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

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Brothel's Bad Batter Cakes: A Poisoning Mystery

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 10, 1892, via Newspapers.com

From the time the concept of "mass media" was invented, it has been universally acknowledged that nothing sells like sex or death. Put the two together, and you've got a sure-fire public favorite.

So, naturally, when people started dropping dead in a Louisville brothel, local journalists thought they themselves had died and gone straight to heaven.

The establishment run by forty year old Emma Austin spent the night of September 8, 1892 in a quiet manner--or, at least as quiet as it is in such places. Besides Mrs. Austin, the occupants were her eleven year old son Lloyd, Austin’s laundress Rachel Jackson, Mrs. Jackson’s young daughter Lillie, and Austin’s star employee, young, beautiful Eugenia Sherrill. Some four or five men came to call. Mrs. Sherrill--before presumably entertaining visitors in more private fashion--played “Nearer My God to Thee” on the piano. Someone sent out for ice cream, which was enjoyed by everyone in the house. And so to bed.

The next morning, young Lloyd said he was not feeling well, but Mrs. Austin insisted he go to school anyway. She then made breakfast: batter cakes, cantaloupe, jam, and coffee. Mrs. Austin and Eugenia Sherrill were the only ones to partake of the meal.

The other residents would soon be thankful they had skipped breakfast. Almost immediately, the two women began feeling deathly ill, suffering from uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. A Mrs. Johnson, who was temporarily boarding in the house, heard their cries of agony and summoned a doctor. (As a side note, reporters later had a lot of fun publishing Mrs. Johnson’s insistent remarks that she had no idea--no, sir, no suspicion in the world--that she was rooming in a house of ill repute.)

At first, the physician, Dr. Brennan, presumed the women were suffering from nothing worse than a case of severe food poisoning--an ailment sadly common in pre-refrigeration summers--and gave them the medicine appropriate for such cases. However, Austin and Sherrill continued to deteriorate. Their eyes dilated, they were covered in a cold sweat, and, most alarming of all, they had begun vomiting blood. The doctor soon realized the women had been poisoned, probably deliberately.

This shocking development opened up an embarrassing can of worms for everyone involved. As I said above, Mrs. Johnson was left trying to explain why she, a seemingly respectable lady, had spent the last two weeks living in a brothel. Eugenia Sherrill’s position was even more mortifying: prostitution was merely her secret side career. Up until now, she was known to society only as a member of one of Kentucky’s most prominent and respectable families. Even worse, for the past year she had been married to Edward Sherrill, a prosperous traveling salesman. In her agony, poor Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to be brought to her home so she could die without her double life being discovered. Unfortunately, she was far too ill to be moved. Dr. Brennan was helpless to save them. Eugenia died at 12: 45 p.m. Mrs. Austin’s sufferings ended two hours later.

The Twice-A-Week Messenger, September 15, 1892

As it was obvious that foul play had taken place, the coroner immediately arranged an inquest. To save time, it was held in the brothel, which may be some sort of true-crime first. Because little Lloyd Austin was sick after eating the ice cream the night before, it was at first suspected that the dessert might have been poisoned. However, this theory was dismissed when it was realized that no one else felt ill after eating it. Most likely, the boy had just consumed so much of it he gave himself indigestion.

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 10, 1892

Among the inquest witnesses was Mrs. Austin’s adult daughter, Nellie Koch. Mrs. Koch lived elsewhere, having, as she enigmatically put it, “left my mother’s house several weeks ago.” When she heard of her mother’s illness, she came to see her. She testified that Mrs. Austin told her that she and Mrs. Sherrill became sick right after eating breakfast. Mrs. Koch also revealed that she had done a fine job of eliminating evidence by throwing away all the remnants of the batter cakes. None of the other witnesses were able to contribute anything useful to the investigation.

An autopsy was performed on Mrs. Austin. (Since Mrs. Sherrill had obviously died of the same cause, it was evidently felt that it was unnecessary to perform a post-mortem on her.) It revealed that she had died from ingesting some irritant poison, possibly arsenic. As no such substance was kept in the house, this indicated deliberate poisoning. Considering that the two dead women were the only ones to eat the batter cakes, that meal was clearly what had been adulterated.

Meanwhile, Edward Sherrill returned to Louisville from a business trip, to be greeted by the shock of his life. It is hard to know what stunned him most: the news that his young bride had been poisoned, or the revelation that whenever he was out of town, Eugenia was spending her nights in a brothel. The despairing man dashed to Mrs. Austin’s house--where the bodies of the two victims were on macabre public display--and clasped his wife’s body in his arms, wailing piteously that he refused to believe the “vile stories.” It was some fifteen minutes before the hysterical Mr. Sherrill could be parted from the corpse, still crying and insisting that his beloved “Genie” had been “true to him.”

It must have been a heartrending thing to watch. And, of course, every detail was lovingly preserved in the newspapers.

Mrs. Austin was quietly buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. In contrast, Eugenia’s funeral in her native Meade County was one of the largest in the area’s history. Hundreds attended her burial, all of them apparently drawn by an odd combination of pity and salacious curiosity.

There was no question that the two women had been deliberately poisoned, but no one could agree on who did it, and why. Nellie Koch suggested that Emma deliberately poisoned her food, and for some unfathomable reason, decided to take Mrs. Sherrill with her. Mrs. Johnson endorsed this theory. She said she found it odd that as the women were dying, Mrs. Sherrill was frantic to survive, while, in contrast, Mrs. Austin seemed utterly indifferent to her fate. In addition, Mrs. Austin had recently visited the Jeffersonville penitentiary to see her brother, Sam Gore. (He was serving a ten year sentence for murder.) A guard had heard her telling Gore that she would soon “end her trouble.” It was also noted that Emma had recently heavily insured her life, making her son the beneficiary. And why did she insist on sending Lloyd to school without breakfast, even though he wasn’t feeling well?

