"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Campden Wonder

17th century Market Hall, Chipping Campden. Via Wikipedia.

The market-town of Chipping Campden, nestled near the Cotswold Hills, was the quintessential quaint little English village. It was a quiet, out-of-the-way place, largely overlooked by the outside world. It would be completely anonymous, if not for the fact that in the 17th century, it was the site of one of the most baffling episodes in criminal history, popularly known as “The Campden Wonder.”

The story opens on August 16th, 1660. On that day, an elderly steward named William Harrison set out to collect rent money owed to his employer, Juliana Hicks, Vicountess Campden. Harrison headed towards Charingworth, a village about two miles away. It was expected that he would not be gone for long, so when by the end of the day, Harrison had yet to return, his wife became alarmed and sent his servant, John Perry, out to search for him.

By the following morning, both men were still absent, so Harrison’s son Edward ventured out to see what was amiss. Along the road to Charingworth he met Perry, who told him of his failure to find any trace of William. When they made inquiries in the neighboring village of Ebrington, they were told that Harrison had been there the evening before, calling on a man named Edward Plaisterer, after which he set out on the road to Campden.

That was the last anyone had seen of William Harrison. However, an ominous clue regarding his disappearance soon emerged. On a lonely road between Ebrington and Campden, Harrison’s hat and collar-band were found, torn and blood-stained. The immediate assumption was that the old man was waylaid, robbed, and murdered. A search was made throughout the countryside for his body, but no further trace of him was discovered.

Everyone’s prime suspect in Harrison’s presumed murder was John Perry. The place where Harrison’s belongings were found was just where the servant would have met Harrison on his return from Ebington. Perry would have known his master was carrying a large sum of money from his rent-collecting. And why did Perry stay out all night, rather than returning to Campden when his search for Harrison proved futile?

Perry was quickly arrested and brought before a justice of the peace for questioning. The story he gave was this: On the night of Harrison’s disappearance, he walked towards Charingworth. Along the way, he met an acquaintance named William Reed. As Perry was nervous about walking alone on this dark road at night, he returned with Reed to Campden. He started out again, in the company of someone named Pearce, but after going only a short distance, went back to his village. He took shelter in Lady Campden’s hen-roost until about midnight, when the moon rose. The moonlight gave him the nerve to resume his search. However, a fog developed that caused him to lose his way. He spent the rest of the night under a bridge. At dawn, he went to Charingworth, where he made a number of inquiries about his master, with little success. On his return home, he met Edward Harrison.

Although Reed, Pearce, and Plaisterer were able to confirm at least their parts of Perry’s story, the authorities were not at all convinced of the suspect’s innocence, and he remained in custody. After about a week, Perry asked to see the justice. He had, he claimed, something to say to him that he would not disclose to anyone else.

As it turned out, Perry wished to confess to William Harrison’s murder. And he named his mother, Joan Perry, and his brother Richard as instigators of the evil deed. According to his account, Joan and Richard were constantly nagging him to join them in robbing his master when Harrison returned from a round of rent-collecting. Finally, he agreed. On the fatal day when Harrison set out for Charingworth, John tipped off Richard about the errand. That evening, when his mistress ordered him to look for Harrison, the brothers Perry set out together. When they spotted Harrison walking through a field, John told Richard that “if he followed him he might have his money.” The squeamish John then went off to “walk a turn in the fields.” When he returned, he saw Harrison lying on the ground, with Joan and Richard standing over him. He heard William moan, “Ah, rogues! Will you kill me!” John begged his relatives to spare the old man’s life. Richard responded with a contemptuous, “Peace, peace, you are a fool.” He then strangled Harrison to death.

Richard took Harrison’s bag of money from the corpse. The Perrys then carried the body over to a nearby cesspool. John again timorously left the scene. He said he assumed his mother and brother dumped the body in the cesspool, but he could not say for sure what they did with Harrison’s remains. He then went back to town, where he met Pearce and walked with him towards Charingworth. John then returned to the hen-roost, where he cut Harrison’s hat and collar with a knife and threw them into the road. Perry added that his brother had also been responsible for a burglary of Harrison’s house which had occurred the previous year.

After this bombshell, another rigorous search was made for Harrison’s body—a search that included the cesspool in question—but this, like the earlier hunt, was completely unsuccessful.

A strange incident from a few weeks before Harrison’s disappearance was now recalled. One evening, John Perry was heard to cry out in the garden of Hicks’ estate. When some people came running to find the cause of this disturbance, they found Perry standing with a sheep-pick in his hand. He claimed that two men in white had attacked him with swords. When asked about the incident, Perry now said that he had invented the story, to make people think thieves were in the area. He hoped these fictional criminals would get the blame for the earlier burglary of Harrison’s house, as well as his intended upcoming robbery. John claimed he had mutilated Harrison's hat and collar for the same reason.

