"...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, April 29, 2019

The Creature of Charterhouse

"Things that go bump in the night" is a common phrase to describe ghosts or monsters, generally the ones that appear in fiction. However, according to one man, this cliche played out in real life, and in one of the most unusual ways I've ever heard of. If his story, recorded by Betty Puttick in her book "Supernatural England," is to be believed, it gives rise to another cliche: "Truth is stranger than fiction."

The setting for our story is Charterhouse, which was, from ancient to Victorian times, a mining community in Somerset County, England. It has been occupied, in one form or another, since the late Neolithic period. The little hamlet now just consists of a former church and school, transformed by the County Council into an educational establishment focusing on outdoor activities. It is an area rich in natural beauty, with some spots seeming to be unchanged for centuries. It is also rich in caves, archaeological finds, and--according to some people--some very, very strange secrets.

In February 1982, Richard Gardner, a teacher at Bridgwater's Haygrove School, was one of the leaders of a student visit to Charterhouse. He had a group of five 15-year-old girls under his particular watch. When they completed their hike through the area, it was discovered that one of the girls, Maria, was missing. Naturally, a search was immediately launched. In his van, Gardner retraced the group's route. At one point, he stepped outside the car, calling Maria's name. He was disconcerted to hear, not the missing girl, but the sounds of small children playing and laughing.

This was...curious. The nearest village was five miles away. The barren, open landscape showed no sign of life. Besides, it was now a driving rainstorm--hardly the sort of weather for outdoor frolics.

Fortunately, when Gardner returned to the Charterhouse center, he found Maria there, none the worse for her little detour. Apparently she had merely become lost, and so retraced her steps back from where she came. Her disappearance was quickly and easily solved. The voices Gardner heard were not.

After the group had fruitlessly discussed the little mystery, talk naturally turned to ghost stories, with some of them sharing their own brushes with the paranormal. Someone asked a man named Terry, the warden of Charterhouse, if he had seen or heard anything strange in the area.

Terry was a former Marine Commando, and looked the part. He was a tough, no-nonsense sort who immediately inspired respect and deference, even in the rowdiest students. In short, he was not someone who scared easily...but, he had to admit, he had once experienced something at Charterhouse which frightened him very badly.

The school center was also used by the local Cave Rescue Team to store their equipment. About a year before, he had been at the center alone to do maintenance work on this equipment. It was a long, tedious job, so he thought he might as well spend the night at Charterhouse. After having dinner and watching some TV, Terry retired to a bunk bed in the sick bay.

At around 1 a.m., Terry was awakened by the sound of some animal rustling about outside. He shrugged it off as a just a badger and went back to sleep. Then his sleep was again broken by similar noises. Only, this time, they came not from the outdoors, but somewhere inside the building.

Terry was puzzled, as he knew he had locked all the doors, as usual. However, he was too tired to investigate. Muttering to himself that if the animal could find its way in, it could find its way out, he attempted to fall asleep.

The trouble was, the noises continued. And they were getting closer. Within a few moments, he heard the animal coming up the stairs, scratching and snuffling all the way. The intruder was soon right outside his door. Terry was getting deeply unsettled.  It was not normal for any wild animal to break into an occupied building and act like they had the run of the place.

Then Terry's night went from unnerving to flat-out-terrifying. The sounds changed from snorting and scratching to the noise of something large and bristly slowly, loudly, squeezing itself through the half-inch gap on the bottom of his door. Whatever "it" was, it was coming for him.

Terry was trapped. There was no way he was going to head for the door, in the dark, with this...thing blocking his path. The snuffling noises came closer, and closer, until they were within inches of him. Then the bed suddenly began rocking violently. This lasted less than a minute, and then, to his relief, he heard the phantom beast retreat. It squeezed its way back under the door. The sinister sounds made their way back down the stairs and outside the building, where they gradually faded away into the night. Checking his watch, Terry noted that the whole weird ordeal had lasted an hour. In the morning, he saw that his bed was covered in plaster. When his bed had been shaken, Terry had grabbed the electric cabling on the wall for support. The upheavals were so violent, he had pulled the cabling free.

After the students heard Terry's little bedtime story, they all spent the night in the room where they had gathered, sleeping on chairs. There was no way any of them were going out into the night to reach the accommodation building.

The question of what in hell--or, if you prefer, what from Hell--Terry met that night was never answered. There was, however, a disconcerting sequel to the story. A year later, another school group visited Charterhouse. Among them was one of the teachers who had been among the group who heard Terry's story. Terry slipped the teacher a note. It contained only five words: "My visitor returned last week!"

So if you're ever visiting the Charterhouse area, I advise you not to check for monsters under your bed. They just might be there.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Strange Company Orchestra.

Who the hell murdered Amos Snell?

Watch out for those Scottish water spirits!

Watch out for those cursed masks!

Cornwall's 'obby 'oss.

We have Martha Stewart; the 18th century had Elizabeth Raffald.

It should come as no surprise that Victorians liked to bury people in picnic baskets.

This man wants to sell you his germs.

The man who carried a knife blade in his jaw for over a year.  Yup, Thomas Morris link.

Why St. Mark's Eve is the spookiest night of the year.

Let me put it this way: of all the awful ways to be executed, this may be the worst.  Consider yourselves warned.

Elections in Georgian era England were...messy.  (Mutters to self: almost as bad as in California.)

An unusual murder victim.

You say, "potato," I say, "Potoooooooo"...

A famed early 19th century courtesan.

The woman who jumped out of a pie in front of Nikola Tesla.  History is weird.

How some condemned men met their fate.

A lost London mansion.

Lookalikes go to war.

The murder of Ramon Navarro.

The first staged photograph.

The summer the statues moved.

The poisonous Angel of Bremen.

The people with golden blood.

A famed French chateau.

Did Aleister Crowley kill off Paul McCartney?

Schrodinger in Spitalfields.

The Great Ostrich Heist.

The man who revolutionized the book trade.

Ancient fortune-telling.

How cats led to a divorce.

The Hotel Radium.

Mesopotamian child-care tips.

The many editions of Robinson Crusoe.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look a real-life monster under the bed.  In the meantime, here's a classic Irish air:

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Some years ago, a Pennsylvania woman made headlines when, after her death at the age of 76, the remains of five long-dead human infants were found in her attic. It was presumed that this woman, who never married, had secretly given birth to these children many decades before.

It is a chillingly Gothic tale--reminiscent of William Faulkner at his most morbid--but not unique. A similar story from London was reported in "The Guardian" on August 26, 1920:
A strange discovery was related at the Manchester City Coroner's Court yesterday during the holding of an inquest on Jane Shaw, Deramore Street, Moss Side, who died as a result of falling downstairs.

