"...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

Friday, April 30, 2021

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

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

Everybody dance!

Watch out for those Scottish vampires!

The scandalous murder of Jim Fisk.

Scottish graveyards with a grim past.

The post-French Revolution Tuileries Palace.

A real-life zombie.

London's first underground paper.

A weird near miss for SpaceX.

Why Europeans once liked to paint smoking dogs.

When they tried getting cats to deliver mail.

The kind of thing that happens when you're unlucky enough to be a dead ringer for John Wilkes Booth.

Martin van Butchell saw no reason to stop living with his wife just because she was dead.

So, let's talk DIY smallpox vaccinations.

Italy's Robinson Crusoe doesn't want to leave.

Victorian newspapers and the "Children's Corner."

A campaigner for Indian independence.

The first known pregnant Egyptian mummy.

The unsinkable Violet Jessop.

Some unusual Scottish executions.

The cemetery for a drowned parish.

Colonel Towneley's very bad end.

The importance of personal ads in the American West.

The price of getting a shave in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In which the Duke of Wellington fusses about shoes.

The condiment that fell along with the Roman Empire. And it's possibly just as well that it did.

The story behind the notorious "Bigfoot film."

The origin of writing.

A 5,000 year old fingerprint.

A look at Early Modern wills.

A million-year-old workshop.

How to defraud an undertaker.

The man who inspired Sherlock Holmes.

The Sultan's court and a rebellious dancer.

WWII's Operation Chariot.

The castaways of Tromelin Island.

A private investigator's strange murder.

Contemporary editorials about the death of John Wilkes Booth.

This may be the world's oldest home.

Why you may want to avoid hiking Mount Rainier.

Tom the Terror, U.S. Navy cat.

A brief history of fish sticks.

King Solomon, shipping magnate.

Uncovering a forged jewel.

The inventor of the Ferris Wheel.

The saga of Johanna the Super Whale.

The origin of the word "boycott."

A remarkable photo of the sun.

Tokyo's cat temple.

The life of Eugene Sue.

The last of the Charlies.

That's it for this week's Link Dump!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at some Fortean servant trouble.  In the meantime, take it easy.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

The “Ghostly Drummer of Tedworth” is among the more well-known poltergeist accounts.  Another, much more obscure, "Ghostly Drummer" was reported in the “Dundee Courier” on January 18, 1894: 

The inhabitants of a section of a certain street in Blairgowrie have been greatly disturbed of late over mysterious sounds heard at nights. The sounds begin every night about eleven o'clock, with the exception of Saturday, when the mystery opens at midnight. It is heralded by a few slow raps, the sound resembling a muffled drum. After this prelude, the kettle drum, also muffled, takes up the strain, and keeps up the monotonous music for two or three hours. At first no notice was taken of the mysterious noise, but its regular repetition has caused a flutter of excitement. What it is is as yet a mystery. The other evening the guidman of one of the disturbed households, with a bravery that is worthy of all commendation, stayed out of doors until the hour at which this drum concert usually started. He examined all around the house, but could find nothing, and, entering the house, told the guid-wife the result of his quest. She answered that it had not yet started, but as soon as she said that the hidden drums were beat with unwonted vigour. One troubled lady gives as the reason that she is certain there is someone tunnelling beneath her house; another that some coiners are at work somewhere below her dwelling. A peculiar feature of the case is that the members of each of the five households that have been troubled declare that the noise is immediately below the house in which they dwell. It is proposed to send up a requisition to Mr W. T. Stead or the Psychical Research Society, but while the sufferers hesitate which of these authorities to write to the music goes dolefully on. 

 The “Courier” had a follow-up story the next day:

Though the excitement over the ghost mystery, or goblin drummer, is now somewhat abated, no satisfactory conclusion has been arrived at as regards the cause of the sounds heard at night, not that there has been an absence of theories on the subject. Some of these are grotesque enough, and not a few of them rather out of the way. For example, some now believe that the sounds are caused by a young man in a neighbouring cellar breaking firewood. The floor of the cellar is wood, which, as can readily be understood, causes no little noise when the stick-breaking operation is going on. The sound is then, so it is argued, carried along the drains; hence the hearing of it immediately below each house. But, if this theory were accepted, why should the industrious youth begin his operations exactly at eleven o'clock every night except Saturday, when the drummer was supposed to commence his unhallowed carnival at the witching hour of midnight? The stick notion is only good in so far as it suggests sulphureous sticks, or the gentleman whom a great writer represents as walking "on two sticks." Others, however, refuse to believe this theory, and one man maintains, in spite of all arguments to the contrary, that the sounds are caused by an escape of water. Rather a peculiar sound for escaping water to make! Had a water-kelpie been suggested, there might have been some consistency in the idea. One gentleman was determined to get to the root of the matter, so he sat up and watched. After waiting for some time and bearing nothing, he determined to reconnoiter. He descended to the cellar, and while listening intently heard a pit-a-pat in the neighbourhood of the stairs. Summoning his failing courage to the "sticking point," he made a rush in the direction of the sound, and found his cat ascending the stair leisurely. It is not stated whether the grimalkin in question is a black one or not, though it ought to be a black quadruped. A black cat is fit for anything, as all the veracious records of witchcraft show. The mystery, it is evident, is as great as ever and as great as the Monson mystery. The more adventurous spirits declare, however, that they will not rest content until it is solved.
As far as I can tell, the story disappeared from the newspapers after this, so we’ll never know how, or if, the mystery was ever resolved.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Murder of Thomas Arden: A (Possibly) Shakespearean Tragedy

Domestic murders are, sadly, a dime a dozen.  So for one such tragedy to inspire a play that was not only popular in its own day, but that is still performed--and sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare--today, you know you are dealing with Strange Company-level mayhem.