Others suggested that the victims were poisoned by one of the brothel’s clients--possibly someone who had a motive to cover up his visits to the house. Two of the men who came by on the night before the poisonings spent the night, which would have made it easy for them to slip something unpleasant into the food before they left. After this theory was aired in the newspapers, it inspired half the males in town to visit the police stations, nervously denying that they had ever so much as laid eyes on Mrs. Austin’s establishment. Thus providing Louisville’s wives with a handy guide to which of their husbands had a taste for bordellos.

No first-class murder mystery is complete without nutty anonymous letters to the authorities, and this one was no exception. On September 12, the coroner received an unsigned letter which took the investigation into a whole new territory:
Dr. Berry: That poison Was intended For Vince Spaninger And Mrs. Austin. He Ate His Meals Thair, And He Has Bin Keeping A Woman for Twenty years. She Lives at 117 West Walnut, And Tha All Had A Fight And it Has not A more than. And she said she would Kill Him is She Caught Him in The Austin House. Enclosed You will find some of the Drug That Was used. Now find out who used it, Spaninger’s Wife or Mrs. Cole or Nelly Koch. Nelly and Her mother had the fuss about Him. The only Regret is that the Poisoning of The Innocent One. It is No secret About the way Spaninger And the Austin woman lived. All Second street know it. Policeman Sweeney Can Tell you if you Want to Know if He will talk.
Anney Myers,
Betty Harper,
John Snyder,
Jake Dehl.
It is to be hoped you will Find the Guilty one.
Vince Spaninger was a Louisville produce merchant. Mrs. Austin’s brothel was located directly above his store. It was far from the first time this anonymous author had written about Spaninger’s doings. For Vince, peddling vegetables was merely a way to make a living. His real profession was women. His romantic history was enough to make Casanova blush. For the past ten years or so, this same anonymous writer had been sending Speninger’s unfortunate wife Lizzie letters chronicling her husband’s many, many infidelities in great--and, it turned out--extremely accurate detail.

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 1892

“Policeman Sweeney”--whose real name was actually “Feeny”--was asked about the anonymous writer’s claims, and he did indeed talk. He was able to confirm that Spaninger was one of the two men who had stayed overnight at Mrs. Austin’s house. It also emerged that Spaninger had suggested Emma make batter cakes for breakfast, but he declined to stay to eat any of them.

The plot, as they say, thickened.

Spaninger’s lady friend at 117 West Walnut turned out to be forty year old Josephine Cole. Like Mrs. Austin, Cole was a madam, but on a more modest scale. She made the bulk of her income from giving psychic readings at fifty cents a pop. She readily told reporters that yes, indeed, she had been Vince Spaninger’s mistress for the past fifteen years, and furthermore, she had tried to keep him from marrying. (By this point, Lizzie Spaninger was probably wishing Mrs. Cole had succeeded.) She admitted that she had been jealous of Vince’s relationship with the late Mrs. Austin, and confirmed that he had been the cause of the falling-out between Emma and Nellie Koch. She professed to have no idea who had written all those anonymous letters chronicling Mr. Spaninger’s every sordid move, but she intimated that whoever had deserved a medal. When questioned about the letters, Spaninger himself denounced them as a pack of lies. He had no idea who had poisoned Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill, but he did not believe Emma had committed suicide.

Nellie Koch denied that she had argued with her mother, and suggested that the letter writer--whoever he/she was--must also be the murderer.

The four names at the end of the anonymous letter were questioned, with little success. Betty Harper, a former prostitute, claimed not to have even known Mrs. Austin, and she certainly had no idea who had poisoned her. Annie Myers said much the same. John Snyder and Jacob Diehl were business partners of Spaninger’s. They both claimed to share the same convenient ignorance of the fact that a house of assignation had been operating over their store. However, Diehl was able to provide the interesting information that Spaninger believed that he thought all those pesky anonymous letters were written by Josephine Cole.

The “drug” the anonymous writer had included with the letter turned out to be arsenic. Did the writer get the arsenic elsewhere, or was it from the stash used as a murder weapon?

On September 14, two detectives called on Josephine Cole. They thought it was time to have a nice long chat. While there, one of them noticed that the writing on a photo of Spaninger resembled that of the anonymous tattletale. When he asked if this was her writing, Mrs. Cole realized the game was up and it was time to confess all. Yes, she had written those letters to Mrs. Spaninger. Most of them, at least. Some, she claimed, were sent by yet another of Vince’s mistresses, one Maggie Faulkner.

The detectives then asked the obvious follow-up question: where did she get the arsenic included with the letter? Mrs. Cole replied that on the morning Mrs. Austin cooked her last breakfast, Spaninger came to her house in an obviously agitated state. He told her that Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Sherrill were both going to die. When he took a handkerchief out of his pocket, he failed to notice that a brown paper packet fell out. Mrs. Cole presumed it was a love letter to another woman, so she managed to hide it with her foot until he left. When she opened the packet, she realized it contained poison. Mrs. Cole explained that she would have kept Vince’s little secret, if not for the fact that she subsequently learned that he had been far more than neighbors to Mrs. Austin. Although one would think the Casanova of the Produce Aisle’s habits would have been old news to Mrs. Cole, she was enraged enough to send that informative letter to the coroner, along with a sample of the powder and a list of names she thought could also dish the dirt on Spaninger. She believed his motive for the murder was to get Mrs. Austin out of the way so he could spend more time with his latest amour, Nellie Koch.  (As a side note, Mrs. Cole was evidently unaware that her daughter Carrie was also said to have been Spaninger's mistress.)

As a result of this little tale, both Spaninger and Mrs. Cole found themselves under arrest. Spaninger denied every word of Mrs. Cole’s story; in fact, he was positive she was the poisoner.

And what of Nellie Koch, who, thanks to Mrs. Cole, was suddenly under scrutiny? She had bitterly quarreled with her soon-to-be-deceased mother. She had thrown away the breakfast before it could be analyzed. And she had, shall we say, a colorful past. In 1886, she married a railroad worker named Gilbert Brockman. The pair spent their brief married life getting kicked out of various residences thanks to Nellie’s reputation for “immorality.” And then there was the time Brockman--at his wife’s urging--tried to murder one of her former lovers. In 1887, Brockman suddenly fell ill and died. The smart money assumed Nellie had poisoned him, but his doctors stubbornly stated that Brockman died of natural causes.

