"...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, April 30, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here's a change of place for this blog:  no murder mysteries, no weird bloodstains, no ghosts. Just a slice of life in a London courtroom that I found to be a rather delightful Victorian vignette. It comes from the November 23, 1878 issue of what is rapidly becoming my favorite publication, the "Illustrated Police News."

William Needham, of Lucas-street, Commercial-road East, appeared to answer a summons taken out against him by "Professor" Moffat, trainer of performing animals, for detaining a black and tan English terrier dog. Mr. Moffat, who resides at 40 Dean-street, Commercial-road, said he was a trainer of  "professional" dogs, sheep, goats and other animals. It was his business to instruct the creatures in the particular line in which they were required to perform. About nine months ago he had a black and tan terrier dog in his possession, but by some means the dog got astray and he lost it. Last week, when he was passing through High-street, Stepney, he saw the dog in the defendant's possession, and at once went up and claimed the animal. The defendant, however, declared that the dog belonged to him, and refused to part with it. They together went with an officer to the Arbour-square station, and then, as defendant still persisted in his refusal to part with the dog, the inspector on duty advised witness to apply to the court for a summons, and this he accordingly did.

Mr. Lushington inquired how witness identified the dog. Witness said he identified it from its general appearance, also from some marks it had on its head. The dog was a great favourite, and shortly before witness lost it had been in the habit of going through the "trapeze" business with a cat. (Laughter.) His worship: What? A performing cat? I did not knew there was such an animal. Witness said that he had a performing cat, and he believed it to be the only performing cat in Europe or the world. The dog, whose "professional" name was "Soot," could do the "trapeze" very well, with "Jim," the cat. (Laughter.) The witness added that he had the cat with him, and with his worship's permission he would show him what the cat could do. He then put his hand into a capacious bag he had with him and produced the renowned "Jim," to the gaze of the audience.

Although there were a large number of persons standing about the Court, "Jim" seemed nothing daunted at his position in the witness box, but looked round with a self-satisfied and complacent air. At a word of command from his master he stretched himself out stiffly, as if dead, lying thus for some few minutes, apparently oblivious to all around. At the words "fat mutton," however, Puss at once started into active life and frisked and gamboled about like a three months' old kitten. He was then told to answer to his name when called upon, which he did in a series of loud "mews," and he followed this by standing straight up on his hind legs and kissing his master with apparently much affection. Mr. Moffat then held up a stick, on which "Jim" jumped, and hung by his hind legs, swinging about a la Leotard amidst considerable laughter.

via British Library

Mr. Moffatt then called to the dog, who, however, did not come forward to perform his part as "Jim" had done. Two witnesses then were then examined for the complainant, and they had seen the dog, and believed it to be the property of Mr. Moffatt.

In reply to the case, the defendant stated that he had had the dog four years and a half. It was given him by a female friend who was about to go abroad. He called witnesses to prove that this was the case, and one of them, a Mr. Bann, was very positive as to the identity of the animal. His worship enquired what made him so sure. Witness: Oh, some long time ago, sir, he bit me in the leg, and I have always remembered him well ever since. (Laughter.) His worship: Then the dog is no friend or yours? Witness: Oh, no, sir; an enemy. (Renewed laughter.) After some further evidence had been called, his worship stated that he did not think the complainant had made out his title to the dog, and he therefore dismissed the summons.

Alas, it will be forever lost to history whether or not this dog really was Soot, and if the Professor was ever reunited with his trapeze-performing dog.

Luckily,  he still had the renowned Jim.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Pilots Who Walked Away: Answering a Fortean Riddle

The mystery involving Flight-Lieutenant William Conway Day (his name is usually erroneously given as "W.T. Day,") and Pilot Officer Douglas Ramsay Stewart retains a lasting fame largely through its inclusion in Charles Fort's influential book "Wild Talents."  In 1924, the two members of the Royal Air Force were stationed in Iraq, where their main duty was to make routine reconnaissance flights.

On July 24, the two men set out on one of these missions, which was to take about three hours. They never returned.

When a search party set out for them, their plane was easily found. It had been parked—not crashed—on the desert floor. There was gas in the tank, and the plane was undamaged. Extra clothing and water supplies were still in the plane. The only things missing from the craft were its pilots.

No reason could be found why the men should have landed. The weather had been good, and there were no signs of any attack. Footprints of both men could be clearly seen around the plane. They had evidently walked side by side for about forty yards away from their plane. Then, the prints abruptly ceased.

All anyone could imagine was that the pilots had been kidnapped by Bedouins, who then used implements to carefully wipe out their tracks. It was pointed out at the time that this made little sense. If they wished to remove footprints, why not destroy all of them? Since they could not keep up this erasing technique indefinitely, why were no other prints found anywhere in the area? And this theory still failed to answer the initial mystery: Why did the men land in the first place?

Still, that was the only relatively sane explanation anyone could concoct for the disappearance of the men, so they stubbornly stuck to it. An extensive search was made in the region, and the local tribesmen were offered a reward for any information about the vanished pilots, but it all proved to be an utter waste of time. The men, or any clues to their fate, could not be found.

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I assumed that Fort was correct when he described Day and Stewart's disappearance as an unsolved mystery.  However, while searching through old newspaper databases, I discovered that in March of 1925, British papers reported that the Air Ministry had received "official intimation" that the skeletons of Day and Stewart had been found in the desert. As the Lanarkshire, Scotland "Sunday Post" commented on March 8, "This only adds to the baffling mystery of the officers' deaths, and to-day the Air Ministry could offer no theory as to how the officers met their fate."

It was suggested that the men had been forced to land their plane because of a sudden sandstorm. Contrary to the earlier reports about the disappearances, it was now said that when their plane had been discovered, it was "slightly damaged" and repairs had to be made on it before it could be flown back to where their squadron was stationed.