When Joan and Richard Perry were taken into custody, they vehemently denied their guilt and denounced John for implicating them in murder and burglary. However, he stuck to his damning story with equal vigor. At the next assizes, the trio was put on trial. In the courtroom, however, John Perry gave everyone a further surprise. Like his mother and brother, he pled “not guilty,” claiming that when he made his confession, he was “then mad, and knew not what he said.”

Unfortunately, no records of the trial survive, so we are ignorant of what, if any, evidence other than John’s now-disowned confession was brought against the defendants. All we know is that the Perrys were found guilty and hanged. As Joan was believed to be a witch who had used her black arts to prevent John and Richard from confessing, she was executed first. The hope was that after she was dead, her sons would be “free” to admit their guilt. A contemporary account relates that while Richard stood on the scaffold, he “professed, as he had done all along, that he was wholly innocent of the fact for which he was then to die; and that he knew nothing of Mr. Harrison’s death, nor what was become of him; and did with great earnestness beg and beseech his brother (for the satisfaction of the whole world and his own conscience) to declare what he knew concerning him.” When it was John’s turn to die, he merely said “with a dogged and surly carriage” that he “knew nothing of his master’s death, nor what was become of him, but they might hereafter possibly hear.”

Everyone most certainly did hear what became of the steward, albeit a little late to be of any use to the Perrys. Two years after his murder, William Harrison returned to Campden, alive and well. The story he gave to account for his disappearance is, amazingly, the most utterly unbelievable part of this already utterly unbelievable story. In brief, Harrison stated that while returning from his rent-collecting expedition, two men on horseback attacked him with swords and kidnapped him. They brought him to the port city of Deal, where they put him on a ship, which sailed off in a direction unknown to Harrison. During their voyage, the ship encountered three Turkish vessels. He was among the men captured by these ships, and Harrison was eventually sold as a slave to a physician in Smyrna. After about a year, his master died, leaving Harrison to shift for himself. He made his way to a nearby port, where he used a silver bowl from his ex-master’s house to buy passage on a ship bound for Portugal. After they arrived in Lisbon, he encountered a fellow Englishman. This man took pity on Harrison’s plight, gave him money, and arranged his passage on a ship heading for England.

That, as far as we know, is the end of the tale of the Campden Wonder, leaving generations of historians to scratch their heads and struggle to understand just what in hell happened. Harrison’s story is, to say the least, unlikely, but we have absolutely no idea why he vanished, or where he was for two years. And why did John Perry condemn to death not only himself, but his mother and brother, for a murder that oh-so-obviously never took place?

Despite close to four centuries of trying, no one has come up with satisfactory answers to these questions. All that can be said is that it’s virtually certain no one ever will.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

In the world of strange company, the cats don't wash the dishes.

The dishes wash the cats.

This week's dose of Nonsense and Insensibility:

So, what the hell does the Zapruder film really tell us?

For the moment, put aside wondering about what the hell happened in Siberia in 1908.  Let's wonder about what the hell happened in Siberia in 2002.

What the hell happened to the Nazi gold?

What the hell happened in the sky in 1979?

What the hell fell to the ground in 1985?

What the hell is wrong with this Chinese mansion?  Quite a bit, it seems!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Edgar Allan Poe cures cancer.  Really.

The dinosaur wall of Bolivia.

Sometimes, kooky, laughable conspiracy theories turn out to be accurate.  It's just that kind of world.

EsoterX puts in a good word for Samurai Weasels.

The Smithsonian Magazine does not put in a good word for Grover Cleveland.

Am I the only one utterly horrified to realize that when the world comes to an end, the only relics of the human race will be disco and Jimmy Carter?

All I'll say is, if this place isn't haunted, it should be.

St. Augustine's Tower:  A 13th century relic in 21st century Hackney.

Strange Company's idea of weekend fun:  The interactive Game of Wretched Fate.  Spin the big wheel and have Bob Barker kill you!

Most horses aim for the Kentucky Derby.  Must Win is looking at Mount Everest.

Sometimes urban legends are not so legendary.

Another day, another Jack the Ripper theory.  Wake me up when they pin the murders on Queen Victoria.

Animals are people, too.

Photo of the week:  A distant storm, as viewed from an airplane.

There you have it, gang.  See you on Monday, when I'll be discussing a baffling murder-without-a-corpse from 17th century England.  Be there, or be square!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Today's creepy little tale comes to us from Xenia, Ohio in October of 1972.  My humble little blog has somehow become Grand Central Station for Weird Blood Sightings, and I for one am becoming a bit unnerved by that.

As was the case with the similar incidents I have recorded, the details are both extremely simple and completely mystifying.  A certain Bobbie C. Miller, of 1411 N. Fairfield Road, woke up one morning to find a trail of blood in the house leading from the kitchen, up the staircase, and into the second-floor bathroom. No blood was found outside the house, and there were no signs of a struggle or any forcible entry into the residence.  Miller heard no unusual sounds during the night.  The newspaper report about the mystery said that officers took samples of the "very dark" blood for analysis to see if it was from an animal or a human. The brief article closed by saying that no one knew if this was "a prank" or foul play of some sort, but "deputies were continuing to investigate today."

