"...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, October 30, 2017

Elliott O'Donnell's Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Halloween; Or, How Not to Hunt For Ghosts

"Illustrated Police News," December 28, 1872

In his book "Haunted Churches," famed "ghost hunter" Elliott O'Donnell related his experience with trying to chase down the spirit of an ancient nun: an expedition that wound up going down the toilet, in every sense of the phrase.

Let this be a cautionary tale for anyone who goes searching for spooks this Halloween.

A few miles from Hitchin, in a wood on the summit of a hill, are the ruins of Minsden church, at one time a chapel of ease, said to have given shelter to many a passing pilgrim. Tradition associates it with Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III and Lady of Hitchin Manor, who is credited with stealing her royal lover's rings when he was on his death-bed and powerless to prevent her. In the seventeenth century it witnessed the marriage of Sir John Barrington, Bart., to Susan Draper.

After that time nothing of any note seems to have happened there, and, about 1738, it became so dilapidated that pieces of masonry and plaster not infrequently fell on the clergy and congregation, to the consternation of both.

Probably, soon after that date it was abandoned, some say on account of widespread rumours of its being haunted by the ghost of a nun, alleged to have been murdered during the reign of Henry VIII, when a convent was either attached to the church or occupied its site.

I first heard of the reputed haunting through a photographer living in the neighbourhood of Minsden, who sent me a photograph taken, he said, in broad daylight at the ruins. The chief interest in the photograph lay in what resembled the shadowy form of a nun. The photographer did not claim he had photographed a ghost, he merely called my attention to the shadowy form and implied he could not account for it. He referred to a local belief in the haunting of the spot by the phantom of a murdered nun, and suggested that we should visit the ruins; he would ask a few of his friends to accompany us and I could invite a few of mine. It was October, and, at my suggestion, we chose for the date of our visit to the ruins All Hallows E'en, that being one of the nights in the year when denizens of the spirit world are popularly believed to be in closest touch with the material inhabitants of this plane. Also, since All Hallows E'en is one of the occasions when the working of certain spells is deemed likely to produce interesting results, I asked a lady, who is well versed in such things, to be one of the party. Others I invited were H. V. Morton, the well-known author, Wyndham Lewis, "Beachcomber," and R. Blumenfelt, son of the Editor of The Daily Express.

When I arrived at King's Cross I saw a crowd of people collected in front of the Ladies' Waiting Room. Intuition warned me of the reason, and when I cautiously elbowed my way through the gaping throng, I perceived, as I had anticipated, my mediumistic friend, clad--and this I had not anticipated--in orthodox witch's costume, namely, high cap, cloak, gown covered with demons and black cats and, of course, in one hand, a broomstick. The picture was startling enough, and the expressions on the faces of the spectators were a study. While some showed wonder and others amusement, a few looked positively scared; probably they thought she was the escaped inmate of some home for the mentally defective.

Of my three friends, Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt there was not a sign. Indeed, I did not see them till I had bundled the witch into a third-class compartment, much to the consternation of a female occupant, who at once flew out of it. I then caught sight of them stealing surreptitiously into a first-class compartment, as far away from us as possible.

The Hitchin photographer lived with two very proper, elderly female relatives, and when they caught sight of the witch, standing beside me in the doorway, they were immeasurably shocked. "Who is this person?" they demanded. "She must not enter this house." And when I endeavoured to explain why she had come, their indignation grew. "Tom," one of them exclaimed, turning to the photographer, who cowered against the wall, looking extremely sheepish and uncomfortable, "Tom, you never told us a person dressed like this was coming. It's a scandal. What would your dear father, aye, and grandfather say? Why, they never missed a Sunday at chapel in their lives. The mere thought of a woman in such an attire as this," pointing at the witch, who maintained an imperturbability that suggested she was not altogether unaccustomed to such harangues, "coming to the house is enough to make them turn in their graves. Tell her to go away at once." Tom making no response, I had to intervene, and after much pleading obtained permission for the witch to sit with us in Tom's studio till it was time for us to go to the haunted ruins, on the condition, however, that, after leaving the house then, she was never to set foot in it again.

The ruins were several miles distant, and it was well-nigh midnight when we arrived there. As we drew near to the wood, there was a ghostly rustling of leaves, which made the more nervous of the party clutch hold of one another, followed by a buzzing and whirling, as a number of birds, scared at our approach, left their homes in the ivy-clad ruins of the church and flew frantically away.

I had brought with me a variety of articles necessary for the working of the spells, and I proposed that, while the witch muttered appropriate incantations, Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt should try their luck with hempseed and apples.

Most All Hallow E'en keepers know the hempseed spell. Walking alone in the dark one has to scatter hempseed over the left shoulder, drawing mould over it afterwards with a hoe or other instrument, and repeating, as one does so, these words: 
Hempseed I sow, yes, hempseed I hoe;
Oh, those who's to meet me come after me and mow.

And then, if the Powers that govern the Unknown ordain it, one hears footsteps in one's rear and, on turning fearfully around, sees the immaterial counter-part of whoever is to come into one's life within the next twelve months and affect it most. If you are destined to die during that period, you see a skeleton. All this may sound just fanciful and old world, superstitious tripe: but, nevertheless, I have known occasions when something quite unexpected and unquestionably superphysical has happened. On this particular occasion, when asked if they would separate and, alone, amid the gloom and shadows of the trees, put the spell to the test, Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt answered in the negative, a very decided negative; they much preferred remaining together.

The witch did her best to persuade the ghost to manifest itself. Seated on the damp soil she crooned, and incanted, and moaned, there was a note of occasional real misery in the last; but the other world remained obdurate, it would not come at her calling, and perhaps it was just as well, because some of the party might, I think, have been more than a wee bit startled; at least I gathered so from their close proximity to one another and from what, every now and then, sounded suspiciously like the chattering of teeth, though the cold--and out there it was cold--might have had something to do with the last.

Our pulses gave a sudden jump when one of the party exclaimed: "What's that?" We looked, and for a few seconds I thought that the witch's endeavours had at last succeeded in bringing the superphysical, but investigation proved it was only the ghostly effect of the moonlight on one of the ivy-clad ruin arches. We were discussing our disappointment, "professed" disappointment, I fancy, on the part of several, when from afar came a sound like the report of a firearm. "A strange hour and season for anyone to be out shooting," someone observed, and we thought no more about it.

As it was now about four o'clock, the chance of the ghost appearing seemed so remote that we set out on our homeward journey.

