"...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, January 30, 2017

The Problem With Lady Twiss

Travers Twiss

One of the few advantages to our modern world is that blackmailing has largely become obsolete. Nowadays, when someone harbors a shocking and sordid secret about their personal life, they don't quiver in fear at the thought that it may one day become public; they write a book, get millions of followers on Twitter, and make a fortune out of it.

In the Victorian era, things were very different. People were just as flawed as they are now, and everybody knew it. However, if you wished to move in any sort of polite society, you had to make a great show of gentility, no matter what you got up to in private. Yes, it may have been hypocritical, but the rigid social code did have the advantage of fostering polite behavior and public dignity.

Its disadvantage, of course, was that it was also a blackmailer's paradise. When you have a world where a well-bred man or woman's life almost literally depended on their "good reputation," they were willing to pay almost any price to keep it. One case that forced the Victorians to confront this uncomfortable truth was the Twiss case of 1872.

Sir Travers Twiss was professor of International Law at King's College, London. He was one of the most respected lawyers of his time: wealthy, accomplished, and appropriately colorless. He had one spot of romance in his stodgy life: In 1859, the fifty-year-old Sir Travers met beautiful 22-year-old Marie Van Lynseele, the daughter of a Polish General. Three years later, he married her. After the wedding, the charming new Lady Twiss was presented to the Queen, and the couple happily settled down to a quiet, comfortable life.

The pair was the model of dull respectability until one day when Sir Travers and his lady were walking in Kew Gardens. They were approached by a man whom Lady Twiss introduced as a solicitor named Alexander Chaffers. Chaffers politely congratulated her on her marriage, and nonchalantly went on his way.

Soon after this encounter, Chaffers sent Lady Twiss a bill for £46. His note said enigmatically that it was for "services rendered." She made no answer. The solicitor then sent her a second bill, upping the price for his "services" to £150. Lady Twiss, realizing that the man was not about to take "no" for an answer, showed the bill to her husband, offering the explanation that it was for legal work he had done for one of her maids. Sir Travers paid Chaffers £50, and got back a receipt.

The solicitor was not satisfied with this. He continued hounding Lady Twiss for money, and when she refused to take any more notice of him, he made a truly viperish move: He wrote to the Lord Chamberlain--the court official responsible for the Queen's guest list--with the information that the "daughter of a Polish general" was in reality a Belgian prostitute who had conned her way into an advantageous marriage.

The Lord Chamberlain figured that this letter was either a sick hoax or the key to a very distasteful Pandora's Box. Either way, he felt the best thing to do was just ignore it. However, he did tell Lord and Lady Twiss about this singular communication. They both assured him that Chaffers' letter was simply the ravings of a lunatic.

Word reached Chaffers of these slurs against his mental condition. He reacted in a way that fully confirmed their accuracy: He sued Sir Travers for slander, and marched off to the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street to make a sworn statement detailing all he knew about Lady Twiss.

And, oh, boy, that was plenty. Chaffers' deposition stated that she was, in reality, Pharsilde Vanlynseele. Under the name of "Marie Gelas," she had worked in several London brothels, where he had been a regular customer of hers. Chaffers added that she had also been Sir Travers' mistress before their marriage.

Once this story came out, Sir Travers felt he had no choice but to have Chaffers arrested for libel, thus ensuring that the whole sordid saga would get a thorough airing in the public court. In her testimony, Lady Twiss stuck to her guns, vowing that she was the genteel Marie Van Lynseele. She stated that both her parents had died when she was young, leaving her to be raised as the adopted daughter of a Felix Jastrenski. She admitted that she had once known someone called "Marie Gelas"--the woman had been her governess--but that, she said flatly, was the closest Chaffers' monstrous story came to any truth.

Chaffers' defense was that he had spoken nothing but the complete truth. He was equally insistent that this "governess" had never existed. The "lady" was Marie Gelas, former prostitute who had, in his words, "struck it rich." Knowing what he knew about her, he saw nothing wrong with trying to profit from his information.

Chaffers freely admitted to being a blackmailer. The trouble was, in 1872 that wasn't illegal. The only way the law could make him pay was if he was guilty of libel.

But was he?

"Illustrated Police News," 1872

Lady Twiss made a brave show of trying to prove she was who she claimed to be. Various witnesses were brought in to back her up--including a former maid who swore that Chaffers had tried to bribe her into lying about her mistress. M. Jastrenski himself appeared in court to assert that she had been his virtuous foster-daughter. Things were going well for the Twiss camp. The judge made no secret of his disgust for the defendant, and the public and press were equally full of chivalrous zeal for her cause.

And then came a Twiss twist that no one seems to have expected. Eight days into the trial, the lady suddenly caved. She fled London, leaving her lawyer to explain to the court that she wished to drop the case. The judge had no choice but to let Chaffers go. He did, however, tell the defendant that he would forever be "an object of contempt to all honest and well-thinking men." I doubt Chaffers cared. Men of his caliber tend to wear such words as a good-conduct medal.

