"...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, December 31, 2014

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day, New Year's Edition

On this New Year's Eve, spare a moment of sympathy for the "Seattle Star," a newspaper that did not handle the holiday well at all.

In their January 1, 1909 issue, their front page carried this disgruntled editorial:

Last night, while a whole nation mourned its countless dead, Seattle got drunk.

Last night, while a quarter of a million human beings, brothers of us all, cried out in the climax of their prolonged agony, thousands in Seattle scoffed at God and man, sin and suffering, as they drank their wine and cheered the ribald songs.

Voltaire, once baiting a cardinal, asked: "If by pressing this pin into this pin cushion you could make a million francs and incidentally kill a man in China, would you do it?"

And the cardinal, with conscience and avarice well balanced, truthfully declined to lie about his brotherhood to man.

If there was one sorrow in the whole wide world last night Seattle knew it not, or if knowing, drowned all memory in wine and made merry, until darkness left the earth. But the earth, having completed its heavenly orbit, as it has done since chaos, the fact must be celebrated in the classic revelry of Bacchus and the putrid debauchery of Harry Thaw.

Never once during the long, loud night, did the moans and groans from [earthquake] stricken ltaly obstruct the shrill false laugh of the painted lady as she quaffed her cheer at the table next to the honest woman. The quavering prayers for food that went up from childish throats in Sicily spoiled not one jot of milady's salad as she nursed her jaded palate with the best and rarest that gold can command.

The thought of the heaps of what were once men and women slowly burning to ashes; the thousands crazed with horror seething brains; the homeless, friendless, despairing thousands; this concentrated and distilled misery, not one note of it struck false with the wildly playing orchestras in Seattle's fashionable cafes last night.

For all was merry in Seattle on the night of her annual orgie.

And such an orgie it was. If Nero fiddled over a scene of wilder abandon in Rome, tradition has been conservative. Men and women, boys and girls, drank themselves to uproarious hilarity and screamed in pride of their drunken achievements. In the groggeries of King st. and Jackson, and in the fashionable cafes on Second av., the difference was only one of tuxedos and overalls, silks and serge. The drooling sots that tottered and leered in the land of beer and raw whiskey were brothers to the young bloods and smart men about town who staggered and oggled in the land of iced wine.

And the drink disheveled woman who flaunted her cotton hose and worn shoes in the stall of some cheap saloon was a sister in carousal to her who swished spotless lingerie and whisked her silken slippers on the tables of the rich.

The common bond of drunkenness made thousands in Seattle kin last night. The strange atavism for a night, that impelled the man to take his wife to the thick of this wild revelry, drew the school girl and the shop girl, some man's daughter, to where license reigned supreme.

Decency, religion, morals and all that is clean and good were forgotten in the long blasts of horns, crashes of whistles and shouts of drink delirious crowds. Every convention of law and instinct was flouted, as man and woman gloried in their alcoholic insurrection. Up and down Second av., in and out of saloons, cafes, theatres, back and forth where the lights gleamed brightest, surged the hectic, thick-tongued throng, singing in a thousand keys and discords to welcome the "glad New Year."

Boys in their teens drank their mite and ran riot in blasphemy and obscenity. Girls, whose shoe tops showed beneath their skirts, berated bartenders and vied with chauffeurs in the badinage of the brothel.

This was Seattle's welcome to the New Year.

And a few thousand miles away the greatest cataclysm of modern times had just finished piling up a quarter of a million dead.

Sounds like a damn good party to me, but never mind.

The "Star" returned to the same theme exactly one year later:

Seattle went on her annual drunk again last night. Some in the sanctity of the home, others in the quiet of the church, waited the old year out and welcomed in the new but thousands, men, women, boys and girls, drank themselves drunk—riotously, recklessly drunk. On First and Second av., there was revelry and debauchery unrestrained. Young and old, decent, undecent and indecent mixed in moral democracy where the worst was as good as the best: the painted woman on a par with the mother-—all reduced to one alcoholic level by the whisky glass or the champagne cup.

The days of the sans culottes and the Carmagnole saw no wilder outbreak of licentiousness than that which occurred in the cafes and saloons of Seattle last night; the Moulin Rouge in its hectic Bohemian abandon never outdid the Newport when last night's climax was reached at midnight. The roar of a thousand whistles was drowned by the shrill drunken shrieks of a thousand men and women, as they rose, a swaying, seething mass, with glasses high to drink to Janus.

By 11 o'clock the doors to the cafes were locked. Inside, revelers who had made their careful plans, were packed tight. Squads of waiters squirmed their way in and out, orchestras played rollicking ail while glasses tinkled and laughter rang forth in joyous unison.

At first all was convivial merriment, within the bounds of decent celebration, but as the night wore on and the new year grew apace, the popping of champagne corks grew sharper and sharper. Faces flushed and eyes grew bright; voices thickened and gestures grew awkwardly frequent. One by one the conventions were quietly laid aside in the din, as the hot blood flowed with a quickening pulse; well-bred laughter rose shriller, voices mounted higher as gaiety drew nearer to hysteria.

They were getting drunk, just plain drunk, but it was an occasion and everybody was striving for the same end; the example was contagious. Soon the weaker men and men, unused to dissipation, lost their hold on sobriety and cast rules of conduct in the old year's winds. They sprawled in their chairs limp and careless, hair disheveled, clothing awry, eyelids drooping and hands waving in vague, erratic figures.

Already the bright, humorous features were disappearing; the comicality of the scene was verging toward the pathetic, and then it was but a short way to the pathetic.

Young girls 16 and 18 years old, who a short hour before were sipping with fearful caution from the bubbling, slender glass before them, were now gulping between hiccoughs eagerly, greedily, pitching their voices to their shrillest, their laughter to the wildest, while all around them the tumult of racy, risque anecdote rose in the smoke-laden air.