So for this week, let us meet Mr. and Mrs. Arden, of Faversham, Kent, England.

Thomas Arden was, on the surface at least, a Tudor success story.  He was born into a mercantile family sometime in 1508, but he did not achieve real wealth until Henry VIII began dissolving the monasteries in the 1530s.  As Arden was at that time working for Sir Edward North, the man put in charge of redistributing the confiscated church lands, he was among the select few fortunate enough to be in a position to take advantage of the situation.  Arden was not shy about using his connections to North and Sir Thomas Cheyne, who was then Warden of the Cinque Ports, to not only become a local customs official, but to snap up former church properties at bargain rates.  He took for his own use the former guest house of Faversham’s Benedictine Abbey, which he transformed into a grand residence.  The “tall and comely” Arden soon became a wealthy and influential figure in his community.  He became an alderman, and for a short time in 1548, the town’s mayor.

Around 1537, Arden married Sir Edward North’s stepdaughter, Alice Brigandine.  The bride was about 13 years Arden’s junior and described as “tall and well favoured of shape and countenance.”  Although the records are hazy on this point, it is thought the couple eventually had a daughter named Margaret.

It is not known if Thomas and Alice married for love or--as was generally the case in Tudor England--coldly practical reasons.  What is clear is that their relationship became far from idyllic.  Alice eventually entered into an affair with Thomas Morsby, one of her stepfather’s servants.  Thomas soon became aware of his wife’s infidelity, but chose to ignore it.  After all, Alice had many powerful family connections, and Thomas was too practical a man to want to alienate them.  For the sake of his own career, he was, in the blunt words of the historian Holinshed, “contented to wink at her filthy disorder.”  So “contented” was the cuckolded husband that he made no protest when Alice moved her lover into the family home, where she fed Morsby “delicate meats” and provided him with “sumptuous apparel.”

Before long, even this was not enough for Alice.  She wanted to marry Morsby, and for that she needed not just a complaisant husband, but a dead one.

She found a remarkable number of people who, for their own reasons, agreed with this sentiment.  Thomas’ greed for land and money--and utter lack of scruples about how he acquired them--had made him a deeply loathed figure in Faversham.  By 1550, the other town leaders were so disgusted with his mercenary ways that they removed Thomas from all his local offices.  If you asked a resident of Faversham, “What do you think about murdering Thomas Arden?” the likely answer would be “Where do I sign up?”

Alice, in short, felt she was on safe ground organizing her husband’s assassination.  She may even have thought the townsfolk would arrange a parade in her honor.  Her first murder attempt involved that classic best friend of discontented wives: poison.  A painter named William Blackbourne happily provided her with a supply of something venomous, but sadly for the murder squad, Thomas merely vomited up the would-be lethal dose.

Alice vowed to try, try again.  She offered a tailor named John Green ten pounds to have Thomas killed.  As Green had recently been battling Arden in a bitter land dispute, he may have been willing to do it on the house.  Green quickly recruited a goldsmith named George Bradshaw, a “terrible cruell ruffian” known as “Black Will,” and one of Arden’s own servants, Michael Saunderson, to help him with the job.  Green’s plan was this: while Thomas was on a business trip to London, Saunderson would leave the door of the home where Arden was staying unlocked, allowing Black Will to creep in and perform the dirty work.  However, Saunderson rejected the scheme, fearing that Will might get overly enthusiastic and kill him as well.  On several different occasions, Will and a fellow villain named Losebagg trailed after Arden as he went about the countryside, hoping to catch their quarry alone long enough to commit the murder, but they were always thwarted for one reason or another.

Then Morsby--who had been squeamish about the murder conspiracy all along--suggested that he pick a fight with Arden--one that would, of course, leave the much older man dead.  Alice rejected this plan, on the assumption that Thomas would maintain his studied indifference to her lover.

Alice was increasingly irritated at how unexpectedly difficult it was to murder her husband.  On February 15, 1551, she organized a private conference with Morsby, Black Will, John Green, Losebagg, Saunderson, Morsby’s sister Cecily Pounder, and one of Alice’s maids (who may have been named Elizabeth Stafford.)  Alice was determined that they put their heads together and finally come up with a way to make her husband well and truly dead.

Morsby restated his objection to the murder plot (it may have dawned on him that if Alice could kill her first husband, she could easily slay her second one, as well.)  In a “furie,” he marched out and took up lodgings at a nearby inn.  Alice persuaded him to return, after which she tearfully begged him not to let her down.  Morsby was eventually nagged into giving his reluctant consent to the enterprise.

Alice decided that the direct approach to murder was necessary.  That same evening, all the Arden servants not in on the plot were given the night off.  Once they had gone, Black Will was brought in and hidden in a closet at the end of the parlor.  When Thomas arrived home, Morsby greeted him at the front door.  Dinner was not yet ready, Morsby told him agreeably.  While they waited, how about a game of backgammon in the parlor?

According to Holinshed, Thomas was seated at the gaming table so that his back was to the closet where Will was lurking, waiting for his signal to attack.  After a short time, Morsby said to Thomas, “Now may I take you sir if I will.”

“Take me?” Thomas replied as he studied the board.  “Which way?”

