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

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Pharmacy That Dispensed Death: The Ohio State University Poisonings

As I’ve mentioned before, murder by poison can be some of the most difficult crimes to solve, for the simple reason that the murderer does not have to be anywhere near their victim in order to kill them.  Seemingly random, motiveless slayings are usually equally baffling.  Combine these two factors, and you may well see a mystery would leave Sherlock Holmes baffled.  Such was the tragic situation that haunted Ohio State University in early 1925.

When the University’s students needed medicine, they went to the health service office, where a doctor would write a prescription to be filled at the College of Pharmacy’s dispensary.  On January 29, a student named Timothy McCarthy, who was suffering from a bad cold, obtained a prescription for the standard remedy of the time--capsules filled with aspirin and quinine.  However, the supposed cure just made him feel worse.  Immediately after taking a capsule, he began suffering from terrible pain and cramps throughout his body.  Fortunately, McCarthy had the sense not to take any more of the capsules, and after a few days of misery, recovered his usual good health.

The dispensary in the early 1900s. Via Ohio State University Archives

On January 31, two other students with colds, Harold Gillig and Charles Huls, also took medication from the dispensary.  Like McCarthy, both young men instantly fell gravely ill.  Gillig pulled through, but Huls died while suffering violent convulsions.  Campus doctors ruled that Huls died of tetanus.

Charles Huls

On February 1, yet another student, David Puskin, got cold medicine from the dispensary.  Twenty minutes after taking a capsule, he was dead.  The doctors decided the unfortunate young Mr. Puskin succumbed to meningitis, and placed all his friends in quarantine.

Two days after Puskin’s death, OSU student George Delbert Thompson took cold medicine he had received from the dispensary.  He immediately fell so spectacularly ill that campus officials were finally forced to realize that something very weird was going on.  An analysis of the contents of Thompson’s stomach revealed that he had swallowed strychnine.  Campus doctors, sheepishly muttering that, after all, it would be easy to confuse the symptoms of meningitis or tetanus with those of strychnine poisoning, admitted that Huls and Puskin had also been poisoned.  Four other students were sickened by the dispensary “cold medicine,” but fortunately, all survived.  And it became obvious that strychnine could not have been added to the cold medicine by mistake: the poison was found in only a few capsules.  In any case, strychnine could easily be differentiated from quinine.  The University realized they had a serial poisoner on their hands, one who lived or worked in the campus, and the police were brought in.  

The obvious suspicion was that the killer worked at the dispensary, but no one could understand how, even under those circumstances, he or she could have tampered with the capsules.  All dispensary medications were made up under the close supervision of faculty members in the College of Pharmacy.  The sixty-four students who had been working at the pharmacy just before the poisonings began were all questioned by police.  Nearly all of them expressed utter bafflement at how the poison could have been added, considering how no prescription was filled without faculty looking on.  The one exception was a young woman who admitted that she had filled the aspirin-and-quinine capsules so often over the last two years that she stopped bothering to bring in supervision when that prescription was made up.  She pointed out that the bottles of quinine and aspirin were always stored together in the same place, so making a mistake with them was virtually impossible.

Chemical analysis of the remaining stock of cold medicine found that the majority of the capsules were harmless--except for one, which contained pure strychnine.  This discovery proved it was impossible for the poison to have mixed in by accident.

Unsurprisingly, every student who still had cold medicine they had obtained from the dispensary wasted no time giving their capsules to investigators.  Among them was one capsule which contained enough strychnine to kill someone four times over.  Taking into consideration the number of students who had been sickened by the capsules, it was calculated that of the three hundred capsules that had been recently made, eight had contained poison.

The State Pharmacy Board looked at all recent legal sales of strychnine, and found nothing suspicious.  On the night of February 4, Dr. Clair Dye, the dean of the College of Pharmacy, inspected the dispensary in hope of finding something that might shed light on the mystery.  In the back of a shelf in the chemical storeroom, he found a small bottle of strychnine.  However, it was nearly full and covered in dust, suggesting that it had sat there, forgotten, for some time.  This potential clue turned out to be a red herring: the bottle had belonged to William Keyser, who belonged to the pharmacy’s faculty.  He had on two occasions taken strychnine from the bottle to use in his classes.  

For a while, it looked like a pharmacy student named Nelson Rosenberg was a promising suspect.  He admitted to having bought strychnine tablets off-campus, as a stimulant to help him concentrate on his studies.  (Yes, back in the good old days, many people took minute doses of strychnine and arsenic as a “health tonic,” and if you are thinking that this must have led to a lot of unpleasant unintended consequences, you are perfectly correct.)  Rosenberg told police that a bottle of strychnine had been kept in a campus laboratory, easily accessible to anyone who had murder in mind.  However, all the other students insisted that they had never seen such a bottle, and Rosenberg himself admitted that he had no idea what happened to it.  All this emitted a very strong odor of fish, but Rosenberg must have somehow managed to persuade investigators that he was not a maniacal mass poisoner, because the police appear to have lost interest in him.

Another odd figure who emerged from the investigation was a 19 year old pharmacy student named Louis Fish.  When questioned, Fish admitted that he had given David Puskin the killer capsule.  He explained that he and Puskin had been friends, and when Puskin fell ill, he asked Fish to fill his prescription for him.  He confessed that he had sneaked into the pharmacy “without authority,” in order to get the medicine.  He had not told anyone about this before, as he had no wish to get mixed up with a murder investigation.  Fish had been the first student to work in the dispensary the week the fatal capsules were circulated.  Furthermore, on the night of January 30 Fish suddenly left campus to go to his home in Canton, 100 miles away.  However, as soon as he arrived in Canton, he drove straight back to the University.  When asked about this curious behavior, Fish could only say that “I didn’t want to stick around Canton.”  Fish was put under arrest, only to be released the following day.  Police presumably had some good reason to drop both Fish and Rosenberg from their investigation, but if they did, it was evidently never publicly recorded.

