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

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

An article from the "Baltimore Sun," April 29, 1950, told of a rocking chair with a mind of its own:
Muscatine, Iowa, April 29. The Floyd Holladays don't know what makes their old rocking chair rock, but they wish it would stop.

More than 200 persons have seen the empty platform rocker rocking. Some say the chair is haunted. Holladay says he doesn't believe believe in the supernatural. But he can't explain why the chair has rocked almost steadily for 37 days. Holladay's wife says the rocker scares her.

The Holladays bought the chair in 1942. It was just a chair until the family moved into a house they rented from their relatives, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Brossart. Brossart died March 17. Six days later the chair started rocking.

Visitors suggested the rocking was caused by vibrations from a refrigerator motor or hot air from a register. But Holladay says they moved the chair into every room in the house. They have even examined its insides. The chair rocks anyway. Holladay says the ghost "will have to put up with me sitting on its lap when I feel like using the chair."

A follow-up story appeared in the "Baytown Sun" on May 2:
The Floyd Holladays said today they are going to sell their rocking chair that rocks by itself, "if the price is right."

It's not that the chair is getting on their nerves, they said, only that the mysterious rocking is attracting too many visitors to their home.

Hundreds of curious from all parts of Eastern Iowa flocked to the six-room frame home of Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Holladay to see for themselves whether the rocker really rocks.

The throngs went away convinced, and so were hard-bitten newsmen who poked at the chair and moved it around, but failed to stop its rocking.

The Holladays said the chair was just an ordinary, red-upholstered rocker for eight years. It rocked when someone sat down and moved it back and forth. But for a little more than a month now, they said, the chair has been rocking of its own accord, particularly when someone was talking about it. No matter where the Holladays moved the chair in their house, they said, it kept up its rocking.

Roy Luce, news director of Radio Station .KWPC in Muscatine, said he gave the chair a close eye and found that "it rocks most of the time." Luce and other newsmen moved the chair outside the house, and it continued to rock. Luce said it "tried" to rock when he sat down in it, and others who tested it said the same thing.
Later in May, the rocking chair made a special appearance on the TV show "We the People." It...well, it rocked. A "where are they now" story on the rocker appeared in the "Des Moines Register" on November 25, 1954:
Remember the mysterious rocking chair of Muscatine which made a spectacular television appearance appearance four years ago in New York? The chair !s still rocking, just as mysteriously, but not quite as persistently.

On May 12, 1950, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Holladay of Muscatine presented their rocking chair on the National Broadcasting Broadcasting Company's "We the People." The vast TV audience throughout the country saw just what an almost continuous stream of.people at the Holladay residence in Muscatine had been seeing: the rocking chair, rocking violently. Without a push to start it, the red upholstered platform rocker rocked back and forth, slowly at first, then energetically. It would slow down, then speed up, while continuing to rock hour after hour in its special exhibition space at the NBC studio.

No one ever gave a satisfactory explanation of why the chair rocked, although several seers and magicians inspected it. After its TV debut the chair was crated up and taken to the airport for shipment back to Muscatine. Mr. and Mrs. Holladay left on an early plane and the chair followed. When it arrived,and was uncrated, the Holladays discovered that vandals had ripped the upholstering and torn up the inside web and bracing of the back.

"I tried to straighten the inside material out and I tacked the upholstering back again," Mrs. Holladay said. "The chair would still rock, but just for short periods. It would not start up by itself, or gain speed in rocking as it formerly did.

"It still rocks, perhaps for periods of five to 10 minute duration. But it hasn't been the same since it was torn up."

The chair, which originally cost about $70 at a Muscatine furniture store, had been insured for $1,000 by sponsors of the TV show. The insurance covered its air shipment. An investigation disclosed the damage had been done by unidentified persons at the air freight depot at New York.

The insurance company offered to pay the full amount of the $1,000 policy and keep the chair, or settle for $700, with the chair remaining in the Holladay's possession.

"We decided to keep the chair, and we settled for the $700," Holladay said.

At present the chair is just another piece of furniture in an upstairs bedroom at the Holladay residence. The bedroom is used only occasionally and most of the furnishing there, like the chair, is in the room principally for storage.

It was in March of 1950, about six weeks before the TV presentation, that the chair began its uncanny rocking. Mrs. Holladay said the chair began rocking five days after her brother-in-law, Floyd Brossart, died Mar. 17. It was his favorite chair when he visited the Holladay residence, she said. Day after day, the chair rocked. It might slow down, but soon it would start up.

News of it spread throughout the neighborhood and across town. Dozens of visitors began to arrive. The story flashed across the nation and long lines of the curious appeared at the Holladay residence. Mrs. Holladay, a pleasant woman with an exceptional amount of patience, admitted all comers and answered all questions. She declined to charge admission as some suggested but neighbors finally insisted that provisions be made for a collection. They placed a glass jar at the door, with a card suggesting donations. About $60 in coins were collected, just enough to cover dry cleaning costs for rugs and furniture and minor damage inflicted by the steady procession of visitors.

