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

Monday, June 29, 2015

The First Great Shakespeare Skeptic

Practically all of us have our pet crotchets and theories. Usually, they remain nothing more than a hobby that keeps us entertained, even if it often bores those around us. Sometimes, however, they can take over our lives to the point where they become obsessions--even disturbing obsessions.

Once in a while, they can drive someone mad.

One of these thankfully rare examples of a person allowing a theory to gain control over them was Delia Bacon. Bacon was born in rural Ohio in 1811. Her father, an impoverished Congregationalist minister, relocated his family to Hartford, Connecticut before his death in 1817. Despite her family's lack of money, Delia received a good education in a private school run by Henry Ward Beecher's sister Catherine. (Miss Beecher recorded that she was impressed by her pupil's "fervid imagination" and "rare gifts of eloquence.") After she left school at the age of 14, Miss Bacon and an older sister made several efforts to start schools of their own, but without success.

In any case, Bacon's real dream was to become a professional writer. In 1831, she published a collection of short stories, "Tales of the Puritans," and the following year her story "Love's Martyr" won a writing contest sponsored by the Philadelphia "Saturday Courier." The judges praised her work for its "taste, genius, and feeling." Among the runners-up for the first prize was a then-unknown Baltimore writer named Edgar Allan Poe. (She later turned the story into a verse play, "The Bride of Fort Edward." Although Poe himself described it as containing "some richly imaginative thoughts, skillfully expressed," it did not find favor with the public.) Bacon also launched a career as a lecturer, speaking about literature and world history. The attractive, knowledgeable young woman's talks proved both critically and commercially popular. An admirer described her as "graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history."

Unfortunately, Bacon's personal life was not going as well as her increasingly promising professional career. She became romantically entangled with a Reverend Alexander MacWhorter. This relationship--apparently her first and last love affair--ended badly. She appears to have convinced herself that the young man--who was more than ten years her junior--would marry her, an idea he rejected incredulously. Delia's brother Leonard, outraged by the gossip his sister was attracting, had MacWhorter brought before his church on charges of "calumny, falsehood, and disgraceful conduct, as a man, a Christian, and especially as a candidate for the Christian ministry." At the resulting ecclesiastical trial, MacWhorter narrowly avoided being unfrocked. It did not help matters any when Bacon's friend Catherine Beecher, seeking to defend her, published "Truth Stranger Than Fiction," a thinly-disguised novel based on the scandal. Instead of helping Delia's cause, the book only drew additional attention to her unhappy love life. Bacon, deeply humiliated by the entire episode, disgustedly swore off men altogether.

It was perhaps this general sense of disillusionment that led her, at about this time, to develop a radical notion that would eventually consume her entire life. Her studies of literature gradually led her to entertain the idea--one that was at the time unprecedented heresy--that William Shakespeare was not--could not be!-- the author of the writings which bear his name. If he was the author, she mused, where are his original manuscripts? Why do we know so very little about him? Where did he get the erudition contained in these plays? Could such deeply philosophical works have been intended as mere popular stage fodder for the "unlettered masses?" The more she contemplated this startling notion, the more she succeeded in convincing herself that it was the truth. The man credited with writing some of the most renowned literature in history was, she decided, nothing but "a vulgar, illiterate...deerpoacher." His name, she argued, was used as a front for an underground group of Elizabethan geniuses, headed by Sir Francis Bacon, who really wrote the "Shakespeare" plays to promote their dangerously radical philosophies. She described Sir Francis and his supposed "collaborators" as a "little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise.. .Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another. Driven from the open field, they fought in secret." The idea that the lowly, illiterate Shakespeare , "the Stratford poacher," wrote these transcendent works was, she proclaimed, "this great myth of the modern ages." "What infirmity of blindness is it, then, that we charge upon this 'god of our idolatry!' And what new race of Calibans are we, that we should be called upon to worship this monstrous incongruity--this Trinculo--this impersonated moral worthlessness?"

Although most of Bacon's family and friends scoffed at her new obsession, she managed to convince Ralph Waldo Emerson that she was on to something. An amateur Shakespeare scholar himself, Emerson reflected that what we know of Shakespeare depicts him as "a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast." Emerson was so impressed with Miss Bacon and her novel thesis that he supplied her with letters of introduction to aid her in going to England to pursue her research. She made the journey to Shakespeare Country in 1853.

Delia Bacon had landed the chance of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by her own increasingly frail emotional stability. English contacts such as Thomas Carlyle, (who "shrieked" when he first heard her theory,) soon decided that she was less of a serious scholar and more of a deluded eccentric. Probably out of a subconscious fear of proving herself wrong, Bacon rejected the idea of authentic historical research, relying instead on her "intuition." Her proof, she asserted, did not come from dry historical archives, but from the internal evidence found in the plays themselves. Comforting as such daydreams may have been for her, it soon alienated her backers completely. Even Emerson, discouraged by her reluctance to find hard evidence for her beliefs, dropped her, although he remained intrigued by her insights.

Bacon was left stranded in England, friendless and penniless. She was undeterred. She holed herself up in the dingy little room she was renting in the home of a shoemaker and frantically worked on a book about the fraudulent Shakespeare, "the stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor."  She knew her work would eventually vindicate her and make all her present sufferings worthwhile. It was "too gross to be endured" that anyone would think this man had written these plays.

Instead, her combination of poverty and overwork made her dangerously ill. Her alarmed doctor wrote for help to the American consulate in Liverpool. He explained that this American lady was "in a very excited and unsatisfactory state, especially mentally." He feared that "she will become decidedly insane."

The consul--who happened to be another author from New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne--did what he could for his distressed countrywoman, and under the care he authorized, Bacon recovered enough to complete her magnum opus, which she titled "The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded." Hawthorne read her manuscript, and while he remained unconvinced of her theory, he thought enough of it to agree that it deserved to be made public. He penned a forward to the work and found an English publisher, Groombridge and Sons, that was willing to take it on. (Unbeknownst to Bacon, Hawthorne secretly promised the publishers that he would cover any losses on the book. This act of literary generosity wound up costing him £238.)

By this point, Bacon had become fixated on the idea of opening Shakespeare's grave. She asserted that she "knew" that tangible proof of her theory had been entombed with the impostor. She argued this case so forcefully that the vicar of the church where Shakespeare lay expressed himself as willing to grant her request. Again, her inner lack of self-confidence caused her to back down. Hawthorne later wrote, not unsympathetically, that "A doubt stole into her mind whether she might not have mistaken the depository and mode of concealment of those historic treasures. And after once admitting the doubt, she was afraid to hazard the shock of uplifting the stone and finding nothing. She examined the surface of the gravestone, and endeavored, without stirring it, to estimate whether it were of such thickness as to be capable of containing the archives of the Elizabethan club. She went over anew the proofs, the clues, the enigmas, the pregnant sentences, which she had discovered in Bacon's letters and elsewhere, and now was frightened to perceive that they did not point so definitely to Shakespeare's tomb as she had heretofore supposed." Her secret uncertainties over what had become her life's work--and a work so at variance with her Puritan upbringing--were literally driving her crazy. Her family back in Hartford, deeply concerned about her, implored her to come home, but she refused. "I can not come," she wrote flatly. She was too frightened to seek proof of her theory, but she was too frightened to let it go, either.

Her "Shakespeare Unfolded" came out in April of 1857. In nearly 700 pages of rambling, confusing, virtually unreadable prose, Bacon laid out her belief that the historical William Shakespeare could not have had the broad education displayed in "his" plays. The knowledge of law, court life, and foreign lands shown in these works, were, she declared, indubitably beyond the man whom she dismissed as "Lord Leicester's stableboy." Her cherished book was, sadly, an utter flop. When it was noticed at all, it was resoundingly mocked.

