"...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, October 30, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day, Halloween Edition

In honor of Halloween, I present a tale that comes directly from that infamous lair of horror and evil, New York's Marriage License Bureau.  It appeared in the "New York Tribune" on November 1, 1921. Look out for those Goblin Cats!

via Newspapers.com

Young men bewitched to the point of matrimony thronged the Marriage License Bureau in the Municipal Building with their enchanting fiancees yesterday and everything was as merry as a marriage bell until just at dusk, when the Halloween goblins were mustering.

At that mystic hour Joseph J. McCormick, Deputy City Clerk, threw open the door of the marriage chapel with beneficent gesture and was astounded to see the happy couple he was shepherding draw back in perturbation. He glanced into the room. Its sole occupant was a black cat which sat in the clerk's chair glaring at him.

Nothing would persuade that couple to get married there. One glimpse of that apparition on Halloween was enough. They departed in spite of Mr. McCormick's protests that it was just a cat. Even Mr. McCormick's equanimity was shaken when he returned to the office alone and found that the black cat had vanished, although all the doors and windows were closed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Impossible Death of Isidore Fink

The “locked room murder” is a favorite among mystery writers. Of course, they always provide a solution in the last chapter. Real life, however, is not only stranger than fiction, it is much more disobliging. Not even the cleverest detective novelist can explain how 30-year-old Isidore Fink died.

Fink owned a small laundry in New York City. As was often the case among small businessmen of the day, he lived in his workplace. On the night of March 9, 1929, he retired to his quarters after a seemingly uneventful day. At about 10:30, a neighbor, Mrs. Locklan Smith, heard sounds of a scuffle and quickly summoned a nearby policeman. Patrolman Kattenbane found all the doors to Fink’s quarters were locked from the inside. The windows were nailed shut—also from the inside. Even if the windows were broken, they were too small for an adult to squeeze through. The policeman found an open transom window above the door and boosted a small, thin boy high enough to crawl through the little opening and unlock a door.

They found Fink lying on the floor, dead from three gunshot wounds, one of which was in his left wrist, which was powder-marked. The immediate assumption was that his death must have been a suicide.

But where was the gun?

Nothing was missing from the premises, including money in Fink's pockets and the cash drawer, which seemed to rule out robbery. The only fingerprints found in the room were Fink’s. His gas iron was still on and resting on the ironing board. It had not had time to scorch the cloth. Customers of Fink's said that for the past year, they had been greatly inconvenienced because of his insistence on keeping his door locked and admitting only people he recognized. Fink had no enemies, they explained, but he was terrified of robbery--not an unnatural fear in that neighborhood. The laundryman appeared to have been killed by a ghost.

Fink’s death was so uniquely, inexplicably peculiar that even the most wild-eyed theorists admitted defeat. The best the authorities could do by way of a solution was that an extremely thin gymnast had somehow, without attracting any attention, crawled through the tiny transom, shot Fink for reasons unknown, and fled through the same route, scorning the more plebeian method of simply unlocking the front door.

People were so desperate to find a solution to Fink’s shooting that they suggested the killer somehow managed to fire at the laundryman through the transom. Unfortunately for that theory, Fink’s powder burns indicated he had been shot at very close range. Fink's death remains, as the city's Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney said, an "insoluble mystery."

Charles Fort, everyone’s favorite go-to guy for weird phenomena, offered in his book “Wild Talents” a characteristically darkly whimsical scenario for Fink’s death. For all we know, it may be the closest anyone has come to the truth of what happened that night:

“The story of Isidor Fink is a story of a fear that preceded a murder. It could be that Fink's was a specific fear, of somebody whom he had harmed, and not a general fear of the hold-ups that, at the time, were so prevalent in New York City. According to Police Commissioner Mulrooney, it was impossible, in terms of ordinary human experience, to explain this closed-room murder--

Or Isidor Fink, at work in his laundry--and his mind upon somebody whom he had injured--and that his fears of revenge were picturing an assassination of which he was the victim--that his physical body was seized upon by his own picturization of himself, as shot by an enemy.”

One of our greatest dangers lies in our power to manifest our deepest fears.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company regrets to note that the cats are still reading this blog's archives.

Here is this week's Walk Through the Weird.  Be sure to take notes, because most of this will be on the final exam.

What the hell is the Yeti?

What the hell is walking around Red Bluff, California?

What the hell landed in Iceland?

What the hell happened to these 15th century Californians?

Who the hell was this 19th century Coloradan?

What the hell is buried beneath this 19th century Indian fort?

What the hell is buried beneath 21st century Nottingham?

What the hell is the Dorabella Cipher?

Watch out for those vampiric music teachers!

Watch out for those Georgian college students!

Watch out for those cemeteries!

Watch out for those snakes!

Watch out for those hotels!

Watch out for those black diamonds!

Above all, watch out for those Evangelical-hunting stags owned by Cornish vicars!

Ah, the 18th century, that bygone time when ladies were so genteel and demure.

What if the truth is not "out there," but under our very noses...and we're just too damn stupid to know it?

Because around here, we love our ancient curses.

For God's sake, someone give this poor whale a hug.

The Saxon Queen Eadburh:  Just how rotten was she?

What's spookier than an average cemetery?  An abandoned cemetery, of course!

"Wee of Ye Jury find no bill and ye person IGNORAMOUS": The story of North Carolina's first witchcraft trial.

So, if this theory is correct, when ETs do land on our planet, we're all going to find ourselves colonized by Barney.

Why it's never, but never, a good idea to use ancient grave sites as building material.

Olive Thomas:  The Flapper Ghost of Broadway.

Sex, snuff, bad whiskey, novel reading, and the Salvation Army:  A how-to guide for going insane in the 19th century.

Was Jack the Ripper two serial killers in one?

Old New York's greatest ghost hits.

When Oscar met Frisco.

The demon that walks through Washington D.C.  Bet you're surprised to learn there's only one of them.