Among those who inspected the rocker was a Muscatine High School science teacher. He advanced a theory which dealt with vibrations from traffic and the characteristics of the house's foundation. At the New York demonstration, Joseph Dunninger, "mentalist" and chairman of the Universal Council for Psychic Research, inspected the chair. "This chair rocks. So what? It's a rare physical phenomenon, not a psychic one. Perfect balance, that's why."

Mrs. Holladay did not accept this theory. She recalled the chair had been knocked about a bit, used in different places, and at one time repaired by some home carpentry which was pretty amateurish and unbalancing. "I don't think delicate balance, traffic vibrations, or anything like that could account for the rocking," Mrs. Holladay said.

Another observer at the New York demonstration, Henry Roberts, editor of the Prophecies of Nostradamus, said he, too, disagreed with the explanations based on physical nature. "The basis is purely psychic," he said. "That chair, I feel, has a psychometric quality of the person who sat in it, a fourth dimensional objectivity."

Mrs. Holladay has no psychic theory of her own. But she recalled that it was five days after her brother-in-law's death that the chair began began to rock. Correspondence about the chair poured into the Holladay's mailbox. The letters saved would fill a bushel basket. Some wanted to buy the chair; others were just curious. Mail still comes in and sometimes there is a caller who wants to see the chair. But for all practical purposes the old platform rocker now is just another piece of furniture in an upstairs bedroom.

What finally became of the once-celebrated rocker is unknown. Many years later, one of the Holladay children recollected that the family eventually gave the chair to a relative, and it subsequently disappeared from history.

So for all I know the damn thing is still rocking somewhere.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Case of the Elusive Editor

Although he is now long-forgotten, Samuel Stillman Conant was one of 19th century New York’s leading literary figures. His father was a professor of languages; his mother a successful magazine editor and author. Young Samuel was given an extensive education worthy of two such erudite parents. He became a successful magazinist, achieving his best-known position as editor of “Harper’s Weekly.”

By the start of 1885, the fifty-three year old Conant was enjoying the happy fruits of a long and distinguished career. He had been editor of “Harper’s” for sixteen years, and, for all anyone knew, would be at the popular journal’s helm for sixteen more. He was happily married, proud of his young son, and comfortably well-to-do. He had no known enemies, or serious troubles of any kind.

On January 15, Conant spent a pleasantly uneventful evening at the Authors’ Club. The next day--a Friday--he went to work as usual, and towards evening, left his offices cheerfully telling his colleagues he would see them all on Monday. He and his son were about to go to Albany to spend the weekend with a fellow editor.

He never made it to his Brooklyn home. His wife and son, knowing he had always been punctilious about appointments and keeping them apprised of his activities, became understandably frantic, and immediately suspected foul play. However, they were unable to find any sign of what had happened to him.

Conant’s whereabouts remained a mystery until the following Wednesday, when a man matching the missing editor’s description pawned a watch in a shop in Coney Island. Conant’s son later identified the watch. The receipt for the transaction was signed “T. P. Stevens.” “T. P.” happened to be the initials of Samuel's son Thomas Peters, and “Stevens,” the maiden name of his wife Helen.

Investigation revealed that the man who pawned this watch spent the night on the beach at Coney Island. He then struck up an acquaintance with a storekeeper, who invited the stranger to stay for dinner. The guest gave his name as Conant, the editor of “Harper’s Weekly.” He then went on his way, saying he was going to catch the seven o’clock train for Brooklyn.

A week after Conant—or this man claiming to be Conant—appeared in Coney Island, a friend saw the editor leaving a Fulton Street hotel. When the man tried to detain him, Conant evaded his grasp, snapping, “Don’t you see, I’m going down the street!”

A man matching the description of the wandering editor was traced to a hotel in Long Island, but he checked out only an hour before the arrival of the detectives who had been put on his trail.

And he has never been seen or heard from since. Some contemporary news stories gave the unverified claim that Conant had bought a train ticket to Florida, but that ticket was never used.

Conant’s desolate wife remained in their home, hoping against hope that one day he would return. Thomas Conant spent the rest of his life following leads all over the globe to find his father, but these clues were all fruitless. When he died twelve years after his father’s disappearance, Helen Conant was left completely unknown to suffer all the agonizing pains of uncertainty felt by anyone who has experienced the unexplained absence of a loved one. She died in 1899.

It is hard to know what to make of all this. It seems most likely that Conant disappeared voluntarily, but if so, why? It is certainly true that he might have had troubles or dissatisfactions unknown to us, or even to his intimates, but it is still difficult to picture a man with a successful, congenial career and a loving family giving it all up for an uncertain future on his own. And if he did choose to abandon his life, why did he volunteer his name to that Coney Island shopkeeper, and continue to hang around New York, where he was almost certain to eventually be recognized? Also, he had no significant amount of money on him when he vanished, and there is no record of him having withdrawn anything from the bank either just before or after his disappearance.

If Agatha Christie wrote this story, the solution to the mystery would probably be that the editor was murdered, with a lookalike staging “sightings” to give the impression Conant was still alive. But that sort of thing is unlikely in real life.

Isn’t it?

Friday, February 23, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Exalted Order of Parachuting Cats!

What the hell is the Forrest Fenn treasure?

How the hell did Florida get flamingos?

Watch out for the White Dogs of Death!

Watch out for the Batsquatch!