This was Will’s pre-arranged cue.  He suddenly appeared behind Thomas, and began strangling him with a napkin.  Morsby did his part by striking Arden on the skull with “a taylor’s great pressing iron.”  He finished the job by drawing his dagger and slitting their victim’s throat.  (Holinshed’s later version of the story had Black Will making this final fatal blow.)

Will rewarded himself by taking Arden’s money from his purse and the rings from his fingers.  He then went to Alice and collected his ten pound fee.  Then he left, with that glow of satisfaction that comes from a profitable night’s work.

Early 17th century woodcut depicting Arden's murder

The gang of assassins then cleaned up the blood, but then realized they faced the problem common to all murderers: getting rid of the body.  These criminal masterminds spent so much time and energy looking for ways to kill Arden, they gave no thought whatsoever as to what they would do with him if they succeeded.

Accounts of the disposal of Arden’s corpse differ slightly.  A contemporary town record states that the crew simply dumped him in a meadow adjoining the house.  Holinshed gave the detail that Saunderson, Cecily Pounder, the unnamed maid, and Arden’s daughter carried the body into the meadow, where they left him “down on his back straight in his night-gown, with the slippers on.”

After their return, they had some visitors, wanting to see Thomas about some business or other.  Alice calmly entertained her guests, assuring them that her husband was late getting home, but would show up at any second.  As time went on without the arrival of the master of the house, Alice made a great show of increasing worry, sending servants to go around the town asking about him.

Later that same night, a grocer named Prune was unfortunate to be the one to literally stumble across the battered corpse.  It was obvious that Thomas Arden was “thoroughly dead.”  And as footprints in the snow led directly from the gate of his garden to the corpse, town officials did not have to be investigative geniuses to guess who was responsible.

The mayor and other local leaders wasted no time questioning Alice and her servants.  They all, of course, immediately asserted that they had no idea whatsoever how Arden had died.  However, when a search of the home found blood, hair, and a bloodstained knife in the parlor, as well as a bloody cloth in a washtub, such denials became difficult to maintain.  Realizing she had been caught almost literally red-handed, Alice not only confessed, but implicated Morsby in the plot, as well.  That gentleman was arrested at the inn where he was staying.  Found in his room was clothing “stained with some of Master Arden’s bloud.”  The whole crowd was thrown in prison to await trial.

To no one’s surprise, every single one of them was “adjudged to dye.”  In those days, the murder of one’s husband was considered a form of treason.  As Alice was judged to have committed the most heinous crime, she was given the most heinous punishment.  She was burned at the stake in Canterbury on March 14, 1551.  Elizabeth Stafford suffered the same ghastly end in Faversham.  Morsby and his sister were hanged in London.  Michael Saunderson was “drawn and hanged in chains within the liberties of Faversham.”  George Bradshaw was also hanged in chains, in Canterbury.

In July, John Green was apprehended in Cornwall, and returned for a date with the gallows at Faversham.  Black Will and Losebagg were never traced by English authorities, but Holinshed claimed that in 1553 Will was arrested in the Netherlands and “burned on a scaffold.”  The fate of Alice’s daughter is unknown.

Arden’s house still stands on the corner of Abbey Street and Abbey Place, with a small plaque explaining its grim place in history.  The murder of Thomas Arden was a sordid crime, lacking any mystery, novelty, or even any sympathetic characters.  Yet it has achieved a certain immortality denied more remarkable villanies.

History is an unpredictable thing.

The Arden home, via Wikipedia

Friday, April 23, 2021

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is here!

Let's dance!

Why the hell was Cahokia abandoned?

The mystery of the man who fell from the sky.

The paid applauders of the French Opera House.

What we know about the murder of Thomas Becket.

Hashish and 19th century scientists.

The legends surrounding a cursed island.

Grant vs. Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness.

The end of Roman Britain.

More evidence that Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap.

DNA is telling us how little we know about human history.

When you could mail a cat in New York City.

Domestic violence and the Star Chamber.

When the poor were judged to be putting way too much fun into funerals.

Your chance to hear the lowest note sung by a woman.

This week in Russian Weird looks at government interest in UFOs.

An unsolved Halloween disappearance.

Water and witchcraft in Early Modern England.

Evil multi-colored cat ghosts.

Remembering Dr. Demento.

Remembering the Bay City Rollers.

A Vietnamese Bigfoot.

Canadian pilots keep seeing UFOs.

This is why we can't have nice ruins.

The mystery of a vanished family.

Infanticide in Victorian England.

Buster the roller-skating rooster.

What it's like to be in a coma.

Murder and a cursed chair.

Roget's pre-thesaurus adventures.

Jack London's photographs of the East End.

Contemporary accounts of Benjamin Franklin's funeral.

A case of a girl who starved herself to death over a sense of pride.

A Roman Emperor as an amateur detective.

The marriage negotiations of the future Charles I.

A man who was killed by a corpse.

A newly-discovered Bronze Age tomb.

The notorious Ratcliff Highway Murders.

A look at the life of Nero.

An ancient well in Spitalfields.

A jailed lawyer's best friend is his book chest.

The scandalous Down family.

Another weird disappearance in the wilderness.

An alleged UFO crash in Norway.

The children of Marie Antoinette.

Captain Trollope and the carronades.

A domestic tragedy ends on the gallows.

The only kamikaze attack on an American submarine.

A man who'd die to get away from his wife.  At least, that's what he wanted everyone to think.

The ghosts of Windsor Castle.

A homesick Norwegian painter in London.