Having one's most cherished beliefs publicly scorned would be hard on anyone. For someone as fragile as Delia Bacon, it proved virtually fatal. Failure left her so mentally and emotionally shattered that she was placed in an asylum in a village outside Stratford. In 1858, a nephew brought her back to Hartford. At the time of her death only a year later, she had never fully recovered her reason. A brother recorded that she died "thankful to escape from tribulation and enter into rest."

She would have died much happier if she had known that her skepticism about the Bard of Avon would, in the years after her death, gain a remarkable popularity. Her writings gained such illustrious adherents as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and Henry James. Although the "Baconian theory" itself is now largely out of vogue, the whole "Shakespeare authorship" debate is still alive and well.

Modern-day literary critic James Shapiro has asserted, "Had she limited her argument to these points ["collaborative authorship" of the plays] instead of conjoining it to an argument about how Shakespeare couldn't have written them, there is little doubt that, instead of being dismissed as a crank and a madwoman, she would be hailed today as the precursor of the New Historicists, and the first to argue that the plays anticipated the political upheavals England experienced in the mid-seventeenth century."

In other words, it could be argued that Delia Bacon was not an absurd fantasist, but a visionary scholar who tragically took a wrong path.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by the League of Medieval Rocket Cats.

Who the hell was the Childers Claimant?

What the hell was a fetus doing with a 17th century bishop?

What the hell is this Canadian rock face?

Watch out for Harvard Medical Students!

Watch out for those jilted brides!

Watch out for Udder Snakes!

Watch out for Ohio Frog Folk!

Watch out for Gyre Carline!

One of the first tourists at the Waterloo battlefield.

The dog who became a detective.

The oldest known toy.  It's still darn cute, too.

A 17th century UFO battle.

The judicial murder of Eliza Fenning.  (My look at that sad case is here.)

The legend of Kitty Jay's grave.

A particularly weird story involving sinister letters and a million-dollar house.

It was hazardous to be the son of Peter the Great.  Especially if you were an ineffectual twerp.

Very bad things are happening in one Ohio town.

Knowing your Upper Servant Offices.

Lydia Pinkham, famed "woman's friend."

A rather delightful ghost in 18th century Cambridge.

A Cornish Horse God.

Identifying ancient bones.

Dysfunctional ancient Roman men?

Yes, we're still arguing over the Shroud of Turin.

Yes, we're still looking for Amelia Earhart.

John Pitcairn, a notable 18th century officer.

Exhuming Napoleon.

Did Stalin really have a breakdown in June 1941?


The two deaths of Raymond Stansel.

An unpublished early 19th century travel journal.

A famous entry in the Stupid Murder Sweepstakes.

Celebrating the second anniversary of Waterloo.

The history and mystery of the Major Oak.

Another Donald McCormick fraud.

Next time I complain about how much I hate wearing makeup, I have to remind myself that at least it's not crocodile dung.

House-training dogs through the ages.

The sad death of Margaret Thatcher, 1817.

The Restoration actress who unwittingly instigated a tragedy.

The Scarborough whirlwind, 1823.

Bigfoot is really growing up!

Worm charming.  Because it's just that kind of planet.

An experiment that showed how little we really know about sleep.

Schrödinger's Cat, RIP.

Midsummer Eve and the Black Death.

Was Richard Ivens guilty?

How to rebut your own death notice.

Examining the world's oldest dog.

And, finally, some dessert for your weekend: an ancient recipe for a tasty-sounding elderflower cheesecake.

We're done!  See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at the tragic tale of the woman who went up against William Shakespeare. In the meantime, here's Gillian Welch:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

You may recall that last week, I presented the story of a woman who was engaged to a ghost. I think I've managed to top that one. From the "Hartford Herald," March 13, 1901:

Milwaukee, Wis., Mch. 7.--Edith Wagner, of Waukesha, has been married by a rural Justice of the Peace near Binghampton, New York, to her maltese cat. Her family has just been advised of the extraordinary wedding.

Miss Wagoner is a believer in the transmigration of souls. Some years ago she was engaged to be married to a young man named Edward Hamlin but before the wedding day arrived, he died of typhoid fever. On his death-bed Hamlin told his sweetheart that he knew he was going to die, but that he would always be near her.

Not long after his death a fine maltese cat appeared at her home and remained there and Miss Wagoner was convinced that the soul of her lover dwelt in this feline. Some time ago she went to New York, and while in Binghampton decided to marry her pet.

She took out a license in due form, giving a name that served for the cat, but when she tried to arrange for the performance of the ceremony, difficulties were encountered. Several ministers positively refused to officiate, and she finally went into the country, where she succeeded in finding a Justice of the Peace, who performed some sort of a marriage rite.

Miss Wagoner's friends are trying to persuade her to return home.

Hey, scoff all you want, but I'll bet this turned out better than any of the other marriages I've covered on this blog.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Close Encounters of the Granger Taylor Kind

There are many people who long to make direct contact with extraterrestrials. Granger Taylor took this wish a step further: He longed to become an extraterrestrial.

What has made him a minor legendary figure in ufological circles is the fact that there are some who think he may have achieved his desire.

Taylor lived with his mother and stepfather, Grace and Jim Taylor, on a farm in Duncan, British Columbia. Granger was always something of a prodigy—“an eccentric genius” in the words of a friend. His particular talent lay in the field of mechanics. There seemed to be nothing he could not build or fix. When he was fourteen, he built from scratch a one-cylinder car. Three years later, he was overhauling bulldozers and locomotives. Eventually, he put together his own airplane. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He subsequently worked for a local mechanic, but soon quit the job. Thereafter, he followed a semi-reclusive life at home, dreaming his own peculiar dreams.

Those dreams soon centered on UFOs. Taylor became an obsessive student of the topic, ardently searching for some key that would unlock the mystery of alien sightings. He even built his own “flying saucer.” He would spend hours inside the contraption, brooding over the question of galaxy travel. Taylor had no doubt that extraterrestrial visitation was real. He just couldn’t figure out how the aliens did it.

In 1980, he told friends that he was finally on the road to success. He confided that one night while he was lying in his do-it-yourself UFO, aliens made telepathic communication with him. When he asked how their spaceships operated, all they would say was that “it was magnetic.” However, he added ecstatically, these space visitors promised to pick him up for a guided tour of the cosmos. They would give him a certain day and time when they would start.

No one knew what to make of this.  His friends reassured themselves that, no, he couldn’t possibly be telling the truth, but…as one of them later said, “He was such an unusual sort of guy.”

On November 28, 1980, he sat his stepfather down for a serious talk. He wanted Jim to know that he had been a great parent, and Granger was grateful for that. (His mother was vacationing in Hawaii—a fact that she would later bitterly regret.) The young man then wrote out what amounted to two wills, referring to himself only as “departed” rather than “deceased.”

The next day, he wrote out a note for his parents, saying, “I have gone away to walk aboard an alien spaceship, as reoccurring dreams assured a 42-month interstellar voyage to explore the vast universe, then return. I am leaving behind all my possessions to you as I will no longer require the use of any. Please use the instructions in my will as a guide to help.” The other side of the note contained a map of nearby Mount Waterloo.

And then thirty-two year old Granger Taylor, along with his truck, disappeared. The question of what happened to him has never been satisfactorily resolved. Six years after he vanished, a few human bone fragments and metal debris judged to be pieces of Granger’s truck were found scattered around a site about eight kilometers from his home. At that same time, it was revealed that some explosives Granger had (legally) owned were missing. A coroner’s jury made the assumption that these bone fragments were all that remained of the missing man, and ruled that he had blown himself up—why he would do such a thing, no one could say.

Mystery more-or-less solved? Was this “eccentric genius” merely a self-destructive lunatic? Not everyone is convinced. It has been pointed out that these minuscule remains were never indisputably identified as Taylor’s. There are people who like to think that he is still out there in the universe, having the road trip of his—or any other earthling’s—life.