I have yet to find any follow-up stories about this incident, which may imply that the gruesome puzzle was never solved.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Complex and Variegated Depravity: The Debatable Guilt of Katharine Nairn

Katharine Nairn poisoning case

“Readers of Mr. J.A. Symond’s book on the Renaissance hold up obtesting hands at the rich and varied iniquities of the courts of Medieval Italy. But for complex and variegated depravity the family of Mr. Ogilvy of Eastmilm could give the Baglioni and other Italian miscreants a stroke a hole whatever view you take of the case.”
-Andrew Lang

In Scotland on January 30, 1765, nineteen-year-old Katharine Nairn married Thomas Ogilvy, laird of Eastmilm, a man of questionable health and twice her age, but a prosperous landowner. The newlyweds resided with Ogilvy’s mother and younger brother Patrick, an invalided army lieutenant. The youngest Ogilvy child, Alexander, was a surgeon who, in the words of crime historian William Roughead, “was prosecuting at Edinburgh his studies in depravity and physic.” After his brothers, he was heir to the extensive Ogilvy properties—assuming, of course, that Thomas and Patrick remained without legitimate children. His eldest brother’s marriage could not have been good news for him.

Three months after the wedding, the household at Eastmiln received an unexpected houseguest: A cousin, Anne Clarke, who was, unbeknownst to the family, also Alexander’s mistress. She claimed her visit was in order to act as peacemaker between them and Alexander, who was on bad terms with his kin. In truth, young Ogilvy had deputized her to stir up as much trouble for Eastmiln as possible. She succeeded beyond possibly even his imaginings.

She had scarcely put her foot in the house before she was spreading some very dark rumors about Katharine’s relations with brother-in-law Patrick. At first, Thomas and his mother dismissed such lurid insinuations. However, the two brothers later quarreled about other matters. In the course of their argument, Thomas brought up cousin Anne’s news bulletins. Patrick responded with heated denials and indignantly stalked out of the house, even though his brother soon repented and invited him back.

The newly-pregnant Katharine was suffering from morning sickness, so she—with rather questionable tact—wrote Patrick asking him to send some medicines from his sea-chest.

Miss Clarke immediately announced to the rest of the household that Katharine was on a far more sinister mission. The new Mrs. Ogilvy, she insisted, was determined to poison her husband. She had first asked Clarke herself to purchase the lethal dose for her, but when that failed she enlisted her lover in her murderous plot.

Again, the family shrugged her stories off—until the next day, when Thomas fell terribly ill. A doctor was summoned but before his arrival the eldest Ogilvy died, declaring his bride was killing him.

Alexander arrived on the scene five days later. He halted the burial with the dramatic declaration that Patrick and Katharine had murdered his brother. After he and Clarke gave their stories to the local authorities, the accused pair swiftly found themselves in jail, charged with poisoning Thomas Ogilvy with arsenic.

At their trial, there was little proof of either poisoning or adultery other than Clarke’s ever-colorful testimony. According to this witness, Katharine’s favorite, and practically ceaseless, conversational topics consisted of her guilty passion for Patrick and her determination to put her new husband in his grave as soon as possible. If Clarke was to be believed, never was there a chattier murderer. Each charge against the defendants was used as evidence for the other: The affair was assumed from the poisoning, and the poisoning was assumed from the affair.

Even more striking is the fact that it never was established how Thomas Ogilvy died. The prosecution stated that shortly before his brother passed away, Patrick bought half an ounce of arsenic “to destroy some dogs that spoiled the game.”  However, the doctors could not show that this poison was the cause of death. Rather amazingly, it was not even proved that Patrick did, in fact, buy arsenic. The doctor who sold the substance to him could only say he assumed it to be such, and that he had “heard it from those he sold it to that it had killed rats.” Contradictory evidence was introduced about the eldest Ogilvy’s prior state of health. Some witnesses, most notably Anne Clarke, said he had been a perfectly healthy man; others, that he had been in very poor shape for many years.

Despite the fact that virtually all of the evidence against them was either weak or highly suspicious, Patrick and Katharine were convicted and sentenced to death. The verdict was highly unpopular.  Efforts were made to have the case reviewed in the House of Lords, but these agitations proved unsuccessful. Patrick was hanged on November 13, 1765, protesting his innocence to the end. Many, if not most, observers believed him.

Meanwhile, Katharine had perhaps the most mysterious fate of any high-profile convicted murderer. Her pregnancy won her a temporary reprieve until January 27, 1766, when she gave birth to a daughter, who died soon after birth. Katharine’s execution was scheduled for March 17. However, on the night of the 15th, she escaped the Tolbooth—a breakout almost certainly collusive. Her uncle William Nairn was a man of some importance—he held the post of Commissary Clerk of Edinburgh, and was later raised to the baronetcy as Lord Dunsinnan. It was said he engineered the escape plot—whether out of affection for his niece or simply a desire not to have a hanging soiling the family tree is unknown.