Audrey Hepburn, Resistance spy.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a famous 16th century murder.  In the meantime, here's some Handel.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

Because everyone loves heartwarming reunion stories, I present this news item from the May 18, 1990 “Miami Herald”:

SYDNEY Australia — Two Australian fingers have been returned to their owner after spending the last 23 years hidden in a jar. But another resident of Bendigo in Victoria is contesting ownership telling police he is sentimentally attached to the fingers he used to keep in a matchbox. 

The tale of two digits has preoccupied Bendigo since Sunday when a young couple walked into the former gold rush town’s police station holding a jar containing two fingers pickled in methylated spirits. Senior Sgt. Graham Aitken said they found the jar when cleaning out their garden shed. 

“The fingers had obviously been there a while so we ran a piece in the local paper and the next morning this bloke comes in and says they’re his,” Aitken said. 

But a glance at Michael Ellis’s fingers revealed he had the full set. He still insisted he was the rightful owner. 

“He said that 23 years ago he had been working in a garage when a chap ran in after chopping his middle and fourth fingers off in a tractor accident. 

“They took the guy to hospital but at the end of the day he (Ellis) decided to go and find the fingers.” 

Ellis at first kept the fingers in a match box and used to scare girls in bars with them. But one day the fingers’ real owner accosted him and asked for them back. 

“He (Ellis) denied he had them but when he got home he dug out an empty jar, sealed the top and hid them away,” said Aitken. 

The plot thickened 10 years ago when someone stole the jar from Ellis. How it ended up in the garden shed remains a mystery. 

“He said he wanted them now because of their sentimental value,” Aitken said. 

“We refused but he said he was going to contact the tractor driver and ask his permission to keep them.” 

On Thursday morning the unnamed tractor driver himself walked into the police station and claimed the fingers. 

“It’s been a bit of a laugh” said Aitken “But it’s a nice change to have a happy ending.”

A follow-up story in the May 23, 1990 “Sydney Herald,” carried an interview with the rightful owner of these precious pickled digits:

Victorian farmer Giles Cary (pictured right) has recovered his fingers (also pictured right) 23 years after losing them in a towing accident. 

Well done, Giles. 

His fingers now sit on top of his china cabinet, after being found in a garden shed last week. They are "a light chocolate colour" and look like pieces of wood until you see the fingernails, said Mr. Cary, 52, who lives in Prairie, north of Bendigo. 

"But there's no doubt they are mine," he said. "You can see where they've come from--the tear matches up with the stumps." 

Mr. Cary said the fingers had become a "big talking point". He last saw them in 1967 when they were sheared off in an accident, as he sat on the back of a towing truck. They were picked up by a 14-year-old schoolboy, Michael Ellis, who preserved them in a jar of methylated spirits. 

Ten years later they were stolen from Mr. Ellis and were not seen again until they turned up mysteriously in the shed of a house in Bendigo. 

Much of the methylated spirits was gone and the fingers had darkened and become mummified. When they were given to police, Mr. Ellis, now 37, claimed them, saying they had sentimental value. Police rejected his claim because his 10 fingers were intact.

Yes, yes, I know.  You have questions.  I have questions.  We all have questions.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Mystery on Ice: The Disappearance of Gertrude Strassburger

The "Inter Ocean," January 4, 1903, via Newspapers.com

I have blogged about a number of missing-persons cases where there are an eerie lack of clues about how and why the victim disappeared. One minute someone is there, the next minute...they're not. And that's all she wrote. One of the most puzzling examples is the following long-forgotten mystery from early 20th century Minnesota.

Gertrude Strassburger was the daughter of an architect in the town of Crookston.  She led the comfortable, uneventful life of a middle-class girl of her era.  Her life had known one tragedy: when she was a teenager, her sweetheart, whom she was expected to eventually marry, suddenly died.  Gertrude was naturally devastated, but she eventually learned to cope with her loss, aided by her growing interest in spiritualism.  She consoled herself with the belief that her lover was dead only in body, not in spirit.  She was an attractive, vivacious young woman who had many men friends, but she showed no romantic interest in any of them.  On the whole, she was a pleasant, if unremarkable, example of what used to be called “the all-American girl.”

Strassburger’s life chugged along quietly.  Then, on the afternoon of December 2, 1902, twenty-one year old Gertrude and some of her friends gathered for a skating party at a nearby river.  For half an hour or so, all happily zipped across the ice.  The only odd note to the gathering was when Gertrude, who had seemed in her usual happy spirits, suddenly commented to a girlfriend, “Do you know, I feel so queer.  I have been hearing music and voices, it seems to me, and they seem to come from a distance.  Just a little while ago I heard Will [her dead beau] call for me, and it seemed for a moment as if I must go to him.”  The friend apparently took little notice of this rather disquieting statement.

Soon after this, someone proposed a race to a bend in the river, about a quarter-mile away.  The only one to demur was Gertrude.  She was feeling a bit tired, she explained, and would sit on a log by the riverside and act as judge of the competition.  One of the young men gathered a few small branches and started a fire for her.  When he left to rejoin the group, he saw Gertrude sitting near the little blaze, warming her hands.

After about five minutes, the racing party returned to where Gertrude had been sitting.  She was gone.  All that remained of her was one of her gloves, still warm, on the log where she had last been seen.  When her friends were unable to find any sign of her, they immediately alerted authorities.

The disappearance was, from the start, unusually baffling.  The only footprints found around the log where Gertrude had been sitting were the tracks in the snow she and her friend had made going to the log, and then the boy’s solo footprints returning to the river.  Nothing else.