"Atlanta Constitution," June 3, 1934, via Newspapers.com

In July 1926, the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy released its report on the mystery, and it was one long salute to Captain Obvious: the poisonings were deliberate and the strychnine had been obtained off-campus.  The End.

That was also The End of any official investigation.  Not only do we not know who the killer was, we cannot even say why the poisonings were done.  Did the evildoer intend to murder just one person, and distributed the other fatal capsules to hide who the real target was?  Or was it a case of some secret psychopath getting their kicks by poisoning people at random?  In either case, they got away with murder.  Perhaps not for the first time.  Or the last.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

While you read this week's links, be entertained by the Strange Company Orchestra!

The fateful silver casket of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Queen Victoria and parliamentary ceremony.

The oldest city in the New World.

One of the last "fireship" attacks.

The shortest war in history.

Toronto's classiest con artist.

The early days of San Antonio, Texas.

The controversial Shapira Scrolls.

That time blimps were used to fight a duel.

The fire that transformed New York City.

A Pennsylvania murder-suicide.

The man who discovered Troy, and wrecked it in the process.

This Week in Russian Weird looks at an...unusual view of world history.

The mysterious petroglyphs of Dighton Rock.

A lonely Japanese writer in London.

A Georgian-era trip advisor.

The Brazilian revolution of 1848.

The last smallpox patient.

A guy who really, really wanted to be Consul of Baghdad.

A lovely medieval Psalter.

Victorian mockery of vegetarianism.

A gourmet cat in Brooklyn.

Some surprises in old documents.

India's singing temples.

An unhappily married woman found freedom in South Dakota.

Some prehistoric battle sites.

A brief history of the Blue Plate Special.

The mystery of the disappearing observatory.

The Flying Dragon of Death!

The midwife's ghost and a secret burial.

How Shirley Temple went from child star to diplomat.

The secret gardens of Spitalfields.

A black cat hoax.

Yet another trunk murder.

Some vintage "favorite recipes."

Victor Hugo as a political symbol.

That wraps it up for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a mysterious series of poisonings.  In the meantime, bring on the marimbas!

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

It’s time for Mystery Lights!  The “Montreal Gazette,” November 29, 1938:

Esterhazy, Sask., November 28. Tabor Cemetery's mysterious light which threatens to give Esterhazy folk the jitters, tonight still challenged efforts to find its source. An attempt to unravel the mystery Saturday night failed because the eerie beam did not maintain its usual midnight schedule. 

During the last few weeks, the pinkish light appeared suddenly each night. It moved with terrific speed towards watchers, residents said, then quickly disappeared. Saturday night at 10:30 o'clock, a group of men trooped to the cemetery. Within half a mile they huddled in groups and smoked and talked quietly until after midnight but they trekked home disappointed because the ghostly glare did not appear. 

"This thing is giving everybody the jitters around here," one resident said later. "A number of men are now organizing to go on watch in the graveyard to see if any explanation can be given for the weird light." 

Some of the superstitious residents expressed fear "something awful is going to happen." Religious minded mothers daily reminded children to pray that no harm came to any one and the children are sent early to bed with windows covered with papers.

Subsequent reports stated that the eerie light continued to be seen by “hundreds” of people over the next several weeks.  (The crowds around the cemetery became so large that one enterprising fellow spoke of setting up a hot dog stand at the site.)  One woman suggested people were merely seeing “marsh gas,” but an investigation by the R.C.M.P. failed to find the source of the light.  About six weeks before the Tabor light was first noticed, a pilot named David Imrie reported seeing what seemed to be “navigation lights of a night-riding ghost plane” as he was flying the night mail between Regina and Moose Jaw.  That plane--if it was a plane--was never identified.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Bones in the Wall: An Edinburgh Castle Mystery

Engraved print of Edinburgh Castle, 1833

All ancient buildings have secrets, and Edinburgh Castle is no exception.  One of its more obscure mysteries was recorded in the “Glasgow Courier” on August 14, 1830:

“On Wednesday last, [August 11] as the masons were knocking off the loose lime, previous to re-casting the old palace in the Castle, they discovered a hole in the wall. The workmen described it as being three feet and a half long, one foot two inches high and one foot in breadth. Between the end of the opening and the surface of the wall (it is the front of the palace) there was a stone about six inches thick and about the same length which was supposed, from the thickness of the wall, to be between the extremity of the opening and the inner surface of the wall or room. In this cavity was found several human bones, some pieces of oak supposed to have been parts of a coffin, and bits of woollen cloth, in all probability the lining of it. On the lining the letter J was distinctly visible, and some of the masons said they saw the letter G also. The bones appear to have been those of a young child. Some of them are in the possession of the person from whom we received this communication. It is right to add that the opening was across the wall.”

