"...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

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Strange Company 2020


Welcome to my annual round-up of the top ten posts of this year, where we get to review the most notable moments of Weird 2020!

1. The Phone Call From the Future

This eerie little tale was first by a pretty wide margin, largely due to a link on the "Coast to Coast AM" website.  Thanks, guys!

2. The Mysterious Death of David Glen Lewis

This case epitomizes a major theme of this blog: ordinary people getting themselves into some very extraordinary messes.

3. The Two Disappearances of Frederick Brosseau

A little-known mystery: a missing boy returns many years later.  Maybe.

4. Newspaper Clipping of the Day, May 6, 2020

Thus proving the eternal popularity of cat-chicken children.

5. Newspaper Clipping of the Day, August 26, 2020

In which we talk homicidal wallpaper.

6. The Man Without a Past: the Curious Mystery of Charles Jamison

A particularly strange amnesia victim.

7. In Which Mr. Adamski Weirds Everybody Out

A very odd and mysterious death with a side dish of UFOs.

8. Newspaper Clipping of the Day, August 19, 2020

Any story containing those magic words, "Exciting wake," is almost certain to boost the ol' hit count.

9. The Waifs of the Mayflower

The link between the famous ship and a family tragedy.

10. Somebody Else's Sin? The Mystery of Nell Cropsey

A young woman's enigmatic death leads to a possible miscarriage of justice.

And there you have it, the best--or, depending on your opinion of this blog--least worst moments from Strange Company 2020.  As we all know, this has been one insane hellscape of a year for our world, and unless we get some sort of miracle, I'm expecting 2021 to make 2020 look like kittens happily frolicking in a garden.  However, we can at least gladden our hearts with another blog year of murders, disappearances, exploding corpses, and, we can always hope, more deadly wallpaper.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the New Year's Day

Via Newspapers.com

Some people have mysterious lives.  Some have mysterious deaths.  One young man had the misfortune to have them both.  The “Pittsburgh Dispatch,” January 2, 1892:

"James Foster, age 32 years, place of birth unknown, name of parents unknown, nationality unknown; to be buried by the county in the Potters' field." 

This was the first entry on the journal of vital statistics in the Bureau of Health of Pittsburg for 1892. It was the only entry made on New Year's Day. A peculiar story, tinged with pathos, attaches to Foster's killing. He was intimately known to many, yet he was unknown to all. He had many friends who have been associated with him since childhood, yet no one ever knew his parents or where he was born. If he knew himself he never told. From boyhood he refused to talk on the subject. He would never bear a reference to it in manhood, and with him will be carried to-day to a grave in the county's burying lot his life's secret.

James Foster lived with Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Hall, near Homestead. He had lived with this couple since he was seven years old. Foster came to their house then. They had never been able to find out anything whatever of his life prior to his coming to their house. They have known his every movement since. On New Year's eve, Foster with a number of his associates came to Pittsburg, where they joined with many merry makers in celebrating the death and birth of the old and new years. 

The party missed the last train for home. They continued their revelry long into the night. The group scattered toward morning and just as the day was breaking Foster started alone to walk to his home. He was sober. His night's pleasure had wearied him, however, and when near Hazelwood, on the Baltimore and Ohio road, he was run down by a train and instantly killed. He was carried by the train that killed him to Braddock. 

Coroner McDowell was notified. He went to Braddock yesterday morning. He had just taken charge of the mangled body when Mr. and Mrs. Hall arrived at the undertaking rooms. They had heard of Foster's ending and they had come to identify the body. Mrs. Hall was much affected. 

At the inquest the Halls were the only witnesses outside of the railroad men who had seen him killed. Mr. Hall told how Foster had come to them when a boy 7 years old. How he had held as sacred the story of his life up to that time. How he had been faithful, industrious and sober, and how he had left them the evening previous, saying he would return that night. That was the substance of their testimony. Accidental death was the verdict of the Coroner's jury. 

At the time of the killing Foster was well dressed. He looked a thrifty, careful man. After the inquest the Coroner attempted to have the body turned over to the Halls for burial. They, however, refused to receive their dead friend, and the undertaker was instructed to bury the body at the county's expense. The burial will occur today. His grave will be marked by his name, but to those who knew him best he will still be unknown.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Man Who Wasn't There: The Enigma of Walter Rice

Walter Rice

Sometime in 1990, a man named Walter Rice moved from Connecticut to McCormick, South Carolina.  He bought a small lot and a trailer, and settled down to live virtually as a hermit.  He had no job, no friends, no known activities.  So isolated was his life that when he failed to pay his power bill in February 1992, it was assumed Rice had simply abandoned his trailer.  Crews removed his meter, and no one thought anything more about the matter.

