coffin exhumed. Why? Because, she declared, the old man did not really die in 1864. Rather, Herbert Druce concocted an evil plan to take charge of his father’s estate by having Thomas imprisoned in an insane asylum, where he secretly died nearly twenty years later.

The court, for reasons that frankly escape me, found her story convincing and agreed to her wishes. Herbert Druce, however, had the exhumation stopped. Anna Maria was able to convince many onlookers that this merely confirmed the worst about him. She retaliated for this setback by going to the press. She gave her story to “Lloyd’s Weekly News.” And what a story it was. Thomas Charles Druce, she revealed, was actually the fifth Duke of Portland, who officially died in 1879. The Duke was an eccentric, but harmless figure—he dressed strangely, shunned society, and spent an enormous amount of money building tunnels and subterranean rooms around his family seat, Welbeck Abbey.

According to Anna Maria, the nobleman would periodically tire of life as the Duke of Portland, and when these moods came upon him, he would don a false beard, enter a tunnel built under his London townhouse, and reemerge in Baker Street as that man of business Thomas Charles Druce. When the charms of being a salesman began to pall, he would reverse the process and re-Duke himself. The marriage of 1851 was not between Thomas Druce and humble Annie May, but between the Duke and an illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Berkeley. Eventually, there was a mock burial of “Thomas Charles Druce,” after which the Duke retreated completely out of sight until his death. In short, Anna Maria and her children were not just sole heirs to the Druce estate, but to the Dukedom of Portland as well.

The newspaper-reading public ate the story up. It is unknown how Anna Maria came to link Druce to the Duke of Portland, or if she actually believed any of her own colorful drivellings, but she managed to convince an astounding number of people that she and her children were victims of a cruel injustice.

The avenging Widow Druce took advantage of the publicity to get another court order to exhume Thomas Druce’s grave. Again, Herbert Druce—who was rapidly becoming London’s favorite villain—thwarted her. After three years, this indomitable lady made another attempt to have Thomas Druce’s will overturned. At this point, a new figure entered the case—an Australian named George Hollamby Druce.  He was the child of the son Thomas Druce had from his first marriage.  Anna Maria had had no idea this interloper even existed, and he proved to be the fatal roadblock to her schemes. GH Druce, it seems, also wanted the will revoked. If Anna Maria’s tales of masquerading noblemen and empty coffins proved to be true, George Hollamby—not Anna Maria—would be heir to the Portland/Druce fortunes.

George Hollamby Druce

Anna Maria did not take this development well, castigating the Australian as an “impudent, audacious, and absolutely ignorant impostor.” He was, she snorted, no relation to the Duke of Portland Druce.

At the hearing to decide the will’s validity, she committed perjury like a champion. She asserted—under oath—that she had seen her father-in-law ten years after he officially died. However, the testimony of doctors and nurses who had attended Thomas Druce in his last illness, as well as Herbert Druce’s sworn statement describing seeing his father in his coffin, had more weight with the jury. The will was upheld, and Anna Maria dropped out of our story. In what is probably the least surprising detail about the whole saga, she was last heard from in a lunatic asylum.

However, George Hollamby was more than ready to take up her dropped baton. He published pamphlets asserting the truth of Anna Maria’s story. And he hired a lawyer, who helped him establish a company that sold “shares” for one pound each. Everyone who chipped in would, George Hollamby promised, be eligible for a portion of the joint Portland/Druce estate. It is depressing to report that these shares sold quite well--largely to people who had very little money to spare--earning the ambitious George Hollamby a great deal of money.

In 1907, George Hollamby filed suit against Herbert for perjury, asserting that Herbert’s story of seeing his father dead was a shameless lie. George Hollamby brought a strange parade of witnesses into court, all of them giving first-hand testimony that Thomas Druce was indeed the Duke of Portland in disguise. (My favorite story was the reminiscence of seeing Druce/Portland portraying the Grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood” in a play staged at Charles Dickens’ house.)

By this time, the court decided that the only way to be rid of this endless parade of Druces was to just go ahead and open the damn grave already. Herbert Druce, who was wearier of the matter than anyone, agreed.

Great Britain held its breath in anticipation. What would this most hotly-debated of coffins reveal? It proved to reveal…a very well-preserved, and quite recognizable, Thomas Charles Druce.