Could she have been abducted?  No one heard any outcry, and there were no signs of any struggle.  An elopement?  No, she had no romantic attachments, and, in any case, the lack of footprints indicated that if she had run away, it would have been impossible for her to do so unless (in the words of a contemporary newspaper,) “she went up in a balloon.”  She could not have left by train, because she was well-known to all the train workers passing through the city, which would have made it easy to trace her.  Besides, she had made many plans for the upcoming Christmas holidays, and was looking forward to attending various parties and festive events.

The frozen river was scoured for holes through which Gertrude might have fallen, but none were found.  The search party went through the woods at the edge of the river.  The snow around it was completely unmarked, showing no sign of human visitation.  Detectives were brought in, and for days the area where Gertrude vanished continued to be searched, with a frightening lack of any results whatsoever.  The Crookston city council offered a reward of $250 to anyone who could provide evidence about the young woman’s disappearance.  No one ever came forward.  Evidently, not even cranks and hoaxters could come up with a plausible theory for what became of Gertrude Strassburger.

No trace of Gertrude was ever found.  One of the final newspaper reports about the mystery commented that Gertrude’s known interest in spiritualism caused some to theorize that as the girl sat alone by the river, her dead love’s apparition appeared and carried her off to the great beyond.  In short, she simply dematerialized.  The paper added that “plain, every-day, matter-of-fact men and women scoff at this theory, but they fail to offer a solution as to what has become of the girl.”

[Note: In the following years, there were a few recorded alleged “sightings” of Gertrude.  Three weeks after her disappearance, it was reported that she had been found in Culbertson, Montana. In 1904, a conductor on the Milwaukee railway came forward asserting that Gertrude was alive and well and living in Canada.  However, when he learned that the reward for information about her was not forthcoming, he disappeared almost as quickly and efficiently as Gertrude.  In 1908, a Missouri newspaper published a brief report stating that Gertrude had been located in Spokane, Washington, where she was working in a millinery.  These news items were all completely uncorroborated, and appear to be typical of the many false reports which surround missing-persons cases.]

Friday, April 16, 2021

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

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

Everyone dance!

The mysterious murder of Rose Ambler.

The life of the first King of England.

The working dogs of medieval Europe.

A Civil War reunion story.

The Titanic's funeral ship.

How apothecary shops became globalized.

Attending an Early Modern barbecue.

The legends surrounding a vanished ship.

How Margaret Dickson became known as "Half Hangit Maggie."

And here we have a Half Hangit Confederate spy.

The man who is bringing "lost" whisky back to life.

The bloodiest civil war in known history.

The elephant of the Bastille.

So, let's talk dog detectives.

The story behind Latvia's Cat House.

This week in Russian Weird looks at one very bad hike in the mountains.

When patients were treated with mineral water.

Conspiracy theories around a "lost cosmonaut."

Anyone else noticing that government officials are suddenly going full UFO?

Dolph the cat's narrow escape.

Scotland's most haunted castle.  Or at least top ten or so.

The diary of a 19th century housewife.

Life in a late-19th/early-20th century British prison.

The "Ken and Barbie" killers.  It still stuns me that Homolka is free as a bird and having children.

Ireland's haunted Leap Castle.

A young man's odd disappearance.

A strange note in a second-hand jacket.

How horses were put to work in the 19th century.

The world's most beautiful salt mine.

The 19th century's booming skeleton industry.

Why anatomists and body-snatchers were like peanut butter and jelly.

A brief history of Pears Pure Soap.  And their often astonishingly weird ads.

The first steam warship.

The Belfast Blitz.

1300 year old cookie recipes.

In praise of the fall of Rome.

The cradle and the coffin.

Prince Philip and UFOs.

A brief history of the limerick.

Drawings of street life in 1835 London.

The mystery of the body in the chimney.

That's all for this week's Link Dump!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a young woman's baffling disappearance.  In the meantime, here's some country gospel.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

This Stephen King-like item is short, and anything but sweet.  “New York World,” May 2, 1905:

“I have been seeing ghosts and I am afraid that they are going to harm me,” were the last words of Irving Fuller, a young embalmer, to his friend, Duncan Stephenson, when they parted yesterday.

Fuller’s body, attired in pajamas, was found at the bottom of an airshaft in the New York and Brooklyn Casket Company’s establishment, at No. 160 East One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth street, early to-day.  He had fallen four floors.  His neck had been broken and death was instantaneous.  Stephenson believes he jumped into the shaft in fleeing from the visions he so greatly feared.

Fuller, who was twenty-seven years old and unmarried, came to New York from an up-state town only a few months ago, and obtained a position as an emergency embalmer for the casket company.  It was part of his duty to live in the big five-story brick building in East One Hundred and Twenty-Sixth street, every floor of which is filled with caskets.  The young embalmer had to stay in the place all night to answer emergency calls.

During the last few days Stephenson, another workman in the casket factory, had noticed that Fuller was growing wan and pale.  When he asked him what the trouble was he says the young man replied:

“I’ll tell you just what it is, Stephenson, although it sounds rather foolish.  For the last few days I have been seeing ghosts.  They walk into my room while I am in bed.  They stand at my side and look at me and some of them make menacing gestures.  All of them seem to be ghosts of people I have embalmed.  I suppose it’s absurd to talk this way.  Of course the ghosts don’t exist.  What I need to drive them away is fresh air and plenty of exercise.  But still when they come and look at me my hair stands on end and my impulse is to get away from them at any cost.”