In April 1994, McCormick’s police department received a disturbing phone call from a woman who refused to give her name.  She said that two months before, a friend of hers had broken into Rice’s trailer, only to find his dead body lying on the floor.  The woman explained her long silence by saying she assumed someone would discover the corpse, but as the weeks went by, her conscience forced her to alert authorities. When police arrived at the trailer, they did indeed find signs of a break-in. And the very, very dead body of Walter Rice.

The coroner estimated that Rice had died early in February 1992, probably of a massive heart attack.  (He had been injured in a serious auto accident in late January 1992, which might have also contributed to his death.)

"Greenwood Index-Journal," November 7, 1994, via Newspapers.com

It was after Rice’s death that his story went from sad to memorably baffling.  Authorities discovered that Rice had nearly $138,000 in four banks across the Southeast.  Rice’s only known job was when he worked as a hotel restaurant cook in Essex, Connecticut between 1973 and 1983--hardly the sort of profession that enables one to accumulate a small fortune.  A search of his trailer failed to find any normal personal items such as letters and Christmas cards.  As far as anyone could tell, he never married, had no relatives, and lacked any real connection to any other human being.

As part of the effort to trace anyone who might be Rice’s heir, “Unsolved Mysteries” aired a segment about this exceptionally mysterious man.  The publicity brought forward a host of cranks and con artists who presented laughably bogus claims to Rice’s money, but not one person who had any legitimate ties to the dead man.  In the end, the only heir anyone could find for Walter Rice was the state of South Carolina.

The more authorities investigated this man, the weirder he got.  The number on Rice’s Social Security card turned out to be invalid.  He had a passport which indicated he had visited several foreign countries.  Why had he traveled to those places?  Nobody could say, but it’s a good guess that this strange hermit was no casual tourist.  After tracing the passport, talking to certain government officials, and making what use they could of Rice’s fingerprints, McCormick police became convinced that the dead man had some sort of ties to the CIA.  That agency, perhaps significantly, refused to comment.

Rice had paid for everything in cash.  He had no credit cards, or anything else that might leave a trustworthy paper trail.  He had a birth certificate which stated he was born in Abbeville, South Carolina on July 6, 1920, but that city had no record of him.  No one could even say for sure that “Walter Rice” was his real name. It was as if he never really existed.

To date, the life of Walter Rice has remained an unsolved puzzle.  There must be someone, somewhere, who knows his true history and the reason why he so doggedly cloaked himself in secrecy, but for whatever reason, they prefer to keep this information to themselves.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Weekend Link Dump


“The Witches’ Cove,” Follower of Jan Mandijn 

The staff of Strange Company HQ wishes you a Merry Christmas!

The most famous protest song about fare hikes.

The fisherman who discovered the Loch Ness Monster.  And came to regret it.

Some Christmas resolutions from the past.  Eggnog.  Bah. Get that stuff away from me.

The mystery of a dead hiker is finally solved.

A look at vintage Christmas pantomimes.

A real-life Death in Paradise.

A 1915 Christmas ghost story.

An ancient grave rewrites history.

How Christmas 1918 was celebrated.  (Note: the headline's a bit misleading; the Spanish Flu was hardly our "last" pandemic.)

A career criminal turned evangelist.

The story behind a famed "murder ballad."

To be honest, I've often thought that if the human race is wiped out, this will be the cause.

Christmas in 19th century Austria.

Edinburgh's long history of body snatching.

The Founding Father whose death reads like a Thomas Morris blog post.

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields.

Some medieval holiday recipes.

There are worse things than bladder stones.  Like 19th century operations for them.

A Christmas murder mystery.

Winter folklore and the Lightbringers.

Cats during lockdown.

A life-saving gift from a princess.

100-year-old photos of the Arctic.

American history's worst bodyguard.

Early humans may have hibernated.

Rough on Rats, the murderer's best friend.

The Brighton Trunk Murders.

A Spitalfields midwinter.

How to steal a corpse.

An out-of-this-world Christmas.

The oldest known carving in East Asia.

A high-status Roman burial in London.

Another item from that massive "Pushing back human history" file.

If your flight number is "191," it might be best to cancel your ticket.

The Christmas Cuxhaven Raid.

The treasure of a 12th century princess.

Deck the halls with...uh, skulls.

A black spot and a doomed expedition.

This week in Russian Weird offers those two magic words:  exploding craters.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a man with a very mysterious past.  In the meantime, here's more of King's College, Cambridge.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Newspaper Clippings of the Christmas Day


"Brooklyn Eagle," December 24, 1931.  (All clippings via Newspapers.com)

Yes, indeed, it's time for Strange Company's annual look at the worst and weirdest the Christmas season has to offer!  