They were happy, these fair young worshipers at the modern electric lighted shrine of Bacchus; happy for a time. Before the night was done many of them were led, weak-kneed and staggering, the flush of wine routed by the paleness of nausea, to carriages and autos home to sleep it off, essentially the same as the sot of the ten-cent barrel house. Drunk, just drunk.

Out in the streets there was anarchy, a madness for noise that knew no satisfaction; thousands of persons suddenly erased, cow bells, horns, whistles, tin pans, every device fashioned in Pandemonium added to the unceasing din that ebbed and flowed up and down the streets.

They were drunk, too, on the streets, men and women with rougher appetites or slenderer purses. A hundred saloons poured forth an unresting stream of croaking men and youths bawling and brawling into the streets to join in the demonic chorus that went up unceasingly. They pushed, shoved, jostled, collided, cursed, laughed, sang, one long, uproarious symphony of men gone wild. Hats were rushed, dresses torn, insults passed and blows struck, but the human maelstrom whirled on unheeding.

Ruffianism and rascality came up to the higher stratum and the higher went down to the lower. At the doors of the larger saloons and the more notorious cafes police fought back the prurient crowd that beat up against them.

Whenever a young woman was dragged, leering and drooling, forth to the fresh air, they set up a shout of joy, crashed their bells in envious sympathy, and blew approval on their raucous horns. A drunken girl gave the keenest delight and they rewarded her achievement with coarse and profane plaudits.

It was thus that Seattle welcomed the advent of another year.

I'm starting to suspect the "Star" was really conducting a stealth campaign to lure people into visiting Seattle on New Year's Eve.

On December 27, 1910, the publication indulged in some pessimistic prophesizing:

Will Seattle get drunk again New Year's eve?

On January 1, 1909, the Star printed a half page article headed, "Seattle Was Drunk Last Night."

On January 1, 1910, The Star published another article, "Seattle Drunk Again Last Night."

Seattle approaches another New Year's morn.

Will the same pitiful, tragic, terrible story have to be written again?

Will Seattle get drunk AGAIN this New Year's eve?

Already the cafe men are laying their plans. Invitations are being scattered broadcast. "Reserve your table for New Year's eve now," is the cry. Sometimes you must put down a guarantee of as high as $50. In others there is no guarantee, but there'll be nothing but wine served after 10:30.

And already men and woman are laying their plans, in turn, to be there—and to stay there till the last light goes out.


When the last light in the last cafe is twitched out and the last wine-splashed table is piled high with wine-drenched chairs, and the last merry taxicab has whirled off with its last tragic load of drunken humanity—

How many clean young men will have set foot on the ladder that leads DOWN to ruin?

How many girls will have taken the first fatal step?

This is not a plea for prohibition. It is not an argument against saloons.

It is a plea for common, ordinary, 364-days-out-of-the-year decency.

The New Year's day eve is, and rightly, a time for throwing off the cares and worries of the year.

It has been made a period of debauch. It is the time sacredly set forth for the annual drunk.

The annual drunk—that is the word for it, the only word?

Who can tell the full, awful tale of wreck and disaster it has brought? New Year's eve, the time of ending and beginning. It has been made a thing of horror and disaster.

Not a fanatical plea is this against New Year's, against the holiday spirit. It is not even an argument against wine or the saloon.

It is an argument against the New Year's drunk, a plea for decency, a plea for ordinary morality.

Will Seattle get drunk again?
I think we can all guess the answer to that question. On January 2, 1911, the front page of the "Star" carried this plaintive, despairing headline:

Ah, well. Tonight, my friends, drink responsibly. In other words, don't let the "Seattle Star" catch you doing it.

Happy New Year to you all. See you in 2015!

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Mad Milker of Tarcutta

One comes across many different kinds of strange phenomena reported in the old newspapers, but I have to admit that Mad Milking Machines is a new one for me. In 1949-50, the odd goings-on at the Tarcutta, Australia farm of Lawrence "Laurie" Wilkinson had everyone puzzled for months.

From the "Cootamundra Herald," January 29, 1949:

Residents of Tarcutta are still mystified by the behavior of pulsator plates from a milking machine on a dairy near Tarcutta. The plates have been hurled up to 250 yards from the machine by some "unknown power."

The occurrences have been reported to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, but the council has not yet moved to investigate the happenings.

Mr. A. Portors, Tarcutta engineer, has asked the C.S.I.R to send a scientist immediately to investigate the matter.

Mr. Portors said last night that he wanted to find out what power was hurling the plates such distances at a speed so fast that the eye could not detect them.

The plates, he said, weighed 13 ounces, were approximately three inches long, and approximately one and a half inches wide.

Mr. Portors, who has been an engineer since 1917, said he had rectified engine trouble in the machine some weeks ago.

Since then the plates had continued to fly from the machine. "It is no good sending an ordinary engineering man down here, because he will not find any mechanical defect," said Mr. Portors.  "If a scientist comes I will assist him, and put the machine through its past routine. I think I can make it hurl the plates again," said Mr. Portors.

He said no plates had been thrown from the machine since Monday.

Mr. Portors denied the suggestion that a power line near the farm might have something to do with the occurrences.

Mr. R. Donohoe, of "Innisfall," Tarcutta, who has a similar machine, said: "It is impossible, but I saw it happen."

Mr. O. Gorman, of Elwood, Sydney, who is holidaying with Mr. Donohoe, said, "I wish I had not seen it. It was uncanny."

Three Tarcutta residents say they saw a young boy moving a pulsator plate with a short iron rod. The plate flew from the machine, hurling the rod from the boy's hand, and imbedded itself In a mud heap 200 yards away. When they picked it up it had an odor similar to that made by a high voltage electrical discharge.