However it was done, Katharine successfully fled to the Continent, but her subsequent actions are a puzzle. Various stories circulated about her later life—some said she joined a convent, others that she married a Dutchman, or an American, or a Frenchman. None of her contemporaries seemed to know anything about her end, and later historians have not been any more successful in their researches.

The one bright spot in this gloomy tale is that Alexander Ogilvy failed to benefit from this wholesale destruction of his family. On March 1, 1766, he was arrested for bigamy (Anne Clarke was not among his illegal wives) and that August was sentenced to deportation for seven years. While winding up his affairs before this unwanted departure, he accidentally fell out of a high window in an Edinburgh house and was instantly killed. I’d like to think Patrick pushed him.

If Thomas Ogilvy was indeed poisoned, Anne Clarke makes an excellent prime suspect. That female Iago also disappeared from history after the trial, free to continue her remarkable practices. I have no idea what became of her, but I would not be at all surprised if she lived a long, prosperous life and died peacefully in her bed. Life is just like that.

Although I doubt she ever really regained her popularity as a house guest.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company is thinking about taking up weight-lifting.

The cats are showing us the way.

Here is this week's Peek at the "Eek!":

So, what the hell did this science teacher photograph?

What the hell happened in King's Lynn in 1902?

What the hell is wandering around in Michigan?

What the hell is wandering around in Switzerland?

What the hell is this thousand-year-old African woman doing in Gloucestershire?

This is what the hell happened to poor old James IV.

Meet Mrs. Sarah Gray:  She was undoubtedly a respectable, doughty sailor's wife.  Was she a serial killer, as well?

Don't go in the water!

Don't order the vanilla ice cream!!

Don't look inside the Czech trash bins!!!

Don't spend your next vacation at Bracken County, Kentucky!!!!

A fascinating--and extremely creepy--story illustrating the dangerous world of deep-water diving.

"Who is skeptical about the skeptics?"

Oh, just another photo essay of a cat eating corn on the cob.

Mapping out Bigfoot.

Get your goat on!

The story behind that weird, wonderful instrument, the theremin.

Edgar Allan Poe discoursing on the now-dying art of Marginalia.

An abandoned Scottish castle...in New York.

This week's Face It, We Just Don't Know Jack About History Story:  A tale of American Indians in 12th century Germany.

I have found the perfect food blog...for when you never, but ever, want to eat food again.

Proof that cats are far more literate than we can ever hope to be.

Still don't believe me about the cats?  Look here, lowly illiterate humans.

Cats are much better at yoga, too, you pathetic Opposable-Thumbers.

And they have far cooler cafes.

On behalf of the rest of the human race, I would like to apologize to the animal kingdom for this idiot who keeps pestering them.

Oh, by the way, dismembered feet are still regularly washing up on the Pacific coast. Happy weekend!

Photo of the week:  Ralphie the Rescue Bat and friend.

That's it for now, kids.  I shall return on Monday, with the tale of puzzling and inconclusive murder case from the early 18th century that reads like a Scottish remake of "I, Claudius."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here is a "solved" missing-persons case from 1920 that is reminiscent of our old friend Ada Constance Kent:

Indianapolis, Ind. April 26—Unsolved for more than twenty years, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Miss Carrie Selvage was believed to be cleared away with the finding today of a skeleton in the private hospital where she was last seen.

The skeleton was found by workmen who were turning the old building into a garage. Clothed in a blue dress, it was resting in a sitting posture in the corner of an attic. The costume, along with a pair of felt slippers, were recognized by three brothers of the dead woman. They are Edward L., William J., and Joseph W. Selvage, members of an old Indianapolis family.

The old building originally was an orphans’ home and later was converted into the Union States Hospital. It was at that time Miss Selvage entered the institution because of a nervous disease. Some time later it was turned into a roomed house. The building was of unusual construction and the place where the skeleton was found, a small corner about three by four feet, was apparently a second attic.

Miss Selvage disappeared March 11, 1900. She had sent her nurse for some milk. When the woman returned Miss Selvage was gone. A country-wide search was made, graves in cemeteries were opened and the hospital repeatedly searched, but no trace was found.

Coroner Robinson, in a preliminary examination, said he found no trace of violence. Miss Selvage was 43 years of age and had been a school teacher.

Well. Are we to believe Selvage ordered a glass of milk and then, without anyone noticing, made her way up to a cramped, remote little attic room to…just wait there to die? Or did someone, somehow, for some incomprehensible reason, lure her up there to be murdered? Or lure her out somewhere else to be killed, and then dump the body in the attic--again, without being observed in this busy little hospital? Assuming she had been in this attic all along, why was the room not searched after she vanished? In the two decades she had been missing, are we to believe that no one ever found this room? But if Carrie Selvage's body had only recently been propped up in this cubbyhole...where had she been all that time?  Who did what to her, and why?