English high society had seen the last of Lord and Lady Twiss. She vanished somewhere on the Continent, and permanently disappeared from history. Her subsequent career is unknown. The palace retroactively struck her name from the Queen's previous guest lists. As for Sir Travers, he resigned all his official posts, and retired into what remained of his shattered private life until his death in 1897. He apparently never set eyes on his wife again.

So, what was the truth about Lady Twiss? It has been suggested that perhaps she was indeed innocent of any deception, but realizing that she and her husband were socially ruined, no matter what the truth may have been, she suffered a breakdown of some sort and blindly fled. However, her behavior does seem to make it virtually certain that Alexander Chaffers may have been a rotten skunk, but he was not a liar. The assumption is that she had bribed all her witnesses to back up her claim, until she finally lost her nerve and did a runner.

Whoever or whatever Lady Twiss may have been, her sad experience led to a major change in the law. In 1873, a statute was passed making it illegal to "demand money with menaces." Although the law did little to stem the practice of blackmail, the victims now had at least an outside chance of seeing their persecutors face criminal charges.

As for the villain of the piece, Chaffers' success in evading justice in the Twiss case seems to have given him a taste for bizarre litigation. He went on to file a number of wholly frivolous, but irritating, suits against various members of high society, until he made legal history for a second time. His lawsuit mania directly led to the Vexatious Actions Act of 1896. That legislation empowered law officers to apply to the High Court to have a person declared "a habitually vexatious litigant." If a judge agreed, an order could be issued banning the litigant from initiating any legal proceedings without obtaining permission from the Court. It is some small satisfaction to note that Chaffers' crimes did not ultimately pay. He died in a workhouse.

However, I doubt this was much consolation to Sir Travers and his wife.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Cats of Winter:

Where the hell is the kingdom of Chicora?

Why the hell do cats stare at ghosts?  (Because the ghosts always blink first?)

Watch out for those Haldon Hills cats!

Watch out for those Victorian theaters!

Watch out for those cursed trees!

Watch out for the Little Man With the Soiled Handkerchief!

Chinese New Year folklore.

A Buddhist poltergeist in Arizona.

The truth about pirates.

Anne, the "forgotten Bronte."

Fun with ghosts!

The 18th century's love for globes.

That time a Peruvian mummy was found in a Pittsburgh dump.

The Bobbed Hair Bandit.

Jane Austen wasn't very popular in Germany.

Note to authors: research can be taken a bit too far.

Playing charades with the Duke of Wellington.

A famed 18th century French actress.

How fairies ruined a man's life.

Travel in Georgian times wasn't easy.

Fake history and a haunting.

Hell's own royal palace.

Around the world in $14 million.

One very lucky condemned man.

The Pepys' Motet.

A vision of Queen Victoria's funeral.

A Fatal Petticoat.

A look at 19th century escapes from prison.

"One small beer for man, one giant leap for bar-hopping."

The ancient Greek who might have had the most important idea in human history.

This WLD would  not be complete without medieval haggis poetry.

Lies, plagiarism, and mermaids.

A handy guide to JFK assassination conspiracy theories.  Although I think they missed a couple of them.

Famine in WWII Bengal.

When animals go to war.

Bigfoot visits North Dakota.

A very curious Roman Britain burial.

"Quoth the Raven: 'Pay no more.'"

Good luck with this one, guys.

The CIA's weird side.

The study of runes.

More on cats and ghosts.

The man who tried to photograph dreams.

Murdering his namesake.

The Romanovs throw one heck of a costume party.

The execution of Louis XVI, as told by the guy who dropped the blade.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do with a firearm.  And your forearm.

Famed New York cat models.

Corset crimes a go-go.

That time Richard Cosway met the Wandering Jew.

The Tomcatters of the U.S. Navy.

That's all for this week, kids.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at that ever-entertaining topic of Victorian Blackmail.  In the meantime, let's dance!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Whenever a 17th century pamphlet promised "strange and wonderful news," they generally weren't kidding around. This account of a Cornish man's odd adventure was reprinted in the "Western Morning News," February 8, 1926:

The truth of the account here given of what lately occurred in Cornwall is confirmed by letters from gentlemen of great worth and integrity of the neighbourhood where this remarkable accident happened, to which might add, were needful, the strict examinations and enquiries that were made by the aforesaid gentlemen, before they would write anything touching this matter; together with many other passages that sufficiently demonstrate the reality of the thing; but the general belief it hath obtained in the west saving that labour, I proceed to the relation those letters give.

Sunday, the eighth May [1637], one Jacob Mutton, whose relations are of good repute, being a servant to William Hicks, Rector Cardinham at a tenement he hath in Egloshale, called Park, as his Hynde, near the town of Bodmyn in Cornwall, going up in to his chamber about eight o'clock that terrible evening with the lad that was his usual bedfellow, the man was undressing and the boy in bed, when a hollow voice uttering "So hoe, So hoe, So hoe," occasioned his going to the window in the next room, which was seventeen foot from the ground, whence the voice seemed to come; and had no sooner laid his hands upon an iron bar thereof, than all gave way.

The cross-bar was found on the ground under the window, but the bar was the next morning found in this man's hand, who lay sleeping in a narrow lane four miles beyond Stratton in the said County, where he never was before his life, and which place is about thirty miles distant from the aforesaid tenement called Park.