All anyone could say about this strange find is that those bones had obviously been in that wall in the old Royal Apartments for a very long time.  At a February 14, 1831 meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, an account written by one Captain J.E. Alexander was read.  According to Alexander, the shroud was of “Silk and Cloth of Gold, having the letter J embroidered thereupon.”  (Note: other observers thought the letter was an “I”.)  At that same meeting, the Society was presented with several of the bones.  In July of that same year, Sergeant Major Dingwall sent the Society more of the ancient bones and a piece of the coffin.  Unfortunately for historians, the physical evidence of the burial--cloth, coffin, bones, and all--have been lost over the centuries.

Over the years, this simple--if extremely weird--discovery inevitably had all manner of romantic fictions and inaccurate details attached to it.  Castle tour guides were fond of telling visitors that the tiny coffin held the remains of a stillborn child of Mary Queen of Scots, with some newborn baby smuggled in as a substitute.  In 1909, an antiquary named Walter B. Woodgate went even further.  As he thought James VI bore a strong resemblance to the Earl of Mar, he proposed that the Countess of Mar was James’ real mother.  Others have suggested that the bones were those of a “foundation sacrifice”--the body of some small animal buried to ward off evil spirits.  More prosaically, it has been theorized that the box or coffin of bones was a reliquary, although this notion does not explain why a holy relic would be so ignominiously walled up.  Jan Bondeson, who examined this puzzling story in his 2018 book "Phillimore's Edinburgh," threw cold water on all those theories, but did not venture to offer one of his own.

The many embroideries that have grown around the original discovery have caused many historians to automatically assume that the discovery of the secret burial never actually happened.  This is regrettable, because there is a genuine mystery here, one well worth contemplating, even if finding a solution is almost certainly impossible.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

Enjoy the Link Dump, but be aware that the Strange Company HQ staffers are on the war path today.

Watch your step.

A homicidal sister-in-law.

The life of Marguerite of Provence, Queen of France.

In which Mario Puzo and Frank Sinatra have a less-than-cordial chat.

In which we learn that T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx were pen-pals.

Ancient intestinal parasites.  Ain't nothin' an archaeologist loves more than ancient intestinal parasites.

The melancholy of phone boxes.

The tragic life of child star Lora Lee Michel.

A modern history of the Loch Ness Monster.

The possible origin of the "Wow!" signal.

The loss of HMS Royal George in 1782.

A look at library cats.

The paranormal side of an English village.

I don't get car sick, but I still wouldn't drive on this road.

Adder snake superstitions.

A look at when Manhattan had country estates.

An unsolved murder in Finland.

Another one for the "pushing back human history" file.

It's no joke that you really shouldn't steal from Indian temples.

An ancient forest has been hiding inside a Chinese sinkhole.

Photographing an angel.

Related: we may not be our planet's first advanced civilization.  

Two newspapers get into a spat.

The Society of the Double Cross, and tales of hidden treasure.

The "war scars" of 1950s Britain.

A 130,000 year old tooth.

An unconventional Victorian marriage.

A death on Hackney Marshes.

Some odd little stories about family Bibles.

The men who revolutionized choral singing.

George Orwell's humorous side.

A case of life-saving...uh, poop.

18th century marriage customs.

The ongoing mystery of crop circles.

WWII's "Operation Mincemeat."

The world's oldest known fake eye.

The "Bloodhound of the Far West."

Dogs as crime fighters.

The first ghostbusters.

A review of a new book about Madeleine Smith, one of Scotland's luckiest poisoners.

A life-saving Fire Department horse.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look a mystery set in Edinburgh Castle.  In the meantime, here's what happens when Bach meets heavy metal.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

This tale of a Welsh poltergeist--complete with all the classic trimmings--appeared in the “Buffalo Sunday Morning News,” January 16, 1910:

(Special Cable to the Sunday News)

CARDIFF. Jan. 15. A quaint tale of a spook comes from the small Carmarthenshire village of Llanarthney, and in this case the ghostly visitant seems to be peculiarly vicious, missiles being hurled through the air by an unseen hand.  The mysterious happenings which have terrified the peaceful villagers have taken place at the Emlyn Arms Inn, and a local correspondent says appearances go to show that this old-fashioned hotel must either be haunted or that an exceedingly marvelous conjurer has been able to completely defy police and other detention. 

On Wednesday night, just after closing the inn, Mrs. Meredith, the landlady, whose husband was spending his holidays in North Wales, was pelted with stones as she was tending the cattle. She attached no significance to this, but when her servant girl, aged 13, who bore her company, responded to a knock at the front door a candlestick came whizzing through the passage. Yet not a soul was seen either in or about the premises. 

More mysterious still, various missiles were presently hurled from every quarter of the kitchen, and, terrified in the extreme, Mrs, Meredith shrieked for help. Mrs. Jenkins, wife of the village constable, and her sister-in-law, Miss Jenkins, hurried to the house of mystery at midnight, but so eerie were the antics of the presumed visitant from the spiritual world that neither dared enter the Inn, nor would others venture therein, until the arrival at 2:30 A.M. of Police Constable Gwilym Jenkins, who had cycled through the colliery districts on duty. 

He believed that his services were needed to arrest a burglar, but search where and how he would, no person could be found, although he heard the tramping of "padded feet" on the stairway and in the upper chambers. Bottles fell at his feet and were smashed, says our correspondent. A heavy black varnished stone ornament "jumped off" a bedroom mantelpiece and fell close to his head as he was looking under the bed for a burglar, and stones which bad been immersed in white lime went hither and thither in most inconceivable fashion, while teapot covers and covers of other things came hurling down, to the astonishment of the constable, his wife, sister-in-law, post office officials and the occupants of the inn. 