This little story is full of obvious questions. And I’m damned if I can answer any of them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Josephine Amelia Perkins, Female Horse Thief

I love horses. I ride them when I can, I pet them, I feed them carrots and peppermints. Josephine Amelia Perkins loved horses. She did me one better: She stole them. In fact, she was a character I have never encountered elsewhere in history—an equine kleptomaniac. Obviously, she deserves an honored place in this blog.

Unfortunately, virtually all we know about the busy Miss Perkins comes from two quite delightful autobiographical pamphlets: “The Female Prisoner” (1839) and “A Demon in Female Apparel” (1842.) Such contemporary accounts of notorious miscreants were designed more for their entertainment value (and moral lessons!) than strict accuracy, so it’s quite probable that our heroine’s tale gained something in the telling.

With that small caveat in mind, let's head for the starting gate.  It's post time!

Miss Perkins was born in Devonshire in 1818, the only child of a “kind and indulgent father,” who was widowed in Josephine’s infancy. Much as a penitent alcoholic traces back his or her downfall to their first sip of beer, Miss Perkins first trod the road to perdition at the age of thirteen, when her father made the fatal decision to enroll her in riding school, where she discovered “my present extravagant fondness for those noble animals.” She became, in short, an addict, never happy unless she was in full gallop on the back of a fine steed.

Despite this growing mania, Miss Perkins informs us that she was a pretty, accomplished, and highly popular young lady with a spotless character. At least, such was the case until she was seventeen, when at a neighborhood party she met a “genteel” young purser in the Navy. Her father disapproved of this budding romance, (her inamorato was of respectable, but “humble” birth,) so the couple decided to elope. The plan was for her to steal her father’s fastest horse and ride to join her swain on his ship in Portsmouth. Disguised as a man, she would pass as an ordinary volunteer sailor.

She rode 117 miles in less than a day, but, alas, for nothing: The young purser’s ship had already sailed. Our plucky little heroine refused to let that thwart her. She sold her horse, and embarked on a ship bound for Quebec. Unfortunately, her ship encountered a violent storm which left it shipwrecked. The passengers and crew were rescued by an American ship which brought them to Wilmington, North Carolina.

Josephine was alive, but in a foreign land, penniless, friendless, and with no means to support herself. Well, she asks us, what was a girl to do but turn horse thief?

Indeed. Coming upon a handsome horse grazing in a pasture, she waited until cover of nightfall and rode away with him. However, when morning came, she was horrified to discover that her horse did not share her desire for travel. He had led her in a circle, leaving her very close to where she had started. Luckily, she managed to convince the local magistrate that she had taken out the horse simply “to gratify a whimsical notion,” and he set her free. After all, as the Justice remarked, “an instance of the prosecution of a female for the crime of horse-stealing was both novel and without a precedent!”

Wisely deciding the neighborhood had become a bit too hot for her, Miss Perkins traveled to South Carolina, where some kindly ladies gave her a small sum of money for her immediate needs. She found this reliance on charity intensely mortifying, and resolved to provide for herself.

The next chapter of her story will come as no surprise. Having “improved her opportunity” by finding an unlocked stable, she selected what appeared to be the owner’s best horse. She feared that the sight of a lone young woman attempting to sell the animal might appear suspicious, so she decided to entrust the sale to a jockey (even though such types were not “the most respectable and honest class of people.”)

They sold the horse for $57, but the animal’s legitimate owner was able to track them down, and have them arrested. Her counsel pleaded insanity, pointing out that no female in her right mind could be “guilty of a crime so unnatural as horse-stealing!”

The jury agreed, and she was acquitted. However, as had happened in North Carolina, she was made to feel she had worn out her welcome, and she turned her sights to Kentucky, that land of a “noble breed of fleet and well-fed horses.”

She changed her name to Sarah Steward, and vowed to lead a changed life. Unfortunately, the Bluegrass country was not a safe place for one of her predilections. Perkins admitted she could not rest until she had one of the area’s magnificent horses for her own. “In my clandestine attempt to gain possession and to convert it to my own use,” she discovered that, as before, there was “one to dispute rights with me.”

Sarah/Josephine got the short end of the legal stick (she had to concede this was her fourth offense in this line,) and she received two years in Madison County Prison. The visits of “three or four kind and religiously disposed ladies” soon led her to see that her wretched condition was “my own natural and wicked propensity to practice evil!” She decided to give the public a cautionary tale describing her adventures, “with the hope that it may prove beneficial to both parents and their children.” Thus the edifying “Female Prisoner” publication was born, and the world believed they had heard the last of the sadder-but-wiser equestrienne.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American lives.” F. Scott Fitzgerald never heard of Josephine Amelia Perkins. Only three years later, the public was confronted with the horrifying sequel to her story, “A Demon in Female Apparel.” In this second pamphlet, Miss Perkins sheepishly admitted that all the solemn, heartfelt words of repentance and redemption at the end of the first were all so much hogwash, designed to fool her do-gooder prison visitors into helping her secure a pardon. (“Alas, what deep deception is man capable of—aye, and I may add, woman too!”)