The machine was operated on the farm for several years without trouble. It is a five-ball machine. Any one of the plates was likely to go, it was stated.

 An expert from Albury examined the machine, but it worked perfectly. He said he was unable to explain the cause of the trouble.

Mr. Wilkinson bolted down the steel bar which keeps the plates in position, but they still flew off. He is so alarmed at the behavior of the machine that he has abandoned the use of it, and has reverted to milking his 100 cows by hand.

The plot thickened in the "Braidwood Review," February 8, 1949:

While a report states that an engineer has described the Tarcutta milking machine mystery as "fantastic and utter rot," the owner of the farm, Mr. Laurie Wilkinson, threatens to sell out if the mystery is not solved.

He announced his intention of doing this to Councillor A. O'Brien, president of Kyeamba Shire Council recently. Mr. O'Brien said on Tuesday night that the people who should be concerned at the mystery, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, were not taking enough interest in the matter.

"It seems to me that they won't send a scientist down here until someone is killed or seriously injured. We don't want that to happen," said Mr. O'Brien.

The machines "played up" badly on Tuesday morning. "Mr. Wilkinson was very distraught when I saw him on Tuesday," said Mr. O'Brien. He pointed out that Mr. Wilkinson has a maimed hand and because of the peculiar behaviour of the machine he and his young son had to milk 50 cows by hand.

Cr. O'Brien said Mr. Wilkinson believed that if he installed a new machine on his property there was a strong possibility that it would also "play up," and he was not prepared to take the risk.

Mr. O'Brien said that plates had been thrown from the machine when the power was off and the works stationary. Mr. O'Brien telegraphed Mr. Graham on Tuesday and contacted Mr. Fuller, M.H.R., by telephone. He asked them both to make further representations for a scientific investigation of the mystery.

The Sydney "Telegraph" reports that Mr. Dowsett, assistant engineer of the Southern Riverina Council, investigated the milking machines. He found no evidence to support earlier reports, and in a caustic report referred to a boy and girl on the farm between the ages of 9 and 12 years, and commented: "To those who have seen these plates vanish before their eyes, I can say: 'Look again, but don't look too hard.'

"The plates, if found some distance from the dairy, have been thrown or placed in position. Marks on the ground and on posts have been made by man or beast, and the whole situation is fantastic and utter rot.

"I would suggest that no further trouble will be experienced, at least with the afternoon milkings, after the termination of the present school holidays."

Mr. A. Portors, Tarcutta engineer, completely discounted the suggestion by Wagga engineer, Mr. J. H. Dowsett that a young boy was responsible for the plates leaving the machine. He said one of the original plates had been found and placed on the machine at the weekend. A man had kept a careful watch on the machine, but the plate disappeared before his eyes on Sunday morning. "The man was the only person present at the time," said Mr. Portors. He pointed out that Mr. Wilkinson had only had two trouble-free milkings in more than three weeks.

So. The "Central Queensland Herald," November 3, 1949:

Farmers and others In the Tarcutta district of the Riverina think their famous mad-milking machine has Canberra scientists bluffed.

Five months ago they invited the CSIRO to send a scientist to Tarcutta to discover why the milking machine kept hurling off its pulsator plates and other parts, but the CSIRO did not accept the invitation. It told the machine's owner, dairy farmer L. Wilkinson, to send for an expert from the makers.

The milking machine expert, as well as local engineers and neighbouring dairymen, have all tried their hand at making the machine behave. All have failed.

Mr. Wilkinson, a hard-headed farmer, does not believe in poltergeists (obstreperous ghosts), but he has had enough of the machine. When he wants to milk his cows he takes them to a neighbouring farm, where the milking machine does not throw things at him.

Farmers say the machine shows a sort of intelligence in its tantrums. When wire-netting was placed on one side to catch the parts the machine changed the direction of the throw.

Tarcutta engineer A. Portors yesterday summed up the local view when he said : "Canberra scientists may laugh at a distance, but let them try to explain these happenings. At first, all the parts flew off in a northerly direction, but when we put wire-netting on the northern side of the machine it threw the parts to the south.

Mr. Portors said that the latest happenings had caused many people In the district to think that some supernatural force was at work.

On December 4, 1949, the Sydney "Sunday Herald" devoted an entire page to the mystery. They published testimony from 15 people who had personally witnessed hundreds of metal parts from the machine flying as far as 250 yards. They told of seeing a cast-iron axle weighing 65 pounds lifted two feet off the ground with "a terrific bang." It described how "in an effort to stop the machine from flying to bits," Wilkinson tied every moving part of the machine to walls and rafters. "Yet parts of the machine, both moving and stationary, continue to fly about, twisting the heavy iron dog chains that secure them as if they were soft copper wire. Since January 10, when the disturbance started, every moving part of the machine had been thrown off mysteriously. Twelve of those parts were still missing."

The milking machine was not the only thing flying. Eleven-pound grease tins. Empty cigarette tins. Cream cans. All were seen to fly through the air on their own uncanny power.  Several diesel engines were found mysteriously dismantled.

Over the next few days, the "Herald" went through the various theories being proposed for these bizarre happenings. A member of the London Magic Circle (a society of amateur and professional magicians) was convinced it was due to a poltergeist, with the unwitting human agent being Wilkinson's 15-year-old son Robin.

Mechanical defect? No. Wilkinson's machine had been repeatedly examined by a series of experts, who agreed that it was in perfect working order.

Magnetic disturbance? No. Most of the machine's parts were brass, which is not magnetic. Tests for ground magnetism were also negative.

Radio beams used to guide aircraft that flew over the "haunted dairy." Uh-uh. These beams were believed to be far too weak to cause such spectacular results.