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Case of the Time-Traveling Priest

Father Ernetti, circa 1960

Pellegrino Ernetti was unquestionably a man of parts.  The Italian Benedictine monk was not merely a renowned religious and archaic music scholar; he held a degree in quantum and subatomic physics.  On a more curious note, Ernetti was also one of his country's most accomplished exorcists.

In short, Ernetti was a man to be taken seriously.  Which is why the world was so befuddled when, during the 1950s, Father Ernetti announced that he had succeeded in building a time machine.

His alleged invention, which he called “the Chronovisor,” was not a “time machine” in the sense that it allowed the user to physically travel to other eras.  Rather, it was sort of a Fortean television set which gave one the ability to view on a screen events in the past as they happened.  According to Ernetti, he had been working on the machine since 1950 in collaboration with a group of 12 other scientists who, perhaps unsurprisingly, wished to remain anonymous.  (Rumor had it that Ernetti’s cohorts included Enrico Fermi and Wernher von Braun.)

Ernetti calmly and unhesitatingly talked of his trips through history via the Chronovisor.  He witnessed a performance in 169 B.C. Rome of Quintus Ennius’ now-lost tragedy “Thyestes.”  (Ernetti provided a transcription he had made of the play.)  He toured a first century AD Roman market.  He viewed speeches by Mussolini, Napoleon, and Cicero.  (Regarding the latter, Ernetti noted that the Latin pronunciation taught in schools today is incorrect.)  Most startlingly, Ernetti claimed he had used his Chronovisor to watch the final days of Jesus.  He presented a photo he claimed to have taken of Christ dying on the cross, which, it must be said, did little to convince skeptics.  (It was eventually identified as a close-up photo of a wooden crucifix on display in the Sanctuary of Merciful Love at Collevalenza.)

Unfortunately, Ernetti never provided many details about his astonishing creation.  The Chronovisor was said to be made up of antennae of various alloys, a sort of steering wheel driven by electromagnetic radiation which enabled the user to hone in on their chosen time and place, and recording devices to copy the sights and sounds of our distant past.

Ernetti told friends that he came to believe his device was just too successful. He and his team dismantled the Chronovisor, fearing what could result if it fell into the wrong hands. It had the potential, he said, to create "the most fearsome dictatorship the world has ever seen." Despite the complete lack of hard evidence for Ernetti’s claims, he never retracted his story.  Although the priest became increasingly silent about his alleged invention, he went to his grave in 1994 content to let the world think he might--just might--have been a time-traveler.

It was after Ernetti’s death that the Chronovisor story really got weird.  In 2002, a French Jesuit priest, Francois Brune published a book, “Le nouveau mystère du Vatican,” (“The Vatican’s New Mystery,”) asserting that, yes, Ernetti’s machine really had existed.  Brune, who had been friends with Ernetti since 1962, accused the Vatican of suppressing all information about the Chronovisor. The Church not only ordered Ernetti to shut up about the damn thing, but covered up all proof of its existence, such as Ernetti’s research notes and blueprints.  (Regarding the dubious photo of Christ on the cross, Brune said that Ernetti had an explanation for its resemblance to the Collevalenza crucifix: the artist who made the icon was guided by a nun who had many visions of the Crucifixion.  Probably, he asserted, the nun had herself been mystically transported through time, enabling her to see the exact same scene that Ernetti had photographed.)  Brune didn’t blame anyone for assuming that Ernetti was merely a particularly wild fabulist.  However, he argued that it was impossible to believe that this brilliant and accomplished man of high moral integrity would be insane enough to make up such an implausible story.

A further complication to our little tale emerged in 2000.  New Paradigm Books published an English-language translation of Viennese journalist Peter Krassa’s 1997 book about Ernetti under the title “Father Ernetti’s Chronovisor.”  This edition included a previously-unknown “deathbed confession.”  This document was sent to New Paradigm by an anonymous source claiming to have been a relative of Ernetti’s present at the priest’s final hours.  In this “confession,” Ernetti admits that although he had been working on the Chronovisor for many years, he had never perfected it sufficiently to actually travel through time.  It took a near-death experience for him to realize that he, and not Quintus Ennius, had composed the text of “Thyestes” he had supposedly copied from an ancient performance.  In the “confession,” Ernetti revealed that he had spent many previous lifetimes struggling to create the Chronovisor, and he vowed to be reincarnated once more in order to try, try again.

Naturally, Brune dismissed this document as a forgery.  He pointed out, correctly, that the “confession” contained many inconsistencies and errors.  He also noted that the description of the Chronovisor allegedly provided by the dying Ernetti did not match in the slightest what the priest had told Brune and others about his device.  Brune scoffed that the document’s author “had read a little bit too much science fiction.”  He believed that the document was evidence that there are powerful forces who want all of us to doubt that the Chronovisor was real.  And, perhaps, Brune mused, it was “for the good of humanity” that the Chronovisor should remain hidden, as “such an invention would run the risk of overturning all of our social structures.”

In other words, if the Chronovisor ever existed, perhaps it shouldn’t have.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

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

And the Strange Company HQ staff can scarcely contain their excitement.

What the hell are the stone balls of Skara Brae?

What the hell was the Boscombe Down incident?

What the hell happened to Betty and Barney Hill?

Watch out for the Yay-Ho!

Watch out for the Ogopogo!

The (gruesome) details of a 17th century examination of witches.

The man who made dead fish speak.  Although I'm not certain why anyone would want to.

Odyssey celebrates 20 years on Mars.

Celebrating spring with wine, whips, and mud.

Discovering a "lost golden city."