As is usually the case with hogwash, it worked like a charm. Our Josephine was soon on the loose again, where, I regret to say, she quickly went from bad to worse. On finding herself known far and wide as the “Female Horse Thief!” Miss Perkins shrugged and told herself she might as well “Enjoy the game as bear the name!” She skipped out on tavern bills. She (unsuccessfully) set out to bilk a wealthy and susceptible young man out of his money by means of a fraudulent wedding ceremony. And, always, there were horses. Lots and lots of beautiful horses. Finally, tiring of hearing “that almost constant and to me unpleasant cry of Female Horse Thief!” she decided to leave the country and change her reputation from bad to good.

Of course, she needed just one last horse theft to fund this plan…

This proved to be the one too many. While fleeing the scene of her latest crime, she burglarized a household that had kindly given her shelter for the night, and in her escape, she shot at the pursuing officer. (She missed the policeman completely: Luckily for him, Perkins was a better rider than she was a sharpshooter.)

The law now decided they had had quite enough of Josephine Amelia Perkins. She was very quickly tried and given a life sentence. Her “foul and unlawful deeds” had come to a sad end, and she disappeared from history.

Or did she? Her biographers assume she indeed remained in prison for the rest of her days, but I am not so certain of that. It’s hard to keep a good horsewoman down.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

This week has just been a ball for strange company.

The cats say the same.

On to this week's Ramble through the Ridiculous:

What the hell fell in Brooklyn?

What the hell is this mummy?

Whatever the hell happened to the Gallina, it wasn't pretty.

What the hell--and I do mean, "hell"--happened in Wales in 1988?

What the hell is in the Amazon, building the world's creepiest white picket fences?

What the hell is wandering around in Nebraska?

What the hell is happening to elk in New Mexico?

In which I am surprised to learn that a small Japanese island is completely indistinguishable from my house.

Unforeseen consequences:  How an 1857 shipwreck led to the American Civil War.

A contemporary description of London's Victorian-era Foundling Hospital, and its "regiments of infantry."

You like caves?  This is a cave.

Well.  There's nothing at all hellishly creepy about this guy.  Nope.  I see no reason whatsoever for my skin to start crawling.

The star-crossed life of Lilac Chen.  An all-too-common story of the Victorian era.  (The sequel to this post can be found here.)

In other news, I think this blog has found a new mascot.

Hey, know the right people, become the right sort of saint, and, by golly, you really can take it with you.

This weekend, party like a Drunken Monkey Diorama!

The hairy lives of the Seven Sutherland Sisters.

I'll say this for the Puritans:  They had a gift for creating names that sounded like Twitter handles on acid.

And, finally, one of my favorite photos of the week:  A Tower of London raven in flight.

That wraps it up for this week.  I'll see you again on Monday, with the story of Miss Josephine Amelia Perkins, America's first--and to my mind the greatest!--female horse thief.  Riders up!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This little mystery has a special significance for me, as I was a small child when this story was in the news, and it so spooked me I have remembered it well ever since.

On August 7, 1973, the voice of a “very scared” seven-year-old boy who identified himself as “Larry” could be heard over a CB radio frequency in the foothills of central New Mexico. He told listeners that he and his father had been driving in a desolate area of the state hunting rabbits when there was an accident which overturned their truck. He said his father was dead, and he was left completely alone.

The boy’s increasingly weak and despairing broadcasts were heard over a period of several days, before dying out for good. Although it was believed the broadcasts were coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the Manzano Mountains, a massive search found nothing. CB signals of that period were prone to “skip”—the strength of the radio frequencies fluctuated greatly, making it impossible for would-be rescuers to pinpoint his exact location. What made matters worse was “Larry’s” panicky channel-switching on his radio. His broadcasts begging for help could be heard in a number of states across America, but it was anyone’s guess if it was because of the atmospheric conditions or if the publicity given the story was inspiring copycats.

The search was so poorly-organized and chaotic that even if “Larry” was in the area, there was no guarantee he would be found. After about a week, the search efforts were called off, and “Larry” fell into that historical quicksand known as “unresolved stories.” The stymied authorities finally pronounced that the whole thing had been a hoax. However, no proof of this was ever produced, and radio operators who talked to “Larry” were convinced that this was no act.

Did someone pull off a particularly convincing sick joke? Was there one initial genuine distress call, followed by various hoaxers? Were “Larry” and his father figments of someone’s warped imagination, or were they among the many travelers who have been lost, sometimes for good, in the remote regions of the West?

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Corpse Box of Hell Gate: A Mystery of Old New York

When a strange, gruesome mystery suddenly pops up in our midst, we expect it to get a good deal of public attention. When a strange, gruesome mystery suddenly pops up in our midst and quickly sinks without a trace, it adds an extra unsettling dimension to the story.

This is exactly what happened in New York City in 1859.

On June 1st of that year, some fishermen were searching the East River in hopes of finding treasure from the 1763 wreck of the British man-of-war “Hussar.” In the tidal strait known all too appropriately as Hell Gate, they instead found what looked to be a large piece of timber. They towed the object ashore, only to realize it was a large wooden box, containing not coins or jewels, but human remains, packed like so many sardines.