Well, there you have it.  We meet again on Monday, when I'll be discussing a death that has become the classic real-life "locked-room murder mystery."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Today's mini-mystery took place in Pasadena, California, on December 12, 1931.  While 29-year-old Marie Galloway Baker slept in her bedroom, only a few hours after the end of a "gay bridge party" at her home, an explosion went off that hurled her bed nearly through the roof. It half-demolished the house, and killed her instantly. Her 60-year-old husband, a wealthy oil man named W.A. Baker, was sleeping in the den at the time. He "escaped without a scratch," although he was only about 20 feet away from his wife's room.

Investigators were utterly baffled by what caused the explosion. Gas was ruled out early. Bomb experts found no trace of detonation materials such as dynamite or powder. The Associated Press reported that "the full force of the explosion was concentrated almost beneath [Mrs. Baker's] room." Although other sections of the large one-story home were damaged, the area where Mr. Baker slept was untouched. (No explanation was given why the couple slept apart.)

Baker said he had been involved in several contentious oil transactions, and conceded "It looks as though someone was after someone." However, no one had any idea who that "someone" may have been, and the cause of the blast was never discovered. The jury at Mrs. Baker's inquest had no choice but to return an open verdict.

The Bakers had been married only five years. Two years before they wed, Mr. Baker's first wife hanged herself following a long illness. Charles Fort, who took note of this strange tragedy in his book "Wild Talents," slyly hinted that the baffling death--murder?--of the second wife may somehow be traceable to the restless, unhappy spirit of the first.

But, of course, we all find such speculations utterly ridiculous.

Don't we?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Daniel Lambert, Georgian Era Heavyweight

London Morning Chronicle, April 2, 1806

If one is fortunate enough to have a slim, beautiful body, it is no great feat to make money displaying it to the world in some manner or another. To gain a fortune as well as lasting fame out of having the reverse is a notable achievement.

Probably the ultimate example of the latter was Daniel Lambert. Born in Leicester, England on March 13, 1770, his early years were a placid, anonymous middle-class existence. At the age of about eighteen, he took over his father’s position as the keeper of the city jail. The young Lambert was a kindly man, who—somewhat unusually for jail keepers of his day—did his utmost to treat his prisoners with humanity. In return, he was as well-liked by the inmates as he was by his peers. However, his true interest was sport. The 5' 11" Lambert had always been immensely strong—he once fought off a dancing bear that was attacking his dog—and he was much admired for his knowledge of sporting animals such as dogs and horses.

Lambert led an athletic life, and claimed not to eat or drink to excess. Nevertheless, in his twenties, he began to put on an immense amount of weight. By the time his jail closed in 1805, he weighed over seven hundred pounds, making him the heaviest known person up to his day. He measured some nine and a half feet around.  His size made it virtually impossible to hold a normal job, he was painfully sensitive about his appearance and the curiosity it aroused, and for a time he became a sad recluse.  However, perfect strangers, hearing of his unusual physique, would frequently rudely invade his privacy on various flimsy pretexts simply in order to see him for themselves.  His pension from the prison was proving inadequate for his needs, so although he loathed being regarded as an oddity, he made the practical decision that if people were determined to stare they may as well pay for the privilege.

In the spring of 1806 he moved to London, (a special extra-large carriage had to be built for him,) charging admission for the curious to visit this "greatest Curiosity in the World."  People at first came merely to gawk, but were soon charmed by his intelligent, naturally humorous personality.  He was well-read, gentlemanly, and even sang in a fine tenor voice.  The "Times" wrote:  "The concourse of fashionable visitors to the house of Mr. Lambert...has been very great, during the last two days.  To find a man of his uncommon dimensions...possessing great information, manners the most affable and pleasing, and a perfect ease and facility in conversation, exceeded our expectations...The female spectators were greater in proportion than those of the other sex, and not a few of them have been heard to declare, how much they admired his manly and intelligent countenance."   This "prodigy of human dimensions" held salons of a sort in his apartments, where visiting him soon became quite a fad among London’s elite. He was even presented to King George III.

Lambert maintained his dignity in the face of what could easily have become humiliating circumstances.  He refused to let his "salons" become a zoo. When one visitor refused to remove his hat, Lambert ordered him to leave, "as I do not consider it a mark of respect due to myself, but to the ladies and gentlemen who honor me with their company." When one woman persisted with insensitive questions about the cost of his extra-large size wardrobe, he silenced her by remarking,  "I cannot pretend to charge my memory with the price, but I can put you into a method of obtaining the information you want. If you think proper to make me a present of a new coat, you will then know exactly what it costs."

After a few months of this, Lambert understandably tired of being a sideshow, however fashionable. He went back home to Leicester a rich man, and devoted himself to watching his favorite sporting events. He made a very profitable business breeding dogs, and embarked on short, but highly successful exhibition tours. Although he never married or, as far as is known, had any sort of romantic relationship, he had a wide circle of friends, and continued to be a subject of interest for the press.

It is a bit of a puzzle how Lambert became so gigantic. Despite his size, his health was good, and he showed no recorded signs of glandular or genetic disorders. It is today stated that, his own statements to the contrary, he must have eaten far too much and exercised far too little, but as proof of this is lacking, that must remain only an assumption.

Lambert died very suddenly while "on tour" in Stamford, on June 21, 1809. Up until a few moments before his death, he appeared in good health and spirits. There was no autopsy, so it is unknown why he died. The best modern theory is that he had a pulmonary embolism. It took twenty men half an hour to move his enormous casket into the grave.

As short as his fame may have been, he remained a major cultural figure for decades after his death. As Charles Dickens once wrote, "Lambert's name is known better than his history."  After his death, his personal possessions were preserved as souvenirs, eventually finding their way into museums.  (Many are still on exhibition.)  For years, a "Lambert" was a term used to describe anyone or anything of notably large size.  His fame spread to the United States when P.T. Barnum purchased a waxwork of Lambert and displayed it in his American Museum in New York.  In 1838, a collection of poems purportedly written by Lambert was published.  The verses are almost certainly a hoax, but they are a testament to his posthumous popularity.