Jim Taylor was one of them. In a newspaper article about the mystery (“Is Vanished Son Adrift in Space?” “Times-Colonist,” March 18, 1985) he is quoted as saying wistfully that he found it hard to believe his stepson is hitching a ride in a spaceship, “But if there is a flying object out there, he’s the one to find it.”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

Because black cats are always good luck.

Why the hell didn't the Norse settle North America?

What the hell are these cliffs on Mercury?

Where the hell was the Hanging Garden of Babylon?  Now we know?

What the hell were all those infant skeletons doing in an ancient Greek well?  Now we know?

Speaking of ancient Greeks, what the hell were these zombie skeletons?

What the hell happened to Adolf Hitler?  Some people are still wondering!

Where the hell is the Amber Room?  Many people are still wondering!

What the hell are those bright lights on Ceres?  Everyone is still wondering!

Watch out for the Black Dog of Bouley!

Watch out for the Lambton Worm!

Watch out for those home invading reptilian humanoids!

Anyone want some Zimbabwean currency?  Cheap?  Uh...real cheap?

An out-of-this-world gravestone.

An Irish sheep boy.

I find it oddly pleasing to learn that there are Sex Pistols conspiracy theories.

Remember that Anglo-Saxon brew that killed MRSA?  Here's a Viking drink to use as a chaser.

Click here to learn what the traffic rules were in 19th century London.  Ha-ha!  Fooled you!  There weren't any!

The wonders of the Waddesdon Bequest.

Summarizing Waterloo in 16 objects.

The actress who made her admirers scream.  Uh, not in a good way.

Goodyer Long's unfortunate romantic life.

Double the horror:  The twin Brighton Trunk Murders.

A Waterloo survivor writes home.

A vision of Waterloo.

A phony "Waterloo veteran."

The world's most glamorous Siamese twins.

Ghosts of bacon past.

That time UFOs crashed a sporting event.

Training your waist, 18th century style.

File this one under "Well, duh!"

Ireland's amazing Rock of Cashel.

I'll see your Loch Ness Monster and raise you one camel-horse.

The hidden secrets of a 15th century map.

This one was new to me:  "The Count of Monte Cristo" had a co-author.

Gladiator graffiti.

The lovely ghost of an early 20th century Romanian casino.

The wonderful horse paintings of George Stubbs.

A weirdly beautiful Welsh village.

It's raining vampire fish in Alaska.

Decoding medieval books.

Scientists are starting limb farms.

Buddha is now a hologram.

Is the world becoming less weird?

If you've been wondering how to say "rabbit pate" in Latin, here you go.

If you've been wondering how to have a Vestal Virgin hairstyle, you're in luck as well.

If you've been wondering how George Washington did his hair, oh boy is this your week.

If you've been wondering how to make ancient ice cream, prepare for your life to be filled with joy.

Some non-alien weirdness from Roswell.

In short, despite the fact that she was a queen of England, we know next to nothing about Anne Neville.

Quote of the week:  "I think someone would have said something if we suddenly found ourselves under nuclear attack."

Life in a Georgian-era workhouse.

The Devil's Footprints of Japan.

The year without a summer.

An early 19th century recipe for back pain.

And that's a wrap!  See you on Monday, when I'll look at the strange disappearance of a UFO enthusiast.  In the meantime, here's my favorite moment from my favorite opera.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Some months back, I related the story of a female spiritualist who was having an ardent adulterous love affair with a ghost. At the time, I thought it was a unique case.

Silly me.

From the "Boston Post," June 10, 1900:

St. Louis, June 9--For the first time in the history of the courts a ghost will appear as correspondent in a divorce suit next Tuesday.

The ghost is that of William J. Florence, who was one of the best actors who ever graced the boards. Mr. Florence, of course, in life was full of fun, a great practical joker. It may be that Mr. Florence's spirit has continued to play pranks. Charles L. Bates, an expert on diamonds in the largest jewelry store here, names the spiritual Mr. Florence as correspondent in his suit for divorce from his wife, Mrs. Lou E. Bates, who has herself brought a suit for divorce, in which she names as correspondent a "grass widow and Spiritualistic medium." But, it turns out, the grass widow is in the flesh. She is Miss Marion L. Wilson of El Paso, Tex., who once lived at the home of the Bateses here.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Bates are Spiritualists. To be authoritative one must quote from the sworn depositions in Mr. Bates's suit. Mrs. Mattie Brayelle swears:

"Mrs. Bates has often spoken to me of meeting the ghost of William J. Florence, the actor. She told me she made love to the spirit, and when I was dubious she informed me that though it was a spirit he was just as tangible as if he had been mortal and existed in the flesh.

"I am a Spiritualist myself and believe that a spirit can appear in human shape. Whenever it appears it can dominate the action of any person it dominates. Mrs. Bates also told me that her husband would die, that she had a premonition to that effect and named a date."

In her deposition Miss Marion Wilson states that she has gone to places of entertainment with Mr. Bates, but his wife was always with them, save on one occasion.

"Mr. Bates has often kissed me," swears Miss Wilson--"never at Spiritual manifestations. He always kissed me as he would his daughters. I was considered a member of the family. I went to their house at Mrs. Bates' request. I was so intimate with them that I called them 'Papa' and 'Mamma.' Our first meeting was at a Spiritual seance."

Mrs. Louise C. Patterson, a daughter of the Bateses, declares:

"Mamma never went to church. She spoke to me frequently of Mr. Florence's ghost, and told me that he would be her husband in the next world. Mother has frequently told me of visiting actors behind the scenes, and she was much taken up with all stage work.

"She secured me a position with the Effie Shannon company, which was playing at local theatres, and I also acted at her suggestion at other times, but always against father's will. I have seen father kiss Marion L. Wilson, but it was always done in the presence of mother and the rest of us. In fact, she was considered a member of the family."

Last December Mrs. Bates, with her son Charles, 11 years old, was at Mrs. Mary Gile's house, No. 694 Monroe street, Brooklyn. Mrs. Bates then exhibited a large revolver, saying she would shoot anyone who tried to kidnap her son. But no one tried.

Regrettably, the shade of Mr. Florence did not show up in the courtroom to testify on his own behalf. The Bateses did get their divorce, but I am in no position to say if Mrs. Bates did indeed remarry in the afterlife.

William J. Florence, ghostly adulterer

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Pearl Among Poisonings: The Mysterious Death of Charles Bravo

Charles Bravo

The renowned true-crime writer William Roughead called the death of Charles Bravo "the prize puzzle of British criminal jurisprudence," and "a very pearl among poisoning cases." Even though he wrote those words decades ago, it is still hard to argue against this distinction. "The Balham Mystery," (as it became known to contemporaries) is the greatest novel Agatha Christie never wrote. The facts in the case are simple, yet utterly baffling. There were a very limited number of suspects in his death, but no evidence could be found to positively pin guilt on any of them. As in many a Christie story, the sordid private lives of upper-class, "respectable" people were suddenly and painfully unmasked as a result of this death. It even proved impossible to determine a motive for Bravo's murder.

Some crime historians question whether it was even a murder at all.

The road to Bravo's ruin began on December 7, 1875, when after a whirlwind courtship, the 30-year-old barrister married a wealthy, attractive widow of the same age, Florence Campbell Ricardo. Although neither would have admitted as much, it was essentially a marriage of convenience on both sides. Florence had a complicated romantic past. When she was nineteen, she wed a dashing officer named Alexander Ricardo. Unfortunately, the marriage was an almost immediate disaster. Ricardo was an alcoholic, and when intoxicated he abused his wife, making her life such a hell that she took the then-radical step of insisting on a legal separation. The kindest thing Florence's husband ever did for her was to die of delirium tremens in 1871, leaving her a tidy sum of money.