And now came our only real thrill. It was a still, grey, chilly morning. There had been a slight fog rising from the damp ground during the night, and it was now so thick that those of our party who were in front, myself among them, could not see the witch and photographer, who were trudging along some little distance in the rear. Through the mist the black shades of trees and hedges stood out faintly. We were hastening, thinking longingly of breakfast and a cheery fire, when suddenly dark figures sprang out from seemingly nowhere, and peremptory tones commanded us to halt. They were policemen, four of them, who in the mist--my eyes, no doubt, were strained by hours of high nerve tension vigil--appeared magnified into giants. They asked what we were doing, tramping a lonely highway at that unearthly hour, and when I said: "Looking for a ghost," the leader of them responded nastily: "That's a good 'un. You don't expect us to swallow that." He went on to inform us that the booking office at Wellyn railway station had been broken into during the night and the official in charge of it fired at, which explained the report of firearms we had heard.

He was about to search us, and I was feeling somewhat anxious, because one of our party had, I knew, a revolver on him, when I was seized with a sudden inspiration. "Do you know Mr.--?" I said, naming the local photographer.

"Very well," the Sergeant replied, "but he's not here."

"No," I answered, "but he's following with a lady, clad as a witch, and one or two other people. Do you not know last night was All Hallow's E'en, when the dead from cross-roads and cemeteries are permitted to mingle once more with the living? We came hoping to see the ghost of the nun that rumour alleges haunts the ruins of Minsden church. Haven't you heard of her?"

"Now I come to think of it," the Sergeant said, "I 'ave 'eard of the party, but I don't pay any attention to tales of that sort. You'll all 'ave to come along to the Police Station and answer such questions as may be put to you."

Grunts and ejaculations of dismay came from Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt, who had hitherto been dumb, too overcome, so I imagined, with the horror of the situation to speak.

Now the appalling thoughts of not getting to their respective newspaper headquarters in time loosened their tongue strings, nor did I feel too happy, for I was cold and shivering and wanted a hot drink very badly.

To my infinite relief, however, at this very critical moment, there loomed into view the witch, photographer and the rest of the party, who were all local. On hearing them corroborate my story, the Police Sergeant capitulated, and all ended well, at least so far as concerned that little incident; but there was some bother when we got back to the photographer's house and tried to smuggle in the witch. One of Tom's elderly relatives hearing us, and making sure we were burglars, or the house was on fire, started to scream, and it took desperate efforts on Tom's part to calm her. Fortunately, she was far too frightened to come out of her bedroom, or she must have seen the witch.

Our train back to London did not arrive for nearly two hours, and all that time we sat huddled together in the dreary room, in momentary dread of one or other of Tom's aged relatives descending on us. To render the situation more embarrassing and alarming, the witch, doubtless affected by sitting on the cold ground for so long, had to retire with sudden haste to the toilet which, as bad luck would have it, was upstairs, next to one of the aged relative's bedrooms. She contrived to get there without attracting attention but, on leaving the place, in her anxiety to catch the train, she slipped, and descending amid an avalanche of paper parcels, landed on the floor with a terrific crash. This was altogether too much for Messrs. Morton, Wyndham Lewis and Blumenfelt. They decamped pell-mell, meanly leaving me to grab hold of the witch and drag her and her many parcels to the station.

So ended my first visit to the haunted church of Minsden.
On the bright side, I'm sure O'Donnell could not possibly have seen any Halloween ghost or goblin that was nearly as terrifying as his photographer friend's little old aunties.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Cats of Halloween!

Where the hell is the head of William Mons?

Where the hell is the grave of Virginia Dare?

Watch out for Green Jean!

Watch out for those mud monsters!

Watch out for those haunted toilets!

The Great Balloon Riot.

Poe was not a fan of urbanization.

This might be the skull of the oldest known tsunami victim.

The ghostly love story that inspired forest conservation.

If you're going to be a robber, you should at least be polite about it.

Some helpful tips for keeping away witches.  Of course, considering that Halloween is just around the corner, you might not want to.

George III's Golden Jubilee.

Skeleton folklore.

This is your chance to live in Lizzie Borden's house.

Having a few friends over for dinner, Gilded Age style.

Mystery Fires in Malaysia.

How to amass a fortune from salt.

Poe as a critic.  (Incidentally, if you've never read any of his reviews, do check them out.  The guy was a hoot.  People never believe me when I tell Poe was really a humorist and satirist, not a "horror" writer, but it's true.)

A ghost from 19th century Los Angeles.

Tangled up in blue ghosts.

Napoleon's Kindle.

Locusta, the first known serial killer.

Cocaine and Mark Twain.

The rather scary world of Victorian hairspray.

Mothman and the collapsed bridge.

14th century Court of Chivalry records.

The haunted Hollywood Reporter building.

What it's like being a professional fake Amazon reviewer.

Adolf Hitler, cryptozoologist.

Remembering the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The galaxy's loneliest cemetery.

As a connoisseur of Weird Wills, I love this one. 

According to science, you don't exist.

The Countess, the spider, and a cure for gout.

"At once the case was clear; he had two bladders."  Or, Sentences I Never Thought Would Appear On My Blog.

The mystery of the Cornell Pumpkin.

The first salaried female journalist.

What would the WLD be without those regular "rewriting human history" links?

And, finally, this week in South African Weird: a hospital has an unusual post-op case.

And that's a wrap!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a celebrated ghost-hunter's Halloween-Gone-Wrong.  In the meantime, here's a spot of Beethoven.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Just how much is an embalmed corpse worth, as far as entertainment dollars go? One early 20th century lawsuit attempted to decide just that. From the "Quad City times," October 13, 1903:
Des Moines, Oct. 13--The $10,000 damage suit brought to determine the possession of the body of the late John Allen has been set for trial to Judge McHenry's division of the district court Wednesday of this week. This case will attract much attention and furnish some interesting reading for the public inasmuch as it is the first one of its kind ever tried in the courts here and has a decidedly grewsome flavor to start with.

Eleanor Langford and her husband, Homer Langford, are suing to recover $10,000 and the body of John Allen, the father of Eleanor Langford. William C. Harbach, M.E. Pettiss, the Pettis company and the Rex Embalming Fluid company are named as defendants in the suit. It is claimed that Allen died Nov. 11, 1896, and was ordered buried by Coroner Ankeny, that defendants afterwards had the remains exhumed, preserved them with the Rex Embalming fluid as an experiment, and proceeded to exhibit the body in this city and other parts of the country, charging money for these exhibitions and as a result selling great quantities of the Rex embalming fluid.

It is also claimed that the body has been mistreated, exposed to the rats so that the right foot has been gnawed off. The daughter asks to recover the body, and if not that the price of the clothing and casket, which is valued at about $80. In addition to this the sum of $10,000 damages are asked for from the court. It is expected that the body of the dead man, which it is claimed is in possession of the Rex Embalming Fluid company, will be brought into court and furnish a grewsome exhibit.
Much to my disappointment, I couldn't find any information about how this lawsuit was concluded, leaving me unable to say how much Mr. Allen's petrified remains were worth in a court of law, not to mention who wound up in possession of this tribute to the wonders of Rex Embalming fluid.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Dead Woman and the Vanished Pears: The Mystery of Kathryn Scharn

Kathryn "Katie" Scharn had about as good a life as any working-class girl could hope for in early 20th century New York City. The 23-year-old had a steady job at a pencil factory, a decent apartment she shared with her 18-year-old brother Fred, many friends, and enough personal attractions to gather her many male admirers. A very ordinary existence, to be sure, but one far from unpleasant.