The newspapers stated that the bones of Flight-Lieutenant Day had been found in February. Stewart's were discovered some days later, at a spot five or six miles distant. After the bodies were identified as the missing pilots through dental records, they were buried in Basra with military honors.

It was theorized that Day had been slightly injured in the landing, (traces of blood were found on the plane,) and that when the two men set out to hike to safety, he collapsed and died. "Then possibly Stewart pushed on in the hope that he might find help for his injured comrade, only himself to be overcome by the heat...The failure earlier to discover the remains was probably due to the ever shifting sands, swept in storms across the desert."  There was an official military inquiry into the deaths, which evidently came to this same conclusion.

It seems that this near-legendary Fortean tragedy, which has spawned speculation about everything from underground caverns to UFO abductions, had a simple, if somewhat curious explanation, which was well-known at the time, but has since been forgotten and overlooked.

[Note: Cf. this previous post about another pair of disappearing pilots.]

Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company says, "Rejoice!  It's Friday!"

And the cats answer, "Big deal."

On to this week's Link Library:

What the hell is happening to streetlights?

What the hell happened in the Rendlesham forest?

What the hell is sending radio signals through the universe?

Watch out for that Flirty Fishing!

Watch out for John Farkas!

Watch out for the ghosts of your murder victims!

Watch out for those Russian ghost cars!

Watch out for those Japanese Fire Horses!

Olympia is really humming!

A look at what it's like to interview psychopaths for years.  Anyone who's spent an extended amount of time on social media will be able to relate to this one.

And this, kids, is why it's not a good idea to release over a million balloons into the air at once.

Lincoln's assassination, as noted in the D.C. police blotter.

A rare look at how most women really dressed in the 19th century.

In the mood for some vintage photos of France?  Here's the blog for you!

Exorcising Nessie.

Exorcising Prince Edward Island.

How to make Bronze Age beer.

Oh, just another story about a guy and his geese going sailing on the Thames.

A tale of a mysterious house key.

Last week, I introduced you to DIY mermaids.  The next step?  Why, DIY mummified fairies, of course!

Jan Ziska, a different drum, indeed.

The world's first trans-Atlantic stowaway.

Showed him, didn't she?

Oh, sweet freaking Jesus.

The last casualty of World War I:  Appropriately enough for the Great War, it was a pitiful, weird, and altogether unnecessary death.

Some Boos for the Boos:  A slice of early 20th century Los Angeles Noir.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Philander Worden!

E.B. White presents us with a little dog poetry.

The revered heart of pioneering aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont.

The story of India's first female monarch.

Photos of New Yorkers at work, 1896.

New York's Great Peacock Standoff, 1935.

So, on top of everything else, Adolf Hitler was a lazy sod.

George Washington's hippopotamus.

Quote of the week: "It's not every day you see someone taking a fish for a walk."

And, finally, a video that gives a glimpse of Crazy Cat Lady Heaven:

Well, there you have it for this week. See you on Monday, when I look at two mysterious disappearances made famous by Charles Fort...and present a long-forgotten solution to the puzzle.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This story contains a bonus: mystery blood and mystery check marks! This brief, but highly unsettling tale appeared in the "Los Angeles Times" on July 23, 1912:

J.D. Smith, who lives at No. 420 East Forty-first street, returned home after a trip through the state yesterday and found that his house had been entered while he was absent. On the door was a mysterious check mark.

Smith noticed the pencil mark when he entered the front porch. When he entered the parlor he found lying near the piano was a soft, light gray hat covered with blood. There were blood stains on the carpet and blood streaks on the piano. The lid of the instrument had been cracked from one end to the other. An inventory showed that nothing had been stolen.

When Smith interrogated the neighbors he found that four other front doors had been marked with a similar check mark as that adorns his front door. No one professed to having seen either men or boys in or about the Smith house during his absence.

Detectives are investigating. They are inclined to the belief that boys entered the house and that the blood stains and broken piano resulted from a fight.

I have not found any more about this story, which is a pity. There was obviously some sort of "normal"--if creepy--explanation for all this, but I would sure like to know what in hell it might have been.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Ghostly Quest for Justice

In 1749, a young army sergeant named Arthur Davies was in charge of a small regiment stationed in Dubrach, one of the more depressing sections of the Scottish Highlands. Sir Walter Scott once said of the area that “A more waste tract of mountain and bog, rocks and ravines, without habitation of any kind till you reach Glenclunie, is scarce to be met with in Scotland.”

In the best of times it was a violent, wretchedly poor land, but Davies was dealing with a countryside where the wounds left by the rising of ’45 and the battle of Culloden were still painfully fresh. The “bloody Sassenach” camped in their midst were openly, sullenly hated.

Sergeant Davies, however, was largely exempted from the odium heaped upon his fellow Englishmen. He was a genial, kindly man who treated the Highlanders with humanity, and he seemed to not have an enemy in the world.

Unfortunately, Davies was also trusting and naive to a degree uncommon in a five-year-old child, let alone an experienced soldier. He openly carried about a silk purse containing fifteen guineas. He sported a silver watch, distinctive gold rings, silver buckles and buttons, and a valuable gun. He was not particularly well-to-do by English standards, but to the chronically impoverished Highlanders he seemed a very plutocrat. His ingenuousness in displaying this relative wealth would soon cost him his life.

On the morning of September 28, 1749, Davies cheerfully kissed his wife good-bye and left their lodgings. He intended to do a bit of hunting before going to meet a patrol from Glenshee. He failed to do either of these tasks. In fact, he was never seen alive again.

Great efforts were made to locate the vanished officer, but to no avail. There were dark rumors that he had been killed by two local men, Duncan Clerk and Alexander Macdonald, but absent any evidence of what had become of Davies, these stories remained unpursued.