Mrs. Shaw was a widow, 84 years of age, nearly blind, and her husband, it was stated, died some 20 years ago.

Thomas William Sutton, gardener, said Mrs, Shaw had lived with him during the last 18 months. She was blind in one eye. The witness knew her nearly 60 years ago, but had lost sight of her for nearly 60 years until a few years ago. He never remembered her having any children, nor did he know of any of her relations.

The police evidence disclosed the finding of a black tin box in Mrs. Shaw's bedroom, and on being opened the skeleton remains of two children were found inside. Mr. Sutton, the earlier witness, in reply to the Coroner, said he knew nothing about the box prior to Mrs. Shaw's death.

A verdict of accidental death was returned. The gruesome contents of the box will form the subject of a Coroner's inquiry on Friday next.
"The Guardian" had a follow-up story two days later:
An inquest was held by the Manchester City Coroner (Mr. C.W.W. Surridge) yesterday on two skeleton bodies of children found in the bedroom occupied by the late Jane Shaw (84), widow. Mrs. Shaw died from injuries received by falling downstairs. At the time of the accident she resided at 13 Deramore Street, Moss Side.

Sergeant Crabtree said he found the two bodies in a wooden box enclosed in a tin box in the room used by Mrs. Shaw. The tiny skeletons were wrapped up in old clothing. In the box was an old publication entitled "The Young Englishwoman," together with the song "The Last Rose of Summer." There was nothing to show the identity of the remains.

John Sutton, Brailsford Road, Fallowfield, said he had known Mrs. Shaw for some 60 years. "My mother," he said, "worked for a time at the same place as Mrs. Shaw, and I remember her telling me that Mrs. Shaw had two children, about 1869 to 1870. She was not married at the time, but she told my mother that they had been sent out to nurse, and were doing well."

Dr. E.P. Hughes said he had examine the bodies. Death had occurred at or shortly after birth. It was quite possible that death had occurred over 50 years ago.

Mr. Surridge: You have, I believe, made inquiries as to the paper found in the box?--Yes, I was informed at the Manchester Reference Library that the paper was first published in 1865. There was a paragraph in the "Young Englishwoman" relating to the importation of eggs in 1862 and 1863.

The coroner returned an open verdict.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Guest Post: Peggy Gavan, Author of "The Cat Men of Gotham"

"Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
And my cat is, too."

Cats and weird little stories from the past.  What could be more Strange Company than that?  For this reason, I'm delighted to temporarily pass the blog's steering wheel over to Peggy Gavan, whose upcoming book, "The Cat Men of Gotham: Tales of Feline Friendships in Old New York" (Rutgers University Press, May 3, 2019,) is now available to pre-order at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  The book features 42 profiles of New York men and the stray cats that they rescued off the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Some of the tales are sad, some are funny, some are just plain odd, and all of them offer a novel and wonderfully entertaining history of New York from a cat's-eye view.  (Side note: yours truly contributed a blurb.)

The following tale comes from the files of Gavan's blog, The Hatching Cat: True and Unusual Animal Tales of Old New York.  Meet the terrifying Miss Margaret Owen, a socialite who put the "Crazy" into "Cat Lady."

Pittsburgh Press, March 1, 1922.

1922: The Curious Case of Lilly and Otto, the Dyed-Blue Cats of Midtown Manhattan

By Peggy Gavan

Every once and a while I come across an old animal story that goes into my special folder called “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.” The following Old New York cat tale is somewhat funny, very bizarre, and a bit tragic. It most certainly belongs in my special folder.

Blue, Blue, Blue

Once upon a time, a young woman was obsessed with blue…

Blue eyes, check. Blue clothes, check. Blue rugs and draperies, check. Blue walls and electric lamp shades, check. Blue china and blue satin chairs, check. Blue cats…hmmm.

Miss Margaret Owen was a wealthy and temperamental young lady who loved the color blue (she said the color calmed her overwrought nerves). Everything she owned was blue—well, almost everything. The blue-eyed, petite singer had even performed in the chorus of “The Blue Kitten,” a musical comedy based on the book by Otto Harbach and William Cary Duncan, and directed by Arthur Hammerstein at New York’s Selwyn Theatre.

Note from Undine: This was not meant to be a how-to guide.

Although she was only 22 years old, Margaret had her own spacious apartment in a five-story building at 75 West 50th Street in midtown Manhattan. She also had a maid to do all her washing and cleaning, courtesy of her wealthy father, H.W. Owen, a former stock broker who had retired to Florida.

One day in January 1922, Margaret’s maid took some time off. That left Margaret alone with a pair of yellowing wool stockings that were driving her mad. She simply could have no peace until she did something with those stockings.

So, Margaret rolled up the sleeves of her blue smock and turned on the hot water faucet for the marble basin in her blue dressing room. She poured in a bottle of indigo and a few packets of Diamond-brand blue dye. Her new blue stockings were going to look so perfect with her pretty blue suit.

A Wicked Idea

Everything was going fine until Lilly, one of Margaret’s two white Angora cats, came bounding into the room. When the curious, eight-month-old kitty dipped a white paw into the blue basin, Margaret clapped her hands in delight!

As it turns out, Margaret had recently bought blue leashes for her cats, because she had heard that women were walking their cats on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. She thought, wouldn’t it be romantic to be the mistress of a very beautiful blue cat that she could parade down the boardwalk? All she had to do was dunk her kitties, Lilly and Otto, in the blue water. Just like her stockings.

Margaret picked up little Lilly and dipped her in the bowl of blue water. Then it was Otto’s turn. Despite the cats’ howls, Lilly held them down in the water for about five minutes until she was sure the dye had taken. She took care not to immerse their heads—she used a piece of cotton dipped in the dye to swab their faces. (How very kind of her.) When she was all done, she wrapped the cats in an old blue towel and placed them on a blue cushion to dry.

Now, Margaret Owen was not the only person who rented an apartment at 75 West 50th Street. Hearing the cats’ howls and thinking that Margaret was killing them, several neighbors called the Humane Society. Apparently, no one responded to their calls for help that afternoon.

Over the next few days, things did not go well for poor Otto. Sensing something was wrong with the lackadaisical cat, Margaret took Otto to Dr. Harry K. Miller’s dog and cat hospital (aka, The New York Canine Infirmary), which was then located at 146 West 53rd Street. There, the blue Angora succumbed to an apparent poison in the dye.

Enter stage left, Harry Moran, Superintendent of New York’s Humane Society. Moran told Margaret he was taking her and Lilly to the West Side Magistrates Court, where she would appear before Magistrate Peter A. Hatting on charges of animal cruelty. Margaret put the blue cat in a blue silk bag and brought her to the court, where she was met by her attorney, Benedict A. Leerburger of the firm of House, Grossman & Vorhaus.