Hypnotism? Hardly. The phenomena had been seen too many times, by too many different people, to make some sort of mass hallucination credible.

Trickery, probably by young Robin Wilkinson? No. The milking machine continued to run amok when the boy was far away from the farm.

A Sydney physicist, Leonard Gulson, delivered a truly impressive display of scientific special pleading. "Thousands of miles below the surface of the earth," he said, "far below the earth’s hard crust, vast masses of molten matter rotate at great speeds, setting up gravitational turning torques about a line drawn at right angles through the centre of each rotating mass.

“Now if the centre lines from two or more of these great rotating masses of molten metal cross at a point near the earth’s surface an increased force or torque will be created at that point.

“And if this point where the forces cross is above the earth’s surface, a distinct lifting and turning motion will be created at that spot, causing stationary objects to be whirled or whisked first upward and then outward toward the direction of whatever force is the stronger.

“Naturally, it is only at very rare occasions when such converging forces would cross in the ether at a point low enough to the earth’s surface to be observed by man in the manner experienced on this farm, and in any case, the phenomena would disappear in time as the moving masses of molten matter harden and the angle of their forces change direction.

“This theory is a more scientific and reasonable way of accounting for the mysterious behaviour of metal objects on Mr. Wilkinson’s farm."

Alas, another physicist snorted that Gulson's "nebulous theory" " "cannot be regarded as a serious solution of the problem.”

Underground mineral force? Underground whirlpool? Black magic?? A "new theory of gravitation???"

The milker was obviously not the only thing going a bit nuts.

The last report that I have found on the mystery dates from February 1950. It indicated that peculiar behavior was still going on at the Wilkinson farm, but less frequently. The cause of the Mad Milker was still being debated.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

A cat in a hat!

Fancy that!

And on we go.  My apologies for the relatively small collection of links, but Ye Olde Blogosphere tends to get quiet during Christmas week.

What the hell did these Welshmen see?

Why the hell do people think gypsies steal children?

What the hell was this seal doing in the middle of an English field?

What the hell is this fish?!

Are you a Siberian cat?  Watch out for the tax collectors!

The decline and fall of the English country house.

Some medieval post-it notes.

Colonial New York wasn't all that Puritan.

Question of the week:  Why does England get all the good Christmas ghosts?

A look at the Great Revolt of 1381.

The legends of the Winter Solstice.

The rather grisly tradition of using animal hearts as folk charms.

If you had a bad Christmas, cheer up.  At least it was better than Nicolai Ceausescu's.

Abby Warner's Christmas Rap.

A ghost is taken to court, 1885.

George III, hoarder.

Mapping "hidden Britain."

Toys lost and found in the Thames.

Eat like a Viking!

Some mistletoe dos and don'ts.

Henry Wainwright, Bad Boyfriend.

Maria Barbella, who got revenge on a Bad Boyfriend.

And that's a wrap! See you on Monday, when we'll be talking crazed milking machines. Until then, it's closing time:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!...

...and a happy holiday season from Strange Company.  And the cats, of course, who are immensely enjoying the Christmas presents.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day, Christmas Edition

December 29, 1888, via British Newspaper Archive.  Note that this "Christmas Number" features
two cases of murder.

I don't think anything symbolizes the Strange Company Spirit of Christmas quite like that lazy and not-quite-right-in-the-head blogger's best friend, the "Illustrated Police News."  Let's spend this Christmas Eve with some images from that august publication that provide a heartwarming glance at some memorable Yuletides from the past.

To start with, here is a "Christmas frolic" that, frankly, looks like an illustration from "Fifty Shades of Gray":

December 31, 1898
"Upstairs, Downstairs" IPN style.  Yeah, I think we can all agree which group seems to be having the most fun.

January 1, 1898

Let's face it, haven't we all wanted to do this to carolers?

January 8, 1887

Ah, the good old days, when you couldn't go to Christmas church services without constantly stumbling over seduced-and-betrayed ladies clutching their pitiful, starving offspring.

December 31, 1898

Soldiers celebrate the holiday in their army barracks by cheerfully beating the crap out of each other.  Naturally, this being the IPN, it doesn't end well.

January 8, 1887

Of course, murder was a favorite pastime at civilian Christmas gatherings as well.

January 4, 1896

The posh parties used pistols, but the more plebeian gatherings settled for saying it with their fists.

January 9, 1892

Burglars found themselves joining in the holiday fun, too.

January 9, 1886

If your fellow guests didn't do you in at Christmas parties, the decorations surely would.

January 4, 1896

January 9, 1897
And, finally, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without cozy scenes of prison, the workhouse, and doomed castaways.

December 28, 1878
Happy holidays, gang.  May you not have an Illustrated Police News Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Disgusted With the Universal Scene

St. Denis, circa 1830

On Christmas Eve, 1773, two young army cavalrymen took lodgings at a small tavern near the abbey of St. Denis, France. They had no horses or luggage, and quietly dined and went to their room unnoticed among the cheerful preparations for the holiday. The younger man went out to buy gunpowder and bullets. He amiably told the shopkeeper that the town was so pleasant, he planned to spend the rest of his life there.

The next day, the two visitors continued their good cheer. They paid their bill in advance, ate a hearty dinner, and asked to have wine and writing paper sent up to them. The men then bolted their door.