This item from the "Los Angeles Citizen News" for December 24, 1951, shows one sure-fire way to get coal in your stocking:

Dijon, France, Dec. 24--Santa Claus was burned in effigy on the steps of Dijon cathedral yesterday.  Two hundred and fifty children watched--and cheered.

A figure twice as large as life, wearing the traditional red costume and white beard, was hoisted to the wrought-iron grille at the door of the great Gothic church.

A young man in a top hat called out:

"Does Santa Claus deserve death?"

"Yes, yes!" roared the children and pelted Santa with orange peels.

A fire was set and Santa Claus perished in the flames.  Only his gloves remained.

Several French Catholic prelates, including Jules-Geraud, Cardinal Salinge of Toulouse, recently have denounced the "paganization" of Christmas, specifically assailing Santa Claus.

In other news, your Christmas tree wants you dead.  "The Guardian," January 19, 1971:

A housewife died from blood poisoning after she trod on a Christmas tree needle, but the cause of the poisoning was still unknown at an inquest in Stoke-on-Trent yesterday.  Mrs. Mary Allbut, aged 54, of Heath Street, Chesterton, Stoke-on-Trent, was treated by her 16-year-old daughter after she cut her foot on a pine needle from the family Christmas tree

Several days later her condition worsened and she was rushed to hospital where she later died.  At the inquest Dr. Charles Knappett, the pathologist, said she died from blood poisoning, but he was unable to pinpoint the cause until he had made further investigations.

He said he would study photographs of the infected parts of the body to try to establish the reason for the poisoning.  The city coroner, Mr. Frederic Halls, adjourned the inquest until the beginning of next month to allow investigations to continue.

Another killer tree appeared in the "New York World," February 16, 1909:

William W. Babbington, expert stenographer for Cord Meyer, former Democratic State Chairman, died today in the Long Island City Hospital from an infection of the left hand received while decorating a tree last Christmas.  His wife, Martha, is critically ill, and only awaits her husband's funeral, when she will be removed to the institution for treatment for the same affliction.

Babbington got his fingers covered with a chemical sprinkled over the tree.  Weeks after he noticed the injury had developed a felon.  An operation followed in which the bone of the diseased finger was removed.  Then came the blood poisoning.  Babbington courageously fought off his fate, and when his wife took ill he disregarded his own trouble and insisted on remaining at the side of Mrs. Babbington.

He was twenty-six years old and leaves three children.  He took part in several contests for stenographers and won several medals for his speed and accuracy.

I believe that nothing sums up my Yuletide posts better than those magic words, "Christmas tree detonator."  The Spokane "Spokesman-Review," December 23, 1946:

Pittsburgh, Dec. 22.--A small electrical attachment, believed to be a detonator, exploded while the Clarence Berich family was trimming a Christmas tree last night, seriously injuring 16-year-old Ronald Berich.

The boy suffered the loss of several fingers on each hand, and chest and abdomen wounds.  The father was burned slightly.

County detectives said the detonator, a copper tube with wires attached, had been about the Berich home for years ever since the father had brought it from a factory in which he formerly worked.  He said he didn't know what it was.

The father said he obtained the device when his son needed a heavier wire than he had at hand.  The explosion came when the boy connected a wire to the house electrical system.

The cards are out to get you, too.  The "Seattle Star," January 20, 1913:

New York, Jan 20--A Christmas postal card coated with mica and colored tinsel was declared today by Dr. Thomas F. Nevins of No. 249 Cumberland street, Brooklyn, to be responsible for the illness of Lewis D. Ryno, a letter carrier attached to the Flatbush branch postoffice.  It has been necessary to cut away part of the inside of one of Ryno's hands where infection had spread.

And sometimes, people spread lethal Christmas cheer in the direct, old-fashioned manner.  The "Sacramento Bee," December 25, 1916: 

Deming (N.M.) December 25--A Christmas card with the name "Shorty" on it was the only clue to the identity of the person who sent a bottle of poisoned whisky to Private George Mosley of Company M, Second Arkansas Infantry, encamped here.  Private Mosley died at the base hospital yesterday and Sergeant Byron Montgomery of Company K of the same regiment was critically ill at the base hospital after taking a drink from the same bottle, according to officers here.

[Note: as far as I can find, this murder was never solved.]

...And the "Sheffield Independent," January 7, 1871:

The family of Mr. Harrison, butcher, Cambridge were all seized with illness after partaking of a turkey on Christmas day, and it was discovered that the food contained poison.  Mr. Geo. Harrison and one of the Misses Harrison lies in a dangerous state, and others are more or less seriously affected. 