This was beginning to look like one of those Agatha Christie stories where all the characters have a motive. Usually, there is a hard time finding suspects in a murder case. 1892 Louisville was just lousy with them.

When the inquest resumed on September 16, it, like the earlier such inquiry, did little to clarify matters. Vince Spaninger denied any involvement with the crime. He claimed that he would have stayed to share the fatal breakfast, if it had not been for the fact that he had important matters to attend to. When Nellie Koch was on the stand, she was asked why she threw out the breakfast leftovers, considering their obvious possible link to the sudden illness of the two women. She replied that it didn’t occur to her that her mother might be poisoned. She denied having any sort of romantic relationship with Spaninger. Dr. Brennan testified that Mrs. Austin’s stomach had indeed contained arsenic. And so the coroner’s jury delivered the inevitable verdict: the two women had been poisoned by a person unknown.

There was a brief trial of Spaninger and Josephine Cole, which was no more illuminating than the inquest.  Everyone who had spoken at the inquest repeated their stories.  Mrs. Johnson (whose real name turned out to be “Lydia Anderson”) had fled town to avoid testifying at the inquest, but authorities managed to haul her back to take the stand. She proved to be as unhelpful as all the other witnesses. Her testimony indicated that Nellie Koch was far from grief-stricken by her mother’s untimely end, and that Spaninger was in the habit of discreetly using Mrs. Austin’s window, rather than the staircase, to enter her room.

At the end of the proceedings, the judge could only sigh, “We have a world of evidence, without a scintilla of proof.” Enough dirty laundry had been produced to fill a million washing machines, but none of it was the slightest help with establishing who had poisoned Mrs. Austin’s batter cakes. Everyone involved was set free to carry on their curious lives, and this complicated little murder mystery faded from public memory.

Louisville Courier-Journal, September 22, 1892

Although many people had motive for the poisoning, only two of them had an evident opportunity. No poison was found in any of the ingredients used to make the batter cakes. Thus, it was reasoned, the arsenic had to have been added to the batter itself. And the only people known to have been in the vicinity when the batter was made were Emma Austin and Vince Spaninger.

Was this murder/suicide? Did Mrs. Austin, resentful of Spaninger’s likely attentions to the younger, prettier Mrs. Sherrill, decide to poison her rival and herself? Or did Spaninger--certainly a man with a lot to hide--have his own secret motives to be rid of the women? Or did someone else manage to sneak in to poison the batter unseen?

Theorize away.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump has the honor to be hosted by royalty!

All bow down to the beautiful Fritz.

Via British Newspaper Archive

Do different cat breeds have different personalities?

A haunted sanitarium.

Haunted hotel rooms.

So it turns out the Fenn treasure may come with a surprise bonus!

The call of the void.  (Or, as Poe called it, the "Imp of the Perverse.")

A very strange micronation.

Encountering an "It" on the road to Ravensden.

Mourning the lost patents.

All hail the potato!

The weirdness of the platypus.

A mysterious ancient golden chamber.

The pros and cons of Napoleon.

A significant 30,000 year old burial site.

The man who gave the world fake ghost photos.

What it was like to be a poor child in 19th century New York.

The lore of Anansi the Spider.

Pfui.  This woman says cat men are the best men.

A "most horrible murder."

A brief history of door handles.

A recipe for medieval midsummer cherry pudding.

A disappearance at the Grand Canyon.

The most dreadful execution of the Salem Witch Trials.

A pixie hitches a ride on a plane.

The Paris of the Arctic.

I Fought the Emu, and the Emu Won.

Volcanoes that changed history.

Archivists feud in the Tower of London.

The fiery Willie Brough.

The hell of Okinawa.

A reminder of how little we know of our own planet.

The world's first astronomical site.

A fine example of Bolshevik gratitude.

If you're getting married, it would be wise to avoid hearses.

Vampire hunting in Hungary.

Puritans vs. long hair.

Australia's Sundown Murders.

A Pompeii summer solstice.

A paranormal cautionary tale.

In search of a mysterious suffragette.

The hidden garden of St. Mary's.

The Cline Falls ax attack.

Honor--of a sort--among thieves.

America's first female astronomer.

A fraudulent shipwreck.

Sam, the unsinkable cat.

In which hedgehogs have a bowling tournament.

George Washington as the foster father of his country.

Two imaginative but incompetent murderers.

The creepy lore surrounding a chained oak.

When Emily met Thomas.

The stone chambers of New England.

The secret tunnels of Liverpool.

The Molly Houses of London.

Minor spirits and Italian paganism.

I'm sure this will end just freaking well.

A triple ax murder.

A revenge murder and a lynching.

Malcolm the Maiden, King of Scots.

Thus ends yet another Link Dump. See you on Monday, when we'll look at a scandalous poisoning mystery. In the meantime, long may you run!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

Few things are more disgusting than mold. It is bad enough finding it on a piece of cheese or a forgotten container of leftovers. Imagine having it permanently engulf your house. This fusty tale appeared in the Raleigh, North Carolina “News and Observer” for August 24, 1961:
ELKIN (UPI) — Grayish powdery mold which defies disinfectants, shellac, hot water, and alcohol has driven a part time Baptist minister and his family from their humble farm home near here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.

"It's a sort of sour and fiery sort of thing," said the Rev. Grady Norman, 58, who was born in the house. "It made my nose plug up and my eyes water."

Mrs Norman, who was forced to seek medical treatment, said — "I scrubbed the place with alcohol and disinfectants but it didn't stop it! Nothing stopped it."

The mold now covers the six room house virtually from basement to attic including furniture, floors, walls, and even clothing left rotting in closets. The spores rise in puffball shapes ranging in size from a pin-point to a match head. It caused the Normans and their 15-year-old daughter Wilda Mae to wheeze and feel ill. Mrs. Norman was unable to sleep at night and developed an “asthma-type cough." “The doctor gave me some medicine but it didn't seem to help much," she said. "I guess we must be allergic to the mold."