The persons that found him were the earliest goers to Stratton fair, then held, where having no acquaintance, after he was waked out of sleep by the said passengers, amazingly asking them where he was, was by them conducted to Stratton fair, and thence directed home that Monday night so far as Camelford in the said County, about twenty miles from the said place where he was found, and on Tuesday morning returned to his Master's estate without any hurt at all, only very melancholy, saying, "That a tall man bore him company all that journey over hedges and brake yet without weariness or hurt." But what became his fellow traveller he can give no account, nor when he left him; or if he had the iron bar, or his companion, whilst they were on the journey, he does not at all remember nor how it came into his hand.

To conclude: this young man who is the occasion of this strange and wonderful relation was never, before this accident, accounted any ways inclinable to melancholy, but on the contrary esteemed a very airy, brisk, and honest young fellow.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Ghost of John Koch

The "Daily Banner," January 21, 1921

In January 1921, a Trenton, New Jersey garage mechanic named John Koch shot and seriously wounded a co-worker and then committed suicide. The death of this otherwise unremarkable person would, in the normal course of events, have been swiftly forgotten by everyone but his family.

John himself, however, had other ideas.

A couple of months after his death, some very unnerving things began happening in his home. Koch's widow declared that her husband's ghost began visiting her regularly. She would wake up in the middle of the night to see him standing at her bedside. Her brother Stephen Hannan and family friend Ephraim Cordwell reported hearing "weird noises" around the house that sounded like the smashing of dishes. However, nothing was ever found broken. One night, Hannan too was confronted with the figure of the dead man. "I will stay until the cat leaves. I will be back on Friday night," the ghost allegedly told him. "I will then leave for one hour, but I will return." Hannan's response was to let out a shriek and throw an oil lamp at the spirit. All this accomplished was to make a dent in the wall.

At this point, Mrs. Koch, alarmed by the crash, came downstairs. Through the kitchen door they both saw a white cat spring from the branches of a tree in the back yard and vanish into the darkness. The ghost gave a groan and also disappeared. And Mr. Hannan fainted.

Hannan had never met John Koch, but he immediately recognized him from photographs. Hannan noticed something particularly odd about the apparition: it "had a hole in the middle of the forehead that looked like it was plugged with cement." Mrs. Koch found this detail especially disquieting. She had never told anyone this, but after her husband shot himself, the undertaker had plastered over the bullet hole in his head.

Hannan and Cordwell took to holding all-night vigils in an effort to solve the mystery. They would see the latch on the kitchen door begin to jiggle. When they opened it, no one was there. They tied the latch with twine, but that did not stop the movement. They would only later find the cord cut in several places. Cordwell commented, "I claim I'm not afraid of anything living, human or animal, but what I saw convinced me. I didn't see as much as Steve did, but what I saw was enough. If I never see a ghost again in all my life it'll be soon enough!" John Koch's favorite child, four-year-old Margaret, cheerfully told her mother one morning, "Papa came to see me last night. He asked me if I was a good little girl."

On the Friday night when the ghost had promised to return, three oil lamps were suddenly extinguished simultaneously. The next night, the entire household was treated to the sound of falling furniture, but, again, nothing was seen to be out of place. The residents of the Koch house, as well as some half-dozen inquisitive neighbors, continued to see the ghost of John Koch, surrounded by a blue chiffon-like mist--but with a change: the ghost was now accompanied by his friend, the large white cat.

It all so shattered Mrs. Koch's nerves that she placed herself under the care of a physician. Adding to her anxiety was her deep sense of guilt.  She suspected that John had "returned" because he was upset at her for sending two of their four children to a "home." (After John's death, she had felt financially and emotionally incapable of adequately parenting all her offspring.) "I don't believe in ghosts," she told a reporter. "I am a Catholic, and we are not allowed to believe in such things. But I don't know what to think. I went to Father Leonard of the Sacred Heart Church and begged him for some holy water. He would believe nothing of it, but he gave me some holy water and I sprinkled it on the walls. It didn't seem to do any good.

"John and I, when he was alive, used to talk sometimes about the dead returning. He did not believe it any more than I did. We both hated to look at dead people, and I told him I would not want to look even at him if he were dead. He said if he died he would not come to me unless it was to help me. I wonder if that is what he wants.

"Last January John was in fear of losing his job at the garage and he thought Theodore Opendaker, who worked there with him, was to blame. He shot Opendaker in the neck, then shot and killed himself. I am sure that he did that in order that I could get the insurance money, for there was nothing else for me and the children to live on. John had lost all his money in real estate." After her husband's death, Mrs. Koch collected $1000 in life insurance. She believed John was trying to advise her how to use the money.

Mrs. Koch

Unsurprisingly, the Koch home became a local tourist attraction. As many as a thousand people would gather around the residence every night, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost. Mrs. Koch, at the end of her emotional tether, collected her remaining children and fled the house, leaving it in the possession of the crowd of amateur ghostbusters.