Pennsylvania, celebrated the Christmas of 1899 in an energetic and exciting fashion.  The "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette," December 27:

A strange accident happened in Donegal township, Butler county, on Christmas eve.  John Donlew, who lives near his son-in-law, William Grimes, undertook to play Santa Claus for his grandchildren, and all the presents that were to be made in the two families were to be hauled to the Grimes house early yesterday morning.  The mock heads of two reindeer which had been used at a church entertainment were rigged up over the heads of the horses, the bundles were put into a light wagon and Mr. Donlew started on his trip.  He was dressed as Santa Claus and was wrapped in a heavy blanket.

Two of his nephews about 3 o'clock in the morning started from their home near by to go hunting, and as they drew near the Grimes homestead they saw the strange looking rig coming up the lane that led to the house.  They forgot all about Christmas night, but as there had been several robberies in that neighborhood they at once supposed that the man in the rig intended to break into their uncle's granary.  One of the boys fired his shotgun, which was loaded with bird shot, at the wagon, and the next minute there was a shriek and the two horses went up the lane at the top of their speed.  They finally ran into a fence, smashed the rig, and the bogus Santa Claus was thrown out. 

As soon as possible the two nephews, who by this time had recognized their uncle's voice, reached his side and he was picked up for dead.  As it was he had one leg broken and his back was full of bird shot, while there were several shot sticking in the sides of the horses.  The man was carried into his son-in-law's house and his injuries attended to.

Not half an hour after this occurrence Willie Manifrew, son of a farmer, came running to the Grimes house with the information that his brother Johnny, a boy of ten years, had rolled off the roof of their two-story house and that they wanted some of the Grimes boys to go for a doctor.  He said that about 4 o'clock he and Johnny awoke and had gone downstairs to see if Santa Claus had brought anything, but he had not.  The two then talked it over and Willie and his brother decided that Santa Claus was sure to come between that hour and daylight.  They then made up their minds to get out on the roof and see Santa come down the chimney.  They had only been there a few minutes when Johnny yelled, "Thee he comes," and in his excitement slipped on the icy roof and rolled to the ground.  When the doctor reached the house he found that no bones were broken, but that the boy had had the wind knocked out of him and was badly jarred, and that there was no reason to fear that he would suffer any serious consequences.

I'd say it's about time for a romantic interlude.  A Christmas wedding!  What could be more "Hallmark holiday movie" than that?  "The Day Book," December 26, 1912.

Taylorsville, Ill., Dec. 26.--John Belder, a carpenter, got on a Christmas drunk. Then went to the wedding of his stepdaughter, Miss Elsie Bates Ora Redfern, and started shooting up the place to satisfy a grudge against his wife. Chased wife out of the house, wounding her as she ran. Then returned, to "get" the bride and groom. Shot and seriously, wounded Mrs. Emma Fisher, then shot through door of room where bride and groom hid themselves. Did not kill them.  Police surrounded the house and Belder was seriously wounded by a bullet from one of the cops. Arrested. Both of the wounded may die. 

Miss Redfern was married shortly after the interruption. 

"The interruption." 

Some people dislike family holiday gatherings.  A few people really dislike them.  The "Larimer County Independent," December 27, 1912:

On a lighter note is this pleasantly deranged item from the "Salmon Arm Observer," December 23, 1981:

A rather bizarre break and entry took place at Robert Hargens' residence at Country Side Mobile Home Park.

While the Hargens were sleeping someone entered their trailer, opened all the gifts under the Christmas tree and put them all in a row.

The intruder then took all the gift wrapping and left.

RCMP investigations continued and four juvenile girls have been implicated in the incident.

Apparently the gifts were taken from the trailer and then returned.

RCMP are unsure if there will be charges laid.

On a final note, you've got to admire any kid bold enough to try an extortion racket on Santa.

"Richmond Dispatch," December 6, 1900

 I wish all of you a happy Christmas, however you choose to spend December 25.  God knows, these are strange times we're living in, but if we manage to refrain from poisoned cards, exploding trees, and filling Santa with buckshot, we may at least get out of the holiday season alive.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Disappearing Bride: A Christmas Tragedy

One of history's innumerable small, quickly-forgotten, yet oddly haunting mysteries took place over England's Christmas holidays of 1916.  On December 25, at Southwark Cathedral, a carman from Bermondsey, George Stephen Carter, married his sweetheart, 22-year-old Alice Elizabeth.  (Her maiden name was never mentioned in any of the newspaper accounts.)  After the wedding, the newlyweds went to her mother's home, where they celebrated with what was described as a "honeymoon party."  They spent their wedding night there.

The following evening, the couple prepared to leave for George's home.  Right before they were to depart, Alice left the room, saying she was going to put on her hat and coat, a task that her husband naturally assumed would only take her a couple of minutes.  She seemed as calm and happy as you would expect any bride to be.  Alice's mother saw her walk out the front door.  She was without her hat and coat, so her mother assumed she merely went to exchange a few more goodbyes with their departing guests.