Hell Gate, mid 19th century. Via NYPL Digital Gallery

The coroner determined that this ghastly booty consisted of seven people—three men, two women, a girl of about seven and an infant. The adult bodies had been contorted into pretzel-like shapes in order to fit them into this floating coffin, and, most sickening of all, one of the women had been decapitated, with her head resting between her feet. The adult bodies were all clothed in linen undergarments or night-clothes, the women wore night-caps, and one had a handkerchief tied around her mouth. The bodies were all covered with quicklime, evidently in the hopes of hastening decomposition which would make them more difficult to recognize. The only mark of identification found on any of the bodies was on the little girl. Her linen chemise was marked with the initials, “C. M.” The style of the undergarments led the coroner to theorize the victims were European. From the relatively dry condition of the box, it was believed that it had been in the water only since the previous night.

One man had fairly fresh stab wounds near the heart, but the cause of death for the rest of the victims was never determined. The coroner was only able to say that they had died not more than a week previously. The inquest concluded simply that “the deceased came to their deaths by some means unknown to the Jury.”

As always when something disturbingly weird happens, authorities rushed to find a rational, soothing explanation, which met with the usual abject failure. Perhaps the bodies were packed with a view of sending them to some institution for purposes of medical research? No, they would hardly have been covered in lime if that had been the case. Perhaps they had been removed from the old Potter’s Field to the new city burying ground on one of the islands? That was quickly knocked down as an even more ridiculous theory. No burials had taken place in the Potter’s Field for years, and these were clearly fresh corpses.

All right then, how about if they were recent deaths, and while they were being brought for burial, the box they were being stored in accidentally fell off the ferry? Nope. If they were being carried off for a normal interment, they would have been stored in separate coffins. Besides, it was evident that the bodies must have been stuffed into the box very soon after death, before rigor mortis set in. And why would the authorities use lime, not to mention dismember one of the poor corpses?

One favorite theory was that these were recent burials that had been dug up by “resurrectionists.” The suggestion was that when the vandals were unable to find medical students willing to buy their ghoulish product, the grave-robbers simply dumped the bodies. That dog failed to hunt as well. There was, again, the evidence that the bodies were placed in the box immediately after they died. The coroner also dismissed the grave-robbing theory by noting that “there were other matters usually attended to in preparing deceased persons for interment which had been entirely neglected.”

As one of the male corpses was African-American, a theory was floated that the Hell Gate discovery was a family from the South, who had been traveling with a slave. This suggestion could well have been true, but it does nothing to help explain how they wound up in a box.

As the “New York Tribune” commented, “The more the affair is considered, the more deeply it appears to be involved in mystery.”

And that was the last word on the Corpse Box of Hell Gate. The identity of these victims—not to mention who might have killed them and why—remained a riddle, but what is also peculiar is that I have yet to find anything more than two or three very brief newspaper articles about the story. Either antebellum New Yorkers saw it as an everyday event to have boxes full of bodies floating around them, or the press and the authorities, for whatever reason, thought it best to simply drop the matter.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company has been trying to pick some winners at the racetrack this week.

We're not doing nearly as well as the cats.

This week's Amble Through the Anomalous:

As it so happens, we know exactly what the hell this is.  And I for one rather wish we didn't.

What the hell are they hearing in British Columbia?

Who the hell killed New York patriarch Benjamin Nathan?  A classic American unsolved mystery.

What the hell is on the road in Mexico?

What the hell is on the beach in Ghana?

Who the hell is making the world's creepiest Facebook status updates?

What the hell happened in the French Alps a year ago?

What the hell happened to these ancient cities?

A rundown of some, well, novel ways of making a living.  Although it's hard to picture anything more crazy-inducing than being a professional Ray of Sunshine.

We hear about haunted houses all the time.  Why so few tales of haunted ships?

The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda; Or, The Case of the Disappearing Disciples.

Perhaps it's time for us all to admit that we just don't know jack about history.

Well.  Anyone for a nice, relaxing mountain stroll?  If anyone needs me for anything, I'll just be right here, cowering under my desk and hugging the ground.

The Kaiser and the British soldier who kept his word.

I'm just passing this along for the benefit of my readers who happen to be rich women longing for a sixtyish, unemployed, sandwich-board-wearing, desperation-oozing, Phil-Collins-loving boy toy.

A map of Europe...that's about a million years old?

Because around here, we just can't get enough of those Naval Cats.

In search of Beowulf!

The kind of thing that happens when a scoundrel marries a home-wrecker.

The kind of thing that happens when a "love experiment" involving a psychopath goes very, very wrong.

The disappearance of the McStay family:  A modern-day mystery.

The most beautiful places in the world you'll almost certainly never, never see.

If I'm understanding this correctly, reading my blog will be the death of you.  But you probably already guessed that.