Watch out for those underground monsters!

Watch out for that haunted ice!

Watch out for that maternal imagination!

Watch out for those portals to Hell!

Watch out for those aliens who need new heads!

Canada is really humming!

That time you could have Wellington knocking at your door.

The man who--however reluctantly--beheaded Charles I.

Is there a pyramid in North Dakota?

Neolithic spider web stones.

A pre-Victorian guide to perfect posture.

Dining with the dead.

The world's loneliest tree.

Madame Tussaud and the beheaded politicians.

A brief history of gin.  Including the time it was dispensed by a cat!

Ireland's Fabulous Folbanes.

A merchant ship uses boiling oil to fight off pirates.  If you think this is a story from the 17th century, read on.

China is taking the "fun" out of "funeral."

NASA reveals a gravesite on Mars.

The life of an 18th century actress.

This week's "Neanderthals weren't all that Neanderthal" link.

This week's "pushing back human plant history" link.

The origin of Albion.

A woman disappears on the Appalachian Trail.

The Milk Bottle Murder.

Never a dull moment in 9th century Mercia.

18th century tennis.

18th century attorneys.

The last woman to be legally hanged in Australia.

19th century infanticide trials.

The Devil and tort law.

A remarkable Stone Age bracelet.

Another illusion shattered:  John Quincy Adams did not really own an alligator.

The mysterious death of a Thai king.


The execution of a Georgian brothel keeper.

A Georgian sex manual.

King Arthur in Poland.

The man with a fairy foot.

A piece of music that hid a coded message.

The Countess of psychedelic science.

Mesopotamian medical writings.

The world's oldest boxing gloves.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: Men, this is what not to do with a fork.

Whiny Egyptian ghosts.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an editor's odd disappearance.  In the meantime, here's a truly remarkable concert:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

This is a banner month for Strange Company HQ.  First there was Blackie, the talking and litigious cat, now...

...Puffy, the cat hypnotist.

From the "Cincinnati Enquirer," April 9, 1945:

Puffy, a cat that hypnotizes people, was named honorary President of the American Feline Society, Inc., today today and officially dubbed "King of All Cats."

Citing the cream-colored Persian for devoting his "phenomenal psychic powers" to War Bond sales and entertaining wounded veterans, Robert Lothar Kendell, the society's President, declared: "We truly believe you to be the greatest living feline, with powers never before possessed by a cat or, so far as we can learn, by any living creature other than a human being."

Puffy, credited with putting more than 300 persons into a hypnotic trance with his huge, unblinking eyes, was all puffed up over the honor, reported his owner-assistant, Arthur Newman, "He's autographing pictures with his paw print like crazy," said Newman.

It was one night last fall that Puffy, then a kitten, first demonstrated his powers. "He was sitting on the end of a night club bar," Newman recalls, his voice becoming hushed, "and a couple of girls came up to pet him. I didn't pay much attention until one of the girls nudged me and whispered, "Look at my friend!'

"Well, sir, that girl was simply out on her feet. It wasn't from drinking, either. I'm something of a hypnotist myself and I quickly realized that she was in a real hypnotic trance, brought on by Puffy's staring into her eyes."

Newman, who had bought Puffy in a pet shop for purposes of demonstrating that people should relax like cats, immediately started training him to stare even more fixedly, with such success that Puffy now can stare Newman down any time.

Thousands of servicemen in hospitals and canteens have seen Puffy perform. He stares into a subject's eyes while Newman slowly counts out loud. In less than 10 seconds the subject closes his eyes, goes rigid or relaxed, and has to be awakened by Newman. 
Skeptics to the contrary, Newman insists it's Puffy and not himself that does the hypnotizing. "If that cat could only talk," he says, "I'd quit working and just manage Puffy."

People always feel better--headaches gone, and the like--after being hypnotized by Puffy, Newman says, because they have become relaxed in spite of themselves. Several have taken the pledge after watching Puffy do his act in a bar.

Here is a news item from the "Pottstown Mercury," December 16, 1944, showing Puffy's formidable talents in action:

This may be my blog's finest hour.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Too Many Skeletons: The Ringstead Mystery

Lydia Atley was born into a sad life, which makes her sad death tragically unsurprising. She was born in the small and largely impoverished English village of Ringstead around 1826. Her father, a miller, disappeared from her life early on, whether from death or desertion is not clear. Her mother was a pauper, meaning that from a very young age, Lydia and her sister were forced to scrape together a bare living any way they could. Lydia made simple lace, and did whatever errands and odd-jobs she could find in the village. It all kept her alive, but did little else.

Nature did not give the girl any additional advantages. Contemporary accounts bluntly describe Lydia as exceptionally plain, slow-witted, and easily led. (This last characteristic was believed to explain how she came to have an illegitimate child of unknown paternity, who was placed in the local workhouse.) However, for all her difficulties, she was a good-natured girl who seems to have inspired a certain protective fondness from many of her peers.

Unfortunately for Lydia, she brought out much uglier qualities in the local butcher, William Weekly Ball. Despite the fact that he had a wife, in 1850 he was conducting a open liaison with Atley—so open, that it was no secret that in the summer of that year she was about to give birth to his child. Ball was, for Ringstead, fairly wealthy, and although he could not marry Atley, she expected him to at least provide financial support for the upcoming child. She told her brother-in-law, Joseph Groom, that if Ball did not give her money, “there would be a row.”