That was the last George ever saw of his new wife.  She never returned.  In fact, as far as anyone could tell, she simply vanished.  Her husband, family, and friends searched the area with increasing panic, but could find no trace of where she had gone.  Finally, they went to the police, but could give the authorities no clue about what had happened.  They all insisted that when last seen, Alice was sober, cheerful, and looking forward to her married life.  She had not quarreled with George, or anyone else so far as her loved ones knew.

Alice's whereabouts remained a complete mystery until January 26, when her body was fished from the Thames.  It was presumed she had drowned, but I found no mention of an autopsy.

"Sheffield Telegraph," January 29, 1917

The only possible clue in the mystery of Alice Elizabeth Carter's death came in a letter received by the Southwark police station on January 11, from someone claiming to be a Corporal in the Royal Canadian Regiment.  It read:

Sir--Regarding the missing woman Mrs. George Stephen Carter, late of Noah's Ark Alley and married at Southwark Cathedral on December 25 1916.  I was on leave from France for Christmas and was in the named woman's company before and after her marriage.  Knowing Bermondsey well, I spent a good part of my time around there.  What has happened to Mrs. Carter since I will not say in the letter--it is enough when I say I know all.

The note gave a return address, but letters posted to that direction received no reply.  Neither George nor Alice's mother recognized the handwriting or the address given.  They never had reason to think Alice knew anyone matching the writer's description.  The jury at Alice's inquest did the only thing possible in such murky circumstances and returned an open verdict.

Sadly, the puzzle of Alice's death is fated to remain "open."  Was this letter, as George Carter believed, a hoax?   If it was genuine, what did this man--who apparently was never traced--know about her end?  Did Alice, torn between two men, commit suicide?  Or did she secretly go to meet this man, and he murdered her?

I have no idea about George Stephen Carter's subsequent history, but I'm guessing that for the rest of his life, Christmas was his least favorite holiday.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

It's time for this week's Link Dump!

And the cats have taken the best seats in the house, as usual.

A haunted state fair.

A private journal and the Roswell crash.

How much did Burke and Hare's crimes pay?

In search of a forgotten California writer.

To put it succinctly, UFO research attracts some really strange birds.

Salvador Dali's Christmas cards seem particularly appropriate this year.

A ghostly battle.

Farm workers are disappearing in Argentina.

A Transylvanian school of magic.

The ancient Roman Saturnalia.

Ale house cats.

The traditional Jewish Christmas Eve.

In which we have a fish domesticating a shrimp.  You'll never look at your seafood platter the same way again.

When it was legal to kidnap child choir singers.

An unsinkable ghost ship.

The first known evidence of Egyptian gynecological treatment.

The Russian Civil War.

An assortment of medieval recipes.  They're interesting, but on the whole I'd prefer a grilled cheese sandwich.

Who wouldn't want a Christmas card from an undertaker?

Australia's most haunted homestead.

One of Los Angeles' worst murders.

The sinking of the Berenice.

So maybe the Irish aren't Celts after all.

A 50 year old murder mystery which might still be solved.  At least, it has a better shot than the 4,000 year old one below.

If you're hit by a meteorite, it might be best not to tell anyone about it.

19th century Christmas humor.

Beethoven and freedom.

Beethoven comes to early America.

The power of the beard.

The burial of a Neanderthal child solves an archaeological mystery.

Romania's weirdest mountains.

Phrenology just won't go away.

Some vintage holiday dishes.

2020's most pathetic ghosts.

Shedding (a little) light on the Denisovans.

History's greatest military victory.

Solving a 4,000 year old murder mystery.  Sort of.

Chicago's pioneering "girl reporter."

How archaeologists know where to dig.

The Cornell ghost experiments.

Some vintage letters to Santa.

A coded message written by the Zodiac Killer has been deciphered.  Unfortunately, it tells us nothing about who he was.

And, finally: it's funny because it's true!

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a mysterious Christmas death.  In the meantime, here's more of King's College.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

The doings of a pleasingly weird ghost were reported in the “Atlanta Constitution,” December 9, 1882:

From the Dublin, Ga., Gazette.