Images of him were used in political cartoons, as a symbol of Britain's formidable might against foreign enemies.  (One popular drawing depicted Lambert on horseback attacking Napoleon, who dropped his sword and cried in terror, "Parbleu!  If dis be de specimen of de English Light Horse vat vil de Heavy Horse be?  Oh, by Gar, I vill put off de Invasion for an oder time!")

Even today, he is still regarded as one of Leicester’s “most cherished icons.” On the 200th anniversary of his death, the city held a “Daniel Lambert Day,” that attracted close to a thousand people eager to honor the memory of one of the best-beloved heavyweights in history.

[Note:  Many thanks to the Curator of The Pet Museum for suggesting Lambert as a topic for this blog.]

Friday, October 18, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

This past week, strange company made the mistake of allowing the cats to read this blog.

On to this week's Link-O-Rama:

What the hell is walking around in Iowa?

What the hell is walking around in Texas?

What the hell is walking around in Windham County?

What the hell was walking around in Massachusetts?

What the hell is flying over Switzerland?

What the hell was going on in this pet cemetery?

What the hell is Spring-heeled Jack?

Watch out for those Ninth Symphonies!

Watch out for those Ouija Boards!

The head cold that changed the history of  space travel.

Mark Twain meets Nikola Tesla.

Stromboli:  The racehorse whose owner/trainer loved him not wisely but too well.

Waverly Hills: The most haunted hospital in America?


This week's "Let's face it, we just don't know jack about history" story.

Witches are still going strong in Lithuania.

Digitally excavating an incredible ancient secret library.

Scary places in Los Angeles.  As they left out my house, this list is shamefully incomplete.

The life of a 19th century Irish medical student:  Drunks, duels, pranks and practice.  Probably in that order.

Death and cupcakes.

The busy, busy bones of Christopher Columbus.

Severed arms and premature burials:  Church-going, Prague-style.

It seems that using Saran-Wrap as shrouds doesn't work too well.

Some healthy skepticism about healthy skepticism.

Guess what, "Walking Dead" fans:  We already came pretty damn close to a Zombie Apocalypse, and it wasn't much fun.

Why did Maura clean Barbra's basin?  Why did Barbra cut her own hand off?  The world wants to know!

30,000 year old Brazilian pornography?

My new favorite person in history:  Mr. Glibberie of Halesteed, "a verie ridiculous preacher."

Of electric fossils and thundercrabs.

Want to know what it's like to fall through the stratosphere?  Here you go:

There you have it for this week. See you all on Monday, when we will meet a real Georgian-Era heavyweight.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

If it's Wednesday, that must mean it's time for Weird Blood Sightings!

Yup, I've got another one.  This particular sanguinary riddle is brought to us courtesy of the Virgin Islands in 1962.  A woman named Mary Maguire reported to police that one morning, she woke up to find a trail of blood in her kitchen that led to the bedroom of her young son, who was sleeping in peaceful ignorance that anything peculiar had happened.  She found blood on her refrigerator, kitchen floor, a kitchen cabinet, on her son's bed, and on his chest of drawers.  Mrs. Maguire thought she heard a gate opening around 1 a.m., but aside from that neither she nor her son had seen or heard anything during the night.  Nothing was missing from the Maguire house, and a check of local hospitals indicated that no one had been treated for any injuries that could account for all this blood-letting.

And that, as is usual with our Mystery Blood incidents, seems to have been that.

Incidentally, if you think these stories are creepy, just wait until I get around to posting some of the numerous Mystery Explosion clippings I've accumulated.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Fortean Death of Maud Frances Davies

Maud Frances Davies was a talented, energetic woman, with an earnest desire to aid mankind by studying it. An early adherent to the theory that society could not progress without self-analyses, her carefully researched writings about the early 20th century English poor are considered important pioneering works in the field of sociology. Her books still provide valuable source material for modern historians.

Her life was pure public service. And her death was pure Charles Fort.

The mystery of her final days began early in 1913, when the thirty-seven year old Davies sailed for her London home from a vacation spent traveling over the world. Unfortunately, we have no details about this trip that might shed light on her extremely peculiar death, but on the boat to England, something was clearly amiss with the usually cheerful, level-headed woman. A shipmate, Mrs. Margaret Davies (no relation,) later testified that Maud became feverishly ill, complained of headache, and began acting strangely. The day before they arrived in England Maud asked Mrs. Davies, “What does this mean? The boat is full of spies? Haven’t you seen them?” When the ship reached Liverpool on January 31, Maud asked the other woman if she could accompany her in the train to Euston, and Mrs. Davies, concerned about her friend’s condition, agreed.

On the train, Maud told her companion, “I hope your having been seen traveling with me and speaking to me won’t bring you any trouble.” She asked for Mrs. Davies’ address, saying, “I may need it. You may be called up as a witness.” Later in the trip, Maud commented, “We are getting very near London now.” She took off her coat and left the compartment. Mrs. Davies never saw her again.

Maud Davies’ movements are a mystery until two a.m. on February 2nd, when a railway worker found her body in a tunnel on the Metropolitan Railway near Kensington. The cause of death was decapitation, presumably when a train ran over her. The strangest of the many strange details of her end was that the coroner found that while she was still alive, a small, sharp object, such as a hatpin, had made numerous puncture wounds over her chest. They were all in the same spot, which made it unlikely that they were inflicted during a struggle. All he could surmise was that she had made the wounds herself.

The inquest into her death was, to put it bluntly, useless. Her friends and relatives all agreed that Davies was a happy, well-balanced person who had no reason to commit suicide. The autopsy showed that she had a lung ailment that would have accounted for the illness Mrs. Davies noticed. However, it was believed that her sickness would hardly have been enough to make her temporarily insane.

Everyone was stumped. No signs of foul play were found, yet it strained belief that, even in her sick, feverish condition, she would kill herself, let alone in such a bizarre and brutal manner. Were her ominous remarks to Mrs. Davies about spies and needing “witnesses” just the ramblings of a sudden mental illness, or during her voyages, had she developed some genuine reason to fear for her safety?

The jury at the inquest returned an open verdict. And open the mystery has remained.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

This week, strange company is letting the Saints go marching in.

This week's quest for the questionable:

What the hell happened in 5th century Sweden?