Magistrate Hatting ordered Margaret, Superintendent Moran, Mr. Leerburger, and the cat to all go to the Humane Society headquarters to have Lilly’s fur analyzed by a chemist. Pending the test results and Lilly’s status, the judge said, he would make his decision. (Margaret denied knowing anything about Otto, claiming that she had taken Otto to the animal hospital as a favor for a friend who had owned the cat.)

“If Miss Owens and Mr. Leerburger want any lunch, the Humane Society will supply them with it,” the judge reportedly said as he sent them on their way to have Lilly examined.

“What kind of lunch?” Mr. Leerburger asked the magistrate. “I can’t get along on a cat’s diet,” the attorney said. “I need more than milk for sustenance.”

Two veterinarians and a specialist on poison were called to assist with Lilly at the Humane Society (then located at 44 7th Avenue). They washed the cat and had the water analyzed. It turned out that the blue dye contained 5% arsenic.

Because Lilly had licked a lot of the dye off and become very sick, the magistrate said it was almost a case of fatal poisoning. Mrs. Anna Doyle, Margaret Owen’s probation officer, was convinced that Margaret had not intended to harm the cats. Lilly had survived the ordeal, so Mrs. Doyle asked the judge to go easy on Margaret.

New York Times, January 31, 1922

“You’re a spoiled child,” the magistrate admonished Margaret during her sentencing. “What you need is a guardian. Are you married? No? Then I’ll send you back to your father until you get another guardian.”

In addition to remanding Margaret to her parents in Florida, Judge Hatting told her that the Humane Society would have custody of Lilly until her blue color had vanished.

Margaret’s Story Goes Viral

Within days after Margaret appeared in court with Lilly, the story of the blue-dyed cat that had died from dyeing made all the major newspapers across the United States. Her story was also cabled to the Paris newspapers, where the idea of dying your pets to match your wardrobe was much appreciated
by the high-society Parisian women.

Pittsburgh Press, August 5, 1922

The Paris women were a little more intelligent, though. First, they thought it would be better to dye their dogs, since cats aren’t fond of parading about with their mistresses. They also discovered that coffee, caramel, or tea, when mixed with cream (and a little bit of quinine to discourage canine licking), made a great safe dye for their pets.

New York Humane Society Superintendent Moran was completely against this fad, and he reportedly prosecuted those who tried it in New York City. Even if coffee, tea, and caramel was used, he said, these were poisonous for animals, and thus, punishable under the law as a misdemeanor crime against animals.

10 Years Later…

I do not know what happened to Margaret Owen and Lilly. Hopefully they lived happily ever after in a blue house by the blue sea in Florida.

What I do know is that in 1930, Clarice Carleton Holland, the owner of Margaret’s apartment building, sold the building at 75 West 50th Street to William F. Beach, who in turn sold it the Underel Holding Corporation on behalf of John D. Rockefeller. By 1931 the holding corporation had acquired all the lots on the street, giving them the entire 50th Street frontage on which to construct Radio City Music Hall.

Incidentally, the animal hospital where Margaret Owen brought Otto and Lilly is still in operation as the Miller-Clark Animal Hospital in Mamaroneck, New York. Established in 1902 at 118 West 188th Street (according to old newspaper ads), it is one of the longest running veterinary practices in New York.

 In 1922, a young woman dyed her cats blue in an old brownstone and brick apartment on this very site at the northeast corner of W. 50th Street and Sixth Ave. Radio City Music Hall opened on December 27, 1932. Photo by P. Gavan

Friday, April 19, 2019

Weekend Link Dump

There are, unfortunately, no sponsors for this week's Link Dump.  The staff at Strange Company HQ is busy celebrating Spring Break.

What the hell caused the Kentucky Meat Shower?

Watch out for those Midnight Washer Women!

In which Mr. Cambray asks to go to prison.

That time Benjamin Franklin had a rendezvous at Notre Dame.

Why you wouldn't necessarily want to see into the future.

The Witch of Loddon.

Paris' 1915 Black Easter.

Wrigley Field and the curse of the goat.

An Auschwitz commandant meets the gallows.

Meet the Milk Wizard.

Rupert of the Rhine.

A weird cliff in Latvia.

Napoleon the looter.

The bees of Notre Dame.

Goddess worship at UNC Greensboro.

The down side of Regency era tea.

Let us sing of hot cross buns.

A brief history of the Mexican Mafia.

A brief history of the spelling bee.

A brief history of suttee.

A brief history of the griffin.

A legendary Australian monster.

Two strange deaths in the Caribbean.

Mysterious falling stones in India.

Carl Panzram, a serial killer who hated the world and everyone in it.

The influence of two courtesans named Eliza.

Lost books from the 16th century.

How to turn a dodgy painting into a multi-million dollar masterpiece.

Job openings from the 18th century.

A particularly weird poltergeist case.

How Indian cadets at Sandhurst celebrated Easter vacation in 1920.

I dunno.  I think these homes are fun.  Much preferable to suburban neighborhoods such as mine filled with tract homes that all look exactly alike.

A wonderful 19th century map of New York City.

The first African-born philosopher to teach in Germany.

The stone heads of Greenwich.

California's Egg War.

A shocking 14th century murder.

The execution of a group of villains.

Somebody in Jackson, Mississippi really likes mashed potatoes.  Or really hates them.  I'm not sure which.

A play about Poe that might be even worse than that John Cusack biopic.

Victims of jealousy.

"Shakespeare slept here?"

The first female cosmonauts.

The search for George Wilson.

I'm always baffled by people who express surprise at the idea that animals might be sentient.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, which will bring a guest post by Peggy Gavan, familiar to WLD readers from her blog, "The Hatching Cat." In the meantime, let's remember what once was.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Mysterious knockings and rappings are a common feature in ghost stories. This real-life mystery was reported in the "Huddersfield Chronicle," January 25, 1868:
Since the middle of last October a very singular system of persecution has been going on in Kensington, which has hitherto baffled all attempts to discover the author, or the means by which the annoyance complained of is effected.

Some years ago it would have been put down to a ghost or perhaps to his Satanic Majesty himself, but since the spiritualistic bubble of the Brothers Davenport has burst, there is nothing left but to puzzle on till the trick, clever as it may be, is found out. Unfortunately, in the present case, the trick, though clever, is becoming cruel and heartless.

In a small house, about twenty yards from the main road, live an old lady, 84 years of age, and her daughter, with one servant. They have lived in the same house for nearly twenty years without any annoyance; but for the last few months they are being constantly startled by a sharp, loud knocking on the panel of the street-door. Upon opening the door, however quickly, no sign of anyone is to be discovered. No sooner are the ladies quietly settled again than rap-rap-rap! comes upon the door. And this is repeated at irregular intervals through the evening.