The spectators, it is said, saw a polished box fall from Meredith's waistcoat, which was hanging in the kitchen. This waistcoat was ironed by Mrs. Meredith on the previous evening, and she could not have failed to notice the box had It been there then. At 3:30 in the morning mistress and maid sought refuge in the house of a mason employed by Earl Cawdor, who owns the inn, but when they returned the following morning with the constable the mysterious happenings were resumed. 

These occurrences were witnessed by other people, including the vicar and curate of the parish. Constable Jenkins, who has been in the Carmarthenshire constabulary about nine years, asserts that this narrative is true in detail, and that it is not the imaginings of Christmas hilarity, for the spectators were perfectly sober and he is a strict teetotaler himself.

The whole affair is simply inexplicable. The constable had the house surrounded by workmen, and had a burglar been at the inn he would have been captured.

I couldn’t find any updates to this story.  Possibly this was one of those polt incidents that comes and goes almost immediately.

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Transformations of Ida Mayfield Wood

Ida Wood, sometime in the 1860s

During the long history of New York City, untold millions have come to the metropolis in an effort to "better themselves" and fulfill their various dreams.  Most of these hopes are doomed to failure.  Ida Mayfield Wood was one of the few success stories--and she accomplished her goals in a way few have done before or since.

Ida first came to New York in 1857.  The nineteen-year-old was a slight, pretty girl with a charm that was both dainty and sensual.  She told her new acquaintances that she was the daughter of a Louisiana sugar planter named Henry Mayfield.  Her mother, she said with a genteel pride, had been a descendant of the Earls of Crawford.

Ida wanted the wealth and social prestige suitable for such a pedigree, so her first order of business was to find an eligible man who could give them to her.  One name that caught her eye was that of 37-year-old Benjamin Wood.  The businessman was very wealthy, well-connected, (his brother, Fernando, was one of the city's mayors,) and reasonably attractive.  He was also married to his second wife, but Ida was not one to trouble about minor details.

She sent Wood a letter that, to say the least, did not beat around the bush.  "Having heard of you often," she began, "I venture to address you from hearing a young lady, one of your 'former loves' speak of you.  She says you are fond of 'new faces.'  I fancy that as I am new in the city and in 'affairs de coeur' that I might contract an agreeable intimacy with you; of as long duration as you saw fit to have it.  I believe that I am not extremely bad looking, nor disagreeable.  Perhaps not quite as handsome as the lady with you at present, but I know a little more, and there is an old saying--'Knowledge is power.'"

Wood arranged an interview with this demure young lady.  He liked what he saw, and almost immediately accepted the invitation openly offered in her letter.  Ida became his mistress, bearing him a daughter they named Emma.  After Wood's wife died in 1867, the long-time lovers were married. 

Benjamin Wood

Wood was rich and powerful enough for his new wife's dubious history to be tactfully ignored.  She became a leading figure in New York society, extolled by the newspapers as "a belle" admired for her "bright plumage and fragile beauty."  Her social circle ran as high as the visiting Prince of Wales and president-elect Abraham Lincoln.  In 1860, Benjamin was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1861.  (He won another term in 1881-83.)  In the same year he first entered Congress, Wood became editor and publisher of the “New York Daily News.”

Benjamin, unsurprisingly, was no more faithful to his new wife than he had been to the old one.  Ida was not particularly troubled by that.  However, Wood was also addicted to gambling for very high stakes.  This struck horror into the heart of his financially shrewd and prudent wife.  Characteristically, she dreamed up a novel way of turning her husband's deficit into her advantage.  She presented Benjamin with a deal:  He could gamble to his heart's content with her blessing, so long as he gave her half of everything he won, while paying for his losses himself.  In short, "heads she wins, tails he loses." His play was so important to him that he agreed to this one-sided bargain.  The practically inevitable result was that by the time Mr. Wood died in 1900, virtually every dime he had possessed belonged to his wife.  She had also purchased a controlling interest in the "Daily News," making her one of the first female publishers of a large newspaper.

After her husband’s death, Ida sold the "Daily News" for over a quarter of a million dollars.  She had valuable railroad stock.  She was set for a very comfortable and socially prominent widowhood.

Instead, Ida began to do some very strange things.  She sold all the many beautiful and costly belongings she had accumulated during her years with Wood.  In 1907, she went to her bank and demanded that the balance of her account--some $1 million--immediately be given to her.  In cash.  The bank officers had no choice but to comply and watch in stunned amazement as she stuffed the money into a bag and walked out.

She then checked into the Herald Square Hotel...and never checked out.  We  cannot know what inner demons inspired this woman who had so loved worldly matters to give up on life and turn herself into a recluse.  All she would say was that she was "tired of everything."  Joining her in this voluntary confinement were her sister Mary and her daughter Emma.  The trio never left their two-room suite and they never let anyone in.  Only twice during their long stay did they permit a maid to give them clean sheets and towels.  They never bathed.  The closest the women ever came to contacting the outside world was once a day, when through a closed door, they would ask the bellhop to bring them the same menu, which they paid for in cash:  Canned milk, crackers, coffee, bacon, and eggs.  Every so often, they also requested snuff, cigars, and petroleum jelly.  Ida would spend hours rubbing the last item on her face.  This one remaining vanity rewarded her with flawless pink-and-white skin--an ivory doll's head incongruously balanced on a bent, aged body.   Ida would explain that the three of them were destitute, and no one seeing the way they lived had any reason to doubt her word.