Fourteen professional spiritualists, lead by a Mrs. Fogg, formed a circle in the house, bidding the restless spirit to leave quietly. Then there was the motorman who "spends his leisure time in spiritualistic seances and is interested in correspondence courses for the improvement of his already elaborate English." And the man with the psychic dog. And the "flaming-eyed girl" who said she was the representative of the "Master Key." And, of course, a host of reporters from newspapers all over the East Coast. They were all having a wonderful time. Sadly, the spiritualists failed to make contact with Koch. They blamed an interfering rival spirit. "Every time one of the mediums thought she had John's ghost on the other end of an astral wave the interloper would cut in and request the medium to ask Mrs. Koch if she 'remembered Andrew.' The widow indignantly denied that she remembered anybody of the kind, but Andrew was not to be snubbed so easily."

The "New York Tribune" reported that "Once or twice a medium got what she thought was a word from the ghost of John. The first time it was something to the effect that when the garage mechanic killed himself he had been under the control of a malign spirit. On another occasion there was a demand to know why his hat and coat had not been kept hanging on the customary nail in the kitchen."

The "New York World" described a typical evening among the spooks. A framed photograph of Koch's mother-in-law, which hung in the front room, suddenly began shaking. A nail dropped to the floor. "The man with the 'psychic dog' picked it up and examined it excitedly. The motorman jumped from his chair." These spectral sleuths surmised that "the ghost, seeking a medium through which to manifest itself, and finding the widow and the children were not at home, had selected the photograph of his mother-in-law as the best available instrument." Stephen Hannan, nervously fingering the shotgun he now carried everywhere, muttered, "Strange things happen in this house." (After Hannan declared that he would fire his gun through the kitchen door if he heard any more rattling, police, alarmed he would only shoot very much alive onlookers, confiscated his firearms. The officers told reporters that Hannan had been gassed during the late World War, "and has not been quite the same since.)

About fifteen minutes after Koch's ghost let the world what he thought of his wife's mother, there were several loud thumps on the floor. The kitchen door latch began its nightly rattling. The audience both inside and outside the home then heard a bell ringing steadily for eight minutes. The source of the noise could not be found.

In April, the story took an even sadder turn. Police had become increasingly annoyed by all the disruption the "ghost" was causing in the neighborhood. After consulting with local authorities, it was decided that the best way to resolve the situation would be to put Mrs. Koch in the New Jersey State Hospital For the Insane. It was announced that the entire "haunting" was merely the product of a grieving widow's over-strained mind. The newspapers evidently agreed, as the story immediately disappeared from the press. I have not been able to learn what became of Mrs. Koch--or for that matter, her husband's ghost.

It must be said, however, that her final statement to reporters--made just the day before being removed to the asylum--was completely rational. "When the first things began to happen," she recalled, "I realized that I had been through trying experiences and was nervous, and I put it down to that and wouldn't let myself believe what I saw and heard. But when it happened to others also--well, the least I can say and not be bigoted is that there must be something in it. I really believe much more strongly than that, although I don't want to."

So, what happened in this Trenton neighborhood? Was the entire "haunting" merely the product of Mrs. Koch's tormented imagination? If so, how to explain the phenomena experienced by the others? Or was an unhappy spirit, anxious about his family's welfare, unable to rest in peace?

Perhaps it was some combination of the two.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Herman, fearless slayer of Nazi mice at the Port Authority of Baltimore.

Who the hell was D.B. Cooper?  People are still asking!

Who the hell wrote the "Federalist Papers?"  Ask a mathematician!

What the hell are these Vietnamese stone instruments?

Watch out for those Deadly Demon Trucks!

Art Linkletter and the extortionists.

Some lesser-known details about Hadrian's Wall.

The Georgian era was big on letter-writing.

A murdered 7th century queen.

A ghost visits his own wake.

The dogs of the French Revolution.

The serpent stone of Loch Ness.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do with raw wheat.

The 17th century woman who studied caterpillars.

Being pestered by vampires?  Here's the soap for you.

The Iceman's last meal.

How a Savannah servant became a ghost.

Family advice, ancient Roman style.

The early days of scandal sheets.

Some indoor winter scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The first inaugural ball.

The John Quincy Adams inauguration.

A Japanese dragon hunt.

The dancing epidemic of 1518.

The rise of luxurious bathrooms.

The day a French town became populated by monsters.

No animal was safe around these two.

Mass-murdering galaxies.

An Anglo-Saxon comic book.

Regency radicalism.

A Buddha rises from a reservoir.

The Death Angel visits Lancashire.

Yeah.  No way in the world this could lead to trouble.

The boxer and the baffling lights.

When folklore becomes fact.

A young girl looks at 1899 New York.

Keep your apostrophes away from the decades!  (While we're at it: I'm no Grammar Nazi--God knows my use of the English language is far from perfect--but please, people, stop using the word "less" when it should be "fewer."  That grates on my ears almost as badly as the modern tendency to put "wise" at the end of words: "Weather-wise," "Money-wise," etc.  And don't even get me started on people who say "literally" when they mean "figuratively."  All right, so maybe I am a Grammar Nazi.)

The first machine to create human speech was just as creepy as you'd think.

18th century advertising.

More from the "pushing back human history" file.