For some time it was attributed to some young imps of school-boys, who are always ready for mischief, and but little notice was taken of it; but the continuance of what was only annoying became at last a serious nuisance. The most nimble efforts were made without success to "catch" the offenders, but until a few nights ago the attacks were so arranged as never to take place in the presence of male visitors; consequently the ladies received much pity, but little sympathy, from their friends.

After a time they became nervous, and at last really frightened. On Thursday evening a gentleman, the son of the old lady, called, and found them quite ill from nervous excitement, and was comforting them as well as he could, when a quick rap rap-rap! at the front door made him jump up. In two seconds he was at the door, rushed out, looking in every direction without discovering a sound or a trace of any human being in any of the adjacent roads. Then, for the first time, he was able to understand from what his mother and sister had suffered, and set to work to examine the approaches to the door inside and out, and to solve the mystery, if possible.

No sooner had he gone back to the little dining-room and placed a chair in the open doorway with a big stick handy to "trounce" the perpetrator the next time, and begun to discuss what it was, than rap-rap-rap! sent him flying out into the street to the astonishment of a passing cabman, who must have thought a madman had just escaped his keeper. This happened four or five times more; in fact, it only ceased about a quarter to eleven.

He went round to the police-station and had an officer put on special duty opposite the house for the next day, and spent the following morning in calling upon the neighbours and carefully examining the gardens and walls which abutted upon the haunted house. Not a mark of any sort was to be found, and he was quite convinced that by no imaginable device could the door have been reached from any point but right in front of the street. There is no cellar or drain under the house. The more carefully the examination was continued the greater the mystery appeared. In the evening he took a friend down with him, and two more of his friends looked in later. The ladies were found in a painful state of nervous fright, as the nuisance had already being going on, and the maid servant was crying. Altogether it was a scene of misery.

In the course of conversation the following facts came out. It began on a Friday, the 18th of October, and has never missed a Friday since then. It has never been heard on Sunday, seldom on Saturday. Never before the gas lamps are lit, never after eleven. Just as all were talking at once, rap-rap-rap! In an instant all four gentlemen were in the front garden; the policeman was quietly standing opposite the door; the lady in the house opposite watching the door from her portico, and another gentleman from the leads. All declared that not a living creature had been near the house for at least a quarter of an hour.

The whole thing seems inexplicable, and has created quite a sensation in the neighbourhood. The cruel part of the trick is the effect produced upon the venerable lady, whose age makes a change of residence a serious difficulty, and whose nerves are likely to give way altogether if some means are not discovered to put a stop to the annoyance. The police are doing their best to discover the plot, but hitherto without success.
The mystery received a fair bit of attention in the newspapers, inspiring a raft of well-meaning, if not terribly helpful suggestions from the public. The "London Standard," January 24:

Sir, Having this morning been much amused by the account given in your paper of the "Haunted House" at Kensington, might I be allowed to suggest that a very careful watch should be kept on all within the house, and that the maid servant should have at least one holiday in the evening, and it might be interesting to observe whether or not the noise occurred on these occasions. Apologising for taking up your valuable time, I am
Holloway, Jan. 23.


Sir, I have just read the account in your paper of the rapping nuisance at a house in Kensington, and out of compassion for the old lady I will mention that some friends of mine a few years ago suffered from a similar annoyance, and after adopting all sort of schemes to rid themselves of the rapper they changed all their servants, and then experienced immediate relief.
Your obedient servant, C.N.
Jan. 23.


Sir, In your journal of this day's date I find an account, ''under the above heading," of the cruel and heartless persecution of an old lady and her daughter, at Kensington, by means of repeated knocking at the door after dark. I beg, through your journal, to suggest that if the parties interested, and the police, were to direct their attention to the maid of the house, instead of the outside, I think the author of the annoyance would be discovered. It seems to me likely that the trick is performed by means of dark-coloured string tied to the knocker, and pulled up and down through one of the upper windows, or from the roof. If there is no knocker, then, perhaps, by means of a stone tied to the end of said string, and pulled up at once, so as to be out of sight when the door is opened. I am, Sir,
7, Francis-terrace, Victoria Park, N.E.,
Jan. 23.


Sir, After reading your description of the supposed trick at Kensington, I am rather inclined to think that the raps are caused by natural means. A pipe with water in will convey sound a long distance; how far it might be used as a means of telegraphing is yet to be tried. As the raps occur never before gas-light, and never after eleven, might not the noise be caused through the pipes by the manipulation at a gas-works, if near to one? If the noise is caused by trickery, a large pea-shooter would cause shots to make a series of raps.

Wishing the opportunity of visiting the haunted house while the raps occur,and hoping these hints may be found to be useful, I beg to subscribe myself,
W. H. M.
Jan. 23.


'Sir, You conclude your notice of the haunted house at Kensington this morning by saying the police have the matter in hand, They may be clever in arresting and unearthing Fenian plots, but I much doubt their ability to unravel matters connected with the spiritual world. Is not this a case more suited to the talents of the gentleman (I forget his name) who did so much good to society at large some time since by elucidating and exposing tho Davenport tricks, and who showed himself such an adept in getting out of looked boxes, coffins, etc., that the spiritualists at once rushed to claim him as their own. but were mortified to find he disclaimed spiritual assistance in his extraordinary performances. I am, Sir, yours obediently,
The Farmers' Club, the Salisbury Hotel, Salisbury-square, Fleet-street, E.C., Jan. 23.


Sir, I have just read in your paper an account of two ladies living at Kensington being much alarmed by mysterious knocking which defy detection as to the way in which they are produced. Some time since a gentleman of the name of Addison proved himself a veritable Jonathan Wild by the manner in which ho discovered and brought to light all the tricks and deceptions of the Davenport Brothers and other so-called mediums.

I am sure if Mr. Addison were appealed to he would at once come forward to the rescue of these ladies, and solve the mystery. Yours, etc.
A. F.


Sir, I have read the account in to-day's impression of your paper headed as above. The days have gone for giving credit to supernatural agencies for such proceedings as those described which resemble in some measure the exploits of the Cock-lane ghost. If I were to search for the agent of the noise I should look in the house for it is probably caused by a mischievous servant, whose hour for going to bed is eleven o'clock. I am, etc.,

The story disappeared from the newspapers after this, so I have no idea if the source of the knocks was ever found.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Yda Hillis Addis, California Literature's Stormiest Petrel

All images via Newspapers.com

Although she is largely forgotten today, Yda Hillis Addis is an important figure in California literary history. She was the first to write and publish English translations of Mexican history and folktales, the most enduring of which is the now-popular legend of La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman." (Her translations, which originally appeared in the San Francisco journal "The Argonaut," were later compiled in the book "Wicked Legends.") She was also a talented author of fiction. Her numerous short stories, which utilized elements of folklore, the supernatural, and proto-feminism, appeared in many of the newspapers and magazines of her day. Addis also wrote a major history of the city of Santa Barbara. She was a prolific, influential, and unique literary voice.