It was to arrange this aid that she met with Ball in his orchard on the evening of July 22, 1850—and there was indeed a row, although it was not like anything the poor woman could have anticipated. Groom, who was near the orchard at the time, later testified to overhearing a fierce argument between the two, culminating with Atley crying, “Get off me for I believe you mean killing me tonight, Weekly Ball. The lord have mercy on me, if I am going to die in the state that I am in.” He then heard an odd screaming sound.

Whether Groom was miserably cowardly, incredibly callous, or simply an idiot is unrecorded, but for whatever reason, he ignored what he had heard. Another neighbor also heard the sounds of Atley and Ball fighting, with Lydia insisting that her upcoming child was Ball’s, and she would see to it that he would take responsibility. This witness, like Groom, said nothing about it until much, much later. Clearly, the residents of Ringstead were overly anxious to disprove the stereotype of “nosy villagers.”

This was the last anyone knew of Lydia Atley. Her disappearance was a perplexing mystery, for at this point, Groom and the other neighbor were still keeping what they had heard to themselves. The local police made some attempts to investigate, and hand-bills were circulated asking for information about her, but these efforts proved futile. A local resident then received a letter from her son saying that he had just seen Atley in Northampton, and this was enough to make the authorities shrug and forget the matter.

The citizens of Ringstead were not nearly so easily convinced there was no foul play afoot. We know little about Ball’s reputation before Atley vanished, but local opinion had no difficulty in assuming the very worst about her fate, even though diligent searches failed to uncover her body. There was even a ballad, “The Cruel Butcher of Ringstead,” which became a local sensation:

“About that time we all do know
Up to the Black Horse that man did go
And for to have a glass of ale
And there he told a dreadful tale
A cruel Butcher he hung should be
For killing of Lydia Atlee…”

Admittedly, the lyrics weren’t exactly Cole Porter, but they had their effect. In 1851, Ball wisely packed his bags and moved to the village of Ramsey. Atley’s disappearance was never forgotten in Ringstead, but as the years went on, it naturally faded into the background.

It was not until fourteen years went by that the missing woman was brought back to everyone’s attention. On February 4th, 1864, a local man was cleaning a dike. As he was digging, his spade hit something hard about two feet from the surface. It proved to be a human skeleton. Examination established that it was of a female, who had been buried for some years. The skull had a missing tooth.

The citizens of Ringstead had been convinced from the start that Ball murdered Atley, and they felt they now finally had the means to prove it. They were quickly able to convince magistrates to issue a warrant for Ball’s arrest, and he was put on trial. There was a parade of witnesses with fourteen-year old memories. Groom and the other neighbors who heard the fight between Atley and Ball finally revealed their information. Another brother-in-law of Atley’s stated that, about two weeks before she disappeared, he had extracted one of her teeth—in the same place, he believed, where this skeleton was lacking a tooth. The man who had written the letter claiming he had seen Atley in Northampton now admitted that Ball himself had persuaded him to write it.

The public was convinced that poor ill-used Lydia Atley would finally get some justice. And then, something unexpected happened that pulled the rug out from this seemingly air-tight case. In the spot where the skeleton had been discovered, another set of bones was unearthed. And then, in the very same place, another skeleton was found. And yet another.

This sudden superfluity of skeletons doomed the prosecution. The case against Ball was withdrawn, and he triumphantly left the courthouse a free man, if not exactly one without a stain on his character. He returned to Ramsey, where he seems to have been considerably more popular than in Ringstead, and led a quiet and prosperous life until his death in 1896.

Lydia Atley’s fate remains a mystery. Was Ball, as many people believed, a murderer, or did the unhappy woman commit suicide when she realized her lover refused to help her? In either case, where is her body? If Ball did kill her, how could he have disposed of her remains so quickly and thoroughly? Who were all those skeletons that were discovered in 1864? Was Lydia's among them?

Unsurprisingly, Atley’s spirit was believed to be a restless one. Local legend describes her haunting the village for many years later. The more colorful accounts state that she would appear in front of amorous couples hoping to make a trysting-place of the area where she was last seen, as a way of warning other women not to follow her “immoral” example.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump sees another beautiful celebrity sponsor!

And Betty Grable.

What the hell happened in Olympic National Park?

Why the hell do we sleep?

Watch out for the Bunyip!

Watch out for the Bijli!

Watch out for those bewitched hearts!

The mysterious Hasanlu Lovers.

A mysterious murder in early 19th century Iceland.

A not-so-mysterious murder in early 19th century Louisiana.

The strangest and creepiest ancient underwater tomb you could ever hope to see.

The Heart Balm racket.

The mystic shoemaker and Edgar Allan Poe.

Dark days and a phantom town in Ireland.

What the well-dressed suffragette is wearing.

Hey, cats aren't the only animals who talk.

This is...odd.

Solving a 500-year-old code.

A bit of real-life "I, Claudius."

What to do if you get a cherry stone into your ear.  Hey, such things happen.