An 18th century terrorist.

The Asparagus Whisperer!

The unsolved murders of Massachusetts.

The very strange death of William Laughlin.

It was no fun being married to Philip II of France.

An important suffragette.

A pioneering "ad man."

The execution of a werewolf.

The original Magic Ring.

Reports of human teleportation.

Truth and fiction in Jane Austen's novels.

In search of Loch Ness Monster footage.

How to organize a Boy Scout pet show.

The sad life of Empress Eugenie.

Moll King's notorious Coffee House.

The Eve of St. Agnes.

Surviving winter, Danish style.

Anomalies and critical thinking.

This week in Russian Weird is the latest about one of my favorite historical riddles, the Tunguska Event.

And there are this week's links.  See you on Monday, when we'll meet a suicide's restless ghost.  In the meantime, this song is an old favorite that's been running through my head lately.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The sixteenth installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" introduces us to two holy chapel holy terrors:
Church mice have received publicity for years and years. Now appear Blackie and Nicodemus, two church cats, to meow violent protest and assert that there is no such animal as a church mouse. Not at least up at the Mt. Vernon Congregational Church, corner of Beacon and Massachusetts avenue, in the heart of the exclusive Back Bay, at any rate. Blackie and Nicodemus have seen to that.

To live all of their lives in a church; to be on the most intimate terms with the minister, the Rev. Sidney Lovett, and with all the deacons and dignitaries has been the privilege, above that accorded to any other cats in New England so far as the Post has yet learned, of Blackie and Nicodemus. Yet the honor sits upon them lightly. There is little of their church atmosphere reflected in the deportment of the Mt. Vernon Church cats.

"Holy terrors" in fact is the appellation that many of the congregation bestow upon them; even while there is not a worshiper but has a very friendly feeling for the mischievous kits that do so much to enliven church sociables, suppers, Sunday school meetings and even sometimes actual services in the main church.
~December 24, 1920
Definitely my kind of Cats of God.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Tragedy at Otterburn

Evelyn Foster worked as a driver at her father's taxi service in Otterburn, a small English village near the Scottish border. On January 6, 1931, at about 7 p.m., the 28-year-old was flagged down by a stranger who was standing near a car with several people inside. The man told her these people had been giving him a lift, but they were going to Hexham, and he wanted to go to Newcastle. The man asked Evelyn to take him to Ponteland, around 20 miles away, where he hoped to catch a bus to Newcastle. She told him she could drive him back to Otterburn, and then see where he could get a bus.

Driving alone with people she did not know was perhaps not the safest occupation, but Foster was a strong, practical woman who figured she could take care of herself. Besides, the man was well-dressed, soft-spoken, and gentlemanly. Certainly, there was nothing at all to alarm anyone.

When they arrived at the Foster garage, she told him the drive would cost him £2, and he readily agreed. While she refilled the car with gas, her customer said he would have a drink at the nearby Percy Arms. After a few minutes, she went to the pub to collect him, and the pair drove off.

The narrative of what happened next was pieced together from Evelyn's later statements: As they drove off, the two chatted casually. The passenger--who never gave his name--told Foster he was from the Midlands. (She thought he had a Tyneside accent.) He seemed to know a lot about cars. All was perfectly normal until they reached the town of Belsay, six miles from their destination. Then, the man abruptly told Foster to turn back. "Why?" she asked.

His mild manner suddenly changed. "That's nothing to do with you," he snarled. He reached over and grabbed the steering wheel. "No!" she protested. "I will do the driving." His answer was to punch her in the eye, temporarily blinding her. He shoved her over to the side of the car, leaving her arms pinned to her sides, and took the wheel, driving back towards Otterburn.

Just outside of the village, he stopped at a place called Wolf's Nick. With peculiar casualness, he offered Foster a cigarette. She refused. "Well, you are an independent young woman," he said mockingly.

At this point, Foster's recollection of that night turned hazy and confused. All she could remember was the man beating her and practically throwing her in the back of the car. Then he raped her. Afterwards, as she was lying there in a daze, she got a vague sense of him taking a bottle out of his pocket and pouring something on her. The next thing she knew, she was on fire. Somehow, she was able to crawl out of the car and drag her burned body out to the road, praying for someone to come by and help her.

She lay there until ten o'clock, when Cecil Johnson and Tommy Rutherford, two of her co-workers, happened to drive by. They stopped when they saw the now-smoldering automobile. When the two men went over to investigate, they immediately recognized the burned-out car as one belonging to their firm.

Foster was lying a few yards away. She was still alive, although barely conscious. "It was that awful man," she moaned to them. "Oh, that awful man. He has gone in a motor-car."

Johnson and Rutherford drove her to her family's home, and a doctor was instantly summoned, but there was nothing he or anyone else could do for the horribly burned woman. She was just able to tell her story of what had happened before she died early the next morning. It was noted that despite her agony, she was still completely lucid. Her last words were "I have been murdered."