Florence Bravo

Soon after Ricardo died, Florence entered into a clandestine love affair. Her lover was Dr. James Manby Gully, whom she had first met when a patient at his hydrotherapy clinic at Great Malvern. Gully was over thirty years her senior and unprepossessing in appearance, but he was charming, cultured, and intelligent. His courtly devotion made a delightful change from the drunken brute she had married. He had provided emotional support during the dark days when her marriage to Ricardo collapsed, and had even helped arrange the separation. The two wanted to wed, but there was a serious impediment to this plan: Gully's wife, who had been in a mental hospital for many years. She was, however, well into her eighties, so the pair felt it would not be long before she died, leaving them free to enter into a socially respectable union.

Dr. James Gully

Eventually, however, their affair encountered other problems. Florence became pregnant. Dr. Gully performed an abortion on her that left her weak and sick for some time afterward. She was so physically and mentally traumatized from the experience that she ended their sexual relationship, although they remained close. Adding to Florence's misery was the fact that her relatives learned of her relationship with the doctor. (Although they were unaware of the sexual intimacy.) Her father--who seems to have been the classic strait-laced Victorian domestic tyrant--forbade anyone in the family from having any contact with their black sheep until she gave up Gully and repented her sinful ways. Florence adored her mother, so this banishment from the family circle was heartbreaking for her. On the surface, her life seemed ideal. She had all the money needed to make life very pleasant, she had a lovely home in Balham, "The Priory," and she had the affectionate society of Dr. Gully. But she was lonely and unhappy. Florence was not cut out for an unconventional existence. She missed her family, and she was growing heartily sick of backstairs romance. She wanted a stable, respectable home with husband and children--and Mrs. Gully was showing a disheartening reluctance to die.

"The Priory"

It was right at this difficult juncture in her life that she had the misfortune of meeting Charles Bravo. His stepfather, Joseph Bravo, was an acquaintance of Florence's paid companion, a prim, briskly efficient widow named Jane Cannon Cox. Charles was young, high-spirited, and seemed both amiable and jolly. Practically as soon as he met the pretty, rich Mrs. Ricardo, he set out to sweep her off her feet. Florence still loved Dr. Gully, but she had to admit that she enjoyed this younger man's open admiration. He also offered her something even more inviting: renewed respectability.

In the end, that proved to be most important to Florence. When Charles asked her to marry him, Florence accepted him and--not without pain--told Dr. Gully that their relationship was over. Although the doctor was naturally surprised and hurt by being thrown over, he accepted his walking papers and vowed to never see her again. Although it is highly doubtful Florence ever deeply cared for Bravo, she loved her family, and she loved social acceptance. She told herself that would be enough to make it worth her while to marry a man she barely knew.

Charles' motives for pursuing Florence were equally self-serving, and far more distasteful. Joseph Bravo was a wealthy merchant, but he kept his adult stepson on an irritatingly small allowance. Charles chafed at this embarrassing dependence, and the quickest, easiest way to escape it was through marriage to a rich woman. Meeting the charming walking bank balance Mrs. Ricardo was the opportunity of a lifetime, and he was determined not to let it slip through his fingers. When Florence, with a sense of honesty and honor that did her credit, forced herself to tell her suitor of her relationship with Gully, he took the news with a blithe unconcern. That's all in the past, he assured her. He would never give it a second thought. (As for some years past, he had--unbeknownst to his family--been keeping a mistress, who had given birth to his daughter, Charles was in no position to be sanctimonious.)

Florence was touched and grateful for his magnanimity, little guessing the true reasons for his forgiving attitude. In order to win her fortune, Charles Bravo probably wouldn't have cared if she had confessed to being a serial killer.

Florence was given a far more serious warning about her fiance when the time came to draw up the marriage settlement. Charles, instead of hiring an attorney, opted to handle the negotiations himself--something that was considered indelicate "bad form." This did not go well. When Florence's solicitor congratulated him on the engagement, Charles rudely snapped, "Damn your congratulations!  I've come about the money!" The lawyer was so offended that he withdrew from the negotiations and had one of his partners handle the matter. Further trouble came when Florence announced that she wished to retain legal possession of The Priory's furnishings. Charles threw a violent fit. He swore he would break off the engagement rather than live in a house where he could not sit on his own chairs. He insisted on ownership of everything in The Priory, including Florence's jewelry and personal effects.

Florence was deeply shaken by his tantrum. It began to dawn on her that perhaps Bravo was attracted to more than just her personal charms. She was tempted to call his bluff and end the engagement. What stopped her was the fact that she had entrusted Charles with the secret of her sexual relationship with Dr. Gully. She feared that if she jilted Charles, he might be angry enough to blab and permanently ruin her reputation. Having no one else to confide in, she took her difficulties with her new lover to, of all people, the old lover. Although the doctor wasn't terribly pleased at being dragged in the middle of Florence's new romance, he kindly, if unwisely, counseled her to let Charles have his way. She agreed, although she remained disturbed at this new side of her intended.

Florence and Charles married soon after this--the groom insisted on a speedy wedding--and they settled down at The Priory. Sitting on Charles' new chairs. On the surface, all seemed well. The newlyweds appeared touchingly affectionate to each other. The new man of the house delighted in showing off what he always called "my estate" to his friends. Florence was reconciled with her family.

A happy ending for this stormy tale?

No, of course not. Just weeks after the wedding, Florence suffered a miscarriage. When she recovered, she almost immediately became pregnant again, only to lose this second baby early in April. She began to suffer bouts of severe pain and vomiting. Adding to her distress was the fact that Charles showed himself to be extremely stingy and possessive of the money he had so recently acquired. Although Florence never spent more than she could afford, the lavish lifestyle of The Priory annoyed Bravo. He was constantly nagging his wife to cut expenses, even pressuring her to give up her carriage horses, cut back on her gardening (a pet hobby of hers,) and dismiss some of the servants. Although he liked Mrs. Cox, he begrudged her the three or four hundred pounds a year she cost the household, and began to talk of dispensing with her services. Worse still, Florence confided to her mother that on several occasions Charles "upbraided her about Dr. Gully." Still, these frictions did not keep Charles and Florence from presenting a sunny front to the world. Friends saw them as the ideal couple.

One sinister note did intrude into the ostensibly placid life at The Priory. Soon after the wedding, Charles received anonymous letters accusing him of marrying Florence for her money, and taunting him about her past relationship with Dr. Gully. Florence later said that Charles believed Gully himself had sent the letters--a suggestion she heatedly rejected. It was never learned who had sent these poison-pen notes, and why.

On the evening of April 18, 1876, the Bravos and Mrs. Cox sat down to the dinner table. It was Florence's first day up and about since her second miscarriage, and she was still feeling a bit poorly. The most notable feature of the meal was that between them, Florence and Mrs. Cox polished off two bottles of sherry--a curious culinary detail that rivals the famous mutton breakfast endured by Lizzie Borden's family on that fatal day in Fall River. While dining, Charles read a letter he had recently received from his stepfather--a letter that made him extremely angry. He was not specific about the contents, other than that he would tell his stepfather "to attend to his own affairs and not to meddle." Joseph Bravo later said that his letter expressed disapproval with some Stock Exchange transactions Charles had made. We will never know for sure if Joseph Bravo was telling the truth, because this letter mysteriously disappeared.

After the meal, Florence went up to her room to lie down. (She and Charles had been keeping separate bedchambers during her illness.) She asked the housemaid, Mary Ann Keebler, to bring her a glass of wine. Charles observed the errand and tartly told his wife, "You have sent downstairs for more wine: you have drunk nearly a bottle today!" (This seems to have been a great underestimation.) She made no reply, and he went off to his room and shut the door. Miss Keebler spent a few minutes tidying the dressing-room. When she came back into Florence's bedroom, she saw her mistress lying on the bed, apparently asleep. Mrs. Cox was sitting at the bedside. She told the maid to put away Florence's pet dogs for the night.