A guy put together 42,000 matches and did an awesome job of recreating what will happen the day our sun goes supernova.

An Elizabethan tale of marriage woes and witchcraft.

Melting ice is uncovering Norwegian artifacts.

A youthful poisoner.

The man with too many wives.

18th century literary cats.

The origins of Valentine's Day.

Vulnerable Victorian governesses.

A literal kiss of death.

A girl, a dog, and a remarkable reunion.

That time they wanted to fill in New York's East River.

A "monster of the deep."

The last of the Lincolns.

Einstein's forgotten inventions.

How alchemists gave us alcohol.

William Parsons, who probably would have disagreed with the saying that any publicity is good publicity.

Haunted Belgium.

A heroic dog.

The last of the pirates.

Alkemade the Indestructible.

A homicidal genius.

The controversy surrounding a famed French writer.

A newly-exposed underwater ecosystem.

The romantic benefits of snail slime.

Some 18th century French "firsts."

The case of the Littlehampton Libels.

A famed plant researcher.

An ancient "St. Germain."

The world's oldest restaurant.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an unsolved disappearance in an English village.  In the meantime, surf's up!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day, Valentine's Day Edition

I don't know what says "A Strange Company Valentine's Day" more than this news item from the "Fremont [Ohio] News Messenger," February 14, 1976.

Bullets sting a lot more than Cupid's arrows, so Michael J. Hubbard of Akron has decided to call off the wedding.

Hubbard, 31, said Friday from his hospital bed he's decided his marriage plans were definitely off after being shot by girlfriend Rosie Moss, 33, three times in 16 months. Hubbard said the wedding was planned for today in Detroit, but he added, "I'm not getting married now. I'm no fool. I'm tired of getting shot."

Hubbard, who said he and Miss Moss have been living together for several years, was resting comfortably in City Hospital here with a bullet wound in the right leg. He told police he was "coming home and she shot me.. .she put all my clothes in the back yard. I opened the door and got shot."

Police told The Associated Press reports have been filed with them on each of the shootings, but Hubbard decided in each case not to press charges despite their recommendation he do so in the last two incidents.

The first shooting, according to the police, was in November, 1974, when Hubbard was wounded in the neck. Police records show he was shot in the right forearm last July. Miss Moss' only comment on the couple's problems was "he tries to rule, and that don't go." Hubbard said the couple had been "getting along pretty well" since the second shooting, "but I'm moving out now."
That was probably a wise decision. To be honest, I've never been able to say what my "ideal mate" would be like, but I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be someone who repeatedly sends me to the emergency room. One shooting, OK. You could write off a second as "just one of those days." Three such incidents, and you start to get the idea that maybe these two just weren't made for each other.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Talking Cat Fought the Law, and the Law Won

Carl Miles and Blackie

"That a talking cat could generate interest and income is not surprising. Man's fascination with the domestic feline is perennial. People of western cultures usually fall into two categories. Generally, they are ailurophiles or ailurophobes. Cats are ubiquitous in the literature, lore and fiber of our society and language. The ruthless Garfield commands the comic strips, the Cat in the Hat exasperates even Dr. Seuss, and who hasn't heard of Heathcliff, Felix or Sylvester? Historically, calico cats have eaten gingham dogs, we are taught that 'a cat can look at a king' and at least one cat has 'been to London to see the Queen.'

"It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To the animal world, I am sure that the sincerest form is anthropomorphosis. The ailurophobes contend that anthropomorphosis abounds, and that it is the work of ailurophiles. The ailurophiles say that they do not anthropomorphize cats but, rather, that cats have such human qualities as they may condescend to adopt for their own selfish purposes. Perhaps such was the case with Saki's ill-fated Tobermory, the cat who knew too much and told all, who, when asked if the human language had been difficult to learn, '... looked squarely at [Miss Resker] for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.'

"For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, people have carried on conversations with cats. Most often, these are one-sided and range from cloying, mawkish nonsense to topics of science and the liberal arts. Apparently Blackie's pride does not prevent him from making an occasional response to this great gush of human verbiage, much to the satisfaction and benefit of his 'owners.' Apparently, some cats do talk. Others just grin." 
~District Judge Bowen, from his ruling in Carl M. Miles, et al., Plaintiffs, v. City Council, et al., Defendants, 1982.

Few things make me happier than welcoming a talking cat through the hallowed gates of Strange Company HQ. If this particular feline also happened to shape legal precedent, even better.

The plaintiffs in our little drama were Carl and Elaine Miles, "owners and promoters" of Blackie the Talking Cat. They challenged the constitutionality of Augusta's Business License Ordinance, claiming that it violated the rights of speech and association. In short, the city of Augusta insisted that Blackie, as a professional public speaker, get a business license, and Mr. and Mrs. Miles resented having to pony up the required $50. In their original 1982 suit, the District Judge Bowen ruled in favor of the city. ("The ordinance challenged by the plaintiffs is constitutionally valid depriving them of neither due process nor equal protection. The ordinance is a legitimate, rational means for the generation of revenue for the benefit of the defendant. It does not trammel the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs as guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.") Carl and Elaine then brought their case to the United States Court of Appeals.