At first, everyone presumed the murderer would be quickly caught. Surely, the people who had given the man a lift before Foster met him would come forward and tell anything they knew about him. Surely the Percy Arms barman and others in the vicinity would be able to give a fuller description of him. If he got a ride afterward in another car or a bus, his movements could be traced. And if he fled his crime on foot, in this remote and lonely area he would easily be spotted. And there were other clues--a man's glove was found near the car, as well as a footprint. The police could be pardoned for thinking the killer had made it almost too easy for them.

But all these leads, all these clues, proved to be completely useless. After launching the biggest manhunt Northumberland had ever seen, investigators could not find one other person who had seen anyone matching Foster's description of her attacker. It was as if the man was a phantom, seen by no one but his victim. The barman at the Percy Arms claimed that no stranger had come into the pub on the fatal night. Evelyn Foster had not come by, either.

In fact, the more police looked into Foster's story, the more unlikely it sounded. Although she had said the man set the fire while they were on the side of the road, and then pushed the car off into a ditch, there was no burn marks between the road and the ditch. It was determined that the car had been slowly driven off the road, and then set on fire after it stopped. The fire had originated from behind the car, not in front, and it was believed that it had been set using a tin of gas carried in the luggage box at the back of the car. They also began to question her story about the man pinning her against her seat and then driving back to Wolf's Neck. It would have been very difficult for anyone to maneuver the car in such a position. And why didn't she use her foot to put on the brake?

Law enforcement felt their doubts about Foster's account were confirmed when they read her autopsy report. She had not been raped. In fact, she had died a virgin. And there was no sign she had been struck on her face or head. In short, they became convinced her entire story was a fabrication, meant to cover the fact that she herself had set fire to the car--probably for the insurance money--and while doing so, accidentally set herself ablaze, as well. The Coroner agreed with this theory, and at Foster's inquest, practically directed the jury to come to that conclusion. Instead, they defiantly returned a verdict of "willful murder against some person unknown."

Everyone who had known Foster agreed with the jury, and were outraged that the police tried to blame her for her horrific death. She had been known as an honest, hard-working, self-respecting sort. A scheme like the one outlined by the police was entirely foreign to her nature. Besides, the insurance company would not have paid any more than the car's current market value, which would be less than £100. She had a healthy bank balance, and was in no need of money. Nevertheless, Otterburn's police captain issued a statement asserting that the attacker Foster described simply did not exist. As far as the authorities were concerned, the case was closed.

The case was closed, but was it solved? It has been pointed out that these refutations of Foster's story could themselves be refuted. The man could have been waiting outside the Percy Arms for her, which would explain why the barman did not see either of them come in. It is also possible that the man could have struck her hard enough to leave her temporarily stunned, but not so hard as to leave visible marks. The claim that she had been raped could have arisen from a misunderstanding. When Evelyn was first asked what had happened to her, she said nothing about rape. Later, when her mother asked if the man had "interfered" with her, Evelyn said yes, but she might not have interpreted that as referring to a sexual attack. In fact, it was the police, not Evelyn's mother, who translated that as meaning Foster said she was raped. Also, Foster never carried matches or a lighter, and nothing of that sort was found near the car. So, how could she have set it on fire?

Most crime historians who have studied this case believe that Foster was indeed the victim of a particularly horrible murder. So, who was this man? Why did he commit this senseless savagery? How did he escape? Was he guilty of other murders?

We have no idea.

Ernest Brown

[Note: In his 1977 book "The Burning of Evelyn Foster," Jonathan Goodman offered a possible suspect for Foster's murder. Two years after her death, a farm hand named Ernest Brown shot his employer and tried to burn the body in a car. The motive was simple jealousy--Brown was sleeping with his employer's wife. The farm was not very far from Otterburn--in fact, Brown had a friend who lived just outside of Foster's village. Goodman pointed out that Brown's appearance generally matched Foster's description of her attacker--he was also a natty dresser and had a Tyneside accent. Having a friend who lived near Otterburn would have given him a convenient hiding place after the murder. Just before Brown was executed for his crime, the chaplain advised him to confess his other sins, in order to make his peace with God. Brown responded with a mumble that has been interpreted as "Ought to burn." Goodman wondered if perhaps he had really said "Otterburn." Was he confessing to Foster's murder? It's an ingenious theory, although highly tenuous, and still fails to give a motive for the crime.]

Friday, January 13, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is, naturally, sponsored by the Cats of Friday the 13th!

Life Magazine, 1941

Watch out for those fairy vampires!

Watch out for the Monstrous Wyvern!

Watch out for the Donkey Lady of Texas!

How tequila saves endangered species.  

A notorious early 19th century murderer.

The Norwood Gypsy.

Some Victorian criminal slang.

In search of a Welsh "lost city."

A condemned murderer's death dance.

Some prominent 19th century theater fires.

The saga of the Minnesota Iceman.

An unusual Egyptian mummy.

The famous painting depicting the death of Marat.

When dogs were kitchen gadgets.

Cat uses sign language to ask for demand food.  Uh, don't they all?

Iceland's oddly eerie last executions.  Oddly eerie, because, well, Iceland.

A tax targeting spinsters and their cats; or, why the 18th century would have left me bankrupt.

One of history's intriguing little mysteries: Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon's spy?

How a Victorian girl escaped her kidnapper.

How one woman went from servant girl to business mogul.