All this, of course, is to be applauded. However, I would not be including Ms. Addis in the hallowed halls of Strange Company if it were not for her personal life, which was as strange and colorful as anything she put on paper. When a woman manages to gain nationwide renown as the "Crazy Lady of Santa Barbara," I throw open the doors to this blog and say, "Come on in!"

Addis was born in Kansas in 1857. When she was about four, her father, photographer Alfred Addis, moved her family to Chihuahua, Mexico. Yda assisted in her father's work photographing the Mexican frontier, which gave her an early familiarity with Indian villages, mining camps, and the other features of border life. She developed a deep love for the culture and history of the region. She learned Spanish, French, Italian, and several Indian dialects. When Yda was fifteen, her family moved to Los Angeles. After her graduation from Los Angeles High School, she began teaching, while also launching her career as a writer. By her early twenties, her name was well-known to readers across the country for her eerie Mexican-influenced ghost tales and tempestuous love stories which always ended badly--for the men. Critics lauded her writings as "original, daring, strong, polished."

Before long, her name became even more famous--for reasons that had nothing to do with her literary talents.

"Los Angeles Herald," April 17, 1875

The fun started in 1887, when "Argonaut" owner Frank Pixley introduced her to his friend, former California governor John Downey. A romance soon reportedly developed between the sixtysomething Downey and the beautiful young Yda. Wedding bells loomed in the horizon. Well, they would have, if it hadn't been for Downey's sister, Mrs. Peter Donahue. When Mrs. Donahue learned that her brother planned to marry someone young enough to be his granddaughter, she was outraged. Yda told the press that Mrs. Donahue was keeping Downey in literal captivity in order to get him to break the engagement. Downey responded by publicly declaring that he had never had any intention of marrying Miss Addis.

"San Francisco Examiner," July 30, 1887

Yda promptly sued Downey for breach of promise, but for whatever reason, Yda dropped the suit and moved to Mexico City, where she found work writing for the newspaper "Two Republics." The paper's editor, Theodore Gesterfeld, quickly became infatuated with Yda.

This would have been all well and good, if it had not been for the inconvenient figure of Mrs. Gesterfeld. Theodore's wife sued him for divorce, naming Addis as co-respondent. During the trial, Gesterfeld admitted to sleeping with other women, but insisted that Addis had not been one of them. Despite Theodore's gallant, and very likely perjured, testimony, the uproar only added to Yda's increasingly notorious reputation. (Yda later claimed that she did not figure in the Gesterfeld scandal at all. According to her, she had an illegitimate half-sister, Maud Addis, who looked remarkably like her. It was Maud, and not herself, who was the correspondent in Gesterfeld's divorce suit. Make of that what you will.)

Realizing that Mexico was getting a bit too hot for her, Yda relocated to Santa Barbara, where she began compiling material for her 1891 book, "A Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura, California." In 1890, she married attorney and newspaper owner Charles A. Storke.

"Los Angeles Herald," January 8, 1888

True to form, the marriage almost immediately collapsed, with every lurid detail lovingly published by the local newspapers. Yda publicly accused Storke and his 15-year-old son Tommy of abusing her both physically and mentally. For good measure, she informed the world that Storke had a taste for certain unspecified but clearly shocking sexual practices. Yda declared that her husband's "refusal to have reasonable marital intercourse" left her in a state of "nervous and hysterical morbidity." As if that weren't bad enough, his table manners were "loathsome, repulsive, and obscene." Oh, and he rarely bathed, causing him to emit a "mephitic odor."

Yda was not finished with Storke yet. In 1896, a Santa Barbara mother and daughter named Richardson were found brutally murdered in their own home. The ghastly crime, which was never solved, became an obsession with Yda. She eventually developed a "solution" for the murder that was an elaborate conspiracy involving the city's most prominent citizens--with the chief architect of the murder plot being her very own former husband Charles Storke. (A contemporary paper noted dryly that this theory "tended to strain the relations between Yda Addis Storke and Santa Barbara.") There were a number of people who came to seriously believe that Yda had committed the Richardson murders herself. While there was no proof that she was responsible for the crime, by this point in our story I'm sure you share my belief that nothing Yda Addis did would be surprising.

Storke sued for divorce, on the grounds of Yda's insanity. He told the press that Yda had twice attempted suicide, by taking morphine and setting fire to her clothes. He added that she had developed an "insane antipathy" to Tommy, and frequently threatened to kill him. Yda, he stated, was an adulteress who had only married him for his money. She refused to perform her "womanly duties." She had a perverse fondness for witnessing public executions. Worst of all, she hung out in Bakersfield dance halls!

While Yda was still legally married to Storke, she decided to make the most of the situation by suing him for alimony. After a great deal of legal wrangling, in January 1892, a judge essentially found for both sides, ruling that "the husband was not cruel, nor the wife insane." The divorce was finally granted in 1895, with Storke being ordered to pay Yda's attorney fees, as well as $250 in alimony. Storke repeatedly appealed the ruling, until in 1897, the California Supreme Court ordered him to make the payments.  (Storke reportedly continued to default on his obligations.)

During these protracted court battles, Yda moved back to San Francisco, where she tried to refocus on her writing career. During this period, she published stories in which women killed men in various gruesome ways, and knowing our Yda, I am not altogether certain these were works of fiction.

In 1898, Storke became D.A. of Santa Barbara County. Soon afterward, local newspapers and prominent Santa Barbara citizens began getting some very interesting mail. They were bombarded with anonymous letters accusing a local man, Dr. Robert Winchester, of "immoral and scandalous conduct." Santa Barbara men received letters advising them that the back rooms of Winchester's offices doubled as a brothel. Santa Barbara women were sent notes suggesting they make some quick and easy money by "lying on their backs" in Winchester's offices. Winchester immediately suspected Yda of writing these scurrilous messages. It was no secret that Yda had a grudge against Winchester, who had testified against her in the divorce trial. There was the significant fact that her handwriting was identical to those of the poison pen letters. Besides, it just seemed so perfectly the sort of thing she'd do. In 1899, Yda was charged and convicted of criminal libel.

"San Francisco Chronicle," June 22, 1899

During her trial, she claimed she was being framed by the prosecuting attorney Grant Jackson. She claimed that she and Jackson had entered into a "contract marriage," (something he denied,) and that he betrayed her by secretly working for the Storke camp.