Carl's deposition was introduced into evidence, where he explained Blackie's origins and subsequent rise to fame: "Well, a girl come around with a box of kittens, and she asked us did we want one. I said no, that we did not want one. As I was walking away from the box of kittens, a voice spoke to me and said, 'Take the black kitten.' I took the black kitten, knowing nothing else unusual or nothing else strange about the black kitten. When Blackie was about five months old, I had him on my lap playing with him, talking to him, saying I love you. The voice spoke to me saying, 'The cat is trying to talk to you.' To me, the voice was the voice of God."

Never one to quarrel with the wishes of the Almighty, Miles developed "a rigorous course of speech therapy" for Blackie. Carl explained, "I would tape the sounds the cat would make, the voice sounds he would make when he was trying to talk to me, and I would play those sounds back to him three and four hours a day, and I would let him watch my lips, and he just got to where he could do it.

"He was talking when he was six months old, but I could not prove it then. It was where I could understand him, but you can't understand him. It took me altogether a year and a half before I had him talking real plain where you could understand him."

Blackie hit the show business circuit, with great success. He spoke on radio shows, and made an appearance on the TV series "That's Incredible."  (He also recorded a holiday tune, "A Special Christmas Featuring Blackie the Cat That Talked," and I will never rest until I find a copy.)  This was one performer who truly appreciated his audience, which even included the District Judge, who revealed that one day when he encountered Blackie on the street, he gave the cat a dollar.  In return, Blackie purred, "I love you." (The court noted that "this affectionate encounter occurred before the Judge ruled against Blackie.")

As so often happens to even the most deserving talents, Blackie's nationwide fame began to subside. He was reduced to hanging out on street corners, soliciting contributions from passerby to hear him talk. (We are told that "Blackie would become catatonic and refuse to speak whenever his audience neglected to make a contribution.") Some busybodies went to the Augusta police, complaining that Blackie had no right to act as a professional Talking Cat without the proper paperwork.

The plaintiff's lawyer pointed out that "the Augusta business ordinance contains no category for speaking animals. The ordinance exhaustively lists trades, businesses, and occupations subject to the tax and the amount of the tax to be paid, but it nowhere lists cats with forensic prowess."

The Appellate court ruled against the plaintiffs. The judges pointed out that Blackie spoke in return for money, so therefore these "elocutionary endeavors" were indubitably commercial. In other words, Blackie was certainly a businessman...uh, businesscat, and therefore required a license just like any other Augusta entrepreneur. They also dismissed the argument that Blackie's right to free speech had been infringed upon.   "[A]lthough Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a 'person' and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself."

So this is how Blackie went into legal history as--to the best of my knowledge--the world's first officially licensed talking cat. Unfortunately, he failed to find the lasting fame and fortune he undoubtedly deserved.  In 1989 Carl Miles developed cataracts, and he stopped publicly exhibiting his prized feline, although Blackie was still happy to chat with visitors to the Miles home.

After battling multiple health problems, Blackie passed away in 1992 at the age of 18.  Miles told a reporter that just before the end, the cat looked up at him and said one last time, "I love you."

Friday, February 9, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is again sponsored by a celebrity cat; namely, this presidential kitten.

Who the hell made these ancient tools?

What the hell happened to Princess Pamela?

Watch out for those cursed houses!

Watch out for those handfuls of dust!

A peek inside the Winchester Mystery House.

18th century tips for cold and flu season.

Ghost towns of the Old West.

A peculiar--and lethal--affair.

The life of an 18th century vicar.

The sad tale of the Buttermere Beauty.

The man who invented radio.  Well, almost.

In search of lost books.

Have we found a habitable planetary system?

All hail the King of the Cats!

My kind of home, sweet home.

A strange death in Pennsylvania: murder, suicide, or accident?

The true story behind a famed centenarian.

The true story behind Burt Reynolds' centerfold.

The true story behind New Zealand's most badass photograph.

The true story behind Britain's Cheddar Man.

A disappearance in the Australian outback.

A 19th century English miscellany.

The trials of an 18th century balloonist.

Not all of the Berlin Wall has come down.

Some wonderful vintage insults.

18th century urban planning.

One celebrity that really is just a big ham.

The grave of a medieval anchoress.

The 19th century really did not like forgers.

Software uncovers an alleged Shakespeare source.

Napoleon's etiquette.

Los Angeles' Great Tin Can Feud.

A Bronze Age hunk.

The last of the sea nomads.

The strange tale of triplets separated at birth.

The first color photos of post-earthquake San Francisco.

The uses of an 18th century apron.

Previously unknown ancient humans in the Americas.

A previously unknown language.

A review of a new book about one of my favorite historical figures, U.S. Grant.

And here's a story about Mrs. Grant and Marie Dressler.

Personally, I like carob, so there.

Music for cats!

Plagiarizing ancient medical devices.

Cross-dressing in Victorian Wales.

An 18th century recidivist.

Napoleon's mom.

That wraps it up for this week.  See you on Monday, when I'll present...



Oh, be still my beating heart.