Davies’ disappearance remained a mystery until June of 1750. A man named Alexander Macpherson confided to Donald Farquharson, the son of Davies’ former landlord, that he “was greatly troubled by the ghost of Sergeant Davies, who insisted that he should bury his bones, and that, he having declined to bury them, the ghost insisted that he should apply to Donald Farquharson.”

Farquharson was naturally dubious about this story, until Macpherson led him to a peat moss that was found to contain all that remained of Arthur Davies.

Macpherson’s story was that in the previous month, “a vision appeared to him as of a man clothed in blue, who said, ‘I am Sergeant Davies!’” This uninvited guest indicated where his bones could be found, and informed Macpherson that Farquharson would help give these remains proper burial. Macpherson did indeed find the remains at the spot the ghost had indicated, but he was uncertain what to do next. Friends to whom he confided his little secret advised him to give Davies a secret burial, lest the area get a bad reputation. While Macpherson was still debating the best course of action, the ghost paid him another call. Davies repeated his demands for a decent funeral, and offered the additional information that Clerk and Macdonald had been his murderers.  The phantom made it clear that he was getting impatient for justice to be done.

19th century depiction of Davies' murder

For whatever reason, the two accused killers were not arrested until September 1753, and their trial for Davies’ murder took place nearly a year after that. In court, it was established that Clerk’s wife habitually wore one of Davies’ rings, that shortly after the sergeant’s disappearance, Clerk himself had suddenly and mysteriously acquired a tidy sum of money, and that on the day of the crime, both he and Macdonald had been seen carrying weapons near the scene where Davies’ body was eventually discovered. There was also testimony from an Angus Cameron, who swore that he had been an eyewitness to the slaying. He later confided what he had seen to a kinsman, who gave him the “don’t get involved” pep talk common to the more lawless areas everywhere. (This relative, Donald Cameron, corroborated this story.)

According to Sir Walter Scott (who knew one of the counsel for the accused,) even their legal representatives were convinced the two men were guilty. However, the jury had no problem delivering an acquittal. Scott believed the otherwise rock-solid case against them failed because Macpherson stated that the ghost spoke to him in Gaelic, a language unknown to the living Davies. It also seems plausible that the jurymen belived that the only good redcoat was a dead redcoat, and that this representative of a hated army surely must have deserved what he got. So although the unfortunate officer was finally decently interred, he remained unavenged, at least on any earthly level.

Of course, most authorities share Scott’s assumption that Macpherson simply invented his tale of ghostly visitation as an excuse for presenting information about the murder that he had obtained through more prosaic means. One hopes that this was the case. For otherwise it has to be feared that poor Davies, victim of a murder which was unofficially solved but forever officially unavenged, may have remained very restless indeed.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day, Special Easter Edition

Here's the opening scene for that Easter horror movie you've been longing to see.

Easter is seen as the most benign of holidays, conjuring up heartwarming images of church services, Easter bonnets, chocolate treats, sweet rabbits, playful little children searching for colorful eggs. Nothing but peace and innocent merriment everywhere.

Well, not at this blog, buddy. Here's a taste of Easter, Strange Company style.

First of all, consider the horrifying world of Easter Bunnies Gone Bad. From the "Milwaukee Sentinel," April 16, 1981:

Lebanon, Pa.--The speed trap has caught 81 people and the Easter bunny.

The big, fuzzy and white rabbit, known to her friends as Janice Holsinger of Palmyra, was hurrying between afternoon parties at nursery schools Wednesday when she was pulled over.

Officer Thomas Capello was unmoved by the bunny's insistence, like the White Rabbit of Wonderland, that "I'm late, I'm late," Mrs. Holsinger said.

"This is the first time I've ever arrested a bunny," was all Capello said, handing her the $70 ticket.

Happily, Mrs. Bun...er, Holsinger swore she would never speed again.

It gets worse. Sometimes, the Easter Bunny turns drug trafficker. From "The Sunday Hour," April 6, 2007:

An East Hartford man was arrested after police found him with a plush Easter bunny that had been stuffed with marijuana.

Ian Lawrence, 25, was pulled over by police on Wednesday after allegedly running a red light. Police found 19 grams of marijuana in his car, most of it inside the stuffed rabbit, police said.

An item in the "European Stars and Stripes" on March 31, 1991 revealed that the Easter Bunny's a deadbeat dad. And considering how rabbits multiply, you can guess what horrifying news that is. It seems that a man portraying the bunny at an East Traverse, Michigan mall was arrested (while on the job!) for non-payment of child support. We are told that "A bystander filled in until an understudy could be found."  Let's just hope the bystander was not Ian Lawrence of East Hartford.

The bunny's a tax cheat, as well. From the "Lodi News Sentinel," April 16, 1965:

Pittsburgh--Peter Rabbit of Pittsburgh may have to spend Easter in the Allegheny County jail.

John Henry Nash, alias Peter Rabbit, surrendered to federal marshals Wednesday after a bench warrant had been issued for his arrest. He was convicted last May of a wagering tax violation and fined $1,050.

Oh, and those eggs he'll be leaving for your kids? They're hot merchandise. The "Milwaukee Sentinel," March 26, 1921:

The Easter bunny has turned burglar.

The famous rabbit has been reduced to burglarizing in order to meet the demand for painted Easter eggs, which he will be called upon to "lay" in Milwaukee homes by the time the Easter egg hunts begin Sunday morning.

The first report of stolen eggs comes from George Ponik, 482 American avenue, who found the lock of his garage broken and fifteen dozen eggs missing early Saturday morning. The work is reported to look very much like that of a hard pressed Easter bunny.

If it is found that the rabbit is actually to blame, it is unofficially stated that no warrant for his arrest will be issued. Realizing that the demand for Easter eggs to be laid under parlor cushions and in out-of-the-way corners, for the young treasure seekers to unearth Sunday morning, is particularly great this year, it is purposed to overlook the misdemeanor on the part of the Bunny, if the theft was actually committed by him.