And then one day, her story stopped being ordinary, and turned as unpleasant as you can get.

August 19, 1900 started out very typically for Kathryn. It was her day off, so she spent the morning doing some household chores. After breakfast, she cleaned the house, stopped at her work to pick up wages, and then went shopping with her boss at the factory, Maggie Bird. She told Bird that she had a double-date that evening: she would be going out with Fred, his girlfriend Nettie Harris, and Kathryn's current beau, Lincoln Price. Kathryn commented that it was important to keep this date. She had stood up Price once before, which made him angry. As she planned to marry Price, she wanted to keep him in a good mood. That same morning, a special-delivery letter arrived for her, but unfortunately, we have no idea who sent it or what the letter said. Kathryn arrived home some time around three p.m. From then, we know little of her activities. Shortly before 7 p.m., neighbors saw her taking in some curtains that were hanging on her clothesline. She placed on her bed the lace shirtwaist she would wear on her date that night. Then she went down to the grocery store next door and bought three pears. A young man who worked there saw her pause outside the store, and take one of the pears out of the bag. She appeared about to eat it. The store's wagon driver also observed Kathryn reaching for the fruit.

About an hour later, a neighbor, Mrs. Carlsen, heard the Scharn's doorbell being repeatedly rung. Curious about why Kathryn did not answer the door, she went downstairs to investigate. She found two little girls, trying to deliver the Scharn laundry. Mrs. Carlsen took the basket and told the girls she'd give it to Kathryn the next morning.

Kathryn did not keep her double-date that night. Some time after midnight, Fred Scharn returned home, after having been out for most of the day. He was deeply puzzled about his sister's failure to join the scheduled outing. He was even more perturbed when he found their front door was unlocked. Kathryn was always careful to keep it locked. The apartment was completely dark, and eerily silent. When Fred went into her bedroom, he found her body lying across the bed. There was a dreadful wound on the back of her head.

When Fred realized Kathryn was dead, he went into a panic. Curiously, he did not immediately send for police. Instead, he ran to the house of the Scharn landlord, one Dr. A.H. Tyler. He was greeted by Tyler's housekeeper, Mrs. Lawler, who told the sobbing, hysterical youth that the doctor was out. When she learned of what Fred had found, she brought him to the police station.

Doctors determined Kathryn had been killed sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. She had been hit on the back of the head with a hammer normally kept under the kitchen sink. (It was found on her bedroom floor.) However, these blows had not killed her. She had been strangled to death. This level of ferocity suggested that this was not a murder committed by an ordinary burglar. Rather, she likely had been killed by someone she knew, someone who had, for whatever reason, a deep personal rage against the young woman. Kathryn was fully dressed, but her shirt was torn and her arms bruised and scratched. She clearly had fought violently for her life. Her purse was empty and several rings had been wrenched from her fingers. Her bureau drawers had been ransacked, but, oddly, Fred's belongings were untouched. Also oddly, a black mask was lying on the floor. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that no one in this crowded, flimsy tenement building reported having heard any unusual noises. Mrs. Carlsen, who lived directly below the Scharns, said that she could hear every footstep Fred or Kathryn made. Yet somehow, she heard nothing when her neighbor was beaten and strangled to death.

Elmira Star, August 20, 1900

Police Inspector Harley was given the task of finding Kathryn's killer. The officer took an instant dislike to Fred Scharn--something that was to affect the entire course of the investigation.

Harley intently questioned Fred about his activities for that day. Fred had spent the morning at his job in a printing house. Around noon, he came home for a few hours. From four-thirty until close to midnight, he was at the house of his girlfriend, Nettie Harris. Then he returned to his apartment and found Kathryn. Harley wasn't convinced. He was privately skeptical about Fred's alibi.

Harley also talked to Lincoln Price. Price said he had known Kathryn for four years, and they were engaged to be married. He had given her the rings (cheap ones, worth only a few dollars) that had been torn off her fingers. He said that on August 19, he was at his job at a downtown bank until one p.m. He went to a saloon, where he stayed until shortly before 7:30, when he left to meet Kathryn at the 166th Street El station. He hung around the station for some time, waiting, and when she failed to arrive, went back to the saloon. The bar owner corroborated his alibi. What Kathryn's fiance did not say--it was left to the newspapers to dig this up--Price's real name was "Louis Lincoln Eisenprice." Oh, and he had a wife and small child lurking in the background. Price had once been arrested for attempting to strangle his wife, but the charges had been dismissed.

Dr. Tyler had little to offer investigators. He shrugged that he knew nothing about the dead woman, "except that she was a quiet and orderly tenant who paid her rent." Newspaper reporters brought up the intriguing fact that four years earlier, a 12-year-old girl named Mamie Cunningham had been murdered in precisely the same way as Kathryn Scharn: hit with a hammer and then strangled. The murder remained unsolved. The two victims had one other thing in common: they were both tenants of Dr. Tyler's. This coincidence--if it was merely a coincidence--appears to have been unexplored by the police.

Harley was momentarily interested in one of Kathryn's workmates, Julia Lang. According to Price/Eisenprice, Lang and Kathryn had had a bitter quarrel over him. Did this factory girl have a secret side as a Mad Strangler? Well, no. Lang had an alibi, and vehemently denied Price's story. Lang asserted that she and Kathryn had been good friends, and had never quarreled, about Price or anything else. There seemed no reason not to believe her.

Harley delved into the dead woman's extensive love life, but that proved to cast little light on the increasingly baffling crime. Letters were found in her apartment from Price, bitterly scolding Kathryn for seeing other men. They also found notes to her from a Charles Yuling, but he had the proverbial cast-iron alibi. Sidney M. Rogers, whose photo was found on Kathryn's bureau? He wasn't even in New York at the time of the murder.

Harley gave up looking for other suspects, and cast his attention entirely on Fred, whom he had placed under arrest. Everyone who knew the Scharns stated that Fred had adored his sister, and the siblings had never been known to even quarrel. The Inspector took a cynical view of this testimony. His inability to find Kathryn's killer left him convinced that Fred had to be the culprit.

All he had to do was find some evidence to prove it.

When police found a three-dollar pawn ticket in Fred's possession, Harley immediately concluded that Fred had bludgeoned and strangled his sister for the sake of pawning the cheap rings she wore. When Harley confronted Fred with this accusation, the prisoner's lawyer objected, pointing out that there was "no record" to support such a monstrous charge. Harley snapped out a response that speaks eloquently of the quality of his investigation: "Record? What do you want with a record? Isn't every liar a thief?"