The three stayed together until 1928, when Emma Wood died at the age of 71.  Life--if you care to call it that--for the Mayfield sisters carried on as before until March 5, 1931, when the now 93-year-old Ida did something unprecedented during her stay at the hotel.  She opened the door, peered out into the hall, and screamed for a maid, explaining that her sister was very sick and needed a doctor.  As it turned out, Mary was beyond all help.  She was dead.

The doctor--and, soon, the undertaker--found that over the decades, the women had turned the suite into a rabbit warren filled with haphazard garbage:  Newspapers, food containers, trunks, old clothing, all the detritus of their hermit existence.

No one quite knew what to do with the remaining sister.  It seemed unconscionable cruelty to just leave Ida alone in this sad trash heap.  Morgan O'Brien, Jr., a member of a leading New York law firm, was summoned.  Intrigued by the mystery of the society belle turned recluse, he agreed to do what he could to sort out her murky affairs.

It was then that it emerged that Ida had vanished from life carrying with her a very great deal of money.  O'Brien also learned that she had some $175,000 of railroad stock, and had not cashed any dividends for years.  Ida herself was little help.  She insisted on staying holed up in her suite, where she smoked cigars, endlessly slathered petroleum jelly on her face, and refused to answer any questions, saying she was too deaf to understand anything the lawyers said.

Word quickly spread that the hotel was housing a very old and very rich woman, and, inevitably, a parade of long-lost relatives turned up holding out their palms.  First on the scene was Otis Wood, a son of Benjamin Wood's brother Fernando.  Accompanying him were his three brothers and their children.  Then came Benjamin's son from his first marriage, along with his children.  Soon, a crowd of Mayfields descended on the scene, loudly proclaiming their close blood ties to this elderly relative.  Some Crawfords joined the crowd, too, anxious to prove that they were kin to Ida through their common ancestry from the Earls of Crawford.  Before long, over a thousand people bearing the name "Wood,” “Crawford,” or "Mayfield" turned up to claim family ties with Ida--and her fortune.  Although they all claimed to be coming forward out of altruistic desires to help their dear, long-lost relative, their keen interest in her financial status was clearly their priority.  Their idea of "helping" Ida was to have her declared incompetent.  In September of 1931, they got their wish.

Ida was distraught to learn of her loss of independence.  "Why?" she wailed.  "I can take care of myself."  Much against her will, she was removed from her suite and brought to another room in the hotel.  

When her old hotel room was searched, over $700,000 in cash was found hidden here and there.  An old box of crackers was found to contain a diamond necklace. The suite proved to be a veritable time capsule.  Ida was storing 54 trunks filled with lovely 19th century gowns, exquisite jewelry, and valuable historical documents, such as a letter Charles Dickens had written to Benjamin Wood in 1867.  Ida's self-imposed squalor had been hiding a veritable Aladdin's Cave.  Ida's new-found family eagerly awaited the day when she would finally die so they could divide the spoils.

Ida herself, however, was disinclined to oblige them.  Despite her frail body, her mind remained as sharp and obstreperous as ever.  She was not the woman to go out meekly.  When food was brought to her, she would ask its cost.  If it was over a dollar, she would imperiously order that it be taken away.  On the rare occasions when her nurses and guardians would leave her alone for a moment, Ida would rush to a window and scream, "Help!  I'm a prisoner.  Get me out of here!"  In her mellower moments, she would fondly reminisce about the past, telling the nurses and reporters colorful, magical-sounding stories about her pampered New Orleans girlhood, and the fine education she had received thanks to her cultured, multi-lingual mother.

Before long, though, Ida became tired of fighting her imprisonment.  Her iron will gone, she simply gradually let go of life until she died  of pneumonia on March 12, 1932.  That left the question of who would inherit her wealth.  Although she had left a will, it left everything to her sister and daughter, who had, of course, both predeceased her.  Joseph Cox, counsel to New York's Public Administrator, was given the job of investigating Ida's lineage to see who had the best claim to be her heir.

It took Cox several years of hard work before the full truth about this strange woman emerged.  He  learned that Ida was not the Louisiana daughter of sugar planter Henry Mayfield.  Her real father was Thomas Walsh, a penniless Irishman who had emigrated to Massachusetts some time in the 1840s.  Her mother was a semi-literate woman from the Dublin slums.  "Ida" was not even her real name.  She had been born Ellen Walsh, but changed her name as a teenager, simply because she thought it sounded more elegant.  Her sister Mary, caught up in these alluring fantasies, became a "Mayfield" as well.  Oh, and Emma, "Ida's" daughter with Benjamin Wood?  She turned out not to be Ida's daughter at all, but another sister. (Benjamin Wood was apparently a willing partner in this little deception.)  The Mayfields and Woods and Crawfords were thus left out in the cold financially.  The pseudo-relatives did not take this news well.  They filed suit to get their "fair share" of Ida's estate.  The court made the reasonable ruling that, as "Ida Mayfield" was a pseudonym, the would-be heirs could go whistle for their money.  “Ida’s” estate went instead to ten living relatives of Ellen Walsh, who were stunned to learn they had a very odd--and very rich--kinswoman.  They each received about $90,000 (about $1.5 million in 2022 dollars.)  For them, at least, this sad story had a very happy ending.

Towards the end of her life, Ida/Ellen liked to tell her nurses a story from her girlhood.  One day, she went to a "gypsy seer" to have her fortune told.  After reading her palm, the fortune teller told the girl that she was going to be very lucky:  "You are going to marry a rich man, and get everything you want out of this life."