Mr. Ponik has reported his loss to the police, on the chance that some less popular burglar might have been responsible.

At other times, Bunny is not the criminal, but the contraband. The "Pittsburgh Press" of April 2, 1980, reported that burglars had entered four different stores in the towns of Bellevue and Avalon and stole four 4-foot-tall stuffed rabbits. Nothing else was missing. Bellevue Police Chief William Bracken theorized that the burglaries were "the work of some 'hop heads.'"

The "Reading [PA] Eagle" for April 6, 1931 reported that Joseph Hollensteiner and his wife came home the previous night to find two men looting the rabbit pens they kept in the garage. Hollensteiner caught one of the men, a Charles Sanders, but the other two escaped. Later, an associate of Sanders', John Olinger, was arrested after troopers discovered "a number of rabbits roaming around the shack where they picked up Olinger and they intend to return to that place to determine whether or not those animals were part of the Hollensteiner flock." Unsurprisingly, both men "were under the influence of liquor."

To some people, Bunny is the spawn of Satan. "The Miami News" for April 21, 1981, noted that three members of the Truth Tabernacle Church in Niles, Ohio, "were charged with disorderly conduct and violating open burning laws after a 5-foot stuffed Easter bunny was burned as a pagan idol on the church lawn." One of the accused called anyone with Easter bunnies "heathens and dummies who worshiped pagan gods."

Then there are Easter eggs. Those pretty, universally beloved holiday treats that are the most harmless objects in the world.

Unless, of course, Bunny happens to bring you the Easter Eggs of Freaking Death.

"Red Cloud Chief," March 23, 1922

"Big Sandy [KY] News," April 21, 1916

"Daily Ardmoreite," [OK] April 6, 1902

"Norfolk [Nebraska] News-Journal," May 12, 1905

"Interior Journal" [Stanford, KY] April 23, 1897

"Hocking [OH] Sentinel," April 18, 1901

"Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat" [Keokuk, Iowa] April 18, 1916

And, finally, what would the holiday be without an appearance by the Fortean Easter Hen of Minnesota? From the "Minneapolis Journal," April 15, 1903:

The goose that laid the golden egg didn't have much the start of the buxom Wyandotte hen which clucked thrice on Sunday morning and thereupon presented her owner, Augustus Johnson, 2819 Columbus avenue, with two bouncing Easter eggs.

They were not Easter eggs in that they happened to have their being upon that occasion or because they were destined for Easter consumption. They were thus rightfully denominated because they were as handsomely decorated as any hen fruit whose external appearance was developed by human hands at Easter, and the remarkable exception is that in this case the hen did it.

Mrs. Wyandotte not only laid the eggs, but with a wonderful sense of the eternal fitness of things, she ushered them into the world with such an artistic coat of several colors as to suggest that they had been hand-painted. The prevailing color is brown, flecked here and there with touches of red and blue.

A broken strip of dark brown extends in a perfectly straight line around the middle of the egg and from this radiate different hued dots, the whole being a color scheme which would do credit to the decorator's art. By closely scrutinizing one of the eggs, Mr. Johnson says that the letters of the word "Easter" can be discovered without any stretch of the imagination. The other eggs is of a less effective treatment, but is quite as much of a freak of nature.

"I am at a loss to account for these wonderful eggs," said Mr. Johnson, "and I have about come to the conclusion that the hen was inspired. She has always been of a peculiar temperament, much given to 'meditation fancy free,' and has steadily held herself aloof from the rest of the hennery. This is certainly a phenomenon which calls for scientific research and I shall be pleased to give all scientists interested all possible assistance in fathoming the mystery. Here is a chance for Ernest Seton-Thompson. I shall preserve these remarkable specimens for future reference, and it may be that we shall yet learn how to treat all hens and so control the pigment with which they color their feathers that they can make a specialty of Easter eggs." [Ed. note: Ernest Seton-Thompson was a well-known naturalist and wildlife illustrator.]

Well, happy Easter, gang. I thought it best to end on this note:

 Much safer than those damn eggs.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company made the mistake of letting the cats read about ancient Egypt.

They're now using kitty litter to build a pyramid and Mac has decided he's the Sphinx.

On to this week's Link Festival:

What the hell is on Mars?

What the hell happened in Levelland, Texas, in 1957?

What the hell happened to Meriwether Lewis?

What the hell is Dighton Rock?

Who the hell were these copper-plated mummies?

Who the hell was Perkin Warbeck?

Watch out for those haunted cars!

Watch out for those New Mexico Subterranean Aliens!

Watch out for those UFO Djinns!

Watch out for those Hazel Grove Big Cats!

Watch out for those talking chickens!

Watch out for those Momos!

Watch out for those headless witch zombies!

Highgate is still really booming!

Kansas and Maryland are still really booming!

Moral: If you want to be Oscar Wilde's sister-in-law, you'd better like the sight of dentures as bric-a-brac.

Some ancient oral histories about Oregon's Crater Lake.

A beautiful, poignant, and disturbing 20th century mummy.

The story of a Panamanian pirate surgeon.

The story of the photographer and the giant.  Plus extempore poetry.

So, why has this castle been abandoned for 20 years, you ask?  I have the answer in three words:  Imagine the dusting.

Hamish McHamish, the Scottish cat with his very own statue.

The details of a fixed match from the 3rd century's WWE.

UFOs are a girl's best friend.

More Sailor Cats!

More Bookstore Cats!

In which the Victorians explain the health benefits of facial hair.

Some lesser-known Lincoln death predictions.

On the same subject:  Other than that, Mr. Munger, how was the play?