Well. Clearly, there was only one thing she could do: namely, kill the man.

One night, Yda broke into Jackson's house, armed with chloroform, a glass-cutter, two revolvers, acid, and poison--our heroine was never one to do things by halves--and attempted to have the attorney permanently disbarred. Fortunately for Jackson, Yda was a better writer than she was a murderer, and he was able to wrestle the arsenal from her before any damage was done. This little escapade meant Yda faced eight months in prison, (on top of the sentence she faced for the poison pen letters,) and probably did little for her efforts to have herself proven sane. (Her defense was that she entered Jackson's house merely to "talk matters over with him.")

"San Francisco Examiner," July 13, 1899

As a side note, while all this was going on, a man named Frank Gutierrez, whom Yda had accused of being the real writer of the libelous letters, asked for police protection. He claimed that Yda had threatened to kill him (and when Yda made such threats, they clearly were to be taken seriously.) Gutierrez told reporters that he was being followed at night by "certain Italians and Mexicans over whom Mrs. Storke is supposed to have considerable influence."

"San Francisco Examiner," July 15, 1899

At about this time, the "San Francisco Examiner" did a lengthy profile of this now-infamous public figure. Describing Yda as "Santa Barbara's bogie," the reporter marveled, "In all California there is not another being so brilliant and at the same time so weird as Yda Addis Storke; and perhaps not another so feared and hated--and unhappy." The newspaper mourned "poor, wretched, unhappy, brilliant, erratic, vindictive little Yda Addis Storke...Nothing can daunt or tame or soften her, or tire her relentless hatred."

If Yda ever read those words, she probably took that last line as a high compliment.

"San Francisco Examiner," November 1, 1900

In December 1899, a grand jury declined to indict Yda for the Jackson incident (they possibly felt the man had had it coming.) Five months later, she won an appeal for a new trial in the matter of the poison pen letters. However, this retrial never took place. Accounts of her life generally state that the destitute Yda, her physical and mental health now completely broken, was committed to an insane asylum. In 1902, Yda escaped from her confinement, where her sad and hectic story came to an abrupt end.

She disappeared, and was never seen or heard from again.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Weekend Link Dump

Let's all give a toast to this week's links!

Why the hell did it take so damn long to publish Jane Austen's "Northanger Abbey?"

What the hell really happened to Elizabeth Canning?

Roget, the man behind the thesaurus.

A light-fingered clerk.

An alleged case of reincarnation.

A vision of the afterlife.

The link between Nazis, trolls, and the Grateful Dead.

You can go ahead and put that 19th century corset back on.

An 18th century impostor.

Mystery skeletons in Pennsylvania.

Execution of an infanticide.

An obituary for a world-traveling goat.

The gruesome mystery of the "Rack Man."

What sort of rope did 18th and 19th century hangmen use?

The good old days of lethal children's toys.

A haunted mountain.

The medical officers of Victorian workhouses.

Scientists may have found a previously unknown extinct human species.

The flying saucer of Sligo.

That time America faced a penny shortage.

A turning point in human history: we are more old than young.

This week in Russia Weird: Tunguska redux!

The Diana Files.

The dark origins of Snow White.

The history of curry.

18th century political parties.

Reminiscences of a Civil War soldier.

18th century bathing machines.

The unfinished manuscript.

The death of patience.

The club of thinkers and drinkers.

Let's talk medieval parasites.

Vintage diets for invalids.

The dandy's perambulations, 1819.

The case of the Brides in the Bath.

Why it was so hard to assassinate Hitler.

Witches and hallucinogens.

A feline civil servant.

The woman with the backward organs.

The man who lived with two bullets in his brain.

The last woman to be executed in Canada.

Queen Victoria and a famous literary mystery.

How a part of Cardiff became known as "Tiger Bay."

From bad feet to blasphemy.

Fortean religion.

There you have it for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a California author who managed to terrorize the entire city of Santa Barbara.  And that was just for starters.  In the meantime, here's a bit of French Baroque:

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via Newspapers.com

Everyone knows that neighbors can get into battles over anything. Anything.

My friends, marvel at the harrowing saga of New York's Great Woodpecker War. From the (Camden, New Jersey) "Morning Post," April 13, 1912:
New York, April 13. All because of a woodpecker the families of Algernon S. Schaefer, a New York banker, and William B. Lawrence, a broker with offices at No. 20 Broad street, whose properties in North Broadway, Yonkers, adjoin, have come to a parting of the ways.

The two families, who have been on the friendliest of terms for years, are friendly no longer. Because of this energetic woodpecker. Mrs. Lawrence has left Yonkers and moved Into her town residence at No. 256 West Fifty-seventh street. There at least the never ceasing "tapety tap! tapety tap! tapety tap!" will not disturb her slumbers in the early morning hours.

At the edge of the Schaefer place is a tall oak tree. Two years ago a woodpecker decided he liked the tree and took possession of it. The tree is almost against the Lawrence fence and close to the broker's house.

Mr. Schaefer, a bird lover and member of the Audubon Society, took an interest in the woodpecker and watched his labors from the time sap began running in the oak until fall.

Mr. Lawrence took an interest in the woodpecker also, but it was a different kind. One day the broker went to the banker and said: "Schaefer, doesn't that woodpecker disturb you and your household? There are times when he seems to make more noise than a battery in action. If you are going to let him stay there I wish you would teach him to stay in bed until 8 o'clock and be more civilized."

The woodpecker did not change his schedule of working hours, and some weeks ago when he resumed operations he could always be counted upon to begin his tapping about sunrise.

Mr. Lawrence again went to Mr. Schaefer and said: "You have got to kill that bird. We simply can't stand it. He has got on Mrs. Lawrence's nerves frightfully."

"No; I don't believe in killing birds." replied the banker. "If that woodpecker wants to peck on my trees he is more than welcome. No, sir! I don't propose to allow any one to disturb that bird as long as he is pecking on this place!"

Mrs. Lawrence then became active. She went to Mayor James C. Lennon and told him her health was being wrecked by that woodpecker.

"I'll see what I can do," said the Mayor, "but I doubt if I have jurisdiction in the matter."

"Who has jurisdiction then?" Mrs. Lawrence asked.

"I would suggest James J. Fleming, the Public Safety Commissioner." the Mayor replied.

Commissioner Fleming had no jurisdiction either, he said. He advised Mrs. Lawrence to go to the Board of Health.

The Board of Health officer said there was no precedent to show how they should act when a woodpecker was pecking on the property of a man who didn't object.

"Maybe the police can help you," they suggested.