Harley was further encouraged to discover that Fred had lied about spending all the evening of the 19th at Nettie Harris' house. A witness spotted the couple a few blocks from her home at about 9:30 p.m., which Fred had to admit was the truth: he and Nettie had gone for a brief walk. Fred left Nettie's home at precisely 11:50 p.m. (Her stepfather recalled the time because that was when he went downstairs to wind the clock.) Harley did the math: It took 32 minutes by train and a five-minute walk to get from Nettie's to the Scharn apartment, and Fred had arrived home between 12:30 and 1 a.m. In short, Fred's movements during the time Kathryn was murdered were fully accounted for.

Even this did not stop Gotham's Inspector Javert from trying to hang the crime around Fred's neck. He dug more into Fred's background. He discovered that Fred had been fired from his previous job at a piano company. He had fraudulently padded the amount of work he supposedly did, in order to get extra wages. Harley also learned that Fred's pawn ticket was for a gold watch. This watch had been stolen from one of Fred's neighbors. The Inspector gleefully added burglary to the charges against Fred.

At this point, Harley decided that Kathryn had not died between 10 and 11. He now declared that, despite the medical evidence, she had really been murdered sometime around 4 p.m. Why? Because that was the only time that Fred could possibly have done the deed. And the neighbors who saw Kathryn taking down the curtains around 7? The clerk who sold her pears around that time? Harley waved away such trifles. Those witnesses, he declared, were all mistaken. Fred murdered his sister around 4 p.m., and Harley was damned if he was going to let a few inconvenient details spoil that narrative.

Kathryn's inquest was held on October 12. The D.A. laid out the case against Fred. The evidence indicated that the killer was very familiar with the layout of the apartment, even knowing where the hammer was stored. Kathryn had been paid earlier on that day, and money was still in her purse after her shopping trip. However, after her death, the purse was empty. Fred had money in his pocket when he was arrested, although he had not recently been paid at his job. Kathryn's belongings were ransacked, but Fred's were untouched. Fred had told lies about his whereabouts. Fred himself, on the advice of his attorney, refused to testify.

It was looking very bad for young Scharn. How Inspector Harley must have been gloating! But then, the proceedings were interrupted by an event straight out of the last act of a "Perry Mason" episode. During the recess, a 17-year-old girl named Ella Conroy approached Fred's lawyer. She wanted to testify. After hearing her story, he instantly agreed.

Conroy worked as a cashier in the grocery store next door to the Scharns. Although she and Kathryn did not know each other, Conroy had often seen her around the neighborhood, so had no problem recognizing her. Conroy told the court that on the evening of the murder, Kathryn came into the grocery and purchased three pears. "They were three for five and she walked over to the cash register and paid me a nickel." The time, she said firmly, was ten minutes to seven. Conroy explained that she had not come forward before because "I didn't think it was necessary, and I didn't want the notoriety." But now, she realized, "Fred Scharn needs me."

And that was that. All of Harley's dearest hopes for a nice clean frame-up were dashed. The coroner's jury wasted little time in reaching a verdict that Kathryn Scharn had been murdered "By person or persons unknown."

There the matter has rested ever since. Kathryn's murder remains unsolved, and is now long forgotten. What makes this particularly frustrating is that I believe this mystery would have been eminently "solvable," given a competent inquiry. The victim was almost certainly killed by someone she knew, and for motives that probably stemmed from jealousy or personal spite. If Harley had only let go of his fixation on Fred Scharn, and focused on following the clues wherever they may have taken him, he probably would have found the guilty party. For instance, I would like to know more about Dr. Tyler. As Kathryn's landlord, he had a key to her apartment, which could explain why Fred found the door unlocked. Contemporary newspapers reported gossip that his relationship with Kathryn was rather closer than he wished to let on. He was not at his home at the time of the murder, and as far as I can tell, his movements that night are unknown. (He told reporters that his whereabouts on August 19 were none of anybody's business.) It is hard to overlook the eerily similar murder of Mamie Cunningham. And, of course, there is the strange fact that after finding his sister's body, Fred instinctively sought out, not the police, but the landlord.

Then there is the married "fiance," Mr. Price/Eisenprice. He too had a key to the Scharn apartment. He was deeply jealous of the other men in Kathryn's life and he had a history of physical violence. The only corroboration for Price's alibi was the owner of the saloon he visited, but the man could conceivably have been mistaken or deliberately lying. Newspaper reports described Kathryn as having a "double life" where she frequented what they quaintly called "low establishments." This suggests that there may have been other men in her life who never even surfaced in this generally lackluster and inept investigation.

What also bothers me are those damned pears. You see, even though two people had seen Kathryn reaching into her bag, evidently about to eat the fruit, her autopsy showed that no trace of the pears was found in her stomach. It was speculated that she had run into someone she knew in the street--her killer, perhaps?--which interrupted her before she could eat.

But if that was the case, what became of the pears? The Scharn apartment and garbage can had been searched, without finding a trace of them. Those three pears vanished as thoroughly and mysteriously as the man or woman who killed Kathryn Scharn.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Cats on Stamps Worldwide!

Why the hell did we start making cheese?

Who the hell was "Miranda Eve?"  Now we know!

Who the hell murdered the women of Niceville?

Watch out for those orange ghosts!

Watch out for those yellow cat-witches!

Watch out for those killer carpets!

Watch out for the Monster of Ryde!

The health benefits of train collisions.

The formal charges made against Marie Antoinette.

The family correspondence of an early 19th century family.

Secrets of an Indian river.

Australian "tombstone fairies."

Stalin's weird death.

An ancient Chinese child's mysterious tomb.

A Turk is shipwrecked in Dutch Pennsylvania.  It did not go well for him.

The dead man in Clerkenwell.

Cadiz after Trafalgar.

Scientists discover that dogs have facial expressions.   Well, knock me down with a stick, guys.

The goddess in the car.

A learned Victorian dog.

Eliza Ross, female "burker."

The Welsh "skeleton tree."

19th century London street sellers.

The man who fell 15,000 feet, and lived to tell about it.

In which I learn they used to hold Dark Shadows beauty contents.

In which John Quincy Adams plays the Kevin Bacon role in "Footloose."  Or something.

The greatest cat newsletter of the 1980s.

Some myths about the Wars of the Roses.

Mysteries of Lizzie.

Japan's Bunny Island.

Ireland's Jealous Wall.

The worst music festival.

One house you probably don't want to buy.

The ghosts of Paris.

More files on the JFK assassination are about to be released.

The problems with taking ants to court.

This would actually explain much about Florida.  And Congress.

The man who invented camping.

Mary Jones, victim of judicial overkill.

Ludwig II, world's greatest opera buff.

David Garrick's Shakespeare Jubilee.

A list of Halloween murders.

A list of Halloween unsolved mysteries.

Singing mermaids.