A life-saving forger.

Mary Astor's sex scandal; or why some people just shouldn't keep a diary.

Newburyport's most notorious arsonist.

Why you wouldn't enjoy picking oakum.

Well, so much for the laws of physics.

How the Dutch made good money out of the American Revolution.

The ingenuity of ancient engineering.

Meet Apricot, a very unusual kitten.

British-occupied India's Chapati Movement.

A look at historical types of walks.

How the friendship between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Alexander Pope ended.

Another gateway to Hell.  Our planet has a lot of those, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

A very lonely comet.

The ghost of Nottingham Castle.

Hypnotism as a murder alibi.

The world's most isolated monk.

We may be the alien planet.

A Bronze Age 3-d map.

Yet another reason to hate Zoom.

Non-essential retail shops in 19th century London.

The shining pyramids.

A murder mystery from the 3rd Century AD.

That time they found the Devil's skeleton.

Burying Poor Polly.

The strange tale of the Public Universal Friend.

Graverobbing in Midlothian.

The playwright who may have inspired Shakespeare.

A girl's very weird disappearance.

Pete the Cat, unwilling test pilot.

An ancient Egyptian murder mystery.

Some of history's oddest books.

The poetry movement that wasn't.

Nikolai Gogol and Russian bureaucracy.

The man who allegedly inspired "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

In which a geologist is beaten up by an octopus.

The mysterious rumbles of Mars.

The mystery of the queen's disappearing daughter.

A brief history of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A study showing the dangers of extreme fasting.

A Viking massacre in Saxon England.

People were collecting crystals 100,000 years ago.

The man who is recreating ancient musical instruments.  The yazh does sound lovely.

Northumberland's fiery ghost ship.

A prostitute's unsolved murder.

Treadmills in the Victorian era.

Meet Mr. E.G.G. Hunt.

Ancient coins and a piratical mystery.

History's greatest palm reader.

Taxes result in a lot of unintended consequences.

A 13th century soap opera with a surprise happy ending.

A look at 19th century Limehouse.

And that's a wrap for this week's Link Dump!  Tune in on Monday, when we'll look at a priest who claimed to travel through time.  In the meantime, here's Merle Haggard:

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

When I come across a newspaper story explaining how exploding corpses are a palliative to grief, by God I’m running with it.  The “Kansas City Daily Gazette,” January 31, 1888:

"I don't think I ever heard of anything quite so ghastly as the experience Mrs.--I mustn’t give her right name--Mrs. Graham, of New Orleans, had a number of years ago,” observes a contributor to the Chicago Times. I am pretty sure it has never been told in print, though it is true in every particular, except as to the names. A small party of us had been traveling through the Holy Land, and had just gone over into Egypt, where Mr. Graham, a man of wealth and culture, met with an accident that cost him his life. Of course we all were terribly shocked, and as for poor Mrs. Graham, she was utterly inconsolable. As soon as she came out of the swoon into which she fell when she first heard the dreadful news, she sat and rocked herself to and fro and wrung her hands in the most exquisite grief. We did everything and said everything we could think of, but nothing consoled her in the least. 

"Finally it was decided that we should have the body embalmed and start for home with it as soon as possible. I was deputed to find an undertaker, and I want to say right here that, however much the ancient Egyptian used to know about embalming, the modern knows but very little. After almost a day's search I succeeded, however, in finding a man who at least said he could fix the body so that it should be preserved for several months. When he had completed his work we placed the remains in an air-tight burial case, which we then inclosed in a box. Thus it was taken on shipboard, and we all set out for home. 

During all this time poor Mrs. Graham called constantly for her husband, and would not be comforted. We were all fearful that she would lose her reason. The ship's doctor did everything he could think of, but as soon as she came out from under the influence of his opiates she resumed her moaning calls for her husband. We told her that Mr. Graham could not come back; that all that remained of his mortal self was in the box. Then she pleaded to be taken to the box. On advice of the doctor we had the box brought into the cabin, and Mrs. Graham knelt down beside it and rocked backward and forward in her agony, praying aloud to the Lord to open the coffin and give back her dear husband to her. 

"Then followed the most marvelous and awful thing I ever heard of, and yet, awful and ghastly as it is, I never can think of it without laughing. There was a crash and a report that filled the cabin, and before we could imagine what it was, Mrs. Graham was hurled back several feet upon the floor, and the air was filled with pieces of the box, and of the coffin and of the corpse. That Egyptian undertaker had embalmed the body with some sort of chemicals that had fermented, and the corpse had exploded. It had blown into a thousand pieces all over the cabin. In an instant Mrs. Graham, who was not hurt at all, took in the whole situation, and saw how it had all happened, and right in the midst of her terrible grief the ridiculousness of the thing struck her, and she burst out in laughter. As soon as we gathered our scattered senses we thought that now she had surely become a maniac, but in a little while we learned that it was genuine and sane laughter. She had many a crying spell after that, but as soon as she began to weep she ran away, for her tears were always the harbinger of laughter which she could not control and did not want to display. The doctor said that explosion probably saved her reason."

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Haunted Tunnel

"Berkshire Sampler," October 30, 1977, via Newspapers.com

Long tunnels are many things, and often not very good things. Dark, dangerous, spooky, with the older ones having an atmosphere of damp and decay, causing one to picture unwholesome things lurking in the gloom. However, few tunnels have as sinister a history as a still-active railroad passageway in western Massachusetts.