That's it for this week, gang.  I'll be back Monday with a 19th century New York enigma involving the East River and a mysterious box of corpses.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A "singular phenomenon" was seen in the sky above Lawrence, New Zealand in 1878:

New Zealand unidentified flying object
Via Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Out-Of-This-World Music of Rosemary Brown

Rosemary Dickeson Brown was convinced that from her earliest childhood, she was a psychic who had communication with the spirit world. As she herself put it, “I've always had the ability, ever since I can remember, to see and hear people who are thought of as dead.” Such people are not particularly unusual. What made Brown unique was what she eventually did with these alleged powers.

When she was seven, she claimed, the great composer Franz Liszt visited her with the information that when she was older, he would return “and give you music.” If she is to be believed, he kept his word. In March 1964, the widowed Brown was occupied with raising her two children and working as a kitchen helper at a grade school near her London home. This humdrum existence was transformed by Liszt’s reappearance. He led her to her piano and guided her fingers over the keys. Although her musical skills were "very shaky" at best, under his instruction, she found herself playing competently. He also taught her how to transcribe music to paper.

Brown said Liszt explained to her that she had been selected as an ideal “intermediary” for him and other deceased composers. “You have sufficient training for our purposes,” he said. “Had you been given a really full musical education, it would have been no help to us at all. In the first place, a fully musical education would have made it much harder for you to prove that you could not be writing our music yourself. Secondly, a musical background would have caused you to acquire too many ideas and theories of your own. These would have been an impediment to us.”

According to Brown, she soon found herself in the company of Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and other musical greats, all of them eager to share their posthumous works. Brown said she got to know these musicians and their distinct personalities quite well. Chopin, she wrote, was a cheerful spirit, "lighthearted and bantering...very considerate," who loved gaudy clothes and was “appalled” by television. Schubert was modest, kindly and charming. Liszt was a “fusspot” who liked to accompany her when she went grocery shopping (although the high prices alarmed him.)  The "very moody" George Gershwin was frequently annoyed by her lack of knowledge about jazz.  Debussy was "a hippie type."  Bach was silent and stern, with no sense of humor.  He would simply dictate his works, and leave.  (The fact that she admitted that she had no great liking for his music possibly influenced his attitude.)  She even confessed that she had a crush on Beethoven, temperamental and brusque though he was.

Word eventually reached the media about Brown’s remarkable story, and she became a minor media celebrity for several years. She made numerous radio and television appearances, wrote several books dealing with spiritualism, and several albums were released of these “new” works from beyond the grave.  For one of these recordings, musicologist Sir Donald Tovey—who had died thirty years earlier—provided the liner notes. Unsurprisingly, he gave it a rave review. Tovey's spirit said these composers were not conveying this music “simply for the sake of offering possible pleasure in listening thereto” but rather to stir humanity “into exploring the unknown of man’s mind and psyche…The knowledge that incarnation in your world is but one stage in man’s eternal life should foster policies which are more far-seeking than those frequently adopted at present.”

As can be imagined, there was a great deal of skepticism about the actual authorship of these musical pieces. Few doubted her sincerity, but musicologists often dismissed her “transcriptions” as substandard imitations of genuine works of these composers. (However, it must be said that most critics gave the impression of allowing their disbelief in spiritualism to color their views of the music Brown presented.) Perhaps the best argument against the authenticity of Brown’s “spirit music” is the fact that no one considers any of it to be an unqualified knock-your-socks-off masterpiece. If the ghosts of these composers wanted to prove these works were truly theirs, it has been argued, would they not give the world a new “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Ode to Joy?” On the other hand, skeptics have never convincingly explained how a woman with only a handful of childhood piano lessons, a disinterest in classical works, and a general musical inaptitude was able to compose these works at all. The British composer Richard Rodney Bennett commented, “If she is a fake, she is a brilliant one, and must have had years of training…Some of the music is awful, but some is marvelous. I couldn't have faked the Beethoven.”

Ian Parrot, a prominent Welsh music professor, commented, “I believe any flaws [in Brown’s “transcribed” works] are due to her problem in communicating. Writing down a symphony is almost a super-human task. Poor Beethoven would probably find it virtually impossible to give it to her.”

Malcolm Troup, professor at the London Guildhall School of Music, perhaps summed it up best: “I cannot explain it…The music is so true to the works we know by the great composers that she would have to be the most fantastic expert on every branch of music to even try and make it up. There are some things we cannot explain. This is one of them.”

Brown took the naysayers with calm good humor, and for many years, continued quietly with her “transcribing,” even after the media lost interest in her. She eventually produced over four hundred works. In the mid-1980s, her health began to fail, which probably weakened her powers, as the ghostly “visits” ceased at about that time. She died at the age of 85 on November 16, 2001.

If she was right about the afterlife, she had a lot of very important old friends waiting for her.

[Note:  Below are clips of Brown's "transcriptions" from Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin.]

Happy Labor Day!

Labor Day, 1901 via Library of Congress

To all my American readers:  Hope this Labor Day holiday is a real picnic for you.

You just know it will be for the cats.