I have no idea what became of George Hollamby after this debacle. I presume he had a very uncomfortable meeting with his company’s stockholders, and then quickly skedaddled back to Australia. His witnesses fared even worse—the whole lot of them faced perjury charges. And to this day, the Druce case still stands as one of the leading examples of what one of the Magistrates called “striking proof of the unfathomable depths of human credulity.”

Friday, July 5, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company's just climbing the walls this week.

Along with the cats.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present this week's tour of the Way of the Weird:

So, where the hell did this come from?

And, what the hell is out there?

And, what the hell was this doing there?

And, what the hell is Bigfoot?

And what the hell are these?  Do we really want to know?

I can tell you, I wish I didn't know what the hell this is.

Want to know what the hell this is?  A jeweled robot caterpillar, that's what.  And it makes the world a better place, don't you think?

I'm pretty sure "Jeweled Robot Caterpillar" opened for Iron Butterfly back in the '60s.

The kind of thing that happens when you break a deathbed promise.

The kind of thing that happens when you mess around with ouija boards.

On corpse roads, fairies, and ghosts.

If you've been hankering to be creeped out by a giant ivory eye, well, you've come to the right place.

A chance to explore the Sutton Hoo burial from the comfort of your very own computer.

When some people are confronted with gruesome murders, they think of sin, misery, grief, the seeming pointlessness of so much human suffering.  When the Victorians were confronted with gruesome murders, they thought of home decor.

A one-night stand that was really, uh, out of this world.

Edgar Allan Poe Did Not Haunt Here:  A look at the ghosts (and non-ghosts) of New York City.

That wraps it up for another week.  Monday, I shall return with the story of one of Great Britain's weirdest court cases.  Was an obscure London tradesman really a Duke in disguise?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Independence Day

A very happy 4th of July to all my American readers.  If you're not American, well, what the hell, enjoy your day, too.

I thought I'd commemorate the holiday with a little slice of history, illustrating "the present intentions of the Americans."  The following appeared in the "London Evening Post" on July 4, 1776:

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In the early 1900s, the newspaper-reading public gained a good deal of entertainment from the tangled romantic misadventures of Helen Maloney. Maloney, the daughter of a Philadelphia oil millionaire, disappeared in 1907. It soon transpired that she had eloped with a young Englishman named Samuel Clarkson. After an internationally-publicized search, the couple was finally located in Paris.

When Maloney returned to America, she had an unpleasant surprise waiting for her. Two years before, she had “as a joke” impulsively wed a New York stockbroker named Arthur Osborn. She was aghast to learn that this casual “freak marriage” was still legally binding. Despite her father’s influence, (he was a Papal Marquis,) the Catholic Church refused to annul this union, but the civil authorities were eventually obliging enough to grant her an annulment in 1908.

In 1909, Maloney was finally married with the full sanction of her church…to Arthur Osborn. Yes, this most madcap of heiresses decided she got it right the first time around.

I have no idea how this remarriage fared. I’m a little scared to find out.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Mystery of Sand Island

In 1909, the “Baku [Azerbaijan] Gazette” carried an odd little story that, rather surprisingly, got scant attention at the time and quickly dropped into permanent obscurity.

The “Gazette” reported that three wealthy residents of Baku went to Sand Island (now generally known as Kichik Zira,) in the Caspian Sea, to do some shooting. When they failed to return, a search party was sent out. Close to the shore, they found the three men dead, lying on their backs with their hands crossed over their chests. Their money and jewelry were untouched, but their guns and hunting knives were missing.  Their boat had been drawn well up into the sand, with the keel upturned, as if to secure it.

It proved impossible to tell how the men died. There were no injuries on the bodies at all, or even any signs of a struggle. (And the leader of the party, a M. Krassilrukoff, was described as a strong man of "herculean build.")  Their faces looked completely serene.  Later tests failed to find any trace of poison or internal injuries. It was as if they placidly stretched out next to each other, ritually crossed their arms over themselves, and quietly expired. Nearby were two horses calmly grazing. It was unknown who may have owned the animals or how they got on the small, uninhabited island.

About twenty feet from the bodies was a freshly dug conical mound of earth. When that was excavated, searchers found a forty-pound, white, highly-polished stone, of a type not found anywhere in the region. A Greek orthodox cross was carved on it. What this may have had to do with the mystery was anyone’s guess.

And that remains all we know about the matter.