And so she did.  Although one can't help but think that in the end, it turned out to be a Faustian bargain.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This Friday the 13th Link Dump is hosted by one of our Lucky Black Cats!

What the hell were the Roman dodecahedrons?

I guess it's not surprising to learn that North Korean music is really weird.

So is the music on Mars' moon.

The Case of the Camberwell Ghost.

The man who feels no pain, and why that's a tragedy.

Our planet is full of mysterious blobs.

In search of a six-fingered civilization.

A corpse behaves in an unseemly manner.

The making of "Exile on Main Street."

A guy in Turkey has an Iron Age complex under his house.

A new exhibition about the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.

Napoleon and the Battle of Friedland.

Meet Hector, Australia's most popular thunderstorm.

The king of Ohio's body-snatchers.

The last British peer to be hanged for murder.

A reality show based on "Lord of the Flies."  No, really, someone thought that would be entertainment gold.

England's cost of living crisis in 1800.

The Gardener of Hoxton.

The use of footprints in witchcraft.

Two sisters who became 18th century celebrities.

The disappearance of the USS Cyclops.

Summer fashions from 1822.

Some weird ways people died in the 19th century.

Contemporary newspaper reports on the notorious Ruth Ellis case.

Yes, cats see things that aren't there.

Jimmy Page and the Great Pyramid.

Butchery in Massachusetts.

The saga of Mike the Headless Chicken.

The theory that Stonehenge is a recycled Welsh monument. 

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a woman's unusual career.  In the meantime, here's some early Sinatra.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

A word of warning: this story is quite gruesome, even for this blog.  That said, if my blog stats have taught me anything, it’s that you lot seem to enjoy this sort of thing.  It seems that the more hideous I get, the more my readers say, “Hot doggie!  This one’s for me!”  In any case, the obvious relish with which this reporter lingered on every ghoulish detail amused me.  Peeping out from behind all the moral outrage was the sense that the journalist’s day had been made.  The “Cincinnati Enquirer,” February 25, 1885:

Evansville, Ind., February 24. The excitement caused by the horrible discovery made in the abandoned Medical College yesterday, was increased rapidly to-day, and hundreds of curious people visited the building to meet even more disgusting sights than was witnessed yesterday. A further investigation of the late college and premises was made this morning and the ghastly objects remain undisturbed, the hideousness of which seems to have been intensified by thoughtless and unfeeling persons who have placed some of the remains in such grotesque positions as to show their frightful features in more terrible light. 
There was one brawny and unsightly carcass, which had been partly dissected, that had been placed in a sitting position, leaning on one elbow, with chin resting on its hand, the top of the skull removed, the grinning mouth wide open, facing the door with its eyeless sockets turned menacingly, at any one entering the door. Close to a window, looking out on the gang at the rock-pile, had been placed all that was mortal of some female, which was held in that position by the headless trunk of a large man, and a hideous background made up of large and small subjects that had been dragged from other portions of the room, for the sole purpose seemingly of making the scene more repulsive and disgusting than that of yesterday. Some of the parts that had been noticed by the reporter yesterday were gone, having probably been taken by some relic fiend for the purpose of terrorizing sensitive individuals or a neighborhood by exposing them to public view. 
An instance of this kind was discovered last night at the corner of Main and Third streets, where some human ghouls had procured a huge skull, one of the most repulsive to be found in the collection, which had been set on top of a hitching-post at that corner, in full view of all who chanced to pass after night. This was discovered by a gentleman who placed it in the barrel that covers the fire-plug at that point, where it still remained this morning, with its sightless eyes showing through the opening in the barrel.  
To add to the horrors of the scene, evidence is everywhere to be seen of the ravages of the rats that feed upon these decaying human forms. Among clothing found there is evidence that the remains of some well-to-do people have been removed from their graves to the dissecting-table. 
Why the building was left in such a condition is unknown. Members connected with the faculty can not or will not say anything about it. A man named Scofield was janitor, and, it is said, has several times asked the former President of the "faculty" concerning the cleaning of the building and the disposition of the remains, but was advised to leave it as it was, as he would not be paid for his labor. 
The city papers this morning contained editorials denouncing the faculty for permitting this pestilence-breeder to remain in the heart of the city. The Grand Jury have taken hold of the matter, but with what object no one can tell, as the college faculty have committed no offense against the law other than the public sensitiveness. It is stated that some citizens will take the matter in hand to-night and cremate the whole business.
As a side note, our charming little tale also shows that 19th century Evansville residents had some curious notions about entertainment.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Ngatea Crop Circle

Diagram of the "crop circle" which was published in the "Waikato Times"

“Crop circles” are, of course, among the most famous categories of alleged Fortean phenomena.  For years, the debate has raged about whether they are human-engineered hoaxes, the work of extraterrestrials, or the result of some bizarre natural forces we aren’t even close to understanding.  One of the strangest “crop circle” accounts is also, oddly enough, among the most credible.

On September 4, 1969, one Bert O’Neill was walking around his farm near Ngatea, New Zealand.  He noticed that some of his manuka trees were sporting an odd silvery color on the tips.  As he walked further, his surprise only increased: he saw a whole group of the trees quite dead, and completely bleached to that same silver color.  They formed a perfectly round patch, nearly five feet in circumference.  In the center of the circle were three distinct, evenly spaced V-shaped depressions in the soil.  The depressions had been made so forcefully, they cut down to the roots of the trees.