A very short time later, the Christmas peace was shattered by the sound of two shots from inside their room. When their door was broken down, the men were found sitting across the table from each other, both quite dead from pistol shots fired into their mouths. Sitting on the table was a coin, along with a letter and what could loosely be called a will. They were the work of the younger of the men, who signed himself only “Bourdeaux.” He may have been the junior member of the pair, but was clearly the dominant spirit. He described himself as “former pupil of the schoolmasters, then assistant pettifogger, monk, dragoon, and finally nothing…”

The documents he left behind make this obscure little tragedy one of the most self-consciously literary suicides I have encountered. Although Bourdeaux’s last messages have a decidedly affected quality, (he was a perfect forerunner to Goethe’s Young Werther, who was introduced to the world the following year,) his mixture of defiance and despair is still moving, particularly in the context of his times. This otherwise anonymous young soldier is oddly symbolic of the restless, dissatisfied spirit of France just before the Revolution.

Bourdeaux was clearly anxious that the world should not entirely forget them. His “will” read:
A man who is certain, that he shall quickly die, ought to leave nothing for his survivors to do, which it is in his own power to settle beforehand. This situation is peculiarly ours. It is our intention therefore to prevent all trouble to our landlord, and to render the business as easy as possible to those, whom curiosity, under the pretense of form and good order, may prompt to visit us.— Humain is the larger man of the two, and I Bourdeaux the smaller. He is drum-major du Mestre de Camp General des Dragons, and I am a simple Belzunce dragoon. Death is a passage. I refer to the Procureur Fiscal and his first clerk, who will assist him in this inquiry, the principle, which joined to the idea that all things must have an end, placed these pistols in our hands. The future part of our lives affords us an agreeable prospect: but that future must soon have had an end. Humain is twenty-four years of age as for myself I have seen only four lustres [twenty years.] No urgent motive has prompted us to intercept our career of life, except the disgust of existing here a moment under the idea, that we must at one time or other cease to be. Eternity is the point of re-union, which alone has urged us to anticipate the despotic act of fate. In short a disgust of life is the only motive, which has induced us to quit it. We have experienced all the pleasures of life, even that of obliging our fellow-creatures. We could still enjoy them; but all those pleasures must have an end, which is their poison. We are disgusted with the universal scene. Our curtain is dropped; and we leave our parts to be performed by those, who are silly enough to wish to act them a few hours longer. A few grains of powder will soon destroy this mass of moving flesh, which our haughty brethren like to call the "King of Beings."—Ministers of Justice! our bodies are at your service, as we despise them too much to fret about their fate.—As to our effects, I Bourdeaux leave to Monsieur de Rouilliere, Commandant de la Marechaussee at St. Denis, my steel-hilted sword. He will please to remember, that last year on this very day, he had the kindness to pardon at my instance one of the name of St. Germain, who had offended him. The maid of the inn shall have my pocket and neck-kerchiefs, my silk stockings which I have on, and all my other linen. The remainder of our effects will be sufficient to pay for the futile investigation and proceedings that will be conducted on our account. The half-crown left on the table will pay for the last bottle of wine, which we are now just going to drink." At St. Denis on Christmas-day, 1773, Signed Bourdeaux—Humain

Bourdeaux’s second letter was to his regimental lieutenant:
“…I think I told you several times how discontented I am with my present situation…After examining my thoughts more seriously, I realized that this disgust embraced everything, and that I was also fed up with every existing situation, of mankind, of the whole world, of myself; I was bound to act upon this discovery.

“When one is tired of everything, it is time to give up everything. The calculation was simple; there was no call for using geometry; now I am about to rid myself of the certificate of existence I have possessed for almost twenty years, and which has burdened me for fifteen…I owe no one an apology. I am deserting, which is a crime; but as I am going to punish myself, the law will be satisfied…Farewell, my dear Lieutenant…Keep flitting from flower to flower and extracting the nectar from all knowledge and all pleasures…If we exist after this life, and it is forbidden to quit it without permission, I will endeavour to procure one moment to inform you of it; if not, I should advise all those who are unhappy, which is by far the greatest part of mankind, to follow my example. When you receive this letter, it will already have been more than twenty-four hours since I ceased to be…"

In contrast with all of Bourdeaux’s carefully crafted emoting, we have no clues indicating his companion’s feelings at the moment he deliberately faced death. We cannot know to what extent he was Bourdeaux’s willing partner in this act, or simply the victim of a stronger nature.

The authorities, shocked by the casual, almost flippant way in which the pair committed what was considered a mortal sin, attempted to suppress their story. Despite that, these documents gained a wide circulation. Bourdeaux and Hermain were often commented on in contemporary diaries and letters (including those of Voltaire,) as well as the public press. It was a perfect example of otherwise unmemorable people unconsciously expressing the prevailing zeitgeist.

Perhaps this is why the pair was posthumously punished with such barbarity. Suicide was considered a crime “which had to be punished more severely than another,” as it was an act damning one’s soul to Hell. Even worse, from the point of view of the authorities, the philosophical willingness of Bourdeaux and Humain to relinquish their lives was seen as, in the words of modern writer Daren Fonda, "a radical assault against the fraying social contract between subject and ruler." The bodies of the two young men were dragged through St. Denis, publicly exhibited with stakes driven through their hearts, and then burned with the town garbage.

The civil and church leaders were obviously worried that Bourdeaux might prove to be a trend-setter.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Oy to the World

I've been doing a spot of moonlighting from this blog:  Over at Whizzpast, they have been kind enough to include my guest post, giving ten examples of Bad Santas and general holiday mayhem from the past.

Have yourselves a morbid little Christmas!

Weekend Link Dump

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas to everyone we know.


Here's a peek at what Santa will be bringing to all the highly peculiar little boys and girls on his list:

Who the hell owns Lee Harvey Oswald's coffin?

Who the hell painted the Virgin on the Rocks?

Where the hell did our water come from?

What the hell happened to the 1962 Alcatraz escapees?

What the hell happened to the 1937 Alcatraz escapees?

What the hell are these Peruvian holes?

What the hell is the Royston Cave?

What the hell is the Shugborough Inscription?  Now we know?