As Keebler was calling the animals, she was startled to see Charles suddenly burst out of his room, shouting frantically, "Florence! Florence! Hot water! Hot water!" He then dashed back into his room, where he began vomiting violently.

The startled maid rushed to Florence's room and fetched Mrs. Cox. (Florence appeared still stupefied by her largely liquid dinner.) Mrs. Cox, in her usual capable fashion, instantly sent for an emetic and did what she could for the now semi-conscious man, while giving orders for medical aid to be summoned. When Florence was awakened, and saw the state her husband was in, she became hysterical, screaming at the servants to get the nearest doctor.

Jane Cox

Doctors were indeed called in. Eventually, no fewer than six physicians attended the patent. Among them was the famed Sir William Gull, who came away with the opinion that "Whatever Mr. Bravo took, he took it himself." It was soon determined that Charles had ingested a large dose of a powerful irritant poison, which was later found to be antimony. The question was, how did this happen? Mrs. Cox quietly took the doctors aside and confided that when she first answered Charles' cries for help, he told her he had "taken some of that poison. Don't tell Florence." During his spells of consciousness, the sick man steadfastly professed all ignorance of how he had come to be poisoned, vehemently rejecting any hint that he had taken it deliberately. He only admitted to taking small medicinal amounts of laudanum.  At one point, he snapped to one of the doctors, "If I knew what I was suffering from, why the devil should I send for you?"

The remains of the Burgundy he drank during dinner were found to be completely normal. It was then thought that the water carafe in his bedroom was the culprit. (It was his invariable habit to drink a swig of water before bed.) However, the remaining water was also poison-free. (Although it would have been theoretically possible for the murderer to dispose of the doctored water and replace it with fresh before anyone thought to examine the carafe.) No one ever determined the source of the antimony.

Florence appeared genuinely and heartrendingly confused and frantic by this sudden disaster. She sought every means to save her husband's life.  After the doctors had announced there was nothing more they could do, she even secretly sent Mrs. Cox to consult with Dr. Gully, whom she called "the cleverest medical man in the whole world."  (He suggested mustard plasters and a homeopathic solution, which did no harm, but were obviously useless in this situation.)  For his part, Charles was markedly affectionate to his wife. "What a bother I am to you all, Florrie," he sighed. He seemed to know he was doomed. He dictated his will, leaving everything to Florence. He urged her to remarry after his death. He told his ultra-possessive mother--who disliked Florence and had fiercely resented his marriage--to be kind to his wife. And early on the morning of the 21st, he died, leaving as a legacy a boatload of unanswered questions.

There was, of course, an inquest. It was not what one would call a searching inquiry. The coroner in charge was an old friend of Florence's family, ensuring that the proceeding was a model of genial discretion. It was tacitly agreed that the best way of dealing with this shocking death was to rule that Charles had simply committed suicide. The alternative solutions were just too uncomfortable. The jurors was reluctant to go quite that far, but they obediently returned an open verdict.

However satisfied Florence and the coroner may have been with this judgment, the public was far less pleased. And, not unnaturally, the Bravos were seething with indignation at this slur on Charles' memory. Charles' parents were convinced he had been murdered, and they hired private detectives.  So great was the dissatisfaction with the inquest that questions were raised in the House of Commons. The Solicitor to the Treasury held a private inquiry into Bravo's death. Ominously for those two ladies, neither Florence nor Mrs. Cox was asked to attend. At the advice of their respective lawyers, the women submitted formal statements giving their accounts of how Charles had died.

This proved to be a startling turning point in the case. Mrs. Cox announced that, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to her employer, she had not told "the full particulars." She dropped the bombshell that on the night Bravo was poisoned, he had told her "I have taken poison for Gully. Don't tell Florence." Both she and Florence dropped all pretense that the Bravo marriage had been a happy one. The women described Charles as being consumed by jealousy of Dr. Gully--to the point that he once, in a rage, struck Florence. The widow vividly recounted her husband's stinginess, his bad tempers, his obsession with her old friend Gully--even though, she was careful to say, her attachment to the doctor had been entirely platonic. In their nervous eagerness to show the dead man had motives to kill himself, they overlooked the fact that they were supplying even stronger motives for them to kill him.

All this was more than enough to have authorities order a new inquest, which opened on July 11, 1876. It wound up being an informal trial for murder, with Florence and her companion as the two defendants. A parade of witnesses--led by the now-vengeful Bravo camp--described Charles as a happy man, devoted to his bride, and showing no sign whatsoever of the insane jealousy described by his wife.

Suspicion grew against the two women--particularly Mrs. Cox. After all, it was agreed that Charles had talked of letting her go from her comfortable, well-paid position. She was a poor, nearly-friendless widow who was the sole support of three young sons. If she lost her job, her situation would be a desperate one indeed. What better motive for murder? A parody of Goldsmith began to make the rounds:

"When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds her husband in the way,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can turn him into clay?

The only means her aims to cover
And save herself from prison locks,
And repossess her ancient lover,
Are Burgundy and Mrs. Cox."

Mrs. Cox began receiving anonymous hate mail accusing her of murder--including one particularly unsettling letter featuring a crude drawing of her hanging from a gibbet. It was looking increasingly likely that she would wind up being charged with murder. The companion found herself quite literally fighting not just for her life, but for those of her boys.

This undoubtedly explains what happened next. When it came time for Mrs. Cox to give her testimony, she told the world the whole, unvarnished truth about her employer's past relations with Dr. Gully. She left no doubt that it had been a fully sexual affair, which ended with Florence's "miscarriage." In short, she provided ample justification for Charles' alleged jealousy of Gully. She also left no doubt that Florence Bravo was, by the morals of the day, a "bad woman," who, by implication, could be guilty of anything.

Including, perhaps, the murder of her husband.

When Florence took the stand, she made a valiant effort to save what scant traces were left of her reputation, but it was a vain effort. With some tears, a certain amount of defiance, and as much dignity as could be mustered under the circumstances, she acknowledged the truth of everything Mrs. Cox had said about her romance with Dr. Gully. All she could say in her defense was that the affair began after her first husband died, and ended for good before she married her second. When asked about her current feelings towards Mrs. Cox, she replied quietly, "I think she might have spared me many of these painful inquiries to which I have been subjected."

This sexual scandal may have titillated newspaper readers and the audience at the inquest, but it did nothing to solve the puzzle of Charles Bravo's death. The coroner's jury delivered a verdict that managed to be both vague and accusatory. It stated that "We find Mr. Charles Delaunay Turner Bravo did not commit suicide; that he did not meet his death by misadventure; that he was wilfully murdered by the administration of tartar emetic; but there is not sufficient evidence to fix the guilt upon any person or persons."

In other words, the jurors said that they believed Mrs. Cox or Mrs. Bravo--or the two working together--were poisoners, but they could not prove it.

And there, officially at least, the puzzle ended. Florence may have been a free woman, but the "good name" she had been so anxious to preserve was gone forever, her hopes for a happy home and family irretrievably blasted by the permanent taint of "immorality" and murder. Soon after the inquest ended, she told a family friend, "I shall not long survive this cruel blow." She was right. Less than two years later, Florence, who had become virtually a recluse, was dead. The story given out was that she became an incurable alcoholic and drank herself to death, but reading between the lines, it seems highly possible that she committed suicide.

Even though there was no reason at all to believe he had anything to do with Charles' death, Dr. Gully's personal reputation and professional career were ruined by the scandal. He retreated into a quiet retirement until his death in 1882.

As for Mrs. Cox, she quietly disappeared from history, perhaps back in her native Jamaica. In any case, she had a quiet strength and courage that probably ensured she fared better than anyone else in this story.