Penguin eggs and the worst journey in the world.

Was Mata Hari really a spy?

Does the Great Sphinx have a twin?

How Charlie Chaplin's wife rescued his fortune.

Mapping our unknown world.

J.S. Bach, dorm parent.

Infancy in the Georgian era.

Conan Doyle talks spiritualism.

A haunted castle in Sherwood Forest.

Why it's unlucky to open an umbrella inside your house.

A "deliberate, damnable murder."

And, finally, let's end on a cheery note:  A cat sanctuary is saved.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at an unsolved murder in early 20th century New York.  In the meantime, here's a bit of Haydn:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Book Clipping of the Day

This nifty little ghost story was recorded by Jonathan Ceredig Davies in his "Folk-lore of West and Mid-Wales," 1911:
There was a farmhouse in a certain part of West Wales, in which a large and respectable family lived. But there was one room in the house haunted by a troublesome spirit which often cried out in a mournful voice, “Hir yw’r dydd, a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn” (long is the day, and long is the night, and long is waiting for Arawn). Things went on in this manner for a long time, and not one hardly ventured to open the door of that room. But one cold winter evening when every member of the family sat around the fire, before supper, somebody called at the door of the house, and a stranger was welcomed in to warm himself by the fire. The stranger asked for some food and a bed for the night. He was told he was welcomed of food, but that they were sorry they could not offer him a bed, as all the beds were hardly enough for themselves, and that the only spare bed-room in the house was haunted. Then the stranger begged to be allowed to sleep in that room, as he felt sure that there was nothing to do him harm there. The man appeared very tired, and spoke but little except in reply to questions, and when it was found out that his name was “Arawn,” all the family looked into each’s face in great surprise. The stranger presently went to bed in the haunted room, and strange to say everything was quiet in that room that night, that is, no spirit was heard as usual crying and moving things about. When the family got up next morning, the first thing was to find out what kind of night the stranger passed in the haunted room, but to the surprise of all the man was gone, and the ghost was also gone, for the room was never haunted afterwards.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Year of the Witch

"The Witch," published by George Walker & Co., 1892

The fame that has grown around the "Mary Celeste" mystery tends to obscure the fact that there have been other cases where a ship's crew inexplicably disappeared. Similarly, the notoriety of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 makes it easy to overlook the numerous "witch crazes" that blighted American colonial history. Hartford, Connecticut does not have the sinister reputation of Salem, but in 1662 and 1663, that town went through an episode--enshrined in history as "The Year of the Witch"--that easily rivals its more well-known counterpart.

The grim saga found its origin in a tragic, but hardly uncommon event--the death of a little girl, eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly. The child had been suffering from a strange illness. The doctors were unable to diagnose her ailment, but her father, John Kelly, had no doubt what had killed his child. He was convinced that a neighbor, Judith Ayres, had put a spell on Elizabeth.

Goodwife Ayres had long been rumored to be a witch, and, it must be said, this reputation was largely of her own doing. If you go around telling your neighbors anecdotes about how you used to go out on dates with Satan, people will talk. On a more prosaic note, both Judith and her husband William were evidently quarrelsome, difficult people who were constantly rubbing everyone the wrong way. Plus, William had what modern-day police would call "form." He had been arrested several times for theft and other misdemeanors.

Among those who had reason to dislike Judith Ayres was John Kelly. He claimed that one day, Judith happened to come across his daughter walking home from church. She followed Elizabeth into the Kelly kitchen, where she took some broth out of a pot boiling on the stove, and insisted the child eat it. No sooner had Elizabeth obeyed this odd command that she collapsed with agonizing stomach pains and became feverish. That night, Elizabeth awakened the household with screams of "Help me! Help me! Goody Ayres chokes me!" For the next five days, the girl suffered terribly. She moaned that Goody Ayres was choking her, pinching her, pricking her with pins, sitting on her stomach so that she feared her bowels would break. She begged her parents to have Ayres arrested. "Oh, father," Elizabeth cried, "set on the great furnace and scald her! Get the broad axe and cut off her head. If you cannot give me a broad axe, get the narrow axe, and chop off her head!" Instead, for whatever reason, the Kellys hired Judith to nurse the child. Perhaps they hoped that being confronted with the girl's torments would cause the "witch" to feel some pity and release Elizabeth from the "curse."

Later that same day, after Judith had left, Elizabeth told her father that Ayres had said to her, "Betty, why do you speak so much against me? I will be even with you before I die, but if you will say no more of me, I will give you a fine lace for your dressing."

If Judith thought this might placate the girl, she was very much mistaken. The very next day, Elizabeth died. Her last words were "Goody Ayres chokes me!"

After all this, it is not surprising that John Kelly insisted that Judith Ayres had murdered his child. An Inquest Committee was soon formed to investigate Elizabeth's peculiar death. These men examined the little body. They noted that her arms were covered in bruises, which they took as confirmation that the "witch" had indeed attacked the child. Judith was brought in, as the committee wished to see if her presence had any effect on the corpse.

It did indeed. When Judith entered the room, "we saw upon the right cheek of the child's face, a reddish tawny great spot, which covered a great part of the cheek, it being on the side next to Goodwife Ayres where she stood, this spot or blotch was not seen before the child was turned." When a physician conducted an autopsy on Elizabeth, he ruled she had died of "preternatural causes." All this was considered to be more than enough proof of Judith's guilt, and she was promptly arrested for witchcraft. Just for good measure, her husband William was arraigned, as well.

Judith and William were subjected to that indispensable part of any good witch trial: the "water test." The couple were bound hand to foot and tossed into a pond. If they floated, that was proof positive they were witches. If they sank, well, at least Judith and William would have the satisfaction of knowing that they would die vindicated.

To no one's real surprise, the pair floated like a pair of corks. A ghastly death at the gallows awaited them.

Luckily for the Ayerses, there were a few people in town who had not come down with the prevailing hysteria. These supporters managed to arrange a jailbreak, and the couple fled to Rhode Island, leaving behind their two sons, ages five and eight. One wonders what sort of lives those boys went on to have.

Unfortunately, the departure of Judith and William did not signal the end of the Hartford witch panic. In truth, it was just getting started. Next to be victimized was another couple, Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith. Like the Ayerses, the Greensmiths were unpopular local figures. Rebecca was described as "lewd, ignorant, and considerably aged in years," Nathaniel was a liar and a thief, and they both enjoyed squabbling with their neighbors.

Elizabeth Kelly's "preternatural" death had inspired several other Hartford girls to declare that they, too, were being bewitched. The girls would gather at the meeting house, where fascinated townsfolk would watch them throw fits, make strange cries, and display all the usual signs of demonic torment. It was like a Girl Scout gathering from Hell. One of these girls, Ann Cole, declared that there was a whole coven of witches in Hartford, and one of the worst of the lot was Rebecca Greensmith. She claimed the witches were out to ruin her reputation, so that no man would ever want to marry her. (Why her love life would be of any interest to the coven was never explained.) A man named Robert Stern then added his two cents, stating that he had seen Rebecca and her fellow witches dancing around two large, sinister dark figures while cooking something evil-looking in a kettle. Rebecca was immediately tossed into jail to await her fate.