The family moved into a small trailer parked within sight of the house, taking only a metal stove and refrigerator with them, on advice of the Surry County Health Department, which is mystified by the mold. "It started about a year ago but it didn't get really so bad until 30 days ago," said Mrs. Norman.

"It looks like plain old blue mold to me," said Surry County Health Director Robert M. Caldwell, "but we haven't been able to classify it. I think there are about 5000 types of mold."

He said a culture would be sent later this week to the State Laboratory in Raleigh for further tests. "I think reports about how fast the mold is spreading are terribly exaggerated," Dr. Caldwell said, "but nevertheless it's there and there is no doubt it did affect the family. I have a lake cabin up in the mountains myself and it's full of mold in the summer, you just dust it off."

Norman, who is a supply minister at the Union Hill Missionary Baptist Church, about 15 miles northwest of here, said he believes the mold started in linoleum they bought at a sale and put down on the floor of the house.

The family took up the linoleum after the mold was discovered and threw it outside, where the mold is still growing. The floor, meantime, was scrubbed with hot water and disinfectant and then painted with shellac. But Norman said the mold kept forming and spread to the walls, into kitchen cabinets, the bedrooms, and into dresser drawers and the closets. It covered cases of fruit and vegetables in the basement and "we've had to leave those too," said the unhappy housewife.

County Sanitarian John Cruse and the family physician, Dr. John Hall of Elkin, inspected the house on several occasions and Dr. Caldwell accompanied both there two weeks ago.

"I heard them talking so much about it I just had to see if for myself," Dr. Caldwell said. "It's mold, it's there, and we all agree it didn't do the family any good. Outside of that we're working to try and help them.

"Just why it keeps spreading I can't say. Maybe it’s because the house is in an especially damp place. But I don't know. The house is 60 or so years old and we have places over a hundred years old in the county and there is nothing like it in them."

Meanwhile the Normans are making the best of it in their small trailer and have given up attempts to stop the spread. A lean man, Norman tends his five milk cows and few acres of corn and garden crops.

"It's hard to lose everything," said Mrs. Norman.

"I was born in this house 58 years ago" said her husband. "Now we've had to get out and turn the house over to the mold."

A follow-up story appeared in the September 29, 1962 “Charlotte Observer.” The house, still covered in mold, had been permanently vacated. Rev. Norman expressed his disgust with all the publicity his family had received, declaring it was worse than the mold. He said that he and his family would not be speaking to reporters again. They wished to just get on with their lives in peace.

The story subsequently disappeared from the newspapers. Many years later, two Fortean researchers, Alan McCann and Michael A. Frizzell, learned of the musty mystery, and set out to learn more about it. (They subsequently published their findings in “The INFO Journal” for June 1991.) They were able to contact Norman’s daughter, who confirmed the details of her family’s bizarre ordeal.

In 1962, the Normans sold the house to a neighbor. This man made attempts to clean the house, but he too gave up the struggle and abandoned the place. It stood vacant--and defiantly moldy--for nearly 30 years, until the owner sold it to someone who bulldozed the house and cleared the land. At the time McCann and Frizzell’s article appeared, the site was still vacant property. It would be interesting to know what, if anything, stands there today.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Case of the Litigated Poltergeist

In previous centuries, it was common for episodes of what we today call “poltergeist visitations” to be explained by demonic attacks or cases of witchcraft. It was equally inevitable that often, some luckless person would be singled out as the culprit, thus leading to a witchcraft trial.

One of these cases, however, was very unusual indeed. In 1851 France, an accused witch did indeed go into a courtroom, but not as the defendant. As the plaintiff.

Our story starts in the winter of 1850-51, when the parsonage of Cideville, a village about eighty miles from Paris, began experiencing some very strange disturbances. They centered around two boys, aged twelve and fourteen, who were living at the parsonage in order to be educated for the priesthood. The residence found themselves harassed by inexplicable rappings, which, most oddly, would become louder or quieter upon request. The blows would also beat time to any tune that was suggested, like a spectral DJ. Household items would move seemingly under their own power. Doors would become mysteriously impossible to open. Tables would slide across rooms, people lying in bed would find the bedcovers rudely snatched off, and an eerie cold breeze would suddenly blow through the hallways. A vaguely human-shaped specter was seen following the younger boy around the parsonage. The young acolytes were periodically brutally slapped in the face by a "black hand."  When the two boys were removed from the household in February 1851, the supernatural disruptions abruptly ceased.

So far, the events at Cideville followed the pattern of any bog-standard poltergeist case. But then, things began to take an unconventional turn. A shepherd named Felix Thorel  was known to have boasted about possessing demonic powers. This led to the Cideville curate, Jean Tinel, coming to the conclusion that Thorel was behind this paranormal peskiness. According to the boys who were being educated by Tinel, it was when Thorel began “haunting” them that the spectral disruptions broke out.

When Father Tinel confronted Thorel, the shepherd, far from denying his knowledge of the black arts, positively reveled in boasting about them. Just to prove what he was capable of doing when he set his mind to it, he visited one of the boys and put another hex on him. Immediately after this, the paranormal manifestations broke out afresh.

Thorel was soon to regret being such a showoff. His little stunt got him fired from his job, and Father Tinel--quite weary of this spectral harassment--beat him with a walking stick. Thorel responded to these indignities by going to court and charging the curate with defamation. He asked for damages of twelve hundred francs.

During the trial, over thirty witnesses--including the mayor, several priests, and a professional Parisian occultist--testified that the Cideville disturbances were the result of a genuine haunting, and that it was impossible for the boys to cause the manifestations themselves. Baffled, the judges could only rule that “whatever might be the cause of the extraordinary facts which occurred at the parsonage of Cideville, it is clear, from the sum total of the testimony adduced, that the cause of these facts remains unknown.”