So, how did Charles Bravo come to take a fatal dose of antimony? There are only three plausible possibilities:

1. His wife, sickened by his abusive behavior, poisoned him.

2. Jane Cox, fearing the loss of her job, poisoned him.

3. He took the poison himself, either by accident or design.

There are problems with all these theories. Although in recent years Florence has replaced Mrs. Cox as the most popular candidate, it is somehow hard to picture her murdering her husband of only four months. While she was likely an immature and self-absorbed woman, she was also sensitive, generous, forgiving, and anxious to be liked by others. She completely lacked the icy ruthlessness normally seen in the poisoner. Her motives hardly seem sufficient for such a drastic step. And the shock, grief, and confusion she displayed during Charles' illness comes off as completely sincere. This is admittedly just my gut instinct, but I simply cannot picture her as a cold-blooded killer.

As for Mrs. Cox, a closer analysis casts serious doubt on her presumed motive. Some time before Charles' death, her ailing aunt in Jamaica had written her, urging her to sail there to deal with some pressing business matters. Just a week before Charles died, she told the Bravos of her decision to go. Charles promised to "look after" her sons (who were in boarding school,) while she was away. It is not even clear if Charles seriously considered dismissing Mrs. Cox. To friends, he praised her usefulness around the house, and their personal relations were friendly enough for them to call each other "Janie" and "Charlie." In short, she had no motive to kill Bravo at all. Indeed, his sudden death would only delay and complicate her plans. In any case, it seems ludicrous to picture conventional, self-effacing, unctuous Jane Cox poisoning her employer's husband. She would have seen it as an unpardonable liberty.

That would leave Charles as responsible for his own death. Suicide can fairly safely be ruled out. He was too fond of himself and too enamored of his new wealth and independence for such a step. If he poisoned himself, it was by accident. But how could this happen?

Yseult Bridges' fascinating book "How Charles Bravo Died" offers the most interesting solution to the mystery. Bridges quoted a letter written in 1923 by a lawyer named Arthur Channell, who had known Charles Bravo well. He gave his belief that Bravo's death was due to "misadventure." After closely studying all the facts in the case, he concluded that Bravo was secretly giving Florence small doses of antimony in a well-intentioned, if creepy, effort to curb her wine habit. (This was not an uncommon 19th century treatment for alcoholism.) It is worth noting that Florence's mother testified that the previous Christmas, Charles commented to her that Florence drank too much wine, and that he would "cure her of it." He did not say how this would be done.

Channell thought this secretive tactic would be entirely in character, as Bravo was "fond of dodges." He surmised that on the fatal night, Bravo accidentally took an overdose of the laudanum he was using to ease the pain of toothache. In his fright, Bravo took a dose of the antimony as an emetic, but inadvertently swallowed enough to kill him. As Bravo was reluctant to explain why he had antimony in his possession, he simply kept that information to himself.

Channell went on to say that during the second inquest, he had discussed his theory with Mrs. Cox's lawyer, J.P. Murphy, as well as other solicitors involved in the case, and they all believed it was the probable solution, although it came too late in the inquiry for Murphy to feel safe resting their whole case upon it. However, Channell believed that it was the advocate's hints to the jury of such a scenario that kept Mrs. Cox from being charged with murder.

Bridges took Channell's scenario one step further. She argued that Bravo had indeed been slowly poisoning Florence, but not to stop her from drinking.

He wished to stop her from breathing.

All who knew him acknowledged that he had, in the words of Florence's mother, "a money mania." Immediately after the marriage, Florence made a will leaving every cent she possessed to her new husband. Seen in that light, Charles' bizarre efforts to curb his wife's spending have the sinister look of someone trying to preserve as much as possible of an anticipated inheritance.  Another friend commented that he was a man of "very little sentiment." Ever since his marriage, Charles had secretly been pitting his wife and his parents against each other. Behind Florence's back, he was making efforts to get more money out of his stepfather by asserting that his new wife was a hopeless spendthrift who was leaving them deeply in debt. At the same time, he was wheedling cash out of Florence by complaining to her how his stepfather was refusing to give him a cent. When Florence learned that her in-laws believed she was spending beyond her income, she wanted to "have it out" with them, but Charles frantically managed to stop her. Bridges pointed out that he would hardly enter into such dangerous double-dealing "if he were looking forward to a long married life."

Although he was by profession a barrister, Bravo's real love was medicine. He was an expert on medical jurisprudence, so would have known all about antimony and its highly lethal properties. Bridges believed that Florence's debilitating miscarriages during her marriage were, in fact, a side effect of slow poisoning. She pointed to an odd little detail: Soon after Charles' death, Florence, while being interviewed by the police inspector in charge of the case, made what was only described as a "grave charge" against her late husband, and that "if he wished to know more he could go to [her personal physician] Dr. Dill." When asked about this at the inquest, Florence replied that "I sent the Inspector to Dr. Dill to to inquire about my health." She flatly refused to say what this "grave charge" might have been. (Although inquiry established that--contrary to what you might be assuming--it was not that Charles had given her a venereal disease.)  Bridges hypothesized that Florence's doctor realized that the poor health she had experienced throughout her brief second marriage could be due to poisoning--something that was, perhaps, confirmed by tests.

The scenario Bridges offered for Bravo's death was, in brief, this: On the night he was poisoned, he became very upset about that mysterious letter from his stepfather. In his room, he took some laudanum to calm his nerves. He reached for some epsom salts he had been prescribed for indigestion, but accidentally swallowed some of his private stash of antimony instead. (Both substances are similar-looking white crystals.) He immediately realized his horrible mistake, which explains his desperate cries for hot water (a common emetic.) He would know that if he could only vomit sufficiently, there was still hope for him.

Bridges believed that when Mrs. Cox ran into the room, Charles truly had told her he had taken poison, and then he ordered her to throw the incriminating box into the fireplace, and tell no one--particularly Florence--what had happened. Mrs. Cox, caught off-guard and accustomed to obeying orders, complied without thinking the situation through. Later, when she realized that she was suspected of murder, and that she had destroyed the only clue that proved otherwise, she decided that her only hope was to muddy the waters and direct suspicion elsewhere.

As indirect evidence that Charles told Mrs. Cox he had accidentally poisoned himself, Bridges pointed to the fact that after Charles collapsed, the first thing Mrs Cox did was give him an emetic. As the "Lancet" commented shortly after the inquest, "A mustard emetic...is by no means a remedy likely to be instantly applied, least of all in a family of homeopathic proclivities...The inference is forced upon us that either the patient made a statement to the effect that he had taken poison, or it was known or suspected by the person directing the use of the mustard emetic that he had taken something which would require to be removed from the stomach by a powerful stimulating appliance to produce vomiting...The hypothesis is that the patient himself knew or believed he had taken poison is further supported by the circumstance that he called loudly for warm water..."

Bridges suggested that Bravo's behavior on his deathbed showed a sense of guilt--although not enough guilt to confess what had happened. She agreed that Bravo was "'the last man on earth to commit suicide': he was also the last man on earth to remain mute if he thought he was dying by another's hand."

While Bridges' theory would explain much that is otherwise inexplicable, it still is too based on speculation to be accepted uncritically. But then, that is true of every effort to account for how Charles Bravo died.

[Note: On July 31, 1881, the "Memphis Daily Appeal" carried a footnote to the Bravo mystery that, if reported accurately, confirms at least part of Bridges' theory. The newspaper stated that "In January, 1879, a lot of gentlemen were made sick, with symptoms of antimonial poisoning, by some sherry which the wine merchant, it proved, had bought from Mr. Bravo's father, who, we believe died a few days ago. It came out a few days later that Mr. Bravo had told his wife's mother that he would cure his wife of drinking, and a Mr. Raymond, who sold a cure for dipsomania, consisting of tartar emetic (antimony,) testified that he had sent Mr. Bravo six packets of his powders."