Ann Cole was the clear star of this Satanic show. Leading clergymen from all over the region came by to interview her--or, rather, to interview the group of devils that spoke "through" her. The chatty demons delighted in forcing Ann to speak unintelligibly, or with a heavy Dutch accent. Naturally, the demons also confirmed that Goodwife Greensmith was a witch.

When Rebecca was confronted with this testimony from the Dark Side, she readily, even eagerly, confessed to being in league with Satan. She was quoted as boasting that "the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted, and that by degrees he became very familiar, and at last would talk with her, moreover she said that the devil frequently had carnal knowledge of her body and that the witches had meetings at a place not far from her house and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another, and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a crow."

Not content with tales of demonic sex and crow witches, Rebecca readily ratted out a number of local names as being part of her coven. Chief amongst the people she accused was her husband, Nathaniel. Rebecca noted that Nathaniel, despite being a small man, had great physical strength--too great to be anything other than supernatural. "When my husband hath told me of his great travail and labor, I wondered at it how he did it; this he did before I was married, and when I was married I asked him how he did it, and he answered me, he had help that I knew not of."

Not convinced yet? Hold on, there's more. Rebecca went on to say, "About three years ago, as I think it, my husband and I were in the woods several miles from home, and were looking for a sow that we lost, and I saw a creature, a red creature, following my husband, and when I came to him I asked him what it was that was with him, and he told me it was a fox...Another time when he and I drove our hogs into the woods beyond the pond that was to keep young cattle, several miles off, I went before the hogs to call them, and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs, one a little blacker than the other; they came after my husband pretty close to him, and one did seem to me to touch him." When Rebecca asked Nathaniel what the creatures were, he again deadpanned, "foxes." She added the suggestive words, "I was still afraid when I saw anything, because I heard so much of him before I married him." She explained her readiness to condemn Nathaniel: "I speak all of this out of love to my husband's soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitated to speak against my husband, I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth."

I'm sure that was a great consolation to him.

Rebecca gave a full description of a typical night out with the girls witches: "I also testify, that I being in the woods at a meeting, there was with me Goody Seager, Goodwife Sanford and Goodwife Ayres. And at another time there was a meeting under a tree in the green by our house, and there was James Walkley, Peter Grant's wife, Goodwife Ayers, and Henry Palmer's wife, of Wethersfield, and Goody Seager; and there we danced and had a bottle of sack...It was in the night and something like a cat called me out to the meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlet's orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet, and she told me that she was much troubled with the marshal, Jonathan Gilbert, and cried; and she said if it lay in her power she would do him a mischief, or what hurt she could."

Rebecca and Nathaniel spent the last month of their lives lodged in the jailer's home while they waited execution. There is no record of how the couple spent their last few weeks together, but I can imagine Mr. Greensmith had much to say to his wife. The couple, along with another condemned witch, Mary Barnes, were hanged on January 25, 1663. On an unknown date somewhere around this time, another "witch," Mary Sanford, also met the hangman. Increase Mather wrote triumphantly that "After the suspected witches were executed...Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years."

Ann's subsequent history furnishes an interesting sequel to this story. After the Greensmiths were hanged, their farm was seized by the court. The home was sold to an Andrew Benton, who moved in with his wife and children. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Benton died. The young widower soon remarried...to none other than Ann Cole. She spent many years raising a large family of children and stepchildren under the roof built by the couple she had sent to the gallows.

I'd like to think it gave her an unpleasant dream or two, but I somehow doubt it.

[Note: In October 1993, the "Journal of the American Medical Society" published an article about the Hartford witch trials, focusing on the seminal event of the case, the death of Elizabeth Kelly. The autopsy of Kelly was described as "a bunch of screwups." All the "preternatural" features of Kelly's corpse were easily explained by the normal process of decomposition. Her death, it is now believed, was caused by a combination of pneumonia and sepsis. The latter ailment likely caused delirium, leading the girl to feverishly accuse Judith Ayres of tormenting her.]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This Friday the 13th Link Dump is sponsored by the Lucky Black Cats!

Who the hell invented the zero?

Who the hell were the "Sea People?"

More on the Antikythera shipwreck.

Some bad news about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It was October 1987 in Great Britain.  Then things got weird.

Lady Sattjeni of Elephantine.

The story of the end of the Bronze Age.

Some strange amnesia cases.  (Warning: goddamned slideshow.)

Halloween superstitions, as seen in 1916.

William, Duke of Clarence talks marriage.  Without much enthusiasm.

John Quincy Adams had a thing for weighing and measuring stuff.

The Iranian City of Polish Children.

Seeing red.  Literally.

The Gimcrack Whim Collector.

When hatpins were a girl's best friend.

19th century cholera remedies.

19th century advice for British ladies going to India.

The tragic case of the first movie star.

The mystery of an ancient Swedish massacre.

Ancient Egyptians, those Crazy Cat People.

The bullied pigeon who managed to escape in a taxi.

The Case of the Castrated Mummy.

Mary Steward escapes from jail, 1799.

The Lion Man of the Ice Age.

Rules for British ghosts.

How one person achieved a posthumous movie career.

Corpses as murder detectives.

Australia's Moon Rock site.

Because I think we're all interested in not being buried alive.

The ghost mansions of Cairo.

An accidental hysterectomy.

The spinster's numeration table.

Oh, just some multicolored ghost cats.

This week in Russian Weird visits the world of Soviet sanatoriums.

Aaaaand...we're done for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be visiting the world of early American witchcraft.  In the meantime, here's a clip of one of my favorite songs, which I recently found on YouTube.  I've posted another cover of "Last Thing on My Mind" before, but this is without doubt the greatest version I've ever heard.  Joe Frazier simply owns this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

On March 5, 1925, the "Springfield Leader" carried a story discussing what has to be one of the most useful ghosts on record:
Rice Lake, Wis.--Psychic experts from all parts of the country are reported scurrying here to pass official once-over on the antics of the only bread-baking, floor-scrubbing ghost on record.

The celestial cutup at Rice Lake is one of the most ambitious shades that ever shoved off from the other side in search of respite from heavenly duties and intermixed innocent merriment.

For some time now, the spectre dressed in latest phosphorescent garb has been coming at the stroke of 12 by the village clock to the four-room house of John Kubis and there cleaning up the odds and ends of undone work.

Bread baking seems this ghost's specialty. And you can take the word of Kubis for it, the spook slings an awfully wicked mop.

Mrs. Kubis might have enjoyed the nocturnal helpmate if the visits hadn't gotten on her nerves.