For all of you who are just dying to read about ear maggots.

On a related topic, here is some praise for earwax.

A Greek tomb shows what we don't know about Western civilization.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do with a carving knife.

Medical care for servants, Early Modern style.

The oldest silk.

That time we nearly obliterated Arkansas.

Why a man has spent 40 years in a ghost town.

18th century wig snatching.

An 1870s cat hospital.

Yet another case of adultery leading to the scaffold.

If, like me, you love silent film, here is how they did special effects.

Brighton's Green Man.

In praise of "Green Acres."  Damn right.

Agatha Christie and ancient Nimrud.

Persia in WWI.

Witchcraft soup.

That time the Wandering Jew played roulette.

The sounds of Stonehenge.

A Romanov spoiled brat.  (Incidentally, "Russia's Lost Princesses" is on YouTube.  If you haven't seen it, go take a look; it's great.)

A tragic case of "puerperal insanity."

A princess and her pampered bulldogs.

Norse gods had a great way with insulting repartee.

The White Lady of Crook Hall.

Some disappearances from hospitals.

The girl with six doppelgangers.

The Great Beach Pyjama Scandal of 1933. 

An Illinois witch grave.

Victorian French lingerie.

A famous "changeling."

This week in Russian Weird:  Come fly with me!

And that's all for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a woman's horrific--and extremely strange--death.  In the meantime, how about some Morris dances?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Old Bailey Clipping of the Day

While browsing through Old Bailey Online's murder cases--as we all do--I came across this trial from February 26, 1729, that caught my eye thanks to its sheer pithy weirdness.

John Swart, was indicted for the Murder of Elizabeth Hether, by flinging Salt in her Eyes, which so grieved and distampered the said Elizabeth Hether, that she languished from the 10th of October last to the 27th of the said Month, and then died, but as it did not appear to be done with Malice aforethought, the Jury acquitted him.
Calling all crime historians! Are there any other known cases of "Murder By Salt-Flinging," or was Mr. Swart unique in the annals of homicide?

Monday, January 9, 2017

An "African Princess" at Queen Victoria's Court

Portrait of Sarah as a child, Octavious Oakley

One of my favorite opening lines in all of literature comes from the preface to Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs: "'Man proposes and God disposes.' There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice." We have "free will" in the sense that we can choose what we make of these circumstances, for good or ill, but the circumstances themselves are largely out of our control. Life is a series of unexpected twists and turns that usually leave us as helplessly buffeted as so many autumn leaves in the wind. It is not a good world for anyone who dislikes surprises.

One sterling example of the strange vagaries of fate is the life of one 19th century African girl. Her birth name was "Aina," but she has come down to history as "Sarah Forbes Bonetta."

Aina was born in what is now Nigeria circa 1843. All we know about her family is that in 1848 her parents and siblings were killed in a raid carried out by forces of the Dahomian King Gezo. Little Aina, for unknown reasons, was spared and held as a captive in the Dahomian palace.

So far, Aina's life could be called unfortunate, but hardly remarkable. It was in 1850 that her life took its great unexpected turn. Frederick Forbes, captain of the naval ship HMS Bonetta, was sent to the Dahomian kingdom to conduct negotiations on behalf of Queen Victoria. King Gezo had been a major partner with Britain in that country's now-abolished slave trade, and Forbes was commissioned to persuade Gezo to give up that now-abhorred practice. It can probably be seen as a measure of Forbes' success that the king responded by giving Aina as a gift to the Englishman, as if she was just another trinket. She was, in Forbes' words, "a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites."

Forbes had his new charge baptized, naming her after both himself and his ship. Forbes did not regret his "gift," as he was very favorably impressed with the girl's dignified, amiable bearing and sharp intelligence--qualities that are strikingly evident in her photographs. The captain wrote admiringly, "She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and [has] great talent for music… She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…”  After arriving in England in November 1850, the child was presented to the queen. Like Forbes, Victoria was struck by the little foreigner's bright, winning ways, which led her to agree to sponsor Sarah's education. The girl officially became part of the royal household, although she actually went to live in Gillingham, with the family of a famed missionary, the Reverend James Schoen.

It was the era when the concept of "Christianizing" Africa was very much in vogue. Many native Africans were enlisted as missionaries to their native land, with the goal of educating their countrymen on the benefits of Christianity and publicizing the horrors of the slave trade. Sarah's intelligence, character, and charm marked her as an obvious candidate for this role. It was decided that once she completed her basic education, Sarah should be sent to a missionary school in Sierra Leone. The girl did very well in her studies, but was lonely in Sierra Leone, and missed England, the only home she could remember. When the queen learned of her unhappiness, she arranged for Sarah to return in 1855. Sarah (or "Sally," as the queen called her,) became a well-known figure in England, where the former war orphan was fancifully seen as an exotic "African princess." She regularly visited Windsor Castle, and even attended the wedding of the queen's daughter Alice. She earned the affection and respect of everyone who knew her, from the queen on down.