What the hell fell from the skies in 19th century Chatham County?

What the hell happened on the 12th century Moon?

What the hell happened to this 17th century king's head?  Or this 18th century king's DNA?

What the hell is flying over 21st century Santiago, Chile?

What the hell is this book?

The mystery of the first terrorist attack on a passenger plane.

The serial killer and the skeleton articulator: how a myth is born.

The kind of thing that happens when you annoy Peter the Great.  Corpses will be strewn!

A salute to the Henpecked Husband!

Achieving Nirvana:  It's all down to zero.

What a way to go:  The remarkable miniature "coffin" of Captain Cook.

King Tut--rather inevitably--goes the Walt Disney route.

This obscure fiction was written by Poe.  The question is, which Poe? [Note:  For what it's worth, I just don't buy the "Edgar wrote Henry's stories" theory.  The fiction in question doesn't strike me as Edgar's "voice" at all.]

A tour of London, circa 1820. Visit the Exhibitions!  Stroll through Hyde Park!  Meet the King!  Explore the Pleasure Gardens!  Get your pocket picked!  Fall into the Thames!

Gavin Dunbar, Archbishop of Glasgow:  My kind of guy.

Demons invade a school.  This is news to them?

Oh, by the way, the demons have already taken over Thomas Edison's dolls.

The moral of this post:  If the doppelgangers don't get you, the rats, cats, ganders, frogs and moo-cows will.

I now know what brought down Imperial Russia.  It was the postcards.

What's the one thing better than a lighthouse?  A haunted lighthouse, of course!

Highways to Hell.

Get out those Necropants and party like it's a wretched, demon-haunted 17th century Iceland!  Woo-hoo!

Let me kick off the weekend with a special treat for you, my loyal readers:  A short film that will give you hideous nightmares for the rest of your wretched, demon-haunted days.  You're very welcome:

See you all on Monday, when I explore a peculiar death from 1913 that is literally out of the pages of Charles Fort.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Creepy ghost stories seem virtually mandatory for the month of October.  This spine-tingler appeared in the “Chicago Tribune” on April 21, 1907:

Deserted, without a living thing aboard, shunned by all seafaring men as a thing accursed, the Russian steamer Parrier lies at anchorage off Santa Monica, Cal. Haunted by some unknown terror, of which the men themselves will not speak, ruled by some strange, weird, unknown thing, the Parrier is likely to rust and rot at its anchorage before any crew can be found to man it. At Vladivostok and St. Petersburg the agents and the owners rave. Their ravings are useless. The Parrier is as much a wreck as it lies at anchorage in the calm, sunlit waters of the southern California bay as if it were pounding to pieces on the wildest shores of the arctic.

Terror rules—a terror which no man knows. Brave men have gone mad because of it, three captains have killed themselves, a dozen crews have deserted, a score of seamen have met awful deaths. The history of the Parrier is stranger, wilder, and more mysterious than the weirdest romance of the seas ever conceived by fiction writer. It is a story which landlubbers may read with smiles of incredulity or with sneers at the superstition of seafaring men, but the men who go down to the sea in ships understand.

All that is known is that the mysterious something that the sailors call “The Thing” rules aboard the Parrier. The Thing drives men mad. Sailors who face death as calmly as they face their grog, suddenly are seized with blind panic. The fear of death comes upon them. Panic runs riot. One after another the men are seized, until the whole crew is made with fright, insane with a terror that they do not understand, filled with frenzied desire to flee from something they cannot see or hear. That is when “The Thing” comes aboard. Some have leaped overboard, some have died in their berths from sheer fright, some have killed themselves, and some have been manhandled, mauled, clawed, bitten, and kicked to death by their frenzied fellows.

The tale of the Parrier is not a “Sea Wolf” story. It is not some wild freak of the imagination of some drug crazed novelist. It is a true story of the present day, of a modern steamer, manned by fairly intelligent men and educated officers.

The Parrier is a German built ship, owned by a Russian company. It was built at Kiel, in 1897, and delivered to the owners at Cronstadt late in the fall. The ship was in the Baltic until 1903, when it was sent to Vladivostok with a cargo of military supplies, at the time Russia was actively preparing for hostilities with Japan.

Until the ship left the Suez canal on its way east it was looked upon as an excellent ship, well officered, owned by men who believed in treating men well. Over half the crew was comprised of men who were not Russians, many of them being Scandinavians, with a few Portuguese and several Englishmen.

It is whispered among the sailors who know the history of the vessel that “The Thing” came aboard somewhere in the Indian ocean, on that voyage east. It is said that one night at Bombay, where the ship touched, there was a row ashore, and one of the petty officers, who was ashore with his men, killed a Lascar.

That may be all superstitious gossip. Indeed, the fact that a Lascar was killed in a shore row was not thought of until long afterwards, and probably it was remembered then only because the men were striving to discover some reason for “The Thing.”

The facts, as nearly as they can be gleaned from the sailors who recently deserted the Parrier, are as follows:

The steamer was running northward towards the China sea, with fair weather, and the men cheerful over the prospect of shore leave after the long run. They were to touch at Port Arthur, deliver part of the cargo there, and proceed to Vladivostok.

Two days out of Port Arthur “The Thing” came. It was a beautiful autumn night, with a new moon. The sea was calm. Shortly after 3 o’clock in the morning, without warning and without reason, terror came upon the ship. The first sign was a terrorized scream that startled the watch. In an instant the forecastle was in panic. Men, awakening from sound sleep, sat screaming in their bunks. Others leaped and fled to the decks. The officer in charge and the watch were astounded. Even fire, they knew, could not have started such a panic. A moment later the terror seized upon the men who had been awake. For twenty minutes frenzied men fought each other, ran wildly about, screaming, shouting, praying, and then sinking, helpless and panting, upon the decks. During the height of the terror Alec Govinski, a young sailor, screaming, cursing, and praying, rushed across the deck, leaped over the rail, and disappeared. Instantly quiet reigned. The men came from the trance in a second, weak and trembling, but no longer afraid. Boats were lowered, but Govinski had disappeared. There was no inquiry. Officers and men alike had felt the terror, and, beyond whispered, awestruck conversations, nothing was said. The ship touched Port Arthur and started northward. Three nights later “The Thing” came again, spreading the same insane terror through the crew.