An apparition made its appearance at Mr. John A. Harvill’s house last Tuesday night that has thrown the neighborhood into a fever of excitement, indeed so intense has the excitement become and so eager are people to be convinced of the matter that many will doubtless go to Mr. Harvill’s to see for themselves.  On the night mentioned, Mr. H. and his wife, to whom he was married only a short time ago, were sitting around the fireside, when a noise resembling that of an old squeaking cart or wagon attracted attention.  Not much heed was paid to the noise until it stopped in front of the gate, and although it had ceased to move, the noise continued without abatement.  Mr. Harvill, thinking something strangely of the state of affairs, went to the door and there stood what appeared to be a very large dog with a lamp or torch of some kind perched upon its head.  He hailed several times, thinking perhaps some of his neighbors were only playing a trick upon him, but on receiving no reply from his several demands shot at it several times; but to his utter astonishment and amazement, there stood the specter as steadfast as the rock of Gibraltar.  Like the bard, he thought ‘twas the weakness of his eyes that shaped the monstrous apparition.  By this time, attracted by the reports of his gun, some of the neighbors of Harvill had assembled and a determination was agreed upon to make an attack.  Having agreed upon the nature of the attack, torches were procured and the advance began, but to the astonishment of all, when they approached with the light, the ghost began its onward march, accompanied by the same squeaking noise.  While this story was being told our reporter, a gentleman who lives in the neighborhood of Harvill says that he has seen the same object but that there was no noise with it.

As a side note, I have come across a number of other old news items from the “Dublin Gazette,” and they are inevitably extremely brief and extremely bizarre.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Mystery of the Murdered Butler

"New York Daily News," January 27, 1926, via Newspapers.com

Perhaps the most famous cliche involving murder mystery novels is “The butler did it!”  In one long-forgotten real-life slaying, someone did it to the butler.

Herbert Bramall, who was born around 1889, was the quintessential British household servant.  He first entered domestic service as an employee of the Duke of Cumberland.  He then served in WWI, where he earned several commendations for bravery.  In the army of occupation, he acted as a machine gun instructor.

In 1920, he emigrated to America.  Bramall found employment in the Philadelphia household of Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, after which he moved to New York City.  In 1923, Bramall entered the household of the wealthy lawyer James R. Deering.   Bramall’s new wife, Bertha, was a maid in the same establishment.  Bramall was, by all accounts, a gem of a butler: hard-working, trustworthy, and efficient.  He enjoyed the full confidence of all his rich and powerful employers.  He was described as “a home-loving and peaceable Englishman of the servant class, who made few acquaintances.”

The night of January 24, 1926, began as a very quiet one in the Deering household.  Deering himself was in Atlantic City on a business trip.  Mrs. Deering, her 13-year-old son, and a family friend chatted casually in an upper parlor.  Downstairs, the cook, Frances Lovett, was puttering around in her kitchen.  Bertha Bramall left for a walk--she mentioned she might take in a movie--while Herbert, his duties for the day virtually complete, enjoyed a moment of relaxation.

At 8:50 p.m., just five minutes after Mrs. Bramall’s exit, the doorbell began to ring, in an unusually prolonged manner.  Bramall went to greet this very insistent caller.  Just a few seconds later, the cook heard a gunshot.  And seconds after that, the butler staggered through the door of the kitchen, falling dead at her feet.  The screaming Mrs. Lovett immediately ran to her mistress, who summoned police.  Detectives arrived fifteen minutes later.  At 9:20, Mrs. Bramall returned to find that in her absence, the peaceful household had been transformed into a murder scene.  When she saw policemen surrounding her husband’s dead body, poor Bertha began shrieking hysterically.

From the very beginning, investigators were baffled by this seemingly utterly senseless killing.  Their obvious first move was to investigate if this murder was a personal attack.  Was there anyone who had a grudge against Bramall?  However, the butler’s personal history was frustratingly immaculate.  He had never been in trouble with the authorities, was happily married, and, as far as anyone knew, had zero enemies.

A rich and influential attorney, it was reasoned, surely attracts ill-wishers as easily as honey draws flies.  Did an assassin go after James Deering, only to shoot his butler by mistake?  The obvious flaw with that theory was that it would be a markedly incompetent murderer indeed who could mistake the high-flying lawyer for a servant in full livery.

Was this an attempted burglary?  But if that was the case, why did the assailant not even try to enter the house?  The murderer simply shot Bramall the instant he opened the door, then vanished into the foggy night, like a malevolent phantom.  Although there were hundreds of people crowding nearby Fifth Avenue, no one reported seeing anything unusual.

This inexplicable murder in the middle of the city’s wealthiest residential area was naturally alarming to New York’s elites.  Was no one’s mansion safe from attack?  For a few days, this unusually baffling crime was a top headline in New York papers, but after failing to uncover even a single clue suggesting who had slain the butler--not to mention why--Bramall’s death soon faded from headlines, and public memory.  As far as I know, the last published reference to the murder was in 1938, when James Deering was sued by a former maid for back wages.

Poor old Herbert Bramall has languished in oblivion ever since.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump features an appropriate motto for this blog.

What the hell happened to Flight 19?

The sausage vat murder.

The Golden Era of walking women.

How the president's home came to be the "White House."

Shopping, early 19th century style.

One of Finland's strangest UFO cases.

How to appease a House Elf.

"Gallant, clean, and drunk."  You go, Charles Old.