Watch out for the Hat Man!

Watch out for Killer Folding Beds!

Are you a resident of Cornwall?  Watch out for those possessed cars!

Are you a resident of New Zealand?  Watch out for the Taniwha!

Are you a resident of America?  Watch out for those baffling codpieces!

Are you a cat?  Watch out for Lord Eldin!

As someone who has read more wretchedly-written, insulting Poe novels than I really care to think about, all I can say is, oh hell, yes.

Fighting over a dead American in Ireland, 1867.

Okay, so Zanzic the Necromancer plays pimp for a ghost, and winds up with a dead body on his hands...Oh, never mind.  Just follow the link.

From attempted assassin to condemned man to Emperor all in one Christmas and now you know why it was called the Byzantine era.

George VI saved the British monarchy, and when his ghost looks at Prince Charles it must seem like a Pyrrhic victory.

A reminder that you always have to have somebody fact-checking the fact-checkers.

Because you can't have too many Bad Santas.

Here's your big chance to own Cromwell's corpse plate!

Christmas and mourning in old Russia.

The dam that is stealing time.

It's the Million Mummy March!

The sad tale of the Stag of Arbigland, who gave his life to provide a lousy Christmas dinner.

The unsolved mystery of the Baby in the Mine, 1901.

"Tsimequor, indigenous Snuneymuxw." And it only got weirder after that.

Is this Jane Austen?  Or a con?

There's more to the Easter Island statues than you might think.

Christmas with George Cruikshank.

The importance of being able to tell your Banshees from your White Ladies.

Some heroic firehouse dogs of old New York.

Here's another historic NYC dog, this one forever standing guard outside an apartment building.

Why "He's a Jolly Good Fellow" is one of the most depressing songs ever.

How Marie Mancini's bed became a tourist attraction.  Uh, don't worry about clicking the link; despite what you're probably thinking right now, the story's safe for work.

The amazing photographs of "Snowflake Bentley."

How Charles Dickens got one of England's first personal post-boxes.

Medieval book advertisements.

Some New England snow lore.

A 17th century female alehouse "good fellow."

Saki provides some helpful tips on Christmas present dos and don'ts.

A look at Jay Gould's swimming pool.

Earth lights in 19th century Norfolk.

"Female husbands" in Georgian England.

That time tulips caused an entire country to go barking mad.

And, finally, meet Derby the 3-D dog.

And we're done for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at an evocative Christmas suicide.  In the meantime, a brief introduction to our music video of the week:  Back in the day, one of my aunts worked with a woman who was married to the leader of a struggling young rock band.  The group was having a hard time getting gigs, and money was pretty tight for them.  The wife was always reminding my aunt that if she knew of any weddings or parties that needed a band, her husband's group was eager for the work.  My aunt had heard their music, and privately didn't think they were very good.  She felt sorry for her co-worker, because she figured that band just wasn't going anywhere.

As it turned out, the group wound up doing all right.

Every so often, I remind my aunt of this story, and she just shrugs and says, "I still don't think John Fogerty can sing."

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive

Today's story is brief, but weird. This particular account appeared in the "Evening Telegraph" for July 6, 1910:
The crew of the fishing smack Jeune Frederic, of Grand Camp Les Baines, on the Normandy Coast, saw a strange object in the sea whilst trawling last week.

The sea at the time was rough, and a strong N.W. wind was blowing. The crew were hauling up the trawl when one of them pointed in the direction of Barfleur at a big black object that loomed up on the horizon.

It looked like an immense bird with outstretched wings, and seemed to come from the English coast. Suddenly it fell abruptly to the surface, but shot up again only to drop back heavily.

The fishermen concluded that it was an aeroplane. Three of them climbed into the rigging and saw for an instant a black spot on the surface of the waves. The trawl was hastily got in, and the Jeune Frederic made all haste to the spot, but no trace of anything was to be seen.

The Maritime authorities, to whom the story was repeated, are making inquiries, but as the Jeune Frederic put to sea again after circulating the story more exact details are lacking. Nothing is known of any aeroplane flights along the coast.

This is apparently all we know of the incident, leaving it forever uncertain just what it was these men saw.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Yelverton vs. Yelverton: Love Gone Weird

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
~Oliver Goldsmith

Theresa Longworth...Yelverton?

Shipboard romances seldom turn out well. However, few, if any, ended as publicly and as spectacularly as the enigmatic entanglement of Major William Charles Yelverton (later Viscount Avonmore) and Maria Theresa Longworth. It took six years, numerous courts in three different countries, and Lord knows how many impassioned newspaper stories to sort out their relationship, and even then the results remained unsatisfactorily inconclusive. The moral, if there is one, could be this: If you are a young, pretty, and romantic young woman, avoid moonlight at sea at all costs.

The story opened in 1852. One summer evening, Miss Longworth, an attractive 19-year-old orphan, took a steamboat from Boulogne to London. During this voyage, she made the acquaintance of the twenty-eight-year-old Yelverton. During the crossing, he was very attentive to her, (just how attentive he was would be a matter for later public debate,) and after landing the next day, he paid her a call.

Major William Yelverton

After this, they went their separate ways for more than three years. Longworth went to Italy, and Yelverton to his station in Malta. In the meantime, they kept up a correspondence—volumes and volumes of correspondence that would eventually become exhausting reading for lawyers scattered all over the British Isles. Their mode of addressing each other soon went from “My dear Miss Longworth,” and “Ever your sincere friend,” to ”Carissimo Carlo mio,” and “Cara Theresa mia,” finally culminating in the unforgettable (or unforgivable) “Tooi-tooi carissima.”