It was quite the thing, she says, to get up on a cold morning and find your floors all scrubbed spick and span by hands from another world.

And the way that ghost could bake biscuits was nothing short of a poem--so nice and brown and just the right texture. They simply melted in your mouth.

But the Kubis family, consisting of the husband, wife, and two daughters, have quit their haunted bungalow with its free, gratis, for nothing spectral retainer.

The ghost started getting clubby. Not satisfied with a mountain of dishes purposefully left over from the day before, it commenced to roam the house, rap on floors and then came up stairs and got in bed with the Kubis daughters, Helen, 13, and Armilla, 11.

The youngsters, when the apparition "disappeared," said they had wanted to scream, but could not.

And Mrs. Kubis on the next night when she went to replenish the fire in the kitchen stove, says she distinctly heard footsteps following close on her heels.

Turning, she saw the portly form of a woman and even distinguished the color of her hair, eyes and the pattern of her dress.

She described the ghost to neighbors, who in turn said it was a dead image of Mrs. Axel Pickman, who had formerly lived in the Kubis home before her death last summer.

The Kubis family are new to this region, having come from Everett, Wash. None of them ever saw the former Mrs. Pickman. But when they were shown photographs of her they became convinced that a real ghost walked their halls and so they quit the place.

Mrs. Kubis hastens to say that they didn't leave because they were afraid, but because the house was cold.

It stands idle today, a little wind-swept affair with boards creaking under the gusts, and is avoided by even the most stolid.

Those who knew the former Mrs. Pickman now recall that she promised to "come back" after her death.

"Maybe spirits do return if they want to make some want known," says Mrs. Kubis. "Maybe Mrs. Pickman was worried about something that she wanted to have straightened out. I am sorry I forgot to speak to her when she was mopping up the kitchen."

Mrs. Kubis, however, wanted to do one kind thing at least for the ghost. When she moved away she left the clock going "so that Mrs. Pickman could see what time it was."

When Mrs. Kubis came to get her clock she found it still fully wound and the hands pointing exactly to 12. The kitchen was freshly scrubbed and there were tear stains on the table. No flour had been left behind. The ghost hadn't been able to do any baking.

All Rice Lake will swear to this. The psychic experts have a job on their hands.
I don't think I'm alone in saying that if Mrs. Pickman is still providing free housekeeping services, she is welcome to come clean my kitchen and bake biscuits any old day.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Folly of John Banvard

History loves its rags-to-riches tales. The rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags stories tend to get buried as general embarrassments. One of America's most striking examples of this is John Banvard, who went from the richest artist in the world to a largely-forgotten historical footnote.

Banvard was born in New York City in 1815. His father Daniel was a successful builder. The family was prosperous until 1831, when Daniel Banvard suddenly died. This tragedy was compounded when his business partner took advantage of the situation by fleeing with all the company's assets, leaving the Banvards poverty-stricken nearly overnight.

Young John, like many energetic but needy young men, left home in search of better opportunities. He found one in 1833, when the owner of a Louisville showboat gave him a job. He showed an aptitude for painting and sketching large canvases, which gave him the ambition of going into the showboat business for himself. The following year--through what was apparently a flat-out swindle--he and a few friends acquired enough capital to launch their own floating theater company. They would sail up and down the Mississippi in a converted flatboat, displaying Banvard's large landscape paintings and staging primitive performances of the popular plays of the time. It wasn't exactly the pinnacle of show business greatness, but it kept the boys alive until a stage manager decided he liked young Banvard's work enough to hire him as a scene painter. It was at this time that he began to get involved in the hottest entertainment trend of the day, the "Panorama."

"Panoramas" probably could best be described as a "Flintstones" version of motion pictures. They consisted of one very long loop of canvas with painted-on scenery, that was slowly wound from one spool to another around the audience, giving the impression of continuous movement. As in the later silent film era, the impression was enhanced by live musical accompaniment and clever lighting. Primitive though it may sound to us, audiences of that day had never seen anything like it, and the shows were wildly popular.

Banvard, who already had experience creating giant canvases, naturally gravitated to this new phenomenon. His first effort was a 100' long canvas he called "Infernal Regions." He sold it in 1841 for what was, to him at that time, a large amount of money. Banvard saw no reason why he could not become king of the panoramas. He decided he was going to present the biggest, most awe-inspiring canvas the world had yet seen.

He was going to paint the portrait of the entire Mississippi river.

In the spring of 1842, he set off in a skiff to capture on canvas some 1200 miles of river, from St. Louis to New Orleans. It took him two years of dealing with blistering heat and yellow fever in the summer, rain and cold in the winter. While he worked, he made a threadbare living by selling and trading whatever small items he could find. It was an arduous adventure, but he did it, and when he was finished, he knew that what he had was very, very good. It may not quite have been, as the advertisements boasted, three miles long, but it came damn close. It was the largest painting in the world.

1848 sketch of a panorama designed by Banvard

His next necessity was to create an entirely new system of spools and levers capable of handling this unprecedentedly huge canvas. He succeeded so well that he patented the device. Finally, in 1844, he was able to present his leviathan of a panorama in Louisville. He accompanied the exhibit with his own narration, giving highly-colored but immensely entertaining anecdotes about his travels down the river. He was not only a born panorama painter, but a natural showman. Within a few days, it was a huge success.

In December 1846, he brought his "Three-Mile Painting" to Boston, which was at that time America's biggest entertainment market. By this time, his now-practiced narration was enhanced by a classical concert pianist. It was considered an enthralling blend of visual, spoken, and musical art.

Banvard became the toast of Boston. It is estimated that some 250,000 people paid the fifty-cent admission to view this unprecedented spectacle, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was inspired to write his epic poem "Evangeline." In less than a year, he made a profit of some $100,000. The former river rat was now the highest-paid artist in the country. He even gained a wife out of this show--Elizabeth Goodman, his pianist.

In 1847, he brought his show to New York, where the crowds were just as adulatory and even bigger than the Bostonians. It was hailed as "a monument of native talent and American genius." Money was coming in faster than he or anyone else could count it. He was basking in critical acclaim, as well. The intelligentsia saw his panorama not as meaningless entertainment for the masses, but as a landmark in America's educational and artistic development.

Banvard's "Journey to the Ohio River"

The following year, Banvard took his canvas to England, where it drew an estimated half-million visitors. He was canny enough to capitalize on his fame by producing a quickie autobiography, "Banvard, the Adventures of an Artist," which was also a huge success. He was even summoned to Windsor Castle to give a private performance for the queen. He always looked back on that as the greatest moment of his life.

Naturally, such immense critical and financial success brought him a host of imitators. By 1850, London had over fifty competing "panorama" shows. Banvard realized that it was time for him to present something new. What he came up with was, in effect, a sequel. His original panorama showed the eastern bank of the Mississippi. His new work showed the western bank. While his first panorama was still on display in London, Banvard brought out his new scene, which attracted some 100,000 customers. He then took it to Paris, where it drew huge crowds for the next two years.