Analyzing a famed William Hogarth painting.

London's literary Gothic.

In praise of adjectives.

The oldest known "place name" sign.

A baby's death helps uncover a really weird story.

Some early rabies treatments.

An assortment of narrow escapes.

The Harpers Ferry Raid.

Burial shoes: they're not just for the dead anymore!

Mummies that show evidence of ancient hospice care.

The Air Force Sergeant and the UFO. 

The Spy Princess of WWII.

A haunted New England schoolhouse.

A Pennsylvanian peg-legged killer.

The Alaskan Triangle.

Isaac Newton and the Pyramids.

The Amazon's Man of the Hole.

The destruction of HMS Doterel.

That time someone mailed a cat and some rabbits.

The diary of a 19th century Afghan noblewoman.

A haunted murder house in California.

Festive traditions from the 14th century.

The Hope Street body snatchers.

The Neanderthal who fell down a well.

Were meteorites the first gods? 

That ever-popular Cock Lane Ghost.

A man follows his instincts, and avoids disaster.

The philosophy of cats.

The early days of TV in the Soviet Union.

A Christmas ghost story.

*Looks at my mayor*  A very wise one, I'd say.

The Wild Men of Borneo.

A consequential horse flu epidemic.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a particularly perplexing murder.

Every Christmas season, I watch various holiday concerts and services on YouTube.  (None of the sad "virtual" shows that are being put on this year; just ones from when the world was normal.)  I particularly love the carols put on by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, and this is my favorite of their songs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This story of an alleged “close encounter” (and assorted other Fortean events) appeared in the Clarksville, Tennessee “Leaf Chronicle” on October 19, 1973:

Via Newspapers.com

Reports of unidentified flying objects continued in the South Thursday night but in far less numbers than the previous night. 

At least one sighting of a strange object proved harmless. Booneville, Miss., police used a .38-caliber pistol to shoot down a large plastic balloon carrying 14 birthday candles, which, when lit, provided hot air to lift the balloon over Prentiss County.  And Gulfport, Miss., Police Chief Craig Monroe called a news conference to announce that a taxi driver who had reported that a UFO had chased his cab later admitted the story was a hoax. 

In Falkville, Ala., however, policeman Jeff Greenhaw described an encounter with a strange creature and produced pictures of him. Greenhaw said he was investigating a report of a spaceship landing in a pasture when he met a metallic looking creature. 

"He was standing there in the middle of the road," he said. "I got out of my patrol car and said, 'Howdy, stranger,' but he didn't say a word. I reached back, got my camera and started taking pictures of him." 

The policeman said he then switched on the flashing blue lights of his patrol car and the creature started "running faster than any human I ever saw." 

In Alabama, one sighting of the night was in Bullock, Friday, October 19. 1973, a County southeast of Montgomery where residents reported a "greenish glow." State troopers sent to the scene said it appeared to be clouds being caught by the rays of the sun. 

The National Scientific Balloon Facility at Palestine, Tex., announced Thursday it had launched two separate balloons on Wednesday which drifted eastward and may account for some of the UFO sightings on Wednesday night. Alfred Shipley, manager of the facility, said one balloon landed at Augusta, Ga. Shipley said the balloon was launched for the Naval Research Laboratory and was made of a plastic material that would reflect sunlight. He said the facility often sends up huge balloons, particularly in good weather.

Meanwhile, officials at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida widely publicized launchings Thursday night of high atmospheric test rockets to prevent the rockets being mistaken as UFOs. A spokesman at the base said the rockets would be visible over much of the Southeast and would release glowing clouds of red, green, blue and yellow gasses. 

There was no official explanation, though, for a mysterious filmy substance which fell over portions of northwestern Louisiana Thursday afternoon. The substance appeared like strings of cotton or silk, sometimes five to six feet long. The strings fell from a clear blue sky and were reported at Ruston, Shreveport, and Springhill.


After these events, things went south pretty quickly for Mr. Greenhaw.  The “Honolulu Star Bulletin,” November 23, 1973:


A little more than a month after Falkville Police Chief Jeff Greenhaw photographed what he believed to be a silver-suited creature from outer space, he has lost his automobile, his home and his wife. 

The 23-year-old police chief drew national attention Oct. 17 when he photographed a.metallic looking "being" after a woman called that an unidentified flying object had landed. 

Greenhaw became a national celebrity. Then he started getting threatening telephone calls. One caller told his wife of three and one-half years, "I'm going to get your husband for taking my picture." 

Greenhaw says that on Oct. 21 "My car engine blew up." Three days later, his wife left him and Greenhaw filed for divorce. It was granted. 

While Greenhaw was at a football game, his mobile home was destroyed by fire. 