The baffled farmer didn’t know what to think.  Several days later, he shared the peculiar occurrence while having dinner with a bunch of friends.  Someone brought up the fact that later on the same day that O’Neill discovered his decimated trees, two Straits Air Freight Express pilots reported seeing a UFO over Wellington.  Perhaps, he said only half-jokingly, the two events were related?  Had a craft from another planet landed on O’Neill’s manuka trees?

The following day, someone from the dinner party told Harvey Cooke, president of the Tauranga Science Space Research Group, about what had happened on O’Neill’s farm.  Cooke immediately went to investigate.

After examining the site, he became convinced that whoever or whatever had caused the damage, it had not been human beings.  The three depressions which formed an equilateral triangle had been caused by about 20 tonnes of pressure.  In 1997, Cooke told “New Zealand Geographic” that “the toes had been moved out from the pad after the object had landed.  The ground had been pushed away and the flat end cut through the roots of the manuka.”  He added that the trees had been cooked by “Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation…I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects.”

News of the strange goings-on at O’Neill’s farm soon spread throughout the country, and his property was soon swarming with reporters, Ufologists, and simple lookey-loos.  Poor O’Neill, unable to do any farm work because of all the commotion, soon wished he had just kept his mouth shut.  Cooke collected samples of soil and the manuka trees and shared them with the University of Auckland’s UFO research group, the New Zealand Scientific Space Research Group, as well as a prominent horticulturist, John Stuart-Menzies.  Stuart-Menzies initially assumed the damage had been caused by weed killer or some other poison, but after examining the samples, he reluctantly had to rule that out.  When he ran a Geiger counter over the dead trees, it showed an increase in shortwave radiation.  He contacted the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research about his findings, but, for whatever reason, the DSIR declined to get involved.

On October 6, Stuart-Menzies released a report about his tests.  He concluded, “Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation has cooked the material from the inside outwards.  The effects appear to have been instantaneous.  The energy received has reduced the pith to black carbon without the outsides showing any signs of burning.

“I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects.  A meteorite or lightning couldn’t do this, and it has been too sudden for combustion.  Some outside object appears to have landed on the spot, and in taking off emitted the energy which cooked the plants.”

Well.  This not-so-subtle hint by a well-respected scientist that a UFO had used O’Neill’s farm as a rest stop created a nationwide sensation.  The furor went all the way up to New Zealand’s parliament, urging the government to compel the DSIR to investigate the matter.

More reports came in suggesting there was a high level of extraterrestrial weirdness going on.  Cattle on a farm in Puketutu suddenly fled a pond from which they had been drinking.  It was found that reeds on a small island in the middle of the pond had somehow been flattened into a circular shape about 27 yards across.  The reeds seemed to have been burned and pressed down in a spiral pattern.  Tripod marks very like the ones found on O’Neill’s farm were in the middle of the circle.  Soon after this, a family near Dargaville saw what they assumed was a low-flying airplane with flames shooting from the back.  The next day, four circles measuring about 5 yards in diameter were found on a nearby hill.

New Zealand’s minister of agriculture and science, Brian Talboys, finally instructed the DSIR to send a delegation of scientists to O’Neill’s farm.  Unfortunately, the site had been so ravaged by souvenir hunters that there was virtually nothing left for them to investigate.  All they had to work with were the samples collected by Cooke.

A few days later, Talboys announced the DSIR’s solution to the mystery:  the trees had been killed by a fungus.  Period.  He did not mention the triangular-shaped depressions or the radiation Stuart-Menzies had reported.  He also refused to address the inconvenient fact that while fungus attacks dead trees, it does not kill living ones.  As far as the New Zealand government was concerned, the subject was now closed.

Not very many people were convinced by this too-tidy official explanation, but bureaucracy, as usual, managed to have the last word.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is here!  And we're not clowning around!

Well, maybe some of us are.

New York City's first professional dog walker.

The life of Margaret of Brabant, Countess of Flanders.

A 17th century man of parts.

The link between horse racing and eugenics.  This article reminds me of something one of the old boys at Santa Anita once said to me.  He had been an exercise rider for Citation--the greatest racehorse who ever lived, in his opinion.  He mentioned that he had also ridden Citation's full brother, Unbelievable.  "What sort of horse was Unbelievable?" I asked.  "He wasn't worth two dead flies!" Jack growled.

Brazil's first female war hero.

The man who invented Creepy Clowns.  (Quick question: Are there any clowns who aren't creepy?)

The legend of "Owd Parr."

The time when Paris was forced to eat zoo animals.

It appears that the Brontes drank graveyard water.  Which would explain a lot about their novels.

An assortment of historical ciphers.

Body-snatching isn't exactly the safest profession.

Murder and a ghostly axeman.

A fatal elopement.

Eerie vintage photos of the Thames.

The world's loneliest post office.

The legends around a 600 year old glass.

People have spent forever trying to live forever.

The Vatican's Garden of Eden.

The history behind a portrait by George Romney.

The mysterious murder of Benjamin Nathan.

How two Tudor enemies wound up having a face-off on New York's Fifth Avenue.

How "It's a Small World" became so damn ubiquitous.

A history-making heist.

The momentous events of April 1945.

A black Gilded Age celebrity.

An Isle of Man memorial of a shipwreck.

A debunking of death omens.  Spoilsport.

A destitute man stranded in 1875 London.

The mystery of "crisis apparitions."

Our ancient ancestors and their complicated sex lives.

The "Wicked Bible."

Meet The Bridge You Will Never See Me Even Go Near.

How "clotheshorse" came to mean "chic."

A photo of 1850s Manhattan.