Demoralization, a palsy of fear, fell upon the men. If they could have seen—if they could have heard—if they understood what it was, they would have faced it. But the unknown thing drove fear into their hearts.

Vladivostok was reached without trouble. A dozen of the men attempted to desert. Over half of them were recaptured. The ship’s officers were anxious to get south before the ice closed the harbor. The men were held close, and the ship sailed for Hongkong.

That voyage, according to reports, was one of the most awful ever taken by any ship. Night after night terror swept the ship from cabin to forecastle. Capt. Andrist, commanding, committed suicide three days before the vessel reached Hongkong, leaping overboard in an excess of terror. Two sailors killed themselves and one died of fright in his berth.

The moment the ship reached Hongkong every man aboard except the second officer, Hanson, a Swede, born in Finland, and five men, all Scandinavians, deserted. Hanson, who held a master’s certificate, stuck to the vessel because he saw the opportunity to secure command, and the Scandinavians remained with him because they were certain that “The Thing” would leave the ship under the new commander. Hansen was appointed to the command by the owners, and ordered to take a cargo to Sydney. He recruited a crew of Chinese, Lascars, and the riffraff of Hongkong, and sailed.

No record of that voyage ever was kept, except brief mention of deaths, suicides, murders, nights of terror, and days of quaking horror made in the log by Hanson, who, when one day out from Sydney, shot himself.

Again the crew deserted.

It was weeks before another crew could be secured, because the men who left the ship spread the story of the horror, and Capt. Govinski, who was sent from Hongkong, found the ship deserted and practically a derelict in the harbor. He managed to discharge cargo and to sail with half a crew for Hongkong, where he found enough firemen and engineers to complete the roll.

From that time on Capt. Govinski, who is said to have feared nothing, managed to keep the Parrier in commission, and, by frightful sacrifices of himself, to hold enough men aboard to carry out tramp commissions. His first mate, a Welshman named McIntyre, proved his able second, but even they at times were seized with the terror. Again and again practically the entire crew deserted, and it is said that but one man—Nels Nelson, a Swede—stuck to the ship, and returned to it after every wholesale desertion.

Twice Nelson left with the others, but hung around and returned when the new officers began recruiting the crew. He does not deny that he was as scared as the others of the terror, but after the first few attacks he generally was the sanest man aboard during the periods of insanity, and, besides, he was determined to solve the mystery if it was solvable. Again and again he questioned every man aboard as to their symptoms, inquired what it was that frightened them, and strove to analyze his own feelings when the sudden panic came upon him.

All he knows is that suddenly it seemed as if a gust of warm, stifling air would sweep the ship from end to end, bringing the madness, and that the stampede would last until some man died. The moment a maniac, driven wild by the horror, the speechless fear, leaped overboard or died, the spell passed and “The Thing” left the ship.

Two months ago, with a new crew recruited at Hongkong, the Parrier sailed for California points, bringing hemp and merchandise for San Francisco. It was not until after Honolulu was passed that “The Thing” came aboard. Then there was an awful repetition of the sickening panic and disgusting scenes, as strong men went mad with fright.

Three nights in succession the terror came—and three men died. On the fourth day Capt. Govinski went into his cabin and pistoled himself to death, and Mate Pademan assumed command. The men were near mutiny when they reached San Francisco, but they were held aboard. Nine managed to steal a boat and escape, and the others, sullen, murderous, and ready to take any chance to escape from the ship, sailed southward for Port Los Angeles, to deliver machinery, which was the last of the cargo.

The morning the vessel reached the bay at Santa Monica, about 2 o’clock, “The Thing” came again. Han Lui, a cook, leaped overboard.

The vessel reached anchorage about 10 in the morning. Without a word of consultation, without plotting, without even stopping to consider themselves, the men went ashore in a body and immediately scattered. Nelson, who had stuck to the ship so long, was one of the leaders.

Capt. Pademan, helpless, refused to pay the men, but despite that they went, rejoicing to escape.

Pademan came ashore later and cabled the owners.

Since then the Parrier has swung at anchorage, and the other boats give it a wide berth.

[Note:  I have yet to find any other reference to this nightmare voyage, or proof that the “Parrier” even existed, which makes me suspect that the “Tribune” had an unusually imaginative novelist on its payroll. A curious postscript to the tale is that a virtually identical legend is told about another Russian ship, the “Ivan Vassili,” which was allegedly burned by her terror-stricken crew in 1907. Although the “Vassili” horror is presented as historical fact in many books dealing with the paranormal, there is an equal lack of evidence for its authenticity. The two stories are so similar in detail--even including similar surnames of crew members--that one was surely the inspiration for the other, but it is unknown to me whether they were based on some genuine “hoodoo ship,” or are entirely fictional.]

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Witch of Staten Island

On Christmas night, 1843, the holiday peace in Staten Island, NY was shattered by the sound of fire alarms. The home of sea captain George Housman had erupted in flames. The head of the household was away on a fishing trip, but remaining in the home were his wife Emeline and their baby daughter Ann Eliza. George's sister Mary "Polly" Housman Bodine lived across the street with her father and her teenage daughter Eliza. (In 1824, Polly married an Andrew Bodine, but the marriage quickly soured, and they had been separated for many years.) When George was away, Polly would stay overnight with her sister-in-law to keep her company. This particular night, however, she was nowhere to be found. After the conflagration had been extinguished, some neighbors began investigating the damaged house.

They quickly discovered a whole lot more than they had been bargaining for. The home had evidently been ransacked, with a number of valuables missing. And in the fire-blackened house lay the remains of Emeline and little Ann Eliza. Their skulls had been smashed, Emeline's throat was cut, and a number of their bones were broken. The poor mangled remains were scarcely recognizable as human. It was believed they had been killed the night before the blaze. This was not a tragic domestic accident, but a case of brutal murder, followed by an attempt to cover the crime with arson.