A Neanderthal childhood:  pretty good?  (Probably, yes, considering that schools and Saturday morning cartoons hadn't been invented yet.)

The demimonde and the 18th century NSA.

Looking for a weekend DIY project?  Here's how to make your own mermaid.  And here is a fine example of the finished product.

Nine Men's Morris: here, there, and everywhere!

The Titanic captain's predictably unhappy ghost.

Is Rome even older than we thought?

Are domesticated cats even older than we thought?

Satan turns real estate agent.

So, it seems there is such a thing as "Communist Chic."  I'm sure this is quite entertaining for anyone who has not had a taste of the real deal.

For all you Russian royals out there:  It's best not to name your daughters "Alexandra."

A look back at the glory days of New York's Postal Service feline police squad.

A tour of Britain's oldest Jewish cemetery.

Armchair archaeology, anyone?

How a book about Jesse James led to a murder.

Erotic Victorian shaving.  Or something like that.

16th century Clippers and Coiners.

Neon New York:  Wonderful color photos of 1946 Gotham at night.

Oh, for God's sake, leave Richard III alone, already!

How to be an obnoxious public nuisance, Regency Style.

A great mystery finally explained:  Why psychics don't win lotteries.

The story of an aristocratic Victorian elopement.

The Georgian Tripadvisor.

Lena Ashwell, the woman who brought culture to the World War I trenches.

Lorina Butler:  properly shaped, prolific seamstress, epic complainer, barking mad.

And, finally, Death provides our helpful advice for the week:

And there you have it! If we fail to meet over the weekend on Twitter or Facebook, I'll see you on Saturday, when I will present a special Easter-themed post, featuring criminal bunnies and the Eggs of Death.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here we have the "confounded cachinnations" of a laughing London...whatever-it-was. This comes from the "Australian," for August 24, 1827.
The neighbourhood of Limehouse, like the Highlands, in the good old days of the bogles, has, it seems, been haunted for, some months back, by a most refractory and incorrigible phantom. The facts of this afflicting visitation are simply these:---A Mr. and Mrs. Dickenson took a small house, in October last, at the upper end of Church-street; but scarcely had they passed the first half of the first night in it, when a sort of a loud chucking laugh (the very sound which, if you could fancy a grasshopper intoxicated, he would no doubt make,) was heard, proceeding as it seemed from the bed-room closet. Now, it so happened, that the bed-room of this worthy couple had no closet, whereupon being puzzled to account for the phenomenon they very naturally explored the whole house from top to bottom. Still no explanation was afforded. The next night at the same hour, the same fat chuckling laugh was heard, and as it appeared close to Mr. Dickenson's ear, that much injured individual jumped up, and throwing his inexpressibles indignantly, but with a due regard to decorum, around him, he rushed again into the adjoining room, where, however, nothing was found that could at all throw light upon the mystery. Meantime, the confounded cachinnations continued, first three short, broken winded laughs, then a halt, then a long asthmatic ululation, the whole wound up by a solemn midnight stillness. The affair now became truly distressing. To think that an attached couple, when absorbed in those chaste connubial endearments on which all married folks set so high a value—to think, we repeat, that an amiable pair thus engaged should be interrupted by the villainous laughter of a ghost; the bare idea is revolting, and fully justified Mr. Dickenson in his application to the parochial authorities. This he did on the third night, but alas! what can a beadle, or even a parish clerk avail against the evil one? Every night, albeit a brace of undaunted constables kept watch in Mr. Dickenson's apartment, the cacophonous interruption continued till the whole set were fairly laughed to scorn. This was some weeks back, but the noises, we should observe, are heard up to the present time, though, as they have appeared more asthmatic of late, it is to be hoped that their fiendish owner may one night break his wind and die. Meanwhile, the house, like Ossian's dwelling of Moina (only infinitely more touching), is desolate, for Mr: and Mrs. Dickenson have evaporated, and no one has since been found at all desirous of being laughed into fits every night, by an ungentlemanly good-for-nothing goblin. Here the affair rests at present.

Alas, I have not found any more about this spectral Peeping Tom.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Plumber and the Babe

On April 18, 1918, a plumber named William Wright was in the middle of a visit to Fort Wayne, Indiana. He desired a night of light, wholesome entertainment, so he patronized a local vaudeville house. The 45-year-old was a shy, solitary soul. He had never married, and spent his whole life living with his widowed mother until her death the previous year left him completely alone. He had a hunger for something beyond his dull, constrained existence, and perhaps he hoped to catch a glimpse of it in the glittering world of show business. He caught that glimpse, and it changed him forever.

In fact, this seemingly innocuous evening out on the town would eventually cause a great many people a great deal of inconvenience.

Blame all the trouble on one of the performers Mr. Wright saw that day, a little girl billed as “Miss Babe.” She came on stage, belted out “She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll,” took her bows to the no doubt thunderous applause, and exited. Wright never laid eyes on the child again, but this brief performance was enough to leave him permanently entranced.

Wright returned to his home in Toronto, Canada, and outwardly, his semi-reclusive life went on as before. The only noticeable difference was that neighbors often heard his record player blasting out one song, and one song only—“She’s My Baby, She’s My Beautiful Doll.”

Ads for various shows, Fort Wayne Gazette, April 1918. We don't know which theater Wright visited on that momentous night, but perhaps it was one of these.

When Wright died in 1938, he left a posthumous surprise for everyone. His entire estate, valued at over $12,000, was left to “Miss Babe, Little Burlesque Girl.” The only other identification he could give was that her real name was “Willie Coughlin,” and she performed “an Indian burlesque.” His will stipulated that if “Miss Babe” was not found within three years, his money would go to the Sherbourne Methodist Church of Toronto—a church he had never attended in his life.