I have not seen this detail in any other accounts of the case, leaving it uncertain whether this was genuine inside information, or a journalist's fantasy.]

Friday, June 12, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by Strange Company's official sponsor, the Black Cats of the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoos.

Who the hell was Tank Man?

Who the hell built Portugal's megaliths?

Who the hell carved Dighton Rock?

How the hell did Eva Braun's undies wind up in an Ohio thrift store?

Where the hell is the Franklin expedition?  We're still wondering!

What the hell are the "Bosnian Pyramids?"  Some people are still wondering!

Watch out for the Vampire of Bladenboro!

Watch out for the Wild Man of Flint Hill!

Watch out for the Gypsies in Black!

Watch out for that killer hair!

Watch out for the curse tablets of Little Thetford!

Watch out for those bananas!

Watch out for those watermelons!

The death of the Siamese Falcon.

Some of the world's most beautiful book bindings.

Some of the world's most beautiful fans.

Napoleon and the Little Red Man.

We're still fighting the battle of Waterloo.

Pizza, anyone?  With a side order of body-snatching?

Some remarkable 18th century Satanic illustrations.

Mary Read, famed female pirate.

Can we all agree that Ripperology has jumped the shark?

How one woman convict coped with being transported to Australia.

The strange tale of Robert Kirk, who reminds me of our old friend Goodwin Wharton.

The slaughter of the Waldensians, 1561.

Uncovering the victim of a 14th century mob.

Uncovering a bit of 1917 school history.

Women who were Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks became Rosa Parks.

This is probably the weirdest story of the week: Tesla's ashes and the satanists.

The sad life of a 19th century female alcoholic.

The nice thing about grave-robbers is that they keep you from being buried alive.

Why the Devil always provides the best soundtracks.

40,000 year old writing?

A 6,000 year old crown.

Aleister Crowley and the curse of Led Zeppelin.

Weirdly fascinating:  A roundup of Tudor-era fatal accidents.

This is probably more than I ever wanted to know about the dining habits of our ancestors.

The bizarre saga of the Thornley Crape Threat.

That time when the Duke of Wellington feared his gunpowder might be harmed by an archive.

Being a child goddess isn't as easy as you might think.

The Imperial Camel Corps of WWI.

The Bottle Conjurer:  A classic 18th century hoax.

A handy guide for becoming a Georgian golddigger.

A medieval drinking song.

A tribute to pugs in literature and art.

And, finally, the running of the goats!

And we're done! See you on Monday, when I'll be taking a (warning: very long) look at my all-time favorite (if I may use that word) true-crime case. In the meantime, here's Elina Garanca:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In recent years, vintage post-mortem photos have taken on a new, uh, life on the internet as perhaps the ultimate in Victorian Weird. Strange and macabre as they are, I know of only one of these photos that inspired a libel suit. Throw in a complainant with the delightful name of "Cleopatra Saladee," and this blog is off to the races. From the "Bedford Weekly Mail," May 31, 1901:

A criminal libel case was set for trial Wednesday before Judge Stephenson. The complaint is as follows:

"Cleopatra Saladee, being duly sworn upon her oath says: that Newton E. Ennis on the 14th day of February, 1901, was a photographer engaged in the business of photography in the city of Bedford, Lawrence county, Indiana. That on the 12th day of February, 1909, one George Saladee, a minor son of William Saladee and this affiant departed this life. That after the death of said deceased his said father and mother, who are husband and wife, procured the services of said Newton E. Ennis, photographer, aforesaid, to take a picture of said deceased, to wit: a photograph, for them, the said parents, and the said Newton E. Ennis did then and there make a photograph of said deceased. That said photograph was unsatisfactory, inaccurate and untrue, for which reason and other lawful reasons, the said parents failed to accept said photograph from said photographer and pay for the same: that said Ennis on the 25th day of April 1901 at the county of Lawrence and state of Indiana, then and there contriving and unlawfully, wickedly and maliciously intending to injure, vilify and prejudice said William Saladee and this affiant and to deprive them of their good name, credit and reputation and to bring them into great contempt, scandal, infamy and disgrace and with intent in like manner to blacken and vilify the memory of said deceased and to scandalize and disgrace his relatives and friends, did then and there unlawfully and maliciously write and publish and cause to be written and published a false, scandalous, malicious and defamatory libel of and concerning said parents and concerning the relatives and friends of said deceased in the words following, to wit: "Deadbeat," which said false, scandalous, malicious and defamatory words, the said Ennis then and there unlawfully and maliciously did write over and upon said photograph of said deceased person and did then and there unlawfully and maliciously place and post said photograph, upon which said words then and there appeared in a public place to wit: on a certain building on J street in said city, where the same was conspicuous and open to view by all persons pass and repassing on said street where the same was seen by divers persons passing and repassing on said street. That said libelous words were then and there unlawfully intended to charge and be understood as charging and were then and there by the divers persons who saw the same, understood to charge and mean, that said William Saladee and this affiant and other relatives of said deceased were irresponsible, dishonorable, dishonest deadbeats and not worthy of trust or confidence."

Prosecutor Zaring represents the State, J.H. Underwood the defendant. The matter was to come up Wednesday at 2 p.m., in Court house, before Judge Stephenson. The penalty, if guilty, is a fine of $5 to $1,000, and imprisonment not to exceed six months.

An account of the trial later given by the same paper reported that the State "was unable to establish the fact that a photo of the dead boy Saladee had been exhibited with an offensive charge written on it, as alleged by Mrs. Saladee in her complaint. Three witnesses who saw a photo on the front of the Ennis gallery with writing on it were unable to identify it as the picture of Saladee, and a fourth witness who saw Saladee's photo on the same building saw no writing on it at all. On motion of the State a verdict of acquittal was rendered by the jury."

I'd love to know if that photo is still extant, but I suppose that's too much to hope for.

Monday, June 8, 2015

How Russell Colvin Came Back From the Dead

In the early 19th century, Manchester, Vermont boasted among its inhabitants a clan by the name of Boorn. This family consisted of Barney Boorn, his wife, three adult married children, Stephen, Jesse, and Sally, as well as Barney's brother Amos. Although I mention Amos last, he proved to be the pivotal figure in our curious little story.

Sally Boorn had been married for nearly twenty years to a Russell Colvin. They had two children. Russell could not be called an entirely satisfactory husband. He was "weak in his intellects," and had a disconcerting habit of periodically disappearing for long stretches of time. Then, on May 10, 1812, he did another vanishing act...but this time, he never returned.

Weeks, months, years went by, and nothing whatsoever was heard of Russell Colvin. His wife and in-laws showed a profound lack of curiosity about his whereabouts and general welfare, so the rest of Manchester just shrugged and thought no more about the mystery.

It was not until seven years had passed that any of the townsfolk began to ask one another, "Gosh, what do you suppose ever happened to Colvin?" Gossip and speculation of an increasingly lurid character began to spread through the town.

The Boorns had only themselves to thank for the sinister rumors that began to swirl around them. It was well-known that Russell had never been a favorite among his wife's kin. One brother-in-law stated in a curiously positive way that Colvin was dead. Another was heard to blithely assert that "we have put him where potatoes will not freeze." As for Sally Boorn Colvin, she was too busy consoling herself with her extensive network of male friends to pay much heed to her absent husband's possible fate.

Given these circumstances, one can expect a few raised eyebrows.

And then Amos Boorn ("a man of unimpeachable character," so we are told) made public a dream he had. A dream he had no less than three different times. He dreamed that the ghost of Russell Colvin came to his bedside and told of being murdered. The phantom instructed Amos to follow him, so he could show the place where he had been buried, which was the cellar hole where an old house had once stood.