It took the Crimean War to reunite Carissimo and Tooi-tooi. They met again in Constantinople, the Major as a military man, Longworth as a nurse. The pair would later give conflicting stories about this reunion. The lady claimed he begged for her immediate hand, but she insisted the marriage be postponed until the end of the war. The Major, on the other hand, stated that he only called on the lady at her request, the meeting was brief, but “in consequences of the advances made by the pursuer, great familiarities ensued.”

After hostilities ceased, Longworth visited a friend in the Crimea. The Major was there as well, and, she stated, was known to everyone there as her fiancé. She said her beloved told her he was suffering financial problems and was dependent upon an uncle who did not wish him to marry. Because of this, he urged they be married secretly in the Greek church in Balaclava. This scheme did not appeal to her, (she was a devout Roman Catholic,) and she returned to Constantinople without any definite plans for their marriage. The Major denied her account, but their correspondence dating from after this interlude tends to support her version of events. Of course, by the time he gave his official testimony, he was quite anxious, for very good reasons which will soon be discussed, to paint himself not as an honorable suitor, but a highly dishonorable seducer.

By 1857, they had both returned to Britain. When the Major was stationed in Leith, Scotland, Longworh was visiting a friend in nearby Edinburgh. The couple saw much of one another and, again, they were recognized by all observers as affianced. Yelverton’s suggestion of a quasi-legal Greek marriage having been rejected, he tried a quasi-legal Scottish one.

“One day,” Longworth testified, “he took the prayer book from the table, and I went to his side, and he read the marriage ceremony, and said ‘That makes you my wife by the laws of Scotland.’ I opened the door of the room in which Miss MacFarlane was sitting, and said to her: ‘We’ve married each other.’”

Longworth appreciated this gesture of esteem, but she refused to grant her Major husbandly intimacy until a more conventional ceremony had taken place. When he persisted in trying to bed her, she fled Scotland, virtue intact.

Yelverton described the scene differently. There was no prayer book, no reading of the ceremony, no nothing. However, even though he lacked the legal status of a husband, he said one day he was granted all the privileges, “on the sofa in Mrs. Gamble’s sitting room.”

Whatever the truth may have been, this peripatetic pair next met in Ireland, where, she said, in August of 1857, they were joined in marriage by a Roman Catholic priest. Yelverton gave a grudging semi-corroboration of her story, muttering that they had indeed knelt before a priest, who read “a portion of a marriage service.”

Over the next year, they traveled together on-and-off, always as Mr. and Mrs. Yelverton. Theresa’s passport was under that name.

In the spring of 1858, Yelverton traveled to Edinburgh, leaving his lady behind in France. There, he found the material wealth he so desperately craved. Unfortunately, it came in the form of a young widow, Emily Forbes.

The Major was evidently one of those men with a knack for persuading ladies to act in ways contrary to their best interests. He soon persuaded this walking cash machine to marry him. He wrote to Theresa, urging her to emigrate to New Zealand, where he would soon join her—honest! Instead, she followed him to Edinburgh, only to discover a second Mrs. Yelverton—one who was already pregnant—and the fat was well and truly in the fire. The discarded Theresa filed suit to prove that she, and she alone, was the rightful Mrs. Yelverton.

The issue of the Major's complex love life first went to court in Dublin. Yelverton’s argument was that the Scottish marriage was a figure of the lovesick Miss Longworth’s imagination, and the Irish one didn’t count, as he was not a Catholic. He unblushingly asserted that from the very beginning of their relationship, he had only illicit sex, not honorable wedlock, on his mind. This self-destruction of his reputation was necessary to his case. In crime writer Edmund Lester Pearson's words, Yelverton "was in a frightful jam. He might admit that some time, in his pursuit of Theresa, he had been animated by the feelings of a true lover, an officer and a gentleman. If he did so, it would lead to the conclusion that his purposes were sort of half-way decent, and therefore that, perhaps, he really had ventured into matrimony. This would naturally lead him straight to jail, as the bigamous husband...Or else he had to paint himself as a scoundrelly seducer, into whose head never entered the tiniest bit of honorable intention. And then, his trouble would be to escape being dissected by the infuriated populace of Dublin."

The "jam" couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy.

Theresa made an excellent impression in court. She told her sad tale with an intelligence, dignity, and apparent candor which brought a much-needed touch of class to this sordid story. The blonde, demure-looking Miss Longworth/Mrs. Yelverton fit so perfectly the ideal image of the Victorian heroine that the public instantly made her their idol. Men felt a protective devotion to this cruelly forsaken lady, while women saw her as the personification of all the wrongs they themselves had suffered at the hands of men. Meanwhile, Yelverton, whose whole defense was based on making himself look like a complete stinker, succeeded admirably in that regard. If Theresa seemed like the classic heroine, her former love was the stereotypical villain of melodrama. At the close of Theresa's testimony, the "Freeman's Journal" wrote:

Mrs. Yelverton is abandoned. The legality of marriage is denied, and it is alleged that, though married by a priest, in as much as Mr. Yelverton is a Protestant at the time the marriage is a nullity. We have endeavoured to put the legal point raised in a brief compass. The plea in fact amounts to this: that any Protestant libertine may pretend to any young and beautiful Catholic woman that he has become a Catholic, marry her as a Catholic, and at the end of a month, or of a year, or of three, cast her off and proclaim that the confiding woman who, in the purity of her heart, and before God, became his wife, was in law and in fact his mistress, the victim of his brutal lust, and of the more brutal code which abets his villiany. In fact, the issue before the court in the present case is not one of pounds, shillings, and pence. The issue is whether the law is such as the Hon. Major Yelverton's counsel contends.