While we count down the minutes to that post, here's Gordon Lightfoot.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Magazine Clipping of the Day

This account of a particularly lively 17th century poltergeist was reprinted in "Archaeologia Cambrensis," Volume 15 (1869):

Among particulars relating to Weobley, it may be worth while to transcribe some part of a pamphlet now in the British Museum, as illustrating some of the ideas and the history of the time to which it relates. It consists of a letter from J. A., Hereford, and is entitled The Demon of Burton:

There is a farm in Burton, a village in the parish of Weobley, which Mr. Wm. Bridges, a linen draper of London, has in mortgage from one Thomas Tomkins, a decayed yeoman. This farm was taken in by lease by Mrs. Elizabeth Bridges about Michaelmas 1669. Soon after this tenant was entered on the farm, some Familiar began to act apish pranks, by knocking boldly at the door in the dark of the evening, and the like early in the morning, but nobody to be seen. The stools and forms were thrown into disorder, heaps of malt and vetches mingled, loaves of bread laid on a table carried into another room, and hid in tubs covered with cloths ; cabbage plants dug up and replanted in various patterns; a half-roasted pig demolished, except the bones; the milk turned sour with vinegar; some cattle died, and among others a sow leaped and danced in strange postures, and at last fell down dead; a loft of hay set on fire, a mow of pulse and pease likewise. 
After these fires one John Jones, a valiant Welshman, undertook to keep watch with a sword, a mastiff dog, and a lantern. He had not long lain on the bed when he heard a knocking at the door, and, as he conceived, many cats came into his chamber, broke the windows, and made a hideous noise. The mastiff howled, the candle went out, the Welshman fell into a cold sweat, left his sword unused, and with much ado found the door, and ran half a mile without looking behind him; protesting next day he would not lie another night in the house for £100. 
These particulars I received from eye-witnesses of unquestionable credit and you may no more doubt the truth of them than distrust the affection of your humble servant,
J. A.
Hereford, March 1670.
This is all we know about the story, but if it fits the usual pattern of poltergeist cases, the disturbance soon ended as suddenly and mysteriously as it began.

Although, with cats figuring in the story, you never know. That neighborhood may still be haunted yet.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Case of the Poisonous Picnic

In this week's post, let's talk about the first day of summer. Picture a family picnic in beautiful, quiet American countryside. What could be more idyllic, more serene, more removed from the problems and horrors of life...

...Oh, come on now. This is my blog we're talking about. Meet the Simmons family of Simmons Corners, Indiana, who win the Strange Company prize for Worst Picnic Ever.

On June 21, 1931, the Simmons clan held their annual family reunion. On this particular year, they chose to celebrate with a picnic held at Memorial Park in Lebanon, about 60 miles from Simmons Corners. The family was well-off, and seemingly happy and united. The gathering appeared to be pleasantly uneventful until one picnicker noticed something odd about his chicken sandwich: it contained capsules full of white powder. (Before you ask, the name of this person was not given in any of the newspaper reports.)

Sensibly enough, he declined to eat his sandwich. Not so sensibly, he omitted to tell anyone there of what he had found. Instead, he silently left the park and took the sandwich to a nearby doctor's office. The doctor treated the find rather casually. He did not bother testing the capsules. He simply shrugged and opined that they might contain quinine.

Because, of course, quinine is such a common condiment for chicken sandwiches.

The picnicker returned to the park, only to find that while he had been gone, others had also received capsule-laced sandwiches. However, these less fussy diners had opted to eat them, although they all noted that the food had a curiously bitter flavor.

They very soon realized this was a bad move. These five people--Lester Carr, Horace Jackson, John W. Simmons, and John's two young daughters, Alice Jean and Virginia--quickly became seriously ill, and were taken to the hospital. The adults all survived, but by the end of the day, 10-year-old Alice and 14-year-old Virginia were both dead. The sandwiches were so toxic that birds who ate crumbs left from the food also perished.

Alice and Virginia Simmons

It was soon determined that the capsules had contained strychnine. Some pickled beets served at the picnic were found to also be sprinkled with the poison. But when was this food doctored, why was this done, and, most importantly, who wanted to wipe out the Simmons clan in such a cruel and seemingly indeterminate fashion?

The first part of the above question was the only one that provided easy answers. The capsules could only have been added either when the sandwiches were first prepared, or when the Simmons family stopped en route to the park to visit with a distant relative, Isaac Pollard. During this stop, the car containing the sandwiches had been left unattended for about an hour. Curiously, only twelve of the eighteen sandwiches had been poisoned, making the act seem less like an attempted mass murder and more like a warped game of "Russian Roulette." And if you wished to poison someone, serving them capsule sandwiches seemed like an almost comically obvious way to go about it. It was looking like the murderer was not just a fiend, but also an idiot.

As for who poisoned the sandwiches and beets, the obvious main suspect was the person who had prepared the food: John Simmons' wife, Carrie. Although she vehemently insisted that she was as mystified by the poisonings as anyone else, on July 3 she was indicted for the murder of her two daughters. Her trial opened on September 27.

It soon became clear that the only reason Mrs. Simmons was charged with the crime was that the authorities could not find anyone else to blame. The fact that she had fixed the chicken sandwiches was literally the only evidence against her. Prosecutors were utterly unable to present the slightest reason why this seemingly sane, normal woman would want anyone, particularly her two little girls, to die an agonizing death. Carrie's surviving family members--her husband John and children Elizabeth, George, and Dale--all strenuously declared their belief in her complete innocence.