The town understandably panicked. There was a fiend on the loose. Swiftly, the whispers grew about the presumed identity of the fiend. This small, inter-related community had one suspect, and one suspect only for this unspeakably foul crime: The seemingly devoted sister-in-law, Polly Bodine.

Perhaps the greatest puzzle about this crime is the lack of any plausible motive. Polly and Emeline had always been friendly, the dead woman and her husband had no enemies, and the amount of household goods that were missing scarcely explained such a ghastly double homicide.  The prosecution--despite what would prove to be nearly three years of trying--was never able to present a case that was anything more than suggestive of the accused's culpability. And yet, there was something about Polly Bodine that enabled so many who knew her to feel morally certain that she had cold-bloodedly butchered an innocent kinswoman and her year-and-a-half old child.

The local District Attorney, Lot Clark, pieced together the events of the hours leading up to the double murder. On Christmas Eve morning, Polly left Emeline's home to return to her father's residence. During that day, neighbors saw Emeline in and around her house, doing her usual chores. This proved to be the last time anyone definitely saw her alive. That evening, a woman who lived next door saw a woman she presumed was Emeline exit her home. Soon afterwards, Polly's daughter Eliza went to see if Emeline wanted anyone to spend the night. There was no answer. Eliza explained later that she assumed Emeline was spending Christmas at the home of her family, the Van Pelts.

On Christmas morning, a cousin went to Emeline's house on an errand. He repeatedly knocked on the door, but received no reply. Polly emerged from her father's house and told the boy that Emeline had gone to the Van Pelts. She then walked off and boarded a stagecoach bound for the ferry that would take her into New York City. Polly's 16-year-old son Albert was the live-in apprentice to a Manhattan druggist, George Waite. She later claimed that she had spent all of Christmas day and night with her son and his employer, but Albert himself testified that he did not see his mother after about four p.m..  On that same day, a number of items belonging to the Housmans were pawned in various shops throughout the city. All these pawnbrokers later identified the woman who brought them these household goods as Polly Bodine.

Emeline's home was silent for the rest of Christmas day. Around four in the afternoon, a neighbor riding by saw two strangers--a woman and a man in a Spanish cloak--standing in the Housman's yard. As he passed them, the man left, while the woman entered the house. The identity of these two people remains a mystery.

The next report we have of Polly's movements is early on the morning of December 26th. A chambermaid on the Staten Island ferry saw her sitting quietly on the boat. Polly ordered a breakfast of pie and a glass of gin, which made a memorable impression on her waitress. "I thought it marvelous that a woman would ask for gin," she recalled.

Marvelous indeed.  Even by modern-day standards, the sight of pie and gin at 6 a.m. would be enough to daunt the stoutest heart.

At 10 a.m. that morning, Polly was at Waite's drugstore when a Housman cousin, Freeman Smith, came to tell her of the murders. Polly--showing all the appropriate signs of shock and grief--immediately returned with him to Staten Island.

Someone else had just arrived at the Island, as well: George Housman, who was greeted with the news that his wife and child had been bludgeoned to death.

After the coroner's inquest, Polly was arrested for murder. It was claimed that her motive for this terrible crime was to steal the thousand dollars George had given his wife before he left. (The money was found still in the outhouse where Emeline had hidden it.) Polly was placed in the county jail alongside her son's employer, George Waite, who was suspected of being her accessory. On January 6th, Polly gave birth to a stillborn child. Waite was the father.

Polly went on trial on June 23, 1844. She was, to put it mildly, a controversial defendant. There was an immense, and extremely acrimonious, public interest in the case, with the citzenry hotly divided into "She couldn't have done such a thing" and "She must have done it" factions. Extra ferry and stagecoach runs had to be set up from as far away as New Jersey to handle the rush of spectators anxious to get even a glimpse of the woman who was becoming famed as "The Witch of Staten Island."

The wheels of justice did not turn smoothly during her trial. The Staten Island area was so interbred that Polly and her alleged victims were related by either blood or marriage to virtually everyone involved in the proceedings, a circumstance that guaranteed that Polly would not get an objective hearing. For some townspeople, blood ties trumped blood spilled. The most notable example was George Housman, who raised a good many eyebrows by declaring, "I can get another wife. I can get another child. I can never get another sister." The Van Pelts and their connections, on the other hand, would have been happy to lynch the defendant on the spot. Her many rumored sexual "sins"--most notably her long-time affair with Waite, which had caused her to undergo numerous abortions--led many to see her as a woman capable of any wickedness. For her part, Polly accused her ex-lover George Waite of the murders.

In such an emotionally-charged atmosphere, it was almost inevitable that Polly's trial ended in a hung jury. There was one holdout vote for "innocent"--a juror who insisted that he could not vote for a conviction on circumstantial evidence unless there were four--not one, not two, not three, but four--eyewitnesses to the actual murder. He dubbed this novel bit of do-it-yourself jurisprudence "circumstantial evidence in the fourth degree."

It was prudently decided that "in consequence of local and family interests, etc.," her second trial should be held outside Staten Island, and the judicial circus went on the road to Manhattan. Meanwhile, as no evidence could be found against George Waite other than his prior relationship with the accused, he was quietly released.

New Yorkers enthusiastically appreciated the new show that had landed in their midst. P.T. Barnum's Broadway museum installed a wax effigy of "The Witch" in the act of butchering her niece and sister-in-law. This tasteful little display was immensely popular. Barnum depicted Polly as a wizened, evil-looking old hag. The real Mrs. Bodine--a handsome woman in her mid-thirties--was outraged by this insult. Her lawyers believed she was more disturbed by Barnum's slur of her personal attractions than by any of the murder accusations. The courthouse where Polly's trial was held saw overflow crowds every day. The local papers devoted entire editions a day to the scandalous crime. Blood sells even more than sex.

Shortly before Polly's first trial, a Philadelphia paper contained a contemptuous observation by a rising young short-story writer, poet, and critic named Edgar Allan Poe: "The trial of Polly Bodine will take place at Richmond, on Monday next, and will, no doubt, excite much interest. This woman may, possibly, escape;--for they manage these matters wretchedly in New-York."