A bit of astronomer humor.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll talk crop circles.  In the meantime, here's a folk singer I recently discovered.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

As I have mentioned before, the “Illustrated Police News” periodically featured nifty little ghost stories.  The following example appeared in their January 8, 1898 issue:

The people of Buckingham and neighbourhood are troubled at the appearance of a ghost, the truth of which is vouched for by a well-known farmer living in the neighbourhood.

About six miles from the outskirts of the town there stands a weather-beaten hand-post at the corner of four cross-roads, and also a small plantation of young oak saplings at the terminus. Near to this spot some few nights ago the farmer referred to, accompanied by a friend, was driving his horse and trap along the roadway. The night was well advanced and dark, when suddenly the farmer saw standing a few yards in front of him. a black object. 

"What's that?" he said to his friend, and aloud to the figure, "Hullo! there; move on, please." 

There was no answer, and the figure remained almost motionless. It was completely enveloped in a long black sheet, and had the ghastly appearance of a headless woman. Simultaneously the horse saw it, and trembled like a leaf, as if paralysed with fear.

Again the farmer cried, "What do you do there? Move on, please." But there was no response, and the apparition remained still. The horse became restive, and commenced backing into a ditch. 

At this stage the driver's companion got down, took the reins, and endeavoured to back by the spot. Then for a minute or so their queer visitant disappeared. As the trap again faced the roadway the occupants were greatly alarmed at the further appearance of the black, sombre figure a few yards ahead of them, in the same motionless position as before. 

Their situation was now getting positively serious. The farmer, whose presence of mind had stood him in good stead, now finding his nerve on the point of giving way, asked the apparition in the name of God to speak. Then it was that the spectre slowly glided away, and appeared to float through the thick-set bordered hedge. The animal at once galloped off at a rattling pace towards the village they were bound for. Other people in the district have related their experiences, and the belief now prevails that there is a ghost to be seen, and not a little surprising the spot referred to has been less frequented of late.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Murder and Mystery in 1934 New York

In the waning days of 1934, elderly ladies in the New York area—particularly ones who lived alone—were terrified over a series of odd and particularly brutal deaths.

"Hanover Sun," December 10, 1934, via Newspapers.com

On December 7, 1934, the body of 69-year old widow Winnie M. Burlingame, the wealthiest woman in Canisteo, NY, was found in her home.  A hatchet had delivered over 60 wounds to her face and head, some of them chipping her skull.  She had died of hemorrhage and shock.  Blood was splattered throughout the house, from the cellar—where it was believed the initial wounds were made—all the way up to the second floor, suggesting a long struggle.  The weapon was found in the cellar, bloody but lacking any fingerprints.  A half-full bottle of carbolic acid was found near her.  Her internal organs showed no traces of poison, but there were acid burns on her clothing and her skirt was singed, leading to speculation that her killer had tried to burn the body.

After Burlingame died, her daughter-in-law, Mrs. William Burlingame, told authorities that Winnie had confided to her that if “something should happen” to her (Winnie,) Mrs. William should look in a secret pocket Winnie wore on her corset.  When the body was discovered, this secret pocket was unbuttoned, and empty.  Nothing else in the house had been taken, including Winnie’s purse containing $300.  Investigators were curiously reluctant to believe they had a murder on their hands.  They insisted that it was at least as likely that Mrs. Burlingame had killed herself.

There were disturbing sequels to this case.  Ten days after Burlingame died, 70-year-old Mrs. Lydia Beekman Parker was found murdered in her home.  Her skull had been crushed with a metal tube that was later found along a river bank near her home.  She lived only twelve miles away from the Burlingame residence.

Lydia Parker, from the "Elmira Star-Gazette," December 18, 1934

There were many similarities to these deaths.  Both women were rich widows who lived alone.  They both died of head injuries.  Both bodies were found in their parlors.  Both front doors were unlocked.  In both cases, there were no signs of robbery, or any discernible motive to kill them.

On December 23, 79-year-old Victoria Muspratt, a recluse from an old and wealthy family, was found dead in her once-palatial, but now-decayed Brooklyn mansion.  (Not long before her death, she refused an offer of $200,000 for the estate.)  As was the case with Burlingame and Parker, her head had been bludgeoned, and her body lay in the parlor.  It was rumored that she had money hidden in the house, leading to the assumption that robbery was the motive.  However, bank books showing deposits of over $2,000 were untouched.

A couple of weeks after Mrs. Parker was killed, an acquaintance of hers, 44-year-old army veteran Joseph Lewandowski, was questioned by the police.  He initially claimed to know nothing about the Parker slaying, but after 24 hours of intense interrogation, he signed a confession to her murder.  He claimed there had been a romantic relationship between them, and when she cast him aside for a still younger man—a 29 year old organist--he slew her in an impulsive fit of jealousy.  Despite the suggestive similarities to the Burlingame death, Lewandowski was never linked to that case.

Lewandowski never went to trial.  In February 1935 he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was quickly whisked off to a mental hospital.  No evidence of his guilt was ever publicly presented, other than his possibly coerced confession.  The abrupt end to the legal proceedings against him insured that many of the lingering questions about Parker’s death would go unresolved.

As peculiar as Burlingame’s end may have been, the coroner insisted it was suicide.  He based this theory on the fact that no poison was found in her stomach, and all the blows to her head were relatively light ones that faced in the same direction.  Although many onlookers were unconvinced she had killed herself, the jury at the inquest obediently gave suicide as their verdict, and her case was closed. Miss Muspratt’s murder was never solved.