This site was excavated, but nothing was found but a knife, a small pen-knife, and a button. Sally Colvin declared that the knife and button had belonged to her husband. Some time after this, a boy was out walking his dog near Barney Boorn's house. The animal suddenly rushed to a tree stump and began to frenetically dig. This inspired a crowd of villagers to examine the soil around the stump for themselves. Their search was soon rewarded by a heap of bones. The greatest excitement spread through Manchester--had Russell Colvin finally been found? The find was considered sufficient reason to immediately arrest Jesse Boorn for murder. (His brother Stephen was by then living some two hundred miles away, in New York state.) It was quite a letdown when physicians ruled that the bones were of some animal.

To everyone's disappointment, the authorities decided there was nothing for it but to let Jesse go. However, before he could be released, Jesse began to talk. He confessed that when Russell had paid a clandestine visit to Manchester some time after his final disappearance, Stephen had murdered him during a quarrel.

A party of local worthies was immediately assembled to go to Stephen's new village and put him under arrest. He was taken from his home and brought back to Manchester, protesting his innocence all the way. Barney Boorn was arrested as well, but after "a severe examination" before a judge, it was decided that he had nothing to do with the killing, and he was released, "much to the indignation of the public."

No matter how often he was interrogated in his cell, Stephen continued to insist that his brother had falsely accused him. The townspeople continued to unsuccessfully search every inch of Manchester ground in the hopes of finding Russell Colvin's body.

In September 1819, after the brothers had been in custody for several months, a Grand Jury was finally held in Manchester. Colvin's seventeen-year-old son Lewis testified about a fight he had witnessed between Russell and his brothers-in-law. A Silas Merrill, Stephen's cell-mate, alleged that Boorn had confessed the murder to him. Stephen himself, after being told a confession was the only thing that would save him from the gallows, signed a statement where he admitted to having murdered Colvin. After hearing all this, as well as possibly other evidence now unknown to us, the panel declared that Stephen Boorn had murdered his brother-in-law, with Jesse Boorn acting as accessory.

When the brothers stood trial two months later, their conviction was so universally regarded as inevitable that the court had a very difficult time finding twelve men willing to declare themselves as impartial in the matter.

Amos Boorn was among the witnesses, but he was not allowed to tell of the remarkable dream that had kicked off the whole proceedings. He merely testified about the discovery of the knives and bones. A Truman Hill told how Jesse Boorn had made certain statements to him indicating Jesse's belief in his brother's guilt, and a Thomas Johnson described a fight he had witnessed between Colvin and the Boorn brothers, which was apparently the same quarrel Lewis Colvin had talked about in front of the Grand Jury. Lewis himself described seeing Stephen strike his father with a club. He, Lewis, was so frightened by the sight that he ran away. He never saw his father again. Sally Colvin told the court that four years previously, when she became pregnant, she was told that she could not "swear her child" on any man, if her husband was still alive. However, "Stephen told me I could swear the child, for Russell was dead, and he knew it...I asked Lewis where Russell was; he answered, gone to hell." Other witnesses stated that when they asked Stephen about Colvin's whereabouts, they received the same pessimistic opinion of Russell's current residence. Silas Merrill repeated his story about Stephen unburdening his soul to Merrill--a confession that supposedly implicated not just his brother, but his father as well.

The case presented against the defendants was mostly based on hearsay, but it was enough to make the jury return a verdict of "guilty" against both the Boorn brothers. They were sentenced to be hanged on January 18, 1820.

However, the brothers so vigorously declared their innocence that a petition in their favor was presented to the State Legislature. This body decided to commute Jesse's sentence to life imprisonment, but they maintained that Stephen must die.

One of the Boorn defense lawyers, a Mr. Sargeant, realized that the only thing that could save his clients was a long shot. Although he realized it was asking the nearly impossible, he resolved to roll the dice and place advertisements in regional newspapers asking for information about Colvin's whereabouts.

This story, when it appeared in the "New York Evening Post," caught the eye of a New Jersey man named Taber Chadwick. He recalled that a few years previously, a stranger had appeared in his neighborhood., who said he was from Manchester, Vermont. The man appeared to be in a state of "mental derangement," but was able to give many particulars about his life. This man gave his name as "Russell Colvin."

Chadwick immediately wrote a letter to the "Post," telling all he knew about this now "completely insane" man, who was currently working on the Dover farm of Chadwick's brother-in-law, and urging that some of Colvin's relations come to the area to see if they could identify him. A James Whelpley was sent to New Jersey to interview this strange farm-hand. The man denied that he was "Russell Colvin," but admitted that he had once gone by that name. Although he claimed to never have lived in Manchester, he exhibited some familiarity with the town. He also flatly refused to go near the place.

Since persuasion proved futile in getting the man to travel to Manchester, Whelpley resolved to try a bit of trickery. He was able to talk the maybe-Colvin into going with him to New York. Then, instead of taking him on the ferry back to New Jersey, he placed the man on a boat headed for Troy. Finally, he was able to present the man to the County Court in Bennington, Vermont. It is said that upon hearing that murder victim Russell Colvin was now in their midst, "the Court broke up in the greatest confusion."

Everyone immediately recognized the stranger as Colvin. He was taken to Manchester, where he was confronted by his convicted killer, Stephen Boorn. When the newcomer noticed that Boorn was still in fetters, he asked bemusedly, "What is that for?"

"Because they say I murdered you," Boorn replied.

"You never hurt me," the man shrugged. "Jess struck me with a briar once, but it did not hurt me much."

The resurrected Colvin declined the chance to reunite with his wife. Having dutifully established to everyone's satisfaction that he was not dead, all he wanted was to return to his farm labor in New Jersey. He died there--for good this time, apparently--several years later.

The court, after scratching their collective heads a bit about how to resolve this unprecedented legal tangle, finally ordered that the Boorns be given a new trial. The State nolle prossed, and the brothers were freed. The case was officially closed.

Unofficially, of course, the story of this New England Lazarus was far from resolved, and cannot be considered satisfactorily explained to this day. If Colvin did indeed vanish from Manchester alive and well, why did Jesse Boorn say he had been murdered? Why did Stephen confess to the crime?  At the time, it was assumed that Stephen may have honestly thought he had killed Colvin in a fight, but as he gave a detailed description of secretly burying the body, that seems dubious. It is now commonly believed that, once he realized he could not prove his innocence, he confessed simply in the desperate hope of saving himself from the gallows. That is entirely possible, but, again, does not fully explain the amount of circumstantial detail he gave of Colvin's death and burial.

And what of Amos Boorn, and his tale of encountering Colvin's unhappy ghost? Did he so hate his nephews that he deliberately set out to frame them for murder? Did he sincerely believe Stephen and Jesse had killed their sister's husband? Or did Amos simply have a fanciful dream, which he chose to present as reality?

For that matter, can we be completely sure that Russell Colvin was not murdered by the Boorn brothers? Despite the fact that so many people unhesitatingly recognized the New Jersey farm hand as Colvin, a number of other observers suspected that the man was an imposter, put up by Stephen and Jesse's supporters in order to exonerate them of a crime they really did commit. Perhaps it was due to these lingering doubts that the brothers' claims for compensation were denied. Some years later, when Jesse was arrested on a charge of counterfeiting, he supposedly admitted to one of his confederates (who turned out to be an undercover U.S. Marshal,) that he and his brother really had killed Colvin, and found a "substitute" Russell to escape punishment. Jesse subsequently denied having made such a statement, and the matter does not seem to have been pursued. (However, he did serve five years for forgery.)

Gerald McFarland, author of "The Boorn Conspiracy," the most recent book about the case, was of the opinion that we will never know for sure just what truly happened to Russell Colvin. He closed his book by speculating that if Jesse did truly make his alleged confession to the marshal, perhaps he was "for once in his life, telling the truth."