His career next took a somewhat surprising turn. While in London, he became enthralled by the Egyptian artifacts he saw in the Royal Museum. He even learned how to read hieroglyphics--a skill even rarer in those times than it is today. He acquired so much knowledge about Egyptology that when he returned to America, he did a successful lecture tour on the subject.

He used his new skills to make a tour of the Middle East. He created two groundbreaking panoramas showing Palestine and the Nile river. These new paintings did decent business, but nothing like his original show. The public, predictable in its fickleness, was already getting bored with panoramas and glutted by the many imitators who had followed in Banvard's wake.

Banvard realized that it was time for him to retire. In 1852, he built a massive, lavish estate on Long Island. He patterned it after Windsor Castle, which was fitting for the Panorama King. He named it "Glenada," in honor of his daughter Ada. However, his neighbors, who found the mansion ridiculously showy, snidely nicknamed it "Banvard's Folly."

Banvard's sketch of Glenada

It mattered little to Banvard what the neighbors thought. He was one of the richest men in America, the most financially successful painter in history. He had a loving family, some incredible memories, and all the money anyone could ever want. He even wrote a play, "Amasis, or the Last of the Pharoahs," for which he also painted the sets. It was probably just as ridiculous as its title, but it proved to be a respectable critical and financial success.

If the artist had only been content to spend his life in luxurious rustication, we'd have here the perfect American fairy-tale. Unfortunately, Banvard blew it all through a combination of boredom, hubris, and a lack of awareness about his limitations.

The 1850s saw the rise of another showman who is far better remembered today: P.T. Barnum. As this rival huckster and his "American Museum" began to steal Banvard's limelight, the former Panorama King grew jealous of all the attention Barnum was getting. Besides, Banvard had led an active life ever since adolescence, and his quiet home life, no matter how comfortable, was beginning to grate on his nerves. He plotted a comeback. He decided that he would set himself up as a direct rival to Barnum. Banvard would use his knowledge of Egyptology to open his own museum, showcasing the collection of artifacts he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.

It would not have been a bad idea, except that Banvard completely overlooked one crucial detail: He had no idea how to run anything approximating a business, and worse, seemed unaware of the necessity of surrounding himself with people who did. He and an old friend, William Lillienthal--who was as ignorant of managing such an enterprise as Banvard--began by offering stock options in the new Banvard Museum. Many of New York's elite bought this stock without bothering to check its legitimacy. Banvard's name still held a lot of glamor, and these financiers simply trusted his acumen. Banvard also paid for the building of the museum by giving workers and suppliers shares of this stock, instead of money.

There was just one problem. Banvard and Lillienthal had no idea that they were required to register his business with the state of New York. This meant that, in reality, these stock certificates were literally not worth the paper they were printed on.

The museum opened in Manhattan on June 1867. It was the brick-and-mortar equivalent of a panorama: A vast 40,000 square-foot building hosting lecture rooms, Banvard's collection of antiquities, and, taking pride of place in the center of the museum, his original Mississippi panorama. Banvard advertised the museum as the cultured, educational alternative to Barnum's gleefully tacky emporium.

Barnum, figuratively speaking at least, spat in his eye. This new rival may have had the culture, but Barnum had the PR genius. His spies made careful notes about all that was attractive about Banvard's Museum, and then Barnum put on his own cheap, cheesy, but brilliantly-advertised knock-offs of them. Banvard may have been a good showman, but Barnum was an epically great one. As always in show business, self-promotion is the only talent you really need.

Within weeks of his museum's grand opening, Banvard found himself in serious hot water. Barnum was outdrawing him. His creditors were beginning to scream for their payments. Worst of all, his shareholders were finally discovering that their stock certificates were good for nothing more than lighting cigarettes. In desperation, he reinvented the museum, now called "Banvard's Grand Opera House and Museum." In addition to the exhibits, it offered plays and dancing exhibitions. Sadly, this reboot was an even bigger flop.

Banvard now really had built his Folly. Thanks to a combination of the museum failure, the enormous expenses involved in running Glenada, and the financial panic of 1873, most of his fortune was gone. His name was now anathema in New York. He sold the museum building. The capable new owners renamed it "Daly's Theatre," and it became a great success.

Banvard retreated to Glenada rather in the manner of Napoleon retreating from Moscow. He tried to get other projects off the ground, but after the museum disaster, no investor in his right mind wanted anything to do with him.

His downward spiral continued when he tried turning author. In 1875, he published a book about England's George IV. It was soon revealed that his work plagiarized a book from the 1830s. He followed this up with a play called "Corrina, a Tale of Sicily." This proved to be a rip-off of someone else's work, as well. After this twin fiasco, Banvard was not just broke, he was a public laughingstock.

In 1883, he was forced to sell Glenada. The contents all went to paying off creditors. About the only possession Banvard had left was his Mississippi panorama--and that was simply because no one wanted it. At this point, the canvas must have been a bitterly painful reminder of long-lost glories. Banvard and his wife, having nowhere else to go, moved in with their son Eugene in Watertown, a village in what is now South Dakota. What finally became of his once-celebrated panorama is unknown. I wouldn't have blamed Banvard if he had burned it.

In 1886, Banvard made one last effort to recapture the past. He created a panorama depicting Sherman's 1865 destruction of the city of Columbia, South Carolina, complete with special effects of his own design. It apparently was a splendid show, and would have been a great success--forty years earlier. By the time he unveiled "The Burning of Columbia," panoramas were considered passe, and, in any case, the Dakota Territories were inauspicious places to launch a Hollywood-style extravaganza. Banvard spent most of his remaining years writing curious but sadly wretched poetry, dealing with everything from local Watertown events to such esoteric topics as Egyptology and Freemasonry:
And now pious men have the field in their care,
And good pilgrims from far go thither for prayer.
That perfume still ascends, and will ever ascend,
Ascend o'er the world with its aroma sweet
Where two Masons commune, there pervades that perfume,
And the sweetest of strains their fellowship greet;
Wherever two brothers in fellowship stand,
That field has an emblem in every land.

Banvard also authored a treatise on shorthand. He died in 1891, largely forgotten by the world.

Among Banvard's few remaining possessions was an aged little piece of paper. It was a bill for $15.51, the cost of his father's burial back in 1831. The Banvards had been too poor to ever pay it. For sixty years, through all his adventures and his incredible ups and downs, Daniel Banvard's son had kept this reminder of personal loss and humiliating poverty. Why did he so carefully preserve this paper? No one knows. It serves as this strange man's own "Rosebud."

As it happened, this old unpaid bill served as a mirror of John Banvard's own end. His surviving relatives did not have the money for a proper funeral, so he was buried in a pauper's grave.

Sic transit gloria mundi.