Chief of Police Wolf scratched his head and went into deep thought when Mrs. Lawrence called on him. There was no doubt in the chief's mind that the woodpecker was a nuisance, but he told her there was nothing he could do. But he went to the Mayor, and the two agreed that the only way to do was to arbitrate the differences between the families.

"But you'll have to arbitrate with the woodpecker," said the Mayor. "I believe he will resent outside interference and stand pat."

"We might put a muffler on him," suggested Chief Wolf.

"Yes, we might; but Mr. Schaefer wouldn't stand for that," replied the Mayor, and that was as far as the Yonkers city, officials got. So Mrs. Lawrence came to the city for quiet.

"Me have that woodpecker killed?" said Mr. Schaefer last night. "Not for anything! I wouldn't harm that redheaded little rascal, I love to watch him. Then, too, you must remember that this is my property; that is my tree out there, and I suppose I could claim that old woodpecker if I choose to. I'm sorry my little woodpecker has caused all this trouble, but it can't be helped."
Personally, my sympathies are entirely with Team Woody. I'd take a steady dose of "tapety tap!" any day over human neighbors who rev up their boat engine at 2 a.m., set off Fourth of July fireworks that sound like the gates of Hell opening up, throw loud outdoor parties that last until dawn, let their large dog-who-likes-to-bite run loose, and smoke pot in their back yard, thus ensuring that the smell permeates the entire area.

As an aside, marvel at the days when you could march into the mayor's office and demand he kill a woodpecker.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Death Visits Birdhurst Rise; Or, Why It's Wise to Skip the Soup Course

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it's enemy action.”
~Ian Fleming

Violet Sidney, "Minneapolis Star Tribune," October 27, 1929, via Newspapers.com

When a family member suddenly and mysteriously dies, one tends to shrug it off. The sort of thing that can happen in the best of households. But when another relative passes away under similar circumstances, and then yet another...

...You start to realize you have a problem. Such was the unwholesome situation facing the Sidney family of 29 Birdhurst Rise, Croydon, England.

The Sidneys were a typical family, with the usual share of ups and downs. Prominent among the latter was when the marriage of the Sidney matriarch, Violet, suffered a painful breakup. Thomas Sidney, a prominent barrister, abandoned his wife and their three small children, Tom, Vera, and Grace, to run off with his brother's sister-in-law. Violet's bitterness about her husband's perfidy was something she clung to for the rest of her days. On the positive side, Violet's relationship with her children appeared to be a perfectly happy one. Grace, who lived nearby, dropped in nearly every day.  Vera, who remained--by choice, evidently--a spinster, opted to remain with her mother, and, as Violet aged, seemed quite content to take the role of her mother's chief caretaker and companion. Vera's life was quiet, but active and pleasant. She lived very well on the inheritance of £5,000 she had received from her father. She was an attractive, athletic, vivacious woman who enjoyed golf, bridge, and long, brisk walks.

Vera Sidney

The only hint of a rift in the familial relationships came when Grace married one Edmund Duff, a retired civil servant. Duff was good friends with Thomas Sidney--in fact, Mr. Sidney had been the one to introduce Duff to his daughter. This friendship was something for which Violet could never forgive Edmund. Any friend of Violet's hated ex-husband was, in her view, if not exactly an enemy, certainly far from a friend of hers. In addition, Edmund was seventeen years older than Grace, and not very good at making a living. The Duffs and their three surviving children (two died in infancy) had a standard of living well below that of the prosperous Sidneys. In addition, Edmund was no prince charming: he could be a crude, argumentative sort with a gift for frittering away what little money he had. Despite these drawbacks, Grace and Edmund appeared to have a happy enough marriage.

Edmund Duff

The first step on the road to tragedy and mystery began on April 26, 1928, when Edmund came home from a short fishing trip feeling strangely unwell, quite unlike his usual robust self. He and Grace presumed he was merely coming down with the flu. He had little appetite for the chicken and potatoes Grace served for dinner. All he could get down was a bottle of beer. Later that night, Edmund felt much worse. Grace called in a Dr. Robert Elwell, who could find nothing wrong with Edmund other than a slight temperature and nausea. The doctor, seeing no reason for any particular concern, prescribed aspirin, quinine, and plenty of rest.

Grace Duff

By morning, the sick man's condition had deteriorated further, with a sore throat, vomiting, and diarrhea. Dr. Elwell paid another visit, bringing with him his partner, Dr. John Binning, but the two physicians still believed nothing was seriously amiss. Just a common stomach upset, that would no doubt go away soon.

Edmund's ailment did not go away. Quite the contrary. By evening, he was suffering terrible stomach cramps, and was too weak and light-headed to stand. He could only lie in bed helplessly, moaning in pain and drenched in a cold sweat. For the first time, it began to dawn on Dr. Elwell that something might be drastically wrong with Edmund Duff. Elwell and Binning did whatever they could think of to ease the sick man's sufferings, but nothing they tried did the slightest good. Just after 11 o'clock that night, the two baffled doctors watched Edmund die.

Naturally, a post-mortem and inquest was ordered. The investigation did little to explain the mystery of Edmund's death. His wife and children had eaten the same food as Edmund, with no ill-effects. The only things ingested solely by Edward were a shot of whiskey and the beer. As he had begun to feel poorly before he arrived back home, it was presumed that he had eaten whatever it was that made him sick during his fishing trip. However, Edmund's host on this trip reported that no one in his household had been ill. The post-mortem found no signs of food poisoning, or any other toxins besides those from the medicine given by Edmund's doctors. The coroner's jury ruled that Duff died from natural causes, but what exactly those "causes" were seemed destined to remain murky.

Once the shock of Edmund's sudden and enigmatic death wore off, life went on for the Sidneys in its usual uneventful course until January 1929, when the normally brisk, energetic Vera began feeling poorly. It was nothing she could put her finger on: she just felt tired all the time. Then, she started suffering bouts of nausea. By February 10, she was too sick to even leave the house. The next day, Vera vowed that she would shake off her uncharacteristic funk. She forced herself to go for a long walk, and afterwards participated in a bridge game with friends. That evening, she and Violet had a dinner prepared by their housekeeper, Kathleen Noakes: soup, vegetables, fish, potatoes, and pudding. The two ate all the same foods except the soup, which was partaken only by Vera. Mrs. Noakes also had some of the soup, which she shared with the family cat, Bingo. That night, Vera suddenly began feeling very ill. So did Mrs. Noakes. So did Bingo. As had been the case with Edmund Duff, these were all illnesses that had no obvious cause.