The case was dismissed, on the not unreasonable grounds that as Thorel had actively promoted the idea that he was a sorcerer, he could hardly complain if people took him at his word. He was ordered to pay all the expenses of the lawsuit. The two boys were permanently removed from the parsonage, and life in Cideville returned to normal.

Although one wonders what passed for “normal” in a village like that.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is hosted by one of Strange Company HQ's crack team of assistant editors!

A statue that turned out to be a time capsule.

The oldest known human remains in Europe.

Mars is glowing green, because it just had to join in on the general 2020 insanity.

Dr. Beachcombing is back, and he's brought train-hating ghosts with him.

British and Irish midsummer folklore.

Something weird was floating over Japan.

Georgian era mourning etiquette.

Darwin and the earthworms.

A lion cage becomes a cat maternity ward.

Some Anglo-Saxon women who ended their marriages.

A London summer as seen by George Cruikshank.

Murder in Simi Valley.

The world's oldest recipes.

The long strange life of Phoebe Hessel.

Hatch, the dog of the ill-fated Mary Rose.

A mystical blue cemetery.

A life-saving ugly ghost.

What it's like to be attacked by Bigfoot.

The lost treasure of a Burma king.

How to be a fake heiress.

Bows and arrows from 48,000 years ago.

A brief history of soap.

A brief history of plague weddings.

A brief history of popcorn.

A brief history of pickle sandwiches.

One really big freaking dinosaur.

Murder at FoxCatcher Farms.

The last witch to be executed in Sweden.

As I've noted in this space before, crows are damn smart.

I've been saying for some time now that just because scientists can do something, that doesn't necessarily meant they should do it.

In related news:  kids, this is not the year to get all cutesy with nature.

A ghost fetches the dying.

Some important Maya ruins.

Quacking, tooting queen bees.

The gibbet of Inkpen.

Before Ellis Island, there was Castle Garden.

The juggler of Bow Cemetery.

A Peckham Rye Bluebeard.

The hunt for a seasickness cure.

Let's talk Headless Blemmyes.

If you've been feeling a sense of unreality lately, there might be a reason for that.

Florida's most haunted bridge.

The disappearance of Elizabeth Campbell.  (Sadly, I don't think this one is too mysterious.  It seems clear the poor woman hitched a ride with the wrong person.)

Durer and the 16th century fake rhino.

Remember the theory that "Dracula" was inspired by a cholera epidemic?  Here's a refutation of that idea.

Margaret, Duchess of Brabant.

A mysterious cave treasure.

very bad bridegroom.

A forgotten
early film family.

And, to close:  RIP, Bob.

That wraps it up for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at the time a poltergeist inspired a lawsuit. In the meantime, as this is National Accordion Awareness Month, let's rock!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

Wakes--especially when adult beverages are involved--can be lively affairs, but usually the star of the show has the good taste not to actively participate in the proceedings. The “Leavenworth Post,” July 4, 1906:
Pittsburg, July 4. Fifteen men who were sitting up with the corpse of Mrs. Catherine Gulerale in McKeesport declared the wake adjourned sine die when the corpse arose from the coffin, walked to the cupboard in the room, looked into it, gazed out the window and then returned to its narrow bed, disposing itself peacefully in the cushioned box.

When the strange story was told to the police they entered the house and found the body of Mrs. Gulerale lying in the coffin. Fifteen excited foreigners gathered around the policemen and insisted the woman had arisen from her coffin. A physician was called and he pronounced her dead.

Yet those fifteen men insist they saw her alive and declare they had not been drinking any more than it is the custom at a wake. None of the men could be induced to return to the house.

The funeral took place the next day and persons who attended were in fear and trembling. They say it presages the worst kind of luck when the dead walk that way. When a ghost walks it's not so bad.
Hopefully, this time Mrs. Gulerale stayed dead.

Monday, June 15, 2020

A Lynching in Wyoming: A Case of Legal and Historical Injustice

“Cattle Kate” Watson was one of early Wyoming’s most scandalous outlaws. She was a prostitute, a cattle thief, and a mean, aggressive Amazon who would beat you up as soon as look at you. She was, in short, a public menace. In 1889, her harassed neighbors finally had had enough, and resorted to classic rough frontier justice. Watson, along with her equally disreputable husband/pimp, were captured and strung up. No one mourned them.

It is a colorful story, one which made Watson one of the Old West’s most famous villains. There is just one problem: not one of the “historical facts” listed above is even close to being true.

Aside, unfortunately, for the lynching part.

Ellen Watson was born in Ontario in July 1860. When she was 17, her large family--she was the eldest of ten surviving children--moved to Lebanon, Kansas. Soon afterward, Watson began to work as housekeeper for one H.R. Stone. In 1879, she married a farm laborer named William A. Pickell. During this period, she was described as a tall, solidly-built woman with a pronounced accent inherited from her Scottish parents.

Unfortunately, Ellen’s marriage was a disaster practically from the start. Pickell was an alcoholic who treated his wife with great emotional and physical brutality. In early 1883, Ellen finally had enough, and fled to her parents. Pickell followed her and tried to force her to return to him, but Ellen’s father put such a scare into him, he decided it was wisest to leave Ellen’s life for good.

Finally a free woman again, Ellen moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she made her liberation official with a divorce. She then went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she worked as a cook and seamstress. As Cheyenne proved to not be to her liking, Ellen--who seems to have had a decidedly restless and independent personality--moved on to Rawlins, Wyoming, where she found work in the town’s main boarding place, the Rawlins House.

In early 1886, one James Averell claimed land along the Sweetwater River, where he opened a restaurant and general store. He hired Watson as a cook. Several months later, James and Ellen applied for a marriage license. Although there is no proof the pair actually wed, historians have surmised that they did make their relationship legal, but kept it a secret so that Ellen could apply for land through the Homestead Act. (This 1862 legislation allowed women to buy 160 acres of land, but only if they were unmarried.) In May 1888, Ellen filed a homestead claim to land adjacent to her sub rosa spouse. She lived in a small cabin on the property, where she supplemented her income by doing sewing for the many cowboys who passed through the area.