Poe was an excellent criminologist. Polly's second trial was an even more muddled affair than the first. A number of witnesses changed their earlier stories, and the pawnbrokers who received the silverware now professed that they were unable to identify the defendant as their customer. Despite all this, public opinion was so whipped up against the defendant that the jury had little difficulty returning a guilty verdict.

Polly's lawyers immediately appealed the verdict to the State Supreme Court. These justices agreed that the defendant had received an unfair hearing, and ordered a retrial. As a measure of her notoriety, over six thousand potential jurors had to be interviewed before the lawyers could find ten men willing to say they were unbiased about her guilt.

The lawyers for the defense were able to use this fact to obtain yet another change of venue, and the Bodine retrial wound up being held in Newburgh, New York. For all the suspicion and personal dislike Polly had inspired, there was a surprising dearth of solid evidence against her, and her attorneys were able to demolish many prosecution witnesses during cross-examination. This third jury panel, who prided themselves on being untainted by the emotional frenzy that characterized the earlier trials, very quickly acquitted her. Her first words on being found "not guilty" were "Can I sue Barnum now?"

The DA finally gave up the fight, and Polly Housman Bodine was safe from the law, if not from the even more merciless verdict of public opinion. Polly was virtually imprisoned by the sheer enigma of the case. To this day, no one knows why she would slaughter Emeline and her child, but on the other hand, if she didn't kill them, who did?

Polly returned home to Staten Island, where she led an increasingly reclusive life until her death in 1892. She never lived down the common belief that she was an unusually cruel murderer who had been very, very lucky. At her funeral, the only mourners were her son and daughter, who had remained devoted to her to the end. And the deaths of Emeline and Ann Eliza Housman remain forever unsolved.

Officially, at least.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: "The Ghost Wore Black," by Chris Woodyard

Yes, Edgar endorses it, too.

Those of us who are humble chroniclers of The Weird are well aware that old newspaper files, particularly from the 19th century, are a treasure-trove of anomalies: ghosts, demons, creepy underwater things, even creepier flying things, and just-plain-unspeakable things lurking in old houses. A good many of these stories are hoaxes and still others products of sloppy reporting. However, a precious few have enough credibility to make the hunt through these long-forgotten news reports more than worthwhile.

Our modern era is generally divided into two bitterly antagonistic camps marked "closed-minded 'rationalist'" and "anything-goes credulity." In this respect, at least, we are very similar to the Victorian and Edwardian periods. As Chris Woodyard notes, the 19th century was a time when people wrestled "over and over with the question of superstition vs. experience." This is a dilemma that still faces us today, although far too many of us insist that "the mystery has been solved" one way or another. Thus, these old stories are not merely entertainment; they have something to teach us about our own strange company.

Woodyard has taken on the substantial job of "newsprint resurrectionist," peering into the dark, cobwebbed corners of newspaper morgues in order to separate the weird wheat from the cheesy chaff, discoveries that she regularly shares on the websites, "Haunted Ohio Books," and "Mrs. Daffodil Digresses." The latest book-length result of these Herculean endeavors is "The Ghost Wore Black."

"GWB" covers the full spectrum of spiritualist phenomena. Crabby spirits armed with lists of grievances against the living? Check. Death angels and banshees come to warn you that it's high time to get the will written and the tombstone carved? Check. Ghastly physical souvenirs left by visiting spooks? Check. Hoodoos that snare the unwary? But of course. Avenging phantoms of murder victims? You bet. Yankee rivals of the legendary Spring-heeled Jack?  Hell yes.  First-hand sightings of His Satanic Majesty himself? Need you ask?

Think the "Men in Black" are new curiosities spawned from our modern UFO era? Guess again. We even meet ancestors of the eeriest of recently-reported paranormal sightings: Spooky Black-Eyed Children, meet the sinister Daughters of Darkness. Woodyard also includes a section devoted to what we now call "Fortean" accounts: physical manifestations and spirit-sightings that do not easily fit into any traditional supernatural categories. All these tales are greatly enhanced by Woodyard's erudite annotations, which provide extremely useful historical context, as well as follow-up information,when available.

In short, "The Ghost Wore Black" is highly enjoyable reading, but even more importantly, these newspaper reports serve as a cache of primary source material dealing with an often-ignored aspect of American cultural history. Whether or not the stories found in this book can be believed, they represent a view of this world and the next that many people of the era wanted to believe.

[Note: Apparently the FTC, in its eternal wisdom, legally requires me to add the disclosure that I received a review copy of this book, with the assurance that the opinions expressed above are my own unbiased observations.  I frankly feel like a complete jackass for making this declaration--as if this is some BIG IMPORTANT WILDLY INFLUENTIAL SITE rather than some goofy little blog that gets fewer visitors than Robinson Crusoe. But that's bureaucracy for you.]

Friday, October 4, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company is not ready for its close-up.

Luckily, the cats always are.

This week's Info on the Infamous:

What the hell is wandering around in Stark County, Ohio?

What the hell is hovering over Poland?

What the hell landed in Russia in 1989?

What the hell was this message buried under Durham Cathedral?

What the hell is in the Devil's Promenade?

What the hell did Miss Parsons have for neighbors?

Will the last person to be identified as Jack the Ripper please turn out the lights?

Here's your big chance to purchase some ghosts!  Oh, and a mansion comes with them, too.

Escaping St. Kilda:  The end of a Scottish island community.

A roundup of ten of the greatest female pirates.

1904 tributes to a "plucky lady traveller."

A roundup of some of the best literary myths and conspiracy theories.

Unraveling those pesky myths about the Nazis and UFOs.

An inexplicable child-murder among the early American colonists.

The tragic history of a New York boarding-house.

Some roads ask you to pay a toll before you drive over them.  This one asked you to make out your will.

What happens when literature meets the WWF, you ask?

When humans were bric-a-brac:  The heyday of the Ornamental Hermit.

J.S. Bach, teenage tearaway.

A look back at the still-unsolved Tylenol Murders.

Isaac Newton:  Scientist, philosopher, badass.

Bringing down newspaper reports of UFO crashes.