Every attempt to cast a slur on the fair fame of Mrs.Yelverton has failed. The counsel for the defendant subjected her character yesterday to a cross-examination of such a character that a crowded court groaned him again and again to indicate the indignation which the questions briefed to him had created. We hope it will be the last time that a member of the Bar will subject himself to such a rebuke that must be felt with double force when he remembers the firm and dignified, yet mild and ladylike tone in which the woman set aside the unworthy attempt to cast an imputation on her honour.

We cannot believe that any court will hold it to be legal for a man to affect to be a Catholic, entrap a Catholic lady into a marriage, and then with impunity turn on his victim and claim her as his concubine. If such be the law, the public virtue, the public conscience, the public will, which has the power of making and unmaking laws, must unmake this hideous code, trample upon it as an outrage against society, against morals and against religion, and must do so by the instrumentality of a jury.

As for Major Yelverton, the same publication snorted:
Major Yelverton's evidence was perfectly damnatory, and while it condemned the defendant out of his own mouth, it confirmed in the minutest details the particulars of the evidence of Mrs. Yelverton. What a triumph for the virtuous wife, what ignominy for the dishonourable husband, the whole evidence of the man of "gentle blood" excited the most intense disgust. Was it believed? We shall not, though we could, answer the question. His sole object from the moment he met Mrs. Yelverton on the Boulogne packet was her ruin. She was not of sufficient gentle blood for his wife, but she was quite good enough to be his concubine.
After all the testimony had been heard, the jury, aflame with chivalrous indignation, blew the Major a raspberry. Both Longworth marriages, they ruled, were valid.

Yelverton then tried his luck with an Edinburgh judge, who ruled in his favor. There was an appeal, which ended with a two-to-one decision against him. Yelverton’s next move was the House of Lords, where he won a squeaker: A three-to-two decision decreeing that Emily Ashworth Forbes, and not Theresa Longworth, was the proud bride of this man. It is a matter of debate which lady truly came out the winner. It is also unresolved whether Theresa Longworth and her erstwhile Carissimo were ever really married, and if her role was of wholly innocent dupe or willing and deliberate paramour. Ellen Rosenman, a modern-day student of the case, summed things up nicely: “It seems incredible that the worldly Yelverton would have allowed himself to be maneuvered into an imprudent marriage but equally incredible that Longworth would risk so much by becoming Yelverton’s mistress.”

Unfortunately--or perhaps, now that I think of it, fortunately--we know nothing about Emily Forbes’ reaction to finding her new husband came with some very messy strings attached, or of their subsequent marital life. All that can be said is that after the Irish trial, the army declined to have anything more to do with Yelverton. He succeeded to his father’s title of Viscount Avonmore in 1870, and he died in Biarritz on April 1, 1883, a disgraced and obscure figure.

Theresa—who used, until the end of her days, the names of Mrs. Yelverton and Viscountess Avonmore—had a more interesting post-trial existence. She became a world traveler, lecturer (an unsuccessful one, alas,) and author. She published an edition of her famous correspondence with the Major, travelogues, and several romantic novels.

It is unclear whether her unconquerable restlessness was the happy product of an adventurous and independent spirit, or the tragic efforts to escape a blighted and lonely life. On September 13, 1881, she died in South Africa at the age of forty-eight. She had ten pounds to her name.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Glowing-Eyed Demon Cats:  They're not just for Halloween anymore!

The latest chapter in our ongoing compilation of The Weird:

Where the hell are Europa's geysers?

Who the hell was Maggie Wall?

Who the hell killed Ken McElroy?  Or perhaps the question is, "Who didn't?"

What the hell is visiting the Bulloo River?

How the hell was Lazarus Averbuch killed?

Why the hell is this cat green? Now we...maybe know?

Watch out for sand!

Watch out for turnip wine!

Watch out for Christmas presents!

Really watch out for UR116!

The world is really booming!

Pennygown: A beautiful and somewhat mysterious old Scottish graveyard.

Here's something you don't see every day:  a Victorian underwater ballroom.

Meet Edmund, whose books will Curll your toes.

Okay, I'll go for William Shatner as the gouty clergyman, with Jennifer Lawrence as the haphazardly married Elizabeth Smith.

The British Navy meets some Christmas Eve gun-running in 1910 Dubai.  It all worked out about as well as you'd think.

Victorian children, lost and found.

"The King's Mirror": a treasure trove of medieval weirdness.

Anthropomorphic taxidermy:  Because the Victorians never tired of finding new ways to weird us out.

Meet Zeus, an amazing-looking rescue owl.

Bribing a man to marry a pauper mother, 1849.

A really out-of-this-world lake?

Saving Wolsey's Angels.

How to celebrate St. Nicholas' Day.

A look at historic Christmas cribs.

Philippe d'Auvergne, British spymaster.

Was this the most unfortunate rescue in history?

Peculiar Historical Theory of the week:  Was Leonardo da Vinci's mother a Chinese slave?

How servants knew their place in Victorian England.

A talk with Dorothy Parker.

An old shoe store turns out to be a fashion time capsule.

Untangling the many recorded fates of the "Sea Bird."

American Gothic: the real "Little House on the Prairie."

Fanny Bertrand, the fiery Countess.

A 14th century witchcraft case that all in all, was very unfair to an unfortunate black cat.

Trolls who eat children, elfish food thieves, and killer cats.  It can only mean one thing:  Merry Icelandic Christmas!

Some rainstorms require not an umbrella, but a barbecue.

Mary Lincoln holds a seance.

Gout: a classic Georgian Era ailment.

To explain how all those Georgians got the gout, here's some Christmas pies and cakes.

2014's Top of the Pops Crop Circles.

And, finally, meet a piano-playing hedgehog.

There you go for this week. I'll be back on Monday, with a tale of love gone wrong, and gone to court. In the meantime, I've lately been watching a lot of old "Your Hit Parade" clips. I think this illustrates why it's my current go-to show for epic musical weirdness.