When she had saved enough money, Watson began accumulating a small herd of cattle. Although she never could have dreamed it at the time, this investment was to prove her undoing. It was a tricky time to be a small-scale rancher. At the time, it was common for cattle owners to graze their animals on public land. However, in 1872, owners of the larger ranches came together to create the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and claimed rights to the open range. In the terrible winter of 1880-81, cattle were unable to get enough grass. As a result, ranchers began growing hay to feed their animals in winter. This meant that in this generally arid land, water suddenly became a particularly precious resource. And the land claimed by Ellen and her husband contained one mile of Horse Creek. Thus, the formerly humble Watson/Averell property suddenly became of great value. A wealthy rancher named Albert Bothwell made numerous offers to buy this land from them, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Averell and Ellen began to prosper. James became postmaster, a notary public, a justice of the peace and an election judge. This hardly fits the popular image of Averell as a pimp, outlaw, and cattle thief.

Inevitably, the WSGA used their newfound self-created power to crowd outsiders out of the ranching business. They used their influence to pass a law decreeing that all unbranded calves automatically became WSGA property. They limited independent ranchers from bidding at auctions, and announced that all cattle owners, no matter how small, must have a registered brand. Naturally, they also engineered it so that the cost of these brands was so high that few could afford it. Additionally, the WSGA had the power to have brand applications either accepted or rejected. This all went just about the way you would think.

Watson and Averell filed five different brand applications, only to have them all thrown out. Finally, in 1889, Ellen bought a previously registered brand from a neighbor, John Crowder, and began branding her cattle. Although records show that she had bought only 28 cattle, she branded 41, leading historians to surmise that many of them were calves born in the wild (“mavericks”) which the WSGA considered to be rightfully theirs. Averell had also taken to writing a number of letters to local newspapers, exposing the corrupt practices of the WSGA and its campaign to stifle rival homesteaders.

In short, conditions were ripe for Ellen and her husband to have some sort of showdown with the more powerful ranchers. That showdown began taking place in July 1889, when Ellen filed for permission to build a water ditch to irrigate her land. This would mean less water from Horse Creek would be available to her neighbors, most particularly Albert Bothwell. Bothwell decided it was time to teach this upstart a lesson. He began--entirely unlawfully--fencing in parts of Ellen’s land, and began sending his workers over to harass her and Averell. The beleaguered couple--apparently tragically ignorant of just how far Bothwell was prepared to go--tried ignoring the persecution, and carried on with their lives as best they could.

On July 20, Bothwell had a meeting with other powerful ranchers, where he announced that he had evidence that Watson was a cattle rustler. In 19th century Wyoming, those were, quite literally, hanging words. Although some of Bothwell’s neighbors protested against his assertion that Watson and her partner must be lynched for this crime, five of them agreed.

Bothwell and his cohorts rode to Ellen’s ranch, where at gunpoint they forced her and Averell in their buckboard. Gene Crowder, a young boy who lived with the couple, saw what was happening and ran for help. Tragically, by the time he returned with a neighbor, Frank Buchanan, it was too late. Bothwell’s men began a gunfight that forced the would-be rescuers back long enough for Ellen and James to be hanged.

"San Francisco Examiner," July 23, 1889, via Newspapers.com.  Newspapers of the day--possibly deliberately--confused Watson with a notorious female desperado named Kate Maxwell.

Bothwell and his five co-murderers were arrested, but before their trial date, Gene Crowder--apparently warned that he would share Watson’s and Averell’s fate if he stuck around--fled town. Although Frank Buchanan had been taken into protective custody, he too disappeared. Whether he, like Crowder, ran for the hills or was murdered was never established. With both witnesses to the lynching now unavailable, the charges against Bothwell and his allies were dropped. Watson’s executor, George Durant, sued Bothwell and another of the lynch mob, John Durbin, accusing them of stealing Watson’s cattle and rebranding them as their own. The case was eventually dismissed. Bothwell wasted no time acquiring the properties of the couple he had murdered. He continued to prosper right up to the time he died in Los Angeles in the 1920s. And I’m willing to bet his conscience never pained him once.

After the couple was hanged, it was naturally advisable for Bothwell and his allies to come up with a good cover story. Even in the Old West, the ruthless murder of innocent people was frowned upon. Happily for them, the WSGA controlled all of the West’s major newspapers. Editors were given their instructions, and the lurid legend of thieving, whoring “Cattle Kate”--a name never given to her in life--was born. The lynching was explained in editorials as merely a “lawless but justifiable deed,” the sort of thing cattlemen were “forced” to do in order to protect their rightful property from desperadoes. In brief, the victims were asking for it. Averell’s brother, R.W. Cahill, tried to set the record straight, telling reporters that the lynching was “cruel and cold-blooded murder,” but he was ignored.

Given the choice between a good story and tedious truth, most will opt for the former. Increasingly colorful and fictitious accounts of Watson’s life spilled over from the newspapers into numerous Western TV shows, movies, and even so-called history books. The myth of “Cattle Kate” would possibly be reigning unchallenged to this day, if, in the late 20th century, a composer named George Hufsmith had not begun researching Watson for an opera he planned to write about her. He learned that the accepted history about Watson was, in his words, “pure fabrication.” Family and friends described Ellen Watson as brave, honest, hard-working, and generous. In the words of one acquaintance, Harry Ward, “Other women looked down on her in those days, but no matter what she was or did she had a big heart. Nobody went hungry around her.” Hufsmith eventually published the fruits of his groundbreaking research in his 1993 book, “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.”

Although Watson’s and Averell's murderers were never brought to justice, perhaps history can give them some small measure of reparation.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Weekend Link Dump

"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is hosted by a selection of handsome Cockney Cats!

"The Sketch," December 16, 1953, via British Newspaper Archive

Why the hell are ships sailing in circles?

What the hell is Cicada 3301?

What the hell is the Phaistos Disc?

Watch out for those cursed gemstones!

Watch out for Whipping Tom!