His executors, the Canada Trust Co., were left with the task of finding the now twentysomething girl. An international hunt was on. Newspapers and radio programs across Canada and the United States told the story of Wright’s curious bequest, and pleaded for “Miss Babe” to come forward.

This publicity worked rather too well. At least 240 women popped up claiming to be Wright’s heir. At times, it seemed that every young lady who had ever appeared on a vaudeville stage presented herself as the former “Miss Babe.” And everyone was frankly perplexed about how to tell which—if any—of them was the genuine article. In the meantime, a number of Wright’s relatives moved to contest the will on the not-completely-unreasonable grounds that the plumber was barking mad when the will was written. The Sherbourne Methodist Church also stepped into the fray. Although they did not take any direct legal steps to have the will overturned, the church elders could be heard quietly muttering that surely men and women of God deserved the money more than some vaudeville performer.

By 1941, the pack of would-be Miss Babes was winnowed down to three contenders: A New York woman named Edith Collins Stewart, who in her younger days had performed under the name, “Baby Edith,” a nightclub singer named Dorothy Olive Newman, (who once graced the vaudeville stage as “Little Dorothy Olive, the Four-Year-Old Child Wonder,”) and a Los Angeles woman, Dorothy Marguerite Willet, the former “Shimmy Baby Weymer.” The final touch of The Weird was achieved when it was revealed that none of these women had ever been known as “Miss Babe,” or “Willie Coughlin.” As a matter of fact, an exhaustive search of theatrical records found no mention at all of anyone by those names.

At the sanity hearing, a parade of witnesses told all sorts of curious tales about the late Plumber Wright. The court heard how he always kept a pistol by his side while he ate.   He fooled children into thinking lumps of brown rubber were chocolate candies. Once, while traveling in America, a porter asked Wright where his bags should be sent. On a whim, Wright said, “Oh, send them to Kalamazoo.” When he was taken at his word, Wright had to make a special journey to that city just to collect his luggage. He was also fond of sending remarkable telegrams and letters, which his relatives all happily produced in court. “Caw, caw, caw, saw, saw, saw,” read one message. “Dot dash dot dash dot dot dash,” read another. Perhaps Wright’s finest effort in the epistolary line was “Mother went to bed, one two three. Father went to your grandpa. Now I married your daughter. You know what he would say. He got a ton of coal and sold the stove.”

Personally, I think William Wright must have been a hell of a lot of fun.

After three days of testimony, the court ruled that while Wright had certainly been “peculiar and eccentric,” they found no evidence that he was actually insane.

The Wright relatives did not take this defeat in any sort of sporting spirit. They threatened to continue litigation over the will—litigation they vowed would go all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, if necessary. If they could not have the money, they would damn well see to it that nobody could.

Everyone accepted that if the spurned relatives carried out their threat, Wright’s entire estate would go to no one but the lawyers. A compromise was reached among all the contestants: The Sherbourne Methodist Church would get 40%, the sore-loser Wright relations 12 ½%, Dorothy Newman 17 ½%. The also-rans, Dorothy Willet and Edith Stewart, each received 15%. (Unfortunately, it is not recorded how these percentages were calculated, leaving history to forever wonder how Newman was judged to be 2 ½% more of a Babe than the other two women.) All this was minus court costs, of course, which amounted to about a third of Wright’s estate. Even by the standards of the day, the money everyone eventually received hardly seemed worth all the trouble. It was never determined who was really the light of William Wright’s life.  In fact, I find myself wondering if "Miss Babe" wasn't just a deliberate invention of Wright's, making this bizarre, and ultimately unenforceable, will one last practical joke of his from beyond the grave.  If so, it was a smashing success.

In the end, probably everyone involved devoutly wished that on that April night in Fort Wayne, plumber Wright had just stayed in his hotel room and played cards.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company reminds you:  Hey, it's Friday!  Relax!

The cats will show you how it's done.

On to this week's edition of Me Stealing Content From People Who Have Better Blogs Than I Do:

What the hell did this 18th century sea captain observe in the sky?

What the hell nearly collided with this Australian plane?

What the hell is this hammer?

What the hell is the Nebra Sky Disc?

What the hell is "bison self-abuse"  like?  And, no, I most assuredly do not want to know the answer to that.

Watch out for those British homes!

Watch out for those squirrel-torchers!

Watch out for those cherry trees from space!

Watch out for those foot fetish phantoms!

Highgate is really booming!

Berlin is really popping!

An 18th century girl loses her squirrel, sadly decides she'll have to settle for a husband instead.

This is pretty nice:  take a stroll through Marseilles without leaving your chair.

"You start here and then you move along, until you drop off the end."  A visit to London's Charterhouse priory.

Meet the Nazi Ginger Rogers.

Meet some libelous 17th century doctors.

The inside scoop on late 19th-early 20th century freak shows. Who's hot?  Who's not?

One of the prettiest--and most expensive--caterpillars you'll ever see.

The volcano that changed history.

More Voynich speculation, this time from a researcher who believes it's a forgery.

The Bear Lake Monster:  It was all for love!

"People from all over the world" applied to design Boston's Edgar Allan Poe statue, and this...object  was deemed the freaking best they could do.

Meet the Appomattox Rag Doll.

"From little acorns mighty oaks..."  Well, never mind.

An evocative first-person account of the Titanic disaster.

Return of the Necropants!

The inside scoop on Abraham Lincoln's facial hair.

The sad death of a too-inventive Victorian monkey.

Some evocative hand-tinted photos of 19th century Japan.

The life of an 18th century female forger.

Very nice: a historical New York lighthouse that's now a bed & breakfast.

Discovering World War I in an attic.

So, what is "intelligent life," anyway?

Whatever you do, don't give this post a big hand.

Mary Blandy: deliberate parricide or lovesick dupe?

Rosalie Goodman, Crazy Cat Lady Emeritus.  We salute you!