Sarah in 1862

In 1860, Sarah met a wealthy West African merchant and philanthropist named James Pinson Labulo Davies, who soon expressed his desire to marry her. Although Sarah herself was, at best, lukewarm about the idea, her guardians saw Davies as an ideally suitable match, and once the Queen herself endorsed the proposed marriage, the matter was considered settled. As usual, Sarah's fate was taken out of her hands.

Sarah and Davies were married in a lavish ceremony on August 14, 1862. It was a minor celebrity event, with sixteen bridesmaids, 10 carriages filled with "White ladies and African gentlemen, as well as, White gentlemen with African ladies," and crowds of fascinated onlookers who were, most likely, feeling more happiness about the event than the bride herself.

Sarah and James Davies

After a brief stay in England, the couple moved back to Sierra Leone. Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1863. The baby was named "Victoria," after the royal sponsor of her mother, and the Queen herself agreed to be godmother. Sarah eventually had three more children. Sadly, she soon developed tuberculosis, which was in those days a death sentence. She died on the Portuguese island of Madeira in August 1880, aged only about thirty-seven. Her oldest child, Victoria, continued to enjoy royal favor. She received a fine education at Cheltenham College, as well as an annuity from the queen. Sarah's many descendants still occupy a prominent place in and around Nigeria.

It would be interesting to know what Sarah privately thought of the strange path she had taken through life. Was she happy, and grateful for being rescued from her precarious position of captive at King Gezo's court? Or did she end her days still feeling like a stranger in a strange land?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by a cat who expresses perfectly how I feel about this time of year.

How the hell did Paul Bern die?

Watch out for Pecos, New Mexico!

Watch out for Cursed Mountain, Africa!

Watch out for Haunted Vaults, Edinburgh!

Watch out for Pious Werewolves, Ulster!

Watch out for Voodoo Murders, New Orleans!

Watch out for Giant Winged Humanoids, Phoenix!

Watch out for Phantom Plane Crashes, Ireland!

Defending fakelore.

The lost potential of Lady Jane Grey.

The Swedish royal palace is haunted.  But no worries, they're friendly.

Never mind what this post tells you, I say dogs are always welcome in drawing rooms.

The extinct Indians of Texas.

Space archaeology.

The appeal of changelings.

More changelings!

The family behind a painting.

A real case of "looks that kill."

So, what's with the Fairy Armies?

Drunken P.G. Wodehouse!

Just a girl and her dog  deer.

The Christmas Witch of Italy.

The Great (French) Pretender.

The Great Spider Web Cure.

Nothing says "holiday fun" like those magic words, "Victorian teetotalers."

The hazards of painting unflattering portraits of the Devil.

Saving ancient Chinese treasures.

A French giant visits England.

The girl with black sweat.

The best article you'll read all week about Jonathan Swift's underwear.

18th century superstitions.

Now, this is my idea of a year-end list:  the weirdest conspiracy theories of 2016.

Giving mummies a check-up.

9/11 reincarnation stories.

The unquiet Earl of Derwentwater.

The death of one of history's most notorious poisoners.

The Victorian lady whose mind governed the world.

A New Year's Woman in Black.

Truth and fiction about medieval beer.

Gotta love those 17th century sea serpents.

Gotta love those 19th century stomach serpents.

Gotta love those 18th century ice-skating dandies.

The passing of one very strong-willed duck.

Victorian crowd swindles.

Love gone very wrong in Los Angeles.

A look at 17th century prostitutes.

19th century hacking.

Charlemagne's UFOs.

The Titanic had more problems than just icebergs.

That time the British tried to turn Hitler into a woman.

This week in Canada Weird: You can buy a Potemkin village in Quebec.

A mysterious 1885 death.

On a different note, let's close with one really nice little story for your weekend.  

And that's it for yet another WLD.  See you on Monday, when we'll meet one of Queen Victoria's most unusual godchildren.  In the meantime, I apologize if Latvian folk music isn't your bag, but I recently discovered Folkvakars on YouTube, and I just love them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Our next installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" series introduces us to a feline very aptly named "The Lucky."
"Lucky cat!" It's quite as good a phrase as "lucky dog." Proof of this is Peter. Peter is the beautiful white angora Simmons College cat. "The Rose in No Man's Land," the girls call Peter. He lives in their north hall dormitory.

Sixty downy couches to sleep upon; 60 shining chafing dishes all ready to brew his catship any favorite dish--these are only a few of the luxuries extraordinary that surround Peter the Lucky.

The cat that goes visiting every week-end is surely a cat entitled to his place on the list of New England's famous cats. Peter has gone home with different girls every week-end since college opened in September. He has week-ended in every single one of the New England states.

The girls even forego the comforts of the Pullman so that they may have Peter in his "hen coop" with them in the day coach.

The girls themselves made Peter's travelling compartment. Miss Eleanor Childs and Miss Kathleen Halladay designed it, and explain it as a cross between a berry crate and a knitting bag. At any rate it suffices to take Peter safely on his journeys.

Leaving tonight for Concord, N.H., to spend the Christmas vacation is the Simmons College cat. He is to be the house guest of Miss Dorothy Williams. Close application to books has made Peter very pale, the girls say, and they hope the bracing New Hampshire air will make a new cat of him.
~December 23, 1920