On the morning of February 13, Vera felt well enough to run some errands. She came home to have lunch with her mother and her aunt Gwen. Grace had driven Gwen to the house, but she herself did not stay for the meal. Mrs. Noakes served them more soup--made with the same broth powder she had used before--veal, and vegetables. Again, Violet did not eat the soup, but Vera and Gwen did. Those two women soon had cause to regret their menu choices, as before the meal was even over, they both began feeling terribly ill. Vera, reasonably enough, blamed the soup, and questioned Mrs. Noakes about it. The housekeeper had no explanation. There was nothing visibly wrong with the powder, and the utensils used to cook it were all completely clean.

That night, Vera was sicker than she had ever been in her life. Like Edmund, she was suffering agonizing stomach pains. When Grace came by to check on her sister, she was so shocked by Vera's condition that she immediately called in Dr. Elwell. The doctor was as puzzled by her illness as he had been with Edmund's. All he could think of to do was give her morphine for the pain. When the next day found Vera no better, he called in a specialist, Dr. Charles Bolton. Bolton diagnosed her as having gastro-intestinal influenza, and prescribed the usual remedies. None of them worked. Just after midnight on February 15, Vera joined her brother-in-law in that undiscovered country whose bourne no travelers return. Again, the doctors attributed this new death to that handy phrase, "natural causes."

Naturally, Violet was devastated by her favorite child's unexpected death. Vera had not only been her daughter, but her best friend. Mrs. Sidney saw only a lonely, empty old age for herself. Tom and Grace did what they could to help their mother through this terrible time. They both visited her every day, and Dr. Elwell prescribed tonics to try to palliate Violet's grief. Mrs. Sidney's distress was heartrending to witness.

On the morning of March 5, Violet was visited by Grace and Dr. Elwell. After Violet had her lunch--something which seemed to be an increasingly hazardous thing to do in the Sidney household--she began to feel unwell. When Grace paid her another visit in the afternoon, she was surprised to see her mother looking pale and weak. Violet insisted that she had been poisoned. She blamed her tonic, stating that her last dose had tasted odd. Grace summoned Dr. Elwell, who, after hearing what Violet said about the tonic, examined the bottle. He saw a gritty sediment on the bottom. He called the chemist who had prepared the medicine. The chemist said the tonic had a small dose of strychnine, but in such minute quantities that it could not possibly do any harm. He confirmed that there was nothing at all in the tonic which could produce Violet's adverse symptoms.

By afternoon, Violet's illness was an alarming repeat of Vera and Edmund's: vomiting, diarrhea, intense stomach cramps. Dr. Elwell--who seems to have been competing for the title, "Doctor Who Is Of Least Use At Your Sickbed"--assumed she had food poisoning. By that evening, Violet was dead.

This fatal trifecta was enough to finally convince authorities that something very strange was going on with this family. Edmund and Vera's bodies were exhumed, and all three corpses put through an intense examination.

The results of these three autopsies were shocking: Pathologists ruled that Violet, Vera, and Edmund all died of arsenic poisoning. Edmund's body in particular was so saturated with the poison that he had to have swallowed a considerable amount. When the doctors who had performed the initial autopsies were asked to explain how they had missed this clear evidence of poisoning, they could only utter embarrassed mutterings about how they had tested "the only organ" not to contain arsenic, so had not thought to look any further.

The next step for investigators was to determine the vehicles for the arsenic. It was presumed that Edmund ingested the poison either through the whiskey he took on his fishing trip or the beer he drank at what proved to be his last dinner. Vera had obviously been poisoned by the soup. Traces of arsenic were found in Violet's bottle of tonic. It was also clear why these particular items of food and drink had been doctored: Edmund was the only one in his household to drink alcohol, Vera the only one in hers with a taste for soup, and only Violet took her tonic. Obviously, someone wanted only these three people poisoned, and it was someone who knew how to do it. The question was, who?

Mrs. Noakes? Although she obviously had the access to poison Vera and Violet's food and drink, she had none to poison Edmund's. She had no visible reason to want any of the three dead, and there was also the fact that the soup had made her sick, as well. It was, not unreasonably, presumed that the housekeeper would hardly dump a deadly poison in her cooking and then take a dose herself.

What of the curiously obtuse Dr. Elwell? He and Grace Duff had a close friendship--rather too close, if contemporary rumor is to be trusted. (Elwell admitted to police that he and Mrs. Duff had "been indiscreet," whatever that meant.) In fact, after Edmund died, some people expected the two would marry. If all this is true, the doctor could have a motive to want Edmund out of the picture. But what reason could he have had to also murder Violet and Vera?

To move on to even more lurid territory, some conjectured that Violet had murdered Edmund and Vera, and then, unable to live with her evil deeds, killed herself as well. This is probably the most unlikely theory of them all. Violet was not fond of her son-in-law, but there was no open hostility between them, and the staid, respectable Mrs. Sidney was a most unlikely candidate to turn Mad Poisoner. Most importantly, it was unthinkable that she could want her daughter, the person closest to her, dead.

Tom Sidney? Violet's son, a professional entertainer, was chronically short of money. Like Grace, he depended heavily on the financial generosity of Violet and Vera. His mother and sister left him reasonably large sums in their wills, which could have inspired him to have their deaths take place with a very unnatural haste. However, no one could find any reason for him to murder Edmund.

Tom Sidney

Students of this peculiar case, led by true-crime doyen Richard Whittington-Egan, soon find themselves staring fixedly at Grace Duff. She was the one person who had any possible motive to see all the victims six feet under. Only she had easy opportunity to poison them all. Only she gained financially from all their deaths. If the gossip about her and Dr. Elwell had any basis in fact, she had the additional incentive of trading in an unsatisfactory husband for a newer model. The grief and shock Grace displayed after each family tragedy was, according to this theory, just brilliant play-acting.

On the other hand, in her book "Poisonous Lies," Diane Janes offered a contrarian solution to the murders: namely, that they were no murders at all. In short, Janes argued that the arsenic found in the victims could have come from perfectly innocent environmental sources. Edmund and Vera truly did die of natural causes, just as their doctors had originally believed. Violet, unable to deal with the grief of her daughter's untimely death, committed suicide. (Janes is on stronger ground with the fact that Grace derived little financial benefit from the deaths of her mother and sister. She gained a small life insurance payment from Edmund's death, but that was offset by the loss of his pension.) Many strange and unlikely things happen in this world, so one cannot say Janes' scenario is impossible, but I find it highly improbable. As the old saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a murder is just a murder.

The lack of solid evidence in the case ensured that no one was ever charged with the deaths of the Sidneys and Edmund Duff. If Grace, or someone else, had stood trial for murder, perhaps we would have learned the truth of what happened to these three people. Or perhaps not. All we can do with any certainty is echo the words of Tom Sidney's wife Margaret: "Who can say who did it?"

[Note: the Croydon poisonings inspired one of Agatha Christie's most acclaimed novels, "Ordeal by Innocence."]