"It almost seems like somebody or something wants me to leave Falkville," he said, "but I've already made up my mind that I am not going to leave." 

Greenhaw said he now believes the object he photographed was a being from an alien planet. "Why shouldn't there be life on another planet?" he asked. 

The lesson here is obvious: if you should happen to encounter a space alien, no photographs.  Extraterrestrials are obviously of the Garbo type.

Monday, December 7, 2020

How Daniel Murdock Saved On Funeral Expenses

Antoine Joseph Wiertz, “The Premature Burial”

I’ve covered a number of cases where people inexplicably disappear forever.  Such stories are sadly common.  However, examples of corpses suddenly and mysteriously vanishing are, I fancy, probably new to you. 

And, yes, I’m just the blogger to introduce you to one. 

Some time in the early 1850s, a man named Daniel Murdock quietly arrived in Stockholm, a farming town in Northern New York state.  He took out a three-year lease on an old farmhouse owned by an extensive landowner named Dowd.  It was on an isolated ridge, surrounded by rugged surroundings, so the house was usually left empty. The farmhouse’s new tenant was a good match for such forbidding surroundings.  Murdock was a morose, unfriendly man, who made it clear to his neighbors that he simply wanted to be left alone.  Stockholmites were happy to oblige.  No one had any idea where he had come from or why he settled in Stockholm, and nobody was terribly inclined to try to find out.  His speech and dress suggested he was Canadian, but aside from that the man was a mystery.

Murdock’s only visitor--and that only on rare occasions--was his twin brother David.  The two were so indistinguishable that the only way to tell them apart was by the large scarlet birthmark covering Daniel’s throat.  From what others had been able to overhear of their conversations, it seems that the brothers had been among those seeking gold in California, and that Daniel still held mining claims which David wanted made over to him as security for money he had loaned Daniel.

For three seasons, Daniel lived his lonely farming existence.  He disdained the usual local practice of “swapping work” with a neighbor, choosing the arduous task of reaping hay and grains on his own.  At night--never by the light of day--he could occasionally be seen bringing sledloads of his crops in the direction of the Canadian border.

On the third April after Murdock’s arrival in Stockholm, it was noted that he was not putting in a crop.  Rumors spread that his team and few farm tools had vanished.  One day, a neighbor named Aaron Fortune walked across Murdock’s property.  When he went past the open barn doors, he saw something dangling beside the hay mow.  When he took a closer look, he realized it was the body of Daniel Murdock, hanging by a rope attached to a purlin plate.  Fortune cut down the corpse and spread word of his gruesome find.  When Murdock’s landlord heard what had happened, Doud tried to track down the dead man’s twin, but having failed to do so, gave instructions that Murdock be buried in the nearby graveyard.

A local carpenter made a pine coffin, and neighbors prepared the body for burial.  They were unnerved to see that the vivid scarlet birthmark around Daniel’s throat had completely vanished.

Aaron Fortune and a young schoolmaster named Eli Jones reluctantly accepted the grim task of “setting up with the corpse” the night before the funeral.  Just before midnight, a neighbor came with news that Fortune’s wife had been taken ill.  Jones, who proudly proclaimed that he feared no ghosts, agreed to finish the vigil over the body alone.  Every two hours, as was the custom in that time, a cloth soaked in a saltpeter solution was freshly spread over the corpse’s face.  Around 2 a.m., Jones, who had understandably preferred lounging outside the house, went indoors to perform this unpleasant ritual.  When he removed the cloth, he saw that Murdock’s fiery birthmark had suddenly returned.  Jones was so frightened by the sight, he ran screaming from the house, not stopping until he reached the Fortune home.

When dawn came, Fortune, Jones, and a third man crept cautiously back to the dead man’s home.  The candles were still flickering around the sheet-draped table on which Murdock had been placed, but the corpse itself had vanished, never to be seen again.

The old farmhouse was henceforth shunned as if the Devil himself lived there, and no doubt some in Stockholm thought that just might be the case.  A few years later, it burned down, “in that mysterious way that such old unoccupied buildings generally do.”

For decades afterward, the locals struggled to find answers to the mystery.  Perhaps Murdock had not been dead after all, but in a state of “suspended animation.”  According to this theory, when the “corpse” was roused by Jones’ screams, Murdock fled to the river to redo his botched suicide.  Or perhaps David Murdock had arrived at the home after Jones fled, and took his twin away for burial elsewhere.  Or did body-snatchers take the unattended corpse for sale to some medical school?

All one can say is that the strange exit of Daniel Murdock gave residents of Stockholm many, many sleepless nights.

[A caveat:  the earliest published source I can find for this story is from 1917, so I have no idea how much--if any--of it is true.  However, it’s such a fine “fireside tale” that I felt it worthy of the hallowed halls of Strange Company HQ.]