And, finally, this tweet has given me an idea for what would have to be the greatest TV series of all time: "CSI: Fortean."

And it's a wrap! I hope you'll join me on Monday, when I will present a tale dealing with one of my favorite historical topics: Weird Wills.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

On this blog, I have presented tales of homes plagued by Mystery Blood, Mystery Explosions, Mystery Doorbells, Mystery Shaking, Mystery Floods, and Mystery Satanic Garden Hoses.  This series of domestic Fortean horrors continues today with a Mystery Fire.  This account of a baby's peculiarly horrifying death comes from the (Mt. Vernon, Ohio) "Democratic Banner" for September 22, 1916:
Funeral services were held today for the seven-months-old child of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Nauman, north of here which was cremated yesterday while lying in its crib, by a fire of singular mystery.

The mother of the child was away from the house, leaving her children in charge of the baby. Charles Little, enroute to Fredericktown with a milk shipment, noticed smoke issuing from the Nauman home and rushed in. He proceeded to the room where the infant child lay and, seeing that the crib was the only thing afire, grasped the child therefrom and rushed out into the yard. The child died in his arms.

The origin of the fire is an utter mystery. The flames were confined entirely to the little crib.

I have not found anything more about the Nauman baby's death, so it is hard to even make a guess what happened. I would also like to know the ages of the other children who were left "in charge" of the infant, as well as where they were when the fire started.

From this little information we have, one of the first things that comes to mind is "spontaneous human combustion." Of course, there probably was a more "normal" explanation for the fire, but evidently everyone who was on the scene at the time had no idea what that explanation may have been.

As we like to say around this blog, make of it what you will.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Burton W. Gibson, Lethal Legal Eagle

“The first thing we do, let the lawyers kill them all.”
-Shakespeare, as allegedly interpreted by Burton W. Gibson

Burton W. Gibson was a lawyer who had a remarkable number of incredibly unlucky clients. People who hired him had a distressing habit of dying or disappearing in various mysterious ways. The list included:

Mrs. Alice Kinnan, who on June 6, 1906, was found lying on the porch of her home in the Bronx. Someone had smashed in her skull. Sometime earlier, Mrs. Kinnan’s mother, Louisa Stenton, had hired Gibson and another attorney to settle a complicated dispute involving the mortgage on some property she owned. She eventually established title to the home, but after two years of Gibson’s peculiar brand of litigation, she somehow wound up more in debt than when she started. At the time of her death, Mrs. Kinnan and her mother were suing their former lawyers in an effort to recover part of their money. Just hours before her murder, Alice Kinnan had been heard to say, “that devil of a lawyer [Gibson] put me to a lot of trouble.” On the recommendation of the coroner's jury, Gibson was arrested, but released on a habeas corpus writ the next day, and the investigation into the death was inexplicably dropped. Gibson later brought a suit for false arrest, but it seems to have been dismissed.  Kinnan's murder remains officially unsolved.

Five weeks before Kinnan died, a man named William Clinchy was also the victim of an unsolved murder. A few days before his death, he took out a life insurance policy on himself, in favor of Alice Kinnan. Burton Gibson had handled the matter for Clinchy.

George Malcolm, Mrs. Stenton’s nephew and the administrator of her estate, filed suit against Gibson to recovery property of hers he had allegedly obtained through fraud. And then Malcolm disappeared. Four days later, his body was discovered in Long Island Sound. The mystery of his death was never solved. In 1910, Gibson produced a previously-unknown “lost” will Mrs. Stenton had supposedly made out. It named Gibson as executor and a Percy McElroy as residuary legatee. Stenton’s relatives contested this mysterious document, and the will was eventually rejected for probate.

Michael Shippo, the caretaker of Mrs. Stenton’s estate, and his wife Marie lived on the Stenton property. They were the first to discover Kinnan after she had been attacked. The Shippos afterward testified that Kinnan’s last gasping words were “Lawyer--hit--me.” They also claimed that Gibson had offered them money to leave the country. Michael Shippo was attacked and nearly killed by an unknown assailant in 1907, and he and his wife both often said they feared for their lives after the Kinnan murder.

In 1909, Shippo was found dead in two feet of water in New York's Pelham Creek. The official verdict was that he drowned, but the exact circumstances of his death were never determined.

In 1911, Gibson represented John Rice O’Neil in a suit for damages against a railroad company, which netted a settlement of $10,000. O’Neil put Gibson in charge of investing this money. Not long afterwards, O’Neil left his home for a meeting with his lawyer. He was never seen again. When questioned, Gibson said blandly that he had paid his client some money he was owed, after which O’Neil left his office. That, he shrugged, was all he knew of his whereabouts.

Edward Minnicks, another Gibson client, was awarded some $5,500 from a lawsuit.  The day before this money was delivered to Gibson, Minnicks also disappeared, never to be seen again. Minnicks' wife complained that all she ever received from Gibson was $100.

Mary Walker asked the Legal Aid Society to help her gain control of her son's estate, which was then in Gibson's hands.  Before any action could be taken, Walker joined the list of vanished Gibson associates.

Early in 1912, Gibson placed a very curious advertisement in various newspapers:

“Daughter of Paul Dillon, also known as Paul Low, and in European circles as Paul D’ Ailau: Before his death your father left securities, vault keys, maps, full instructions with me. Communicate. European papers please copy. B. W. Gibson, attorney, 55 Liberty Street.”

Gibson told a reporter that Dillon was a European adventurer who left an estate of several hundred thousand dollars. He knew Dillon had a daughter living in Europe, but he had no idea of her first name, or how to contact her. I have been unable to find any more about this story, so I have no idea what this busy little lawyer was up to, but with his track record, one shudders to think what it may have been.