The trial of Oscar Wilde.

Escaping from occupied Europe, 1940.

The Duke of Wellington would have made a good babysitter.

A Cheltenham murder walk.

Paraguay can't get enough of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Eleanor of Aquitaine goes on crusade.

Papal Avignon gets violent.

East Asia's oldest carved figurine.

The life of the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great.

The cursed Irey family.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold: a Tudor extravaganza.

WWII's ghost army.

Mass murder at the Denmark Place.

The coldest of murder cases.

When Death comes a-knocking.

An undertaker's wooing.

The poisonous Nancy Doss.

Kathy Sullivan, who knows the highs and the lows better than anyone.

The girl who died singing.

The rather murky life history of a slave in 18th century England.

The Georgian era smelled to high heaven.

Isaac Newton was a big fan of toad vomit.

London's earliest theater has just been uncovered.

Cornwall's tin-mining gnomes.

Charles Dickens and the magic lantern.

A famed Spanish archaeological site.

If it's any consolation, news was weird back in the old days, too.

The poor cats of Hell's Kitchen.

Henry VIII and unicorns.

The most dangerous stretch of water in the world.

You can do a virtual tour of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctica hut.

That time Davy Crockett met Bigfoot.

How a famous clown avoided being buried alive.

Orkney gets a gift from the sea.

A mysterious mummy reveals an ancient family tragedy.

New York City and the "Croton bug."

When you're a serial bigamist, life is seldom dull.

A homicidal barber.

How a child's graffiti identified who owned a villa in Pompeii.

What comes after the discovery of buried treasure?  That's right.  Lawyers.

Nikola Tesla's death ray.

5,000 year-old Scottish fabric.

The history of Chateau de Saint-Cloud.

To anyone familiar with the Bay Area, it's no surprise that they now have a giant orange wheezing kazoo on their hands.

Mary Queen of Scots' bungled execution.

The link between Dracula and an Irish epidemic.

The Puppetmaster of Pennsylvania.

Does Antarctica have pyramids?

Outer space and the "overview effect."

A 1930s club for bohemians.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a tragic case of injustice in the Old West.  In the meantime, here's some classic Motown.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

A fine advertisement for sundials appeared in the “Washington Evening Times,” December 27, 1895:
Brooklyn, Dec. 27. An ordinary eight-day clock owned by John Chase, of South Brooklyn, has gained a reputation as a hoodoo during its career of thirteen years past.

What its previous experience was no one knows, but its history has been preserved since it was purchased in 1862, from a Bowery second-hand dealer, by J.D. Scott, a Wall street broker, living in Orange, N.J. For over a year the clock made a record for itself as a time-keeper. Scott depended on it and never missed a train. One night the clock started on its fiendish work and ran slow. Mr. Scott arrived at the depot just in time to see his train moving out. He ran to catch it, fell under the moving train and was crushed to death.

The clock began to lose its good record and finally stopped. Mrs. Scott sent her young daughter with the time-piece to a neighboring jeweler, but while crossing the street the girl was knocked down by a runaway team and one of her hands was so badly crushed it had to be amputated. Shortly afterward Mrs. Scott was compelled to sell her household goods and the clock came into the possession of a liquor dealer in Newark, N.J. Afterward the purchaser failed in business and he worried so over his losses that he ended his life with a bullet.

The next owner of the clock was a brakeman on the Pennsylvania Railroad named Gibson. After he had possessed it for about two years he suddenly disappeared and has never been heard of since.

Gibson's mother sold the clock to a Simon Donelly, who lived in Harlem. Shortly after Donelly’s body was found in the Harlem River. It is said he went into a swimming race and was drowned.

John Chase, the present owner, bought the clock six years ago. He is now worried over numerous financial reverses. He told a reporter today that when the clock would go everything was all right, but it had a tendency to stop at intervals and when it did something always happened. He took the clock to several expert clock-makers, but they failed to find anything wrong with its workings. He is afraid to break it or throw it away and he won't give it to any of his friends.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Man Without a Past: The Curious Mystery of Charles Jamison

"New York Daily News," November 25, 1956, via Newspapers.com

There are a number of tragic cases where people lose all memory of who they are, and, for whatever reason, no one is able to help them recover their identities. However, few such stories are as complicated and uncanny as the long, long search for the real “Charles Jamison.”

One day in February 1945, an ambulance arrived at the emergency entrance of Boston’s U.S. Public Health Service Hospital. Inside was an unconscious, middle-aged man whose condition was so obviously grave that the nurse on duty dispensed with the usual formalities and had him immediately admitted. She asked the ambulance driver for the man’s name.

“Charles Jamison,” he replied. The man would not or could not say anything more about the patient. Then he disappeared, along with the ambulance, never to be heard from again.

For some time, it was uncertain that “Jamison” would survive. He suffered from an acute stage of osteomyelitis (an infection of the bone marrow.) He had hideous sores all over his body, and his back was badly scarred with what doctors guessed were shrapnel wounds. After weeks of treatment, his life was finally out of danger. However, the infection left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down, and his speech was so impaired that anything he said was almost unintelligible. On top of all this, Jamison was suffering from complete amnesia. He was unable to say who he was, or what had happened to him.

At first, authorities assumed they could trace his identity. Surely, there had to be some record somewhere of this terribly ravaged man. But the more they tried to investigate the patient’s past, the more mysterious he became. The shabby clothes he had worn contained no identification of any sort, and they even lacked labels or laundry marks. No one ever called the hospital to ask about him. Inquiries to every ambulance service in and around Boston revealed that none of them had dispatched an ambulance to the Public Health Service Hospital on the day Jamison had been admitted.

Jamison was around sixty years old, with graying hair and brown eyes. He was six feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds. There was a two-inch scar on his right cheek, the index finger of his left hand was missing, and both arms were covered with tattoos. His appearance was so distinctive that it was thought it might help identify him, but that failed to be the case.