The nearly five-mile-long Hoosac Tunnel has been called “The Bloody Pit,” and no one can say it hasn’t earned the nickname.  It even looks ghost-ridden.  It is a pitch-black, bone-chilling cold, narrow corridor, carved out of the base of a mountain range.  It took 24 years to build, and no less than 192 workers died during construction.

The Hoosac was begun in January 1851 under the command of engineer Lionel Baldwin, as part of a planned system linking Boston to the Erie Canal.  Baldwin had originally promised that the tunnel would cost $1,169,168 and be completed within three years.  As this proved to be an underestimate of 21 years and about 19 million dollars, Mr. Baldwin soon found himself a New England laughingstock.  Many people enjoyed repeating Oliver Wendell Holmes’ quip that the millennium would arrive before the Hoosac Tunnel did.  When the first train finally went through the tunnel on February 9, 1875, one could say it did so under a bit of a PR cloud.

As noted above, the tunnel’s completion took a horrendous death toll.  Men fell down the tunnel’s thousand-foot deep center shaft.  Men were burned alive.  Men were blown to bits by nitroglycerine explosions.  A not-untypical disaster involved three workers, Ned Brinkman, Billy Nash, and Ringo Kelley.  Kelley accidentally set off some explosives, burying the other two men alive.  Instead of running for help, Kelley fled the scene, leaving his coworkers to their fate.  One year later, Kelley’s dead body was found in the tunnel, at the same spot where Brinkman and Nash had died.  It was widely believed that the ghosts of his victims had gotten their revenge.  In 1868, three years after this triple tragedy, a mechanical engineer named Paul Travers wrote to his sister:

“Last night Mr. Dunn and I entered the great tunnel (unfinished) at 9 p.m.  We traveled about two miles into the shaft and then stopped to listen.  As we stood there in the cold silence, we both heard what truly sounded like a man groaning out in pain.  As you know, I have heard that sound many times during the war.  Yet when we turned the wicks up on our lamps, there were no other human beings in the shaft.  I haven’t been this frightened since Shiloh.  Mr. Dunn agreed that it wasn’t the wind we heard.  Perhaps Nash or Brinkman?  I wonder.”

In 1872, a doctor named Clifford J. Owens reported an even more eerie experience when he and a friend, James R. Mckinstrey, visited the tunnel late one night.  He wrote, “We had traveled about two miles into the shaft and were about to turn back when suddenly I heard a mournful sound…”  This was followed by a blue light floating toward them, in the shape of a headless man.  “It came so close I could have touched it and it paused in front of us as if looking us over, then floated off toward the east end of the shaft and vanished into thin air.”

One of the reasons the tunnel took so long to build was that it became increasingly difficult to find men willing to work on it.  Aside from the obvious physical risk, workers began insisting that the site was haunted.  Many men reported seeing and hearing things so frightening that no amount of wages could persuade them to enter the tunnel, particularly at night.

Joseph Impoco, who had worked on the tunnel as a teenager, recounted his experiences some fifty years later.  According to him, the ghosts of the Hoosac were responsible for saving his life.  On one occasion, he was crouching down on the tracks when he heard a voice cry out, “Run, Joe, run!”  Impoco turned, to see a train coming at him, but fortunately was able to leap back in time.  When he looked around, no one else was in the tunnel.  Another time, Impoco was freeing an iron crowbar from some ice when he again heard a voice, this time, yelling “Joe! Joe! Drop it, Joe!”  He recalled, “Something made my hands open, and the bar dropped.”  A second later, the bar was smashed against the tunnel wall by 11,000 volts of electricity.  A power line had short-circuited. 

One day, Impoco and some other workers were clearing trees, when “this goddamned big tree started to fall my way.  The gang all hollered and said, ‘Run, Joe, run!.’  I turned around and the tree was coming down.  I ran so fast that I fell and the tree gave me quite a whack.  The whole gang started laughing.  And there was this funny laugh with them that sounded like this...ha...ha...ha...ha.  It was really a strange laugh.  You know the kind I mean...ha...ha...ha...ha.  The men all stopped laughing, but that other one kept right on...ha...ha...ha...ha, all the way down the valley.  There was a light mist all around.  You can call me a liar, but that entire crew, all eight men, died.”

When the interviewer asked him, “While working on the tunnel?” Impoco replied, “No, no.  They all quit pretty soon after that.  They were scared to death.  But they didn’t kid me any more after that.”

Two months after the tree incident, Impoco decided he had quite enough of the Hoosac Tunnel.  He quit his job and moved to Springfield.  However, this wasn’t the end of his association with that strange place.  Every year, he returned to visit the tunnel, because “the ghosts” told him that if he didn’t, something bad would happen.  Impoco kept up this eerie pilgrimage for decades, until his wife implored him to stop, saying that his superstitious ritual was “a lot of bunk.”  To make her happy, he cancelled his annual visit to Hoosac.

His wife died three weeks later.

And then, of course, there’s this: 

"Bennington Banner," July 10, 1973

Mr. Hastaba was observed entering the Hoosac Tunnel, and, as far as I have been able to find, never came out.  To date, he has never been seen, alive or dead, since.

Although the Hoosac is still used by the occasional freight train, it’s main purpose nowadays is to scare the bejeebers out of visitors.  To this day, people report hearing ominous moans and seeing strange lights and apparitions in and around the tunnel.  Some bolder souls have walked through the tunnel, and generally regret doing so, as they often report the unnerving feeling of being closely followed by...something.

All in all, if you are ever in the vicinity of the Hoosac, it might be wisest to stay above ground, in the bright light of day.