Rosa Szabo, via Library of Congress

In July of 1912, Rosa Szabo went boating in New York’s Greenwood Lake with her attorney, Burton W. Gibson. During this outing, Gibson later explained, she fell out of their boat and drowned. A few months earlier, Gibson had drawn up a will for her, naming her mother as heir to her estate of over $11,000. When Gibson brought the will for probate, he attached a waiver of citation signed by Szabo’s mother. The authorities began to show an interest in the proceedings when it was discovered that Szabo’s mother had died in Austria two years before she had supposedly signed Gibson’s document. They became even more interested when it became known that Szabo, who was illiterate, had told numerous people that she intended to leave her property to her five brothers and three sisters. The inference was that Szabo had had no idea of what sort of will she was really signing. And when she was exhumed, doctors who examined the corpse declared that she had not drowned, but died of strangulation. Then everyone became very interested indeed in Mr. Gibson’s doings.

Crowd awaiting Gibson's arrest for Szabo's murder. Via Library of Congress.

And a fat lot of good it did them.  He was tried twice for the killing of Rosa Szabo, but neither jury was able to reach an agreement. Subsequently, however, it was established that he had fraudulently obtained over seven thousand dollars from Szabo’s bank account. This time around, a jury had little difficulty in finding him guilty of grand larceny. He was sentenced to five to ten years in prison, plus a fine of $7800. (It was said that during his imprisonment, he gave “advice to the other prisoners which was not for the good of the community.”)

Every accused serial killer gets his fan club.  From the Syracuse Herald, Sept. 16, 1912.

Incidentally, the source of Rosa Szabo's wealth is one of the many unanswered questions about this extraordinarily murky story. During Gibson's first trial for her murder, an acquaintance of the dead woman named Anthony Gaytz came forward as a witness. Rosa's husband, Veila, had died suddenly in 1904, supposedly of pneumonia. A native Austrian, he had been unable to make a living in New York, leaving his wife virtually penniless. Gaytz described how, on the night Veila Szabo died, he went to visit Rosa. Gaytz found her in the company of Gibson and a well-to-do jeweler named William Schumann. After her husband's death, Mrs. Szabo went to work for Schumann--who was partially paralyzed--as his live-in housekeeper. After this, Mrs. Szabo somehow banked a great deal of money--nearly $10,000. Her bank books were kept in the vaults of Schumann's jewelry firm. Then, Schumann--as people in Gibson's orbit often did--abruptly dropped dead. His relatives--who were given no advance warning of any sort of illness--were told he died of...pneumonia.

Soon after Schumann's death, Mrs. Szabo and Gibson appeared at Schumann's bank, asking for her bank books. Gibson took them into custody. And Mrs. Szabo died not long afterward.

The newspapers reported that the police would be opening investigations into the deaths of Mr. Szabo and William Schumann, but if so, these inquiries evidently came to nothing.

Gibson was disbarred while he was in Sing Sing--an action one can hardly call unjustified--but I regret to say I have found nothing more about this remarkable man's subsequent history.  Once he was released from prison, he may no longer have been a lawyer, but I have the feeling he still managed to find himself many, many things to do.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

A word of warning:  Strange Company has now employed a big, tough, muscular, take-no-prisoners bouncer for when things get too rowdy around here.

You want to know what she does with spammers? She swallows them whole.

On to the links:

Who the hell was Beachy Head Lady?

What the hell were these WWII soldiers seeing?

What the hell killed William Henry Harrison?

What the hell is the Face on Mars?

Watch out for those money-grubbing aliens!

Watch out for those British Museum artifacts!

Watch out for the Wailing Wilga Waterhole!

Watch out for the Jinkenmen!

Watch out for those deadly phone calls!

Watch out for those deliberately dangerous beards!

Watch out for those Loch Ness Larval Longnecks!

Watch out for those Bay Area hotels!

Watch out for those combusting corpses!

Watch out for those Ladies of Learning!

No need to watch out for the rats?

Oklahoma is still really booming!

VE Day was even livelier than we think.

The "time capsule" of a British soldier killed in World War I.

Gordon Selby:  World War II's luckiest man?

Escape to a lovely dream world of early 20th century gardens.

Humans were not the only ones who suffered and died:  A guide to the dogs of the Titanic.

How old mug shots reveal the social history of one small American town.

Believe it or not, some people once thought trying to conjure up a ghost with their minds was a good idea.

Meet the Medicinal Plaister Papas.  And yes, that would make the greatest name for a rock band ever.

Meet Simon of Sudbury.  And yes, that would be the perfect name for the lead singer of the Medicinal Plaister Papas.

Redefining death.

Perhaps we should redefine death as this cave.

Don't be too anxious to explore other planets.  We're barely getting to know our own.

A useful guide to Vietnamese ghosts.

The strange, fascinating world of Immanuel Velikovsky.

In other words, archaeologists are full of...well, never mind.

More reasons why the "Cosmos" reboot is a travesty.

A look at Hogarth's oddly prescient March of Intellect.

Prince Charlie wasn't so Bonnie after all.

I'll bet this is the best chicken beauty pageant photo essay you'll see all day.

Good grooming, World War I style.

Egyptian glyphs found in Australia; historians hardest hit.

Ancient artifacts found in China; historians even harder hit.

Unmaking the Gloucester Sea Serpent.

Unwrapping mummies.  Fun for the whole family!

A charming pictorial look at a long-vanished London.

Some handy maps of Hell.

Clipping the Church.

The birth of a classic cliffhanger.

Meet Lady Meux.  And her zebras.

Why a dog is a composer's best friend.

Thus proving that even geniuses can qualify for the Darwin Award.

Oh, and it turns out Cthulhu was a Harvard man.  (Update:  Or not?)

And we're done!  I'll be back on Monday, with a look at one of the most remarkable lawyers of the early 20th century.  Picture a cross between Perry Mason and the Angel of Death.