Readers!  Have money to burn and want your cats to hate you with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns?  Have I got a company for you!

A visit to the Villisca Ax Murder house.  Fun for the whole family!

“By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!" “By God, sir, so you have!”

I'll close with my favorite news story of the week, bar none.

That wraps it up, you hep cats and cool kittens.  I return to this space tomorrow, with something new for this blog--a book review!

Monday, I'll be back to regular scheduled programming, with a notorious 1840s murder case that caught the eye of Edgar Allan Poe.  (No, not Mary Rogers...)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The following ghost (?) story was recorded in the "Boston Daily Globe" on November 12, 1883. I cannot say if this is a strictly accurate account or a bit of newspaper exaggeration, but there is at least some fact behind it:

On the Lake View Avenue, Cambridge, stands a pretty two-story French-roofed house. It is painted white, with green blinds, and has a neatly kept lawn in front. Several rose bushes twine about the portico leading to the front door, and a number of shrubs grace the lawn. The house is owned and occupied by Samuel P. Davis of Watertown, a wealthy dealer in beer.

Mr. Davis is the father of Mrs. Etta G. Carlton, the unfortunate woman who was brutally murdered last March in her own house in Norwood Park, about a mile and one-half distant. The spot is a beautiful one in summer, but in winter, with the shrill wind whistling through the pine trees hard by, it is a desolate part of Cambridge’s suburbs.

Mr. Davis’ family consists of himself, wife, sons, and a domestic. He also has the two children of his murdered daughter to care for. Quite frequently he received a visit from another daughter residing in New York, accompanied by her husband.

During the closing summer months the neighbors at frequent intervals have been called into the house by the Davis family, to investigate a mysterious ringing of the front door bell. That first manifestation occurred during the latter part of August. The family were in the sitting room when the bell rang. The call was answered, but when the front door was opened no one was there, and nobody was to be seen on the street. Thinking perhaps a mistake had been made the back door was opened, but it was found that the bell there had not been used. It was thought that some boy in the neighborhood had pulled the bell in a spirit of boyish mischief and had run away to a hiding place to enjoy the amazement of the person who might come to the door. No further thought was given to the matter. A few minutes later the bell again rang, and no one was found at the door. A watch was immediately set upon the pathway to the front steps and portico, to catch the cause of the mischief, but the bell rang several times without the slightest sign of any one approaching the house. The family became somewhat alarmed and set about an investigation. The bell wire was carefully followed up, but it did not appear to meet with any obstruction, and after a search of several hours Mr. Davis was forced to acknowledge himself at a loss for an explanation of the peculiar ringing. Neither Mr. Davis nor his wife has the slightest belief in so-called spirit manifestations.

Mrs. Davis, however, stepped into the parlor and seated herself before a fine picture of Mrs. Carlton. Clasping her hands in her lap she gazed steadily at the picture and said:

“Etta, if this is your spirit ringing the bell, give me some sign that you are with us.”

The bell immediately rang three times.

The next day Mr. Davis, with an exceeding troubled mind, called upon Captain Cloyes at Police Division 1 and stated the facts to him. Captain Cloyes immediately paid a visit to the house and made a careful examination of everything. It was found that the bell wire passed down the inside casing of the front door, then through the floor to the cellar. Here it was passed along a heavy joust to the rear of the cellar, then up through the floor into the entry again. It ran up the kitchen wall to within a few inches of the ceiling, and then turning to the right for a few feet was attached to the bell, almost over the kitchen door. The bell itself hung from a spiral or coil and the spiral was securely bolted to a heavy timber. The bell wire was perfectly free and unobstructed. There was no settling of the house to cause vibration when walking about. A run in the front entry and in the room directly over the bell caused not the slightest motion of the bell. The front door was opened and then violently closed, the walls were hammered and the foundations examined, but without success. Captain Cloyes remained several hours, during which he disconnected the bell. No ringing was heard, although just before the official called the bell had rung.

Captain Cloyes detailed upon the case Officer Hixon who is deemed one of the best on the Cambridge force. He passed nearly an entire afternoon in the house, but could discover nothing wrong. Late in the afternoon he disconnected the wire and started for home. He left orders that if the bell should ring, he be sent for at once. His home is on Lake Avenue, a few minutes walk from the residence of Mr. Davis. He had hardly entered his door before word came that the bell was ringing, and he rushed back to the house.

Placing himself in the entry he waited. In a few moments the bell began to ring with a steady vibration. The tone was clear and distinct, though very low. There could be no mistake about it. In perhaps forty-five seconds it stopped. The officer laughed at the thought of anything supernatural, but is greatly perplexed to account for the phenomena.

Hiram Hollis, Mr. Davis’ son-in-law, is a cool-headed business man from New York. He visits his father-in-law quite frequently, coming in from New York on Saturday night and passing Sunday at Cambridge. He also endeavored to trace out the mystery, but failed. He is positive in his declaration that the bell had rung while he was gazing at it.

Mrs. Davis, accompanied by her daughter, Mrs. Hollis, visited Boston and called upon a spiritualistic medium, but became satisfied that the medium could give no information. They visited another and were told that it was the spirit of the deceased Mrs. Carlton who was ringing the bell; that they should not be greatly alarmed, as no harm could come to them. She further referred to the murder of Mrs. Carlton, and located the wounds on the temple, and on the back of the head and body, and told, so it is said, other details of the terrible affair with marked truthfulness.

During the bell-ringing manifestations, a number of the neighbors were called in and witnessed the peculiar antics of the bell with their own eyes. Mr. Davis will say but little of the matter and refuses to enter into conversation on the subject. Since September the bell has not rung, but the mystery is still unsolved.

[Note: Thirty-year-old Etta Carlton was battered to death with a cobblestone on March 18, 1883. This brutal murder of a genteel lady of “good family” caused a great deal of shock in the Boston area. Many people suspected that her husband, who was “not regarded with respect,” killed her for her $5000 life insurance policy, and several other dodgy characters were briefly arrested in connection with the crime.  However, her murder--like the puzzling behavior of her family's door bell--was never solved.]