An apparent bombshell moment came when a druggist named Charles Friedman testified that on June 18, he had sold Mrs. Simmons sixty grains of strychnine. Unfortunately for the prosecution, two days after Friedman told his story, a woman named Louise Robinson took the stand and asserted that Friedman had been mistaken. She herself had bought the strychnine on the day in question, not the defendant. When confronted with this witness, Friedman admitted his error.

Another druggist testified that a few days before the fatal picnic, he had sold strychnine to Mrs. Simmons' brother-in-law, Horace Jackson--the same Horace Jackson who had been among the poisoning victims. However, when cross-examined, the druggist had to admit that he could not be certain Jackson was really his customer. (Interestingly, it emerged that Jackson had recently spent time in prison for violating the Mann Act. He had blamed John and Carrie Simmons for his arrest. He had also been the last person seen outside the Simmons car during their visit to Isaac Pollard.)

Some of the most valuable testimony came from a Mrs. Claude White. She was a stranger to the Simmons family, but the case so intrigued her that she decided to play detective. This Midwestern Marple fixed a bunch of chicken sandwiches that she liberally laced with strychnine capsules. She discovered that the capsules dissolved fairly quickly. However, the ones eaten at the picnic had been virtually intact. This suggested that the capsules had not been placed in the sandwiches when they were first prepared, but were added some considerable time later--most likely, when the Simmonses stopped over at the Pollard home. In short, although Carrie Simmons undoubtedly fixed the sandwiches, she was not necessarily the one who poisoned them.

So, who else might have tampered with the food? No one had any idea.

The jurors were faced with an unenviable dilemma. There was no proof that the defendant poisoned her family, but, on the other hand, there was nothing to actually vindicate her. The panel was left hopelessly deadlocked, voting eight to four for acquittal. Afterward, some of the jurors said that while they didn't buy the suggestion made by the defense that Horace Jackson was the murderer, they also couldn't see Carrie Simmons as the killer. They simply had no idea who was the guilty party.

The State brooded over the matter for a while, with the prosecuting attorneys finally deciding that a second trial would be a waste of time. In May 1933, all charges against Carrie Simmons were formally dropped.

The mystery of who was responsible for the deaths of Alice and Virginia Simmons is still unsolved. Someone went to his or her grave with a very nasty secret on their conscience.

[Note: Eerily enough, this was not the first time the Simmons family was connected to a bizarre murder case. In 1917, Carrie's father, Benton L. Barrett, was tried in Santa Monica, California for the murder of his second wife, Irene, and her son, Raymond Wright. Barrett voluntarily confessed to the murders (he had recently learned that his new wife was an adulteress and con artist who was only after his money.) He claimed that he had incinerated the bodies in his back yard and thrown the remains in a cesspool. This cesspool was searched and, sure enough, an assortment of bones was found. However, at his trial, some fairly convincing evidence was presented that Irene and Raymond were still very much alive, having fled to Canada. (If such was the case, no one was able to say just whose bones were in that cesspool.) The jury found Barrett "not guilty by reason of insanity," and he spent the rest of his life in Patton State Hospital.]

Friday, February 2, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is again sponsored by celebrity cats!

And Mark Twain.

How the hell did Robert E. Lee die?  His earlobe may have the answer to that.

Who the hell was Jack the Ripper?  Yeah, they're still looking for the answer to that.

Watch out for those Wild Hunts!

Watch out for those Killer Clothes!

The "Holy Grail" of dinosaur fossils.

Dogs and dead mammoths.

Well, this is just weird.

A duel with an unusually high body count.

Lessons to be learned from monsters.

Phrenology and a murderer.

Finally, a bottle of wine even I wouldn't drink.

How to make your own intestinal cement.  Assuming you have a yen for that sort of thing.  Hey, who am I to judge?

The White Cockade.

If I had to sit through a production of "Macbeth," I'd riot too.

A Sunday in 1830s Paris.

Japan's "lost soldiers."

James Madison's Groundhog Day.

The Case of the Floating Landmark.

The Case of the Suspicious Superintendent.

An accused witch gets a rare happy ending.

Regency dating disasters.

King Charles I can't say he didn't have fair warning.

That time when cats were used as bustles.  Yes, it's the Victorians.

Yes, Victorians also built shrines to hair.

Speaking of Victorians, let's talk a walk with the queen.

The hazards of translating cucumbers.

The cow that was born to be wild.

Lucky and unlucky horses in the Civil War.

Tolkien had a secret vice.  Uh, it's not what you might think.

The 18th century loved turbans.

The life and death of a highwayman.

When executions were a family affair.

The North Berwick witches.

Life in a Mongol khan's court.

The mysterious deaths at Fort Aubrey.

Satirizing Voltaire.

A medieval Welsh woman's tragic life.

The Great Spermatorrhoea Scare.

When a child kills a child.

A mysterious steamboat explosion.

This week in Russian Weird visits the coldest city on earth.  And, of course, what would Russian Weird be without the Land of Cats?

And that's that for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll discuss the hazards of family picnics.  In the meantime, here's Doug Sahm.