The tattoos were a mixture of flags and hearts. Some of the flags were American, others British. One faded tattoo had a scroll that seemed to say “U.S. Navy.” This led to the assumption that Jamison had been a sailor in the naval and/or merchant service, a belief bolstered by the fact that he had been brought to the only hospital in Boston that specifically treated seamen. There was a theory that Jamison had been aboard a freighter that had been shelled and torpedoed by a German submarine, but that could never be verified. However, after being sent Jamison’s fingerprints, both the FBI and the military replied that they had no record of him, which would not have been the case had he served in either the Navy or the merchant marine. His photo was sent to missing persons bureaus across the country, but that proved to be just as futile as every other effort to identify him.

For years, the poor man spent long days sitting in his wheelchair in a blank silence. He rarely made any sounds, and seemed to take little notice of the world around him. Then, in 1953, the hospital’s newly-installed medical director, Oliver C. Williams, became intrigued by this most enigmatic of patients. He felt there had to be some way to learn who this man really was.

Dr. Williams decided the only way to learn Jamison’s identity was by finding a way to communicate with the man himself. He devised a simple word game, where Jamison would be given a phrase or simple question, and asked what, if anything, it meant to him.

When asked how old he was, Jamison stubbornly insisted that he was 49, although it was clear that he was far older. “How old is your wife?” made his eyes briefly light up, but after struggling to think for a moment, he sighed and said, “I don’t know.” He knew who Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were, although he spoke of them as though they were still living British statesmen, not historical figures dead for many decades.

This communication method elicited information in a very slow and difficult manner, but Dr. Williams managed to learn enough to convince him that Jamison was an Englishman who had served in the British Navy. At one point, while looking at pictures of various parts of England, Jamison suddenly remarked “I’m from London!” Unfortunately, all he could add to that was the statement that he lived in “a gray house.”

Jamison said he had no living relatives, and that he had gone to sea at the age of 13. He recalled that he had attended the gunnery school at Osborne in 1891 or 1892. When he was shown an issue of “Jayne’s Fighting Ships,” he recognized the British battleship Bellerophon. It was commissioned in 1909, and took part in World War I. “I served on her when she was new,” he commented with evident pride. When asked what ships he had served on during the Great War, he was reluctant to reply. He said, “They were all in convoy, under secret orders. They had no names, only numbers, and if I knew them I couldn’t tell you.” Even when it was pointed out to him that the war was long over, he refused to give any more information on his wartime duties.

The little information Jamison provided about his career was sent to British naval authorities. However, they found no record that anyone named “Charles Jamison” had attended the gunnery school, or served in their navy. The British were equally unable to find any record of his fingerprints. More dead ends.

At this point, Jamison was able to provide one more clue. He told Dr. Williams that one of the tattoos on his arms was the British ensign crossed over a U.S. shield, with the motto “United.” The other was of an English clipper he had sailed on called the “Cutty Sark.” When contacted about the ship, London authorities confirmed that there had indeed been a clipper by that name...but it had been retired almost fifty years earlier, and no other ship had carried that name since.

The "Cutty Sark"

Then, the Jamison mystery took an even weirder turn. The name “Charles William Jamison” was found on the manifest of a U.S. Navy troop transport ship which had docked in Boston on February 9, 1945. This was just two days before Jamison had arrived at the hospital.

The manifest’s information about Jamison was all handwritten in ink--an inexplicable detail in an otherwise typewritten document. It claimed that he had been repatriated after spending four years in a German POW camp. He was picked up by the transport ship on January 24, in Southampton, England. His age was given as 49, and his birthplace was Boston.

The manifest also said that he had been a sailor on a ship which had been torpedoed. The name of the ship was “Cutty Sark.” Which had not been on the seas for five decades.

Records showed that no Charles William Jamison had been born in Boston between 1885 and 1905. No one by that name had been made a naturalized citizen. No one connected with the transport ship had ever heard of anyone by the name of “Charles William Jamison,” and they could not say who had made the handwritten notations about him.

Jamison was quickly becoming the spookiest amnesiac on record.

Authorities in Invercargill, New Zealand cabled the hospital that Jamison’s description sounded identical to that of a crew member of the freighter “Hinemoa” named James Jennings. As it happened, Jamison had mentioned the ship a few times. He remembered that at one time, he had been a mate on the Hinemoa. It had carried nitrates from Chile to England until it was sunk by the Germans. However, the name “James Jennings” rang no bells with him. Research proved that Jamison’s information about the Hinemoa was correct, but the freighter’s crew lists did not have Jamison’s name, or anyone matching his description.

It was discovered that a Charles William Jamison had been born in Illinois in 1908. His name appeared in the Coast Guard’s file of merchant mariners, but no further information could be found about him. When asked about this man, Jamison replied with only a blank stare.

In 1956, a segment dealing with the Jamison riddle aired on national TV. A viewer in Texas thought Jamison resembled his father-in-law, Frank J. Higgins. Higgins had been a chief engineer in the merchant service before he disappeared many years back.

As seemed to happen at every turn in the case, this fresh lead just led to more mystery. Higgins, who was born at approximately the same time as Jamison, was a New Yorker who spent his adult life as a sailor. On December 9, 1941, his ship, a freighter named the “Frances Salman,” docked in Galveston, Texas. It was in port for less than a week before it sailed for Portland, Maine with a load of sulphur. On January 12, 1942, Higgins’ wife Rosalie received a letter from him. He was at St. John’s, Newfoundland, about to sail to Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

Higgins and his freighter were never seen again. The Frances Salman failed to arrive at Corner Brook, and its fate is unknown to this day. In the words of the ship’s owners, “She simply disappeared from the face of the earth.” Although we’ll likely never know what became of Frank Higgins, we can at least rule out the possibility that he was “Charles Jamison.” Their fingerprints didn’t match.

Thus ended the search for the true identity of Charles William Jamison. He died in the same hospital in January of 1975, still unable to say who he was, where he came from, or how he wound up at PHS. He was, in the words of a fellow patient, “the living unknown soldier.”

Jamison playing checkers in 1973. "Dayton Daily News," January 21, 1975, via Newspapers.com